Tag Archives: ancient Britain

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King Stephen

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King Stephen’s reign was full of turmoil because of the conflict between him and King Henry’s daughter, Maud (Matilda).  Both claimed the throne of England and tore the country apart trying to get it.  Maud was supported by her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester (the employer of Geoffrey of Monmouth, see:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=341), who couldn’t claim the throne because he was a bastard.  Otherwise, he was the richest and most powerful man in England behind Stephen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a very lengthy entry on the time of King Stephen, and (in fact) ends with his death in 1154.  The Chronicle describes the brutality of events and reads, in part: “When King Stephen came to England, he held his council at Oxford; where he seized the Bishop Roger of Sarum, and Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephew; and threw all into prison till they gave up their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they no truth maintained. They were all forsworn, and forgetful of their troth; for every rich man built his castles, which they held against him: and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-works; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men. . . . I neither can, nor may I tell all the wounds and all the pains which they inflicted on wretched men in this land. This lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king; and it grew continually worse and worse. . . . To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints.” (James Ingram translation)

“Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror and about half-dozen years older than his cousin and rival for the throne, Matilda (daughter of Henry I). After his father’s death in 1102, Stephen was raised by his uncle, Henry I. Henry was genuinely fond of Stephen, and granted his nephew estates on both sides of the English Channel. By 1130, Stephen was the richest man in England and Normandy.

. . . Stephen had promised to recognize his cousin Matilda as lawful heir, but like many of the English/Norman nobles, was unwilling to yield the crown to a woman. He received recognition as king by the papacy through the machinations of his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and gathered support from the barons. Matilda was in Anjou at the time of Henry’s death and Stephen, in a rare exhibition of resolve, crossed the Channel and was crowned king by the citizens of London on December 22, 1135.

Stephen’s first few years as king were relatively calm but his character flaws were quickly revealed. Soon after his coronation, two barons each seized a royal castle in different parts of the country; unlike his hot-tempered and vengeful Norman predecessors, Stephen failed to act against the errant barons. Thus began the slow erosion of Stephen’s authority as increasing numbers of barons did little more than honor their basic feudal obligations to the king. Stephen failed to keep law and order as headstrong barons increasingly seized property illegally. He granted huge tracts of land to the Scottish king to end Scottish and Welsh attacks on the frontiers. He succumbed to an unfavorable treaty with Geoffrey of Anjou to end hostilities in Normandy. Stephen’s relationship with the Church also deteriorated: he allowed the Church much judicial latitude (at the cost of royal authority) but alienated the Church by his persecution of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury in 1139. Stephen’s jealous tirade against Roger and his fellow officials seriously disrupted the administration of the realm.

Matilda, biding her time on the continent, decided the time was right to assert her hereditary rights.” With her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda invaded England in the fall of 1139. Betwen them, they dominated western England by 1141. “Robert captured Stephen in battle at Lincoln; Stephen’s government collapsed and Matilda was recognized as Queen. The contentious and arrogant Matilda quickly angered the citizens of London and was expelled from the city. Stephen’s forces rallied, captured Robert, and exchanged the Earl for the King. Matilda had been defeated but the succession remained in dispute: Stephen wanted his son Eustace to be named heir, and Matilda wanted her son Henry fitzEmpress to succeed to the crown. Civil war continued until Matilda departed for France in1148. The succession dispute remained an issue, as the virtually independent barons were reluctant to choose sides from fear of losing personal power. The problem of succession was resolved in 1153 when Eustace died and Henry came to England to battle for both his own rights and those of his mother. The two sides finally reached a compromise with the Treaty of Wallingford – Stephen would rule unopposed until his death but the throne would pass to Henry of Anjou.”  http://www.britannia.com/history/monarchs/mon25.html

For Wales, Stephen’s reign allowed some measure of rewnewed sovereignty, most notably under the rule of Owain Gwynedd

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The Wool Trade

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Edward I was the first English monarch to tax the wool trade–to help pay, as always, for his wars.

Sheep have been herded in Wales since possibly the Celts, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when sheep first came to Wales.  “Excavations show that in about 6000 BC, during the Neolithic period of prehistory, the Castelnovien people, living around Chateauneuf-les-Martigues near present-day Marseille in the south of France, were among the first in Europe to keep domestic sheep. Practically from its inception, ancient Greek civilization relied on sheep as primary livestock, and were even said to name individual animals. Scandinavian sheep of a type seen today — with short tails and multi-colored fleece — were also present early on.

Later, the Roman Empire kept sheep on a wide scale, and the Romans were an important agent in the spread of sheep raising throughout the continent. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia), speaks at length about sheep and wool.  Declaring “Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece.”  He goes on to detail the breeds of ancient sheep and the many colors, lengths and qualities of wool. Romans also pioneered the practice of blanketing sheep, in which a fitted coat (today usually of nylon) is placed over the sheep to improve the cleanliness and luster of its wool.

During the Roman occupation of the British Isles, a large wool processing factory was established in Winchester, England in about 50 AD.  By 1000 AD, England and Spain were recognized as the twin centers of sheep production in the Western world.” (See Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep#In_Europe for citations)

“Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century and at the time the trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”! To this day the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.

As the wool trade increased the great landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries, in particular the Cistercian houses played a very active part in the trade, which pleased the king who was able to levy a tax on every sack of wool that was exported.

From the Lake District and Pennines in the north, down through the Cotswolds to the rolling hills of the West Country, across to the southern Downs and manors of East Anglia, huge numbers of sheep were kept for wool. Flemish and Italian merchants were familiar figures in the wool markets of the day ready to buy wool from lord or peasant alike, all for ready cash. The bales of wool were loaded onto pack-animals and taken to the English ports such as Boston, London, Sandwich and Southampton, from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa.”  http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/England-History/wooltrade.htm

John Davies writes, in his History of Wales, in regards to the newly formed chain of Cistercian monestaries in Wales:  ” . . . for the monks were granted thousands of hectares of grazing land, where they pioneered the Welsh woollen industry; there is very little evidence that sheep were important to the Welsh economy before the coming of the Cistercians” (2007:126).

It certainly became important as The Welsh National Wool Museum can attest:  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/wool/

“Power notes three breeds as accounting for most wool production in the Middle Ages, Ryeland, Cotswold and Lincoln. Ryeland was the most famous of short-woolled breeds, grown in the country between the Severn and the marches of Wales, and was largely responsible for the ‘Lemster ore’, the golden fleece of England. The bulk of the fine wool exported in the Middle Ages came from two long-woolled breeds, however, Cotswold and Lincoln and in the fifteenth century the largest source of fine wool seems to have been the Cotswolds.”  http://www.wildfibres.co.uk/html/sheep_history.html

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The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:

Zosimus

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.

Bede

449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.

Nennius

453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.

http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBbestest.html

It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.

 

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Was King Arthur real?

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Whether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’–or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.  In another blog (here), I list the original sources that posit the existence of King Arthur.

Obviously, since I’ve written a novel about King Arthur, he’s very real to me!

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough analysis of the subject:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Arthur

For now, I’d like to point to two aspects of the ‘wasn’t’ camp that I find particularly interesting, as they have to do with the development of Welsh myth and the transformation of Wales from a pagan culture to a Christian one.

One theory about King Arthur was that his stories were originally not about him at all, but about Gwydion, one of the sons of Don and a chief character in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  In these tales, Gwydion, while evident through much of the Mabinogi, is completely absent from the stories that include Arthur, implying that the ancient poet did a global ‘find and replace’. This theory was originally posited by Sir John Rhys, writing at the end of the 19th century.

The second curious aspect of the development of Arthur, which parallels the Gwydion relationship, is the way in which the character adopted not only the characteristics of Gwydion, but of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last ‘King’ of Wales (died 682 AD).  Included in the books of Taliesin are not only poems about Arthur, but also about Cadwaladr.  It is Cadwaladr whom the Welsh tales describe as sleeping in a cave on Mount Snowdon, and whose return the Welsh await (see my post on The Great Prophecy of Britain).

I would love for Arthur to have been a ‘real’ person, but I find the discovery of the way in which myth becomes ‘real’, as well as the ‘real’ becomes myth fascinating.  It is almost a parallel process:  many scholars of celtic myth believe that the stories of the Don or Tuatha de Dannan (in Ireland) were once ‘real’ to the people who told them, but with the coming of Christianity, their tales were either adopted and transformed into Christian parable, or faded into the realm of fable.  Similarly, Gwydion (a mythic character) or Cadwaladr (a ‘real’ one) might have had their stories blended into the tale of King Arthur–for Gywdion, the stories were sanitized and made palatable for Christian audiences, and for Cadwaladr, his story was submerged into the tale of an already more famous and reknowned hero and thus made more ‘mythic’.

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Possible King Arthur (s)

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I have very definite opinions about who King Arthur was, as evidenced by my book, Cold My Heart, as well as the numerous posts I’ve written on the subject. That said, his identity is up for debate …

The web site, Early British Kingdoms, has an entire section devoted to King Arthur, particularly who he could have been if he wasn’t ‘Arthur’, as no leader of that name in the middle 6th century or earlier seems to fit that profile.

The possibilities are quite endless, especially if you consider Scots as well as Welsh rulers.  For example, Norma Lorre Goodrich places Arthur at Carlisle (as Camelot) and as Arthur ic Uibar, in her book ‘King Arthur’.   In the book “Arturius – A Quest for Camelot,” David Carroll suggests that King Arthur is, in fact, the historical late 6th century Prince Artuir, eldest son of King Aidan of Dalriada. Carroll believes that Artuir ruled Manau Gododdin, the narrow coastal region on the south side of the the Firth of Forth, during his father’s Dalriadan reign. He died at the Battle of the Miathi in 582.  Carroll equates this with Camlann and places it in the same kingdom. “What is more natural than for this Prince to make his capital at the old Roman Fort of Colania (which Carroll refers to as Ad Vallum) in the centre of Manau Gododdin, a place called Camelot in the past and still called Camelon today?” http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/camelon.html

In an earlier post, I postulated that Arthur could be a substitute for Gwydion, son of Don, one of the Welsh mythological heroes, as well as his links to Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, especially given that ‘Cadwaladr’ means ‘battle-leader’, the title attributed to Arthur (Dux Bellorum) by Nennius, rather than ‘king’.

Other possibilities abound,  however.  This site, makes an argument in favor of a Prince Arthur in Scotland, who had a daughter named Gwenwynwyn.  Another argues that Arthur was really Cuneglas (or Cynglas in Welsh) one of the five tyrants named in Gildas’ writings (one of the stumbling blocks to belief that Arthur existed is that Gildas does not mention him).  Gildas writes:

“Why have you been rolling in the filth of your past wickedness,you bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold, despiser of God and oppressor of his lot, Cuneglasus, in Latin ‘red butcher’? Why do you wage such a war against men and God? – against men, that is our countrymen, with arms special to yourself, against God with infinite sins. Why, aside from countless other lapses, have you rejected your own wife and now, against the ban of the apostle, who says that adulterers cannot be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, do you cast your eyes, with all the reverence (or rather dullness) of your mind, on her villainous sister, although she has promised to God perpetually chaste widowhood, like, as the poet says, the supreme tenderness of the dwellers in heaven? Why do you provoke with continual injuries the groans and sighs of the holy men who are present in the flesh by your side; they are the teeth of an appalling lioness that will one day break your bones.”  http://www.angelfire.com/md/devere/gildas.html

Lovely stuff.  Mark Devere Davies writes further, in reference to the name Arthur as ‘bear’:  “It has long been recognized that Arthur best translates as “Bear” in Celtic. A marginal note on a 13th century copy of the “Historia Brittonum”, by Nennius(9th century) says that Arthur means “Ursus Horribilis”. No matter what the actual origin of the name, this earliest etymology is important as it shows beyond doubt that the ancients understood “Arthur” to mean “Bear”. A rival theory has been current for years which claims Arthur derives from the Roman Artorius. This is more of a speculation than a theory as no text supports such a reading. The name is always rendered as some variant of the Welsh Arthur, or is Latinized in various ways like Artus, Arturus, or Arturius. And it should be remembered that “Arthur” was most likely not a personal name at this time. The word is unrecorded as a personal name before the end of the sixth and early seventh century, when several “Arthurs” are known.”  http://www.angelfire.com/md/devere/urse.html

Din Arth, the Fort of the Bear, was Cuneglas’ home, located in the Kingdom of Rhos, one of the sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd.  It was situated above Colwyn Bay on Bryn Euryn.  “An oval enclosure was built in the 5th century at the highest point of the fort to form a sturdy inner sanctum. Along with the surrounding Iron Age enclosure, a layout similar to the motte and bailey castles of the Normans was achieved and the same arrangement can be seen just a few miles up the Conwy Valley at Pen-Y-Castell, on a rocky ridge high above the village of Maenan.”  http://www.castlewales.com/euryn.html

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The British (Welsh/Cymry) High Council

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What passes for the British government in 2011 (as in, the word ‘British’ is a misnomer since ‘British’ should refer to the original inhabitants of Britain, who are now called ‘Welsh’) has formed a coalition so it can govern.  Within British (and by that I mean Welsh/Cymry/Celtic) legend, a High Council–a Parliament of a sort–existed in the Dark Ages to choose a “high king”.  One of these high kings, according to legend, was King Arthur.  Later, during Arthur’s reign, he instituted his ’round table’, a gathering of equals, to discuss the troubles in his realm.  Or so the story goes.

But did this High Council ever exist?

The answer is ‘yes’–certainly during the reign of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  In 1282 when Edward I of England wrote his letters to Llywelyn and Dafydd, demanding that they concede defeat, he also wrote a letter to the ‘Council of Wales’, laying out his case.  To this they responded:

“The people of Snowdonia for their part state that even if the prince desired to give the king seisin of them, they themselves would not do homage to any stranger, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant. For by doing so they could be brought into perpetual captivity and barbarously treated . . .”  http://garthcelyn.com/letters_14.html

Our evidence for a council of ‘Britain’ (which in the post-Roman occupation period did include all of what is now England and Wales) is first and foremost, Gildas.  He writes:  “Then all the council members, together with that proud tyrant [theoretically, Vortigern], were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nation.”

From Robert Vermaat:  “What Gildas does not do is describe Vortigern as a sole ruler, or a ‘High King’ if you will. He rules as a king, but together with a Council, the members of which are rulers of their own territory. Gildas sees this as a logical but reprehensible evolution from the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, which has seen the progressive disintegration of the British territory from one single state (diocese) into several smaller kingdoms without overlord in Gildas’ day.

Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigern’s decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigern’s rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days.”  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gildvort.htm

That a council of Britain existed appears to have been a common understanding throughout the subsequent centuries, as Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century mentions it often.  He states that Britains ‘flocked together from all parts and in a council held at Silchester,’ and crowned Constantine High King;  furthermore, Aurelius holds a council in chapter 7 and 8 of book 6; and Arthur in chapter 1 and 16 of book 9.

Additional mention of some kind of council is found in the Chronicle of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest).  From 1096:  “And the Britons, having retreated to their strongest places, according to their usual custom, agreed in council to save Mona.”

Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur).  From 1220:  “Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, gathered to him the princes and leading men of all Wales. . .”

1258:  “In this year all the Welsh made a pact together, and they gave an oath to maintain loyalty and agreement together, under pain of excommunication upon whomsoever of them broke it.”

Certainly the power of the Council was not constant, and in part depended upon the unity of Wales as a whole and the individual authority of the ruling high king, and later Prince.

As to whether King Arthur was ever high king?  At this point, we just don’t know.

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King Owain Gwynedd

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The Good KnightOwain was born Owain ap Gruffydd around 1100 AD, the second son of Gruffydd ap Cynan.  Owain ruled from 1137 to 1170 AD.   His rule was marked by peace initially, at least with England, as Owain took advantage of the strife in England between Stephen and Maud for the English throne to consolidate his power in Wales.  That conflict lasted for 19 years (http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/owain-gwynedd.htm), finally resolving in the rule by Stephen but with the inheritance of the throne upon his death by Maud’s son, Henry.

Owain “married, firstly, Gwladys, the daughter of Llywarch ap Trahaearn; and secondly, Christina, his cousin, the daughter of Goronwy ap Owain ‘the Traitor,’ Lord of Tegeingle, to whom he remained constant despite the active disapproval of the Church.” He had many sons and daughters, not all of whom are documented.  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/owaingd.html

His first  relationship was with a woman named Pyfog, of Ireland, by whom he had two sons:  Rhun and Hywel.  Rhun, a most favored son, died in 1147.

“As a young man in the 1120s, Owain was largely associated with his elder brother, Cadwallon, in restoring Gwynedd’s prosperity on behalf of their ageing father. Together, they directed the military campaigns which added Meirionydd, Rhos, Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd to Gwynedd proper. Thus, at his accession to the throne, upon Gruffudd’s death in 1137 – Cadwallon having died five years earlier – the groundwork for an impressive career had already been firmly set.”  http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/owaingd.html

Owain did have to deal with his younger brother, Cadwaladr.  As with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the 13th century, Owain, as the second son, was a charismatic and strong ruler (and, apparently, fair).  His younger brother, Cadwaladr, had somewhat less honor and although the two split Gwynedd between them upon their father’s death, in 1143 Cadwaladr was implicated in the murder of Anarawd ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth.  Owain responded by sending his son, Hywel, to strip him of his lands in the north of Ceredigion and banished Cadwaladr to Ireland.

In response, Cadwaladr returned to Wales at the head of an army of mercenaries (this is the subject of Ellis Peter’s 20th Cadfael chronicle, The Summer of the Danes and my work in progress The Good Knight), to the extreme displeasure of his brother.  Cadwaladr was driven into permanent exile in 1155 AD.

Back to King Henry.  He gained power in 1154, ruling as Henry II.  In 1157, he attacked Wales.  His goal, as was generally the case for the English kings, was to force Owain to give up some of the lands he had gained at English expense, particularly in Powys, and to force Wales into the status of ‘dependent’ state, instead of ‘client’ state—an important difference in the eyes of both the Welsh and the English.

Henry II was, for the most part, not successful.  Other than an initial stalemate, Owain continued to rule Wales as he saw fit, and left a consolidated country for his heirs when he died in 1170.  Gwynedd was split among Owain’s many sons.  For problems with the succession, see http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/?p=770

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King Offa of Mercia

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Offa of Mercia ruled much of England from 757 AD to 29 July 796.  He was known primarily to history as the man who built–or organized the building of–’Offa’s Dyke’ the earthenwork wall that stretches the length of the border between England and Wales. Unfortunately, though we know the dates of his rule, some of what happened before and after, and the wars we fought, we know little of Offa as a man.

The date that he ruled is very exact for that time period because of the wall and the history surrounding it. He was buried in Bedford and succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith, whom Offa had consecrated as his heir before his death. “According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgfrith died after a reign of only 141 days. A letter written by Alcuin in 797 to a Mercian ealdorman named Osbert makes it apparent that Offa had gone to great lengths to ensure that his son Ecgfrith would succeed him. Alcuin’s opinion is that Ecgfrith “has not died for his own sins; but the vengeance for the blood his father shed to secure the kingdom has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.”

It is apparent that in addition to Ecgfrith’s consecration in 787, Offa had systematically gone about eliminating his dynastic rivals. This seems to have backfired, in that with Ecgfrith’s death, no close male relatives of Offa or Ecgfrith are recorded, and Coenwulf, Ecgfrith’s successor, was only distantly related to Offa’s line. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa_of_Mercia

Offa’s rule began as a result of violence:  “Æthelbald, who had ruled Mercia since 716, was assassinated in 757. According to a later continuation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (written anonymously after Bede’s death) the king was “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards”, though the reason why is unrecorded. Æthelbald was initially succeeded by Beornred, about whom little is known. The continuation of Bede comments that Beornred “ruled for a little while, and unhappily”, and adds that “the same year, Offa, having put Beornred to flight, sought to gain the kingdom of the Mercians by bloodshed.” It is possible that Offa did not gain the throne until 758, however, since a charter of 789 describes Offa as being in the thirty-first year of his reign.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa_of_Mercia

“After he gained power, he consolidated bordering the kingdoms Hwicce and Magonsæte into Mercia. Offa was opportunistic, as when the neighboring kingdom of Kent began to experience some political instability, he enforced himself as overlord of Kent and soon ruled the kingdom of Sussex as well. Offa’s kingdom began to threaten the Welsh kingdoms nearby and Offa soon went to war.

Offa built a series of earthen barriers, or dykes, as fortifications for his units in their war against Wales. It was built in such a way that the Welsh kingdoms would have to charge through a ditch, and then up a hill to gain access to the Mercian soldiers. This put the Welsh soldiers at a severe disadvantage and the Mercians at a tactical advantage. Today, Offa’s Wall makes up some of the border between Wales and England.”  http://yourdailyhistorylesson.tumblr.com/post/685845808/offa-of-mercia

We have no contemporary Mercian source that chronicles his reign.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been accused of being biased towards the West Saxons, who wrote it, and in light of the future reign of Alfred the Great.   Nennius, although he died during the reign of Offa’s son, only mentions him in the geneologies.  This could be because of Offa’s conflicts with the Church, either over the split in Archbishoprics between Canterbury and Lichfield (at Offa’s request) or the new date of Easter.  http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nennius_(DNB00)

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The Roman Conquest of Britain

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When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they crossed in three divisions, under the command of Aulus Plautius.  The ships are thought to have traveled from Boulogne to what is now Richborough, on the east coast of Kent.

The Romans operated on a shock and awe type of warfare and eleven tribes of southeast Britain surrendered to Claudius.  The Romans moved west and north from there,  establishing their new capital at Camulodunum.

It wasn’t until late in 47 AD that the new governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, began a campaign against the tribes of modern day Wales.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_conquest_of_Britain

“The ever-pugnacious Caratacus – the Caradog of Welsh legend – moved north to carry on the fight in the territory of the Ordovices in Anglesey and Caernarfon. There, in 51AD, he was defeated and his family captured.”

Later, the Silures defeated the forces sent against them in 52AD, and the grip of the Romans on their new British territory remained a troubled one. Fresh campaigns in 57 and 60AD struck deep into Welsh territory.

The latter campaign was directed at the seat of druidical power in Wales, the Isle of Anglesey. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the legionnaries doffed their clothes and swam naked across the Menai Straights to do battle with the druid-led Celts.”  .”   http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

“The novelty of the fight struck the Romans with awe and terror. They stood in stupid amazement, as if their limbs were benumbed, riveted to one spot, a mark for the enemy. The exhortations of the general diffused new vigor through the ranks, and the men, by mutual reproaches, inflamed each other to deeds of valor. They felt the disgrace of yielding to a troop of women, and a band of fanatic priests; they advanced their standards, and rushed on to the attack with impetuous fury. The Britons perished in the flames, which they themselves had kindled. The island fell, and a garrison was established to retain it in subjection. The religious groves, dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites, were leveled to the ground. In those recesses, the natives [stained] their altars with the blood of their prisoners, and in the entrails of men explored the will of the gods.”  http://www.bukisa.com/articles/37180_the-roman-invasion-of-wales#ixzz1GzLHSv8g

Just when it looked as if the Romans would be able to subdue the Welsh tribes, a revolt by the Iceni in Norfolk broke out, led by their queen, Boudicca (Boadicea). The Roman forces were diverted, and the Welsh territory remained under very tenuous Roman control for several years.”   http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

Despite this great victory on Anglesey, the Romans continued to have difficulties with the people of northwest Wales.  This is evidenced by the number of military installations in the area and the lack of villas.

“Throughout the second half of the 4th century the Empire became increasingly unstable; barbarian attacks on the borders increased, and it seems that the legions were gradually withdrawn from Wales to counter threats on the continent.

By 390AD there were probably no Roman troops remaining within the borders of Wales. In the next few decades most of the legionnaries in England followed and Brittania was esentially undefended.

The Irish saw their chance; in 405 pirates under Nial ravaged the western coast, and may have precipitated a fresh influx of Irish settlers.”  http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/roman-invasion.htm

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Leprosy

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Leprosy was one of the scourges of the Middle Ages–not so much because of scale, but because when a person caught it, their community cast them out.  The lazar house in the Brother Cadfael books, St. Giles, plays a significant role in the series.  In the movie, Kingdom of Heaven, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem is portrayed as a leper, which is historically accurate.  He ruled from 1174 to 1185.  The man who recognized he had the disease (instead of the Baron played by Liam Neeson) was William of Tyre, later Archbishop and Chancellor.  As you can see from the following article, the rest of the movie is entirely fictive as well:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_IV_of_Jerusalem

Leprosy, also known as ‘Hansen’s Disease’, is a contagious disease caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, which is why it is curable post-antibiotics.  Left untreated, leprosy is often progressive, causing permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Body parts fall off as a result of disease symptoms, rather than the disease itself.  ”

  • M. leprae multiplies very slowly and the incubation period of the disease is about five years. Symptoms can take as long as 20 years to appear.
  • Leprosy is not highly infectious. It is transmitted via droplets, from the nose and mouth, during close and frequent contacts with untreated cases.
  • Untreated, leprosy can cause progressive and permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Early diagnosis and treatment with multidrug therapy (MDT) remain the key elements in eliminating the disease as a public health concern.   http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs101/en/

 

The issue with leprosy in the Middle Ages was partly that is was so disfiguring (although not very contagious), and partly that the Bible ascribes it as a product of divine punishment.  People thus inflicted were driven out of their communities and condemned to wander the countryside, often from one leper house to another.

In today’s world millions of people stills suffer from leprosy.   It is curable, but ignorance and poverty are pervasive and prevent its eradication.  This article:  http://www.nippon-foundation.or.jp/eng/news/20091026GlobalAppealReport.html, is well-meaning, but indicates that the prejudice against people with leprosy and their families continues all  over the world.

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Eryri (Snowdonia)

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Eryri, Snowdonia in English, was the place in Gwynedd to which the Princes of Wales retreated, and their final stronghold when the English pressed on them from every side.  Mt. Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) has always been at its center, but it traditionally included the Carneddau range and essentially all the land west of the Conwy River. It is the land the Edward allowed Llywelyn ap Gruffydd to keep in the 1277 treaty.  Today, as a national park, it includes 838 square miles.

From John T Koch, Celtic Culture: An Historical Encyclopedia:
“The first literary mention of Eryri occurs in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, where an account is given of the downfall of the semi-legendary 5th century king Vortigern.  Pursued by his revolted Anglo-Saxon mercenaries and hated by his Brythonic countrymen, the king’s magi direct him to build a stronghold in a secure place on the far side of his kingdom.  Such a place is found in Eryri . . .

“The place-name Eryri has had two Celtic roots proposed to explain it:  1) that it describes a high place [from the Latin eryr]  or 2) that it denotes the abode of eagles [Welsh eryr 'eagle'].  Of course, even if Eryri had not originally meant ‘eyrie’, this idea would automatically occur to any Welsh speaker, writer, or poet . . . In a transferred sense, eryr is often used as a kenning for ‘hero’ in Welsh poetry, which adds further significance to the place-name as the traditional mountain stronghold of the strongest and most militaristic independent Welsh kingdom, Gwynedd.”

1262 marks the year that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd styled himself for the first time as “Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon (Eryri)”.  Llywelyn Fawr had referred to himself as ‘prince of Aberffraw’, which his grandson no longer mentions, although others continue to refer to him as its lord (J. Beverly Smith Llywelyn ap Gruffydd p. 145).  Because the latter was never recognized by the kings of England, the second Llywelyn chose to focus on Wales instead of Aberffraw   Both, however, were ‘lord of Snowdon’ and believed that this land encompassed not only Eryri as present historians have come to know it, but to all the lands in Gwynedd from the Dee to the Dyfi Rivers (Smith, p. 188).

The primary castles in Eryri are:  Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn, Garth Celyn, and Castell y Bere.  The fort to which Koch refers is Dinas Emrys, on the western slopes of the Snowdonian mountains.

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The Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

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Cold My Heart at AmazonThis earlier post details some of what Geoffrey of Monmouth was doing when he wrote his History of the Kings of Britain back in the 12th century. It was at the behest of Robert of Gloucester, his patron, that he claims to have transcribed/copied/invented his history, placing King Arthur at the center of a national–and by that I mean English–origin myth. The idea was to justify the conquest of Britain by the Normans as a mirror to what King Arthur had done in the 5th century, including crossing the English Channel from Normandy to  Britain.

Children’s author Phillip Womack (author of The Other Book and The Liberators) said in the Times Online:  “As inhabitants of these islands, we don’t have many myths that bring us together, but King Arthur is one.  I think that we will always seek him as a saviour, whatever situation we’re in, because that’s human nature. The reason the Arthur myths are currently so popular is that they reflect our age brilliantly.”

This is a nice quote, and not at all inaccurate, but none-the-less astonishing because this is EXACTLY WHAT GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH INTENDED!  He wrote his book in 1139 AD. It was meant to be a mythology for the nation of England.

Geoffrey’s book was an immediate hit, and for the most part taken by the populace to be ‘true’, even if the scholars at the time dismissed it.  One site states:  “There is nothing in the matter or the style of the Historia to preclude us from supposing that Geoffrey drew partly upon confused traditions, partly on his own powers of invention, and to a very slight degree upon the accepted authorities for early British history.  His chronology is fantastic and incredible; William of Newburgh justly remarks that, if we accepted the events which Geoffrey relates, we should have to suppose that they had happened in another world.”

Furthermore: “William of Newburgh  . . . belongs to the northern school of historians, who carried on the admirable traditions of the Venerable Bede. This was a spirit very unlike that which inspired Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythical “History of the British Kings” with its tales of King Arthur, and William attacks Geoffrey and his legends with great indignation, calling the latter “impudent and shameless lies“. This striking illustration of his historic integrity won for him from Freeman the title of ‘the father of historical criticism’, and the compliment is not altogether undeserved.”  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15634c.htm

But it doesn’t matter.  Geoffrey had launched the legend of King Arthur upon the world and there was no turning back.

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