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On the trail of the golden dragon of Wessex….

Royal coat of arms of Elizabeth I in the church of St Thomas and St Edmund at Salisbury

Royal coat-of-arms of Elizabeth I in the church of St Thomas and St Edmund in Salisbury

The Golden Dragon of Burford in Oxfordshire isn’t a takeaway! It’s the pagan banner of the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, Aethelbert, who was defeated at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by Cuthbert, King of the West Saxons. Aethelbert’s golden–dragon banner was taken, and for centuries the outcome of this battle was celebrated in the town by a procession and much festivity. In the 1979 parade, 25 local schoolchildren provided the legs of a 50’ dragon!

Burford - Golden Dragon Procession in 1979

My first port of call for the (completely unassociated!) information I was actually looking for, happened to take me to this site , where I found:-

“Malmesbury and other chroniclers record a battle between the West Saxons and Mercians at Burford in AD 752. In the end Æthelhum, the Mercian standard-bearer who carried the flag with a golden dragon on it, was killed by the lance of his Saxon rival. The Anglo-Saxon Chronical records “A.D 752. This year Cuthred [Cuthbert], king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Burford, against Aethelbaldof the Mercians , and put him to flight.”

Aethelhum/Erle Adellum the standard-bearer turned up elsewhere.

We read also y’ Cuthred, King of y”^ West Saxons, encountring King Ethelbald,

had y” standard of y” golden Dragon borne before him by Earle Adellum. \_Ro. Hoveden,

  1. 234, No. 20, jf 740.]

The historian William Camden (1551–1623) wrote

“… in Saxon Beorgford [i.e. Burford], where Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, then tributary to the Mercians, not being able to endure any longer the cruelty and base exactions of King Æthelbald, met him in the open field with an army and beat him, taking his standard, which was a portraiture of a golden dragon.”

The origin of the golden dragon standard is attributed to Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, of whom Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote:-

“[Uther Pendragon] “… ordered two dragons to be fashioned in gold, in the likeness of the one which he had seen in the ray which shone from that star. As soon as the Dragons had been completed this with the most marvellous craftsmanship – he made a present of one of them to the congregation of the cathedral church of the see of Winchester. The second one he kept for himself, so that he could carry it around to his wars.”

In the late 16th or early 17th century the people of Burford still celebrated the anniversary of the battle. Camden wrote: “There has been a custom in the town of making a great dragon yearly, and carrying it up and down the streets in great jollity on St John’s Eve.” The field traditionally claimed to be that of the battle is still called Battle Edge.

Next I was led to this site

“. . . The Battle of Burford took place in 752AD and the King of Mercia, Aethelbald was defeated by King Cuthred, the King of the West Saxons. King Cuthrd won the battle and took the standard, a golden dragon. The field where the Battle took place was called Battle-Edge located beside Sheep St and Tanners Lane. There are houses there now but one of the houses is called Battle House. In 1852 some men were making a road from Burford to Barrington and discovered a large stone weighing nearly three tons which was found to contain the remains of a human body with remnants of a leather cuirass studded with metal nails. The coffin is still preserved in the Burford church. Apparently, in years gone past, there was a street parade through Burford, with the dragon as its focus. . .” 

By now quite interested in the golden dragon and the mystery burial at Burford, I found:-

According to Reverend Francis Knollis’ description of the discovery, “On 21 November 1814 a large freestone sarcophagus discovered near Battle Edge 3 feet (0.91 m) below ground, weighing 16 long hundredweight (1,800 lb; 810 kg) with the feet pointing almost due south. The interior is 6 feet (1.8 m) long and 2 feet 2 inches (0.66 m) wide. It was found to contain the remains of a human body, with portions of a leather cuirass studded with metal nails. The skeleton was found in near perfect state due to the exclusion of air from the sarcophagus.” The coffin is now preserved in Burford churchyard, near the west gate. 

“Whose fame is in that dark green tomb? Four stones with their heads of moss stand there. They mark the narrow house of death. Some chief of fame is here! Raise the songs of old! Awake their memory in the tomb.” – Ossian 

The coffin is no longer inside the church, but outside. If, indeed, it ever was inside:-

This saysA stone coffin was found in 1814 a mile from Burford, on a new road being constructed from Upton to Little Barrington. The coffin contained a human skeleton and pieces of metal studded leather – possibly hobnail shoes or sandals. The coffin and its contents were dated as Roman. The remains were removed to the British Museum and the coffin was recorded as being placed in Burford Church in an aisle called ‘Sylvesters’. 

However, a recent visit to the church, and information gathered from the Verger, revealed that in fact the coffin was never inside the church. It sits by the churchyard wall to the north-west side with other large stones. The verger explained that the second large stone coffin was probably medieval, the stone (half) sitting on top of it was reported to be part of the top of the Roman coffin, and the large stone leaning against the wall was the top of the medieval coffin. One of the other stones, seen in the photographs, could be the other half of the Roman top.

So, was the 1814 Roman, and therefore nothing to do with the battle of AD792? Or was the medieval coffin more relevant? It depends, of course, upon what one means by “medieval”. It would be interesting anyway to learn to whom such a striking burial (the one in 1814) belonged. A stone sarcophagus weighing almost three tons, buried three feet underground? With four marker stones topped with moss? And there was a perfect skeleton inside? If it had anything to do with the battle, it could not be the unfortunate Aethelbert, who was “put to flight”, not killed. Maybe it was Erle Adellum, the bearer of the golden dragon standard? Or was he another Sir John Cheyne, and lost the standard, but lived to tell the tale. Or not tell it, probably, since Cheyne was a giant and was unhorsed by the much smaller Richard III with a broken lance. (Oh, I love that story!) Whoever he was, his skeleton seems to have disappeared now, or is stored somewhere in a box. Hmm, sound familiar?

In Britain, the golden dragon is definitely associated with Uther Pendragon, and thus, presumably, with King Arthur himself. Being able to claim such famous ancestors was a great thing for royalty and nobles in the medieval period, and so heraldic golden dragons have turned up a number of times. Harold Godwinson carried the golden dragon, and there is a school of thought that believes (because he carried it, and was the final Saxon king) the golden dragon was the last truly authentic flag of England.

Harold with the golden dragon...or is it white...or white and gold

Harold carrying a dragon shield – is it a golden dragon? A white dragon? Or a white-and- gold dragon? Whatever, it’s a dragon with gold on it!

At least one of the Plantagenets used it too. “By 1300, a banner of St Edmund was displayed in Westminster Abbey alongside banners of St George and St Edward and a special standard bearing a golden dragon commissioned by Henry III.”

Henry III

It was also used by Owain Glyndŵr, and purloined in a red form by the Tudors. But sometimes Elizabeth I was known to have substituted the red dragon supporter for a golden one (see top picture above). And the golden dragon still crops up in present-day county coats-of-arms, e.g. Dorset. Mostly, of course, those counties that are in what was once the Kingdom of the West Saxons.

So, how important should the golden dragon still be to the heraldry of this country? But, I suppose, it would only go the same way as the red dragon of Wales. . .and be omitted from the Union Jack.

Golden Dragon

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A Scottish Crown Jewel found in Durham Cathedral?

Has the Black Rood of Scotland been hiding in plain sight, indeed? Well, David Willem think so and is speaking about it in Edinburgh on Wednesday, how Margaret of Wessex took this cross to Scotland in 1068, how Edward I removed it along with the Stone of Destiny but it was returned and relocated again, to Durham, after David II’s defeat at the nearby Neville’s Cross. It is known to have been there until about 1540.

At Durham Cathedral, a similarly jewel-encrusted gold cross was found in St. Cuthbert’s grave in 1827. Is this the missing part of the Scottish Crown Jewels?

Tostig of Northumberland

Here is Mercedes Rochelle’s excellent post about Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold II. He was Earl of Northumbria for ten years before the rebellion

in that region in late 1065. He then tried to overthrow Harold from the south in May and from the north in September, with Norwegian support, ending in his defeat and death at Stamford Bridge. With Harold, he had taken part in a partial conquest of Wales in 1063. The Kirkdale Sundial, which also reads “IN TOSTI DAGVM EORL+” (“in Earl Tostig’s day”), is pictured left.

The parallels with George, Duke of Clarence (above right), who acted against Edward IV in the 1469-70 readeption and apparently sought to do so in 1477 are interesting.

The Bayeux Tapestry – in action….!

If you haven’t seen this before, it’s well worth watching. Very clever.

A SAINT’S SHRINE IN OXFORD

Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral lies in the precincts of  the college of the same name. Originally it was the church of St Frideswide’s priory, and contained a shrine bearing the saint’s relics. This shrine was destroyed in the reformation but has since been pieced together as much as possible. The remains include some rare carvings of the ‘natural world’ including heads wreathed in foliage which may  represent Frideswide and her nuns. Next to the shrine is what is called a ‘watching chamber’, where someone would keep watch over the gold and jewels that decorated the saint’s shrine. The watching chamber was built in the late 15th or early 16th century, possibly  by none other than the infamous Bishop John Morton…

Frideswide was a particularly venerated in the Oxford area, and  one of Francis Lovell’s sisters bears her name.

The church also contains several notable medieval burials, including the beautiful tomb of Elizabeth de Montfort (died 1354), Baroness Montacute, an ancestor of  Richard Neville–Warwick the Kingmaker. Bright colours remain on the  tomb-chest even today–although the faces were all smashed off the carved weepers during the Reformation. The numerous weepers once depicted Elizabeth’s children.The remains of a chantry chapel with a painted vaulted ceiling extends from  the Baroness’tomb.

There is also the effigy of an enormous knight whose identity is not known for certain–it is given as Sir Henry de Bathe or Sir George Nowers,  a companion of the Black Prince who died in 1425. (It is more likely to be the latter. )Whoever it was, the armour detail is very fine and the skeleton within was about 6ft 8!

 

A WEEKEND IN A MEDIEVAL MANOR IN WALES

If you are looking for a pleasant medieval weekend away you could do worse than  staying at the manor house of St Pierre, near Chepstow in Wales. The deerpark may be a golf course now but there are still acres to walk, an ancient church,  and a handsome twin-towered gatehouse surrounded by a courtyard.

The church of St Peter retains some Saxon stonework but also Norman work, including a memorial slab in Norman French to one of the founding early members of the St Pierre family, Urien de SaInt Pierre, who died in 1239.

Sometimes around 1380, the manor came into the possession of Sir David Ap Phillip, who served under both Henry IV and Henry V. Henry must have trusted Sir David well, for not only did he make him governor of Calais,  it is said he hid the crown jewels at the manor house of St Pierre during his absence from England. Sir David had a son called Lewis, and the family decided from then on to adopt the name ‘Lewis’ as their surname.

Lewis, David Ap Phillip’s son, had a son called Thomas Lewis, who  was a supporter of the Yorkist cause. Unfortunately he was killed at the Battle of Edgecote in 1469.

A pleasant walk from the manor house will take you to  another interesting historical village called Mathern. It has a holy well sacred to the early king (and saint) Tewdric, who was supposed to have washed his battle wounds there before dying,  as well as a fine church where the king was buried in 630 (the present building is 15th c.). His stone coffin was apparently still visible in 1881, and local reported you could look in it and see his skull, complete with spear-wound.

Mathern also has the lived in (private) remains of a palace belonging to the Bishops of Llandaff. Some of the extant remains date to around 1419. There is also another ancient  house, Moynes Court, which is occasionally open to the public.  The present building is mostly from the 1600’s but has subsumed and earlier house and there are earthwork remains from what may have been a moated manor.

 

St Pierre and church

 

 

 

 

Does someone not understand science?

This blog suggests that the failure of Richard’s Y-chromosome to match that of the Dukes of Beaufort doesn’t make him a male line descendant of Edward III through the “illegitimacy” of Richard, Earl of Cambridge.

The issue it fails to address is this:
The inconsistent chromosome has several other, more likely explanations – that Richard III’s Y-chromosome has degraded, or that false paternity in the Beaufort-Somerset line is far more probable because the latter is much longer, as we explained here.

Furthermore, as pp. xii-xvi of Ashdown-Hill’s Cecily Neville explain, citing heraldic evidence, the “forked beard” portrait below, said to be of Richard Duke of York (with Cecily), as taken from Penrith church, is far more likely to be of his father-in-law Ralph Earl of Westmorland (with Joan Beaufort). That the portrait  doesn’t resemble Edward III is unsurprising because Westmorland’s most recent known royal ancestor was Ethelred II.

We have no DNA taken from Edward III to compare with Richard’s or the Beaufort family’s. Sorry to repeat ourselves, but if people repeat errors, we must do so.

 

ST OSWALD’S IN GLOUCESTER–A TOWER FOUND

The scanty arches of St Oswald’s Priory lie tucked in a Gloucester suburb  a few minutes walk  from  the cathedral. Once a place of great importance, it was the burial spot of Queen Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. She was a warrior-queen who fought the Vikings. Henry of Huntingdon wrote this about her–

Heroic Elflede! great in martial fame,A man in valour, woman though in name:Thee warlike hosts, thee, nature too obey’d,Conqu’ror o’er both, though born by sex a maid.Chang’d be thy name, such honour triumphs bring.A queen by title, but in deeds a king.Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail’d:Caesar himself to win such glory fail’d

Her husband Aethelred was also buried at St Oswald’s and it is though they were attempting to found a new royal Mercian vault after the destruction of the one at Repton by the Norse invaders.

Recently, on the anniversary of the Queen’s death, a re-enactment was held in Gloucester  with a funeral cortege bearing a ‘body’ arriving by water then passing through the town, past the cathedral and out to the priory.

As past of the commemorations, the local children were also asked to get involved with  the local archaeologists, and a hitherto unknown tower belonging to St Oswald’s appears to have been found.

Maybe futher excavation might also find the bones of this ancient Queen, although it seems most likely her remains and that of her husband and St Oswald himself were moved around in the 11/12c rebuildingof the priory, and then everything was destroyed in the Reformation, leaving little above ground

P1340192P1340164

 

CHILDREN FIND TOWER.

 

 

Developments at Sutton Hoo

This East Anglian Daily Times article reveals that Sutton Hoo, almost certainly the burial of Raedwald, the Wuffing King of East Anglia who was Richard III’s collateral ancestor, will be the subject of its first major dig for nearly thirty years.

A new viewing tower (left) will be installed during the process, between May 29th and June 2nd. Tranmer House, home of the late Edith Pretty will also be transformed, as the result of a substantial National Lottery Heritage Fund grant.

MYTH TO REALITY: VORTIGERN’S CAVE IN MARGATE

Margate is rightfully known for its famous, undatable Shell Grotto, which has been known as a folly, a Roman mithraeum and even a Phoenician temple.  However, FAR lesser known is another set of caverns, known as Vortigern’s cave. Probably dating between the 1600-s-1700’s, these caves have been closed on and off for several hundred years; the last time they were open was in the 1990’s (when I was lucky enough to visit them.) The wall paintings of redcoats and the  hunt were very well preserved colour-wise and quite unique. There were also an elephant and a crocodile.

The name Vortigern (meaning Great Lord) seems fanciful, being that of a semi-legendary ancient British king who supposedly gave the region of Thanet to his  son-in-law Hengist the Saxon. It was only applied to the caves in the later 1800’s when a new tenant of Northumberland House, through which the caves could be accessed,  decided to open the caves as a tourist attraction.

However, recent archaeological digs in anticipation of re-opening the caves in 2019, have shown that there was indeed a pre-Roman presence in the bumpy field overlying the cave site. In fact a rather imposing one–a large defensive ditch surrounded by postholes and pits filled by Iron Age pottery.  The Iron Age occupation appears to end with the advent of the Romans, implying that the locals were either annihilated or driven away.

Now this makes it far too late for Vortigern and his Saxon alliance (said to have taken place late in the 5th century) but it shows there probably WAS a powerful chieftain and tribal group dwelling on high ground near the shores at Margate in prehistory.

Link to article on  margatecaves excavations

 

caves

 

 

 

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