The Summer Solstice

June 21, 2019 is the summer solstice this year, celebrated at Stonehenge and across the globe, for the longest day of the year.  “Sol + stice derives from a combination of Latin words meaning “sun” + “to stand still.” As the days lengthen, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky.”  http://www.chiff.com/a/summer-solstice.htm Within Welsh mythology, there is very little discussion of the solstices or what holidays were celebrated within the celtic/druid year.  This is not the case of Stonehenge, which archaeologists and historians have studied extensively. “When one stands in the middle of Stonehenge and looks through the entrance of the avenue on the morning of the summer solstice, for example, the Sun will rise above the Heel Stone, which is set on the avenue. If one stands in the entrance and looks into Read more…

The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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. “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 Read more…

Iron Age Hill Forts in Wales

The Iron Age in Wales occurred during the 500 years leading up to the Roman conquest of Britain.  “The earliest iron artefact in Wales is a sword dating to about 600 BCE, but by 400 BCE iron was being smelted and crafted into tools all over the British Isles. The tribes of Wales developed regional styles of working iron, gold, and other metals, following the exquisite western European style known as La Tene (after the village of La Tene in Switzerland). At the same time as iron was introduced to Britain a new crop of settlers arrived from northern Europe.”  http://www.britainexpress.com/wales/history/iron-age.htm   This new group were the Celts.  They overran the whole of Britain, whether by conquering the then-native peoples, or gradually settling the country over a period of time. According to the National Museum of Wales, there are over 1000 Read more…

Dinas Bran (Castle)

Dinas Bran is a medieval castle begun in 1260 and destroyed in 1277 during the Welsh wars with King Edward I of England. The first settlement that we know of was an iron age hill fort, from which it gets its name.  “”Dinas Bran” is variously translated as “Crow Castle,” “Crow City,” “Hill of the Crow,” or “Bran’s Stronghold.” The castle first appears in 12th century historical documents as part of a medieval piece entitled “Fouke le Fitz Waryn,”or “The Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine.” While this work claimed that the castle, known as “Chastiel Bran,” was in ruin as early as 1073, the remains we see today date to the occupation of the princes of Powys Fadog in the mid 13th century. Possibly, the Chastiel Bran mentioned in the romance was a Norman timber castle, but nothing of substance supports Read more…

Dolbadarn Castle

Dolbadarn Castle is only 6 1/2 miles as the crow flies from the Menai Straits, and yet, the topography of the area is such that it was built by Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) to guard the mountain pass from Caernarfon to the upper Conwy Valley.  ‘Its position at the tip of Llyn Padarn allowed the garrison to blockade anyone’s movement through that part of the north, then as now a main link to the rest of Wales. The military worth of the spot was evidently recognized as early as the 6th century but surviving masonry dates no earlier than the 1200’s.’ http://www.castlewales.com/dolbd.html Llywleyn Fawr built the castle in the early 13th century and it was one of the last defenses of Dafydd ap Gruffydd–Llywleyn Fawr’s grandson–in 1283 after Edward had defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Dafydd’s brother (Paul Davis, Castles of Read more…

Traveling on Medieval Roads

What roads medieval people used to cross England and Wales is a fascinating question and one that has occupied me for some time.   The Ordnance Survey maps at multimap.com can show you the Roman roads.  I also bought the Ordnance Survey’s Roman Britain map, precisely for this reason. The Lancashire Antiquarian argues quite strongly for the notion that the Roman roads were used well into later periods.  He writes: “It has been estimated that when the Domesday survey was taking place a minimum of 10,000 miles of usable Roman roads were still in existence in one form or another.” He states that what fell into disrepair were the bridges and river crossings, resulting in a deviation from the Roman road to a usable ford.  New roads were built from medieval towns, resulting in roads that were more ‘natural’–meaning not straight or Read more…

Slavery and Wales

The title says Slavery ‘and’ Wales because the degree to which slavery existed in Wales is difficult to determine.  Without a doubt, many Welsh were forced into slavery–evidence points to Welsh captives on the continent of Europe as well as in Anglo-Saxon England.  St Patrick himself was Briton/Welsh (born 387 AD) and was captured by the Irish and made a slave.  The Celts were well-known slave-keepers, as were the Romans after them.  But were the Welsh themselves, after the Romans left?  Hard to imagine they weren’t when their neighbors all around were enslaving them.  But in all of the 767 pages of John Davies The History of Wales, he doesn’t mention slavery once. However, Ron Wilcox writes in his book Between Romans and Normans:  “Living alongside the bondsmen were the slaves who worked as agricultural labourers or artisans. Most were born into slavery but Read more…

A Medieval Siege

Besieging a castle was a far more common form of warfare than a fight on an open battlefield.  Sieges had the element of surprise and required fewer men than battle too, such that a ruler could beseige a castle with his enemy inside, while freeing other forces to wage war elsewhere. The goal in beseiging a castle was not to destroy it, but to take it, since castles were pawns in the great game of controlling land.  They were usually heavily fortified and defended, so a beseiger had several options when he was on the outside looking in: 1)  to starve/wait them out 2)  harassment and trickery 3)  a straight assault Often, attackers employed all three tactics at various times.  The defenders, on the other hand, hoped and prayed for relief.  As Saladin says in Kingdom of Heaven “One cannot Read more…

Better Know a Castle*: Abergavenny

On Christmas Day in 1175, William de Braose, a Marcher lord (the 4th Lord of Bramber), summoned Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, Seisyll’s eldest son, Geoffrey, and a number of other local leading Welshmen from Gwent to Abergavenny Castle to hear a royal proclamation.   He then murdered them all.  This was justified in William’s mind because of a prior killing of his uncle by Seisyll (or so he suspected, though apparently had no proof).  “De Braose and his men then mounted horses and galloped the few miles to Seisyll’s home where they caught and murdered his younger son, Cadwalladr a boy of seven years of age and captured his wife, whose exact fate is uncertain.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seisill_ap_Dyfnwal Other sons, not in attendance that day, got their revenge by burning Abergavenny in 1182.  Gerald of Wales “alludes to the horrible event in the history of Abergavenny Read more…

Rewriting the Dark Ages

A new theory has been working it’s way through the archaeological literature that there was no Saxon ‘invasion’ of Britain after the fall of Rome.  The theory states that “9th century Anglo-Saxon propaganda distort [ed] the records for the turbulent 5th and 6th centuries. . . . Rather than Briton versus Anglo-Saxon – as in the myth of Arthur – was it simply a murderous struggle between rival British warlords?” http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/rewriting-the-age-of-arthur.htm The theory, at least in this article, is based on a lack of primary sources of the era.  This is an interesting argument, but there are a number of sources that suggest it isn’t accurate. First:  written evidence, which the article claims to be scarce, is far more prevalent than at first appears–it’s just that the sources are not necessarily British.  This site on the ruin and conquest of Britain, details, Read more…

Dinas Ffareon (Dinas Emrys)

Dinas Ffareon is an Iron Age hill fort near Beddgelert which overlooks Lyn Dinas in Snowdonia. It is one of the more remote castles in Wales and “it was here that King Lludd ab Beli buried the two dragons which fought each other, as told in the Welsh epic the Mabinogion.” Later tales (Nennius’ and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s among them) tell of King Vortigern retreating back into Snowdonia and choosing Dinas Ffareon as the place to build his fort. Unfortunately for him, each night the ground was shaken such that the fort fell down. The King’s advisors stated that a fartherless child had to be sacrificed in order to stop the fort tumbling. Myrddyn Emrys (Merlin) and Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus) come into the story as well. “Merlin prophecised that the Red Dragon represented the Britons and the White Dragon the Saxons and that the event Read more…

Roman Villa found near Aberystwyth

Thirty years ago, aerial photographers from Cambridge University noted something odd about the layout of a field near the village of Abermagwr near Aberystwyth.   They were doing a flyover during the summer, and because of the dry conditions, there were unexplained cropmarks in a field.  At the time, they noted, “a double-ditched rectangular enclosure, with traces of a possible building within.”  http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/405315/details/NANT+MAGWR+ROMAN+SITE,+ABERMAGWR,+POSSIBLE+ROMAN+VILLA/ No excavations were undertaken until this summer.  Researchers can now confirm that they are “the remains of a much-robbed late Roman villa. The Abermagwr villa had all the trappings of established villas in south Wales and southern England, including a slate roof and glazed windows. It was roofed with local slates, but these were pentagonal, cut with five sides and a fine point to form a highly decorative roof, common amongst villas in south-west England and the Isle Read more…