Thursday, 10 August 2017

Mithras: Roman Religion from Thames to Tyne

Excavations of two Roman sites in Britain during the 1950s revealed a rare glimpse into the Roman mystery religion of Mithraism that flourished throughout the Western Roman Empire from about the 1st to the 4th century.

Tauroctony: Side A (obverse) of a two-sided Mithraic relief. Found at Fiano Romano, near Rome in 1926.
(CIMRM 641, Louvre, Paris. 
By Jastrow - Own work, Public Domain.)

The remains of an underground temple (Mithraeum) was discovered in 1954 at Walbrook, London, dating to the mid 3rd century, yielding an array of archaeological treasures including marble sculptures of Mithras, Minerva and Serapis, now held at the Museum of London.

The first excavation of the Temple of Mithras excavation in 1954 by eminent archaeologist W.F. Grimes
(CIMRM 814 - Mithraeum. Walbrook, London.)

Just four years earlier, 300 miles north at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall, two subterranean early 3rd century temples provided further evidence of the Mithraic mysteries in Britain including sculptures, religious utensils and three altars dedicated to Mithras by officers of the Roman Army unit stationed there, the First Cohort of Batavians.

Mithraeum, Carrawburgh, Hadrian's Wall

Now the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle, which houses the Carrawburgh altars, is bringing many of these finds together to offer a rare opportunity to delve into the story of the worship of Mithras in Roman Britain from two different perspectives. As a god worshipped both in the provincial capital of London and on the northern frontier of Hadrian’s Wall.

The synergy between the worship of Mithras in Londinium and on Hadrian’s Wall is as important as it is compelling.

Mithras: Roman Religion from Thames to Tyne is on display in the Hadrian’s Wall gallery at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne until Sunday 27 August 2017.

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Monday, 31 July 2017

The Survivors of Camlann

An.93. Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt.
[The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell]1

The Battle of Camlann
It is argued that the earliest reference to the battle of Camlann is found in the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), recording the conflict in the year An.93, usually interpreted as around 520 - 539 AD.

The entry is often considered to be a genuine historical reference to Arthur, leader of battles. A second entry in the Welsh Annals, 21 years previous, suggested dates range from 490- 510, refers to Arthur's victory at the Battle of Badon:

An.72. Bellum badonis inquo arthur portauit crucem domini nostri ihu xp'i . tribus diebus & tribus noctibus inhumeros suos & brittones uictores fuerunt. 
[The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders and the Britons were the victors]2

The Camlann entry in the Annales Cambriae
This entry would appear to confirm the twelve battles listed in section 56 of the 9th century Historia Brittonum (often, incorrectly, attributed to one Nennius), culminating in the battle of Badon:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor.”3

The author of the Historia states that Arthur was victorious in all his battles, presumably just the twelve as he does not include Camlann. The Welsh Annals are appended to the Historia in Harlian manuscript 3859. The so-called Arthurian battle list has been said to be based on an old Welsh poem celebrating the victorious Arthur, such as Taliesin's poems in praise of Urien of Rheged. However, others argue that many of the battles in the list, such as the City of the Legions which occurred about a hundred years after Badon in 615 AD, could not have been fought by the same man and has been incorrectly attributed to Arthur to simply make the total up to the significant number of twelve.

That Badon was a real event is not disputed as the battle is recorded by the contemporary Gildas, and later by Bede. But the Badon entry in the Welsh Annals looks suspiciously similar to the section on the eighth battle at Guinnion in the Historia Brittonum in which Arthur carried an image of the Virgin on his shoulders. Camlann then is often argued for as the only genuine historical reference to Arthur. The entry begins with the word “Guieth”, Welsh for “battle”, when the Badon entry begins with the Lation word “Bellum”. This signifies a Welsh source for the Camlann entry, but the use of the word “guieth” is not unique to this entry; indeed, there are several uses of the word in the Welsh Annals which all may reflect a Welsh source.

It is often argued by academics favouring a northern Arthur that the site of the battle of Camlann was at Camboglanna, a Roman fort on the western sector of Hadrian's Wall, usually identified as Birdoswald. No doubt the Dark Age occupation of the fort adds to the Arthurian association, yet the fort at Camboglanna has now been identified as Banna, not Birdoswald. Camboglanna was actually the Roman fort of Castlesteads, situated above the river known as the Cam Beck, which may actually provide a better explanation for the name, although sadly nothing remains above ground today.

Long ago Leslie Alcock argued that the name Camlann is derived from the Brittonic *Cambo-glanna (“crooked bank (of a river)”), as found in the name of the Roman fort of Camboglanna, (“crooked glen”).4

Alcock argues that the Romano-British name of “Camboglanna” would have evolved into “Camglann” in Old Welsh, whereas the entry in the Welsh Annals appears as “Camlann” (minus the “g”) as it would have appeared in Middle Welsh. This has been interpreted as indicative of a later, rather than contemporary, insertion into the 10th century Annals.5

This has then raised doubts on the authenticity of the Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals; if it is indeed an insertion by a later hand it may not be a genuine reference at all. Unless a reference was known to exist in another Middle Welsh source the entry would indeed appear to be spurious. The Camlann entry in the Welsh Annals is said to be unique and not referenced in any earlier source. This is not correct, as there is an earlier source which may have provided the source the Welsh Annals. However, Arthur is always associated with Camlann in Welsh tradition.

The 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen contains a list of the graves of the heroes of Britain, known as The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau). The series of englynion, or short stanzas, in Middle Welsh, is thought to be considerably older than its earliest manuscript, possibly dating to the 9th century on linguistic evidence. The Stanzas of the Graves is often neglected in the search for a source for the battle of Camlann, but the twelfth stanza records:

The grave of Osfran's son at Camlan, 
after much battle; 
the grave of Bedwyr on the slope of Tryfan.6

If only we knew who Osfran's son was and where he was buried we could locate Camlann.

Cause of the Battle
The Welsh Annals provide no clue as to the location of Camlann or indeed the cause of the battle, yet Welsh tradition remembers the battle as a futile battle that resulted in much slaughter on both sides.

Welsh sources never remember the Battle of Camlann as a major event in the was against advancing barbarians during the post-Roman years in Britain. On the contrary, Camlann is remembered as being caused by in-fighting between the Britons; perhaps confirmed by the 6th century account of Gildas who recorded in section 26 of his complaint against the clergy and the kings of Britain (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae), that following the victory at Badon foreign wars ceased, but civil troubles continued.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen includes a short line that suggests that the battle was planned, perhaps with the deliberate intention of bringing down Arthur. In Culhwch we find that “Gwyn the Irascible, overseer of Cornwall and Devon” was one of the nine who plotted the battle of Camlan.7

This scheming of Camlan is confirmed in the later tale of the Dream of Rhonabwy (Breudwyt Rhonabwy). In his dream, Rhonabwy is riding across the the Plain of Argyngroeg, towards Rhyd y Groes on the Severn, when he meets a rider. The horseman identifies himself as 'Iddawc the son of Mynyo', also known as ‘Iddawc Cordd Prydain’, meaning the ‘Agitator of Britain’, so named, he explains, because of his role as provocateur in the battle of Camlan. Idawc tells Ronabwy that he was sent as a messenger by Arthur to his cousin Medraut in order to secure peace between him and Arthur at Camlan. Iddawc tells how Arthur’s effort failed because he did not pass on Arthur’s fair words, but instead insulted Medraut, thus provoking the battle. Three nights before the end of the battle Iddawc left them, and went to the Llech Las in North Britain to do penance for seven years.8

The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) record the battle as the worst of “The Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain” because of a quarrel between Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar and her sister Gwenhwyfach.

Camlann is recorded in five of the Triads of the Island of Britain, as detailed by Rachel Bromwich:

[30] Three Faithless Warbands of the Island of Britain; the warband of Alan Fyrgan who deserted him during the night and let him go to Camlan, where he was slain.

[51] Three Men of Shame of the Island of Britain; the third and worst was Medrawd who took the Island while Arthur was on the continent in conflict with the emperor. This late Triad, which Bromwich dates to around 1400, clearly follows Geoffrey of Monmouth's fictional Arthurian history and can be rejected as being of any use in the search for Camlann.

[53] Three Sinister Hard Slaps of the Island of Britain; the second was when Gwehwyfach struck Gwenhwyfar, and because of this the Battle of Camlan took place.

[59] Three Unfortunate Counsels of the Island of Britain; the third, the threefold division by Arthur of his men with Medrawd at Camlan.

[84] Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain; the third was the worst, that was Camlan, which was brought about because of Gwenhwyfar's contention with Gwenhwyfach.9

Bromwich adds that the Triads contribute substantially to the body of evidence which shows that knowledge of the battle was prominent in early Arthurian tradition and was well known to the Gogynfeirdd, the Poets of the Princes, who flourished from the 12th to the second half of the 14th century.

Then there are those that argue for a mythological explanation. Because of the persistent association with Gwenhyfar, Thomas (Caitlin) Green, among others, argues for an Otherworldly conflict rather than a historical basis. Green stresses that Gwenhyfar is one of Arthur's possessions that he brings back from the Otherworld along with his knife, shield and sword (as argued by Patrick Ford10). Indeed in an early account of Gwenhyfar's abduction by the king of the summerland, Arthur rescues her from Avalon (Annwn). Caradoc of Llancarfan's account of the abduction of Gwenhyfar as contained in the Vita Gildae betrays traces of an Otherworld adventure, belonging, with the likes of the poem Spoils of Annwn, a Celtic supernatural excursion. This echoes the earliest abduction stories such as the possibility of influence from the Greek Persephone myth.

'King Arthur's Stone' Slaughterbridge, Cornwall

The Survivors of Camlann

The British antiquarian view tended to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth in locating the battle on the river Camel in Cornwall. The attraction no doubt being the 6th century inscribed stone said to mark the spot where King Arthur and Medraut fell at Slaughterbridge between Camelford and Tintagel. The stone, often referred to as 'King Arthur's Stone', bearing both ogham and Latin inscriptions ('Latinus son of Macarus lies here') and is now accepted as a memorial to an unknown local Celtic leader and no connection whatsoever with Arthur.

The early Welsh poets clearly remembered Camlann as a particularly bloody affair with few survivors, always connected with Gwenhwyfar. As with the earliest accounts, the battle is clearly an episode in Welsh history, fought on Welsh soil, the recorded survivors are also Welshmen.

The tale of Culhwch and Olwen survives in only two manuscripts. The earliest version survives as a fragmented version in the early 14th century White Book of Rhydderch, while a complete version can be found in the later Red Book of Hergest (c.1400). Scholars argue that linguistic evidence indicates the tale took its current form by at least the 11th century, making it the earliest Arthurian tale, a century before Geoffrey of Monmouth produced his Arthurian pseudo-history.

Culhwch and Olwen records three survivors of Arthur's battle at Camlann:

“... Morfran son of Tegid (no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag), and Sandde Angel-face (no one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping), and Cynwyl the Saint (one of the three men that escaped from Camlan. He was the last to part from Arthur, on Hengroe0n his horse).....”

Culhwch is given forty difficult tasks (anoethau) to complete by Ysbaddaden chief-giant if he wants to win the hand of his daughter, Olwen. One such task is “The cauldron of Diwrnach the Irishman, the overseer of Odgar son of Aedd king of Ireland, to boil meat for thy wedding guests.

Culhwch's ordeal may be alluded to in a 9th century poem attributed to Taliesin known, as The Spoils of Annwn (Prieddu Annwn), which features a raid on the Otherworld to retrieve the cauldron of the chief of Annwn. At the end of each verse the poem repeats that “none, save seven, returned.

A similar account is recalled in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr. When the battle erupts the Irish start to use a magic cauldron to revive their dead. The battle ends in mass slaughter for both sides, with only five pregnant women surviving to repopulate Ireland and, in addition to Branwen, only seven survivors remained of the army of the Island of the Mighty to return to Britain. Clearly there is much synergy between the two tales, where, in the Tale of Branwen and Culhwch and Olwen, Ireland has become a euphemism for the Otherworld. It is tempting to see this as three accounts of the same tale, perhaps the original Arthurian tale.

Indeed, a later account found in 17th century manuscript suggested that, just like the Tale of Branwen and the Spoils of Annwn, there were in fact seven survivors of Camlann:

“Here are the names of the men who escaped from the battle of Camlan: Sandde Angel's form because of his beauty, Morfran son of Tegid because of his ugliness, St Cynfelyn from the speed of his horse, St Cedwyn from the world's blessing, St Pedrog from the strength of his spear, Derfel the Strong for his strength, Geneid the Tall from his speed. The year of Christ when the battle of Camlan took place was 542.”

The Location of Camlann
We saw above how The Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau) associate the grave of Osfran's son with the site of Camlann. Osfran is only known from one other work, a 12th century poem to St Cadfan by Llywelyn the Bard. Cadfan, a 6th century Breton nobleman, said to have sailed to Tywyn, Merionethshire, with twelve other saints. He is claimed to have founded a church at Llangadfan in northern Powys before moving on to Bardsey, around 516. If Osfran's son was contemporary with Cadfan he would have been the right age to have fought at Camlan.

The A470 at Bwlch Oerddrws in winter
Notably, most of the early Welsh accounts always refer to 'Camlan', spelt with one 'n'. We find the name spelt exactly this way at Camlan, a township in Mallwyd parish, Merioneth, on the river Dovey, two miles south of Dinas Mawddwy, now part of Gwynedd. The location survives on modern maps as Camlan Isaf, Camlan Uchaf, Bron Camlan and Maes Camlan. Significantly, Camlan is located near the pass of Bwlch Oerddrws on the main A470 road between Dinas Mawddwy and Dolgellau, a strategic pass between North and South Wales.

Just a little north of Dolgellau we find the Afon Gamlan, a river rising on the south side of the Rhinogydd mountain range that runs down from Cwm Camlan into the Eden and then joins the Mawddach at Ganllwyd, north of Dolgellau. The old Roman Road known as Sarn Helen would have crossed the Gamlan in this desolate valley.

In conclusion, all the evidence points to the site of the battle of Camlan(n), and its subsequent survivors, being located in mid-Wales.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. The Welsh Annals, The Annales Cambriae, James Ingram, translator, Everyman Press, 1912. The primary text of this translation is from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest copy of the Annales Cambriae which has survived.
2. Ibid.
3. The History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum), Chapter 56 translated by Alan Lupack, The Camelot Project
4. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1979, p.67.
5. John T Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
6. John K Bollard, Anthony Griffiths, Englynion y Beddau: The Stanzas of the Graves, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2015.
7. Culhwch and Olwen, in The Mabinogion, translated and edited by Gwynn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman Press, 1967.
8. The Dream of Rhonabwy, in The Mabinogion, translated and edited by Gwynn Jones and Thomas Jones, Everyman Press, 1967.
9. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Third Edition, UWP, 1996.
10. Patrick K. Ford, ‘On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30, 1983.

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Monday, 24 July 2017

The Land of Taliesin

“Then I was for nine months
In the womb of the hag Ceridwen
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliesin”

Taliesin's Grave
To start at the end. Marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Bedd Taliesin this little dolmen near Gwar cwm uchaf in the Parish of Llanfihangel Genau-y-Glynn is situated close to a minor road east of Tal-y-Bont on the west-facing slopes of Moel-y-Garn overlooking the Dovey Estuary in mid-west Wales. Said to be the remains of a Bronze Age round kerb cairn, this enigmatic megalithic structure has been badly disturbed with the comparatively small capstone, barely six foot long, today propped up on a pile of stones, it seems the original supporting stones were long ago robbed for gateposts, exposing the stone-lined cist grave many years ago. This is the traditional grave of the Bard Taliesin.

Bedd Taliesin
Coflien, the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW), describes the site as being “situated on a level shelf below a craggy hill to the SE, an asymmetrical cairn, 12m NNE-SSW by 13m, showing elements of an apparent kerb, c.6.0m in diameter, having a ruinous cist, 2.0m by 0.5m, a displaced capstone, 1.75m by 1.1m lying to the N: the burial place of Taliesin.”1

This prehistoric burial-mound has never been properly excavated by archaeologists, although it has clearly been disturbed on several occasions and a skull was reportedly removed from the site before 1800. Possibly owing to its isolation Bedd Taliesin is ignored by most studies of prehistoric chamber tombs in Wales. Scott Lloyd's recent publication 'The Arthurian Place Names of Wales' (University of Wales Press, 2017) fails to mention the grave of the bard. Perhaps the reason why Bedd Taliesin is ignored by so many is that it does not fit within the usual convenience of geographical grouping, such as The Black Mountain Group, The Gower Peninsula, Anglesey, Harlech and so on. In most of these groups tombs are found within a couple of miles or so of each other, rarely in isolation.

Indeed, Daniel's inventory omits Bedd Taliesin altogether. Under Cardiganshire (Ceredigion) Daniel writes, “At the present day there are no undoubtedly authentic remains of burial chambers in Cardiganshire, but there can be little doubt that some sites formerly existed along the coast, from the literary references that exist.2 He goes on list twelve 'lost' sites in the area but does not include Taliesin's grave.

Odd that Daniel is aware of the additions to Edmund Gibson's edition of Camden's Britannia (1695), by the antiquary Edward Lhuyd, which he references in his catalogue of prehistoric chambered tombs,3 yet this is precisely where we find the earliest reference to Bedd Taliesin:

“Gwely Taliesin, in the parish of Llanfihangel Genau'r Glyn . . . ought to be the grave of the celebrated Poet Taliesin ben beirdd, who flourished about the year 540. This grave or bed . . . seems also to be a sort of Cistfaen, 4 feet long,- and 3 in breadth, composed of 4 stones, 1 at each end and 2 side-stones ; whereof the highest is about a foot above ground. I am far from believing that ever Taliesin was interred here.”4

In 'A Gentlemen's Tour Through Monmouthshire and Wales' (1781) Henry P Wyndham described the site thus, “The spurious sepulchre of the Bard Taliesin, who flourished in the 6th century and one which stood near the highways, has, within these five years, been entirely plundered and the broken stones are now converted into gateposts.”5

As a prehistoric tomb Bedd Taliesin seems genuine enough and said to date from the Early Bronze Age but has the typical appearance of a Neolithic monument. So why is it ignored; is it the association with Taliesin? There is a similar ignorance with 'Bedd Arthur' situated on the Preseli ridge in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, another site never excavated.

The Bard Taliesin 
Taliesin is regarded as a genuine poet of the 6th century. He is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons); “at that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.” The Historia adds that this was during the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd, who according to the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) died in 547 of yellow plague.

Of these five early poets only the works of Aneirin and Talisen has survived. Aneirin is famed for 'Y Goddodin', a series of elegies to the men of the North British kingdom who died in battle at Catraeth. The poetry attributed to Taliesin is found in the 'Llyfr Taliesin' (The Book of Taliesin) a 14th century manuscript (Peniarth MS 2) containing a collection of some of the oldest poems in Welsh, many of them in praise of Urien Rheged (c.530-590) and his son Owain ab Urien, rulers of the kingdom of Rheged, and Cynan Garwyn, ruler of Powys who flourished in the second half of the 6th century.  Ifor Williams identified twelve of the poems in the manuscript as being the work of a historical Taliesin, or at least contemporary with Urien and Cynan.6

The Book of Taliesin also contains prophetic and legendary poems such as 'Preiddeu Annwfn' recalling Arthur and his warriors journey to the Otherworld to steal the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn in which only seven return, presumably Taliesin is one as he includes himself on the trip. Preiddeu Annwfn has been dated to the 9th century, so could not have written by a Taliesin of the 6th century. Llyfr Taliesin was copied by a single scribe in south-east Wales in the 14th century. By the middle of the 17th century The Book of Taliesin had reached the famous library of Robert Vaughan (c.1592-1667) at Hengwrt, a mansion near Dolgellau in Merionethshire.

It is thought that the historical Taliesin was probably born in Powys, as demonstrated by the poems to Cynan Garwyn, 6th century ruler of the region. It should be of no surprise that the same community would also want to claim his grave but the prehistoric tomb Bedd Taliesen clearly has no proven connection with the historical Taliesin.

Indeed, the location of the Bard's grave seems to have been influenced by the 16th century 'Hanes Taliesin' (Historia Taliesin, or The Tale of Taliesin), which locates the story in North and Mid-Wales rather than the British Kingdoms of the Old North (Yr Hen Ogledd) with which the historical poet was associated. The 'Hanes Taliesin' is a legendary account of the life of Taliesin first recorded in the mid-16th century by Elis Gruffydd, consequently Ifor Williams postulated that there are essentially “two Taliesins”; one historical, who existed in the 6th century, the other a mythical, medieval creation.

The Tale of Taliesin 
This tale is set in the days of Arthur when the legendary Taliesin started life as Gwion Bach, a servant to Ceridwen, wife of Tegid Foel. She was a witch who had a son named Morfran (Great Crow), who was so ugly he became known as Afagddu (or Y Fagddu) after the pitch black night. Ceridwen sought to give him the gift of wisdom and knowledge to compensate for his ugliness. She consulted her book on the arts and made a special brew from the herbs of the earth to give him Inspiration (Awen). This brew has to be cooked for a year and a day in a cauldron that is continuously stirred.

Ceridwen assigned a nameless blindman to stir the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stoked the fire underneath it. The first three drops from this cauldron would give the recipient extraordinarily wisdom and the gift of prophecy and the rest of the brew would be a fatal poison. While Ceridwen was asleep the three drops splashed out of the cauldron on Gwion Bach, instantly giving him the gift of wisdom. We hear no more of Morfran who, deprived of the brew, remains ugly and unenlightened, but in Culhwch and Olwen he is named as one of the three survivors of Camlann, Arthur's final battle.

Knowing that Ceridwen would be very angry once she found out Gwion ran away. Once she awoke Ceridwen ran after him. He first turned himself into a hare and she became a greyhound in pursuit. He then changed into a fish and leapt into a river: she then turned into an otter. He then turned into a bird in the air, and she became a hawk. Eventually, Ceridwen forced Gwion into a barn, where he turned into a single grain of corn. She then turned into a hen and ate him.

Ceridwen became pregnant because of this. Knowing it was Gwion she carried she resolved to kill the child at birth; but when he was born he was so beautiful that she couldn't bring herself to do it, so she had him put into a basket and throw him into the sea. The baby was found in a fish weir by Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Lord of Ceredigion, while fishing for salmon. On seeing the boy's 'radiant forehead', he names him “Taliesin”. The babe then sang poetry to Elphin who took him home and gave him to his wife, where they raised him as their own. At the age of thirteen Taliesin wins a contest against Maelgwn's bards to release Elphin who is held captive following a chastity test of his wife.

This tale, like the poems of the historical Taliesin, is set in the 6th century and the days of Maelgwn Gwynedd, but it is essentially two tales in one; the first part, before Elphin's appearance, is known as 'The Tale of Gwion Bach' and is found in many manuscripts. The second part, 'The Tale of Taliesin' records the exploits of the young boy Taliesin, and is not so common but was recounted by Thomas Love Peacock's later novel 'The Misfortunes of Elphin'.

Celtic scholar Patrick Ford sees the separation of the two parts as straightforward, as 'The Tale of Gwion' deals with magic potions, shape-shifting and set in the days of the legendary King Arthur, a supernatural world similar to that found in 'Culhwch and Olwen'. Whereas the second part,  'The Tale of Taliesin', feels to have more of a historical bias. Ford states that, “while the two parts are chronologically consecutive, they are worlds apart in setting, and perhaps, in audience.7

Although indeed an ancient tale, the earliest account of The Tale of Gwion is found in the 16th century work of  Elis Gruffydd which he related to an oral account. Although Ifor Williams is surely correct in arguing that Bedd Taliesin has no connection with the historical poet Taliesin, this land of Wales is undoubtedly the home of the later Taliesin of legend and folklore.

Surviving Camlann
As we have seen above Morfran disappears from The Tale of Gwion Bach when Gwion gains wisdom, but enclosed within a Triad in Culhwch and Olwen he is named as one of the three survivors of Camlann, Arthur's final battle:

“....and Morfran son of Tegid (no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag), and Sandde Angel-face (no one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping), and Cynwyl the Saint (one of the three men that escaped from Camlan. He was the last to part from Arthur, on Hengroen his horse)...”8

Later tradition records seven survivors of Camlann which agrees with the seven survivors of the raid on the Otherworld to steal a magic cauldron recorded in the poem 'Preiddeu Annwfn' from the Book of Taliesin, the bard himself is presumably one as he accompanies Arthur on the journey and returns to tell the tale. This theme recurs in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of 'Branwen uerch Llyr' in which the army of the Island of the Mighty carry out a raid on Ireland over a Cauldron of Rebirth. In this version, again, only seven survive, and once more, Taliesin is among them.

However, both accounts of the survivors of Camlann, Culhwch and the later account, include the three, Sandde Angel's Form, Morfran son of Tegid, and St. Cynfelyn which seems to hold some geographic significance to the tradition of Arthur's final battle. Indeed, by plotting the location of these survivors we may be able to pinpoint the battle site.

The Tale of Gwion Bach starts at Bala (Llyn Tegid), as Morfran son of Tegid affirms. About 20 miles south west of Bala is a valley called Camlan, at Mallwyd on the A470 road, near Dinas Mawddwy, south-east of Dolgellau. A further 20 miles south west of Camlan we are back at Bedd Taliesin.

Adjacent to the parish of Llanfihangel Genau-y-Glynn, and midway between the towns of Aberystwyth and Machynlleth in north Ceredigion, is the parish of Llangynfelyn centred on the villages of Tre-Taliesin and Tre'r Ddôl and the settlements of Llangynfelyn, and Craig y Penrhyn. The parish is named from the church of St Cynfelyn, about a mile north-west of Tre-Taliesin. The church, a Grade II listed building unfortunately now derelict, is situated within a roughly circular churchyard, indicative of an early Celtic 'llan'. A healing well, Ffynnon Gynfelin, is situated on the north side of the churchyard.

We know little of the life of Saint Cynfelyn and his festival does not occur in any of the Welsh calendars. However he is considered a real person who lived in the 6th century. He is said to have become a hermit, probably after the slaughter of Camlan, setting up his cell in the area on the edge of Cors Fochno (Borth bog) where the church dedicated to the saint now stands. It seems significant that one of the survivors of the Battle of Camlann should spend his last days just 20 mile south-west of the only location in the land to bear that name.

Sarn Gynfelyn
Situated on the Ceredigion coastline, between Borth and Aberystwyth, is a reef or causeway, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, extending some seven miles out to sea. This causeway was popularly believed to be associated with the sunken land known as Cantre'r Gwaelod inundated in the 6th century. The five causeways (sarnau) extending into the Cardigan Bay are relics of glacial moraine deposited during the last ice age forming natural reefs of boulders and shingle washed clean by the sea over thousands of years.

The submerged forest 
About 5 miles north of Sarn Gynfelyn is the submerged forest at Ynyslas, which is also associated with the legend of the drowned land. Here on the coastline is the exposed remains of a forest of oak, pine, birch, willow and hazel tree stumps is revealed at low tide, estimated to be about 5,000 years old. This is clearly proof that land in Cardigan Bay was flooded years ago; the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod is based on the ancient memory of a real event.

Legend claims that after the inundation the king of Ceredigion, Gwyddno Garanhir, brother of Maelgwn Gwynedd, relocated his court to dry land, and established his main port at Porth Wyddno (modern Borth). Nearby, between Aberdyfi and Aberystwyth, he had a fishing weir constructed. As recent as the 18th century there were reports of sightings of the remains of human habitation at the far end of Sarn Cynfelyn, where a collection of large stones and boulders some seven miles out to sea form a reef known as 'Caer Wyddno', the fort, or palace, of Gwyddno. This is one of the sites claimed to be where the babe Taliesin was found in the fish weir.

Bedd Taliesin may have no connection with the historical Taliesin of the 6th century. However, it is for the individual to decide whether the land of Wales, where every rock, every mountain, every lake has a story to tell, is richer for possessing the legendary and folkloric Taliesin of the later medieval tales, or poorer. For me there is only one choice.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Notes & References:
1. Bedd Taliesin, Coflein website.
2. Glynn E Daniel, The Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, Cambridge University Press, 1950, p.215.
3. Ibid. p.118.
4. The first known mention of the grave is made by Edward Lhuyd in 1695 in the additions to Edmund Gibson's edition of Camden's Britannia, p. 647.
5. Chris Barber and John Godfrey Williams, The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, 1989, p.118.
6. Ifor Williams, The Poems Of Taliesin, The Dublin Institute Of Advanced Studies, 1987.
7. Patrick K Ford, The Tale of Gwion Back and The Tale of Taliesin, pp.159-187, in The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, 30th Anniversary Edition, Univerity of California Press, 2008.
8. Thomas Jones and Gwynn Jones, Culhwch and Olwen, from The Mabinogion, Everyman Press, 1993.

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Glastonbury Pilgrimages 2017

The Glastonbury Pilgrimages take place each year in the ruins of the ancient Abbey. This year the event tales place over the weekend 8-9 July.

The 2017 Anglican Pilgrimage takes place on Saturday 8th July under the title Joseph of Arimathea.

On Sunday 9th July 2017, the Roman Catholic pilgrimage comes to the Abbey.

The procession exits the Abbey grounds through the Abbey House Gardens, it proceeds through the town centre via Chilkwell Street, the High Street and Magdalene Street, returning to the Abbey through the Magdalene Street Gates. On return to the Abbey, Mass is celebrated in the Nave of the Abbey Church at 3.30pm

In some years the procession has been preceded by a Liturgy of the Word in the Tor Field, commemorating the martyrdom of Blesséd Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, and his fellow martyrs, Blesséd Roger James and Blesséd John Thorne. In 2017 this liturgy takes place in the Abbey Grounds, followed by the start of the procession at 2.15pm.

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Thursday, 1 June 2017

St Wigstan: The Story of a Murdered Anglo Saxon Prince

According the the Resting Paces of the Saints (Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston) St Wigstan lies in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent.

Death of A Mercian Prince
We know little of Wigstan, he is entirely absent from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the early kalendars, the Old English Martyrology, and of course lived after Bede's time. Later Medieval accounts of his life claim he was descended from the Mercian kings; he was son of Wigmund, in some sources named as the Archbishop of York, whose father was Wiglaf, king of Mercia, and Wigstan's mother Ælfflæd was the daughter of Ceolwulf I, king of Mercia 821 to 823, the last of an ancient Mercian Royal line descending from Offa.

St Wigstan, south porch of St Wystan's Church,
Repton, Derbyshire
Yet, Wigstan is recorded among the early Anglo Saxon saints in the Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston (The Resting Paces of the Saints). This text, in its current form, is found in two 11th century manuscripts listing the resting places of 89 saints, almost all Anglo Saxon. Studies have shown that the list was copied into the current manuscripts in 1031, but contains much older sections. The list appears to be in two parts; the first names 39 saints and their resting places located by references to nearby rivers. Yet the references to rivers is absent from the second part. Rollason (1981) notes that the first part records mainly saints of the 7th and 8th centuries with some of the 9th century, nearly all enshrined in the places mentioned before the end of the 9th century. Whereas the second part contains mainly saints from the 10th century. Rollason (1981) argues that the first part of the list of resting places is a compilation in its own right dating from the 9th century and it added further saints in the 10th century. That Wigstan appears in this early list, recorded as lying in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent, is seen as evidence for his existence.

Study of St Wystan's church at Repton supports the evidence of the list of Resting Places. Architectural investigation of the church has revealed that during the Anglo Saxon period two passageways were knocked through to the crypt, presumably to provide access for pilgrims to the saint's shrine. Archaeological investigations at the church found a group of richly decorated Anglo Saxon burials around the east end of the church, probably high status Mercians enjoying the sacred profits of resting near the saint.

The crypt was constructed in the first half of the 8th century (before 740), and is thought to have originally been a baptistery, as it is built on top of a natural spring. It was later converted for use as a mausoleum, with the first interment being that of King Æthelbald of Mercia, who was murdered at Seckington Castle in 757.

The crypt was incorporated into the later St Wystan's Church, now the Anglican parish church, which was constructed on the site of Repton monastery, founded in the 7th century as a community of both monks and nuns by the Mercian Royal family. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia from 658 until 675, is cited as one of Repton's first abbesses. The east-end of the monastery church (the chancel), and the crypt, were renovated by King Wiglaf of Mercia. This site became a burial vault for several Mercian kings of the 8th-9th century, including Æthelbald (d.757), and Wiglaf (d.839). The early Mercian part of this church has been described as "one of the most precious survivals of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England".

Later accounts of Wigstan's life claim that on his father's death in 849 AD he inherited the throne but turned it down in order to serve God. He appointed his mother Ælfflæd as regent. Following Wigmund's death, a Mercian noble named Beorhtwulf (= bright wolf), usurped the kingship and forced Ælfflæd to marry his son, Beorhtfrith. Wigstan refused to allow the marriage, since Beorhtfrith was a kinsman of Wigmund's and was also Wigstan's godfather.

Florence of Worcester (d.1118) records the event:

“Beorhtfrith, son of Beorhtwulf, king of Mercia, unjustly put to death his cousin, St Wigstan on the Kalends of June [1st June], being the eve of Pentecost. He was grandson of two of the kings of Mercia; his father, Wigmund, being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd, the daughter of King Ceolwulf. His corpse was carried to a monastery which was famous in that age, called Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather, King Wiglaf. Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days.”

The story of Wigstan's murder on 1st June can be found in the Passio sancti Wigstani, the earliest recensions may well derive from a 9th century original; the tale they tell is supported by the Worcester Chronicle (entry 849-50), and claims that Beorhtfrith went to visit Wigstan seemingly in peace but, when the two greeted each other, he struck Wigstan on the head with the shaft of his dagger and his servant ran him through with his sword. Later accounts of Wigstan's murder claim the spot was revealed by a shaft of light.

Wigstan's body was taken to the Mercian monastery at Repton, where he was buried in the crypt alongside his grandfather King Wiglaf and his father Wigmund. Miracles soon followed and the crypt quickly became a place of pilgrimage and from the 9th century Wigstan was considered a saint.

The Anglo Saxon crypt, St Wystan's church, Repton
Site of the Martyrdom
The site of the martyrdom was called “Wistanstowe”, somewhere in Mercia, usually identified with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire. The Old English suffix “stow” indicating a meeting place. Other sites have been identified as Wistanstow, in Shropshire, and Wistow in Cambridgeshire. Yet, according to the legend, the true site of Wigstan's murder is betrayed by the miraculous appearance of human hair on the anniversary of his death, 1st June. This was said to occur annually for many years, and led to Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury investigating the phenomenon in 1187.

The stained-glass windows in the parish church of Wistanstow (Shropshire), designed by notable British artist Margaret Agnes Rope, show the miraculous pillar of light leading to discovery of the earthly remains of Wigstan.

It would appear then that Wigstan was murdered in a Mercian power-struggle in 849. Thacker (1985) suggests that it seems likely that Wigstan was the victim of a dynastic struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son Beorhtfrith, who may have inherited claims to the Midland Kingdom from an earlier Mercian sub-king Beornwulf (823-25) and possibly the Beornred desposed by Offa in 757.

It seems the prestige of marriage to a princess descended from the last branch of the ancient Royal house of Mercia was the reason for Wigstan's murder.

The Mercian Monastery
The choice of  Repton as the place Wigstan's body was taken is significant owing to its associations with the ancient Mercian Royal family. Æthelbald chose his burial place at Repton, the place were Guthlac entered religious orders before departing for a solitary life. Indeed, the cult of Wigstan appeared at the centre of a large Royal Anglo Saxon estate focused on Repton and Glenn, some thirty miles distant, and close to other cult centres at Wistow and Wigstow.

There is certainly strong architectural and archaeological evidence for a 9th century shrine and cult at Repton, almost certainly that of Wigstan (Thacker, 1985). The increase in pilgrims required additional staircases to be constructed to facilitate multiple access to the crypt.

The monastery was abandoned in 873 when it was overrun by the Viking Great Army who made Repton their winter headquarters that year. When they left they destroyed the monastery, only the mausoleum survived.

The Winter Camp
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that a large force of Danes landed in East Anglia in 865 destroying the kingdom, then moved on to Northumbria and Mercia. This Great Army (micel here) was said to be led by the three sons of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lodbrok. This was a change in tactics for the Vikings who, up to now, had been content carrying out coastal raids on wealthy monasteries and churches, but now seemed intent on conquering and settling in England.

After plundering England for seven years this massive Viking war band located their winter camp in Lincolnshire; an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 872 records ‘Here the army took winter quarters at Turc’s island’. The precise location of the winter camp defied detection for many years but recent excavations led by Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley (2016) have confirmed the location as Torksey, on the River Trent, about 10 miles northwest of Lincoln. Here metal detectorists uncovered one of the richest sources in England of Anglo-Saxon coins, including over 100 tiny copper-alloy stycas from Northumbria in addition to Arabic coins (dirhams), chopped up silver bullion and pieces of hackgold. They also found smithing tools, spindle whorls and needles, fishing weights and over 300 lead gaming pieces. This rich assemblage all came from six large fields immediately to the east of the Trent where a steep cliff above the river formed the boundary of the camp. During times of flood this it would have formed a natural island between the river on one side and marshland; Turc's island.

Turc's Island after Hadley and Richards, 2016
The strategic position and natural defences of Torksey did not go unnoticed by the Anglo Saxons and after the Viking army left the site became a Saxon borough or 'burh'. Both coins and pottery (the distinctive Torksey ware), were produced on the site in the early 11th century, which according to Domesday Book was a royal holding in 1066.

After overwintering at Turc's island, the following year the Danes sailed up the Trent to Repton in Derbyshire. In 873 the monastery was looted by the Great Army forcing the nuns and monks to desert it, taking the relics of St Wigstan with them.

When Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle (1992) investigated the Repton site in the 1970s and 1980s 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 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 reports of a mass burial discovered around 1686 by Thomas Walker who discovered a two-roomed subterranean structure some 15 ft square, originally roofed by 'decayed wooden joyces', possibly the abandoned mausoleum constructed to hold the body of the Mercian monarch Merewahl who died in 757AD.

Inside this structure was 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 - the original report claimed there were 'One Hundred Humane Skeletons, 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.

Repton winter camp 873, after Biddle & Biddle, 1992
Barely 3 miles to the southeast of Repton, on higher ground overlooking the Trent, a group of 59 small burial mounds was discovered at Heath Wood at Ingleby. Julian Richards identified some of these burials as cremations and goods found with the bodies also appeared to have been through the cremation fires; sword and buckles, nails and wire embroidery all suggested these had been Danish cremations. This Danish cremation cemetery is quite unique in Britain and was in use between 873-7, the time that the Great Army were active in this area of Mercia.

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.

A Ray of Light at Evesham 
The relics of St Wigstan that were removed by the fleeing monks and nuns during the Viking attack on Repton in 873, were later returned, although there is no evidence that the monastery ever recovered to any great extent. King Cnut had the saint's remains removed from Repton again in the 11th century to be reburied at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire.

The Normans were sceptical of the sainthood of the many local saints of Anglo Saxon England and decided to subject the relics of local saints to “ordeal by fire”; if the remains burnt then they did not belong to a saint, but if they survived the test they were indeed genuinely Holy.

In the year 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman Abbot of Evesham, was surprised at the number of relics held at the monastery which he duly subjected to ordeal by fire. When it came to the turn of the relics of St. Wigstan, the heat of the fire had no effect on them, but the relics began to shine. Walter returned Wigstan's relics back to their shrine, when he dropped the saint’s head on the ground which then started to sweat, while a sweet fragrance spread throughout the church. Wigstan was truly a Holy martyr. From that moment on Walter is said to have accepted the holiness of the Anglo Saxon saints.

A 'Vita Sancti Wistani' (Life of St Wigstan) was included in the Chronicle of the monastery of Evesham (Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham) written in the main part by Thomas of Marlborough, abbot from 1230 to 1236. The earliest parts of the Chronicon, concerning the Mercian St Egwin (d.717) were written by the 12th century prior Dominic of Evesham who had also written a 'Life' of St Wigstan. The Chronicon was continued to the year 1418 by an unknown hand.

As we have seen above, most of what we know of St Wigstan is derived from later sources; Florence of Worcester's 12th century account may well have been the source of Thomas of Marlborough. Yet, these later accounts may well have been based on a 9th century text.

Two 'passions' of St Wigstan have survived, one in the 14th century manuscript of saints lives' held at Gotha in Germany. The other was preserved in the British Library manuscript Harley 2253.These two accounts are both similar to the version of Thomas of Marlborough but differ in slight detail; one claims the top of Wigstan's head was sliced off (perhaps like Thomas Becket at Canterbury). However, neither of these 'passions' makes reference to the translation to Evesham in the 11th century, and therefore must be earlier than Thomas's account. Rollason (1981) suggests a version is likely to have been written at Repton in the 9th century before the Danish attack.

In 1207 the tower of Evesham Abbey church collapsed, falling debris smashed the reliquary of St Wigstan breaking the skull of the martyr. Part of the broken skull and a bone from the arm were sent to Repton at the request of the canons. These relics of the saint were enshrined in their new priory church at Repton, now demolished, rather than in the ancient church which is now the parish church of St Wystan.

The Anglo-Saxon Chancel at the east end of St. Wystan's Church, Repton
and below it the famous crypt. 
Wigstan's relics were kept at Evesham until the Reformation when the Monastery was dissolved and destroyed in the 16th century and the relics of all its saints disappeared.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle, Repton and the Vikings, Antiquity 66, 1992.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell & Brewer, 2011.
Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards, The Winter Camp Of The Viking Great Army, Ad 872–3, Torksey, Lincolnshire, The Antiquaries Journal, 96, 2016.
David Rollason, The Search for Wigstan, Vaughan Paper 27, Uinversity of Leicester, 1981.
Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints and Monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia, Midland History 10, 1985.

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Friday, 19 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

On general release in the UK from 19 May 2017.

Described as a non-traditional, modern retelling of the Arthurian myth, Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is an epic fantasy, planned as a six-part franchise, as a big-budget rendition of Arthurian legend. This is the first major Arthur film since Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 outing with Clive Owen and Keira Knightley.

Filming for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword included dramatic locations in Snowdonia (Tryfan, Nant Gwynant, near Beddgelert, and Capel Curig) North Wales and the Isle of Skye.

When his father is murdered Vortigern (Jude Law) seizes the crown. Deprived of his birthright without knowing, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) grows up as a streetwise youth raised in a whorehouse on the streets of Londinium. But when he pulls the sword from the stone his life is turned upside down and he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy.

There’s no Merlin here, Ritchie is probably saving the emergence of the wizard for one of planned five sequels, but we do find David Beckham playing a guard named 'Trigger'.

Followers of Arthuriana will  be compelled to see this Guy Ritchie take on the classic legend which has opened with mixed reviews; this a "marmite" film; you'll either love it or hate it.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword review – medieval banter, slapdash mythology

"Guy Ritchie’s film is low on originality, but might please devotees of his shtick.
The slapdash mythology, with its super-size CGI elephants and slithering octopus-women, is a lazy Lord of the Rings rip-off that barely attempts to convince. A murky video game aesthetic and impatient, maniacally fast cutting do it no favours."

- Simran Hans The Observer 21 May 2017

"Elephants twice the size of a mutant T-Rex rampage in the open air"

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword review: Guy Ritchie's combat-heavy Camelot is a very silly place

"....misshapen and inert, your imagination and memory never come close to being sparked by it. Just sticking with the plot soaks up every ounce of concentration you have.........His acquaintances include such classic Arthurian figures as Chinese George (Tom Wu) and Goose Fat Bill (Aidan Gillen)."

"[The] hero’s journey takes the character in directions the film is never able to make sense of."
"The problem with a King Arthur blockbuster is that it needs sweep and scope, and the attempts at spectacle here feel far outside the director’s comfort zone."

- Robbie Collin The Telegraph 19 May 2017

Vortigern (Jude Law)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, film review – Epic fail

"Guy Ritchie’s attempt to create a mythic franchise stumbles out of the gate. Having no feel for nor apparent interest in the mystical, Ritchie devolves responsibility for the wonderment to CGI monsters."

"Flailing out of his depth, Ritchie clings to the life raft of what he knows. Substituting caricature for character, he barely scrapes the emotional surface of Arthur’s quest to adapt to the kingly demands of his fate. Raiding the comfort zone pantry for cheap laughs, he finds the cupboard bare."

"By midway, it had occurred that were he hired to make a Christ movie, he’d have Jesus say, “Thirty pieces of silver? Judas, mate, are you pulling my bell-end? You should’a held aht for 90."

"When Arfur tells a woman, “Put your ring back on, honey tits,” you fear Ray Winstone is about to pitch up as Merlin and ask who the daddy might be."

"It is a film as long on tediously stylised fight scenes and portentous electro-folk music as it is short on emotional involvement." 

- Matthew Norman Evening Standard 19 May 2017

Arthur's modern looking wardrobe seems out of place

 Rotten Tomatoes Reviews:

"This latest take on the Arthurian classic is epic in many ways, none of them good."

"The movie becomes a long, unstoppable, barely sufferable explosion of digi-battle scenes, digi-pachyderms, digi-snake-monsters, digi-Armageddon."

"Ritchie's movie is handicapped by its obedience to the rules of modern franchising, putting aside much of the most potent Arthurian lore to instead tell a protracted Round Table origin story."

"In a poor film, the use of David Beckham in a minor but significant role stands out as an own goal. It's a towering misjudgement and a good example of the way filmmaking for Ritchie is really just an extension of socialising."

- Rotten Tomatoes

The sword in the stone

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Monday, 15 May 2017

New Book: The Warrior Queen

The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great
by Joanna Arman

Published by Amberley Publishing 15 May 2017

From the Publisher:

Æthelflæd, eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, has gone down in history as an enigmatic and almost legendary figure. To the popular imagination, she is the archetypal warrior queen, a Medieval Boudicca, renowned for her heroic struggle against the Danes and her independent rule of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia. In fiction, however, she has also been cast as the mistreated wife who seeks a Viking lover, and struggles to be accepted as a female ruler in a patriarchal society.

The sources from her own time, and later, reveal a more complex, nuanced and fascinating image of the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. A skilled diplomat who forged alliances with neighbouring territories, she was a shrewd and even ruthless leader willing to resort to deception and force to maintain her power. Yet she was also a patron of learning, who used poetic tradition and written history to shape her reputation as a Christian maiden engaged in an epic struggle against the heathen foe.

The real Æthelflæd emerges as a remarkable political and military leader, admired in her own time, and a model of female leadership for writers of later generations.

Joanna Arman is currently a PhD Student at the University of Winchester specialising in Women's History; exploring topics such as 15th century Queens, female landowners in Medieval records or the impact of the Magna Carta on women's marriage rights. She has a passion for the Anglo-Saxon period and researched Æthelflæd of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, as the subject of her MA research.

See: Æthelflæd: The Making of a County Town  (Stafford 913 - 2013)

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

New Book: Britain in the Age of Arthur

A Military History 
by Ilkka Syvanne

Published by Pen & Sword 30th July 2017
£20.00 Introductory Offer (RRP £25.00)

From the publisher:

King Arthur is one of the most controversial topics of early British history. Are the legends based on a real historical figure or pure mythological invention? Ilkka Syvannes study breaks new ground, adopting a novel approach to the sources by starting with the assumption that Arthur existed and that Geoffrey of Monmouths account has preserved details of his career that are based on real events. He then interprets these by using common sense and the perspective of a specialist in late Roman military history to form a probable picture of what really happened during the period (roughly AD 400-550). This approach allows the author to test the entire literary evidence for the existence of Arthur to see if the supposed events of his career match what is known of the events of the period, the conclusion being that in general they do. Arthurs military career is set in the context of the wider military history of Britain and Europe in this period and along the way describes the nature of armies and warfare of the period.

Dr Ilkka Syvanne gained his doctorate in history in 2004 from Tampere University in his native Finland. His doctoral thesis was published as The Age of Hippotoxotai, Art of War in Roman Military Revival and Disaster 491-636 (Tampere University Press, Tampere 2004). He has also written numerous articles on late Roman/Byzantine warfare, and contributed seven entries for Blackwell's Encyclopaedia of the Roman Army (2011). From 2007 to 2016 he was Vice Chairman of the Finnish Society for Byzantine Studies. Dr Syvanne is An Affiliated Professor of the University of Haifa and lives in Kangasala, Finland.

Other books by Ilkka Syvanne available from Pen & Sword:

Military History of Late Rome 284-361 (16th September 2015)
The first volume, of 5 planned, covers the period 284-361, starting with recovery from the 'third-century crisis' and the formation of the Tetrarchy, providing a detailed account of the changes in organisation, equipment, strategy and tactics among both the Roman forces and her enemies in the relevant period, while also giving a detailed but accessible account of the campaigns and battles.

The Military History of Late Rome AS 361-395 (30th May 2017)
The second volume in the series gives the reader a comprehensive narrative of late Roman military history from AD 284-641.

Caracalla: A Military Biography (30th May 2017)
Ilkka Syvanne explains how the biased ancient sources in combination with the stern looking statues of the emperor have created a distorted image of the man and then reconstructs the actual events, particularly his military campaigns and reforms, to offer a balanced view of his reign

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

St George and the Order of the Garter

Today, 23 April, is St George's day, patron saint of England, but he is far removed from the exemplar “British Knight” that many believe him to have personified.

Knights and Saints
The influence of St Edmund as the patron saint of Anglo Saxon England began to wane under the Normans. He was finally replaced after the English successes under the patronage of St George during the Crusades and victories on the battlefield in France during the Hundred Year's War.

While the veneration of St George as a soldier-saint can be traced back to the 7th century, the first depictions of St George the Dragon Slayer go back only to 10th or 11th century Cappadocia (Central Turkey). A dragon was commonly used to represent the Devil in the Middle Ages. A late legend claims that St. George killed a dragon on the flat topped Dragon Hill at Uffington, Berkshire, where the beast's blood spilled today no grass grows. However, many of the legends associated with St. George lack historical substance and are generally considered fictitious; indeed the slaying of the ‘Dragon’ is one of many stories of the saints preserved in the Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in 1275 after being brought back to Europe by Crusaders in the 12th century.

St George and the Dragon (Carpaccio, 1502)
It is often claimed that Crusaders returning from the Holy Land were responsible for introducing St. George’s to western Europe, but there is evidence of a cult before the Crusades, however slight, in early medieval Germany, Italy, France and England. Today he is the patron saint of many countries and cities in both eastern and western Europe.

The person typically identified as St. George is an unnamed man martyred in 303 AD during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284-305) as recorded by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the mid-4th century. This man is commonly thought to have been Georgios Gerontios, a tribune in the Roman Army who refused to renounce his Christian faith and tore down Diocletian's edict of persecution. He was subsequently imprisoned, tortured and finally beheaded on the 23rd April 303 in Nicomedia, an ancient Greek city in what is now Turkey.

However, the connection of the saint with Nicomedia is inconsistent with the early cult of St George at Lydda in the Roman province of Syria-Palaestina, also claimed to be the place of his birth and his martyrdom, an important cult site to the Crusaders.

The first Christian Emperor Constantine the Great is said to have constructed a basilica over the St George's tomb at Lydda, but this church was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the crusades. Between 1150 and 1170 a cathedral was said to have been built over the tomb by Richard I (the Lionheart) of England only to be destroyed by Saladin in 1191; yet there is little evidence to support this claim.

However, “visions” of St George were recorded twice during the First Crusade, at the sieges of Antioch, 1098, and Jerusalem, 1099. The story goes that the crusaders received miraculous help at the siege of Antioch from a great army coming to their aid on white horses, clothed in white and bearing white banners, outpouring from the nearby mountains. The leaders of this phantom army were recognisable by the names on their banners; St George; St Demetrius; St Mercurius.

Richard the Lionheart is said to have received a personal vision of the saint at Acre during the Third Crusade. After these “appearances” St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers and many military orders.

The Cross of St George, was first recorded as the ensign of the Republic of Genoa, before it was used by the crusaders. From the time of the Second Crusade (1147–1149) the red Cross of St George became associated with the Knights Templar, a military order that emerged out of the ruins of Jerusalem after its capture in the First Crusade.

The English king Henry II and the French king Philip II used red and white crosses to identify their respective soldiers during the so-called “Kings' Crusade” of 1187. The red-on-white then became a recognisable symbol of the crusader from about 1190. Indeed, the banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers by the reign of Richard I (1189 – 1199). The flag of England is derived from St George's Cross.

In the 1270's the Red Cross was worn by English soldiers during the reign of Edward I.  In 1348 Edward III established a premier order of Knighthood in England, with Saint George as its patron. At the “Battle of  Agincourt” in 1415 many of Henry V's English soldiers believed they witnessed Saint George fighting alongside them as they routed the French. Shakespeare recorded the success of St George with Henry V ending his speech before the battle with the famous phrase, “Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

The Order of the Garter
With such a fine military pedigree it was no surprise that Edward III chose Saint George as the patron saint of his Order of the Garter in 1348, the oldest surviving Order of Chivalry in the world, adopting the red-on-white cross for his Royal Standard. It was around this time that Edward proclaimed St George as Patron Saint of England; significantly, Edward created the Order of the Garter on St George's Day, 23 April.

Edward III, the Order of the Garter
Around this time chroniclers were complaining of the behaviour of knights with many criticised for promiscuity and committing lawless acts. In 1346, before the Crécy campaign, Edward III had forbidden his men from wanton ravaging and the destruction of holy places, but to no avail. It seems the exclusive Order of the Garter was created in an effort to return to chivalry and honour following Edward's victory at Crécy.

Without doubt the creation of the Order of the Garter and the return to chivalry was inspired by the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with Edward III, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Edward I, actively promoting himself as the New Arthur. His son Edward, later the Black Prince, was raised on the traditions of Arthurian Romance.

As Edward I had visited Glastonbury in 1278, for the translation of King Arthur's relics to a new marble tomb in front of the high altar, Edward III also visited the Somerset town in 1331 in a intentional act planned to associate his reign to both the Arthurian tradition and the reign of his grandfather.

Edward III’s Somerset itinerary was remarkably similar, but not identical, to that of Edward I, travelling from South Cadbury to Glastonbury. He spent 19 December 1331 at at South Cadbury and Cadbury Castle, the potential site of Camelot, before travelling to Glastonbury between 20 December and 22 December. Finally he moved on to Wells on 23 December, where he spent Christmas. There are no records of any further visits by Edward III to Glastonbury Abbey, though in 1345 he granted permission for one John Blome to search the abbey grounds for the grave of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who buried Jesus and legendary founder of the Abbey, and through the Grail stories an ancestor of Arthur, and guardian of the Holy Grail.

This was the Golden Age of Glastonbury Abbey, a site of pilgrimage for the cults of King Arthur, whose bones were discovered there in 1191, and Joseph of Arimathea, whose bones were not.

King Arthur's Round Tables
At the end of the “Round Table” festival at Windsor Castle in January in 1343, Edward III announced his intention to found an Order of the Round Table with three hundred knights with St George as their Patron, with a corresponding building and chapel, "in the same manner and estate as the Lord Arthur, formerly King of England".

The Round Table is King Arthur's famed table in the Arthurian legend, around which he and his famous Knights would gather.  The Table has no head, so that everyone who sits there has equal status. Yet Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention this round table in his Arthurian epic The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae), and there is no mention of it in the early Welsh texts.

The Round Table was first described in the Roman de Brut by the Anglo-Norman poet Wace in 1155, a chronicle based on Geoffrey's earlier work. The symbolism of the Round Table developed during the Arthurian Romances and came to represent the chivalric order of the Knights of the Round Table.

During the Middle Ages, festivals called “Round Tables” were celebrated throughout Europe in imitation of Arthur's court; the earliest known was held in Cyprus around 1220. These aristocratic festivals consisted of tournaments with jousting knights performing Arthurian roles, concluding in a great feast.

The Round Table in the Great Hall, Winchester
A large wooden tabletop, eighteen feet across, known as the “Winchester Round Table” now hanging in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle, bearing the names of various knights of Arthur's court is thought to have been created for a Round Table tournament. Dendrochronology has determined that the Winchester Table was constructed between 1250 – 1280, during the reign of Edward I, an Arthurian enthusiast, known to have held Round Tables many times in his reign: at Kenilworth in 1279, Warwick in 1281, Nefyn in 1284 and Falkirk in 1302. At least two of these, Nefyn and Falkirk, were personally arranged by Edward himself. He hosted one himself at Windsor around 1290, which was thought to be the occasion for the creation of the Winchester Round Table.

The iconic Round Table hanging in the Great Hall seems to have influenced Thomas Malory's identification of Winchester as the site of Camelot. Malory composed his Le Morte D'Arthur while in Newgate Prison, London, between March 1469 and March 1470 and published by William Caxton in July 1485. In 1934 the headmaster of Winchester College W. F. Oakeshott discovered a previously unknown manuscript copy of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in the library of Winchester College that is closer to Malory's original than Caxton's printed edition.

It would appear that Caxton did not use the Winchester manuscript in preparing his printed text. Caxton divided Malory's original work of four sections into twenty-one books of roughly equal length and omitted the colophons found of the tales containing autobiographical information about the author, including Malory's reference to himself as the “knyght presoner”.

The legs were removed from the Winchester table in 1348 and the top hung on the castle wall as a symbol of the chivalric concept of the fellowship of Arthur's Round Table. Two centuries later Henry VIII had the table repainted with himself in Arthur's seat above a Tudor Rose.

By 1348, Edward III had abandoned his earlier plan for an Order of the Round Table consisting of 300 knights, and announced the creation of the Order of the Garter, with an exclusive membership limited to just 25 Knights, with the first places reserved for those commanders who had helped him to win the Crécy campaign; the exact same number of places around the Winchester Round Table.

The Garter and the Motto
Today, the official seat of the Most Noble Order of the Garter sits at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, where its chapters have assembled since its creation by Edward III in 1348. The Sovereign and the Prince of Wales being permanent members, together with 24  Companion Knights.

The Garter Knights wear a mantle made from dark blue velvet fastened with blue and gold rope strings. Upon their shoulders the Knights wear the badge of the cross of St. George upon a shield encircled with the Garter.

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

In this anonymous chivalric romance Gawain resists the temptations of the Lady of the Castle of Hautdesert, accepting only kisses from her. On the third day after resisting her further advances she presents Gawain with a magic green girdle that will protect him from being slain. With his forthcoming duel with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, Gawain takes the girdle but does not pass it on to the lord of Castle Hautdesert (Bertilak), with whom he has an agreement that whatever each of them wins during the day they will exchange that evening. Gawain's dishonesty is his sin.

When it is revealed that the Green Knight is actually Bertilak and that the attempted seductions were a test of Gawain's worthiness, the knight is shaken with guilt, but Bertilak praises him for never giving into sexual temptation by the Lady of Hautdesert

Bertilak invites Gawain to return to the castle but Gawain refuses and sets off for Camelot, wearing the girdle for his shame. On arrival he tells Arthur the story who then decides that all the knights of the Round Table will wear a belt of green as a badge of honour in support of Gawain and proclaiming as their motto “Honi Soyt Qui Mal Pense” (Shamed be the One who Thinks Evil).

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

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