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.

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Rural fraud on the Isle of Wight in the 1260s

The third of these articles about farming life  from Medievalists.net looks at the potential for fraud by a farm manager as described by Robert Carpenter in his formulary written in the 1260s.

Like all fraud these schemes require a degree of planning and on occasion co-conspirators. It is not clear if these are examples the author has come across or whether he is admitting to having committed them himself. Their relatively small scale and necessarily ‘hands-on’ nature are a reminder that this was a world where much of life was inevitably local, and low cunning could thereby make a return for its practioner. After all the sheep cannot testify in the manor court…


Farm life near Durham in the later middle ages

The second piece on the Medievalists.net website about gaming life is taken from a 2010 paper by Prof. Richard Britnell which draws on the accounts in the period 1370-1409 of a farm called Houghall just outside Durham. This was not a manor but appears to have been a stock breeding centre owned by the cathedral priory, and one that depended upon hired labour. Their names are often recorded and the fluctuations in employment on short contracts and the flexibility of the labour market p afford a more close-up glimpse of rural life at the time.


How to be a Good Shepherd in the middle ages

Medievalists.net has had three recent posts about aspects of medieval farming practice which give insights into the life of the past yet who offer scenes that are still familiar.

The first is a guide to being a good shepherd dictated by Jean de Brie, who came from the area around Paris, in 1379 and had spent his working career herding livestock.

The article, with quotations from the original text, can be seen at How to be a Shepherd in the Middle Ages

Monday 29 April 2024

The grave of Cerdic

The Mail Online reports about the apparent identification near Andover of the burial mound of Cerdic, the founder of the royal house of Wessex and a key ancestor of the Royal Family. 

The identification was made by a researcher who walked the boundaries of an estate as recorded in 900 at the very beginning of the tenth century and which named the mound as being Cerdic’s barrow. 

Assuming the tenth century memory of the fifth century event was accurate - and it seems reasonable to believe that it would have been, then this is an important addition to our knowledge of the formation of Wessex around an initial territory in 495 or thereabouts, although some modern interpretations put it a generation or so later.
Little is recorded about Cerdic but one thing that is of great interest, and that is his name. The founder of the West Saxon Kingdom, of Wessex, did not have a Germanic name, but a British one. The suggestion is that he was from one of the post-Roman British ruling families who recruited some Saxon followers and created his own principality centred on Southampton Water and its hinterland. The people who made Wessex may have been not so much the West Saxons as the Gewissae, meaning confederates. Furthermore for the succeeding generations of Cerdic’s descendants until the late seventh century and the accession of King Ine in 688 regnal names began with a C rather than the Æ which dominated thereafter until 1066.

This would tie in with increasing archaeological evidence for co-existence between Britons and Germanic groups in this period as well as literary references.

There is also a video on YouTube about the identification of the site at The First King of WESSEX - We Found him!!

The book about Cerdic and the identification of his barrow is being published just now.

Treasures from the household of Queen Henrietta Maria

By chance I came upon a Mail Online article from 2016 about a significant discovery made by divers off the Dutch island of Texel in 2014. These were, it appears, items from a vessel in the fleet of twelve which had taken Queen Henrietta Maria and part of her household to the United Provinces in 1642 on a visit to sell jewels to fund the Royalist cause in the impending Civil War. The vessel was wrecked but mud into which it sank preserved in excellent condition many of the ship’s contents.

Amongst the items which have been preserved  in the mud are a court dress thought to have belonged to Jane, Countess of Roxburghe, an embroidered walket, the binding of a Bible with the Royal Arms and a piece of plate with a figurine. 

The well illustrated article can be seen at Rags found in the sea belonged to a member of Charles I's household

Friday 26 April 2024

Healthy exercise in the middle ages

I would not, could not, claim to be a practioner of ‘keep fit’ exercises, and my friends could also testify to that fact, but by chance I came upon an interesting video online about how medieval men, especially those from a military background, trained and kept fit over and beyond the normal activities of daily life such as riding and hunting. 

Marshal Boucicaut’s displays of athleticism in armour are recreated with splendid vigour in the video Can You Move in Armour?

Those extra helpings at gargantuan, and misunderstood, medieval feasts could pile on the pounds and inches, with the result that one’s suit of armour didn’t fit, especially in the era of plate armour - and were there to be trouble of a kind only too frequent in the period, the ensuing problem could indeed be a matter of life and death ….

Keep slim and keep your armour on could be the meme of the elite.

Thursday 25 April 2024

King Edward II

Writing about the origins of Oriel yesterday put me in mind of the fact that today is the 740th anniversary of his birth in the temporary royal accommodation at Caernarvon in 1284.

The fourth son of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor he was the only one to reach adulthood - his elder brothers John, Henry, and Alphonso all died as children, Alphonso when Edward was only four months old. The forty eight year difference in their ages may have contributed to the not always harmonious relationship he had with his father.

King Edward II
Tomb effigy in Gloucester Cathedral
Image: Flickr

The tomb at Gloucester has parallels with the effigies at St Denis of his in-laws and in the tomb design with that of Pope John XXII at Avignon. He and his family and his Court were part of a complex European cultural and political network. 

The effigy at Gloucester is striking as a portrait despite the damage and disrespect of intervening centuries. The King’s appearance is discussed at Appearance of Edward II

For well over a century his reign has attracted the scholarly attention of academic historians, from Stubbs to Tout and his circle, to Clarke and McKisack, Maddicott and Fryde, and Haines to mention but a few. If one wants to examine the reign it is well chronicled by contemporary writers and clerks, and analysed as are few others by modern historians.

It was a reign that began with tension and uncertainty, and quickly had unstable violent politics, rebellion, catastrophic defeat in Scotland, the famine of 1315-17, further rebellion and vigorous retribution, an oppressive policy towards anyone perceived as an opponent, war in Gascony and finally the collapse of the King’s marriage and position as he was dethroned by his wife. That troubled marriage was, of course, by processes unforeseen at the time it was contracted to lead to the Hundred Years’ War evolving out of border disputes into full blown war over the French throne. The actual contract and its chance survival is discussed at The marriage contract of Edward II, 1303

Yet for all this there was still an artistic flowering in the reign such as Bishop Stapledon’s rebuilding of Exeter cathedral and the central tower of Lincoln cathedral, and not to forget individual resiliance - the canons of Lincoln cathedral putting on plays to cheer themselves up in adverse times.

The King’s responsibility for this chaotic situation is not inconsiderable, yet the questions remain. Was it because he was weak, dependent on favourites, a man who invited the contempt of his nobles? Or was it that he had inherited a system at stretch from his assertive father who had already antagonised many of the leading men and who were waiting for an untried and uncertain ruler?  Or again was the King simply trying to pursue his father’s methods when times had changed, and he failed to accept that, seeking to maintain the rights he had inherited?

Equally was his Queen Isabella wronged by her marriage, a victim who eventually fought back, or was she always the ‘She Wolf of France’ biding her time, brooding on her humiliation as wife, mother, Queen and daughter of France? Indeed was the marriage always unhappy - the surviving evidence is mixed?

Today his reign continues to attract scholarly debate - most recently the argument that he was not murdered in 1327 but escaped, lived under Church protection and met up with his son King Edward III and his young family a decade after his deposition. This argument advanced by Ian Mortimer is impressive but almost seven centuries of belief in a violent death are hard to overcome. It is a question on which I remain something of an agnostic or a ‘don’t know’.
I do however know I owe him a debt of gratitude for founding Oriel - even if it is the one enduring success of his troubled reign and life.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

Anticipating Oriel

In January 2026 Oriel - my college - will celebrate its 700th anniversary, the fifth oldest college in Oxford and the oldest continuous royal foundation in either Oxford or Cambridge.

However in order to be founded in 1326 there had to be some preparation and that began just seven centuries ago. In April 1324 - different secondary sources I consulted today give the 20th, 24th, and the 28th, and the text of the Patent Rolls was not available - King Edward II granted a licence to acquire property in mortmain to Adam de Brome, a Suffolk born Chancery clerk and inter alia rector of St Mary’s in the High to found a college in Oxford. Adam was essentially what today would be termed a civil servant, and who had been in royal service since at least 1297. In recent years he appears to have been based in Oxford and intended to found a small college for higher studies. His inspiration may well have been Merton, whose statutes he simply copied for his ultimate creation. 

With his licence he proceeded to bu the quite recently built Tackley’s Inn on the High, and which still houses Oriel students, Perilous Hall on Horsemonger Street, now Broad Street, but then, in part, the town ditch, and as a source of income the advowson of the church at Aberford in the West Riding - which is still an Oriel living.

His college consisted of a Rector ( like Exeter founded in 1314 ) and ten Fellows. With the new house of studies established and under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, after some twenty or so months, on January 1st 1325-6 Adam transferred his college to King Edward who three weeks later refounded it in his own name, gave the advowson of St Mary’s and its rectory which became St Mary Hall, and appointed Adam de Brome as the new head of house as first Provost. So began the House of Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford. Not until 1329 did the King’s cousin Master James of Spain, give to the new college the house called the Oriel, by which name the foundation came to be known. That, however, is another story.

So as Oriel begins in earnest its plans to celebrate seven centuries of study and learning, one can recall those first beginnings just as King Edward’s governance began to disintegrate, and say with heart and voice “Floreat Oriel”

Tuesday 23 April 2024

Donatello’s St George

Today, being St George’s feast day, I fulfilled a long term wish and bought online a small copy of Donatello’s statue of the saint. It is usually dated to 1416-17 and is now in the Bargello in Florence: a modern copy occupies the original niche on the Orsanmichele.

Above and below: St. George, marble, by Donatello, 1415-1417, 2.14 m height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). As one of 14 sculptures commissioned by the guilds of Florence to decorate the external niches of the Orsanmichele church (see also Donatello’s statue of St. Mark, above), the statue of St. George was commissioned by the guild of the armorers and sword makers (the Arte dei Corazzai e Spadai). During the several St. George’s feast days throughout the year, the guild placed intricate metal adornments including a sword, helmet, and belt on the statue creating a spectacular contrast of metal against marble. St. George was the patron saint of the armorer’s guild.

MSt George by DonatelMBargello FloreImage: uen.pressbooks.pub

"in the head of this saint the beauty of youth, courage and valour in arms, and a terrible ardour. Life itself seems to be stirring vigorously within the stone." 
                     Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

There are numerous online articles about the statue, of which the following, whilst telling much the same story, do make individual comments that refine one’s appreciation of the work:

Saint George (Donatello) from Wikipedia, Saint GeorgeDonatello’s St. GeorgeSt George by DONATELLO and St George and the Dragon by DONATELLO from WebGallery of Art, Saint George and DonatelloSaint George by DonatelloDonatelloSt. George by Donatello and Monumental Art: Donatello’s St George from Oxford’s own Cherwell

Some of these accounts are better than others in placing the creation of the statue in its historical context in Florence, but it is worth reflecting on what was happening in 1416-17. The Italian peninsula was beset, as usual, by factional and regional, and also international rivalries hovering in the background. The Council of Constance was in session and slowly finding its way to resolving the Great Schism of 1378, in western Europe King Henry V was the victor of Agincourt in 1415 and preparing to invade France again in 1417. In Portugal his cousins had captured Ceuta in Africa in 1415 and one of them, Dom Henry the Navigator, was going to become the sponsor of the exploration of the west coast of Africa and the Atlantic. In central Europe the various realms were digesting the meaning of the Hussite revolt and of the Polish victory over the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald/Tannenberg in 1410, and to the south tge Turks were advancing against what little remained of Byzantium, the Balkan principalities and Catholic Hungary.

It was a time of uncertainty, of promise, of ambition, of conflict, a time to be born and a time to die. The vitality and turmoil of the age was captured in the art, the art reflects back all the emotions, the hopes and fears, the strengths and vulnerabilities of contemporaries. 

How little the world has really changed, for all that has changed, be it for good or ill.

St George Pray for us

Sunday 21 April 2024

Sourcing silver for Anglo-Saxon coinage

The Mail Online and some other sources reported recently on an interesting and important piece of research published in Antiquity about the sources for silver used to make coins in England in the period 660-820. This divides supplies clearly between two sources and consequently into two periods, with the change happening around 750. Before that date the silver appears to come from Byzantine sources in table and similar ware. After the mid-eighth century the silver was being mind western France. That more or less coincides with the accession of King Offa of Mercia in 757 and his documented trading relationship with the Carolingians in succeeding decades.

The Mail article can be seen at Unravelling the mystery of England's Dark Age coins

There is a similar account from the BBC News website at Anglo-Saxon silver coin source mystery solved

Medievalists.net has a rather more detailed summary of the research and it can be read at Early medieval money mystery solved

This is an interesting piece of research not just in what it reveals but also in its combination of numismatics with archaeology, documentary sources and understanding of economic history both in theory as to money supply and in the reality of trade over long distances, together with modern scientific methods of analysis. As a result we have what appears to be a cogent and coherent argument that elegantly links together all the available evidence.

Saturday 20 April 2024

Still looking for King John’s treasure

When The Queen went on Maundy Thursday to Worcester Cathedral to distribute the Royal Maundy on behalf of The King I assume that the Bishop and Chapter pointed out that the first monarch known to have distributed the Maundy in this country, in the year 1212, was King John, whose tomb lies before the high altar.

King John has had a ‘bad press’ and despite the efforts of serious historians to challenge the prevailing popular narrative, he is usually remembered as, in Seller and Yeatman’s classic system, a “Bad King”. Shakespeare’s distinctly idiosyncratic retelling of the reign - no mention of Magna Carta, but a lot of trouble caused by the Pope for the Elizabethan audience - cannot make King John a hero king nor a martyr king. He is a Lear with bathos, not pathos.

Historically his reign is a series of melodramatic crises and losses - the loss of Normandy and Anjou, the loss of his nephew Arthur, the loss of the clash with Pope Innocent III over the appointment of Stephen Langton, the loss of the confidence of a substantial part of the political nation leading to Magna Carta, and the loss of his treasure in the Wash just before his death in 1216. 

King John effigy in Worcester Cathedral Magna Carta

King John – detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. 

Image: copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral.

He does manage nevertheless to still look a little smug and not a little truculent in his effigy, which is often dated to about 1225, a man bowed perhaps, but not broken, as indeed one of his biographers, R.V.Turner, sees him.  

I will admit to having a somewhat more favourable view of King John than the traditional one, if only because we have the same Christian name. Undoubtedly John did do a number of unattractive, cruel and malicious things, but as some of his biographers have seen he did things with flair and panache. He is the entertaining villain who the audience secretly cheers on. He was also unlucky - unlucky in the resolve of his opponents and also just plain unlucky as with the collapse of his grand strategy in 1214 to recover his lost lands in France, or the loss of his treasure in 1216.
There is something about the loss of the baggage train from Lincolnshire Live at The lost treasure in Lincolnshire missing for 100s of years 

In respect of the treasure I wrote the other year about a claim that the site of King John’s treasure had been identified. That story goes back to a metal detectorist’s theories as set out in 2017 by the BBC at The lost jewels of Bad King John

Nothing seems to have come from that so far but according to Yahoo News a new line of research has been triggered by plans to erect yet another proposed solar farm. The article can be read at Excavation looks to solve mystery of King John's lost treasure after 800 years 

There is more about the prospect in an article from the Eastern Daily Press at Could new Norfolk search solve 800-year-old riddle of King John's lost treasure?

The borderlands of Lincolnshire and Norfolk where the Wellstream once flowed have changed very much over eight centuries and locating where the opening of the Wellstream into the Wash was is one thing, but whither the currents may have carried the contents of the baggage train is another matter. Various villages and towns strung out along the Old Sea Bank road are suggested for the site of the disaster.

The Newark Advertiser - which has an interest in the story because King John died at the castle in the town only days after the loss of his treasure - reports and speculates on the possibilities of finding the lost treasure at ‘One in a million chance’ of finding King John’s treasure with new search to get under way

The Daily Telegraph in 2022 reported on research that explains the scale of the incoming tide which swamped the baggage train, and includes a useful map. This can be seen at How King John really lost the Crown Jewels... according to an astronomer

Returning to Worcester, to whose Anglo-Saxon saints Oswald and Wulfstan the far from noticeably pious King had a strong devotion, the Cathedral Library and Archive blog has an interesting account of the King’s last Christmas spent at the cathedral priory in 1214. Both the cathedral and city were still recovering from a serious fire in 1202. Even as his authority crumbled this was still planned as a major event. It also describes some of the items which may have been swallowed by the Wellstream less than two years later and illustrates a fragment of the King’s shroud at Christmas 1214: King John at Worcester

The blog also writes about the King’s devotion to SS Oswald and Wulfstan in 1218 –Rededicating the Cathedral to Saints Wulfstan and Oswald

Tuesday 16 April 2024

More relics from the battlefield at Culloden

Today is the 278th anniversary of the battle of Culloden in 1746. 

The battlefield near Inverness quite often makes the news, and often due to perceived threats to the integrity of the site as not all of it is owned and managed as a heritage asset. Fortunately there are resolute voices to speak out for its protection.

Small finds from the site also occur and The National recently reported on one, which might even be assignable to a known individual. Their  article can be seen at Archaeologists announce 'intriguing' finds at site of Battle of Culloden

Although as the article says it is ultimately unknowable if the shoe buckle really did belong to Cameron of Lochiel it is an intriguing idea. The idea that it might brings a more individual note to something as mundane as a broken buckle and a link to a family whose strong loyalty to the Stuart cause was a century old at Culloden, and whose current head was recently ennobled as a Life Peer and government minister in the Lords - his Jacobite peerage not withstanding.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Medieval elite horses in Westminster

Analysis of a substantial number of medieval equine skeletons found in what was clearly a recognised burial place for the animals in Westminster has indicated something of the range of horses that were available and that they came from a variety of breeds. It also suggests that it was very definitely a case of ‘different horses for different courses’ when it came to their use.

The site is on Elverton Street which lies close to the site of the medieval Palace of Westminster and may well therefore indicate the ownership of the animals. It is clear that some at least of the horses were definitely from the equine elite.

Of the more than seventy horses on the site teeth from fifteen were studied and at least seven shown to have come from Scandinavia or the western Alps. Some of the horses were dated to the period 1425-1517, but others could be earlier or later.

New Scientist has a article about the research at Medieval horses buried in London had far-flung origins

There is perhaps more detail from a historian’s point of view in an article about the cemetary from Medieval Histories at What warhorse would you shop for if you were a Medieval knight?

This article suggests a likely source for some of the horses being the Cistercian abbey stud at Esrum in north Zeeland in Denmark. This had a long tradition of breeding quality horses, and which still survives today as the Frederiksborger.

I wrote in 2022 about recent research into the size of English cavalry horses in the period 300 to 1650, and urged interested readers to look at the original report rather than the more journalistic digest. My post and the related links can be found at The size of English medieval warhorses

Saturday 13 April 2024

The taste of Roman wine

The Conversation has an article, based on one by the author in Antiquity which argues that, despite the non uncommon contemporary view that Roman wine was, by modern standards, distinctly inferior, the Romans did have a range of very palatable wines.

The secret appears to have lain in their method of fermentation with the wine developing in earthenware jars buried in the ground. This method has survived and still flourishes in
Georgia, producing wines that are still appreciated. Indeed there is apparently a revival of interest in them by modern practitioners in France and Italy.

The article, which reads at times like a wine tasting listing, can be seen at What did Roman wine taste like? Much better than previously thought, according to new research 

Thursday 11 April 2024

More on medieval spectacles

I recently posted Medieval spectacles about the development and availability of ocular aids to reading in the medieval and early modern periods and I have now chanced upon a blog post which adds to the evidence.

Once you get past the slightly jokey opening paragraphs there is a lot of interest in the article, including more about King Henry VIII’s myopia and an illustration of what may be the spectacles of King James II and VII. There is also the argument made that by the fifteenth century in Flanders at least there were shops in which one could purchase ready-made spectacles as some do in chemists today, or maybe one found the best set and then the optician adjusted the lenses with further grinding. That maybe was what was available at the shops referred to in the article linked to in my original article.

The online article can be seen at medieval glasses – The Pragmatic Costumer

A significant villa site in north Berkshire

Building work at Grove, just north of Wantage in what is historically north Berkshire, has revealed significant remains of a Roman villa. It appears to have been a prominent part of the landscape and the local economy, noticeably bigger than others in the vicinity. The discovery is outlined in an article on the BBC News website at 'Remarkable' Roman villa discovered at Grove housing site

The Mail Online website also reports on the excavations at 'Remarkable' Roman villa is discovered in Oxfordshire

A whole series of discoveries, ganging from individual finds to full scale excavations have done much in recent years to fill-in the map of Roman Britain and to raise many important new possibilities and options for understanding and interpreting that period.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

A facelift for Anne of Cleves

The cleaning by the Louvre of their very well known Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves has attracted quite a bit of attention on the Internet. The cleaning has transformed it by revealing a rich blue background and the red tones of the dress, whilst Anne herself has regained a more youthful and attractive appearance and completion. Commentators have also drawn attention to Holbein’s mastery of portraiture. Although it has been studied this very well known portrait has apparently not been cleaned or restored since at least 1793, and quite possibly not since it’s completion in 1539.

Whether or not Holbein flattered Anne in his portrait remains unclear - all the other evidence we have suggests he was a supremely skilled and faithful portrait painter. The miniature which used to be identified as Catherine Howard is now suggested, on the basis of the age of the sitter and the jewels she is wearing,  to be actually of Anne of Cleves. I am inclined to accept that reassignment and in that she looks less attractive, if not slightly truculent. If that miniature was painted as her situation changed from being Queen Consort to the King’s adoptive sister, but as she calculated the not inconsiderable deal she had bargained for herself, then it too may reflect something of this clearly formidable north German Ducal highness.

The Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the restoration by the Louvre at See the Portrait That Made Henry VIII Fall in Love With Anne of Cleves, Newly Restored to Its Former Glory

The On the Tudor Trail website has an account which looks in more detail at the painting and the details of Anne’s costume and jewellery by her biographer Heather R. Darsie and which can be seen at Restoration of Anna of Cleves Holbein Portrait

Bosun’s whistles

The history of the bosun’s whistle and its distinctive shrill ear piercing sound is recounted in an article in the Daily Telegraph by Graeme Lawson, a researcher into the history and archaeology of sound and of music. In it he focuses in particular on the four examples of bosun’s whistles found on the Mary Rose when the ship was excavated and conserved. He also indicated how the whistles with distinctive notes could serve as a means of on-board communication in the days of sail amidst the noise of the sea, of hoisting sails and other routine maritime tasks, as well, presumably, of armed combat. From some of his quotations it could also have been a source of off-duty recreation.

Monday 8 April 2024

New evidence for the origins of Crowland Abbey

The website of Ancient Origins has a report of excavations at Anchor Church Field which lies to the east of the evocative remains of the medieval abbey at Crowland ( Croyland ) in south Lincolnshire. The abbey was the shrine of the Mercian warrior prince turned hermit St Guthlac who died in 714. An important early life written by one Felix in the period 730-40 survives of the Saint and it is an important source not just for the life of Guthlac but for the conditions in the Fens in that period. The already tonsured Guthlac was seeking a remote place of solitude:

There is in the midland regions of Britain a most terrible fen of immense size, which begins at the banks of the river Gronta [now the Cam] not far from the little fort which is called Gronte [Cambridge]; now in fens, now in flashes, sometimes in black oozes swirling with mist, but also with many islands and groves, and interrupted by the braiding of meandering streams … up to the sea … … When [Guthlac] was questioning the nearest inhabitants as to their experience of this solitude … a certain … Tatwine declared that he knew another island in the more remote and hidden parts of this desert (heremi); many had tried to live there but had rejected it because of the unknown monsters of the desert and the divers kinds of terrors. Guthlac, the man of blessed memory, heard this and besought his informant to show him the place. … It is called Crugland [‘Barrowland’, now Crowland], an island sited in the middle of the fen … no settler had been able to dwell there before … because of the fantastic demons living there. Here Guthlac, the man of God … began to dwell alone among the shady groves of the solitude … He loved the remoteness of the place which God had given him… . There was in the said island a barrow … which greedy visitors to the solitude had dug and excavated in order to find treasure there; in the side of this there appeared to be a kind of tank; in which Guthlac … began to live, building a shanty over it.”

From Felix’s Life of St Guthlac cited by Oliver Rackham in History of the Countryside.

Recent excavations have revealed in Anchor Church Field the foundations of what appears to have been a substantial medieval hermitage ( ‘anchor’ ) and place of pilgrimage but that underlying this are the remains of not only a Bronze Age barrow but also a large henge. The theory now being advanced is that the 26 year old St Guthlac and the two servants he brought with him reoccupied the area of the long abandoned henge, possibly also along with his sister St Pega - who is commemorated at nearby Peakirk.

This is a very interesting addition to our understanding of Crowland both in terms of the time of St Guthlac and also his subsequent commemoration. It is in some ways reminiscent of the relationship between the abbey at Glastonbury and St Michael’s chapel on the Tor and with the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, or that of Lichfield Cathedral and St Chad’s church, inked by St Chad’s Pool.

The illustrated article from Ancient Origins with links, can be seen at Saint Guthlac’s Realm: Massive Stone Age Henge Discovered in Lincolnshire

There is another, in some ways more detailed, account from Newsweek which can be read at Archaeologists discover massive prehistoric henge in 'rare' find


I realise I ought to remedy a failing on my part and read the complete text of Felix’s Life of St Guthlac rather than just sharing in the better known citations from the work.

Thursday 4 April 2024

A purse full of coins from circa 1240

A interesting hoard of silver coins found at Watton in Norfolk is reported upon by the BBC News website. It has been declared to be treasure and it is hoped that a museum will acquire it. 

The sixty nine coins are all short cross pennies - in some cases literally divided into half pennies and quarter pennies - and no later in date than 1247 when the recoinage resulted in short cross pennies giving way to long cross pennies. Given that they include issues of the Angevin kings starting in 1180 as well as of King Henry III, and three of King William the Lion of Scots, they indicate the range of coins someone could expect to handle at the time.
My old Oxford acquaintance Adrian Marsden is the numismatic expert who has commented on the find in the article and suggests it may have been a purse belonging to a trader.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

The Hallaton Roman helmet

The reason I stumbled upon the story of the Hallaton bottle rolling custom was not that I was looking online for Easter traditions but for information about the Roman helmet which was discovered in fragments along with other precious objects at Hallaton in 2000. This is due to go back on display at the Market Harborough Museum along with a replica to indicate what it once liked like. 

The reason for that is because this helmet is both from the earliest years of the Roman presence in Britain and because it is a very rare survival of elaborate parade armour, decorated in silver and gold. It was found at what appears to have been a local shrine and may have been a votive offering. 

The initial report I saw about it was on Wikipedia at Hallaton Helmet and for the rest of the hoard of Iron Age coins at Hallaton Treasure

This past weekend the BBC News website also  had a detailed article which can be seen at Unlocking the secrets of the 'bling' Roman helmet found in a field and there is also an earlier article from them at Unique Roman helmet found in Leicestershire field on display again

Tuesday 2 April 2024

More about Easter customs

Having written yesterday about the Hallaton tradition of bottle rolling on Easter Monday I see that The Spectator has an article about this local event and it does include a photograph of the cutting of the hare pie at Hallaton in 1920. The article looks at a range of  traditional customs, some ancient, some relatively recent, by which Easter is celebrated across the country.

The article can be seen at England’s forgotten Easter traditions

Monday 1 April 2024

Bottle kicking at Hallaton

I have written previously about several surviving ancient village or town games played on religious feasts as in the instances of the Haxey Hood at Epiphany and the Shrove Tuesday traditions of football matches at Atherstone, Ashbourne and Alnwick, as well as that of the Corfe Marblers in Dorset - and, of course, the Olney pancake race.

Now the curious serendipity of the internet led me just the other week, whilst researching an entirely different subject, to another of these games, and one of which I was unaware. That is the bottle kicking at Hallaton in south-east Leicestershire. It is held each year on Easter Monday. This is another rough and tumble match with another, neighbouring village, Medbourne ( which always has to lose the game ), and with the partial involvement of a third community. The game is first recorded in the 1770s but is doubtless much older on the basis of its similarities to other such events, not least the lack of rules.

Wikipedia has an account of the game and its particular, and quite complicated traditions at Bottle-kicking

Such games were doubtless a means in the middle ages and succeeding centuries ( whatever their possible origins ) for the young men and boys of a village to burn off pent up energy at the time of a religious celebration or to have an opportunity for being boisterous before the return to work, as at Haxey. A much more recent, and controlled, version was the sponsoring of football and rugby clubs by churches as well as employers in the nineteenth century to keep young men from idleness and drinking by playing or watching team sports.