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Edward III, slanting eyes and the legend of Melusine…

Melusine

These days, any mention of Melusine might conjure thoughts of Jacquetta of Luxemburg, Elizabeth Woodville, witchcraft and the like. But the story of Melusine was around before then.

On browsing through John Gardner’s Life and Times of Chaucer, I came upon the following anecdote, which begins with Gardner’s rather precise description of Edward himself:

“He was a handsome, fair man with a curly brown beard, gentle eyes and mouth, the eyes just perceptibly slanted like the eyes of all his sons. He was no ordinary mortal, one could see at a glance, and he liked to support the impression with a story…

“…Some hour hundred years ago, Edward III told his friends, the founder of his line, Count Fulke the Black, ruler of Anjou [Fulke III, 970–1040, ancestor of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou] traveled to a distant land and returned with a bride whose beauty was unsurpassed in all the world. The four children she bore him were brilliant and handsome, like all Plantagenet sons and daughters after them, but they carried also a darker heritage. She kept it secret for many years, living a life more secluded than a nun’s. Then one day the count demanded that his wife accompany him to Mass, a thing she’d repeatedly refused to do. She did so this time, pale and trembling. When the priest raised the Host, the countess let out an unearthly shriek, rose into the air, flew out of the chapel window, and was never seen again. The truth was out. She was Melusine, daughter of the Devil!…

“…By the time Chaucer knew him, Edward III at least half believed the story…”

Fulke the Black of Anjou

Fulke III (the Black) Count of Anjou 970–1040

A quick look on the internet soon reveals this story to be widespread, although not necessarily in connection with Edward. Our House of Plantagenet was descended from the children Melusine left behind. Or so Edward III apparently believed.

Two things arouse my interest. Firstly that Edward liked to repeat the devilish tale to his friends, and secondly that he and his sons had perceptibly slanting eyes. Are we to think the eyes came from the Devil, via Melusine? I for one have never heard of this trait in Edward and his sons. Has anyone else? Although, on reflection, there is one monarch who fits this bill, Edward’s grandson, Richard II.

Gilt-Bronze Tomb Effigy of Richard II, Westminster Abbey

 

 

 

 

 

The monstrous toad of Berkeley Castle….

ks_toad_watermarked_by_kbs_art-dakzhly

The toad in question is a well-known story of Berkeley Castle, although I had not heard it before. However, the thought of such a creature being connected to the reign of Henry VII is just too irresistible for the Ricardian in me. So here it is, as taken from Berkeley, A Town in the Marshes, by David Tandy.

“It is written, ‘out of which dungeon,1 in this place of a deepe broad well goinge steepely downe in the midst of the dungeon chamber in the said keepe, was (as tradition tells) drawne forth a Toad in the time of king Henry the seventh (1485-1509) of incredible bignes, which in deepe dry duft in the bottom thereof had doubtlesse lived there divers hundreds of years.’

  • 1John Smyth of Nibley (1567-1641) The Berkeley Manuscripts: Lives of the Berkeleys. J. Mclean (ed). TBGAS 1883.

“Smyth, by talking to many elderly people in his time, had obtained this account. He said he saw a drawing in colour upon the wall of the great hall [of the castle] and on the side of the porch leading into the hall. But this drawing was, as he put it, ‘Washed out or outworne at that time’. 

“As to the size of this toad, it was said to be in breadth over a foot neere to sixteen inches and in length, more. Having been fed over its life time on flesh and garbage from the butchers, it was said to fill a peck basket, some said a bushel basket. Smyth finished this account with the words ‘But this is all the trueth I knowe, or dare believe’. 

“There is a carving of a toad in the church, high up on one of the columns, this toad is situated above two gossiping women. It’s suggested it is a medieval warning against gossip and false rumour.”

There is another such carving in the local church of St Mary’s, see below.

Berkeley Toad - corbel in St Mary's Church

Great Hall at Berkeley Castle

There is more about this monstrous toad here.

Unicorn, Unicorn! Wherefore art thou Unicorn….?

Lady_and_the_unicorn_Sight

Unicorns do not exist. They never have. Well, that is the general consensus. They are mythical beasts, along with the dragon, centaur, phoenix and so on, but in the medieval period the unicorn was believed in. It was thought that to hunt the unicorn was perhaps the greatest hunt of all, surpassing even the white hart. How disappointing it would have been if such a wondrous creature was really only the rhinoceros. As to the numerous superstitious mentions of using unicorn horn to protect from poison and so on, it seems we can be fairly sure that the horn in question was actually that of the narwhal.

There are seven references to the unicorn in the Bible, which tell of the creature being powerful, dangerous, impossible to tame and worthy of respect, but its physical appearance is never mentioned. It is in the Physiologus, an early book of animal stories, which may have been written by a 2nd-century Christian, that a description appears:

“Unicornis the unicorn, which is also called Rhinoceros by the Greeks, is of the following nature. He is a very small animal like a kid, excessively swift, with one horn in the middle of his forehead, and no hunter can catch him. But he can be trapped by the following stratagem. A virgin girl is led to where he lurks, and there she is sent off by herself into the wood. He soon leaps into her lap when he sees her, and embraces her, and hence gets caught.”

So, the Greeks called the unicorn a rhinoceros, but he certainly wasn’t a rhino as we know them now. He sounds more like a small, one-horned goat. Which is not how we imagine rhinos or unicorns. To us, the unicorn is a beautiful white horse, slender and magnificent, with that graceful all-important horn. In the medieval period, he was definitely depicted as a goatlike creature that paid dearly for trusting virgins.

The Unicorn Defends Itself - Cloisters Museum - 1495-1505

Above, in “The Unicorn Defends Itself “(Cloisters Museum), 1495-1505, the unicorn is beginning to resemble a horse, albeit still with cloven hooves and a goat’s beard. He cannot be brought down by spears and arrows alone; it requires hounds to finish him off. And before he succumbs, he finishes off one of the hounds with his deadly horn.

Virgin Mary and unicorn

The story of the unicorn being irresistibly drawn to maidens was widespread, and there are countless illustrations, first with young girls, but gradually with the Virgin Mary, which became awkward for the Church, leading to the Council of Trent (1545-63) drawing up strict guidelines. The unicorn had fallen foul of the rules, and thus fell out of favour too. But it is all imagination, because the unicorn did not exist. Did it?

heraldic unicorn

To learn much more, I recommend an excellent book entitled The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers, which traces the evolution of the unicorn legend and its allegorical symbolism.

 

 

 

The elusive last Norman

Although Richard was found in Leicester five years ago, exactly where he was buried, and Henry I is close to being identified in Reading, Kingfinding is not always successful. As this blog shows, the 1965 excavation of the Faversham Abbey site to find King Stephen was unsuccessful.

It seems that his bones really were moved during the Reformation. Sometimes, there is truth in such a legend.

Wayland Smith …..

baby_13

Note lack of beech trees

now too many trees

Smithy before so-called restoration

waylandslate19thcenturyOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As you can see above, the colour photograph shows Wayland’s Smithy as it is now, whereas the others show it before it was ‘restored’ in 1962/3.

Wayland Smith . . .

No, not a real man, a character from a book or anything else of an organic nature. Wayland Smith is the name by which the prehistoric monument now called Wayland’s Smithy used to be known. It still means the same, of course, the smith/smithy of Wayland (a Norse smith god). But it looks odd to modern eyes.

Recent research for a novel has led me to investigate this famous site on the Downs of Oxfordshire (although the area was in Berkshire until the moving of county boundaries by the Local Government Act of 1972). Two of the characters I am writing about lived at the foot of the Downs escarpment, directly below Wayland’s Smithy, and so I thought I might be able to introduce the monument to the story.

Wayland’s Smithy stands on the Ridgeway, an ancient track way that led from The Wash in Norfolk to the coast of Dorset, and has been in use for at least 5,000 years. Eerie, isolated and sheltering behind a screen of tall beech trees, it presents a sight that is mysterious to our 21st-century eyes, and probably to those of long-past centuries as well. Built in two phases, the second on top of the first, it has a long mound over 40 metres wide, stretching back for more than 50 metres. There were once six great upright sarsen stones, three on either side of the entrance, but now there are only four sarsens left. No one knows what happened to the other two. The remaining four had collapsed over the centuries, and were re-erected when the barrow was investigated, renovated and rebuilt in its present form in the early 1960s.

Before then, moss-covered and half-buried (see the pictures above), the great stones were a shadow of their former selves, sometimes apparently surrounded by beech trees (as now) but at other times open to the exposed scenery all around. Whether there were trees originally, I do not know, but the yawning entrance—the ‘cave’—was visible before and after restoration, and much is known about what lay inside, burials, artefacts and so on. The purpose of the barrow is not known for certain, but it was probably simply a burial site. But was that all? And who was buried there?

Everyone knows the legend of Wayland’s Smithy, that if a lonely traveller should be troubled by his horse casting a shoe, he should take it to the Smithy and leave it there, with a silver coin. When he returned in an hour he would find the horse newly shod by the smith god. A charming story, but totally untrue of course. And now it is believed by some that the Smithy had nothing to do with Wayland at all, but much more to do with Woden, the deity more famous to us now as Odin in Norse mythology. Woden was the name and form he took in Britain, and he was a very important god indeed to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons. He was believed to lead the Wild Hunt through the skies at night…

Wayland’s Smithy still exerts a power over us, a mysterious link to the pagan past, and no one who goes there today would be unaware of this. The atmosphere reaches out and settles around the walker or sightseer. Do they all shiver a little? Or simply put on a brave face and refuse to think about old gods and the primitive past from which we have all descended? How long ago was Wayland’s Smithy finally abandoned by pagans? If, indeed, it has been abandoned at all.

My research centred upon the 15th century, of course, but I have not been able to find out what condition the Smithy was in then. Were all six sarsens still there? Was it lost among trees and bushes? Did it stand starkly on the edge of the escarpment? Was it dreaded by those who hurried past along the Ridgeway? Would anyone dare to go near it on the night of a full moon? At Hallowtide? At midnight, or at dawn? Might Woden and the Wild Hunt come after them? It must have instilled fear in medieval people, who were so dependent on and influenced by the Church.

So, what would my characters have felt and thought about Wayland Smith, as it was in their time?

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