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THE LOST FONT OF MARLBOROUGH CASTLE

Marlborough is a quaint little town in Wiltshire. It has a rather famous College (once attended by Kate Middleton) but no buildings dating much before Tudor times other than two heavily restored churches. However, it used to have a castle, and a rather important one too.

The first castle was built by William the Conqueror in timber, and he raised it on Marlborough’s most famous landmark–a huge mound (sometimes called Merlin’s Mound) that stands in the middle of the college grounds. This mound is not the usual motte and bailey but in fact a neolithic mound that is a smaller ‘sister’ to nearby Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. Later the wooden castle was replaced by stone; it held out for King Stephen during the Anarchy. King John made many changes and repairs, having been presented  the castle while his brother, Richard Lionheart, was king. His second wife the infamous Isabella of Angouleme spent some time there and some of his children may have been born within its walls. It was  a strange arrangement–Isabella was under the care of Hugh de Neville, whose wife had been one of John’s many mistresses. After John died in the early 1200’s, political prisoner Eleanor of Brittany, whose claim to the throne equalled or surpassed that of Henry III, was kept there for a while before being shunted off to another stronghold. After Henry died, however, it became a Dower House, used by the Dowager Queen, Eleanor of Provence, and then was held by a series of Queen after her.

By 1370,  Marlborough was unused, and in ruins by 1403. Edward VI passed it to his relatives, the Seymours, who built a grand house that is now part of the College. All traces of the castle vanished, save for the mighty mound with had already stood for thousands of years before the Conqueror built his castle.

However there is a rumour that one item from the castle  survived–a huge ornate stone font which had come from the freestanding chapel of St Nicholas. Local legend says  several of King John’s children were  baptised in this font.

And sure enough about a mile away, a massive stone font sits, seeming slightly out of place, in  the tiny, remote church of St George at Preshute (an old name meaning Priest’s Hut.). It is an enormous block of polished black stone imported from Tournai, and would hardly be likely to have originally belonged to such a small, out of the way church. A few similar fonts of Tournai stone  do exist in England, but they are in much grander buildings that St George’s–including Worcester Cathedral.

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Marlborough castle Font

 

 

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Another clue to the mystery of the “Princes”?

On the left is Gipping Chapel in Suffolk, attached to the Tyrrell property of Gipping Hall. It is a traGippingChapeldition within the Tyrrell family that the “Princes”, the sons of Edward IV who were technically children, lived there during 1483-4 “with the permission of the mother”

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To the right is St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th Century Bishop who is the patron saint of children, inter alia. He survived Diocletian’s persecution to take office under Constantine and die of old age. Gipping Chapel was dedicated to him.

So what is he trying to tell us about them?

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

INSIDE THE MEDIEVAL MIND: THE WALL PAINTINGS OF NETHER WALLOP

In the small quaint Hampshire village of Nether Wallop, filming location for the BBC’s MISS MARPLE, stands St Andrew’s church, a medieval establishment built on Saxon foundations. From the exterior it looks rather ordinary (save for the strange funerary pyramid in its grounds!) but inside is a glory of wall-paintings dating from the Saxon era to the 15th century.

The Saxon paintings are of the Winchester School, usually only seen in illuminations, and are exceeding rare, unique in the country as being the only wall paintings of this date in situ. Angels frolic over the chancel arch, the survivors of a grander mural which culminated at the centre with Christ in Majesty. (Jesus has now vanished, unfortunately,  leaving just the angels on the sides of the arch.)

Along the rest of the church walls are further paintings from the early to mid-15th century, an eroded St Nicholas of Myrna and a wonderfully  vivid depicture of St George slaying a dragon to rescue the  Princess Cleodolinda. The dragon and George do battle below a tall tower, watched by a well preserved King and Queen, the King looking pleased at George’s prowess and the Queen slightly concerned!

Just down from them is a slightly patchy though very large  figure which gives an insight into medieval religious thought in the 1400’s. It depicts the legends of the Sabbath Breakers and the woes you will bring upon Christ and yourself if you do not rest on the Sabbath as God decreed! Christ’s leg is showed being wounded by an axe and a knife; there are also depictions of other tools of the trade from the 15thc including scales and a quern, among others less discernable.

All or some of the 15thc  wall paintings may have been comissioned by Mary or Maria Gore, an Abbess of Amesbury in Wiltshire. Her brass lies on the floor in the centre of the nave and is a rarity in itself–the only brass of an Abbess  still existing in England.

 

MISS MARPLE

 

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