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.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Regulating traffic in medieval cities

With all we hear and read about ULEZ, twenty mile an hour zones, not to mention seemingly continuous road works it was interesting to see an article on the Medievalists.net website about traffic problems in medieval English towns and cities, and to reflect on the similarities between past and present experience. It is also worth noting that serious efforts were made to regulate traffic and nuisance in urban situations and that there was  a conscious effort to achieve a social balance.

The article can be read at Traffic Problems in the Medieval City

Murder in Medieval Oxford

The continuing research into medieval Coroner’s Rolls as to the incidence of violent death in English towns by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology has now progressed beyond the evidence for London to look at other cities such as York and Oxford.

The Oxford material is summarised, and together with a Murder Map of the medieval city, can be seen in an article which is available on the BBC News website. 

The statistics, indicating a murder rate fifty times higher than it is today, are startling, shocking indeed, to modern eyes, even as we are rightly horrified by violent assaults and knife crime these days. Oxford was noticeably - four or five times so - more violent than was either London or York, doubtless due to the number of single youths in their teens living and studying in the town, and their interactions both with each other and with local youths from the same age group.

Involvement in such violence was not necessarily a problem for the future careers of those who survived. Thomas Polton, who in the early fifteenth century was successively Dean of York, Bishop of Hereford, Bishop of Chichester and Bishop of Worcester, and an English delegate at the Councils of Constance, Pavia-Siena and Basle, had previously received a dispensation because he was one of a group involved in a student fight in Oxford which resulted in one fatality.

I recall reading a Past and Present article some years ago which explores the same material about Oxford and it made the point there that the average member of the trading community of the town was far less likely to be a victim of violence than a student, and that there were clearly parts of Oxford that were safer or more dangerous than others, especially so, I can imagine, at night.

The article, with its accompanying map, can be seen at Medieval Murder Maps plots historic killings

The research is also reported upon, with some additional insights by CNN at Oxford was the murder capital of late-medieval England, research suggests

Thursday 28 September 2023

Cardinal Pole exhibition at Lambeth Palace

The always informative Supremacy and Survival blog from Stephanie A. Mann has information about a forthcoming exhibition at Lambeth Palace about Cardinal Reginald Pole. This promises to be very interesting and it is open - and is free - from October 5th to December 15th.

By coincidence I have been reading more about the reign of Queen Mary I recently which further piques my interest. 

The note from Supremacy and Survival can be seen at Reginald Cardinal Pole Exhibition at Lambeth Palace

The Lambeth Palace website introduces “Reformation Cardinal: Reginald Pole in Sixteenth-Century Italy and England” on their website with details of opening times at Exhibitions

Seeking the birthplace of Kibg Henry VII

I think I have posted before about the excavations in Pembroke Castle which have revealed a substantial range of lay medieval domestic buildings. The latest work on the site has been reported on by the Daily Telegraph.

The particular significance of the building under investigation is that it is thought possible, if not probable, that it was in it that in January 1457 the widowed, thirteen year old Countess of Richmond - better known to history as Lasy Margaret Beaufort - gave birth to her only child, the future King Henry VII. This now destroyed building appears a more likely place for a confinement than a chamber in one of the towers on the curtain wall. Such a room has indeed been indicated for a long time as the likely birthplace.  The argument now being advanced is that the birth of a member of the family of the owner of the castle, Jasper Earl of Pembroke, and a relative of the King would have taken place in the most comfortable and up to date accommodation the castle could offer.

The report about the continuing excavation can be read at Archaeologists discover possible new birthplace of King Henry VII at Pembroke Castle

Wednesday 27 September 2023

Do you trust the National Trust?

Once upon a time - and not so very long ago - the National Trust was an institution held in high regard, an organisation with a unique call on national affection. That is - to whatever extent may be debated - no longer the case.

I recall reading how families who had transferred their historic properties to the Trust increasingly felt they were being marginalised by the administration and other families were ever more inclined to establish private trusts to preserve and administer their inheritance. Over many years of visiting stately homes my experience was that those run by the families were more attractive to the visitor, more interesting to the scholar than those run by the National Trust - although those NT properties where the family did still have a serious role were significantly more interesting than what was becoming the rather bland and sterile quality of those that were entirely the Trust’s concern.

Add to that the ever increasing cost of joining and then being bombarded with mailing for specific appeals and initiatives, and the attraction of the National Trust began to fade.

That was before the organisation appeared to begin to capitulate so often to what might be termed Trust fundamentalists who were keener on the original intention of safeguarding the landscape than the stately home side of the portfolio as developed from the 1930s.

This has been followed by the widely reported adoption of politically correct and ‘woke’ ideas about the past - notably the legacy of the slave trade - and the feeling that the leadership of the Trust is far removed from the typical member and what they seek in joining.

Last weekend the Daily Telegraph had two articles on this continuing sense of malaise in and around the National Trust. One looked at the general sense of disillusionment and can be seen at Dusty houses and no volunteers: How the National Trust lost its way

The second piece was about the Trust’s controversial plans for what to do with Clandon Park in Surrey following the tragic fire there. Given that the house was insured and £66million available for restoration they seem very strange. The article is by a member of the Onslow family and can be read at National Trust accused of failing to preserve historic mansion

Monday 18 September 2023

Accidents of history

Medievalists.net has an interesting little article about a number of international boundary curiosities that originate in the medieval era. It can be seen at Strange Borders with Medieval Origins

There is more about the delightfully intertwined towns of Baale Nassau and Baale Hertog on the Dutch-Belgian frontier at Europe's strange border anomaly

The history of Ceuta is also set out in a recent article at The curious slice of Spain in Africa

The Franco-Spanish condominium of Pheasant Island, which changes its national administrative allegiance twice a year is not included, presumably because its status was codified in the mid-seventeenth century. There are online articles about it at Pheasant Island and Europe's island that swaps nationalities

At a local level in this country the nineteenth century had an unfortunately strong tendency for to tidy such oddities in county boundaries up, and those which survived tended to be casualties of the dreadful 1972 Local Government Act. One such was Dudley - a detached part of Worcestershire surrounded by Staffordshire, with Dudley Castle at its centre as a detached part of Staffordshire. Similarly York Castle was a detached portion of the North Riding in the City and County of the City of York, and similarly the Nottinghamshire County Hall in the middle of Nottingham, and was constituted a civil parish in its own right.

Friday 15 September 2023

The Golden Jubilee of the King of Sweden

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the accession to the throne of Sweden of King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1973. His Golden Jubilee is being celebrated with a variety of events in and around Stockholm along with the Swedish Royal Family and members of their close relatives from the Danish and Norwegian dynasties. He is the longest reigning Swedish monarch. This year is also the quincentenary of the election of the first of the monarchs from the Vasa dynasty, King Gustaf I, in 1523.

An official portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, taken by Thron Ullberg to celebrate the Golden Jubilee (The Royal Court of Sweden)
The official portrait of the King of Sweden to mark his Golden Jubilee

Image: The Royal Court of Sweden / The Court Jeweller

I remember the death of the King’s grandfather King Gustaf VI Adolf and the present King’s accession which occurred whilst I was on holiday in East Anglia. It does not seem half a century since that happened - the holiday remains still very fresh in my memory. 

I also recall some of the press coverage at the time. Given the age difference between the old King who was almost 91 and his 27 year old successor, and the fact that Sweden was revising its constitution  - notably the 1809 Instrument of Government - in the light of developments during the intervening years which would remove the monarch’s residual political powers, journalists were dismissive of the future of the Swedish monarchy.

Fifty years on we can look back at those changes to the Swedish constitution which became law in 1975 ( having been accepted by King Gustaf Adolf before his death ), the present King’s marriage in 1976, and his and Queen Silvia’s raising of a new royal family, together with the maintenance of an impressive Court ceremonial, as a reminder, as the Psalmist might have written, to “put not your trust in journalists”….

It is worth noting that at his accession apart from the King himself the formally constituted Swedish Royal Family comprised his unmarried uncle Prince Bertil. The wider members of the House of Bernadotte did not count as “working royals” in that modern unlovely phrase, and had no rights of succession due to renunciation of rights for unequal marriages or being female as Sweden then had an exclusively male system of primogeniture.

A formal portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, taken at the time of his accession to the throne in 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

King Carl XVI Gustaf at the time of his accession 

Image: Wikimedia Commons / The Court Jeweller 

Four generations: King Gustaf V, Crown Prince Gustaf (VI) Adolf, Prince Gustaf Adolf and Prince Carl (XVI) Gustaf. This photograph was taken at Prince Carl (VI) Gustaf's christening on 7 June 1946 in the Royal Chapel at the Royal Palace of Stockholm.

The baptism of the present King on June 7th 1946. He is held by his great grandfather King Gustaf V, who is seated next to the Crown Prince, later King Gustaf VI Adolf, with the baby’s father Prince Gustaf Adolf, who was killed in a plane accident in 1947, standing between them. When the future King Gustaf V himself was baptised in 1858 he had been held by his great grandmother Queen Désirée, the widow of the first Bernadotte King Carl XIV Johann, the former French Marshal Bernadotte.

Image: kungahuset.se

Thursday 14 September 2023

A Roman statue of Triton from Kent

Roman remains continue to catch my eye as the Mail Online reports the discovery of a late first or second century statue of Triton from a mausoleum which is being excavated on the line of the Roman road now represented by the A2 at Teynham in north Kent.

The stone statue, more than two feet tall, is the first more or less complete statue of the semi-god to be found in Britain. Experts have drawn attention to its quality and detail as the report indicates. Today in this country we are most likely to associate Triton with the four figures of him who support the State Coach of 1762 and which was used at the Coronation.

The illustrated report about the discovery and about the mausoleum site, together with future plans for the remains, can be seen at 2,000-year-old Roman sculpture found buried next to the A2 in Kent

Monday 11 September 2023

The Roman military bathhouse at Carlisle

Staying on Hadrian’s Wall the continuing excavation of the military bathhouse at the principal fort at the western end of the defences which has evolved into Carlisle is outlined in the Daily Telegraph.

The article concentrates on the great number of gem intaglios found from finger rings worn not just by men but also by women and children, but also highlights other discoveries as well as the scale of the structure. This is developing as a major site revealing much about life in Roman Britain.

When I was a schoolboy I had several holidays in Carlisle staying with relatives and I got to know the city and its historic sites as well as the museum collection at Tullie House Museum. These visits were also my first acquaintance with Hadrian’s Wall.

It was also good to see quoted opinions on the finds from an Oxford friend in the person of Professor Henig.

The social and economic impact of Hadrian’s Wall

The Past reproduced online an article from Current Archaeology which draws together evidence from what is now north east England of the impact on local conditions of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. This is based on archaeological evidence from both sides of the Wall and looking at the periods from the late Iron Age, before the Romans arrived through to the later years of their rule.

The evidence suggests an established pattern of Iron Age farming, disrupted by the invasion and conquest, and then adaptation to new circumstances. North of the Wall was a region that supplied the Romans at least at times, south of the fortified line a developing Romanised society akin to much of the rest of Britannia.

This interesting and insightful article with its maps and photographs can be seen at Before and after Hadrian’s Wall: Living on the Roman frontier east of the Pennines

Saturday 9 September 2023

The Sacred Belt of Prato

To mark yesterday’s feast of the Nativity of the Virgin the Liturgical Arts Journal has an article about the Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary which is venerated in the cathedral at Prato. This devotion goes back to the high middle ages and acquired a special exposition pulpit in the fifteenth century, and designed by Donatello. The feast of the Nativity of the Virgin is one of the days in which the relic is exposed for public veneration as the article explains. It can be read at The Sacred Belt of Our Lady (Cathedral of Prato, Italy)

As the article shows the tradition of Our Lady giving her belt to St Thomas as she was assumed into Heaven is ancient and shared by Christians both East and West. The relic at Prato is one of antiquity and prestige, but was by no means unique. Many medieval churches in western Europe claimed to possess it - or perhaps bits of it, like fragments of the True Cross. It was the last physical, tangible, material link to the Virgin and by a process of association was often used or requested by expectant mothers for a safe delivery. That all these belts or girdles of Our Lady cannot all be true may well be incontestable yet the human need for such spiritual aid cannot be gainsaid.

Accession anniversary

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the accession of His Majesty The King to the throne. It does not seem in some ways that long since we were watching the events around the death of the late Queen, his accession ceremonies and her funeral, yet in other ways the smooth transition from one reign to another, and the continuing rhythm of the royal and ceremonial year, has meant that the change in monarch has seemed - as it should - entirely natural. 

I perused online various newspaper articles about the anniversary and the first year of the King’s reign in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and that sense of sensible continuity  - with the exception of a silly piece by Amanda Platell in the Mail ( but then, what does one expect? ) - seemed to be the mood of them. People do indeed still mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and give thanks for her life, but all lives come to an end - it is their legacy we carry forward.

The naysayers looking for trouble and conflict have been proved wrong, as one knew they would be, and much has been achieved or set in motion for a hopefully stable and secure reign, but one that can also continue to respond to the life, expectations and hopes of this and the other Commonwealth realms.

TheKing and his family, his realms and his peoples enter what is now 2 Charles III with confidence in what has been demonstrably secured but hopefully without complacency about a future which is, for everyone, always unknowable. It is perhaps rather like the idea presented to his people by King George VI in his 1939 Christmas Broadcast about the Man who stood at the Gate of the Year.

Thursday 7 September 2023

Reconstructing a crew member from the ‘Vasa’

As a boy I was fascinated by the recovery of the ‘Vasa’ from Stockholm harbour in 1961 and my mother bought me the translation of the book which was written about the ship and its contents. 

At the time such a recovery of a seventeenth century ship was exceptional. Since then we have seen many other historic vessels from the  fifteenth century onwards being identified and excavated in the Baltic, including the ‘Gribshunden’ from 1495, as well, of course, as the recovery of the ‘Mary Rose’ from 1545 and the Newport Ship from (probably) 1470 here in the UK, and the discoveries from the thirteenth century Poole ‘Mortar Ship’ and from ‘HMS Gloucester’ from 1682. Our knowledge of maritime vessels and life has expanded enormously and enriched our understanding of life at sea, and indeed on land, in past centuries.

Wikipedia has a quite detailed article on the ‘Vasa’ which can be seen at Vasa (ship)

Work continues on interpretation of the archaeological finds and of the human remains of the thirty or so crew members who drowned when the ship heeled over on August 10th 1628 and sank in front of King Gustavus Adolphus and much of the population of Stockholm.

A recent project has been the study of what turned out to be the skeleton of a woman on the ship. The wives of seamen sometimes accompanied them on peacetime voyages. This research work was reported upon earlier this year by phys.org at One of sunken warship Vasa's crewmen was a woman and by apnews.com at DNA: Woman was on famed 17th century Swedish warship

A facial reconstruction of the woman and her appearance and possible clothing has now been done. This is set out with illustrations in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine which can be seen at See the Face of a Woman Who Died in a Shipwreck in 1628

Monday 4 September 2023

Copernicus in his Catholic context

The Catholic World Report recently published an informative article about Nicolas Copernicus, the 550th anniversary of whose birth and the 480th anniversary of whose death fall this year. 

The author of the article sets out to establish the true details of key aspects of Copernicus’ life and place in the history of Astronomy, and to dispel myths about him and his relationship with the Catholic Church. As far as I can see he succeeds in doing that and he places Copernicus firmly in the world to which he belonged, be it that of nationality, of the Church and of academia.

Friday 1 September 2023

St Giles and his shrine church

Today is the feast of St Giles, the seventh to eighth century abbot who founded the abbey of St Gilles in Provence and became noted as a patron of numerous medieval churches and of particular groups. Having been baptised in my home parish church dedicated to him and where I was to grow in faith St Giles is an important figure in my own spiritual journey.

Image of St. Giles

St Giles with his hind
Thomas of Koloswar circa 1420
A detail from the Garamzsentbenedek altar now in Budapest 

Image: catholic.org.

An Athenian who fled to Provence in search of solitude St Giles, living as a hermit, was inadvertently injured, and thus discovered by King Wamba, when the saint saved his hind from the king’s hunters. Made abbot of a monastery which eventually became his shrine his fame and cult spread under Cluniac influence and because the abbey was a focal point for pilgrims taking the Pilgrimage route to Santiago to Spain and northwards to France, England, Scotland, the Low Countries, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Italy. 

His legend and cult are set out by Wikipedia at Saint Giles

Wikipedia also has introductions to the town of St Gilles-du-Gard at Saint-Gilles, Gard and to the history and remains of the abbey church at Abbey of Saint-Gilles

Sadly, as a result of extensive destruction in 1562 during the Wars of Religion, all that remains of the great medieval church are the crypt with the relics of St Giles - returned in 1862 after three centuries in Toulouse - the ruins of the choir and the spectacular lower stage of the west front with its great and theatrical portals leading to the smaller church rebuilt in the seventeenth century.

There are pictures of the serviving features and more about the history of the church at Assassination and the Whip at Saint-Gilles-du-Gard

The west portals and their sculpture are also discussed at Romanesque façade of the abbey of Saint-Gilles du Gard

St Giles with his emblematic hind
From a Wallace Collection manuscript

Image: catholicexchange.org/ Fr Lawrence Lew O.P.

St Giles Pray for us