Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 18 September 2020

The Accession of Philip Augustus

It was on this day in 1180 that the fifteen year old King Philip II ascended the French throne on the death of his father King Louis VII. 

The Wikipedia life of him can be seen at Philip II of France

Born in 1165 his birth to the aging King Louis and his third wife was seen as the heaven sent gift of a male heir to secure the house of Capet and led to great rejoicing in Paris. He was described as Dieudonne, rather as King Louis XIV was to be almost five centuries later.

On November 1 1179 he was crowned as junior King - the last French monarch to be so anointed in his father’s lifetime - at Reims. As the Wikipedia life recounts his near fatal illness sent the ailing King Louis VII on pilgrimage to Canterbury to seek the intercession of St Thomas, and despite its seeming success the strain precipitated the ailing King’s demise.

King Philip II is undoubtably one of the greatest of all Kings of France. The chronicler Rigord described him as Augustus - an instance of classicising in the era of the twelfth century renaissance - and the name has stuck. The  French still see him as one of their rulers who made France the state it had become - a unity centred on rule from Paris, a consolidator of territory and authority. From 1190 he became the first monarch to use the title King of France  rather than of the Franks, although the former did not become exclusively normative until the sixteenth century.

The King’s territorial gains speak for themselves:
                       Image: Wikipedia 

To the English of course he has the image as the bad guy, the man who broke up the Angevin Empire from 1204, the opponent of three successive English kings. He had a huge impact on the history of England - more than any other King of France, or anyone else who has usurped their authority.

Tenacious and ambitious but prudent he exploited his opponents’ weaknesses, and was blessed on occasion with good fortune as at the battle of Bouvines in 1214. 

Jim Bradbury wrote an excellent and readable biography of him in 1997, filling a major gap for the Anglophone world in Philip Augustus King of France 1180-1223

Sceau de Philippe Auguste. - Archives Nationales - SC-D157.jpg

The Seal of King Philip II

Regrettably nocontemporary portrait of the King exists other than his seal is known to exist. Wikipedia does quote this description of him
“ a handsome, strapping fellow, bald but with a cheerful face of ruddy complexion, and a temperament much inclined towards good-living, wine, and women. He was generous to his friends, stingy towards those who displeased him, well-versed in the art of stratagem, orthodox in belief, prudent and stubborn in his resolves. He made judgements with great speed and exactitude. Fortune's favorite, fearful for his life, easily excited and easily placated, he was very tough with powerful men who resisted him, and took pleasure in provoking discord among them. Never, however, did he cause an adversary to die in prison. He liked to employ humble men, to be the subduer of the proud, the defender of the Church, and feeder of the poor"

His grandson St Louis, born in 1214, recalled his grandfather telling him to be loyal to the Church, advice he followed as King Louis IX. Bradbury corrects a misapprehension that he had only the sight of one eye and does add one possible point as to his appearance - the King’s son Philip ‘Hurepel’ acquired his nickname from having a shock of blond or auburn hair, and Bradbury suggests that King Philip may have been similar as a young man.

For those who glean their knowledge of the past from modern stage and screen the young Capetian King is one of the roles in “The Lion in Winter.” It is entertaining  but, surprise surprise for such a drama, historically inaccurate  - a twelfth century version of “Dallas”

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The legend - and reality - of Cantre’r Gwaelod

The legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the Lost Hundred, of Wales May not be that well known outside the Principality. The story is of a once fertile area submerged by the waters of Cardigan Bay in the sixth century - a prime time for the emergence of Welsh legends - but recorded in folk memory.

As an online article in the MailOnline the other day shows the story is not without foundation, or rather, roots. Recent storms have uncovered even more of the tree stumps that are to be found along parts of the southerly coast of the Bay, and which can now he seem to extend much further than hitherto thought. Their origin is much older than the legend would suggest, and they are thought to date back 4,500 years rather than a mere 1,500. 

That said it is I suppose just - just - possible that a folk memory could last that long, but it may be that past generations, seeing such exposed tree stumps, realised what had happened and assigned it to that era of myth and calamities for the region in the time of Maelgwyn Gwynedd and indeed King Arthur. It seems to mix stories of a pagan priestess, who turned out to be a negligent keeper of a sacred well and the standard story for areas affected by inundation and erosion of hearing the submerged church bells ringing.

The article, with photographs and an account of the legend can be seen at Storm Francis uncovers more of the mythical 'Sunken Kingdom' of Wales

Viking genes

Before we leave the Vikings here are two recent posts about the genetics and ethnic mix of those we know as Vikings.

This research, based on examination of Viking burials across a wide area, shows that these were not all Scandinavian or not entirely so. Some were apparently Pictish, others had Mediterranean or Asiatic ancestry. Being a Viking - the term means raider or voyager as I recall - was a ‘lifestyle choice’ rather than a matter of ethnicity or long-established group identity. If you felt like joining up, and presumably were accepted, well off you went raiding and pillaging, but also trading and colonising.

The MailOnline has Not all 'Vikings' were Scandinavian - some were Picts and the Guardian website has perhaps more discussion at Dark hair was common among Vikings, genetic study confirms

Another winter, another camp...the Great Army moves on

Following on from my last post,  Downtime with the Vikings at TorkseyI coincidentally came across an online article published last year about the Great Army’s next winter camp. In 873-4 they are recorded as overwintering at Repton in Derbyshire. Like Torksey this is on the Trent and in an area that became part of the Danelaw - Derby was to be one of the Five Boroughs. Repton itself had been one of the great centres of Mercian royal authority with the burial crypt of the Kings of Mercia still surviving under the later medieval church. However Repton itself gave no obvious signs of an encampment big enough to accommodate the Great Army and its followers.

New research, linked once again to the discovery of metal Viking gaming pieces, has indicated a site just two miles away at the hamlet of Foremark as the site of the winter encampment. This suggests more about the scale of the invasion force and their consequent impact on the country. These significant archaeological and field work discoveries are set out in A new Viking site could rewrite the story of the ‘Great Heathen Army’

Friday, 11 September 2020

Downtime with the Vikings at Torksey

The MailOnline had a report the other day about the impending sale next week at auction of a complete set of ninth century pieces to play the strategy game Hnefatafl, together with a modern board to make play possible. The pieces had been found by a metal detector at the site of the Viking encampment from the winter of 871-2 at Torksey in Lincolnshire, and which lies on the banks of the river Trent. The illustrated article, which explains something of how the game was played, can be seen at Viking board game pieces uncovered with a metal detector go on sale

The overwintering at Torksey was no small event. The Great Army or the Great Heathen Army as the Anglo-Saxons described it had been ravaging eastern England since its landing in 867, and had overwhelmed the southern part of the Northumbrian kingdom in the battle of York in that first year. In 869 they had defeated and killed St Edmund in his East Anglian kingdom and they now moved northwards again to consider their options. Of the Anglo- Saxon kingdoms only Wessex, ruled by the newly acceded and youthful King Alfred remained as a political unit. Torksey became the Vikings headquarters for the ensuing winter. Their encampment is discussed in some detail at Viking Torksey: Inside the Great Army’s winter camp

Eventually in 876 the invaders settled and established a series of territories that later centuries were to term the Danelaw.

Torksey remained an important Trentside trading place and in 1086 was the third largest town in Lincolnshire. Today it is a small village, with a medieval church, the ruins of an Elizabethan manor house and an important Victorian railway bridge. There is an introduction at Torksey, Lincolnshire, History,

As opposed to the three churches of the eleventh century only one survives today. There are descriptions and pictures of St Peter’s at Torksey St Peter and at Torksey
from the Lincolnshire Churches blog. Amongst its surviving medieval features is a sheelanagig which is discussed at Torksey – The Sheela Na Gig Project

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Face to face with Abbot John Wheathamstead

Facial reconstruction of skeletal remains is a skill which has enhanced our sense of the human reality of people in the past. Admittedly some are better than others, but I have several times in the past featured them on this blog.

The latest to come to my attention is from the St Albans cathedral website and is not just a face from the past, but that of a known individual, Abbot John Wheathampstead or as he might well have spelt it Whethamstede.  Born c.1392 he became a monk at St Albans, was elected Abbot in 1420 and served as such until 1440 when he retired. In 1451, on the death of his successor, the community re-elected him and he died as Abbot in 1465. It was during this second abbacy that the abbey witnessed the two battles of St Albans in 1455 and 1461.

There is a fairly short account of his life at John Whethamstede The historian David Knowles in The Religious Orders in England includes him as one of his biographical studies. As an account it is not especially sympathetic to him as Abbot, which I felt when first reading it many years ago was somewhat unfair. Knowles, who was of course a Benedictine monk of Downside, contrasted Wheathampstead unfavourably to his great late fourteenth century predecessor Thomas de la Mare.

More recent research and the Oxford DNB life and a recent study both written by my friend Professor James G. Clark of Exeter seek to re-evaluate him. In his lifetime the Abbot saw himself, and was seen by others, as a leading figure in the reception of contemporary Italian Humanistic thought. It may have been provincial to Italian eyes, but was significant in Court circles and amongst English literary stylists.

The online article is also by James Clark and introduces both the historical figure and also the circumstances of the survival and indentification of his remains. It can be seen at Face-to-face with a Medieval Abbot

More on Sheffield Castle

Since my post the other day Sheffield Castle
about archaeological work on the site of the medieval stronghold I have come across a more detailed account of the various excavations of the site, proposals to perhaps make the site accessible and a CGI reconstruction of the gatehouse. It is from the local newspaper - hence no doubt the ‘local pride’ about its importance - and can be seen at Sheffield's lost castle was 'medieval stronghold' and 'deserves place in history alongside Tower of London'

I have also come across a post from Wessex Archaeology who have been involved in the work on the castle. This is a very good synthesis of the reports since the 1920s on the site and presented in a striking way, with plans and photographs. It can be viewed at Sheffield Castle

Celebrating thirty years of the Oxford Oratory

Yesterday, being the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, was the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Oxford Oratory in 1990. Established from the Birmingham Oratory by Fr Robert Byrne, now the Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, and Fr Dominic Jacob, who now divides his ministry between Oxford and the Bournemouth Oratory-in-formation, who were joined by Fr Richard Duffield, now Provost of the York Oratory and Fr Jerome Bertram, who sadly died last October. The Oxford Oratory attained canonical independence in 1993.

Yesterday celebrations had to be somewhat muted because of coronavirus but the Feast and anniversary were marked in the evening by a Sung Mass at which Fr Dominic preached.

So much has been achieved, and is now perhaps taken for granted, at Oxford by the Oratorisns. In 1990 the church of St Aloysius faced the real possibility of being closed had Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville not invited the Birmingham Oratorians to undertake the foundation. Quite apart from creating a living Oratory, the parish has been rejuvenated, young men formed in the Oratorian tradition as priests, and the community has played a major part in establishing the York Oratory and building up the one in formation at Bournemouth.

A day in which to give thanks for so many graces bestowed.

Our Lady Queen of the Oratory, Pray
Our Lady of Oxford, Pray
St Philip Neri, Pray
St Aloysius, Pray