Halloween in Wales

As I sit here munching candy corn (which my 16 year old at one point declared ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate–though he can’t have any because he’s allergic to corn), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits. All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’. From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Read more…


Norman Christianity

Today we’ll be talking about Norman Christianity. Dan: In an earlier video, you said the Normans were descended from Vikings, who were pagan. But they weren’t pagan when they conquered England? No, they had converted to Christianity in the same time period as most of the Danes from whom they were descended, such that by 1066, when Duke William fought Harold at the Battle of Hastings, his people had been Christian for a hundred and fifty years. To recap, because I think it’s worth repeating, the Normans are called “Norman” because they came from Normandy, a province in France. But as we said in a prior video, ‘Viking’ is an occupation, not an ethnic group. They are descended from the same Danish diaspora that invaded Ireland, Britain, Sicily, and western Russia. They were eventually either defeated or assimilated in all Read more…


Dumbarton

Dumbarton has the longest recorded history of any castle in Scotland, and back in the era we are talking about, it was actually controlled by the Welsh. Dumbarton actually means “Fortress of the Britons” in Gaelic. Dumbarton Rock, on which the fortress is built, is an in-filled crater of a volcano that was active 350 million years ago. The first mention of Dumbarton is by St. Patrick, whom you may recall was a native Briton, who mentions it in a letter written in the 5th century. It was also named by Nennius, whom we discussed in our video about King Arthur, as one of the 28 cities of sub-Roman Britain. According to legend, both Merlin and Arthur visited, and Geoffrey of Monmouth (who we also mentioned in the context of the Arthurian legend) writes that the castle was besieged by Read more…


Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne is an island off the northeastern coast of Britain, and accessibly only when the tidal flats are exposed. The island started out, as all of England once did, as a British settlement. But by the 6th century, the Angles had taken it over, and the Historia Brittonum recounts the last attempt of the British, led by Urien of Rheged, to retake the island. The British were defeated, and the Saxons maintained control of the island ever since. As we talked about in the introduction to Saxon religion, the initial conversion to Christianity of the Saxons of northern England and Scotland was led by Christian missionaries from Ireland, having been converted earlier by the British Saint Patrick. The monastery at Lindisfarne was actually founded by the Irish saint, Aiden, and became the seat of Christian evangelism stretching all the way Read more…


St. Mary’s in Castro (Saxon Church at Dover)

We talked about Dover Castle last season, but it’s worth revisiting, in large part for the same reason we devoted a video to it before: the long history of occupation. Specifically, in regards to the Saxons, Dover was one of the first places William the Conqueror conquered—and thankfully, he left the original Saxon church intact for us to visit to this day and, according to English Heritage, is the ‘largest and finest Saxon building in Kent’. The first record of the church at Dover is around 630 AD, when the records talk about a church built within the castle, which is where it gets its name Saint Mary in Castro. This is in the time of Eadbald, son of Æthelberht, the first Saxon king to convert to Christianity. Credence is given to the idea that the structure we see today Read more…


Saxon Religion

Are you saying the Saxon religion wasn’t Christianity? Not initially. We’ve spent the last ten videos or so talking about Christianity, but as I discussed way back in the beginning of last season, Britain was conquered by waves of ethnic groups. I mentioned five at the time: Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans. The Romans brought Christianity to Britain, after which a significant number of Britons converted to it. By the time the Romans left, there were enough Christians in Britain to create a contrast to the Saxon invaders who were polytheistic. This contrast between pagan and Christian was highlighted by the Britons themselves at the time and after the fact. The worst crime, according to the annals, was that, in the middle of the 5th century, the British Christian king Vortigern invited these pagan Saxons into Britain, as a Read more…


Tintagel

  We are talking about Tintagel today because it is associated with King Arthur as the place he was conceived. This comes only, however, from Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote his highly fantastical History of the Kings of Britain in the early 12th century. Honestly, Geoffrey’s work is so ahistorical that the fact he claims Arthur was there is reason enough to doubt the veracity of the legend. As he tells it, Arthur’s farther was turned into the likeness of Gorlois, Igraine’s husband, and thus he slept with her, and she conceived Arthur. Even with the unlikeliness of this particular aspect of the story, Tintagel does have a fascinating history. The castle, as it exists today, was begun in the 12th century by Earl Reginald, brother to Robert of Gloucester, for whom Geoffrey wrote his history  to justify the Norman Read more…


King Arthur: did he exist?

I have A LOT to say about King Arthur, most of which can’t fit into a five minute video. But we can make a start. Perhaps the most important question everyone wants answered about King Arthur is: did he exist? Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either lived or he didn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records, much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘didn’t—or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possibly wasn’t even a king. I, however, look at the poetry and tales from the early Middle Ages, and choose to believe he did actually exist. Medieval people certainly thought he did, and throughout Read more…


Kentigern and Asaph

Today we’ll be talking about St. Kentigern’s Monastery in St. Asaph. Wait a minute, that’s two saints. Yes, it is, and in the case of this particular monastery, it’s a bit confusing because the monastery was founded by St. Kentigern, and then it was taken over by a second saint, Asaph, for which the town was named. In fact, unless you do some research, you might never know that the monastery in St. Asaph was initially founded by Kentigern at all. Two weeks ago, in my introduction to early monastic houses, I explained that they weren’t organized along the lines that we have come to know from the later Middle Ages, in that each would belong to a particular order: Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian, Franciscan, or Dominican. Each had their particular ‘rule’ they followed, the monks wore different colored robes, had Read more…


Gwenffrewi

Today we’ll be talking about Gwenffrewi, an early Welsh saint, who endowed an abbey and a sacred well. She is the only woman so credited, which seems a woeful gap in the record. Still, the legend of Gwenffrewi, or Winifred in English, follows a similar pattern to that of her male counterparts in that she was born noble. After that, her story takes quite a dark turn. As was written down in the 12th century, she had a suitor who was enraged at her rejection of him to the point that he decapitated her. A healing spring flowed from the spot upon which her head fell, and then St. Bueno, her uncle, restored her head to her body. After this miracle Beuno turned to her suitor, Caradog, who is described as leaning on his sword and unrepentant, called up to Read more…


Priories and Abbeys

Churches and wells were used by the general population for worship. Priories and abbeys–monasteries in other words–in early Christianity served the same purpose they did in the later middle ages, in that they were places where actual monks and nuns lived. However, these monasteries were often founded by the same saints as the churches and wells. If you recall from the video about St. Cybi two weeks ago, he is credited with the creation of a healing well on the Llyn Penninsula, but he established a monastery at Holyhead on Anglesey. The same was true of St. Seiriol, who had a well at Penmon but also established a monastery there and on Puffin island. Also working in the same time period on Anglesey alone were St. Meched and St. Caffo, both of whom founded monasteries of their own. In this Read more…


St. Seiriol’s Well

Seiriol lived in the 6th century, and, according to legend, regularly used to meet St. Cybi at a central rendezvous on Anglesey. As the story goes, Seiriol traveled with his back to the sun in the morning and returned with his face to the east in the afternoon, and thus became known as Seiriol the Pale, while Cybi became known as Cybi the Tanned. Seiriol himself was a younger brother of King Cynlas of Rhos and King Einion of Ll?n. His cell adjacent to the well is said to have been rebuilt by his brothers, as they didn’t think his humble residence was good enough. The well lies in a small chamber and the building adjacent to its remains might have once been part of the lower stone walls St. Seiriol’s church in the 6th Century. If so, this would make it the oldest remaining Christian building Read more…