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Leprechauns were named by the Romans….?

There is a new dictionary of the medieval Irish language, contained in 23 volumes, see here. That’s a LOT of words! But one affects me more than all the others. It seems that “leprechaun” is not native Irish. It’s Roman. Oh, no. I wish they hadn’t discovered this, because as far as I’m concerned, leprechauns are Irish through and through!

To read more, go here.


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






Was Henry VII always so clever….?

drawing of young Henry VIIYet again, I tell you the old story of looking for one thing and happening on something else. This time an article that questions the ultimate effectiveness of Henry VII’s reign. Well, rather it raises questions that historians don’t seem to have asked before now. It is well worth reading, especially as there are links to other articles for those who follow our period.



Amidst the spreading Oaks of the New Forest stands a solitary stone, once ten foot high with a ball on top, now truncated and protected from vandals.  Known as the Rufus Stone, it is the memorial to a slain king, William II, one of England’s most mysterious and little known Norman Kings.

On the stone, which only dates from the reign of Charles II and is not sited where the event it commemorates actually happened, is an inscription:

Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100.
King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church, of that city.

  William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, is one of those historical figures who has attracted lots of mythology but about whom little is actually known. Due to his nickname, frequently he is described in modern writings as  red-headed, but in the medieval Malmesbury Chronicle, he is said to be ‘yellow haired’ with a very red face that grew more florid when enraged.

It is claimed William was cruel and unpopular, but there is little written evidence of what his cruelty exactly consisted of. He did implement high taxation, treating his English subjects with disdain, but his main folly seemed to be in defying and even ridiculing the Church. (The Anglo Saxon Chronicle  said he was ‘abhorrent to God’.) The Church loathed him, and the clerics of the day spoke peevishly of his possible sodomy (he never married, nor had any known illegitimate children), his dissolute court and the fact he wore his hair nearly as long as a woman’s as well as enormously extended pointy shoes!

Despite his unpopularity, Rufus was a capable soldier, making forays into Scotland and putting down a serious revolt in Northumberland.

It is  his unusual death however, for which he which is best remembered , and here the folklore has grown and flourished most. On August 2, the day after the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasad, Christianised  as Lammas, William was out hunting in the forest with his brother Henry, a lord called William Tirel/Tyrell/Tyrrell and others of his entourage. Apparently, the night before he had been gripped by evil dreams in which he had been kicked by an angry cross, and this put him in an evil mood. As the party spotted a stag amidst the trees, he turned to Tirel, the best archer in the party and shouted, “Shoot, in the name of God, shoot!”

Tirel shot and the arrow struck not the  deer but the king, entering his lung. He tried to draw it out but collapsed, falling on the shaft and driving the arrow in deeper.

No one helped the dying king. Tirel immediately spurred his horse onwards and fled for France. The King’s brother Henry, not bothering with any niceties for the newly deceased King’s body, rushed for the nearby city of Winchester where he seized the treasury, then promptly rode to London where he claimed the crown before his other brother, Robert Curthose, who was away on the First Crusade, could hear of William’s demise.

It was, reportedly, two humble peasants who recovered William’s corpse, dumping it unceremoniously into a cart and carrying it to Winchester, with blood dripping through the cart-slats all the way along the road. In the great cathedral, Rufus was hastily buried in a plain chest tomb ( and some bones believed to be his still remain there, although the skull is missing.)

The Church of the day believed God had stricken down William for his wickedness, but later historians began to speak of murder and a potential plot to remove him from the throne. Henry was definitely present at the death and certainly had the most to gain; his actions when the King was stricken down were also not exactly those of a loving brother. Tirel was said to be an excellent archer and most unlikely to have missed his target in such a disastrous manner.

In the earlier 20th century the story was given another twist—anthropologist Margaret Murray wrote about  Rufus being a pagan who was sacrificed in an ancient Lammas harvest rite because he was ‘infertile’ and hence would bring famine and plague to England. (The chroniclers  did in fact say that in Rufus’ reign,  “thunders terrifying the earth, lightnings and thunderbolts most frequent, deluging showers without number, winds of the most astonishing violence, and whirlwinds that shook the towers of churches and levelled them with the ground.

As ‘proof’ Murray  pointed to the auspicious date of death at Lammas  and to  the fact another young royal relative had died in an identical manner earlier  that year…on May 2, the day after old Beltaine. She thought of this earlier death as a ‘proxy’ for the king himself, but when England did not flourish after  the substitute was sacrificed, Rufus himself had to die. The peasants who allowed Rufus’ blood to flow onto the earth on the journey to Winchester were also seen as continuing some sort of  ancientritual practice.

Pretty wild, unlikely stuff, intriguing though it is.

So Henry became Henry I and Tirel in France remained free and unpunished.  Who killed Rufus, and whether it was an accident or murder (ritual or  otherwise) remains another unsolved medieval mystery (although I would personally  put my money on Henry.) As for Tirel’s involvement, his name was in fact not immediately associated with the death; the Anglo Saxon Chronicle  just says the King was  ‘shot by one of his own men.’ Tirel’s name only appears in later writing, although he does seem to have fled England (and his daughter Adeliza was married to one of the men Henry took with him when he seized the treasury.)

It is a slightly strange and interesting coincidence that this surname for a possible ‘King killer’ is so similar to that of James Tyrell/Tyrrell who has been accused of overseeing the deaths of Edward V and his brother Richard of York in the Tower 383 years later, another figure obscured by time and by later mythologising.



Edward’s Pants

Pie chart of causes of problems in greek Mythology

I saw the above on Facebook today and something rang a bell in my head, so I had a little fun in Paint and came up with this:

Pie chart of casuse of Downfall of House of York

A Lesson in Lecturing

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a talk by the historian John Ashdown-Hill on the search for the mortal remains of Richard III. I had not heard him speak before and wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. I have read several of his books and found them informative and interesting so I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed.

He has an informal approach which includes asking the audience questions, which really breaks the ice. But I was especially interested in his methods, since I am scheduled to give a talk about Richard III this week. He was knowledgeable and humorous, and incredibly patient when he was asked the usual ‘What about the princes in the Tower?’ question. He explained that, actually, the princes were legally seen as illegitimate and therefore were not princes at all, and that they were unlikely to have lived together for most of their lives. He had already explained about Eleanor Talbot and Titulus Regius. He also touched on some of the legends that have grown up about Richard III – that his bones were thrown into the river Soar, that he was a hunchback, that he was a usurper; he explained all these very clearly for a ‘lay’ audience, I’m sure laying to rest these myths for the attendees of the lecture. He also explained in detail what actually went on when they started digging and some of the coincidences that occurred. I noticed that he spoke in a very unhurried way – that might be difficult for my talk as I only have an hour and I have a LOT to fit in!

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing an experienced speaker at work and got to have a short chat with him afterwards, when he signed my copy of his book ‘The Mythology of Richard III’. He is a very learned and educated man with such a lot of knowledge. It was a real privilege to meet him at last.

Sir Ralph Assheton: Violent Despot or Figure of Folklore?

Sir Ralph Assheton was a nobleman listed as being close to Richard III during his short reign; some say he was even a personal friend. Over 30 years older than Richard, he had long served Edward IV, including as High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and was knighted after the Seige of Berwick. When Edward died and Richard took the throne, Sir Ralph was rewarded with many lands for his loyalty to the Yorkist cause and then given the office of Vice-Constable of the Tower.
Unfortunately, Sir Ralph has a rather evil reputation in the town of Ashton-Under-Lyne, his humiliation and death supposedly being re-enacted in the ceremony called ‘Riding the Black Lad’ or Black Knight which took place from an unknown date into the 1950’s (it died out, was revived in the 1990’s, but has apparently died out again…but there is/was an impressive statue.)
But like Richard, is Ralph’s ‘bad press’ deserved? What did Sir Ralph do, and what was his fate in the end?
Ralph’s cruelty was supposedly aroused through his abhorrence of seeing marigolds growing in the crops. He would ride through the fields in his black armour alongside his brother Robert, wresting hefty fines from unwilling peasants and, so legend goes, making an example of an innocent or two by rolling them down hills in barrels full of lethal spikes. This latter torture has the distinct ring of folklore (ie ‘the Goose Girl’ with its barrel of spikes) and gruesome Victoriana, and certainly there is no hard evidence he ever committed such an overt crime…This would have been such an extreme measure that it certainly would not have remained known only to a local region. Surely, Assheton’s infamy would have spread countrywide, as did the brutality of John Tiptoft, the Earl of Worcester, who also held high positions in the reign of Edward IV.
However, the ‘marigold’ clearing just might have some truth in it, as a reference to the removal of these plants as an important part of ground maintenance and husbandry, is also found from the reign of Alexander II of Scotland. Sir Ralph may merely have had to play the ‘heavy’ with uncaring villagers who were not practicing proper management of his lands…this does not of course mean he was unlawfully killing people.
Assheton’s personal ‘black legend’ goes on to include a rhyme about Ralph and his tenure as Vice Constable of the Tower:
Sweet Jesu, for thy mercy’s sake
And for thy bitter passion,
Save us from the axe of the Tower,
And from Sir Ralph of Ashton

Again, this poem is undated and does not have the form or sound of a genuine medieval verse. No contemporary record exists of Assheton being unduly harsh during his tenure at the Tower. Indeed, there were no wholesale executions at the Tower during Richard’s reign, the only one of note being Hastings—certainly none that would affect the common folk of Ashton-Under-Lyne. It is to be wondered if, over the intervening years and the subsequent continuous blackening of Richard’s reputation, that Sir Ralph’s character has been tarred with the same brush, and perhaps been confused or blended with that of John Tiptoft, who also served Edward, and was known and despised for practices such as impalement and dismemberment.
The last part of Assheton’s legend says that one day the angry villagers rose up against him and killed him by shooting him with an arrow. Sir Ralph died around1486, having survived Bosworth, and there is no authentic, verified record of how he died. The murder of a noble by disgruntled peasants would surely be of note in the chronicles of the time, as was the death of Percy at the hands of the lynch mob, but there is no such reference to Ralph Assheton’s demise. His place of burial is unknown; it may be at the church at Middleton, near Ashton, where there is an Assheton Chapel.
Several other references exist as to the possible meaning of the Riding the Black Lad pageant. It may have nothing to do with the supposed cruelty of Sir Ralph at all! One theory is that the Ride was originally dedicated to a Thomas Ashton, who captured the Royal Standard from the Scottish king in the reign of Edward III, and that the procession was held in his honour (looking at sources from the 1800’s, it seems like the ragged straw figure meant to represent Ralph, and the hurling of mud and missiles were late and rather unwelcome additions to the pageant.)
It has also been suggested that the whole story may be in part, or in entirety, mythic and folkloric. The golden marigolds represent spring and the sun, the Black Knight coldness and winter, or the dying Winter Solstice sun. The Knight’s power is broken by being killed by an arrow or dart, much in the manner of the Norse God Baldur.

Sources:British History Online, Middletonia. An Historical Account of Ashton Under Lyne by Edwin Butterworth

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