Saturday 24 March 2018

The Post-Roman origins of Glastonbury

Archaeology at the Abbey
Archaeology has revealed the remains of the succession of churches which have stood on the Glastonbury Abbey site since the Anglo-Saxon period when in the 7th Century the ancient county of Somerset came under the rule of King Ine of Wessex who granted lands and promoted the status of the Abbey. It was during this period that the first stone church was constructed on the site.

Hence, Philip Rahtz concluded that the Abbey site was a secondary development to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery where he unearthed evidence of early religious activity during excavations in the 1960s.

The first Christian community at Glastonbury
Yet the Glastonbury monks had claimed a much earlier origin of the Abbey. The Glastonbury legend claims that Joseph of Arimathea had established the first Christian community in Britain here shortly after the crucifixion. Then in the 5th century St Patrick re-discovered the site, and then a British church was established on the site.

In the 10th century Dunstan became Abbot and extended Ine's church while establishing the Benedictine Rule. In the early 12th century Abbot Henry of Blois invited William of Malmesbury to write the history of the Abbey. In 1125 William completed “De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie” and pronounced it was indeed the oldest church he knew and repeated the Glastonbury claim that the first church on the site was established by missionaries in AD 166, or possibly even earlier, dating back to the time of Christ’s apostles, although he seemed to doubt this assertion himself and did not mention Joseph of Arimathea.

The Old Church
In 1184 a disastrous great fire at the abbey destroyed many buildings including the Old Church. The Lady Chapel was built on the site of the Old Church and shortly after in 1191 the monks claimed to have discovered the tombs of King Arthur and Guinevere found in the cemetery. The period of rebuilding the Abbey continued to the east of the older church and away from the ancient cemetery, through the Norman period producing the largest Abbey church  in England.

In the 14th century the Joseph of Arimathea legend was promoted through the work of John of Glastonbury, then, around 1500, under the Abbacy of Richard Beere, St Joseph's Chapel was created below the Lady Chapel destroying any archaeological evidence of the first church on the site.

In 1539 the Abbey was closed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the last Abbot Richard Whiting was hanged on Glastonbury Tor. The Abbey became derelict over the centuries and in a ruinous state when it was purchased for the Church of England in 1908.

Minor archaeological excavations had been carried out at the Abbey during the 19th century but formal investigations started with the appointment of Frederick Bligh Bond. But after revealing that he had used occult practices to guide his excavations Bond was dismissed by the Church of England in 1922. Further excavations were carried out by Peers, Clapham & Horne in the late 1920s and 1930s.

From 1951-63 Dr CA Ralegh Radford was Director of Excavations at the Abbey. Radford was known for his special interest in the early Christianity of Britain, and particularly attracted to sites connected with the Arthurian legends of his native West Country, such as Castle Dore, Cadbury Castle and Tintagel which he (incorrectly) identified as an early Christian monastic site. Subsequently, his personal agenda at Glastonbury was to continue Bond's work and locate the site of King Arthur's tomb. Indeed, in 1963 Radford discovered a pit in the cemetery which he believed to be evidence of where the monks had exhumed the remains of Arthur and Guinevere in the 12th century.

Plan of Glastonbury Abbey from the Gate of Remembrance, by Frederick Bligh Bond

A Post-Roman Celtic Monastery?
Rhatz interpretation that Glastonbury Abbey was a secondary development to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery endured until until recent re-examination of the Glastonbury archaeological archive.

Following thirty-six seasons of archaeological excavations from 1904–79, we have no definite information on the origins of the Abbey, with little in the way of archaeological reports produced by the 20th century excavators. For example, in 1981Radford released his interim findings for the Saxon and Anglo-Norman phases but virtually nothing since. When Radford died in 1999 his archive passed to Historic England making it available for analysis.

For the last ten years Roberta Gilchrist from the University of Reading has led the Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project to conduct a comprehensive study of the archaeological archives and artefact collections of Glastonbury Abbey, and carry out a new geophysical survey of the site in an effort to separate archaeological fact from the rich mythology surrounding the Abbey.

Gilchrist set out to answer the key question of the date of the earliest settlement on the Glastonbury Abbey site. Reassessment of the archive and associated finds has revealed new evidence for earlier occupation on the Abbey site.

Sherds of pottery were noted indicating the presence of amphorae imported from the eastern Mediterranean, essentially storage jars that would have contained wine and oil. This small assemblage of Late Roman Amphora 1 (LRA1) has been dated from finds elsewhere in the southwest of Britain to around 450 – 550 AD.

Plan of the post Roman timber structure and associated late Roman amphorae [Liz Gardner]

Fourteen of these sherds of LRA1were associated with a roughly trodden floor and post-pits (recorded beneath the medieval west cloister walk) connected with timber structures situated in the early cemetery in the Abbey precinct. Their condition suggesting that this floor represents an undisturbed Post-Roman context, possibly associated with one or more timber halls, although Radford failed to recognise it as such. One of the post-pits returned a radiocarbon date suggesting a destruction date for the timber structure of the 8th or 9th centuries, indicating that the hall may have been in use for several centuries.

This confirms that long before the first monastic foundation was documented in 7th century Anglo Saxon charters there was high-status Post-Roman occupation at Glastonbury in the 5th or 6th centuries, refuting earlier claims that the development at Glastonbury Abbey was secondary to the monastic sites at Glastonbury Tor and Beckery.

Significantly, recent excavations at the royal monastery of Lyminge in Kent have also revealed a high-status hall complex as the precursor to the Anglo-Saxon monastery.

However, the presence of LRA1 pottery and timber structures at the Glastonbury Abbey site raises further questions on whether this early occupation was secular or religious; perhaps indicating the existence of a ‘Celtic monastery’ prior to the foundation of the Saxon monastery.

The Glastonbury Abbey Archaeological Archive Project
Digital Glastonbury Abbey - University of Reading
Roberta Gilchrist & Cheryl Green, Glastonbury Abbey: Archaeological Investigations 1904–79, Society of Antiquaries of London, 2015.

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Sunday 11 March 2018

Madoc and the Discovery of America

Horn Gwennan, brought to the Gele,
To be given a square mast,
Was turned back to Afon Ganol’s quay
For Madog’s famous voyage

Madoc's Lost Harbour
Odstone House, Rhos on Sea, was designed and built by Manchester architect, Henry Goldsmith in 1912. Odstone had stood empty for the last ten years and became derelict with no interest from potential buyers for this colonial style house at Penrhyn Bay on the North Wales coast. Sadly the only interest came from a property developer Madock Development Ltd who planned to demolish Odstone and replace it with a dozen luxury apartments situated next to the golf course.

Odstone House
The driveway at Odstone is said to be formed from an old pier wall where legend has it that Prince Madoc set sail in 1170, crossed the Atlantic and landed at what is now Mobile, Alabama in the Americas. Madoc's legendary voyage was commemorated on a bronze plaque outside the house.

Madoc plaque at Odstone House
The Afon Conwy did not always follow its current course and the present day estuary is a more recent development; thousands of years ago the Conwy flowed through the site of the Rhos on Sea golf course and into the sea at Penrhyn Bay, possibly the old river delta. It is thought the prehistoric Conwy flowed through the course of the Afon Ganol down the Mochdre valley and discharged at Penrhyn Bay.

The course of the Conwy abandoned the Mochdre valley when it became blocked at its northern end by Irish Sea Ice. During the glacial retreat the valley remained in a state of constant saturation for a long period forming a boggy, marsh environment. Subsequent silting blocked off most of the Conwy’s old course with the much reduced flow following the ancient course which survives as Afon Ganol. For a long period the mouth of this river formed a navigable inlet; ancient documents record it use by ships of between “20 or 30 tun”.

Old maps of Penrhyn Bay show a large meandering marshy area across Morfa Rhyd with a stream forking towards Rhos on Sea. The main flow continued over the present golf links, passed through the grounds of Odstone House and out to sea.

When a new sewer was being constructed opposite the site of Odstone House in 1907, a stone wall about 12 foot thick, with holes said to be for iron stanchions, was discovered about 700 yards from the shore. Then during rebuilding of the sea wall in 1954 stone blocks were unearthed in the form of two walls about seven feet apart splaying to nine feet apart; 30 yards of the ancient quay formed part of a rockery in the Odstone House garden, with the drive passing over the top of it. The former owner of Odstone House that had lived there for some 50 years said that her father had told her that Prince Madoc had set sail for America from an old stone pier in the garden.

A 15th century poem by Cynric ap Gronow records how Madoc's legendary ship Gwennan Gorn set sail from Gele (Abergele) but turned back to Afon Ganal's quay after being caught in a storm. However, another account claims Madoc sailed from the Glaslyn estuary on the west coast of Wales. Before William Madocks damned the outflow and the estuary silted up there was an island there called Ynys Fadog which it is claimed was named after Prince Madoc who set sail from this point. William Madocks built a village on the land he reclaimed from the sea and called it Tremadog, not after himself as many thought, but after the Prince who sailed for America. More than one departure point for Prince Madoc does not contradict the legend which claims that he returned from his initial voyage, gathered a larger fleet then left Wales, this time never to be seen again.

The Legend
This well known persistent Welsh legend claims that America had been discovered by Prince Madoc ap Gwain Gwynedd some 300 years before Columbus. Prince Madoc, a son of Owain 12th century ruler of Gwynedd, sailed out of Rhos on Sea on the North Wales Coast, in 1170 to find a new place to live across the western ocean. Some years later he returned with news of a 'new abundant country', gathered a fleet of ships and hundreds of expectant settlers and sailed west again, never to return.

Legend tells that they landed somewhere in the area of what is now Alabama, and settled with a native American tribe known as the Mandans. In the 17th century as America was colonised reports filtered back to Britain of contact with Welsh speaking American Indians. In 1669 Reverend Morgan Jones reported that his life was spared by a tribe of North American Indians because they were Welsh speaking; in 1810, Major Amos Stoddard, first Governor of Tennessee, discovered that Indian history believed that ancient forts close to the Alabama River were built by the Welsh whose leader was called “Modok”. However, on their expeditions across North America during 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark reported that they had not found any evidence of Welsh speaking Indians. The Mandan tribe are said to have been wiped out by a smallpox epidemic introduced by traders in 1837.

Back in the late 16th century John Dee, occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, used the story of Prince Madoc's discovery of America prior to Columbus to assert British claims to “all the Coasts and Islands beginning at or about Terra Florida......unto Atlantis going Northerly.” Dee claimed to have drawn his information from an 'ancient Welsh chronicle'. Without doubt Madoc's story had been in oral circulation for some years but it wasn't until Sir George Peckham's 'True Reporte of the late Discoveries of the Newfound Landes' of 1583 that the tale appeared in print for the first time. Peckham also pointed to the 'ancient Welsh chronicles' as his source. Dee had also cited King Arthur as conqueror of Frisland in the north polar regions and therefore his heir Queen Elizabeth had a legitimate claim there.

However, there is just the faintest hint that knowledge of Madoc's discovery was known before Columbus 'discovered' the New World when he landed in the West Indies in 1492.

Richard Hakluyt in his 'Principal Navigations' (1600) cites a poem by Maredudd ap Rhys, dated to around 1440, which suggests there was a Welsh tradition extant in the 15th century of a seafarer by the name of Madoc, although the poem does not specifically mention the discovery of America. David Powel published an edition of Humphrey Llwyd's 1599 translation of the ancient Welsh Chronicles (Cronica Walliae) to which Powel added details of Madoc's second voyage, referring to Gutyn Owain who wrote between 1470 and 1490 that Madoc “went thither againe with ten sailes”. This now appears to be a lost source as Madoc is not mentioned in any of Gutyn Owain's surviving manuscripts.

John Cabot discovers Newfoundland
Yet, Columbus was certainly aware of the discovery of Newfoundland off the North American coast by the Men of Bristol in 1480 who had claimed to be searching for the legendary island of Hy-Brasil. Later in 1497 the Venetian explorer John Cabot made the 'official discovery' of the coast of North America under the commission of King Henry VII of England.

Odstone House Demolished
In 2016, some 800 years after Madoc set sail from Penrhyn Bay, more than 2,000 signatures were gathered in an attempt to save Odstone House after a planning application was submitted by agent Cadnant Planning on behalf of Madock Development to demolish the property and build 12 apartments. Campaigners argued the landmark property was built in the “Arts and Crafts” style and an important part of local heritage.

Odstone House, derelict just prior to demolition in 2016
Later that year, Madock Developments withdrew the application to permit Cadw to assess the historic value of the building. Following a review and site visit, Cadw, the Welsh Government’s department to conserve Wales’s heritage, confirmed Odstone did not represent a building of any special architectural interest and presumably there was no evidence of the ancient quay.

Subsequently, Madock Developments resubmitted their planning application and by September 2017 Odstone House had been demolished and any remains of Madoc's quay with it.

But they couldn't demolish the legend of Prince Madoc's discovery of America; in 1953, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque at Mobile Bay:

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Thursday 1 March 2018

Concept of a Legend

Read a book for World Book Day, 1st March 2018.

Concepts of Arthur
Thomas Green 
Tempus, 2007 (The History Press, 2008)
ISBN: 978-0752444611

This is a detailed study of the origins of Arthur and the nature and development of the early Arthurian legend under the former nom de plume of Caitlin R. Green.

Here Green argues for a concept of Arthur as a figure of legend, not history.

Green asserts that the case for a historical Arthur rests entirely on two sources; the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) and the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals). These two texts are the starting point for any argument presented for a historical Arthur.

At first glance both texts appear to present a concept of Arthur that is historical. The History of the Britons contains a complete section (usually referred to as Chapter 56) which presents Arthur as a leader of battles, not a king, and lists twelve successful conflicts culminating in the Battle of Badon, also referenced in a contemporary source, De Excidio Britanniae of AD 540 (although Gildas does not mention Arthur by name). Green sees the History of the Britons as presenting a concept of Arthur as a warrior who fought against Germanic invaders in the late 5th century.

Green suggests the History of the Britons could simply represent a mythical or folkloric figure drawn into history and far from being a 'heap', as descibed in the prologue of Nennius, sees the text as a carefully constructed work in ‘Biblical style’ with explicit political aims expressly written for Merfyn, King of Gwynedd 829-30 AD.

The Badon entry in the Welsh Annals is clearly influenced by Arthur's eighth battle at Guinnon in chapter 56 of the The History of the Britons. Whereas, the battle of Camlann, Green sees as a creation of the mid to late 10th century, and treated very differently by the ‘guardians of Welsh tradition’ possessing an 'Otherworldy' context and just one of several legendary versions of Arthur’s demise circulating in early medieval Wales.

Green concludes that the The History of the Britons is of dubious historical value and questions the confidence we can hold in its Arthurian reference, seeing the text as part of the process of historicizing a legend.

This an important work in the search for Arthur in which Green examines the earliest level of the Arthurian legend prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth, unravelling the world of a superhero battling monstrous supernatural beasts, witches and giants.

Concepts of Arthur
Table of Contents:

Chapter 1 The Arthur of History: The Evidence and Its Critics
Chapter 2 The Earliest Stratum of the Arthurian Legend
Chapter 3 The Nature of Arthur: ‘A Mighty Defender'?
Chapter 4 The Nature of Arthur's War-Band and Family
Chapter 5 The Origins of ‘Arthur'
Chapter 6 The Historicization of Arthur
Chapter 7 The Arthur of the British: A Maximum View

From May 2017, Concepts of Arthur has been unavailable in all editions for well over a year and the rights have now reverted to the author who has made the original 2007 version of the book available as a free PDF download on her website: Dr Caitlin R. Green Arthuriana: Studies in Early Medieval History & Legend

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