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 25 February 2022

More about counting lost manuscripts

The study seeking to estimate the number of lost literary texts from medieval writers which has brought a scientific model for species distribution to traditional bibliographic studies, and which I wrote about in Lost manuscripts
has continued to attract interest on the Internet.

HistoryHit has a summary at Lost Literature: Why Most English Texts Didn’t Survive the Middle Ages and there is a much longer and more detailed report on the scientific basis of the study from arstechnica.com at Study finds 90 percent of medieval chivalric and heroic manuscripts have been lost

Thursday 24 February 2022

A relic of James third Earl of Derwentwater

306 years ago, on February 24th 1716, James Radclyffe, the third Earl of Derwentwater, was beheaded in Tower Hill for his participation in the Jacobite riding of the previous autumn. Also beheaded on that occasion was Lord Kenmure. The Earl of Nithsdale avoided the same fate having staged his spectacular escape from the Tower the day beforehand.

James Earl of Derwentwater
Portrait by John Closterman

Image: antiquemarketsinc.com

The Earl of Derwentwater was a grandson of King Charles II, as his mother Lady Mary Tudor was one of his illegitimate daughters, and the Earl was thus a cousin of the claimant King James III and VIII, and had been a companion of him during their youth. Derwentwater’s personal tragedy meant that he became a figure of romantic legend in Northumberland around his estate at Dilston Castle. The Wikipedia biography of him can be seen at James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater

His family were unlucky as his only son died young at the age of 19, and his next heir, his younger brother Charles was captured returning from exile and executed in 1746 under the attainder passed on him in 1716. His descendants were married into the family of the Earls of Newburgh. Although the Radclyffe line died out that Earldom still survives as part of an Italian Princely inheritance, as can be seen at Earl of Newburgh

Earl James has been in the news recently in connection with a delayed exhibition at the Museum of London in Docklands. This is about the culture which surrounded executions in the capital and one of its exhibits is a bedsheet used by the Earl when imprisoned in the Tower. His widow, who died in Brussels in 1723, embroidered it with a commemorative inscription in what appears to be both their hair. The sheet was acquired by the Museum in 1934 but has not been on display before. There is an article about it from the Mail Online at 300-year-old bedsheet with love message in human hair to go on display

Execution Of Lord Derwentwater On Tower Drawing by Print Collector

The execution of the Earl of Derwentwater
An engraving published 1880

Image: photos.com

Tuesday 22 February 2022

More Roman mosaics

Recent months seem to have produced quite a number of significant discoveries from Roman Britain and indeed elsewhere across the Empire. 

This trend continues with an extremely well illustrated report on the Mail Online website about the excavation of the significant remains of a very fine mosaic floor in Southwark, just off the road leading to London Bridge. The suggestion is that the building which contained it was a mansio, providing accommodation for Imperial officials and couriers. The mosaic is dated to the late second to early third century and apparently onerlays an earlier mosaic. Of the portions that have been uncovered the larger belongs to an atelier that worked in London, whilst the smaller portion has been linked to surviving examples in Trier.

Adjoining the mansio are the remains of a substantial house, again suggesting this was a desirable suburb of Londinium along the road leading to the Channel crossing at Dover.

The account of this excavation can be seen at 
Meanwhile I also came across a project in Colchester to fully excavate and display in situ a large Roman mosaic which was first rediscovered in the nineteenth century. There is a report about this at Here's why a dig was undertaken in Colchester today (and it's fascinating)

Rushes on the floor

I was ruminating to myself about the notion that medieval floors were strewn with rushes and realised that I had never seen such a thing shown in medieval art. That is not to deny that it may have been the practice in some households but it is to suggest it was in use only amongst the poorest. It seemed somewhat impractical in any case and I knew of the depiction of rush matting in late medieval interiors and of its use today in houses such as the late Elizabethan Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. 

Recourse to the internet confirmed my suspicions. I came upon a very useful article in Rushes on the FloorThis includes an illustration from early in her reign of Queen Elizabeth I receiving ambassadors in a room with a fitted rush mat floor covering and which can be accessed here and just as can be seen at Hardwick.

There is another useful article at The Tudor Royal Interior which looks in particular at the use of rush matting in the sixteenth century and refers to the manufacture of such matting in Southwark in the 1530s.

The Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, dated to 1412-16, also shows fitted rush mat carpeting as well as a woven rush fire screen very like that in the painting of The Virgin and Child before a Fire Screen attributief to a follower of Robert Campin ( 1375/9-1444 ) now in the National Gallery. The scene of the Duke entertaining his guests can be seen here:

Image: Wikipedia 

The woven rush matting can be seen more clearly here:

Detail of dogs in an illumination from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Image: blogs.getty.edu

The function of dogs as consumers of scraps on such occasions is discussed in Dogs at the Medieval Banquet

That does not discuss the scrap consumption of the Duke’s tame bear cub whose paws can be seen on the table as it is sitting in the Ducal lap. It crops up again on his tomb and there is a gilt bear on the boat shaped vessel in front of the Duke.

Monday 21 February 2022

Lost manuscripts

A recent study has sought to use the models used to calculate the distribution of living species to try to estimate the rate of survival and of loss of medieval literary texts. 

The study was first published in Science and can be read at  ‘Lost’ medieval literature uncovered by techniques used to track wildlifeThe sting in the tail in the last comment therein is worth pondering: the project confirms more or less what bibliographic studies had concluded, and suggests national or regional variations but does it add significantly to our understanding?

The New Scientist report on the project can be read at  Medieval literature: We have lost 90 per cent of the original copies of classics

There is a rather longer one from the University of Oxford website can be read at Everyone has heard of King Arthur, but 90% of medieval manuscripts of chivalric and heroic tales have been lost

I have a book I picked up secondhand on lost books of the medieval centuries, into which - like so many books I own - I have but dipped. This is concerned not so much with lost copies - and many important literary and chronicle texts survive in unique copies or single numbers - but texts we know existed but of which no copies are extant. The twentieth century did see not a few such works surface to add to our knowledge but the losses are very considerable. Our knowledge that there are such losses is a tantalising thing - we know there was more, yet we are seemingly unable to recover those manuscripts and what they could tell us. 

The Medievslists.net site gave five examples of  significant lost texts in a 2016 article which can be seen at Lost Works of the Middle Ages

Research which has recovered texts, even if only in part, is highlighted by reports last year from the University of Edinburgh in Scholar helps solve mystery of rare lost text and the University of Rochester in the US, again from Medievalists.net.,in 2020 at Lost medieval text discovered on 15th century manuscript

Events such as the damage caused by the fire in Ashburnham House to the Cottonian Collection in 1731 can be assessed from catalogues, descriptions anf in some cases transcriptions, but some things, many things, are, alas, irretrievably lost.

Saturday 19 February 2022

The Penitential Wand

As is not inappropriate for the approach of the principal season of penitence in the ecclesial calendar Shawn Tribe writes on the Liturgicsl Arts Journal website today about the history of the Penitential Wand or Staff. 

This custom originated in ancient Roman law and practice with the tapping by means of a wand or stick a person as a symbolic imposition of a legal penalty or as the sign of the manumission of a slave. It was that sense which was taken over by the Church as a sign of the release of a penitent from the slavery of sin, especially in terms of reserved sins or of indulgences granted by Papal authority in, for example, Holy Years.

One could add to the examples cited of knighting with a sword and the tap on the cheek of a male confirmand two others of the tactile transmission of judgement or legal intent. The first is the slap or clasp on the shoulder to confer knighthood still used in the Netherlands and, I think, the Order of Malta and there was also the use in the past of the monarch’s sceptre with to touch a bill to make it an Act of Parliament,  either by the sovereign or their representative, in both England and Scotland.

The custom of using the Penitential Wand, with more than two thousand years of history behind it, and harmless in itself and, literally, striking in its symbolism, was abolished by the cultural iconoclasm of Pope Paul VI in 1967.

The article, with illustrations of the use of the wand, a surving example and the throne chair of the Major Penitentiary in St Peter’s from which it was wielded on occasion, can be seen at Lost Romanitas: The Virgula Poenitentiaria -- Or Penitential Wand / Rod 

The early and the latter days of Roman Silchester

The Daily Express has had two recent reports about discoveries made in the continuing excavations of Silchester - Calleva Atrebatum - in what is now Hampshire.

From the beginnings of the town there is a roof tile stamped with the name of the Emperor Nero. The only other such example comes from a site nearby and may suggest that Calleva was consciously built as a town to indicate Nero’s interest in the colony in Britannia, This is described and put into historical context in Archaeology breakthrough as 'very special' Roman stamp gives 'new information'

From the later years of the town there appears to be evidence of its decline in the archaeological record. During the third century trade and industry apparently declined. and some of the gates were closed or reduced in width. This economic decline of the town was perhaps due to its inland location and dependence on the road network, and a shift to the localisation of trade around villas in the countryside. Other towns on rivers or near the coast do not appear to have witnessed such a contraction. Nevertheless the town still functioned until the post-Roman period but its abandonment, and perhaps deliberate ritual defilement by the early Anglo-Saxons is prrhsps unusual. 

Most Roman towns either continued in some way or were reoccupied because of their situation or defences by the new elites. Urban economic life as such may well not have really returned until the time of King Alfred and his descendants, but chieftains or churches often sheltered behind abandoned Roman defences. Silchester however was, and remains, abandoned, with new population centres at nearby Reading and Basing - and I am sure I do not need to point out the significance of “ingas” place names.

Reading Museum, alongside its other collections, has a most impressive array of discoveries from earlier excavations at Silchester which fill a room on the upper floor. The display includes a reconstruction model of what is, to date, the only Roman-era church identified in Britain which once stood in Calleva. That alone indicates the continuing urban life there and that it was in contact with the mainstream of the Western Empire and the spread and diffusion of Christianity. British Christians were doubtless worshipping there in the lifetime of St Augustine of Hippo, who died in 430. Who knows, maybe the first British heretic Pelagius had passed by on his journey across the late Roman world that took him to Rome, Palestine and Egypt.

More about the impact of the Black Death

In my recent post Reassessing the impact of the Black Death I drew attention to recent research on the evidence from the distribution of pollen across Europe in the period 1250-1450 to attempt to assess the impact of the mid-fourteenth century Black Death on cultivation patterns and what that can reveal about the impact and consequences of that pandemic.

I now see that the Mail Online has a longer report on the research together with a map Illustrating changes in the period and pictures of some of the affected landscapes. The various factors which could influence the progress of the plague are set out by the research group leader to point out why the impact would have been different from region to region, if not place to place. In some respects therefore those countries and areas as well as those communities and groups who have been more vulnerable to covid can be seen as somehow analogous to the variations in the severity of the plague. It would appear that a wide range of factors came together to create more or less favourable conditions for the plague to spread and claim lives. The researchers point to the need for localised studies to seek to explain what happened and to avoid generalised interpretations based on inevitably autobiographical observation by particular writers at the time.

As shown on the map England seems to have been in the mainstream of the disease, and to have shown neither severe losses nor to have suffered significantly less except for Devon and Cornwall.

The map also shows that areas that are relatively close could have widely different experiences as in parts on north-west and also southern France or around the Baltic.

A document from the siege of Harfleur in 1415

I came upon a report about a French document from the siege of Harfleur by King Henry V in 1415 which gives an insight into how news was transmitted to the French commanders at Rouen and elsewhere.

The BBC News report which first caught my attention was so garbled - and more about Shakespeare than the events of 1415 - as to be useless but it pointed me to a rather better account of the document which gives its contents and also points to the rarity of such an item turning up these days.

This account nevertheless manages to privilege Shakespeare over the real history of the document as can be seen in the illustrated article which can be read at A Shakespearean Discovery: A Newly Discovered Real Life Document With Great Events Made Famous in Shakespeare's Henry V

The fact that Shakespeare wrote about the siege of Harfleur is seen as more significant than the historic events themselves, without which Shakespeare would have had nothing to write about in the first place …. I am sure readers can come up with other literary-historical links that are equally cart-before-horse.

Thursday 17 February 2022

Reassessing the impact of the Black Death

The current pandemic has focussed the attention of historians and scientists, indeed anyone with an interest in the past experience of mankind, in such circumstances similar to those we have been experiencing. It is in part academic enquiry and the search for practical knowledge, in part simple human curiosity.

The Independent has a very interesting summary of a Europe-wide project which looked at the scientific evidence available from pollen to attempt to establish the effects on cultivation of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century. This is an attempt to map changes in agriculture from surviving botanical evidence from the period 1250-1450 and to see how that compares with the available evidence in chronicle and administrative sources.

The results are striking and illuminating. What appears to emerge is a pattern of the plague having the greatest impact from Greece to central Italy, France, south-western Germany and into Scandinavia….. so fans of Bergman’s  The Seventh Seal need not be disappointed. 
Presumably the same factors occurred in  England but the article does not specifically mention it.

However in Central and Eastern Europe there appears to have been less disruption. I wonder if  - indeed would suggest that - the late medieval strengthening of serfdom there reflects this. The population had not fallen and  were not in a position to bargain with landlords for more favourable, individualistic term. This was in opposition to the pattern west of the Elbe and across the western part of the continent. The Atlantic margins of Ireland and Iceland and also Iberia also show a different pattern, a continuing of the established agricultural pattern. In central Spain as well as in Poland and in what we now call the Baltic states the expansion of cultivation on those borderlands continued and there are no indicators of recession or abandonment 

As the article points out written sources for the Black Death tend to be from western Europe and often record catastrophic events. We know from these accounts that some places were less severely affected - Milan is probably the best known example. For other parts of Europe  the literary sources are scant, and that must have influenced interpretations. This new research opens up possibilities to enlarge our vision of the past.

Popular piety in church paintings in Mexico

The New York Times has an interesting article about a group of churches in central Mexico that contain wonderful examples of painted decoration that combine medieval and Baroque European piety with indigenous motifs and techniques. This sumptuous and joyful tradition existed from the dissemination of the decrees and spirit of the Council of Trent until the early nineteenth century. A number of examples of these fragile paintings are illustrated and show what was achieved in small communities in rural areas. Not only fascinating in themselves they are a reminder of what was, and of what we have lost, in so much of Europe.

The author also draws attention to the vulnerability of these paintings and of the churches themselves and also to the issues around restoration and conservation in buildings with a continuing and living tradition.

Wednesday 16 February 2022

The Tower of London moat

There have been several newspapers reports recently about the scheme being carried out in the moat of the Tower of London by the Historic Roysl Palaces agency to turn it into a flower meadow with walkways to mark the Platinum Jubilee. The concept is that the various species of flowers will succeed each other and change the colour sequence as the months go by. This will doubtless be a striking way to mark the Jubilee, to set off the Tower and to utilise this open space in one of the focal points of London.

There are reports about the scheme from the Daily Mail at Plan to turn Tower of London's royal moat into flower meadow and about the related archaeological investigation from the Daily Telegraph at Rare treasures unearthed at Tower of London moat shed new light on capital’s ‘formidable fortress’

As a Jubilee commemorative event this is no doubt fine but the scheme appears to be conceived of as being a permanent feature. As I wrote in 2021 I would argue for re-flooding the moat - the Thames is far cleaner than it was in 1845 - and not only restoring a feature of the historic fortress but also providing an enhancement to it, reflected in the waters surrounding it. My post from last year can be read at The Tower of London moat

In it I attempt to answer doubts as to the feasibility of such a plan as set out in a article from 2015 which I link to.

Monday 14 February 2022

Charles Ferdinand Duc de Berry

202 years ago on February 14th 1820 the Duc de Berry, the third in line to the crown of France, died as a result of being stabbed the previous evening as he left the Opera in Paris. 

The particular significance of the assassination of the 42 year old Duc was that if the child with which his wife was pregnant was a son then he would ensure at least another generation of the Bourbon succession, whereas a daughter would mean the throne passing to the suspect figure of Louis Philippe Duc de Orleans. The birth of a son to the widowed Duchesse de Berry later that year was seen, rather like that  of King Louis XIV in 1638 as miracloud, and that the child was Dieudonné. Unfortunately the Comte de Chambord, the de jure King Henri V was never to reign in France, and with his death, childless, in 1883 the claim to the  succession passed to the descendants of Louis Philippe in the person of the claimant King Philippe VII and to his descendants.

The Duc de Berry appears to have taken in appearance after his father, the later King Charles X, as a young man but in his later years came to resemble his uncle King Louis XVI.

Danloux - Charles Ferdinand d'Artois (1778-1820), duc de Berry.jpg

The Duc de Berry circa 1796
A portrait by Henri-Pierre Danloux


File:Charles Ferdinand d'Artois, duc de Berry.jpg

The Duc de Berry in his later years

He is wearing the riband and star of the Order of the Saints Esprit, the Order of the Golden Fleece, and what appear to be the Orders of St Louis and the Royalist Legion d’Honneur on his medal bar

Image: Wikipedia

There is a short Wikipedia biography of the Duc de Berry at Charles Ferdinand, Duke of Berry

The concern about leaving s legitimate heir in the person of the future claimant King Henri V is slightly amusing when one looks at the Duc de Berry’s, shall we say, track record. From his days in exile he had produced a series of illegitimate offspring with English and Scottish mistresses , and later with French ones after the Restoration. He has as a consequence many descendents today as indicated by the Wikipedia links. These include Mme. Giscard d’Estaing, widow of the former President, and Hervé Charette, a minister in the Chirac government. When the Duc was murdered in 1820 it was not just his wife that he left pregnant but three other women bearing his unborn children …. Very French.

Charles-Ferdinand d'Artois, duc de Berry.jpg

The Duc de Berry in state dress
Portrait by Francçois Gérard
The bust in the background is of King Henri IV

Image: Wikipedia 

Sunday 13 February 2022

Queen Catherine Howard

Just after 7 o’clock on the morning of Monday February 13th 1542 the former Queen Catherine Howard was beheaded in the Tower of London. She was followed to the block by her lady-in-waiting Jane Lady Rockford, the sister-in-law of the other beheaded consort, and cousin of Catherine, Anne Boleyn.

I recently came across an excellent recent public lecture about Catherine Howard given by Dr David Starkey and available on his new YouTube channel at Catherine Howard: David Starkey Lectures

For all that her life and time in the limelight of power we’re so short Catherine continues to attract biographers. One of these is Gareth Russell who has written a substantial and very well received life of her in Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII. There is a long interview with him online about the biography at Young & Damned & Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard | An Interview with Gareth Russell

He can also be heard speaking about Catherine in a talk he gave for Six Wives which can be heard at The Life of Catherine Howard with Gareth Russell

A point which often comes up in considering her life is the absence of a recognised portrait. Some which have been identified in the past as being of her have now been reassigned to other sitters, and it is suggested that the miniature most usually said to be her in modern accounts is in fact her predecessor Anne of Cleves during her brief time as Queen. This seems quite likely to me.

More recently another portrait, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, has been suggested as possibly being of Catherine. Not everyone accepts the argument and the protagonists and opponents are set out in the Wikipedia life of her at Catherine Howard.
This has a useful discussion of her treatment by modern historians and the usual
Links to articles about those with whom her life interacted. There is also a piece by one of the advocates for the identification as being Catherine at Katherine Howard’s Birthday – A Guest Post by Conor Byrne

To my mind the portrait does seem to tally with what one might expect Catherine to have looked like, but that is of course a very subjective statement.

The possible portrait of Catherine Howard
School of Hans Holbein the a younger, dated to circa 1540-45

Image: On the Tudor Trail

Even if the portrait is not of the I’ll-fated Catherine it deserved to be better known.

One legacy of the downfall of King Henry’s fifth Queen is that to avoid distress to the monarch in giving his personal assent to the Act of Parliament which condemned her the device of having a Commission of five peers to give the Royal Assent was arrived at, and that system is the one which came to be, and remains, the established practice to this day.

Saturday 12 February 2022

Bidding farewell to the Alleluia

This evening, being the eve of Septuagesima, sees the cessation of the use of “Alleluia” until Easter in traditional Catholic and Orthodox liturgical usage. 

The New Liturgical Movement has a good article about this custom and its various expressions, including a recording of the tenth century hymn as translated by John Mason Neale traditionally sung on this day in many places as an accompaniment to the custom of literally burying the “Alleluia”, at The Dismissal of the Alleluia

I have posted before about this symbolic act in 
Burying the Alleluia in 2012 and Burying the Alleluia ( again - I was not being very original ) in 2014, and did so again last year with Burying the Alleluia ( still not very original ), which has links to those two previous posts. At least this year I have shown some originality, as did those who came up with this evocative custom in the medieval period.

Friday 11 February 2022

Holbein on display in Los Angeles and New York

The New York Times website has an article about the current exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in that city of works by Hans Holbein. This is the first US exhibition devoted to him. Despite the logistical difficulties caused by covid and by being unable to transport fragile works across the Atlantic this does appear to be an impressive display - and the catalogue something to look out for.

The article is more than just a review in that you learn about Hans Holbein and something of the London in which he worked on his second stay in England in the 1530s and early 1540s. The various examples of his work reproduced indicate his mastery not only of textiles and surfaces but also of faces and fleeting expressions or gesture. The pairing of the drawing of Simon George - lent by the Royal Collection - and the finished portrait - lent from Frankfurt and recently cleaned - shows how Holbein worked from his sketches and brings to life an otherwise minor figure. There is poise and elegance from both painter and subject, and more than a hint of the purposeful courtier watching for his chance to advance. He is supremely elegant in his finery but he is also, one senses, an enterprising young man, with a keen eye for the main chance - in this case a potential betrothal. There is more about this portrait at Portrait of Simon George by HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger

The article can be read at Hans Holbein: Truth in Painting

There is another article about the exhibition and its previous presentation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in the Smithsonian Magazine at Hans Holbein's Portraits Defined—and Immortalized—Tudor England's Elite

This also recounts, again with various online links Holbein’s life and something of his artistry, and the vibrant, and potentially violent, world he and his sitters inhabited. That tension between the exquisite fabrics and courtesies of  courtly life, the opulence and bravura on the one hand and the terrifying risks of a fall from favour into disgrace and, potentially, violent death and destruction is, of course, part of the fascinatination of the age of King Henry VIII. We owe a great debt to Holbein for not only depicting so many of the players in those dramas but also for indicating and revealing so subtly their keen and calculating eyes and minds.

Licoricia of Winchester

Had he not tested positive fir covid the Prince of Wales was due yesterday to unveil a statue in Winchester of the thirteenth century Jewish female moneylender Licoricia who lived in the city. She was a significant source of money for  King Henry III but who was eventually to be found murdered, stabbed to death along with her Christian woman servant, by an unknown hand in 1277. She must have been quite elderly at the time. Such was her repute that her death was recorded by the Jewish community in Germany. The statue is situated on Jewry Street, where she would have presumably lived, and close to the site of the royal castle.

The Smithsonian Magazine has an article about Licoricia which sets out her recorded career from 1234 until her death snd assesses her place and part in the Jewish community of thirteenth century England at Meet the 'Most Important' Jewish Woman in Medieval England

This looks at the difficulties the Jewish community faced as well as the possibilites for making money that they enjoyed by lending to Christians, as well as the risks which proved fatal in the case of one of her sons, who was hanged for coin clipping.

The BBC News website has an article with links to others about the appeal to erect the statue and about a forthcoming book about Licoricia at Prince Charles cancels statue unveiling after catching Covid

The story of Licoricia opens up insights into the lives of groups whom one might pass by - women, businesswomen, widows, Jews and financiers - and rescues her from the anonymity of hiding in the Chancery and Treasury records of the thirteenth century.

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Losing one’s head in Roman Britain

The Life Science website has a very interesting report about the discovery of a Roman cemetery at Fleet Marston in Buckinghamshire - alluded to in the report on Midland archaeological discoveries linked to in my previous post - which has been excavated in advance of the dreadful HS2 project.

What makes this cemetery of particular interest is the fact that it contains some forty decapitated skeletons out of a total of about 425 burials. It is not entirely clear if this was the cause of death or whether some were the result of post-mortem actions. If these are at least in the majority men who had been executed it is noteworthy that their burials differed in no way from those of others. They were not tumbled into a common grave pit like the Vikings killed in late Anglo-Saxon England near Weymouth who were discovered a few years ago, or those found in Oxford from the same period. 

Far more decapitated skeletons have been found in Britannia than any other part of the Roman Empire. A few years ago a number of what were interpreted as beheaded Roman gladiators were found in York. Such a frequency raises questions about the exercise of justice in the Province and about social conventions here, as it appears to be a disproportionate feature of Roman life and death. One interesting suggestion the report is that severed heads were placed at the feet of the corpse to inhibit bodies rising, rejoining vertebrae and returning to haunt the living - which is similar to Central European folklore about vampirism and it’s related problems.

Monday 7 February 2022

Archaeological discoveries from the Midlands

I came across two online reports about recent archaeological work in the English Midlands. It does in part, of course, depend how one defines the Midlands or indeed subdivides them into East and West, North or South/Southern. I tend to think instinctively of the Midlands as the western part around greater Birmingham, but if I do that what do I use as a term, which I certainly do use, for the East Midlands? Maybe Mercia is a better option, but that too, with centres such as Lichfield, Repton and Tamworth, not to mention Offa’s Dyke, has westerly connotations. Brixworth and Great Paxton get less of a look-in, and what about the Danelaw and the Five Boroughs? Ah well, back to the archaeological evidence….

The first report is from Birmingham Live - an offshoot of the Birmingham Mail - and covers a wide range of discoveries, mainly in the western part of the region. It can be seen at Iron Age village to HS2 skeletons and Saxon gold - Midlands' archaeology finds

The second is from the BBC News website and is about the excavation of a tiled floor in the medieval Carmelite - Whitefriars - monastery  in Gloucester, which is again an area that never seems Midland to me, more an anticipation of the West Country. The report can be seen at Medieval tiled floor uncovered in city project

Sunday 6 February 2022

The centenary of the election of Pope Pius Xi

The New Liturgical Movement has an illustrated article that reminds its readers that today is the centenary of another monarchical accession in the twentieth century, the election of Pope Pius XI on February 6th 1922. 

The article sets out the background of this mountaineering librarian who advanced so rapidly through the Papal diplomatic service, the See of Milan and the cardinalature to the Chaur of Peter. Here in Oxford he is remembered for his visit as Msgr Ratti in 1914 as a librarian to visit the Bodleian and his delayed departure due to a slight accident, which meant that he is the one future Pope - so far - to have celebrated Mass in St Aloysius Church, which is now the Oratory.

Poor Piys XI is, perhaps, a slightly forgotten figure these days, which is to be regretted. For good or ill he resolved the “Roman Question” with Italy and he was a forceful - very forceful - exponent of Catholic teaching and political involvement and commentary in those complex and troubled years that comprised his pontificate. 

The article can be seen at The Centenary of Pius XI’s Election

Linking that to my previous post about the Platinum Jubilee it is worth pointing out that the illustrations to that article are a reminder that happily the British Monarchy had not made the mistake of the Papsl Monarchy of jettisoning its ceremonial expression on high and holy days, and of what had been lost in the Vatican - for the present.

The Platinum Jubilee of HM The Queen

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the accession to the throne of The Queen. The various messages to her that have been released as well as the film of her at Windsor and Sandringham together with her message to her realms and the Commonwealth mark the formal beginning of her Platinum Jubilee.

The particular events surrounding Her Majesty’s accession in 1952 added both to the poignancy of her and the Royal Family’s bereavement and created images that remain very powerful  - those of the King’s farewell to his daughter and of her black clad figure descending from her aircraft upon her return.

As today seems to being a day for messages I will use this blog post to send and put on record my loyal greetings to Her Majesty and to record my appreciation of her role as Queen,  as the symbol of her realms and as a dutiful exponent of the art of monarchy in the modern world.

A reign of seventy years is remarkable in so many ways and in coming months she will become the second longest reigning sovereign, with only King Louis XIV ahead of her for number of years at slightly over seventy two. He of course succeeded as a child of five, and was 23 before he began to exercise his powers.

The BBC News website has an interesting article by one of the Queen’s better biographers, Robert Lacey, about her formation as a child before her father’s accession in 1936. It makes clear that the then Princess Elizabeth of York was from her birth third in line to the throne, and seen as a potential monarch, and that to say that her emergence as heiress presumptive in 1936 was previously unlikely is simply bad or lazy history. The illustrated article can be read at When did young Elizabeth realise that one day she would become Queen?

One piece of especially good news in Her Majesty’s message released yesterday was her endorsement of the Duchess of Cornwall becoming in due time Queen Consort. The fact should, of course, never have been questioned, but it is good to see such a Majestic statement to resolve it.

Wednesday 2 February 2022


Following on from the paintings by the fifteenth century south German artist Friedrich Herlin which I reproduced for the Circumcision and for Epiphany last month here is his depiction of  the Presentation in the Temple.

The Presentation in the Temple
Friedrich Herlin. 1462

Stadtmuseum Nördlingen

Image: Web Gallery of Art

The painting is presumably the left hand panel of a now dismantled altarpiece.

As with others of Herlin’s paintings and those of his contemporaries in the Low Countries, Germany, Austria and Iberia there is a delight and skill in depicting textiles and objects from daily life and dress which draws the viewer into his world. That world was indeed surely a more colourful and stylish world than so many people are now led to believe through cinema and other media.

Tuesday 1 February 2022

Revealing more of a lost Oxford College

Excavations in anticipation of building work at the Frewin Hall complex of Brasenose College here in Oxford have revealed some more of the foundations of St Mary’s College. This was a house for Augustinian canons who were students at the University and was founded in 1435. One resident in the early sixteenth century was Desiderius Erasmus, who was an Augustinian canon, whilst he was studying in Oxford. St Mary’s did not survive the dissolution of the monasteries, closing in 1541. Unfortunately its buildings did not, unlike those of other monastic colleges - Durham College, Gloucester College, Canterbury College and St Bernard’s College - find a new role as an educational foundation. The four I mentioned are now, respectively, Trinity, Worcester, part of Christ Church and St John’s.

Part of the site of St Mary’s was excavated some years ago and the foundations preserved under a knit garden in the grounds of Frewin Hall and adjacent to the Debating Chamber of the Oxford Union. There is a plan of these in the History of the University of Oxford vol.ii. A portion of the gatehouse on to New Inn Hall Street is all that survives that is visible to the passing visitor, although Frewin Hall itself retains a splendid twelfth century vaulted basement.

There is report about the latest discovery on the MailOnline website at Remains of Oxford University's 'lost college' are DISCOVERED though one must ask where do they get reporters from who can write that Cardinal Wolsey was executed…