Saturday 29 June 2019

Vikings: Return to Repton

The Vikings had been carrying out coastal raids around the British Isles since the late 8th century. But their tactics changed in the second half of the 9th century; instead of hit and run raiding parties the Vikings now seemed intent on settling a Great Army on the land.

The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland record that Ímar (Ivar) was the son of Gofraid, King of Laithlinn (Norway?). Ímar had two brothers, Auisle and Amlaíb (Olaf), collectively described in the Irish Annals as “kings of the foreigners”, forming the Uí Ímair dynasty. Another Viking leader, Halfdan is often named as another brother.They were leaders of a particularly aggressive Scandinavian group active across Ireland and Britain, raiding into Wales and Scotland by the mid-9th century, taking York in 866 and ruling the city until 954, taking Dumbarton, the rock of the Britons in 870 after a 4-month siege, and being the dominant force in England for a short period in 878.

Ivar (Ímar) was given the title "King of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain" in contemporary annals and has been identified by historians as ‘Ivar the Boneless’, the Viking who led the Great Heathen Army in England in the 860’s, returning to Dublin in 870 with much booty and slaves after his success at Dumbarton.  This period of activity in England and Scotland corresponds with Ivar’s absence from the Irish Annals during these years. Furthermore, the death of both Ivar the Boneless and Ivar (Ímar) is recorded as 873 in Ireland, After his death, it is claimed, Ivar’s body was transported to England and buried at the Viking camp at Repton, where a significant grave of an individual was uncovered.

The Danes appear to have lost interest in Wessex and after overwintering at London 871-72 headed for York the following year. After overwintering at Torksey 872-73 they then moved to Repton in Derbyshire on the river Trent. Overwinter 873-74 they dug in and fortified this settlement with the church of St Wystan, desecrating the Royal Mercian mausoleum, centred in the ditch and rampart.

When the Great Army left Repton, destroying the monastery buildings and setting fire to the church, they went on to complete the conquest of Mercia in 874, driving the Mercian king Burgred into exile and replacing him with Ceowulf II.

Early Excavations
Repton was first excavated between 1974 and 1993 when Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle investigated the site. They found evidence of a D-shaped enclosure with a massive V-shaped ditch, 4m wide and 4m deep. This enclosure used the Trent as a boundary on one side (closing the 'D') and the Mercian royal shrine of St Wigstan (Wystan) as a gatehouse to control access on the opposite side.

Evidence for the Danish presence was found around the east end of the church. During the Biddles' excavations a number of furnished graves were uncovered at the site in the churchyard, immediately north and south of the crypt; one contained silver pennies securely dating the grave to the mid-870s. The most significant grave, originally marked by a 12 in square wooden post, was found north of the church containing the skeleton of a 35-45 year old man, about 6 ft tall.

This individual showed evidence of weapon trauma; he had received a blow to the skull, and a sword-cut to the thigh had severed the femoral artery. Around his neck a leather string held two glass beads, a leaded bronze fastener  and a small silver Thor's hammer. Between his thighs had been placed the tusk of a boar and lower down the humerus of a jackdaw.

Between 1980-86 the Biddles also investigated a mound (a charnel house) in the vicarage garden to the west of St Wystan’s church. Here they discovered a charnel deposit with the remains of at least 264 people, approximately 80% of which were determined to be male, mostly aged between 18 and 45, with many displaying evidence of fatal violent injury. Based on this analysis, it was thought that these might be the remains of the Viking Great Army who died in battle.

The archaeological context (including several coin finds dated between AD 872 and 875) and a few of the original radiocarbon dates from the site appeared to confirm the Biddles' theory, suggesting a 9th century date for the burials. However, other Carbon-14 dates indicated that some of the remains dated from as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. This was explained by the suggestion that the deposit had been mixed with reinterred burials from the Saxon cemetery, which may have been unearthed by the digging of the defensive ditch around the church.

Within the mound was the remains of a structure which held a stone coffin, containing 'a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long.' Speculation has led to claims that this was the body of Ivar the Boneless. Around this singular interment the disarticulated remains of over 260 people were found with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin. The entombment is without parallel in Europe during the Viking age, and it is interesting that one saga notes that Ivar died and was buried in England 'in the manner of former times', an allusion to the fact he was interred in a barrow. At least some of these individuals must have been part of the Great Army who died at Repton during the winter of 873-874.

Biddle proposed that the mass burial had been purposefully arranged around this central burial, suggesting Ivar the Boneless, one of the leaders of the Great Army and ruler of the Irish Sea Vikings who died in 873 at an unspecified location.

Return to Repton 
It is over 40 years ago since Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle’s excavations suggested the Great Army of the Vikings had encamped at Repton during the winter of AD 873-74. But many archaeologists had thrown doubt on their interpretation of the site and many questions remained unanswered.

Dating evidence, including silver pennies dated AD 872-75, supported the argument for winter camp of the Great Army at Repton. However, the dating of some of the 264 people found in the mass grave had long puzzled archaeologists; some of these bodies were dated to as early as the 7th and 8th centuries, which doesn't fit the historical context.

Now, new investigations carried out by archaeologists from the University of Bristol under the direction of Cat Jarman and Mark Horton, are using bioarchaeological methods to resolve unanswered questions about the human remains.

In 2017 new geophysical surveys took place, followed by further excavations on the site of the so-called charnel house in the Vicarage gardens west of the church.

Cat Jarman determined that the dating discrepancy turned out to be due to marine reservoir effects (MREs). Cat explains that radiocarbon measured in archaeological samples comes from the carbon absorbed during life, mainly from diet. Carbon 14 in terrestrial and marine animals gives an apparent age difference of around 400 years, due to the mixing at sea of atmospheric carbon and older carbon from deep water:

“Therefore a fish would yield a date significantly earlier than say a sheep, even if they were alive at the same time. This difference is passed on along the food chain, meaning that remains of humans with marine diets can give radiocarbon dates that seem artificially older than their real age.”

After making corrections by estimating the percentage of an individual’s marine food consumption it placed the human remains at Repton precisely within the range of the coins found with the skeletons, indicating that the charnel deposit is consistent with a single event.

Sampling a large selection from the charnel deposit revealed they were not local people but likely from southern Sacandinavia supporting the interpretation that they were members of the Viking Great Army from Denmark.

Brothers in Arms
The double grave of G.511 and G.295 at Repton gives dates of AD 677–866 and AD 715–890 respectively. The early date for G.511 is inconsistent with our current understanding of the historical context and archaeological evidence. The grave goods leave little doubt as to the Scandinavian cultural identity of this individual, yet a date before AD 873 seems unlikely, as there is no evidence for a Scandinavian presence in Repton prior to this date.

DNA extracted from G.511 and G.295 revealed the individuals were related in the first degree on the paternal side; meaning they are either father and son or half-brothers. Osteological analysis shows that the older man was at least 35-45 years old and the younger man 17-20 years old at the time of death, suggesting the father-son relationship may be the correct interpretation. Isotope analysis indicates that G.511 and G.295 grew up in a similar location, possibly southern Scandinavia (Denmark).

Both men had suffured violent trauma at the time of death,  and probably buried within a few years of each other. G.511 suffered two spear wounds above his left eye and a deep cut to the left femur, likely to have removed his genitallia. A boar's tusk was placed between his legs so that he arrived in the afterlife with his virility intact. The boar tusk buried with G.511 yielded a calibrated date of AD 695–889.

New radiocarbon dates indicate the death of the two men to between 873 and 886; the archaeological evidence supports a date toward the beginning of the range. We can identify a father and son from the Historical sources that matches these two individuals. The Annals of Ulster records Olaf (Amlaib) as one of the Viking kings active in Ireland and Britain in this period but particularly dominant in Ireland in the 850's and 860's. Olaf was the brother of Ivar the Boneless who he campaigned with in Northern Britain from 870-871, besigung Dumbarton Rock before returning to Ireland.

Olaf returned to Scotland in 874 when he was killed by King Constantine. The following years Olaf's son Eystienn was killed by Halfdan at an unspecified location, probably the same Halfdan, Olaf's brother, named as being at Repton in 873 in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. Cat Jarman suggests Olaf and Eystienn as the best candidates for the individuals in graves G.511 and G.295.

Cat Jarman, Resolving Repton, Current Archaeology 352, July 2019, pp.18-25.
Catrine L. Jarman, Martin Biddle, Tom Higham & Christopher Bronk Ramsey, The Viking Great Army in England: new dates from the Repton charnel, Antiquity 92 - 361 (2018): pp.183–199

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Wednesday 19 June 2019

Arthur and the Plantagenets

Tales From The Twelfth Century
The Arthurian legend experienced a profound change in the 12th century; some would argue that this was when the real legend began. Previously Arthur had been a soldier, a warrior, the Dux Bellorum leading the British post-Roman resistance against Germanic invaders; but this same Arthur had also ventured into the Otherworld fighting giants, witches and hunting a supernatural boar; treading the border between history and myth. Unlike other heroic precursors, such as Charlemagne who could be used by Norman monarchs to legitimise their claims to the throne, the historicity of Arthur of Britain was unproven.

King Arthur (14th Century Tapestry)

This was to change in the 12th century when Arthur was promoted to Emperor taking his armies to war in Europe and becoming firmly rooted in the historical past. Geoffrey of Monmouth, considered the Father of the Arthurian Legend, can be seen as the starting point behind this new all-conquering Arthur in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136). However, although Geoffrey's work was generally well received there were doubtors who accused him of lying and inventing his history of Arthur. Geoffrey claimed he translated his account from an ancient book given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, from which he constructed a noble history of the Britons, from their founder Brutus of Troy (c.12th century BC) to the last Welsh king Cadwallader (7th century AD).  The story of Arthur occupies Books 9-11, but his death is shrouded in mystery; Geoffrey has the mortally wounded king taken to Avallon to be cured of his wounds, a mystical isle where his sword was forged.

Geoffrey’s work is seen a major transformation in the Arthurian legend; Post-Galfridian Arthurian works portray his influence showing the popularity of his Historia among medieval authors (over 200 manuscripts survive).

Following Geoffrey, the Norman poet Wace put Geoffrey’s Chronicle into Old Norman dialect, indicating his target audience. Wace based his Roman de Brut (c. 1155) on Geoffrey’s Historia and introduced the Round Table into the Arthurian legend. The Brut of Layamon, an English priest, followed around 50 years later, putting the ‘Chronicle of Britain’ into English poetry for the first time, incorporating items from Welsh tradition not found in either Geoffrey or Wace.

By now the Brut tradition of British history had been established, with Welsh versions appearing in the 13th century, yet two major events in the last quarter of the 12th century spurred an outburst of Arthurian literature.

In 1190-91 the grave of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere had been discovered in the monk’s cemetery at Glastonbury Abbey. An inscription on a leaden cross found in the grave confirmed this place was indeed ‘Avallon’.  Around this time the French poet Chrétien de Troyes introduced the 'Grail' to the Matter of Britain in his final Arthurian Romance Perceval, or the Story of the Grail. Chrétien left his tale of Perceval unfinished which left a multitude of later writers free to complete the interpretation of the Grail in their own words.

What caused this surge in Arthurian literature in the 12th century; could it have been a sudden interest in Arthuriana following the discovery at Glastonbury and Geoffrey’s tome, or was something else at play here?

Since Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthurian literature was carefully shaped over the next two hundred years or so with all these threads linked to a common patronage. This has been interpreted as the use of the Arthurian legend by one particular Royal dynasty as political propaganda to establish their origins in legitimacy to the English throne.

The First Planagenet King of England 
The House of Plantagenet originated in the French region of Anjou, whose inhabitants were known as Angevins. The dynasty begins with Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou who married the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, known as Henry Beauclerc, the fourth son of William the Conqueror. Geoffrey of Anjou wore a sprig of the yellow broom plant, ‘planta genista’ in Latin, which attracted the epithet “Plantagenet”. Geoffrey and Matilda had a son, named Henry, known as “Curtmantle”.

Henry Curtmantle spent the years from age 9 – 13 at the court of his uncle Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Geoffrey of Monmouth had dedicated his History of the Kings of Britain to Robert who was also a staunch ally of Henry’s mother the Empress Matilda. It is likely that during his time at Robert’s court in Bristol the young Henry was first exposed to tales of King Arthur. The young Henry was also tutored by Thomas Becket, the man who later, when Archbishop, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights in the employ of the Plantagenet king.

Following the death of of Henry I, King of England, in 1135 a succession crisis led to widespread civil unrest, known as The Anarchy, in England and Normandy. The sole legitimate heir to Henry I, his son William, had died in the ‘White Ship’ disaster of 1120. Henry tried, unsuccessfully, to install his daughter Matilda as his heir. Matilda was known as ‘Empress’ as she had moved to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor Henry.

With no apparent male heir to Henry I, his nephew Stephen Blois seized the throne. In 1139 Matilda invaded south-west England with the support of her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I and a very powerful Earl who some wanted to take the throne in his own right.

When Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, died in 1125 Matilda was recalled to Normandy by her father Henry I to marry Geoffrey of Anjou in 1128 forming an alliance between between England and Anjou, securing the southern border of Normandy.

The Civil War raged on, becoming something of a stalemate; the way out was an agreement on the future succession of England. In 1153, the Treaty of Westminster stated that Stephen would remain monarch of England for the rest of his life but on his death Henry (Curtmantle), the eldest son of Geoffrey and Matilda would succeed him as king of England. Geoffrey of Monmouth appears on the Treaty as a witness.

Henry inherited Anjou in 1151 and a year later became the Duke of Aquitaine by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, just weeks after the annulment of her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Eleanor and Louis had two daughters from their marriage, Marie and Alix. Marie was countess of Champagne and Troyes.

One year after signing the Treaty of Westminster Stephen died, Henry was crowned in 1154 as Henry II of England, followed by his sons Richard and John, commencing the era of the Plantagenets in England. At its peak, the Angevin Empire stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The Dynasty that Shaped a Legend
It can be of no coincidence that the commencement of the English reigns of the Plantagenet kings was also the time of a great upsurge in the literary evolution of the Matter of Britain centring on the emergence of the story of the Grail. Part of this was the coming togeteher of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine who filled their courts with poets and writers. Which forces the question, were the Plantagenets responsible for moulding the Post-Galfridian legend of Arthur? Some points to consider:

    • Robert, Earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I of England, was patron of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

    • Geoffrey’s book, c.1136, details the reign of Arthur from his miraculous conception at Tintagel Castle to his mysterious disappearance after the battle of Camlann.

    • The mysterious disappearance of King Arthur fuels the Brittonic hope of his return. However, belief in Arthur’s survival was apparent in the south west of England before Geoffrey’s book as witnessed by the Canons of Laon in 1113.

    • Young Henry Curtmantle (the future king Henry II of England), educated at Robert, Earl of Gloucesters’s court at Bristol.

    • Robert was a staunch ally of the daughter of Henry I, the empress Matilda in the civil war against Stephen of Blois.

    • The civil war concludes with an agreement in 1153, known as the Treaty of Westminster, that Stephen will reign as king of England but on his death the throne will pass to Matilda’s son Henry; Geoffrey of Monmouth is a witness to the treaty.

    • In 1154 Matilda’s son is crowned Henry II of England. He marries Eleanor of Aquitaine two weeks after the annulment of her marriage to King Louis VII of France. Eleanor had two daughters from her first marriage, Marie and Alix.

    • The union of Henry and Eleanor produced eight children, including the future kings of England, Richard the Lionheart, and John, and an explosion in Arthurian literature.

    • Henry’s court is filled with poets and writers such as Walter Map and Gerald of Wales.

    • c.1155 the Norman poet Robert Wace writes Roman de Brut, a verse Chronicle based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Wace introduces the Round Table to the Arthurian story and dedicates his Brut to Queen Eleanor.

    • Wace’s later work, the Roman de Rou, was commissioned by Henry II of England.

    • Toward the end of the 12th century the English priest Layamon compiled a Chronicle of Britain, the first version of Geoffrey’s Chronicle in English. JSP Tatlock argues that Layamon wrote his Arthurian narrative with Arthur of Brittany in mind.

    • Queen Eleanor and her daughters introduces chivalry and courtly romance to the Matter of Britain. Her daughter, Marie, Countess of Champagne, is patron to the French poet Chretien de Troyes.

    • In Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart Chrétien introduces Lancelot and his love affair with Guinevere to Arthurian Romance. It is believed to have been a story assigned to him by Marie Countess of Champagne, and completed not by Chrétien himself, but by the clerk known as Godefroi de Leigni, which has been interpreted as his disapproval of the subject matter.

    • In the last quarter of the 12th century Chrétien de Troyes introduced the Grail to the Matter of Britain in his final Arthurian Romance Perceval, or the Story of the Grail.

    • Chrétien's Perceval is dedicated to his patron Philippe d'Alsace, Count of Flanders who provided him with the book that he claimed he adapted into the Story of the Grail. Philippe mediated in some of Henry II’s disputes with King Louis VII and Thomas Becket. Chrétien left his Perceval unfinished, possibly due to his own passing or Philippe’s death while on Crusade.

    • The Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate Cycle) is (incorrectly) attributed to Walter Map, possibly in part, due to his presence at Henry’s court, but written certainly by a similar courtier.

    • Without an heir himself, Richard I (The Lionheart) decreed that his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, should succeed him to the throne of England.

    • In 1190-91 the grave of King Arthur was discovered at in the cemetery at Glastonbury Abbey. According to Gerald of Wales, the location was disclosed by Henry II. Henry had been a good patron to the Abbey, but once Richard I took the throne in 1189 funds were concentrated on the Crusades.

    • The discovery in 1190-91 occurred during the short Abbacy (1189-1193) of Henry de Sully, appointed by Henry II’s son Richard I.

    • We are told that Henry de Sully was not the same man who was abbot of Fécamp Abbey in Normandy, and the eldest brother of Stephen Blois, King of England, and Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. Fécamp boasted relics of the Holy Blood which had promoted the abbey to a major site of pilgrimage. Sully apparently died at Fécamp in 1189, the year his namesake arrived at Glastonbury.

    • In 1191 Richard presented Tancred of Sicilly with King Arthur’s sword ‘Caliburn’ in return for ships for the Third Crusade. Christopher Berard argues that Arthur of Brittany was to be knighted with the sword by Tancred at the wedding to his daughter.

    • Glastonbury Abbey was hopeful of Arthur of Brittany’s patronage when he was king of England. However, it was not be as the young Prince mysteriously disappeared in 1203 leaving the throne of England clear for John, Richard’s younger brother, who many suspected of being implicated in the matter. Subsequently, John purposefully avoided Arthurian matters although he also possessed an Arthurian sword; Curtana said to be the sword Tristan used to kill the giant Morholt.

    • Henry III granted the Twelve Hides of Glastonbury to the Abbey in 1227, making several later visits to the Abbey in 1235 and 1236, the first by a reigning monarch for two hundred years.

    • In 1233 Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, purchased the ‘Island of Tyntagel’ and is credited with building the castle there. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tintagel was the place of King Arthur's conception. Later writers claimed it was the place of his birth. Richard had the castle built in an ancient style to appear older than it actually is.

    • Edward I visits Glastonbury Abbey in 1278 and translates the remains of Arthur and Guinevere to a black marble tomb in front of the High Altar.

    • Edward’s ceremonial visit to Glastonbury followed his success in the first Welsh war in which he defeated Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, self proclaimed Prince of Wales. A short period of peace followed but it was not long before Edward was at war with the Welsh again. At the end of Edward’s second Welsh war Arthur’s Crown had been surrendered and sent to Westminster Abbey and Llewelyn’s head followed it to be impaled on a stake at The Tower.

    • Edward I constructs the Round Table, the top now hangs on the wall at the Great Hall at Winchester. The Round Table was probably constructed for a feast with chivalric tournaments, a trend that continued for centuries. In the 16th century king Henry VIII had the table repainted in Tudor colours with himself in Arthur’s place, as we see it today.

    • In 1331 Edward I’s grandson Edward III made a similar visit to Glastonbury, and like his forebear called in to Queen Camel and the Iron Age hillfort at Cadbury which had been identified as Camelot from the 12th century, but never recorded as such in the Romances.

    • Edward III continued to hold regular Round Table chivalric tournaments in which Arthurian characters and scenes were re-enacted.

    • In 1343 Edward III set out his intention to create the Order of the Round Table, comprising 300 knights, but this was abandoned and in 1348 he announced the creation of the Order of the Garter, consisting of 25 knights, the number of places around the Winchester Round Table, with permanent places for the monarch and the Prince of Wales, a tradition that survives today.

    • The origins of the Order’s garter and motto, “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense” (Shame on Him Who Thinks Evil of It), are uncertain but it appears to share much with the 14th century English Arthurian work “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

Although the Arthurian Age is typically set in the years between the Roman withdrawal and the arrival of the Anglo Saxons, 400-600, the writers of medieval Arthurian literature styled Arthur on the fashion and politics of their own day.

When Henry II took the throne of England he was in need of a predecessor from the past to legitimise his rule. As Christopher Berard observes, Henry had the good fortune to be the first king of England with the opportunity to present himself in the model of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Arthur”.

"Arthurianism" is defined by Berard as imitation or evocation of Arthur in a political or cultural context. This included hosting and participation in Arthurian pageants, such as, but not restricted to, Round Table tournaments and patronage of Arthurian literature; anything that could draw comparison between contemporary figures and Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. As we have seen above, this is something the early Plantagents did particularly well; by emulating Arthur they were bringing him back to life.

Arthurianism in Early Plantagenet England (Boydell Press, 2019) by Christopher Michael Berard charts the history of the first 150 years of Arthurianism, in five chapters from its beginnings under Henry II (154-1189), during the reigns of Richard I (1189-1199), John (1199-1216), Henry III (1216-1272), to its peak during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).

© 2019 Edward Watson

Further Reading:
Dan Jones, The Planatgenets (William Collins, 2013)
Martin Aurell, The Plantagent Empire 1154-1224 (Routledge, 2007)
Martin Aurell,  'Henry II and Arthurian Legend'  in Henry II: New Interpretations, eds. Christopher Harper-Bill and Nicholas Vincent (Boydell Press, 2007)
Sian Echard, ed., The Arthur of Medieval Lation Literature (University of Wales Press, 2016)
Sian Echard, Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Karen Jankulak, Geoffrey of Monmouth (University of Wales Press, 2010)
Michael Faletra, trans & ed.,The History of the Kings of Britain (Broadview Press, 2007)
JSP Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain (Gordian Press, 1974)
Francis Ingledew, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Order of the Garter (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006)

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