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Murder and Mayhem in the Early Middle Ages

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It is common knowledge among anyone who’s spent time wandering the history of Wales that murder and mayhem among the ruling families for power was common.

David Walker (Medieval Wales, 1990) writes:  “Early entries in the Welsh Annales are brief in the extreme, but there are hints of ugly deeds.  In 814, Griffri ap Cyngen was slain by the treachery of his brother; in 904, Merfyn ap Rhodri of Gwynedd was killed by his own men; in 969 Ieuaf ab Idwal of Gwynedd was seized by his brother Iago and imprisoned; in 974, Meurig ab Idwal was blinded” (p. 6).

He further points to the book Courtier’s Trifles by Walter Map, who satirized the reign of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039-63 AD), who ruled all of Wales from 1055 until his death.  He writes:  “I name Hywel, whom you caused to be smothered in secret when he was on a mission for you; Rhydderch, whom you received with a kiss and embrace and killed with a knife in your left hand; Tewdws, whom as he walked and talked with you, you tripped up with your foot and cast down the sheer rocks; and your nephew Meilin, whom you secretly captured by guile and let him die loaded with chains in your dungeon.” (p. 6)

This entry from Wikipedia is classic:  “Hywel ap Ieuaf (died 985) was a King of Gwynedd in north-west Wales from 979 to 985.

Hywel was the son of Ieuaf ap Idwal who had ruled Gwynedd jointly with his brother Iago ab Idwal until 969. In that year the sons of Idwal quarrelled and Iago took Ieuaf prisoner . . . In 974 Hywel raised an army and drove his uncle from Gwynedd temporarily. Iago was able to return, but was forced to share power with his nephew. In 978 Hywel made another attempt to take the kingdom from his uncle, raiding the monastery at Clynnog Fawr. In this raid Hywel was helped by English troops, possibly provided by Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia. Hywel defeated Iago in battle in 979, and the same year Iago was captured by a force of Vikings, possibly in Hywel’s pay, and vanished from the scene. Hywel was left as sole ruler of Gwynedd, but apparently did not set his father free, since according to J.E. Lloyd, Ieuaf remained in captivity until 988.

In 980 Hywel faced a challenge from Iago’s son, Custennin ab Iago, who attacked Anglesey in alliance with Godfrey Haraldsson, a Viking chief from the Isle of Man. Hywel defeated them in battle, killing Custennin and putting Godfrey and his men to flight. Now securely in possession of Gwynedd, Hywel aimed to expand his kingdom to the south. He again made an alliance with Aelfhere of Mercia and attacked Brycheiniog and Morgannwg with some success, although he was not able to annex these kingdoms. However in 985 his English allies turned on him and killed him, possibly alarmed by his growing power. He was succeeded by his brother Cadwallon ap Ieuaf, who had not been on the throne long when Gwynedd was annexed by Maredudd ap Owain of Deheubarth.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hywel_ab_Ieuaf

This is much like the open warfare that erupted among the sons of Owain Gwynedd upon his death in 1170:  his youngest sons, Dafydd and Rhodri (children of Cristina), systematically eliminated all of their rivals, including Hywel, the eldest (d. 1170).  “Dafydd drove out Maelgwn in 1173, sending him fleeing to Ireland.  Another brother, Cynan, died in 1174, removing one more contender for the throne. The same year Dafydd captured and imprisoned his brothers Maelgwn (who had returned from Ireland) and Rhodri.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dafydd_ab_Owain_Gwynedd

However, Llywelyn ap Iowerth (son of another dead brother) overthrew his uncle in 1294 and claimed the throne for himself.  Thus began the remarkable rule of Llywelyn Fawr.

Other examples:

Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (d 1244) did everything in his power to undermine the rule of his brother, Dafydd.  Dafydd retaliated by imprisoning him at Criccieth Castle.  Gruffydd ultimately fell to his death trying to escape the Tower of London in which he’d been imprisoned by Henry III.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd imprisoned his brother, Owain from 1256 to 1277 to prevent him from vying for the throne of Gwynedd.  Their younger brother, Dafydd, defected twice to the English crown and tried to assassinate Llywelyn in 1274.

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Halloween in Wales

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fallen princess blogAs I sit here munching candy corn (which my 13 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate–though he can’t have any because he’s allergic to corn), I’m thinking about the Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery, The Fallen Princess, which takes place at Halloween.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’.

From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Samhain was considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain. Many parts of this festival are echoed in our modern Halloween parties.

Jack O lanterns were originally made from turnips and used to guide the dead back to earth, and the Celts also dressed in costumes much as we do today, but they would use animal skins!  The Romans believed that monsters, gods and magic spells were all around them.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/whatson/?event_id=3734

“November 1 was considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century ad, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween

“November was also the month of death in the Celtic calendar, where animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter’. This often began with a feast on November 1st where pigs were slaughtered (part of this folklore is preserved in the Cymric (Welsh) legend of Arawn and Hafgan, as told in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.”  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/halloween-recipes.php

With the coming of Christianity, these traditions were converted to blend in more with the Christian calendar and Christian sensibilities. “In 601AD, Pope Gregory made an important directive. He announced that Christian missionaries were to take a new tack when attempting to convert pagans to the Christian religion. Christian missionaries he said, where possible, should incorporate the beliefs, festivals and sacred sites of pagan beliefs into the Christian religion. This directive meant that the important Celtic festival of Samhain had to be marked in a Christian manner.

In the year 609 AD, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835 AD. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead on an important holy day. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than ever.

In the eleventh century, a further festival was added to the church calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three festivals of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls were together known as Hallowmas.” http://suite101.com/article/halloween-in-medieval-times-a71922

“Despite the Church’s success in establishing a Christian foundation for the autumn celebrations, many of the ancient customs and traditions associated with them were still practiced by the population. The carving of gourds and the wearing of costumes and masks to scare away malevolent spirits are typical of the superstitions carried over from these celebrations into the All Hallows Eve observance.

The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives thought to visit on this night. This practice evolved during the Middle Ages, when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes”. Villagers would offer prayers along with the cakes to those who had died in the past year for their transition to heaven.”  http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/all_hallows_eve.html

For more customs of Calan Gaeaf: 

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Aber Castle (Garth Celyn)

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Aber Garth Celyn was the seat of the Princes of Wales since Aberffraw and Deganwy were destroyed sometime in the early middle ages.  With the fall of the Royal House of Wales and the subsequent conquering of Wales by Edward I, the location of Garth Celyn was lost to history.  It is only in the last 20 years that we have a better idea of where it might be.

One possibility put forth by CADW, the Welsh Archaeological society, is at ‘y Myd’–a man-made mound to the west of the Aber River in North Wales.  “Excavations at Abergwyngregyn, near Bangor, unearthed the remains of a medieval hall dating back to the 14th century, the period when Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last were fighting for Welsh independence.” [a note from Sarah–that the archaeologist would say this is somewhat surprising since Llywelyn was killed in 1282, otherwise known as the 13th century. If the best they can do is the 14th century, then there’s no evidence this hall dates from the time of the princes.]

“A test dig on the same site in 1993, revealed medieval pottery, a bronze brooch and a coin dating back to the post-conquest era.

“You can see a large area with some substantial walls and the floor plan of a medieval hall with large wings either side,” said John Roberts, archaeologist for the Snowdonia National Park Authority.

“There’s also an enclosure which has features that might relate to industrial activity – metalwork or large ovens.””  http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/northwestwales/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_9140000/9140324.stm

These excavations were covered over in 2010 to protect them.

Another possibility for the location of Garth Celyn, and the one I chose for my books, is just on the other side of the river and includes a still-standing tower, situated on a hill overlooking the Lavan Sands and with a view of Anglesey.

From the Garth Celyn web page (the page is gone, so I just have to quote it here):  “During the centuries between 1283 and 1553, the English crown owned the home and allowed it to become derelict, while at the same time expunging any mention of ‘Garth Celyn’ from the written record.   It is not until the time of Henry Vlll, that his surveyor, John Leland notes, ‘the palace on the hille still in part stondeth.’

Then, on June 14, 1551, Rhys Thomas of Aberglasney, appointed by Roger Williams, the surveyor of crown lands in north Wales, to be the deputy surveyor, obtained a lease for himself for the house.  Subsequently, on 27 April 1553 King Edward VI, seriously ill with tuberculosis, granted the royal manors of Aber and Cemais to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke and William Clerke.  Rhys Thomas and his wife, Jane, then built a house among the ruins of the palace.

Culturally speaking, one of the most important records of Garth Celyn is found in the letters written in the last months of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s life to Edward I and the Peckham, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The royal llys of the Welsh princes excavated on Anglesey does not include a motte, and bears no relationship to the kind of Norman construction CADW is proposing the Llywelyns either built or repurposed at Aber. In addition, Welsh rulers were moving from one royal llys to another as administrative centers from before the Normans arrived in Britain.  http://www.angleseyheritage.com/key-places/llys-rhosyr/

As the house itself, the following is a written account from 1874:

Aber Village August 1874                                        

The castle of Llywelyn is but a few minutes walk from the centre of the village.

To reach it by the quickest and most picturesque road you have to traverse the nook at the back of the mill and to scramble over the loose stones that rise about the surface of the widespread stream. Once over the somewhat perilous brook, you have to pass a gate, then a field, still following the side of the watercourse. Mounting a steep rustic ascent you find yourself a few minutes more before a huge barbaric Round Tower, the principal and almost only vestige of Llywelyn’s Castle at the present day. Attached to this Tower is an interesting looking structure built entirely we are told of the ruins of the ancient palace. It is at present used as a farmhouse. This most picturesque house is well worth a visit, though from its private isolated character it is known to few out of its immediate neighbourhood. 

The farmer’s wife, though little prepared for the intrusion, nevertheless kindly allowed us to traverse the house, contenting herself with showing us alone one particular room in the tower, a clothes press and four chairs, evidently as old as the building itself and quite as primitive.

She also favoured me with a bit of lighted candle and led me to the steps of a vast cellar or dungeon under the tower, telling me to inspect it if I wished, which I hastened to do – I beg pardon, I did not hasten, for the steps down to it were so slimy, damp, and shaky, that any over haste would have been accompanied with serious bodily harm, so needs was to be slow and cautious.

On descending into this cavern, as well as the faint light of the candle would permit of, I noticed several contiguous cells with prison – like apertures. Could these possibly have been dungeons? At least there were good reasons for the conjecture. At the further end of the cavern, or cellar, or prison, or whatever it was and had been, I could perceive the commencement of a subterranean passage, which led, I was afterwards informed, to some solitary spot in the glen – for what purpose, must be left to the imagination, for there are no printed memorials to the spot, nor any written ones, unless Lord Penrhyn, the owner of the property, happens to have any such in the archives of his Castle.

http://www.llywelyn.co.uk/

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Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon

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Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon was a real person.  His father, Cadwallon, was killed in the battle of Catscaul or “Cad-ys-gual”, the Battle of the Wall (Heavenfield, near Hexham) in 634 AD.  An unknown usurper, Cadfael ap Cynfeddw, placed himself on the throne of Gwynedd, and was himself overthrown in 655 AD by the twenty-two year old Cadwaladr, Cadwallon’s son, who’d been raised in exile until he could return to claim his birthright.

Cadwaladr is mentioned in the following sources:

The Harlaein Genealogies:  a collection of old Welsh genealogies preserved in British Library, Harleian MS 3859.  They’ve been dated to the reign of Hwyel Dda (10th century).  Cadwaladr is mentioned as the son of Cadwallon and the father of Idwal, all Kings of Gwynedd.

Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales):  A single line:  682 – A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.

Historia Brittonum:  This text was composed sometime between 828 and 830, attributed to Nennius.  Of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, he states:  “Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest.  He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.”

The Book of Taliesin:  Taliesin was a Welsh poet born in the mid to late 6th century.  Two poems are attributed to him that mention Cadwaladr.  One is The Great Prophecy of Britain in which he rails against the Saxon incursions and praises the rule of Cadwaladr:  “Cadwaladr is a spear at the side of his men; In the forest, in the field, in the vale, on the hill; Cadwaladr is a candle in the darkness walking with us; Gloriously he will come and the Welsh will rise . . .”  (my interpretation)

The second is the Prediction of Cadwaladr, which is incomplete.  It speaks of Cadwaladr, not Arthur, as the one who sleeps in the mountains to return at the nation’s greatest need.

History of the Kings of Britain:  This is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic and fanciful tale, telling the supposed story of the history of Britain from its founding by Brutus to the death of Cadwaladr.

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

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 now Wales and England—for about five minutes.

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 from Europe.  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.

The rule of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon sits at the resting point between the Welsh retreat and the Saxon advance.  As romanticized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last Pendragon, the last King of Wales before the Cymry fell irretrievably under a wave of Saxon invaders.

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Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Geoffrey of Monmouth was born sometime around 1100, probably in Monmouth in southeast Wales. “His father was named Arthur. Geoffrey was appointed archdeacon of Llandsaff in 1140 and was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph in 1152. He died c. 1155.

Geoffrey is one of the most significant authors in the development of the Arthurian legends. It was Geoffrey who, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (completed in 1138) located Arthur in the line of British kings. Such an action not only asserted the historicity of Arthur but also gave him an authoritative history which included many events familiar from later romance. Geoffrey also introduced the character of Merlin as we know him into the legends. Geoffrey’s Merlin, a combination of the young and prophetic Ambrosius in Nennius’s history and the prophet Myrddin who figures in several Welsh poems, first appears in a book known as the Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecies of Merlin), which was written about 1135 but then incorporated as Book VII of the Historia. This book contains the prophecies made by Merlin to Vortigern, which foreshadow not only the downfall of Vortigern but also the rise and fall of Arthur, events subsequent to the end of the Historia, and events of the obscure future.”  http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/geoffrey.htm

“Modifying the name of the northern bard Myrddin, Geoffrey uses Welsh predictions of a Celtic revival and many of his own probable invention and ascribes them to the prophet. This work was followed toward 1136-1138 by the Historia Regum Britanniae that incorporated the prophecies in it. Near the end of 1150 he composed a long narrative poem expanding on Welsh traditions about the prophet entitled, Vita Merlini (“Life of Merlin”).”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.html

By his late twenties, Geoffrey certainly seems to have travelled eastwards to work at the Collegiate Church of St. George at the castle in Oxford.   He remained there, as a tutor of some kind, for at least the next twenty years  and began writing not long after he arrived.  The Prophecies of Merlin appear to have been a series of ancient Celtic prophecies which, at the request of Alexander of Salisbury, Bishop of Lincoln, Geoffrey translated into Latin, perhaps with some additions of his own. “Whether they had previously been attributed to the Northern British bard, Myrddin, is unknown. As with all his works, Geoffrey hoped the prophecies might bring him a lucrative preferment in the Church, and he used its dedication to ingratiate himself with Alexander who was Bishop of his local diocese. Geoffrey made a more appreciative acquaintance while at St. George’s, in the person of Walter the Provost, who was also Archdeacon of the city. In his writings, Geoffrey tells us that Walter gave him “a certain very ancient book written in the British language” and, probably because he was unable to read Welsh (or Breton) himself, the Archdeacon encouraged Geoffrey to translate it into Latin.”

Geoffrey began writing History of the Kings of Britain’ dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Mellent in 1136. “At the time, the work was taken at face value and accepted by most as a true history of the Welsh nation from around 1100 bc to around AD 689. Merlin appeared again, as an advisor to Kings Ambrosius and Uther, but the work was most notable for its extensive chapters covering the reign of the great King Arthur. Since the 17th century, however, its author has been largely vilified as an inexorable forger who made up his stories “from an inordinate love of lying”. Modern historians tend to be slightly more sympathetic.

At the end of 1150, Geoffrey appears to have come into the possession of further source documents concerning the life-story of his original subject, the bard, Myrddin (alias Merlin). Unfortunately, these did not line up terribly well the information he had given about this man in his History of the Kings of Britain – perhaps indicating that this part was either invented or, more probably, that Merlin’s name had been rather over-eagerly attributed to an otherwise unknown Royal adviser. Keen to put across the true story, without losing face, Geoffrey wrote the Life of Merlin, correctly placing its events after the reign of Arthur, but thus giving his title role an impossibly long lifespan. It was dedicated to his former colleague at St. George’s, Robert De Chesney, the new Bishop of Lincoln.

“The following year, Geoffrey’s sycophancy at last paid off. He was elected Bishop of St. Asaphs, for good service to his Norman masters; and was consecrated by Archbishop Theobald at Lambeth Palace in February 1152. As a Welsh-speaker, he was probably chosen in an attempt to make the diocesanal administration more acceptable in an age when Normans were not at all popular in the areas of Wales which they controlled. However, the strategy seems to have been unsuccessful. Owain Gwynedd’s open rebellion was in full swing and Geoffrey appears to have never even visited his bishopric. He died four years later, probably in London.”   http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/geofmon.html

“Whenever his dates are checked, as in the Roman period, Geoffrey emerges clearly as a writer of fiction and cannot be relied upon for facts. Following medieval tradition, he fully modernizes Arthur’s court to the 12th century. Later, however, from Caesar on he is using what passed for real history at the time and some of his source materials can be identified – the Historia Brittonum, Bede and Gildas in addition to Roman historians.

For the most part he is creating and aggrandizing very little data but in his preface he claims to be translating from a much fuller source, one “ancient book in the British language” (maybe Welsh but probably Breton) bestowed upon him by Walter, archdeacon at Oxford. This claim remains dubious as no copy of this source is extant. But the tale of Arthur scribed by Geoffrey cannot be fully accounted for from the aforementioned sources hinting at some unknown text of some kind. There is a possible tie to the Continent from the resonance with 5th century events in Gaul. Traces of a similar source are found in the preface to the Breton Legend of St. Goeznovius.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/geoffrey_of_monmouth.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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A Good Meal–Food in the Middle Ages

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Diana Wynne Jones’ book Tough Guide to Fantasy Land (recommended for any fantasy/historical fantasy writer) is a hilarious riff on the fantasy genre.  At one point, she mocks fantasy authors’ tendency for their adventurers to eat ‘stew’ in great quantity, which travelers would for the most part never do.

The classic example of this is when Sam, in Lord of the Rings, hauls those pots all the way to Mordor.  A much more likely scenario would for him to have stashed a couple of sticks in his backpack to poke through those poor rabbits he takes from Gollum in order to roast them over the fire.  Stew is far too much work.

So if not stew, then what?

Roasted meat over a spit, when possible.  Stale bread.  Berries or root vegetables gathered from the surrounding area.  Salted, smoked, and dried meat that keeps for weeks (and tastes like it).  Pioneers taking the Oregon trail across the country, where admittedly they had wagons, made corn pancakes on a griddle–but once again, that’s a heavy piece of equipment to carry.

People in the middle ages did eat a lot of stew, however.  “The Vikings ate two main meals a day, one of which usually consisted of some kind of meal or porridge. The mainstay of everyday eating was the big kettle of stew (or skause– a Norse word!) containing whatever vegetables and meat were available, and added to day by day.”  http://www.ydalir.co.uk/crafts/cook.htm

In Europe, “most medieval commoners cooked with only a large cauldron, known as the pot au feu, in the fireplace. Whatever they could find, they mixed it together in the pot and called it “stew.” Sometimes, it would be served with a slab of meat or even frumety. Frumety was a type of wheat pudding that surpassed bread in popularity during the Middle Ages, probably because it went so well with stew.”  http://library.thinkquest.org/C005446/Food/English/middle_ages.html

For a long list of possible foods and dishes:  http://shenanchie.tripod.com/medieval/med_3.htm

Medieval people also ate a lot of bread, but there is some question as to when the use of yeast became widespread.  Peoples all over the world have eaten bread for thousands of years, since the cultivation of wheat.

This site states:  “The custom of leavening the dough by the addition of a ferment was not universally adopted. For this reason, as the dough without leaven could only produce a heavy and indigestible bread, they made the bread very thin. These loaves served as plates for cutting up the other food upon, and when they became saturated with the sauce and gravy they were eaten as cakes. These were called trenchers. The use of trenchers remained long in fashion even at the most splendid banquets. It would be difficult to point out the exact period at which leavening bread was adopted in Europe, but we can assert that in the Middle Ages it was anything but general. Yeast was reserved for pastry, and it was only at the end of the sixteenth century that bakers used it for bread.”

At the same time, another site argues (http://www.breadinfo.com/history.shtml) that wheat was grown in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was first chewed, but then later pulverized it to make a paste.  “Set over a fire, the paste hardened into a flat bread that kept for several days. It did not take much of a leap to discover leavened (raised) bread when yeast was accidentally introduced to the paste.

Instead of waiting for fortuitous circumstances to leaven their bread, people found that they could save a piece of dough from a batch of bread to put into the next day’s dough. This was the origin of sour-dough, a process still used today.

In Egypt, around 1000 BC, inquiring minds isolated yeast and were able to introduce the culture directly to their breads. Also a new strain of wheat was developed that allowed for refined white bread. This was the first truly modern bread. Up to thirty varieties of bread may have been popular in ancient Egypt.

It was also during this time that bread beer was developed. The bread was soaked in water and sweetened and the foamy liquor run off. Beer was as popular in ancient Egypt as it is in America today.”   Bread was hugely important to the Roman Empire, and if nothing else, the mechanism for making it was brought to Britain and northern Europe with their conquest.

This opinion appears to be confirmed by this site:  http://www.guglhupf.com/breaduca/history.html

For the Vikings:  “Bread was made in great quantity and variety, both flat and risen. It’s uncertain if the Vikings had cultivated yeast as we know it, but they certainly made use of wild yeasts, raising agents such as buttermilk and sour milk, and the leftover yeast from brewing. They also used the ‘sourdough’ method, where a flour and water starter is left for several days to ferment. The most commonly grown cereal crops were oats, rye, and barley, but wheat was also widely used. Flour was also made from nuts (including acorns) or pulses (peas and beans), and even from tree bark. The inner layer of Birch bark, dried and ground, produces a flour with a sweet flavour and is highly nutritious. Bread could be flavoured with nuts, seeds, herbs, or cheese (yes, pizza is authentic!); or used to enclose fish or meat for baking it to succulent tenderness.”  http://www.ydalir.co.uk/crafts/cook.htm

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Bloodletting

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Bloodletting is one of the more horrific aspects of doctoring in history to the modern mind, the exact opposite of the prescription, ‘first do no harm’.

In Starz production of Pillars of the Earth, set in the 1100s AD in England, an early scene shows a doctor bloodletting a patient.  This surprised me because I thought it too early for that particular method of harming a patient.

I was wrong.

Bloodletting has been practiced for thousands of years and was common among the ancients.  “‘Bleeding’ a patient to health was modeled on the process of menstruation. Hippocrates believed that menstruation functioned to “purge women of bad humors”.  Galen of Rome, a student of Hippocrates, began physician-initiated bloodletting.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting

“Prior to the time of Hippocrates (460 to 377 B.C.), all illness was attributed to one disease with variable symptoms. Careful clinical observations by Hippocrates led to the recognition of specific disease states with identifying symptoms. It was during this time that the concept of body humors developed. The four fluid substances of the body were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Health depended on the proper balance of these humors. Bloodletting was, therefore, a method used for adjusting on of the four body humors to proper balance. This clinical concept led to the decline in the doctrine of evil spirits in disease.

It was thought that blood carried the vital force of the body and was the seat of the soul; body weakness and insanity were ascribed to a defect in this vital fluid.” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/redgold/basics/bloodlettinghistory.html

The Christian Church, although supporting bloodletting in the early days, prohibited it at the Council of Tours in 1163, saying:  “The church abhors bloodletting,” perhaps because it was associated with astrology.

George Washington was effectively murdered by bloodletting:  he died from a throat infection in 1799 after being drained of (some say 4, some say 9) pints of blood within 24 hours. http://www.museumofquackery.com/devices/phlebo.htm

Again from PBS:  “Most bloodletters would open a vein in the arm, leg or neck with small, fine knife called a lancet. They would tie off the area with a tourniquet and, holding the lancet delicately between thumb and forefinger, strike diagonally or lengthwise into the vein. (A perpendicular cut might sever the blood vessel.) They would collect the blood in measuring bowls, exquisitely wrought of fine Venetian glass.

Bleeding was as trusted and popular in ancient days as aspirin is today. The Talmudic authors laid out complex laws for bloodletting. Medieval monks bled each other several times a year for general maintenance of health. Doctors devised elaborate charts indicating the most favorable astrological conditions for bleeding.

It wasn’t until well into the 19th century that people began to question the value of bloodletting. Scientists such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch showed that germs, not humors, were responsible for disease. Furthermore, medical statisticians tracking case histories began to collect evidence that bloodletting was not effective. Eventually the practice died, although it continued in some parts of rural America into the 1920s.”

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/redgold/basics/bloodletting.html

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Welsh Rebels

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In looking through historical documents, there is a striking resemblance between one of the last letters that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wrote to Edward I, a month before his death, and the famous speech by Patrick Henry.  From Llywelyn:

We fight because we are forced to fight, for we, and all Wales, are oppressed, subjugated, despoiled, reduced to servitude by the royal officers and bailiffs so that we feel, and have often so protested to the King, that we are left without any remedy . . ..

Compare it to Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia Assembly:

Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope . . .

Welsh rulers fought the English/Norman rule from 1066 to 1282, but even after the Welsh conquest by Edward I, other men stepped up to foment rebellion, some with more success than others.

One was Madog ap Llywelyn (1294-95):   Frustrated by high taxes, forced levies for Edward’s wars, misuse of power by his officers (sound familiar?), Madog rose to lead an organized rebellion at Michelmas in 1294, just as Edward was preparing to cross the English Channel for a continental campaign.  He immediately abandoned that plan and turned his attention to Wales.  http://www.medievalists.net/files/08100401.pdf

Madog himself wasn’t particularly noble in his ideals–he was a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd but who had not been an ally.  Back in 1256 the Prince of Wales dispossessed his family of their lands, they fled to England and to Edward.  Upon Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s death, Madog expected a return to his fortunes, expectations which failed to materialize.  Madog’s forces overran Caernarfon and occupied the castle.  Other castles across Wales were besieged and many towns put to the flame, including Caerfphilly, Harlech, and Conwy.  http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Madog_ap_Llywelyn  Ultimately, of course, Edward’s armies defeated Madog’s and captured him.

A second was Llywelyn Bren in 1316 who rebelled against Edward II, somewhat despite himself.  His real argument was with Sir Payn Turberville whom Edward had appointed to rule Glamorgan after the death of its Earl.  As always seemed to be the case with these royal, English appointments, he was tyrannical and vicious.  Llywelyn made some statement to that effect, which Turberville reported to Edward II, who then called Llywelyn to account.  Instead of allowing Edward to hang him, he fled and fomented rebellion, although he ultimately surrendered rather than have the full weight of the Marche brought down on his countrymen’s head.  This page has a detailed description of what went on:  http://edwardthesecond.blogspot.com/2010/01/uprising-in-south-wales-1316.html

Ultimately, Hugh Despenser had Llywelyn removed from the Tower of London and murdered.

Then, of course, there’s Owain Glyndwr (Glendower) who gets his own post 🙂 http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/owain-glyndwr/

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European (Medieval) Martial Arts

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There is a fascinating documentary on the rediscovery of the European ‘martial art’ of sword fighting called Reclaiming the Blade, available on Netflix, if you subscribe:  http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Reclaiming_the_Blade/70111112?trkid=2361637

It begins by talking about sword fighting movies (Lord of the Rings was highlighted in particular), but once they stripped away the honor and righteous talk, it had a really good argument that sword fighting prior to the invention of gunpowder was just as legitimately a martial art as karate. In Europe, there are now European sword fighting academies which teach medieval sword fighting like my children learn karate. How cool is that?

A society now exists to promote it.  http://www.aemma.org/  with lots of resources to promote this lost art  (http://jwma.ejmas.com/php-bin/jwma_content.php?LLM=0&Tab=articles&MD=) is one example–the Journal of Western Martial Arts.

Three of my children are black belts in Shodukan Karate (the fourth is a green belt). My eldest son, in particular, helps me choreograph many of the fights that I write into my books. He has always suggested (perhaps instinctively due to his training) that my characters employ the whole of the sword (hilt, crossguard, and blade), wrestling techniques, and moves which are more akin to karate than you might find in movie depictions of sword fighting. Interestingly, this documentary suggests that he is correct—that these techniques were actually common practice in the Middle Ages.

Our view of sword fighting has been colored by fencing, which has rules, or by movies whose sole purpose is to put on a good show, but not to kill an opponent. In battle, there were no rules. A man in battle was likely to use his sword as a bludgeon, swing his sword like a baseball bat with two hands on the blade and smash his opponent in the face with the hilt, or hold it with two hands, one on the hilt and one on the blade of his sword (with his gauntleted left hand) and thrust it into his opponent’s midsection like a pike. A fight was likely to last less than a minute, and as Viggo Mortensen pointed out, a man wouldn’t pull his sword from its sheath unless he intended to use it, and kill with it as quickly as possible.

Fiore dei Liberi (born c. 1350) was a master of Western martial arts.  His book, Flos Duellatorum (http://thearma.org/Manuals/Liberi.htm) or The Flower of Fencing is the oldest and most complete document of its type. The fighting system he recorded, apparently for the benefit of Niccolo III d’Este, is complex and beautiful in its efficiency and symmetry. The artwork is clear, the instructions direct, and the lessons valuable. While the fighting system itself is the subject of many dynamic projects, little has been uncovered about the author of this fascinating work.”  http://jwma.ejmas.com/php-bin/jwma_content.php?LLM=0&Tab=articles&MD=

Here’s another video of a woman champion: http://www.thegeekocracy.com/modern-day-knight-female-wins-longsword-competition-world-invitational-tournament/

As a side note for those writing about swords, when a man did draw his sword from its sheath, the sword did not make that distinctive scraping noise that you hear movies. Metal on leather is silent.

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Castell y Bere

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My daughter says that Castell y Bere is in ‘the freaking middle of nowhere’ which is why King Edward couldn’t convince any English settlers to live there after he conquered Wales.  Plus ‘it’s really, really windy.’

Potentially, that is all you need to know about Castell y Bere, but if that turned you away from visiting, that would be unfortunate.  Historically, Castell y Bere was also one of the most important castles of the Welsh Princes–certainly it is one of the largest and most elaborate.  It sits on elongated plateau of rock in the Upper Dysynni Valley.  Because of its central location (at the time), it helped Llywelyn Fawr, who built it, control the territory along the old mountain road from Cadair Idris to Dolgellau.  It also guards the territory between the Dyfi and Mawddach estuaries (see above mentioned ‘freaking middle of nowhere’).  Llywelyn built it with luxuries in mind, and included stained glass windows, inlaid tile, and stone carvings (Paul Davis, Castles of the Welsh Princes).

Llywelyn Fawr began the castle after a dispute with his son, Gruffydd in 1221 AD.  Llywelyn took these territories for himself, and began work on Castell y Bere.  His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, added onto the structures, eventually creating a sprawling complex of buildings, surrounded by a system of walls and ditches that made the castle virtually impossible to assault.  It was the last castle to be taken in 1283, after the fall of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, surrendering to King Edward’s forces without a fight.

King Edward maintained the castle (to the tune of 265 pounds) from 1286 to 1290, but Adrian Pettifer states in his book Welsh Castles, ‘the castle proved too remote to be supplied in times of siege.’  It was burned during Madog ap Llywelyn’s uprising in 1294 and never restored.

Links:  http://www.castlewales.com/cybere.html

http://www.castlexplorer.co.uk/wales/bere/bere.php

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Owain Glyndwr

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At my nativity

The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,

Of burning cressets; and at my birth

The frame and huge foundation of the earth

Shaked like a coward … all the courses of my life do show

I am not in the roll of commen men.

–Shakespeare (Henry IV)

Born in 1349, at the height of the Black Plague, Owain Glyndwr lived in a turbulent time in Wales.  With the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282, Wales became nothing more than a vassal to the English crown and the vast majority of the native rulers were dead or unseated by English barons.  Glyndwr’s family had supported Llywelyn, but had allied themselves with the Mortimers and Lestranges afterwards such that they got to keep their lands.

As was so often the case in Wales, however, Glyndwr found himself in trouble when he “ran up against his powerful neighbor, Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin, an intimate of the new king, Henry IV. The quarrel was over common land which Grey had stolen. Glyndwr could get no justice from the king or parliament. This proud man, over forty and grey-haired, was visited with insult and malice.  There are indications that Glyndwr made an effort to contact other disaffected Welshmen, and when he raised his standard outside Ruthin on 16 September 1400, his followers from the very beginning proclaimed himPrince of Wales.” http://www.castlewales.com/glyndwr.html

By 1403, Glyndwr controlled most of Wales and “in 1404, Glyndwr assembled a parliament of four men from every commot in Wales at Machynlleth, drawing up mutual recognition treaties with France and Spain. At Machynlleth, he was also crowned king of a free Wales. A second parliament in Harlech took place a year later, with Glyndwr making plans to carve up England and Wales into three, as part of an alliance against the English king: Mortimer would take the south and west of England, Thomas Percy, earl of Northumberland, would have the midlands and the north, and himself Wales and the Marches of England.”   http://www.castlewales.com/glyndwr.html

Over the next few years, Glyndwr’s power and influence began to wane, especially after King Henry IV of England  was able to turn his attention from the Scots to the Welsh.   In 1409, Mortimer and Glyndwr’s family were captured and taken to the Tower of London.   Although Henry V offered Glyndwr a pardon in 1413, he refused it.  There is no record of what happened to him after that, and no location for his death and burial.  For historical purposes, he vanished.

http://www.historynet.com/owain-glyndwrs-fight-for-wales.htm/2

Owain Glyndwy is immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, King Henry IV:

“The Earl of Northumberland, his son Henry Percy [Harry Hotspur] and the Archbishop of York, began rebellions against Henry. They joined with the Mortimer family and Owain Glyndwr, there plan was to overthrow Henry IV, and divide the kingdom into three parts – the northern part for the Northumberland family, the southern part for the Mortimers, Wales and the western midlands of England for Owain Glyndwr. However the rebellion failed.”  http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~yawn/h4sh.htm

This bears a fascinating resemblance to Clare, Prince Llywelyn, and Simon de Montfort’s plans to divide England and Wales 150 years earlier.

From the play:

In faith, he is a worthy gentleman,

Exceedingly well read, and profited

In strange concealments; valiant as a lion,

And wondrous affable; and as bountiful

As mines of India…

 

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