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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:


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


Iron Age Hill Forts in Wales

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The Iron Age in Wales occurred during the 500 years leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain.  “The earliest iron artefact in Wales is a sword dating to about 600 BCE, but by 400 BCE iron was being smelted and crafted into tools all over the British Isles.

The tribes of Wales developed regional styles of working iron, gold, and other metals, following the exquisite western European style known as La Tene (after the village of La Tene in Switzerland). At the same time as iron was introduced to Britain a new crop of settlers arrived from northern Europe.”  http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/iron-age.htm   This new group were the Celts.  They overran the whole of Britain, whether by conquering the then-native peoples, or gradually settling the country over a period of time.

According to the National Museum of Wales, there are over 1000 iron age hillforts in Wales (though some could be more aptly viewed as ‘defended farms’).

  • Hillforts are fortified enclosures built of earth, timber or stone and frequently sited on defensible hilltops. They were built from the Late Bronze Age, throughout the Iron Age (1100BC-AD50) and some were also occupied during Romano-British times. They enclose areas of between 0.1 and 80 hectares, although in Wales most are under 2 hectares in area.
  • Hillfort defences usually consist of a bank (rampart) made of material dug from an outer ditch. Some hillforts were provided with additional defences. Many hillforts have elaborate and strengthened entrances incorporating impressive gate structures.
  • More recently, a number of archaeologists have emphasised the great diversity in hillfort characteristics. They argue for a number of different roles, not merely defensive ones. Many hillforts are sited in poorly defensive locations, others do not seem to have been lived in continuously or intensively. Instead, they may have acted as stock enclosures, agricultural fair grounds and religious centres at certain times of the year. As monuments, they may have been as much about displaying the status and power of different community groups, as they were about defence. A large number of small hillforts in Wales should essentially be seen as single farms occupied by small family groups.  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/2370/


Three hill forts of particular interest that cover the whole range of styles and periods are Dinas Bran, Dinas Emrys, and Tre’r Ceiri.

The ruins that sit atop Dinas Bran (meaning literally, “Hill of the Crow”, or “Bran’s Stronghold”) were built in the medieval period, but the site was continuously occupied from the Iron Age and the ditch and earthen embankments visible today date from that initial settlement.  http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html

“The hillfort has a single bank and ditch enclosing an area of about 1.5 hectares. To the south and west the defences are most considerable being up to 8 metres high in places. The entrance lies in the south-west corner of the fort and is defended by an inward curving bank. To the north the fort is defended by the natural steepness of the land and no earthwork defences were required.”  http://www.cpat.org.uk/educate/guides/dinasb/dinasb.htm

Dinas Emrys sits atop a rock that is one of the strongest, natural fortifications in Wales.  Modern archaeology reveals: “Dinas Emrys was occupied to some extent in the late Roman period, but that rough stone banks around its Western end are later. They were poorly built of stone two or three times and took strategic advantage of natural crags. Still less substantial walls were also discovered to the north and south. Broken sherds of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae, Phoenician red slip dishes and a pottery lamp roundel featuring a Chi-Rho symbol indicate that these features do indeed date to the 5th and 6th century.”

The last site, Tre’r Ceiri is a spectacular iron age site, located on the Llyn Penninsula in Wales. A climb to the top of the 457 meter hill reveals 150 hut circles still clearly discernable, capable of housing upwards of 500 people. The stone walls surrounding the fort were 4 meters (12+ feeet) high in places and the huts range in size from 3 meters to 8 meters across.


Dinas Bran (Castle)

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Dinas Bran is a medieval castle begun in 1260 and destroyed in 1277 during the Welsh wars with King Edward I of England.

The first settlement that we know of was an iron age hill fort, from which it gets its name.  “”Dinas Bran” is variously translated as “Crow Castle,” “Crow City,” “Hill of the Crow,” or “Bran’s Stronghold.”

The castle first appears in 12th century historical documents as part of a medieval piece entitled “Fouke le Fitz Waryn,”or “The Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine.” While this work claimed that the castle, known as “Chastiel Bran,” was in ruin as early as 1073, the remains we see today date to the occupation of the princes of Powys Fadog in the mid 13th century. Possibly, the Chastiel Bran mentioned in the romance was a Norman timber castle, but nothing of substance supports this conjecture. However, the encompassing ditch and earthen embankments, which enclose the southern and eastern portions of the stone fortress, do date to the Iron Age. They remind us that this hilltop had strategic value long before the princes of Powys, or the Normans, ventured into the region. Interestingly, the word, “Dinas,” has its origins in the Iron Age as well, and is found in the names of Iron Age hillforts throughout Wales.”  http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html

“The hillfort has a single bank and ditch enclosing an area of about 1.5 hectares. To the south and west the defences are most considerable being up to 8 metres high in places. The entrance lies in the south-west corner of the fort and is defended by an inward curving bank. To the north the fort is defended by the natural steepness of the land and no earthwork defences were required.” http://www.cpat.org.uk/educate/guides/dinasb/dinasb.htm

“Reid (1973) speculated that the hill at Dinas Bran was occupied in the 8th century by a man named Eliseg. The same Eliseg also gave his name to an ancient pillar that stands just north of Valle Crucis Abbey, near Llangollen. The mystery man may have been an ancestor of the princes of Powys who later dominated the area, but there is no real proof to support this assertion.

The historical record also conflicts over whom really built the remains at Dinas Bran. The most reliable sources state that Gruffydd Maelor II, son of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor I, began the castle in the late 1260’s. The elder Madog founded nearby.

During those final two decades, the castle on the hilltop became a prized possession of the princes of Powys Fadog. Dinas Bran’s power did not go unnoticed by English forces. In 1277, during Edward I’s initial foray into Wales, the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, besieged the castle. The Welsh lord of Dinas Bran was forced to submit to the invading army, which promptly set the site afire, completely destroying it.”

For more about the medieval castle see: http://www.castlewales.com/dinas.html
DanandSarahDB MomandSarahDB


Dolbadarn Castle

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Dolbadarn Castle is only 6 1/2 miles as the crow flies from the Menai Straits, and yet, the topography of the area is such that it was built by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) to guard the mountain pass from Caernarfon to the upper Conwy Valley.  ‘Its position at the tip of Llyn Padarn allowed the garrison to blockade anyone’s movement through that part of the north, then as now a main link to the rest of Wales. The military worth of the spot was evidently recognized as early as the 6th century but surviving masonry dates no earlier than the 1200’s.’ http://www.castlewales.com/dolbd.html

Llywleyn Fawr built the castle in the early 13th century and it was one of the last defenses of Dafydd ap Gruffydd–Llywleyn Fawr’s grandson–in 1283 after Edward had defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Dafydd’s brother (Paul Davis, Castles of the Welsh Princes, p. 42).  It was then abandoned.


A visit to Google Earth reveals that the Castle sits on a crest above a slight valley, overshadowed by the enormous mountains behind it.  ‘The site is a narrow outcrop of rock with steep falls on all sides, especially the east, where there is a sheer drop to Llyn Padarn’ (Adrian Pettifer, Welsh Castles, p. 33).  It is likely that some kind of Roman road passed through the area on its way into the mountains, as traces remain of a temporary Roman camp further up the road, once it turns east to Betws-y-Coed.

According to Pettifer, the keep at Dolbadarn, which is the most well preserved piece of it, ‘vies with the gatehouse at Criccieth as Llywelyn the Great’s finest piece of castle architecture’.   All three floors had fireplaces and toilets, even the basement.  The outer walls were high enough to conceal the roof of the upper floor and protect it from being fired by missles (Pettifer, p. 34).

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd kept his elder brother, Owain, at Dolbadarn, for 20 years, before he was released in 1277 as part of the Treaty of Rhuddlan.  An old man by then, Llywelyn provided for him the cantref of Llyn, in which he died sometime before December, 1282 (Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, p. 441).

Dolbadarn Castle was last used by Owain Glyndwyr to hold prisoners during his uprising against the English crown in the 1400s.  http://www.castlewales.com/dolbd.html

*Thanks to Stephen Colbert’s, Better Know a District


Traveling on Medieval Roads

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What roads medieval people used to cross England and Wales is a fascinating question and one that has occupied me for some time.   The Ordnance Survey maps at multimap.com can show you the Roman roads.  I also bought the Ordnance Survey’s Roman Britain map, precisely for this reason.

The Lancashire Antiquarian argues quite strongly for the notion that the Roman roads were used well into later periods.  He writes: “It has been estimated that when the Domesday survey was taking place a minimum of 10,000 miles of usable Roman roads were still in existence in one form or another.” He states that what fell into disrepair were the bridges and river crossings, resulting in a deviation from the Roman road to a usable ford.  New roads were built from medieval towns, resulting in roads that were more ‘natural’–meaning not straight or metalled.

Roman roads, together with Roman aqueducts and the vast standing Roman army (in the 2nd century, ca. 30legions plus around 400 auxiliary units, totalling ca. 400,000 troops, of which ca. 50,000 deployed in Britain), constituted the three most impressive features of the Roman Empire. In Britain, as in other provinces, the Romans constructed a comprehensive network of paved trunk roads (i.e. surfaced highways) during their nearly four centuries of occupation (43 – 410 AD). This article focuses on the ca. 2,000 mi (3,200 km) ofRoman roads in Britain shown on the Ordnance Survey‘s Map of Roman Britain.[1] This contains the most accurate and up-to-date layout of certain and probable routes that is readily available to the general public.

The pre-Roman Britons used mostly unpaved trackways for their communications, including very ancient ones running along elevated ridges of hills, such as the South Downs Way, now a public long-distance footpath. By the first century BC, they had begun engineering roads.[2] After the Roman invasion, the road network was expanded. Roman roads were surveyed and built from scratch, with the aim of connecting key points by the most direct possible route. The roads were all paved, to permit even heavy freight-wagons to be used in all seasons and weather.

Most of the known network was complete by 180 AD. Its primary function was to allow the rapid movement of troops and military supplies, but it also provided vital infrastructure for trade and the transport of goods.

Roman roads remained in use as core trunk roads for centuries after the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 AD. Systematic construction of paved highways did not resume in England until the 18th century.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads_in_Britain

The earliest map of England that we have is the ‘Gough map’, dating to 1360.  You can see it online, here.   “This map of Britain was produced in C1360 and is thought to have been an official map for government use, possibly by a Royal courier, royal officer or judiciary. The distances shown are thought to be the distances following former Roman roads between the towns that where still in use during the mediaeval period. The total of the distances shown approximate to 3,000 miles, and 40% of which lie along the routes of known Roman roads” (Lancashire Antiquarian).

At the same time, David Harrison in his book, ‘The Bridges of Medieval England’ argues that this reversion to fords, beginning in the Dark Ages means that, “A road map of the eighteenth or even the early twentieth century may provide a more accurate picture of the routes of late Anglo-Saxon England than the Roman roads which are usually depicted.”   (For more discussion of this book and medieval bridges, see here)

Other possibilities for discovering medieval roads in Britain are:








Slavery and Wales

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The title says Slavery ‘and’ Wales because the degree to which slavery existed in Wales is difficult to determine.  Without a doubt, many Welsh were forced into slavery–evidence points to Welsh captives on the continent of Europe as well as in Anglo-Saxon England.  St Patrick himself was Briton/Welsh (born 387 AD) and was captured by the Irish and made a slave.  The Celts were well-known slave-keepers, as were the Romans after them.  But were the Welsh themselves, after the Romans left?  Hard to imagine they weren’t when their neighbors all around were enslaving them.  But in all of the 767 pages of John Davies The History of Wales, he doesn’t mention slavery once.

However, Ron Wilcox writes in his book Between Romans and Normans:  “Living alongside the bondsmen were the slaves who worked as agricultural labourers or artisans. Most were born into slavery but it was possible to be condemned to slavery as a punishment. A slave could own property and save enough to buy his freedom but this was difficult for a family man since he would need to be able to free his dependants as well. Slavery lasted longer in Wales than elsewhere. In a landscape which required so much labour to wrest a living from it, there was need for intensive cultivation on those areas where it was possible to raise crops and this ensured the continuance of the system into the medieval period.”

David Mattingly, in his book, An Imperial Possession:  Britain in the Roman Empire writes:  “Roman Britain was a ‘slave-using society’, but not a fully ‘slave society’ in the sense the latter term can be applied to Roman Italy (where 10-25% of the population was of servile status) . . . Slavery operated in Britain in two ways.  Slaves were undoubtedly exported from Britain as part of the process of conquest and even at later times individuals were enslaved (or possible sold into slavery by impoverished families).  Many of these British slaves may have ended up being sold elsewhere, rather than within Britain . . .their availability and cost probably kept the proportion of enslaved to freeborn very low” (2007: 294).

In 2007, the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea put on an exhibition of Wales and Slavery to mark the anniversary of the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807.  Swansea was a center of copper production, used to make the shackles that bound the slaves.  Also on display, indicating the long history of slavery, was an Iron-Age four-person neck chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey.

For links to the later slave trade:


For a discussion of slavery in Europe:


The Catholic Church strongly forbade slavery, which is why it had all but died out by the 13th century in Europe (only to be revived again later, of course, under Protestantism).

The most telling evidence that slaves were an important part of Welsh society are the Laws of Hywel Dda.  In them, he lays out the laws pertaining to slaves.  Tim Clarkson writes, again extrapolating from other Celtic societies (thus his use of the word,  ‘probably’):

“In Wales, the most comprehensive legal code is known today as the Law of Hywel Dda, a text that, although much amended throughout the Middle Ages, originiated during the tenth-century reign of King Hywel and seems to have preserved archaic laws from still earlier times.  Like contemporary Ireland, early medieval Wales was essentially a tribal society, and its legal systems were founded on centuries of custom and tradition.  Close similarities therefore exist between the law codes of the two areas.  Just as the Irish grouped the unfree members of their society into various grades, so a similar grading process probably operated in Wales, at least for female slaves, who were graded according to the nature of their work.  A higher-grade slave woman was described as gweinyd-dol (servant) and was defined as [someone not engaged in agricultural labor].

“In Wales, slaves seem to have been afforded certain basic rights, rights that were denied to Ireland’s fuidhir.  Thus, a Welsh slave suffering insult or injury could claim sarhaed (compensation) in the same manner as a freeborn person, although, of course, the sarhaed for a slave was less than that for a free individual.  Another important right was that the slave was protected by law from being killed after a first offense of theft, although subsequent offenses were in some instances punishable by amputation of a limb . . . any freeman who made a slave pregnant was obliged by law to provide her lord with a woman to perform the slave’s duties until the child’s birth . . .

“Welsh law codes seemingly imply that slaves in early-medieval Celtic society had little freedom but few hardships and, being rather akin to serfs of a later period, were unlikely to suffere the severe and punitive conditions that were the norm for slaves in other cultures.”


A Medieval Siege

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Besieging a castle was a far more common form of warfare than a fight on an open battlefield.  Sieges had the element of surprise and required fewer men than battle too, such that a ruler could beseige a castle with his enemy inside, while freeing other forces to wage war elsewhere.

The goal in beseiging a castle was not to destroy it, but to take it, since castles were pawns in the great game of controlling land.  They were usually heavily fortified and defended, so a beseiger had several options when he was on the outside looking in:

1)  to starve/wait them out

2)  harassment and trickery

3)  a straight assault

Often, attackers employed all three tactics at various times.  The defenders, on the other hand, hoped and prayed for relief.  As Saladin says in Kingdom of Heaven “One cannot maintain a seige with the enemy behind”.  The hope was that a beseiged castle would be rescued by allies, and if they’d had warning of the seige, would have sent messengers out of the castle before their enemy closed in around them.

Castles in Wales that were beseiged:

Dolforwyn:  “Dolforwyn stands on a wooded hill overlooking the fertile Severn valley, a scene so peaceful today that it is hard to picture it as one of political animosity or military action. It was built between 1273-77 by Llywelyn the Last as a forward position in his territory, and overlooking the English lordship of Montgomery. This rectangular castle crowns a ridge along the Severn valley, and was obviously designed to act as a sentinel over Llywelyn’s south-eastern frontier. Its initial construction led Edward I to write to Prince Llywelyn in 1273, forbidding him to build the castle. The prince replied, with a masterpiece of ironic politeness, that he did not require the king’s permission to raise a stronghold in his own principality. Dolforwyn was, however, taken by Roger Mortimer after a fortnight’s siege in 1277.”

Hawarden:  “Hawarden’s most significant role in the struggle for Welsh independence came in 1282 when it was attacked by Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd ap Gruffydd. Angered by King Edward’s seeming lack of respect, Dafydd staged a night siege on the stronghold in the month of March [Palm Sunday]. Although he succeeded in capturing the castle and its constable, Roger Clifford, Dafydd’s actions forced his brother Llywelyn to become involved in another rebellion against the crown. By the end of the year Llywelyn had been killed, and Dafydd was on the run, only to be captured and executed the following year. Hawarden Castle was retaken by the English king, never again to be the target of a Welsh uprising.”

Harlech:  “Harlech Castle played a key role in the national uprising led by Owain Glyndwr. After a long siege, it fell to his forces in 1404. The castle became Glyndwr’s residence and headquarters, and one of the two places to which he is believed to have summoned parliaments of his supporters. It was only after a further long siege in 1408 that Harlech was retaken by English forces under Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V.

Sixty years later, during the War of the Roses, the castle was held for the Lancastrians until taken by Lord Herbert of Raglan for the Yorkist side. It was this prolonged siege which traditionally gave rise to the song Men of Harlech.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz9_ELpil9w

Helpful links:



The Medieval Siege”  by Jim Bradbury

And because no post on medieval sieges is complete without it . . . I give you my son’s trebuchet:


Better Know a Castle*: Abergavenny

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On Christmas Day in 1175, William de Braose, a Marcher lord (the 4th Lord of Bramber), summoned Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, Seisyll’s eldest son, Geoffrey, and a number of other local leading Welshmen from Gwent to Abergavenny Castle to hear a royal proclamation.   He then murdered them all.  This was justified in William’s mind because of a prior killing of his uncle by Seisyll (or so he suspected, though apparently had no proof).  “De Braose and his men then mounted horses and galloped the few miles to Seisyll’s home where they caught and murdered his younger son, Cadwalladr a boy of seven years of age and captured his wife, whose exact fate is uncertain.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seisill_ap_Dyfnwal

Other sons, not in attendance that day, got their revenge by burning Abergavenny in 1182.  Gerald of Wales “alludes to the horrible event in the history of Abergavenny Castle described above, during his famous journey through Wales of 1188, but refuses to mention the incident specifically, saying least (the story) serves to encourage other equally infamous men.”

William Camden, the 16th-century antiquary, said that Abergavenny Castle “has been oftner stain’d with the infamy of treachery, than any other castle in Wales.”  http://www.castlewales.com/abergav.html

And that’s saying a lot.

“From its early beginnings this was an important castle, the headquarters of the Norman lordship of Abergavenny, used for accommodation by kings if they were in the locality. It stands on a spur above the river Usk, in a good position to secure the valley and prevent Welsh incursions into the lowlands.”  http://www.castlewales.com/abergav.html

“The Motte was probably built by the Norman Lord Hamelin de Ballon in 1087 AD. The tower built at the top of the motte would have been wooden. Beneath the motte was the bailey – a courtyard containing the outbuildings and stables.”  http://www.abergavennymuseum.co.uk/index.php?lang=EN;navId=3

Jeff Thomas writes further:  “Practically all the Marcher Lords were forced to deal with a rebellious and resentful Welsh population in violent ways in order to protect their newly-awarded “kingdoms,” but de Braose time and time again seems to have gone out of his way to commit acts of cruelty that went beyond his contemporaries. Although some would say his family eventually got what they deserved, the extinction of the male line and a forfeiture of all lands, de Braose stands out as an example of what the native Welsh population were up against, and why they rebelled so ferociously against the Norman invaders.”

Gerald of Wales “also mentions Abergavenny in a later passage following it’s recapture from the Welsh by English forces. As the Welsh were besieging the castle ‘two (Norman) men-at-arms were rushing across a bridge to take refuge in the tower which had been built on a great mound of earth. The Welsh shot at them from behind, and with the arrows which sped from their bows they actually penetrated the oak doorway of the tower, which was almost as think as a man’s palm. As a permanent reminder of the strength of their impact, the arrows have been left sticking in the door just where their iron heads struck.’ Gerald notes that the men of Gwent ‘are more skilled with the bow and arrow than those who come from other parts of Wales.'”  http://www.castlewales.com/abergav.html

*Thanks to Stephen Colbert’s Better Know a District


Rewriting the Dark Ages

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A new theory has been working it’s way through the archaeological literature that there was no Saxon ‘invasion’ of Britain after the fall of Rome.  The theory states that “9th century Anglo-Saxon propaganda distort [ed] the records for the turbulent 5th and 6th centuries. . . . Rather than Briton versus Anglo-Saxon – as in the myth of Arthur – was it simply a murderous struggle between rival British warlords?”


The theory, at least in this article, is based on a lack of primary sources of the era.  This is an interesting argument, but there are a number of sources that suggest it isn’t accurate.

First:  written evidence, which the article claims to be scarce, is far more prevalent than at first appears–it’s just that the sources are not necessarily British.  This site on the ruin and conquest of Britain, details, in chronological order, some other sources that speak of the Saxon invasion:  http://www.cit.griffith.edu.au/~s285238/DECB/DECBps.html


Claudian, 401 AD:

When I (Britain personified) too was about to succumb to the attack of neighbouring peoples — for the Scots had raised all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under hostile oars — you, Stilicho, fortified me (c.398). This was to  such effect that I no longer fear the weapons of the Scots, nor tremble at the Pict, nor along my shore do I look for the approaching Saxon on each uncertain wind.

Prosper of Aquitane, 410 AD:

The multitude of the enemy so prevailed that the strength of the Romans was extremely diminished. Britain was devastated by an incursion of the Saxons. The Vandals and Alans wasted parts of Gaul; Constantine the usurper kept a hold on the remainder. … Finally, the very Rome, the head of the world, was horribly exposed to the depredation of the Goths.

Zosimus, 411 AD:

They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britain and 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 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 of Britain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

St. Patrick to Coroticus, 455 AD:

With my own hands I have written and composed these words to be … sent to the soldiers of Coroticus. I do not say my fellow citizens nor to fellow citizen the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of the demons, because of their evil actions. Like the enemy they live in death as allies of the heathen Irish and Picts and apostates. These blood thirsty men are bloody with the blood of innocent Christians, whom I have begotten for God in countless numbers and have confirmed in Christ!

On the day after the neophytes, clothed in white, had received the chrism (its fragrance on their brows as they were butchered and put to the sword by those I have mentioned), I sent a letter with a holy priest whom I had taught from early childhood … the letter requested that they should grant us some of the booty and the baptized prisoners that they had captured; they roared with laughter at them. …

What should I do, Lord? I am very much despised. See, Your sheep are torn to pieces around me and are carried off, and by the raiders I have mentioned, on the aggressive orders of Coroticus. Far from God’s love is the man who delivers Christians into the hands of Irish and Picts….

… the church mourns and weeps for its sons and daughters who so far have not been put to the sword, but have been carried off and transported to distant lands …; and there freeborn men have been sold, Christians reduced to slavery — and what is more as slaves of the utterly iniquitous, evil and apostate Picts.

Sidonius to Namatius, 480 AD:

… the saxons give the impression that every member of the crew in their high-prowed ships is the captain, so accustomed are all of them both to issue and to obey orders, to teach and to learn piracy. … As an enemy they are unsurpassed in brutality. They attack without warning, but when sighted, slip away. They despise those who bar their way and destroy those they catch unaware; they are invariably successful in pursuit and in escaping. Shipwreck, far from terrifying them, is an exercise in seamanship. … They gladly endure the danger of a rock-bound coast if it enables them to achieve surprise. Moreover, when ready to unfurl their sails for the voyage home from the continent to set sail for home, it is their custom on the evening of their departure to sacrifice one in ten of their prisoners by drowning or crucifixion, performing a rite which is all the more tragic for being due to superstition, and distributing to the collected band of doomed men the iniquity of death by the equity of lot. Such is the nature of their religion.


Second, there is no linguistic relationship between English and Welsh.  As I blogged a few days ago, the Britains of the Roman era and the Dark Age period spoke something similar to the Welsh we know today, with many words borrowed from the Latin.  Welsh has also borrowed many words from English.  But English has borrowed few if any words from Welsh.  If the Saxons really had advanced slowly into Britain, not laid it waste or conquered huge tracts of land wholesale, there would be linguistic evidence of it.  But there’s not.


Think of the Norman Conquest.  It was a group of Normans who spoke French, who never outnumbered the Anglo-Saxons.  They conquered them fully, however, over the course of less than 100 years.  Over the next several hundred years, the ruling class continued to speak French, until the 13th century.  At that point, there was a shift to adopt a modified English, heavily borrowing from the French, but still distinctly English.  If the Welsh had been more numerous than the Saxons, something similar should have happened.   What did happen was much more like the English subjugation of the New World, however, but with even fewer loan words from Native American languages than modern Americans use.


Dinas Ffareon (Dinas Emrys)

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Dinas Ffareon is an Iron Age hill fort near Beddgelert which overlooks Lyn Dinas in Snowdonia. It is one of the more remote castles in Wales and “it was here that King Lludd ab Beli buried the two dragons which fought each other, as told in the Welsh epic the Mabinogion.”

Later tales (Nennius’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s among them) tell of King Vortigern retreating back into Snowdonia and choosing Dinas Ffareon as the place to build his fort.

Unfortunately for him, each night the ground was shaken such that the fort fell down. The King’s advisors stated that a fartherless child had to be sacrificed in order to stop the fort tumbling. Myrddyn Emrys (Merlin) and Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus) come into the story as well.

“Merlin prophecised that the Red Dragon represented the Britons and the White Dragon the Saxons and that the event meant that the Britons would be victorious over the Saxons. The Celts tended to refer to leaders as dragons (draig) so one could also read it as meaning the leader of the Britons being victorious over the leader of the Saxons, something which came to pass through Uther Pendragon and then Arthur himself.”



Dinas Ffareon, now Dinas Emrys (renamed, of course, for Merlin), sits atop a rock that is one of the strongest, natural fortifications in Wales.  The remains of the medieval stone fort, possibly built in the 13th century by either Llywelyn Fawr or Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, still top it.  Underneath, stones date to the Iron Age.

Modern archaeology reveals: “Dinas Emrys was occupied to some extent in the late Roman period, but that rough stone banks around its Western end are later. They were poorly built of stone two or three times and took strategic advantage of natural crags. Still less substantial walls were also discovered to the north and south. Broken sherds of Eastern Mediterranean amphorae, Phoenician red slip dishes and a pottery lamp roundel featuring a Chi-Rho symbol indicate that these features do indeed date to the 5th and 6th century.”


The Summer Solstice


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June 21, 2011 is the summer solstice this year, celebrated at Stonehenge and across the globe, for the longest day of the year.  “Sol + stice derives from a combination of Latin words meaning “sun” + “to stand still.” As the days lengthen, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky.”  http://www.chiff.com/a/summer-solstice.htm

Within Welsh mythology, there is very little discussion of the solstices or what holidays were celebrated within the celtic/druid year.  This is not the case of Stonehenge, which archaeologists and historians have studied extensively.

“When one stands in the middle of Stonehenge and looks through the entrance of the avenue on the morning of the summer solstice, for example, the Sun will rise above the Heel Stone, which is set on the avenue. If one stands in the entrance and looks into the circle at dusk of that day, the Sun will set between a trilithon.”


There are a couple of stone circles in Wales (more than a couple, but many are ruinous and not properly documented).  One, Bryn Cader Faner, is a small cairn 8,5m (28ft) wide and less than 1m (3ft) high, with fifteen thin slabs leaning out of the mass of the monument like a crown of thorns, near Porthmadog.


A second is Carn Llechart near Swansea.  It “is one of the largest ring cairns in Wales. It is an unusual circle of 25 stones leaning slightly outwards and surrounding a central burial cist. Aubrey Burl in his “The Stone Circles of British Isles” wrote that such rings were thought to be the first stage of development of stone circles, but that these cairns, however, are almost certainly too late to provide such an ancestry. The reverse seems likely, that the existence of stone circles elsewhere impelled people to place tall stones around the bases of their own round cairns, a fusion of traditions resulting in monuments like spiky coronets. Such cairns may be seen on North and South Uist, and in Wales at Carn Llechart and Bryn Cader Faner.  The circle is 12m (40ft) in diameter, and the central cist has its east side stone and capstone missing. It seems that there is no entry to the circle and no trace of covering mound. A possible date for the site is the 2nd millenium BC.  In the area there are also a Neolithic burial chamber and some Bronze Age cairns.”  (http://www.stonepages.com/wales/wales.html),

Archaeologists are of the opinion that these stone circles have more to do with burial sites than worship, giving them less kinship to Stonehenge than one might think at first.  This site (http://www.geodrome.demon.co.uk/megalith/stone.htm), however, argues strongly for a similar rationale for stone circles in Wales, in which the author has documented the alignment of a number of stone circles.


Roman Villa found near Aberystwyth

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Thirty years ago, aerial photographers from Cambridge University noted something odd about the layout of a field near the village of Abermagwr near Aberystwyth.   They were doing a flyover during the summer, and because of the dry conditions, there were unexplained cropmarks in a field.  At the time, they noted, “a double-ditched rectangular enclosure, with traces of a possible building within.”  http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/details/NANT+MAGWR+ROMAN+SITE,+ABERMAGWR,+POSSIBLE+ROMAN+VILLA/

No excavations were undertaken until this summer.  Researchers can now confirm that they are “the remains of a much-robbed late Roman villa. The Abermagwr villa had all the trappings of established villas in south Wales and southern England, including a slate roof and glazed windows. It was roofed with local slates, but these were pentagonal, cut with five sides and a fine point to form a highly decorative roof, common amongst villas in south-west England and the Isle of Wight. The walls were built of local stone on cobble foundations though the upper storey (If such existed) may possibly have been timber-framed and plastered. The villa was fronted by a cobbled yard. Finds from the site indicate occupation in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. They include vessels in Black Burnished ware, a practical kitchen pottery imported from Dorset, and fine ware bowls from Oxfordshire. Three coins of Constantine I, minted in the first quarter of the 4th century AD, were crucial for the dating the site and were all found lying on or near late clay floor surfaces underneath the collapsed slate roof.

The villa was heavily robbed for its building stone, probably in the medieval period. ‘Robber trenches’ were dug into the ruins and most useful blocks removed leaving only the substantial clay and stone packed foundations. The building became lost from memory, and the land returned to the plough. Only the local name ‘Magwr’, meaning a ‘ruined homestead’ preserves a memory of a building here.”


One of the many, many cool things about this find is that it is the only villa in this region of Wales–in fact, none other villas have been found this far north:  “Roman villas were high-status homes of wealthy landowners which sat at the heart of a farming estate. They are common throughout southern England and to a lesser extent in south-east Wales, with a few outliers in south-west Wales and a singleton in the middle reaches of the Usk valley.”  http://heritageofwalesnews.blogspot.com/2010/07/4th-century-roman-villa-discovered-in.html

The exact location on Google Earth, 7 miles southeast of Aberystwyth and .36 miles to the NE of Abermagwr.  The Google Earth image was taken on 1 January 2006 before any work had been done on the site.

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