Friday 14 April 2017

Visions of Montacute

Mons Acutis
The name of the Somerset town of Montacute derives from the Latin words 'Mons Acutis' meaning pointed, or sharp hill. Montacute is about 14 miles south of Glastonbury, both have prominent hills and each can be seen from the other. References to a now lost 7th century charter asserts that Baldred granted 16 hides to Glastonbury at Logweresbeorh (Montacute). William of Malmesbury (followed by John of Glastonbury) also refers to the ancient name Logweresbeorh for Montacute and associates the site with the personal name Logwar which appears on one of the two pyramids in the ancient cemetery at Glastonbury in between which King Arthur's grave was discovered. This is just one strange occurrence that has been recorded at Montacute which appear analogous to events at Glastonbury.
St Michael's Hill, Montacute
The Castle and Priory
Tofig (Tovi), the great Danish standard-bearer of King Cnut, had large estates in Essex and in Somerset. On the hill-top of his land at Logweresbeorh in Somerset there was found about the year 1035 a miracle-making crucifix concealed under a large slab of stone, and this was regarded by Tofig as so precious that he determined to build a church for its preservation on his estate in Essex. Tofig then handed this precious site over to the church and by 1066 it had been placed in the guardianship of the Abbot of Athelney.

Being a natural conical hill Montacute was well suited for fortification, and after the conquest William the Conqueror gave it to his half-brother Count Robert of Mortain, who built a castle there of typical Norman motte and bailey construction, a 9 metre high scarp forms a motte with the bailey on the south east slope, the other three sides formed the outer terrace. Today the site of the Norman castle is known as St Michael's Hill, named after the castle chapel that survived into the mid-17th century. It seems the choice of Montacute for the castle was a political statement as the site of the discovery of the Holy Cross, c.1035. The local people saw this as disrespectful to the sacred site and attacked the castle but their revolt came to nothing.

Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Harold Godwinson held the cross in great esteem; he richly endowed the Abbey of the Holy Cross at Waltham,  Essex, with the Holy Cross becoming an object of veneration and pilgrimage. Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey on his way south to Hastings from the battle at Stamford Bridge and his English troops used “the Holy Cross” as the battle cry at Hastings.

In the late 11th century Robert gave his manor of 'Biscopestune' (Bishopston) consisting of the church at Montacute, the castle and burgh to the abbey of Cluny, following pressure from the King that if he did not do so, he would take the land from him.

In 1102 AD a Cluniac Priory was founded at the bottom of the hill at Montacute with a church dedicated to St Peter built in association with the priory. The stonework for construction of the priory by provided by the short-lived castle which was now dismantled. By 1200 a chapel dedicated to St Catherine had been added next to the monks cemetery.

We know little of the Priors of the Cluniac Priory of St. Peter and St. Paul at Montacute yet it is a persistent claim that Henry de Blois, abbot of Glastonbury 1126-71, was associated with the priory, although he is not listed among them. At its height in the 13th century there were 25 monks recorded at the Priory but at the time of the Dissolution in 1539, sixteen monks and the abbot were pensioned off. Today, all that remains of Montacute Priory is the gateway which is incorporated into the 16th century Abbey Farmhouse.

Following the Dissolution the church of St Catherine became the parish church. Henry VIII's antiquarian John Leland visited the area between 1535 and 1543, recording a tradition of an earlier Saxon stronghold and described the site of the Priory as “ruinous”. Earthworks in a field south of this church are thought to cover the foundation of the Priory and its buildings.

The Norman castle chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael, continued in use until at least 1315. In the 18th century a folly was built on the castle chapel's foundations and named after the original chapel; today St. Michael's Hill Tower stands as a local landmark with views across the Somerset countryside.
St Michael's Tower, Montacute

The Legend of the Holy Cross of Waltham
Around the year 1035 a Montacute blacksmith had a dream one night that he should go and tell the parish priest to go to the top of St. Michael’s Hill, where something was buried.

The next day he decided that it must have been something he had eaten and thought no more about it. However, a few nights later he had the same dream again; more vivid than the time before and even worse; an apparition that frightened him near to death visited him. Waking in a cold sweat he told his wife that he had to see the priest at once. She told he would be ridiculed by the whole village.

On the third occurrence the apparition took hold of him and left him with wounds on his arms. He rushed off to wake the parish priest, who, on being told the story of the three visitations and seeing the wounds, took the whole thing seriously. The commotion had woken many residents who gathered outside the church and formed a procession to walk to the top of St. Michael’s Hill.

Many had brought spades and started digging; it was not long before someone struck a large, flat stone which they gently lifted. Beneath it they found a large black flint cross, finely carved with  an image of the crucifixion. Under the right arm of the cross lay a smaller crucifix and under the other, an ancient bell and a book (liber niger).

They took the bell, small cross and bible down to the church for safe keeping, but he big cross was very heavy, they would need equipment to move it. Some stayed and erected a shelter to keep the cross and the guards dry. 

Tofig, King Cnut’s standard bearer who was in the area, so a messenger was sent off to find him. The small cross would stay in the church but no one seemed certain where to take black flint cross. Tofig arrived and organised the removal of the cross from the hill and had it loaded onto a wagon pulled by twelve red oxen, together with the bell and gospels, but no one seemed sure where to take it; Durham, Winchester, Glastonbury, London and Reading all mentioned, but the oxen refused to haul it.

Then Tofig decided to take the black flint cross back to his estate at Waltham in Essex and build a greater church to house the relics and the oxen immediately moved off in that direction. When it arrived at Waltham it was set up and became the glory and the greatness of the Abbey of Waltham Holy Cross.

King Harold enlarged the Abbey and the Holy Rood became the special object of his devotion and the rallying cry of his men at Senlac. Before it he knelt on his way south to fight the Norman invaders and received warning of his impending doom. (see Gordon Rendell)

Smoke and Mirrors
The Montacute excavation of the Holy Cross is reported as taking place around 1035, but the earliest account was not written until after 1177, shortly before the excavation of King Arthur's grave at Glastonbury in 1191. The two events are similar in several key details:

  • At Montacute they unearthed a large black flint cross under a stone slab (mire magnitudinis), a smaller cross, a bell and a book (liber niger).
  • At Glastonbury an inscribed leaden cross was found under a slab (mirae magnitudinis) identifying the grave with King Arthur who lies buried here in Avalon.
  • The lettering on this Arthurian cross as depicted by Camden is identical to the “Sagittarius” lettering on the 12th century tympanum on the north door of St Mary's church at Stoke-sub-Hamdon (Aeldred Watkin in Carley, 1985).
  • Tents were erected around the excavation site at Montacute until the relics were removed from the earth.
  • At Glastonbury Adam of Damerham reports that screens were erected around the excavation site in the monks cemetery.

James Carley (1985) suggests that the parallels between the two excavations may indicate that the Montacute event acted as a model for the later Glastonbury excavation.

Was Joseph of Arimathea Buried at Montacute?
The testimonies of two men who worked at Glastonbury Abbey at the time of the Dissolution suggest a further connection between Glastonbury and Montacute.

William Good who served as an altar boy at St Joseph's chapel at the Abbey, recalls that although Joseph was buried in Somerset no one was exactly sure where; “the monks never knew for certain the place of the saint's burial, or pointed it out; they said the body was hidden most carefully either at Glastonbury or on a hill near Montacute, called Hamden Hill”.

In the 16th century William Weston recorded a meeting with a man of about 80 years of age who also served at the Abbey before the Dissolution. Before the Royal Commissioners arrived at Glastonbury he was able to save a richly decorated cross and a nail said to have come from the Crucifixion and brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea. Even after the Dissolution, he continued to journey to a high hill associated with St Joseph as an act of pilgrimage.

In his home this man kept a lamp burning that faced this hill. However, this hill was was not Hamden Hill as William Good had stated, but Montacute Hill where the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Michael lay. (Carley, 1994) In time the story became slightly confused and the nail of the Crucifixion was apparently found at the chapel and a tradition grew that Joseph of Arimathea was buried at Montacute. (Thomas Gerard, Description of Somerset, 1633).

The site at Montacute has not undergone full archaeological investigation but partial excavation has shown that archaeological remains are present relating to the use of the summit. Indications on the ground suggest the tradition of a Saxon stronghold as recorded by Leland in the 16th century may well be correct, although this requires further investigation. In 1989 a small excavation found evidence for a building on the summit, thought to be the medieval chapel. Evidence for the demolition of the castle may exist in a layer of rubble found containing early medieval pottery.

Bards and Burials
The events at Montacute and Glastonbury, the discovery of the Holy Cross and King Arthur's grave, share much in common that it suggests a common source. According to Gerald of Wales the details of Arthur's grave in the Glastonbury cemetery were passed to King Henry II by a Welsh bard. The details of Joseph of Arimathea's grave exist in an enigmatic text by the bard Melkin, who, we are told, lived before the time of Merlin.

This presents two possibilities:
  • The Prophecy of Melkin, as it exists today is a truncated text, originally, in its fuller form, detailed the graves of both King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea; or,
  • The Prophecy, which cannot be traced back earlier than John of Glastonbury's “Cronica”, is a re-working of an older prophecy about Arthur, adapted by Glastonbury to accommodate Joseph of Arimathea.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley, A Grave Event: Henry V, Glastonbury Abbey, and Joseph of Arimathea's Bones, 1994, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Discovery of the Holy Cross of Waltham at Montacute, 1985, in Glastonbury and the Arthurian Tradition, edited by James P. Carley, Boydell, 2001.
James P Carley, The Chronicle of Glastonbury Abbey: An Edition, Translation and Study of John of Glastonbury's “Cronica sive Antiquitates Glastoniensis Ecclesiae”. Translated by David Townsend. Boydell Press, 1985.
The Legend of Montacute by Gordon Rendell

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