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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

Was Sir Gawain’s head still displayed in Dover Castle in 1485….?

Arthur-Pyle_Sir_Gawaine_the_Son_of_Lot,_King_of_Orkney

One of the greatest of Arthur’s knights was Sir Gawain, hero of (among other legends) the tale of the Green Knight. There is some very interesting information about Gawain here:

Gawain and Green Knight

I always knew that the Welsh tradition has Gawain (Welsh – Gwalchmai) buried as follows:-

“The grave of Gwalchmai in Peryddon, as a disgrace to men, In Llanbadarn – the grave of Cynon.”

“[John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015]

“The location of Perrydon has caused much debate as it is the name of several rivers; first and foremost Perrydon may have been an alternative name for that great Welsh river the Dee. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions a ‘fluvium Perironis‘ which is rendered as Afon Perrydon in early Welsh translations. The early 12th century Book of Llandaf references a charter which locates Aber Periron in the area of Rockfield near Monmouth, Geoffrey’s home town, where the stream known as Nant Gwern joins the Monnow. This is probably the same Aber Peryddon recorded in the 10th century prophesy Armes Prydain, which was crossed on the journey into Wales.

“Peryddon may also have been an early name for the stream at Sandyhaven Pill in Rhos, Pembrokeshire which runs down from Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn’s Castle) into the estuary at Milford Haven. William of Malmesbury confirms that his grave was discovered in Ros in the late 11th century: “At that time [1087], in a province of Wales called Ros [Rhos] was found the sepulchre of Walwin, the noble nephew of Arthur…..He deservedly shared, with his uncle, the praise of retarding, for many years, the calamity of his failing country. The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come. But the tomb of the other [i.e. Walwin], as I have suggested was found in the time of King William, on the sea coast, fourteen feet long….” – [John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015] “Walwin is the Latin rendering of Gwalchmai. Rhos in Pembrokeshire is probably a reference to St. Govan’s Chapel with whom Gawain is often confused. Saint Govan was a 6th century hermit who lived in a fissure on the side of a cliff near Bosherston, just along on the Pembrokeshire coast from Milford Haven. . .”

St Govans chapel

Confused? It’s not surprising when so many languages render the same name in vastly different spellings.

Anyway, regarding Gawain/Gwalchmai/Walwyn/Walwin, what I did not know is that he is also supposed to have been buried in a chapel in Dover Castle, where (according to Malory) his head and mantle were on display for some time:-

“And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawaine yielded up the spirit; and then the king let inter him in a chapel within Dover Castle; and there yet all men may see the skull of him, and the same wound is seen that Sir Launcelot gave him in battle.”  [Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, Book  XXI, Chapter 2. Published by Caxton in 1485]

According to clasmerdin’s blog, “Malory also describes Gawain’s burial at Dover, the hero is interred in a chapel at the castle, and he claims that the skull still showed evidence of the head wound. The medieval castle at Dover has two chapels, no one is sure in which Gawain is supposed to be buried, although some favour the lower chapel. All we can say with any certainty is that from Caxton’s ‘Preface‘ we can only assume a skull was on display at Dover castle, and had been for over a century, and that in his day it was popularly believed to be that of Gawain.”

I only happened upon any of this because I was doing some research which led me to The Journey of Viscount Ramon de Perellós to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. This journey to Ireland commenced in September 1397. See here

 

A century before Malory, according to Ramon de Perellós:-

“The Earl of March [23-year-old Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl, who was Lieutenant of Ireland and had received the viscount on his arrival in Ireland] had gone to England and leaving there we arrived at Dublin  where we embarked to cross to England. And in that city I was most honorably received by the noblemen and clergy. And out of there I crossed the sea and we arrived Wales before a harbor called Holyhead and thence by daily stages we arrived in England, where I found the king [Richard II] in a town called Chester where there is a most beautiful abbey of Benedictine monks where the king was staying; the queen [Isabella of Valois, Richard’s second queen] was also there and I was notably received. And from there by daily stages I crossed the island of England and passing through London I reached the port of Dover where I saw Sir Gawain’s head — for here he died — and also La Cote Mal Taillée for the knight who wore it was so called. And they kept this in the castle for their great chivalry. And there I embarked and crossed to Calais. . .”

 

So, where was Gawain actually buried? And what happened to the head and mantle at Dover Castle? How long had they been there? If not Gawain’s, whose were they?

And, of course, was there ever a Sir Gawain in the first place? That is something we might never know. Or prove.

Footnote: I have been unable to pinpoint exact when Ramon de Perellós was in Ireland/Chester/Dover. The given date of September 1397 seems specific, and yet according to my research, Richard II did not visit Chester at all in 1397, let alone in September. Richard was in Shrewsbury in January/February 1398, but even then I cannot find that he also went to Chester. Even if he had been there in the September of 1398, the date would not work because Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March had been killed in Ireland in the July. De Perellós would surely have recorded this, and yet he speaks of Mortimer as very much living. Richard was in Chester in 1387 and again in early 1399. If he went there in between those dates, I have not come across a reference.

De Perellós states that Roger Mortimer had returned to England when he, de Perellós, arrived in Ireland. According to Saul, Mortimer was in England for the first half of 1397. He returned to Ireland before the end of July 1397, and then visited England again in January 1398. So Mortimer might indeed have met Ramon de Perellós in September 1397, in Ireland. But that still leaves the impossibility of meeting Richard and Queen Isabella in Chester in that same year. They simply did not go to Chester at all. According to Saul, the furthest north Richard travelled in 1397 was Nottingham. In September he was in Westminster and Kingston-upon-Thames. Very definitely nowhere near Chester.

So, either de Perellós is wrong about the date, or about it having been Chester, which does indeed have the lovely Benedictine abbey—now Chester Cathedral—to which de Perellós refers and where Richard did indeed stay when visiting the town.

If my reasoning for all this is flawed, please tell me. It has no impact anyway upon the story of Gawain’s head being at Dover. I am just curious about where and when the meeting with Richard and his queen actually took place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where did the Tudors come from….?

HENRY AND MODEL OF OLD LONDON BRIDGE

For those of us who may wish to know where the name Tudor comes from, here’s a thorough explanation.

 

Ancient Ratae, City on the Soar

In the second century BC, in a Britain still filled with wild boar, beaver, lynx, bears and wolves, a group of people settled  near to the River Soar. The descendants of Bronze Age peoples and Neolithic farmers, they built a series of huts on the east bank of the river, their settlement extending across some twenty acres. They called themselves the Corieltauvi; the closest translation of their name would be the ‘army of the land of many rivers.’ The exact  name of their settlement is unknown but it contains a Celtic root word similar to ‘rath’, meaning (approximately)  ‘ramparts’, which can be found in many Irish place names today. This humble Iron Age settlement is the origin of modern day Leicester.

Roman  interest in this area of Britain began when they realised it was a place of strategic value; and so it became an intersection of the Fosse Way and Gartree Street. There might have been some opposition from the local Corieltauvi, but the tribesmen proved no match for the might of Rome; a fort or base was soon established on the banks of the Soar for the Legion XIV.  Quite simple in plan and  housing approx 500 men,  the fort was surrounded by a ditch and rampart; it retained the name of the ancient British settlement but in a new, Larinised form–Ratae.

The new fort brought  much  trade to the area and a small civilian settlement quickly sprang up. A few years later a second fort was constructed nearby—it is thought this defensive structure may have been built in response to Boudicca’s revolt. However, the brave British Queen’s chariots never rolled up to Ratae’s earthen ramparts.

About 30 years later, most of the Legions were recalled from Britain and the forts on the Soar handed over to civilians,  although they were remained part of the Roman Empire. Ratae became an important  tribal administrative capital.

Emperor Hadrian’s visit to the town in 122 AD seems to have  sparked a new rebuilding phase. Outmoded wooden structures were dismantled and local granite and millstone grit from Derbyshire brought to build a forum, basilica and colonnades. A few decades later, a public bath house was constructed—today its remains are known as the Jewry Wall, Britain’s largest free-standing piece of  Roman architecture. Water for the baths came to the site from Knighton Brook via an aqueduct. Some of the earthworks surrounding the water channel still survive and are known as Raw Dykes (the word ‘Raw’ has the same origin as Rath/Ratae.)

At this time in Ratae’s history, the local population grew quite wealthy. Townhouses appeared with opulent mosaics, painted walls, heating and bathing facilities. A stone wall was built around the perimeter of the settlement, for added security for the residents of the town.

Temples to the varying gods  were built too, one being found near St Nicholas’ Church, which today retains much brickwork pilfered from the ancient Roman building. This temple was dedicated to Mithras, the bull-slaying god who was born on December 25 and whose cult was seen as a rival to Christianity.  He was a Persian ‘import’ and his all-male accolytes often held their rites in a secret underground chamber known as a Mithraeum. Other evidence has been found of British bull-gods, spear carrying sons of Zeus, and sea-gods.  Of great interest is the curse tablet discovered, in which a native British God, Maglus (‘Prince/princely’) is invoked for help in bringing about the destruction of a thief : “To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Roimandus … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus …”

By the 5th century, however, Ratae was in serious decline as the legions pulled out from Britain and Angles and  Saxons began to migrate from their homelands to settle in what is now England . Soon, the town was in ruins, abandoned and decaying . The famous Anglo Saxon poem THE RUIN speaks of the abandoned Roman townsThis masonry is wondrous; Fate broke it.
Courtyard pavements lie smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate is ravaged,
chipped roofs torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen…

The Roman Era of Ratae was over with Rome’s withdrawal from Brittania; the early Middle Ages had begun. After the Romans departed the  native Britons called the place, in their own tongue,  Caer Lerion or Caerlyr; the Saxons called it Ligora-ceastre, which by Domesday became Ledecestre, and then Leicester. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed the town’s founder was King Leir (Leir-caister), and the prefix of this name may take its origins from a Celtic water deity known as Llyr.

Today, the remains of Roman buildings and artefacts  still frequently are excavated in Leicester. Some recent finds near High Cross have been of considerable importance.

The prevalence of these remains in the city is shown by the fact that when Richard III’s remains were recovered from the ruins of Greyfriars, it was initially thought he had an arrowhead embedded in his spine. As it turned out, the ‘arrowhead’ was a stray Roman nail that happened to have ended up under his body when the monks dug a hasty grave to hold him.

It is also interesting to realise that the last Plantagenet King now rests in a brick lined vault above the remains of one of Leicester’s Roman temples,  its scant  foundations discovered when restoration was made on  St Martin’s church in the late 1800’s.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-39738436

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2318880/Is-left-park-Leicester-Roman-cemetery-archaeological-dig-ANOTHER-car-park-city.htmlhttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2318880/Is-left-park-Leicester-Roman-cemetery-archaeological-dig-ANOTHER-car-park-city.html

https://phys.org/news/2016-07-rare-discovery-late-roman-leicester.html

Roman Leicester artists impression

curse

Gloves? Or bare hands….?

enforcer

BBC TWO: Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, information concerning which will be found here.

This programme is very interesting, and I recommend it, but it’s not the content that has prompted me to write this, rather the treatment of an ancient copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain”.

I have commented before that some ancient books and papers are treated as if they will shatter if someone breathes upon them, while others – in this case a really old copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth – are almost manhandled. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford, was, I thought, rather enthusiastically bare-handed with the precious pages.

Why no white gloves and bated breath? What, exactly, makes the difference between gloves and no gloves? It seems to me that not so long ago, they were worn every time. But not now.

Aha, puzzle no more. The British Library has already answered my question here! So many apologies to the good professor!

 

white-glove

 

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