Categotry Archives: Research


The Saxon Invasions


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It is a matter of record that the ‘Saxons’ invaded Britain in the last years of the Roman occupation, and then in full force after the Romans left the island in 410 AD.  They marched away, seemingly without a backward glance, leaving the Britons–after 400 years of occupation–to fend for themselves. Map retrieved from:

From Gildas:

    From Britain envoys set out with their complaints, their clothes (it is said) torn, their heads covered in dust, to beg help from the Romans. … The Romans … informed our country that they could not go on being bothered with such troublesome expeditions; that Roman standards, that great and splendid army, could not be worn out by land and sea for the sake of wandering thieves who had no taste for war. Rather, the Britons should stand alone, get used to arms, fight bravely, and defend with all their powers their land, property, wives, children, and, more importantly, their life and liberty. Their enemies were no stronger than they, unless Britain chose to relax in laziness and torpor; they should not hold out to them for the chaining hands that held no arms, but hands equipped with shields, swords and lances, ready for the kill. This was the Romans’ advice.

These invaders, as the map to right shows, were not in fact all ‘Saxon’, but a combination of Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Franks, and Frisians, each hailing from a different region of the western coast of Europe.

The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were Germanic peoples.  From Wikipedia:   They were “originally a small tribe living on the North Sea between the Elbe and Eider Rivers in the present Holstein. Their name, derived from their weapon called Seax, a knife, is first mentioned by the Roman author Ptolemy (about 130).

In 3rd and 4th century Germany, great tribal confederations of the Alamanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Franks, Frisians, and Saxons arose. These took the place of the numerous petty tribes with their popular tribal form of government. With the exceptions of the Saxons all these confederations were ruled by kings; the Saxons were divided into a number of independent bodies under different chiefs, and in time of war these chieftains drew lots. This leader the other chiefs followed until the war ended.

In the third and fourth centuries the Saxons fought their way victoriously towards the west, and their name was given to the great tribal confederation that stretched towards the west exactly to the former boundary of the Roman Empire, consequently almost to the Rhine. Only a small strip of land on the right bank of the Rhine remained to the Frankish tribe. Towards the south the Saxons pushed as far as the Harz Mountains and the Eichsfeld, and in the succeeding centuries absorbed the greater part of Thuringia. In the east their power extended at first as far as the Elbe and Saale Rivers; in the later centuries it certainly extended much farther. All the coast of the German Ocean belonged to the Saxons except that west of the Weser, which the Frisians retained.”

From then on, there are differing views about how rampant the Saxon spread was.  Certainly, it happened (language alone tells us that), but the exact timeline for the spread is not clear.  The Battle of Mt. Badon (whether or not fought by Arthur) is said to have occurred around 500 AD, which held back the Saxon tide for a generation.

After that, however, it was unstoppable.





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Here’s the real deal on Lancelot:  In the Welsh tales, he doesn’t exist.  The only adultery that may or may not have occurred is between Gwenhwyfar and Modred and not by Gwenhywfar’s choice.

The French made him up.  There.  I said it.

“Sir Lancelot first appears in Arthurian legend in ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’, one of a set of five Arthurian romances written by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes (completed by Godefroy de Lagny) as a large collection of verses, c.1180 to 1240. Lancelot is characterised alongside other knights, notably Gawain, Kay, and Méléagant (or Meliagaunce) – a consistent rival and parallel anti-hero against Lancelot – and is already heavily involved in his legendary romance with Guinevere, King Arthur’s queen.

…Chrétien de Troyes composed ‘Le Chevalier de la Charrette’ at the request of the Countess Marie de Champagne, daughter of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, then later the wife of Henry II of England. It was apparently written to foster the notion of the ‘Courts of Love’ as the principal settings for (adulterous) social relations rather than the spontaneous passion typified by the story of Tristan and Iseult. Like other courtly ladies of the day, Guinevere required a lover, and the literary Lancelot – a convenient and suitable hero – was pressed into service.”

In that context, it makes sense (though I still hate it–and hate it more that the Lancelot story has become the King Arthur story.  It is interesting to note that this author also makes the same observation I do in my rant ( that “Lancelot is arguably as important a figure as Arthur himself. In French versions of the legend more attention is focused on Sir Lancelot than on King Arthur”.

“He is first introduced by Chrétien de Troyes and substantially enlarged by the Vulgate cycle. Malory furthers his prominence.

Lancelot is the son of the King of Benoic, Ban. He is carried away from this province of western France, by the Lady of the Lake. She raises him and presents him to Arthur‘s court upon his eighteenth birthday. His marshall prowess and inward nobility are soon apprehended by all. When not on the Quest, he meets with the Round Table and participates in the tournaments, often victoriously. He makes his home the northern castle of Joyous Gard, possibly Bamburgh, at the location of a British fort named Din Guayrdi.

Perhaps his most recognizable role is that of paramour to Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. Though the Queen’s treatment of him at court is aloof and disdainful, according to the tenets of courtly love, their love runs deep and is lasting, though stormy at times. Their love is also integral to Grail legend. While Lancelot is the guest of the Grail-keeper Pelles, Pelles contrives magically to have the knight sleep with his daughter Elaine in the guise of the Queen, whom he has led Lancelot to believe is in the area. Lancelot sleeps with Elaine and the result of their union is Galahad, the chosen Grail-knight. Upon reaching manhood, Galahad comes to court and many knights set forth on the Quest for the Grail. Lancelot himself is denied the Grail because of his aldultery. Ironically however, it is that love that conceived the knight that attains the Grail.”

The one version of the Lancelot story that I find interesting is actually told by Norma Goodrich, who works with languages.  She claims that Lancelot is derived from a Scottish King Angus (with etymological detail of the transformation of the name).  She says that there was no adultery, which we already knew 🙂




What did medieval people drink?

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What did medieval people drink? It wasn’t just alcoholic beverages, though alcohol was so commonly drunk at every meal that it was almost a food rather than a beverage.

Water–Yes, people drank water in the Middle Ages!

All over the internet, sources say that water was not drunk in the Middle Ages due to impurities. Certain sources question that, in large part because people didn’t know where disease came from, so how would they have pinpointed water as the source of the problem?  Maybe because it didn’t taste good? Other sources indicate that water might not have been drunk often, but that it may have been more of a class thing, rather than a health issue. Poor people drank water, since they couldn’t afford wine or beer. Medieval people did have access to well water, which was a relatively clean source of water.

Regardless, while water was readily available, even if a person might choose wine, beer, or mead over water if he could. This is a list of possible water-based and non-alcoholic drinks that medieval people might have drunk:

Milk–among the Celts and later the Welsh and English, milk was drunk as well as eaten in great quantity as cheese, butter, cream, etc. The Welsh in particular were herders of sheep, goats, and cattle, so milk was a widely available cheap (if not free) food for all classes of people, and an important source of protein.

Wine–Wine was drunk all over France and the Mediterranean  where grapes were grown. It was less common in Britain where it would have had to have been imported. The wealthy did import it, however, and particularly as the centuries progressed, lords and kings would have drunk wine as a matter of course.

Mead–a common beverage in Wales made from fermented honey. Essentially, it is honey wine. The Welsh were herders, not farmers, so they didn’t grow grains in the same quantity as the English. I talk about what mead is here:

Cider–a less common beverage, but derived from the fermentation of fruits, usually apples.

Beer— an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. It is a generic term that includes other fermented beverages such as ale. Nowadays, beer includes hops, which weren’t added to beer until the 16th century. “Beer was the first alcoholic beverage known to civilization, however, who drank the first beer is unknown. Historians theorize that humankind’s fondness for beer and other alcoholic beverages was a factor in our evolution away from a society of nomadic hunters and gathers into an agrarian society that would settle down to grow crops (and apparently drink). The first product humans made from grain & water before learning to make bread was beer.”

“As the cultivation of barley spread north and west, brewing went with it. As time passed, the production of beer came under the watchful eye of the Roman Church. Christian abbeys, as centers of agriculture, knowledge and science, refined the methods of brewing. Initially in the making of beer for the brothers and for visiting pilgrims, later as a means of financing their communities. However, there was still very little known about the role of yeast in completing fermentationBeer brewing played an important role in daily lives. Beer was clearly so desired that it led nomadic groups into village life. Beer was considered a valuable (potable) foodstuff  and workers were often paid with jugs of beer.

By the fifteenth century, there was a record of hops used in Flemish beer imported into England, and by the sixteenth century hops had gained widespread use as a preservative in beer, replacing the previously used bark or leaves. Perhaps the most widely known event in brewing history was the establishment of German standards for brewers. The first of these regulations was the inspiration for the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 – the most famous beer purity law. This pledge of purity states that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Yeast, though not included in this list, was acceptable, as it was taken for granted to be a key ingredient in the brewing process. The “Reinheitsgebot” was the assurance to the consumer that German beers would be of the highest quality in the world and acknowledges the European disdain for adding adjuncts such as corn, rice, other grains and sugars.”

Ale–an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. Certain web pages claim that what English people really drank in the Middle Ages wasn’t beer, but Ale, which is a drink without hops.

“Historically the terms beer and ale respectively referred to drinks brewed with and without hops. It has often now come to mean a bitter-tasting barley beverage fermented at room temperature. In some British usage, however, in homage to the original distinction, it is not now used except in compounds (such as “pale ale” (see below)) or as “real ale“, a term adopted in opposition to the pressurised beers developed by industrial brewers in the 1960s, and used of a warm-fermented unpasteurised beer served from the cask (though not stout or porter).

Ale typically has bittering agent(s) to balance the sweetness of the malt and to act as a preservative. Ale was originally bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs (sometimes spices) which was boiled in the wort prior to fermentation. Later, hops replaced the gruit blend in common usage as the sole bittering agent.

Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition in the medieval world, particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects. Small beer would have been consumed daily by almost everyone in the medieval world, with higher-alcohol ales served for recreational purposes. The lower cost for proprietors combined with the lower taxes levied on small beer led to the selling of beer labeled “strong beer” that had actually been diluted with small beer. For many medieval people, ale was healthier than the local drinking water, which was often contaminated by bacteria, whereas the ethanol in ale kills bacteria. In some places even children drank it.

Brewing ale in the Middle Ages was a local industry primarily pursued by women. “Brewsters,” as they were called, would brew in the homestead for both domestic consumption and small scale commercial sale. Brewsters provided a substantial supplemental income for families; however, only in select few cases, as was the case for widows, was brewing considered the primary income of the household.





The Battle of Cymerau

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The fortunes of the Welsh ebbed and flowed in the 13th century, but between 1255 (the Battle of Bryn Derwin when Llywelyn defeated his brothers, Dafydd and Owain) and 1277, they were on the rise.

One of the first important battles was that of Cymerau.

In September of 1256, Stephen Bauzan, Prince Edward’s officer in south-west Wales, brought a substantial force of men to Ystrad Tywi, located in the northern portion of Deheubarth at the base of the Cambrian Mountains.

Thus, on the eve of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s advance into Perfeddwlad, a force was arraigned against Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, the Welsh lord of those lands. Llywelyn and Maredudd, eyeing each other with mutual concern about their own power and authority, struck an alliance, and perhaps this is the true impetus for Llywelyn’s foray east of the Conwy River. After he took all of Gwynedd under his control, he swept south, taking over all of Wales from the Dee River to the Dyfi, and then turning southwest towards Ystrad Tywi and taking all those lands for Maredudd.

Then, Llywelyn turned back east and drove towards Welshpool, through the lands of Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn in Powys. Further south, he took lands from Roger Mortimer, including Builth, initiating a lifelong animosity between the two men.  Llywelyn found himself in possession of almost the whole of Wales and the chroniclers realized he was cut from the same cloth as the great Kings of Wales who preceded him.  They began to speak of him in the same breath as his grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr.

All this activity forced Prince Edward to engage his Marcher barons–Mortimer, Bohun, Lestrange, Valence–none of whom was enthused about the idea of challenging Llywelyn. Edward was also short of funds. But he had no choice but to attempt a counter measure and try to wrest back some of the lands that Llywelyn had taken from him.

At Edward’s behest, Bauzan again set out (hard to see why Edward entrusted this mission with him, given the disaster of the previous year, but he did).  On 31 May 1257, he reached Llandeilo Fawr and camped. During the night, Maredudd ap Owain and Maredudd ap Rhys drew their forces close.  At dawn, they attacked in a shower of lances and arrows. For two days, the English cowered under the onslaught. Rhys Fychan, an ally of Edward and Prince Llywelyn’s nephew, who’d encouraged the whole endeavor, slipped away and made for Dinefwr.  This was the Welsh court of Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg, to which he thereby transferred his allegiance.

The next day, the English attempted to retreat to Cardigan, but at Coed Llathen the force lost many of its supplies.  Then, at Cymerau, the Welsh and English forces met openly on a battlefield. The Welsh so routed the English that 3000 men were recorded as having fallen.  It was an embarrassing and epic defeat for Edward.  Unfortunately for Llywelyn, his alliance with Maredudd ap Rhys Gryg was irrepairably damaged by his acceptance of Rhys Fychan back into the fold, and Maredudd defected again to the king before the year was out.

These details come from:

Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King, Edward I and the Forging of Britain.

J. Beverley Smith, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.

And Wikipedia has a great description here:


Owain Gwynedd’s birthday

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When was Owain Gwynedd born?  Here’s the truth:  no idea.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  Like Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, nobody seems to have recorded the date Owain Gwynedd was born, or even the year.  This is fine as far as it goes, because we can make some general estimates.  The problem arises when the birthdays for his many, many children haven’t been recorded either.  Nor his siblings.  Nor the dates of his marriages.

My go-to-guide, John Davies History of Wales doesn’t discuss birthdays or ages, probably because he knows it’s fraught with difficulties, but many web sources try.  For example, here’s one huge root of the problem, the Wikipedia entry, citing a book by John Edward Lloyd  A history of Wales from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest (Longmans, Green & Co.) written in 1911.  This has Owain born c. 1100, and a long list of his offspring  (

Although I have edited the entry on Wikipedia to reflect the uncertainty of the birthday, if we’d continued to follow the 1911 source, Iorwerth ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest son of Owain’s first wife, Gwladys, would have been born in 1145, a year after Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd, the eldest child of Owain’s second wife.  Such a date could be possible for Dafydd, since he is first mention in the annals of wales in 1157. At the latest, that means he was born in 1143/44, since Welsh boys become men at the age of fourteen.  Obviously, we now have a problem.

It gets worse.  The Castles of Wales site, normally very reliable, has Owain Gwynedd born as late as 1109.  While neither Rhun nor Hywel get birthdays, they were full grown men by 1143, when Hywel is tasked with rousting his uncle Cadwaladr out of Ceredigion. If that’s the case, you have to think he’s at least 20 at the time.  If this is true, however, for Hywel to be  20 in 1143, he would have to been fathered by Owain at the precocious age of 14, and his elder brother Rhun even earlier.  Not impossible, but…

Furthermore, Citing The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens (by Mike Ashley, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc. New York, 1998), elsewhere on the site, it makes the claim that Owain was born c. 1100 (so I give them a pass on that), but now Dafydd, the eldest son of his second wife Cristina, was born in c. 1135.

Deeper into a search, the EBK site reports that Owain’s father, Gruffydd, married Angharad in 1195 (when he was 40) and had three sons (Cadwallon, Owain, Cadwaladr) and some daughters, including the youngest, Gwenllian.  Fine. But it is Gwenllian who elopes with the much, much older Gruffydd ap Rhys in 1113.  Whoa.  Note that the particular entry on Gwenllian, which actually has citations, not all of which I have access to, has her born c 1197, which by necessity must push all these other dates back into the earlier 1190s to make any of this work.  Unfortunately, to push those dates earlier is problematic, because Gruffydd was imprisoned for between 12 and 16 years, starting in 1081, so the earliest date of his release is 1093.



Medieval Swords and Armor were NOT heavy!


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That medieval swords and armor were ‘heavy’ is one of the strangest misconceptions of medieval life.  These people’s LIVES depended on their agility and ability to survive a fight.  Why would they be wielding 20 pound swords and wearing armor so heavy if they fell of their horse, they’d find themselves as helpless as upturned turtles?

One reason for the confusion comes from the fact that ornamental swords and armor that remain to us often ARE heavier than ones used in battle, secondly, the sport of ‘fencing’ has greatly confused people as to what sword fighting really entailed (the purpose of fencing is to poke your opponent with the tip; the purpose of sword fighting is to get your opponent on the ground and shove your 2 lb. sword through his midsection to kill him), and thirdly, that in the late middle ages, the plate armor knights used specifically for jousting WERE heavier than normal so they could survive a straight shot to the chest from a lance.  I have a children’s book that actually claims that a knight had to be helped onto his horse by two servants and a ladder.

No, no, no, no.

“Perhaps the most infamous example is the notion that “knights had to be hoisted into their saddles with a crane,” which is as absurd as it is persistent even among many historians. In other instances, certain technical details that escape an obvious explanation have become the focus of lurid and fantastically imaginative attempts to explain their original function. Among these, the lance rest, an object protruding from the proper right side of many breastplates, probably holds first place.”

“From ordinary hands-on experience we know full well that swords were not excessively heavy nor did they weigh 10 or 15 pounds and more. There is only so many ways we can repeat how these weapons were not at all heavy or ungainly. Remarkably, while one would think a crucial piece of information as the weight of swords would be of great interest to arms curators and arms historians, there is no major reference book that actually lists the weights of different types. Perhaps this vacuum of documented evidence is part of the very problem surrounding the issue. However, there are a few respected sources that do give some valuable statistics. For example, the lengthy catalog of swords from the famed Wallace Collection Museum in London readily lists dozens of fine specimens among which it is difficult to find any weighing in excess of 4 pounds. Indeed, the majority of specimens, from arming swords to two-handers to rapiers, weigh much less than three pounds.

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Medieval swords were indeed light, manageable, and on average weighed less than four pounds. As leading sword expert Ewart Oakeshott unequivocally stated: “Medieval Swords are neither unwieldably heavy nor all alike – the average weight of any one of normal size is between 2.5 lb. and 3.5 lbs. Even the big hand-and-a-half ‘war’ swords rarely weigh more than 4.5 lbs. Such weights, to men who were trained to use the sword from the age of seven (and who had to be tough specimens to survive that age) , were by no means too great to be practical.”(Oakeshott, Sword in Hand, p. 13). Oakeshott, the 20th century’s leading author and researcher of European swords would certainly know.”

A major league baseball bat weighs less than a pound–10 ounces or so–and so in comparison, swords are ‘heavy’.  But no knight is planning on hitting a baseball 200 yards either.  Around the world, the new/old practice of ‘European martial arts’ is springing up, because knights were martial artists, with all the maneuvers and kicks and elbow-to-the-nose of Asian martial arts.  I have post about this here:

If you’re interested in Dark Age and Medieval Armor, here’s another post: (Wow!  This was my first post ever!)

Mail is very flexible (which meant that while it was effective against slashes and thrusts from swords, was far less so against forceful blows), and relatively light, with a hauberk weighing roughly twenty pounds.  Plate is heavier, more like 45 pounds for a full suit, but with more evenly distributed weight.  When properly fitted, a knight could move easily and fully in either mail or plate.

“An entire suit of field armor (that is, armor for battle) usually weighs between 45 and 55 lbs. (20 to 25 kg), with the helmet weighing between 4 and 8 lbs. (2 to 4 kg)—less than the full equipment of a fireman with oxygen gear, or what most modern soldiers have carried into battle since the nineteenth century. Moreover, while most modern equipment is chiefly suspended from the shoulders or waist, the weight of a well-fitted armor is distributed all over the body. It was not until the seventeenth century that the weight of field armor was greatly increased in order to render it bulletproof against ever more accurate firearms. At the same time, however, full armor became increasingly rare and only vital parts of the body, such as the head, torso, and hands, remained protected by metal plate.

The notion that the development of plate armor (completed by about 1420–30) greatly impaired a wearer’s mobility is also untrue. A harness of plate armor was made up of individual elements for each limb. Each element in turn consisted of lames (strips of metal) and plates, linked by movable rivets and leather straps, and thus allowing practically all of the body’s movements without any impairment due to rigidity of material. The widely held view that a man in armor could hardly move, and, once he had fallen to the ground, was unable to rise again, is also without foundation. On the contrary, historical sources tell us of the famous French knight Jean de Maingre (ca. 1366–1421), known as Maréchal Boucicault, who, in full armor, was able to climb up the underside of a ladder using only his hands. Furthermore, there are several illustrations from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicting men-at-arms, squires, or knights, all in full armor, mounting horses without help or instruments such as ladders or cranes. Modern experiments with genuine fifteenth- and sixteenth-century armor as well as with accurate copies have shown that even an untrained man in a properly fitted armor can mount and dismount a horse, sit or lie on the ground, get up again, run, and generally move his limbs freely and without discomfort.”

My son informs me that a few years ago when he downloaded a patch for a game–Skyrim–it finally made weapons and armor the proper weight.  Apparently, the original game had swords weighing 10 pounds!


The Triumph of Medieval Propaganda

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

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

This is a nice quote, and not at all inaccurate, but none-the-less astonishing because this is EXACTLY WHAT GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH INTENDED!  He wrote his book in 1139 AD. It was meant to be a mythology for the nation of England, justifying the Norman conquest of England (and particularly Empress Maud’s claim to the throne) and placing her in the line of rulers dating back to King Arthur and earlier.

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

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

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


King Stephen


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Empress Maud (Matilda)


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Maud was the eldest, legitimate daughter of Henry I of England.  Her major claim to fame is that she warred for 19 years with Stephen of Blois, her cousin (both were grandchildren of William the Conqueror), for the throne of England.  This period of English history is known as ‘The Anarchy’.

Maud resolved to take this path after the death of her brother, Henry, who went down with the White Ship in 1120 AD.  His death left King Henry with no legitimate sons (and up to twenty illegitimate ones).  In English law, illegitimate sons could not inherit, which left only Maud to take the throne.  While Henry was still alive, he tried very hard to get the barons to swear they would follow Maud.  Afterwards … Stephen felt that as a legitimate male, even if descended through his mother, Adela, a daughter of William.

Stephen and his wife, Matilda, were crowned King and Queen of England in 1135, shortly after King Henry’s death.  They had crossed the English Channel from Normandy more quickly than Maud and claimed the throne.

Both Stephen and Maud, of course, were Normans.  The spoke French, they held lands in Normandy and France, and hadn’t actually spent very much time in England before they began fighting over it.

“Matilda is the Latin form of Maud, and the name of the only surviving legitimate child of King Henry I. She was born in 1101, generally it is said at Winchester, but recent research indicates that she was actually born at the Royal Palace in Sutton Courtenay (Berkshire).

In something of a political coup for her father, Matilda was betrothed to the German Emperor, Henry V, when she was only eight. They were married on 7th January 1114. She was twelve and he was thirty-two. Unfortunately there were no children and on the Emperor’s death in 1125, Matilda was recalled to her father’s court.

Matilda’s only legitimate brother had been killed in the disastrous Wreck of the White Ship in late 1120 and she was now her father’s only hope for the continuation of his dynasty. The barons swore allegiance to the young Princess and promised to make her queen after her father’s death. She herself needed heirs though and in April 1127, Matilda found herself obliged to marry Prince Geoffrey of Anjou and Maine (the future Geoffrey V, Count of those Regions). He was thirteen, she twenty-three. It is thought that the two never got on. However, despite this unhappy situation they had had three sons in four years.”

Unfortunately, when Maud did have a chance to claim the crown, the people of London refused to crown her and drove her from the city.  The chronicles report that she was haughty and disagreeable (Norman, remember, overseeing Saxon subjects).  King Stephen’s Queen, Matilda, though also Norman, had behaved more to their liking.  Maud never came close to gaining the throne again.

The final outcome of The Anarchy was Maud’s retirement from the field in 1148 at the death of her greatest supporter, her half-brother Robert (who was illegitimate).  Once King Stephen’s son, Eustace died in 1153, it allowed for “the possibility of a peaceful settlement between Stephen and his rival, the young Henry of Anjou. According to William of Newburgh, King Stephen was “grieved beyond measure by the death of the son who he hoped would succeed him; he pursued warlike preparations less vigorously, and listened more patiently than usual to the voices of those urging peace.”,_Count_of_Boulogne

Here is a timeline for Maud’s life:

King Owain Gwynedd (King of North Wales) took advantage of The Anarchy to consolidate his lands and power.  This period in the twelfth century is the setting for my Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries.


Christmas and the Winter Solstice


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Stonehenge_Winter_Solstice_2007December 21st is the winter solstice in 2017. This is Stonehenge at the Winter Solstice in 2007. I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of those people have no idea why they’re there …

Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have celebrated the winter solstice, carefully calculating it’s date and time for sunrise and sunset, and aligning standing stones, worship sites, and burials in coordination with the sky.  Wikipedia has an excellent catalog of these events:

“The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. Depending on the Gregorian calendar, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places above a latitude of 66.5 degrees north are now in darkness, while locations below a latitude of 66.5 degrees south receive 24 hours of daylight.”

The Romans first linked Christmas with the solstice.  They pegged the event to December 25th because, since 43 BC, this date was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar.  It was only in 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII reconciled the calendar with the actual astronomical solstice, moving the solstice to December 21 (and keeping Christmas on the 25th).

From  “In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. Raucous partying, gluttonous eating and drinking, and gift-giving were traditions of this feast.

In Rome, the Winter Solstice was celebrated many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans called their winter holiday Saturnalia, honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. In January, they observed the Kalends of January, which represented the triumph of life over death. This whole season was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The festival season was marked by much merrymaking. It is in ancient Rome that the tradition of the Mummers was born. The Mummers were groups of costumed singers and dancers who traveled from house to house entertaining their neighbors. From this, the Christmas tradition of caroling was born.

In northern Europe, many other traditions that we now consider part of Christian worship were begun long before the participants had ever heard of Christ. The pagans of northern Europe celebrated the their own winter solstice, known as Yule. Yule was symbolic of the pagan Sun God, Mithras, being born, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. As the Sun God grew and matured, the days became longer and warmer. It was customary to light a candle to encourage Mithras, and the sun, to reappear next year.

According to my go-to online etymological dictionary, Yule: yule (n.) Old English geol, geola “Christmas Day, Christmastide,” from Old Norse jol (plural), a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity, of unknown origin.

The Old English (Anglian) cognate giuli was the Anglo-Saxons’ name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself a festival. After conversion to Christianity it narrowed to mean “the 12-day feast of the Nativity” (which began Dec. 25), but was replaced by Christmas by 11c., except in the northeast (areas of Danish settlement), where it remained the usual word.

Revived 19c. by writers to mean “the Christmas of ‘Merrie England.’ ” First direct reference to the Yule log is 17c. Old Norse jol seems to have been borrowed in Old French as jolif, hence Modern French joli “pretty, nice,” originally “festive” (see jolly).

The tree is the one symbol that unites almost all the northern European winter solstices. Live evergreen trees were often brought into homes during the harsh winters as a reminder to inhabitants that soon their crops would grow again. Evergreen boughs were sometimes carried as totems of good luck and were often present at weddings, representing fertility. The Druids used the tree as a religious symbol, holding their sacred ceremonies while surrounding and worshipping huge trees.

In 350, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them.”



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.”

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.”

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.


December 11, 1282


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Today is the 735th anniversary the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last native Welsh Prince of Wales.  He was ambushed and cut down by Englishmen, somewhere in the vicinity of Builth Wells (Buellt in Welsh), Wales, late on the afternoon on 11 December 1282.  It was a Friday.

And then Llywelyn ap Gruffudd left Dafydd, his brother, guarding Gwynedd; and he himself and his host went to gain possession of Powys and Buellt. And he gained possession as far as Llanganten. And thereupon he sent his men and his steward to receive the homage of the men of Brycheiniog, and the prince was left with but a few men with him. And then Edmund Mortimer and Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, and with them the king’s host, came upon them without warning; and then Llywelyn and his foremost men were slain on the day of Damasus the Pope, a fortnight to the day from Christmas day; and that was a Friday.
—-Brut y Tywysogyon, Peniarth manuscript 20  (The Chronicle of the Princes)

His head was carried to King Edward I, who ordered that it be displayed on a pike, in London.  Apparently, it stayed on display for over 20 years.  The rest of his body is purportedly buried at Abbey Cwmhir, northeast of Rhayader in Powys.

I wrote Footsteps in Time because there seemed to me to be few events in history where the fate of a nation hinged so profoundly upon the death of one man and I couldn’t stand that it ended the way it did. So I changed it :). At the time, historians said that if Llywelyn had lived only a few more weeks, all of Wales would have flocked to his banner. We’ll never know the truth of that, but his star was in the ascendancy and King Edward was within weeks of running out of both patience and money.

Llywelyn’s brother, Dafydd, was eventually captured and hanged, drawn, and quartered, the first man of significance to experience that particular death.  His death was practice for what Edward did to William Wallace, two dozen years later.  Gwenlllian, Llywelyn’s daughter and only child, was kidnapped from Aber and sent to a convent in England, where she remained a prisoner her entire life.

At Llywelyn’s death, Wales fell under English rule, and Edward declared his own son, Edward II, the new Prince of Wales.

That this happened, and that it is little remarked in historial records, should not come as a surprise.  History is written by the victors, as this comment from an English travel writer, William Camden, dating to 1610, makes clear:  “following rather his owne and his brothers stubberne wilfulnesse than any good hope to prevaile, would needes put all once againe to the hazard of warre, he was slaine, and so both ended his owne life, and withall the British [meaning, not English] government in Wales.”

I visited the site in May at Cilmeri where Llywelyn’s death is commemorated by a lone stone marker.

For more on Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, see:


The Battle of the Menai Straits

Betrayal in the Belfry of Bangor

Biography of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

The Brothers Gwynedd


Dafydd ap Gruffydd

Dafydd ap Llywelyn, Prince of Wales (d. 1246)

The Death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort

Family Tree of the Royal House of Wales

Gwynedd after 1282

Historiography of the Welsh Conquest

King Edward I of England

Medieval Planned Communities

Memo to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s Staff

The Rising of 1256

Senana, Mother of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

Simon de Montfort

The Statute of Wales (Rhuddlan)

Surprise Holy Day Attack!

Things Fall Apart

Welsh Heraldry

Welsh Independence

Welsh Independence (again)

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