There are a lot of castles in Wales. Of all the places I’ve been in the UK, for not that big a country Wales has more castles than pretty much anywhere else. This is partly because it was subdued by the English at the height of large castles being used for military oppression and domination. Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the late 13th century, led to the extraordinary (but also incredibly in your face reminders of domination and suppression) castles like Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Conwy. These were statements of English power on Welsh soil. They were deliberately built in places of significance to the Welsh, to enforce English rule and as a way of destroying Welsh identity and heritage. You can see all three below.
I have written about all three castle before and more information can be found here:
The incursions of the English in the south of Wales and the development of the lordships in the Welsh Marches led to even older castles like Chepstow, which dates to the 11th century, and more ‘modern’ late 13th century castles like Caerphilly. You can see both Chepstow and Caerphilly below.
These were English (Norman French) lords building their own dominance onto the landscape, as they carved out their own lordships, and influence.
Again I’ve written about Chepstow and Caerphilly before
These are only a fraction of the 600 castles you’ll find in Wales. I’ve written about others before so have a rummage around the rest of the blog, and see what you can find. I’ve also added some other websites to explore in the references if you want to know more.
It is fitting that the majority of castles found in Wales today are run by Cadw, the Welsh heritage authority, and over the years the Welsh have certainly added to, over run and controlled many non Welsh built castles. For example Owain Glyndwr took Aberystwyth Castle in 1404, though he didn’t hold it for that long. You can see some of what’s left of Aberystwyth Castle in the photo below.
The Welsh also built their own castles. There are fewer of these that are purely Welsh, and I wanted to focus on two, both in North Wales and built by Welsh princes. Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. They don’t have the scale of some of the more dramatic castles, but they are definitively Welsh built, and each has their own story to tell. I have written about both before as part of my advent calendar of castles, but this post will examine them in a bit more detail.
So to begin: Dolwyddelan.
Dolwyddelan castle stands imposingly on a hill guarding the Lledr Valley. It stands on a private farm, but it is open to the public. It was most likely built by Llywelyn the Great Prince of Gwynedd (North Wales) in roughly 1200 CE, there is not a lot of surviving early evidence. There is a local tradition that that Llywelyn was born in the castle, but other locations are more likely. Llywelyn was the Welsh Prince who came closest to ruling over all of Wales after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. Unfortunately his triumph was predominantly personal and Wales was largely conquered by Edward I little more that forty years after Llywelyn’s death. You can find out more about Llywelyn here, he was married to Joan of Wales the illegitimate daughter of King John, and you can find out more about her here.
But to return to Dolwyddelan itself. The castle was part of Llywelyn’s ring of castles to protect the passes through the mountains. It was built in the English style, though what you see now has been added to. The original keep was two stories and the third story and the wall walk were added later, possibly by Edward I.
There is also the remains of a second tower at Dolwyddelan, which again was most likely built by Edward I. There would have been a curtain wall between the two towers.
The battlements and the wall walk were rebuilt later under Lord Willoughby de Eresby. The castle came into his hands as a ruin in 1848. You can see the battlements and the wall walk in the photos below.
But that is the end of Dolwyddelan’s story. Let’s go back a little bit and find out more about the beginning. The castle very much commands the high ground
Dolwyddelan Castle stands near Dolwyddelan village. There is debate as to whether there was a settlement on this site before the castle was there, or if the castle gave rise to the settlement. There is also discussion about the meaning of the name. It most likely comes from Dol meaning meadow and Gwyddelan which meant little Irishman and refers to an Irish missionary who came over and preached Christianity in the area in roughly 600 CE.
Dolwyddelan was never a castle that was used for domination or attack, its primary purpose was to guard the ancient road from Conwy to Ardudwy and to protect the nearby summer cattle pastures. It was also a statement of Welsh authority, that Llywelyn was master of this wild landscape. Ironically, for a castle built by Llywelyn the Great and intended as a defence against the Anglo-Normans, the first we really see of Dolwyddelan playing a role, as far as records are concerned, is when it was taken by Edward I in January 1283. By taking the castle Edward I cut off communications and defences from the south. Edward I garrisoned it with his own men, who were camouflaged by dressing in white, and then gave command to a local loyal Welshman Griffith ap Tudor, he was later appointed constable for life. Edward I strengthened the castle, and little else is known of it, until it was sold in 1488 to Maredudd ap Ieuan and it stayed in his family. By 1848 it was a ruin and came into the hands of de Eresby.
Like other Welsh built castles Dolwyddelan isn’t elegant, it’s a functional keep built for a specific purpose, it is very much of the landscape.
The other Welsh castle I wanted to examine, is part of the same protective ring as Dolwyddelan. Dolbadarn Castle.
Like Dolwyddelan, Dolbadarn commands an ancient mountain pass. In this case the Llanberis pass, as well as two other passes through Snowdonia. The landscape you see around Dolbadarn now is drastically altered by mining in the area
But there are remnants of oak groves, that give you an idea of what the natural environment may have been like when the castle was first built.
The round keep at Dolbadarn was built in roughly 1230, again most likely by Llywelyn the Great. The striking round keep had a first floor entrance that would have originally been reached by timber stairs, you can see the beam holes for the two main floor levels, and both of the main chambers have fire places. The basement would probably have been reached by a ladder, but the upper floor and the roof had a spiral staircase that reversed its spiral half way up. The style was probably modelled on Marcher castles that Llywelyn would have seen in the south. You can see the remains of the interior of the keep in the photos below
The keep didn’t stand alone though. There were several buildings surrounding it, interestingly some of which were built of stone as there are surviving remains, outbuildings were usually wooden. These may have been a defensive tower, a great hall and a curtain wall. Some of which were probably added by Llywelyn the Last.
Dolbadarn actually played a key role in a couple of parts in Welsh history. It is most likely the castle where Llywelyn the Last held his brother Owain captive for more than twenty years from c. 1255 until Llywelyn was defeated by Edward I in 1282. Dolbadarn continued to play a role in Welsh history even after Llywelyn’s death. His younger brother Dafydd attempted to keep fighting the English, unsuccessfully. He probably issued his last documents as Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdon from Dolbadarn in 1283. He was captured soon afterwards and was taken to Shrewsbury where he was arguably the first man to be hanged drawn and quartered.
Edward I took over Dolbadarn, but made few changes. He refortified it, but didn’t expand it. Dolbadarn largely passes out of history, as it was slowly let to fall to ruin. There is some evidence that Owain Glyndwr held prisoners in the keep in the 15th century.
So that brings us to the end of the story of Dolwyddelan and Dolbadarn. Both Welsh built castles, part of a ring to protect Wales from the Anglo-Normans. Although they ultimately failed in the purpose, they still stand sentinel over the landscape they are so much a part of. A testimony to the history of Wales.
I’ve actually never written a book review on this blog before. I’ve done book previews of books I already own, but never an actual review. My book previews are more a look at whatever the book is about, essentially a preview of the contents and a chat about whatever the book is talking about. Joan Lady of Wales by Danna R. Messer has enticed me to branch out.
First a little background, Joan has been one of my favourite medieval figures since I first read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman probably about fifteen years ago. It was written in 1991 and, while still an incredible book, some more history has been unearthed since it was written, especially about how many children Joan had.
Joan was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England and married Llywelyn Fawr Prince of Gwynedd in North Wales, and (arguably) eventually Lord of most of Wales by the time he died. I have written about Joan and Llywelyn before. Though I will extend my post on Joan at some point, having now finished Joan Lady of Wales which is the first biography every written about her.
Messer takes a very interesting approach to writing a biography, one that is largely necessitated by the paucity of sources surrounding Joan, she makes use of a great deal speculation. This is not a criticism. One of the reasons I didn’t go into academic history, and why I find popular history sometimes frustrating, is because of the lack of nuance in discussing historical detail. Too often history is presented as blanket fact, and this is often the ‘fact’ heralded by the dominant narrative, which in Western history is usually, not always, white, wealthy, western and male and quite often militaristic.
In this blog you might have noticed that I use ‘arguably’ a lot. What I’m trying to do is tell interesting historical stories, often of the smaller parts of history, but I want to keep in the forefront of people’s minds that what I’m saying is arguable, that there is more than one perspective.
This is true of most history, that there are always multiple sides and the closest we can come to an understanding of an issue in the past is to recognise that it is made up of a multiplicity of views, opinions and versions and that parts of all of them are probably true. So when you are trying to tell the story of a medieval woman, even one as prominent in her time as Joan of Wales, you are relying largely on male monastic sources, which tend to relegate women to the shadows. Therefore Messer’s book draws on the context of the role of medieval women of Joan’s time, through laws and through other examples to explore what Joan’s role most likely was even if we do not have explicit contemporary fact to back it all up.
Messer does tell the story of Joan’s life, as much as it can be told. This book has been a twenty year project for Messer and it’s clear when you look at the references that she has found every mention of Joan than can be found. Joan’s story is one of what we would now see as a high level diplomat, maintaining ties between her adopted homeland of her husband’s Wales and her father and later brother’s world of Plantagenet England. For her whole marriage she was the key peacemaking, negotiating force between the two countries and this is the story that Messer presents. She makes clear that she does not wish to either overstate or understate Joan’s importance. She positions her, using the sources available, in the known roles of medieval queenship, Welsh marriage laws, Welsh law more generally and the role of women in the society at the time as much as it is understood.
An excellent example of the way Messer has written the book is her discussion about Joan’s mother. There has never been agreement as to who Joan’s mother was. There are a number of candidates, but all that is really known is that her name was probably Clemencia, and this comes from Joan’s own obituary in the Teweksbury annals where Joan is described as the daughter of King John and Queen Clemencia. Messer provides a fascinating and detailed analysis of what the term ‘queen’ meant in this context. Messer then goes on to examine all the likely candidates for the role of Joan’s mother, whilst never specifically naming one as definite. This is the sort of nuance that is found throughout the book.
Joan’s story is told mainly chronologically, though the book jumps around a bit as it explores tangents such a law, and marriage and the role of women in Wales, as well as the men who were writ large in Joan’s life. In the sources she is, wife, daughter, mother, and queen and much of the discussion of her life revolves around her in these roles. As her narrative is so much tied to Llweyln’s it is unsurprising that much of structure of the book comes from his rises and falls, and his attempts to be lord of a unified Wales. This context is as necessary as the examination of royal medieval women and their roles, to understand the life Joan possibly led.
As Messer discusses, however, it is likely (note the speculation) that Joan’s role was more than a mediator and she was probably involved in the decision making, not just defending or trying to mediate decisions made by her husband, or her father. She wasn’t a passive participant. While there is little documentary evidence of her involvement, as I said the primary sources aren’t extensive, Messer extrapolates from documents like the marriage agreement between Joan and Llweyln’s daughter Elen and John the Scott, heir to the earldom of Chester. Their marriage agreement survives and makes it clear that Joan was involved in granting lands that belonged to her personally as part of the agreement. They were English lands so Llweyln didn’t have to have her permission to pass them on to her daughter, but the fact that she is listed as independently confirming the grant, not only shows her intimate involvement in arranging her daughter’s marriage, but also her likely involvement in the management of her own lands.
Another key factor that Messer discusses with incredible depth is the story that has probably most stuck to Joan, often through local legend and English sources as the Welsh sources are actually fairly quiet on it, her affair with William de Braose. Messer goes into immense detail, about the probability of the affair occurring, the probability of Joan’s subsequent twelve month confinement and how the whole situation would have been read under Welsh law. She looks at the different interpretations possible from the sources and like the rest of the book presents an extremely nuanced if not conclusive examination of the affair, and Joan’s return to public life afterwards.
The highlight of the book for me was actually towards the end, when Messer produces the only letter that has survived that was actually written by Joan. I’ve read a reasonable amount about Joan, but I hadn’t realised that there were any of her letters surviving. I was quite excited
To her most excellent lord and dearest brother, Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, the Lady of Wales sends her own greetings.
Know, lord, that I am grieved beyond measure, that I can by no means express, that our enemies have succeeded in sowing discord between my husband and you. I grieve no less on account of you than of my husband, especially since I know what genuine fondness my husband used to have, and still has, for you, and how useless and dangerous it is for us, with due respect, to lose true friends and have enemies instead. Thus on bended knee and shedding of tears, I beg your highness to alter your decision, as you may easily do, and do not fail to be reconciled to those who are joined to you by an unbreakable bond and learn both to love friends and oppress enemies. With regard to this, lord, you may know how some have wrongly suggested to you that you should not trust Instructus, your clerk and my lord’, in whom I do not believe you could have a more faithful clerk in England, may God help me. For this reason, he is no less faithful to you if he is faithfully carrying out the business of his lord, because he behaves in the same way carrying out your affairs in the presence of his master; neither you nor anyone would rely on him if he handles the business of his master in a half-hearted or careless manner. Therefore if you wish to have confidence in me for anything else, put your faith in me for this. Farewell.
Messer unpacks the detail of this letter, written in roughly 1230, which I’m not going to do here, but it does incapsulate the context of the role that Joan would have played throughout her life.
The book is also immensely readable, even when delving into the nitty gritty of Welsh marriage law. When dealing with a subject that needs as much contextualising as Joan’s life, this is a real achievement. It also has an excellent index, something I always appreciate.
I’m not saying Joan Lady of Wales is perfect, but in placing Joan in her rightful place in history with as much nuance as possible it is a fascinating and I think important work.
I have not set out to tell the story of Joan’s life in this review, Messer has done this much better than I can manage, but if you want to know more I’d highly recommend reading the book.
On a final note, I’m Australian so was originally stymied on how to obtain a copy of the book. However after talking to the publisher, Pen and Sword, they do actually ship to Australia and it turned up in less than a month which was great.
I’ve been mainly focusing on medieval England, Ireland and France recently, so I thought it was time medieval Norway got a look in. So I decided I’d write about Bergen and the castle there, known as Hakon’s Hall. Now I need to begin with a slight disclaimer, some of my photos of the Hall will have date stamps, this was due to a malfunction with my camera at the time. I can crop them out, but then you lose part of the photo so in this case I decided to leave them in. Also I was pretty much standing in puddles (it was very wet) to take some of the exterior shots, so there is the odd water droplet.
This post will predominantly be about Hakon’s Hall, but I did want to talk a little about Bergen as well,. Mainly as an excuse to use my photos of the old town and the ones from the top of the mountain, and because context is always good.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway. It was founded in 1070 by King Olaf III Haraldsson. In the 12th and 13th centuries it was a the de-facto capital of Norway. It was the central residence and gathering point for the king and his assembly and was most likely the key administrative hub of the kingdom as well. Additionally it was, and still is, a major trading centre. In the 1300s it was possibly the largest town in Scandinavia with a population of 10 000. As a site of royal residence it was also of immense political importance, but I will return to the royal connections when I look at Hakon’s hall more closely.
From a trading perspective Bergen became an even more important port when the Hanseatic League of German merchants acquired control of the trade in Bergen in the 14th century, they continued this hold until the 17th century. The old town of Bergen, called Byrggen, is Unesco World Heritage listed. It was listed in 1979 as an important example of a trading centre going back to the 14th century and as a centre for the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League was essentially a cabal of Germanic merchants who cooperated across seven countries and nearly 200 cities to control large areas of trade from roughly the 14th century until the 17th century. Bergen was one of the key ports in this network. Although fire has destroyed much of Byrggen over the years, it has been restored using traditional methods, so the integrity of the old town remains, giving a fascinating visual window into how Bergen would have looked and operated centuries before. The buildings are all built from pine, and continue to be restored today with traditional methods and tools. In the early 2000s the repair work on just two buildings used 3500-4000 board meters of pine, which is sourced from local forests. There are roughly 62 buildings remaining in Byrggen, and looking after them is an ongoing conservation process. The Byrggen you see today, stems from a large fire in 1702. You can see how the buildings work in the photos below
This is by no means a comprehensive history of Bergen, but it sets the stage for the remainder of this piece: Hakon’s Hall. Hakon’s Hall has always been part of a larger fortress complex , now called Bergenhaus Fortress or Begenhaus Castle. It was an active military complex into the 20th century and the buildings on the site, including a military museum, reflect this. The only time it saw conflict was in 1665 when the garrison of Bergenhaus Castle intervened on the side of the Dutch in a battle with the English and the English were forced to flee. You can see some of the other buildings that make up the fortress in the photos below.
It was used as a base of operations during the German occupation in World War II. In fact it was an accident in World War II which caused significant damage to Hakon’s Hall and other parts of Begenhaus Fortress, which resulted in large scale restoration. But that is at the end of the Hall’s story; let’s begin at the beginning.
The Hall itself dates to the reign of, unsurprisingly, King Hakon. King Hakon Hakonson was the first king who united Norway under a single ruler. He reigned from 1207-1263 and there is a saga about his life called Harkonar sara Hakonarsonar, which was commissioned by his son not long after his death. Incidentally it was written by Icelander Sturla Þórðarson who was the nephew of Snorri Sturlson, the famous saga writer who has been featured on this blog before. You can read about Snorri here. The saga outlines King Hakon’s life and movements, in quite a bit of detail as he travelled around his kingdom. Medieval kings were often peripatetic as they moved around a lot to ensure their rule of law was enacted. In Haakon’s case, during his reign he spent 26 winters in Bergen, more than half of the winters of his time as king, which highlights the importance of Bergen and the castle to him as a central base. King Hakon, had come to throne on the back of a series of civil wars so when he began to rebuild the structures at Bergenhaus in stone, it made sense that as well as being practical useful buildings they were also fortified.
So the building that stands today that is known as Hakon’s Hall, is the key remaining part of what was an extensive rebuilding project. He actually had two halls built. The larger of the two is Hakon’s Hall, though at the time it was referred to simply as the stone hall. The second was the Yule Hall, which from the name would have been used for yule celebrations and the coming together of the king and his retinue. The first known use of the two halls was in 1261 on the 11th of September for the wedding of Hakon’s son Magnus, who was also his joint king.
The Hall itself would have been very imposing for its time; 37 m long and 16 m wide it was designed to illustrate the power of the king and is actually one of the largest halls in medieval Europe. It was also a big step to build in stone, in a country known for its extensive amount of wood and expert carpenters, the Hall was making a statement of authority and military strength.
King Hakon died in 1263 in Kirkwell in Orkney, after fighting several battles in an attempt to ensure Norse rule over the island. The Haakon Haakonsson’s Saga described his death from an unspecified ‘disorder’ and went on to say that
The King still found his disorder increasing. He therefore took into consideration the pay to be given to his troops, and commanded that a mark of fine silver should be given to each courtier, and half a mark to each of the masters of the lights, chamberlains, and other attendants on his person.He ordered all the silver plate belonging to his table to be weighed, and to be distributed if his standard silver fell short.At this time also letters were written to Prince Magnus concerning the government of the nation, and some things which the King wanted to have settled respecting the army.
It went on to say: He still spoke distinctly; and his particular favourites asked him if he left behind him any other son than Prince Magnus, or any other heirs that should share in the kingdom, but he uniformly persisted that he had no other heirs in the male or female line than were publicly known.
On Sunday the royal corpse was carried into the upper hall, and laid on a bier. The body was clothed in a rich garb, with a garland on the head, and dressed out as became a crowned monarch. The masters of the lights stood with tapers in their hands, and the whole hall was illuminated. All the people came to see the body, which appeared beautiful and animated, and the King’s countenance was fair and ruddy as while he was alive. It was some alleviation of the deep sorrow of the beholders to see the corpse of their departed sovereign so decorated.
So with Hakon’s death the possession of the Hall passed into the hands of his son, King Magnus. He repaired the hall after a fire in 1266 and added to the complex by building a keep in around 1270. The keep was ultimately incorporated into the 16th century Rosencrantz Tower which you can see below covered in scaffold.
Hakon’s Hall remained at the centre of the life of the royal court. This was partly because at this stage Olso was not a royal city as it was the centre of a Dukedom. Hakon’s grandson Eirik, who reigned from 1280-1299, used Bergen as the main royal residence and he actually died in Hakon’s Hall, as in he deliberately had his death bed there. The Hall stayed important to the royal court as long as Bergen remained the main administrative centre for the Kings of Norway and one of the main meeting places for the assemblies which governed the Kingdom. When Hakon V succeeded his brother Eirik in 1299, as he’d been a Duke who ran much of his administration from Oslo and he continued to do so, splitting his time between Bergen and Olso. Bergen’s central role began to diminish. Once Denmark and Norway became a unified kingdom in 1380, Oslo gained more prominence because it was closer to Copenhagen and the area had become more prosperous, though Bergen still had the higher population. So Hakon’s Hall as a place of royal authority waxed and waned inextricably with the fate of Bergen as a seat of royal power. It was still functioning as a representative building in its own right in the reign of Christian I because it is mentioned when he visited Bergen in 1450, but by the 16th century it has effectively become a storage room, or a barracks for the soldiers. You can still see its visual prominence as part of the complex of buildings in this late 16th century depiction of Bergen by Scholeus
The question of what you see today and how much it relates to the original hall of 1261 is a complicated one. It has always been part of a larger complex, but its identity was lost as it was incorporated into the wider Bergenhaus fortress, in fact it used a prison from the beginning of the 19th century. It was known as ‘the Slavery’ and its royal antecedents forgotten. Additionally it has been restored a number of times, probably the most extensive was in the 19th century when the distinctive external gabling was included. This was a period of time when, along with a lot of other European countries, Norway was rediscovering and romanticising its medieval past.
Other parts of the 19th century restorations included some of the windows and some of the lovely carved heads which adorn them and were possibly based on the originals. You can see the carved heads in the photos below.
The final restoration, pretty much to the hall you see today, was necessitated by the accident towards the end of World War Two that I mentioned earlier. So, on the 20th of April 1944 the Dutch freight ship Voorbode was docked in Bergen for emergency repairs when the cargo of tons of dynamite exploded. It has never been fully disproved whether it was sabotage or not. The explosion killed more than one hundred people and about five thousand people were injured. It also blew the roof off the Hall and set fire to it. Damage control occurred quickly, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it could be completely restored. You can see the damage in the model below.
The Hall you see today was opened for the 700th anniversary in 1961. It was decided to keep much of the 19th century restoration, but the main difference is the walls inside and out were un-plastered. The intention was to make it a space that while reflecting its medieval origins, also can be used as part of the modern society. For example the textiles that hang in pride of place in the main hall were commissioned specially as the height of their craft in 1961. You can see some of the textiles and more photos of the main hall below.
Hakon’s Hall is more than just the main hall however, so I thought I’d finished up this post with a look through some of the other sections. You actually don’t enter into the hall proper, there would originally have been a stair leading up to it, but today you go in through the covered entrance you can see below
You come in to a side building and go down to the basement. You can see the bedrock in the basement proper and it would have been used as a storage room.
There is a middle story as well, which is more open with better light and the vaulting that was erected, in one form or another, to be a fireproof floor after the fire of 1266
These lower layers of the Hall, give you an idea of its time as a utilitarian building, even when it was the hall of kings. Today Hakon’s Hall has regained its rightful place in the history of Norway and serves as part of a museum that thousands visit every year to learn more about Norway and its rich and complex medieval antecedents.
Site visit: 22/09/2018 (as you can see from all the date stamps)
Hakon’s Hall information booklet
Welcome to the Fortress Trail booklet
Hakonshallen 750 Years Royal Residence and National Monument / Oysten Hellesoe Brekke and Geir Atle Ersland (eds.)
Boyle Abbey is in the town of Boyle, in County Roscommon in Ireland. I have written about it before as part of my Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions in 2017, you can see that post here. This post is going to go into more detail though.
Boyle Abbey is one of the many Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. I have written about the foundation of the Cistercian order, Bernard of Clairvaux and the spread of the Cistercian order in Ireland in this previous post about Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland. https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/
Suffice to say that the Cistercian order was founded on the concept of a life devoted to prayer, study and manual labour. It was a reaction against the more worldly and lavish monasticism that had risen out of the Benedictine monasteries, and the idea was a return to the original ideals of the Order of St Benedict. The Cistercian abbeys all followed a relatively similar layout and you can see how Boyle would have looked originally in the photo below.
Cistercian abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient, relying on fishing and farming to support their communities. Boyle Abbey, like most Cistercian foundations, relied on water and it lies on the banks of Boyle River. The water would have been used for drinking, running the mill and flushing drains. In Boyle, not all the monastic buildings remain even in ruin, as it was converted to a military barracks in the 16th century. You can see the walls and the gatehouse in photo below
There are treasures that survive at Boyle though, especially in the exquisite carvings in the church, but I’ll return to them a little later. To begin at the beginning.
The first monks arrived at Boyle Abbey in 1161. It was a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey which you can see in the photo below.
Abbeys were often founded by a specific person or family. For example Tintern Parva, also in Ireland, was founded by William Marshal in thanks for surviving a particularly rough crossing of the Irish Sea. You can see Tintern in the photo below.
In the case of Boyle though, we don’t know who the founder was, if any, but the MacDermot Family who were Lords of Moylurg were patrons from early on in Boyle’s existence.
Once Boyle was founded in 1161 it maintained its self sufficiency, for the most part continuing as it always had through the years. There are a handful of times where it did step onto the centre stage. The first was in 1202 when the Anglo-Norman lord William de Burgh, who was in alliance with the King of Connacht, ransacked Boyle Abbey for three days. The Annals of Loch Ce described it as
They reached the monastery of Ath-da-larag on the Buill [Boyle Abbey], in which they fixed their residence; and they were three days in it, so that they polluted and defiled the entire monastery; and such was the extent of the defilementthat the mercenaries of the army had the women in the hospital of the monks, and in every place in the entire monastery besides. No structure in the monastery was left without breaking and burning except the roofs of the houses alone; and even of these a great portion was broken and burned. No part of the buildings of the entire monastery was allowed to the monks and the brothers, excepting only the dormitory of the monks, and the house of the novices.
This was part of broader fighting both between the Anglo-Norman lords, who had arrived in Ireland in 1169 and began to claim large swathes of Ireland, John King of England and the Irish chieftains and kings. These depredations would have slowed down the construction of Boyle’s buildings as well, the church was still being built at this point. In fact Boyle was almost a perpetual construction site.
Boyle’s next moment in the limelight was when the Abbot was involved with the Conspiracy of Mellifont. This was part of a broader conflict between the Cistercian General Chapter in Clairveaux in France and the Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. The General Chapter believed that the Irish abbeys were answering only to Mellifont and were behaving not in accordance with the rule of the General Chapter. It’s perfectly possible that this didn’t mean that their conduct with problematic, more that they just weren’t directly under the control of the General Chapter as much as the General Chapter wanted. It was a conflict years in the making, but resulted in the General Chapter deposing five of the abbots of Irish Cistercian monasteries, including Boyle, and ensuring that they were answerable directly to the General Chapter in Clairveaux, taking Mellifont out of the chain of command. This conflict was also part of the even broader conflict between the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman world.
Unfortunately for Boyle this secondary conflict continued and it was caught in the middle more than once. In 1235 it was attacked by the English who, according to the Annals of Loch Ce
broke open the sacristy; and all its valuable things, and its mass-chalices and altar cloths, were taken of it.
Eventually reparations were paid.
Apart from being the site of a few prominent burials Boyle stayed out of centre stage until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. While Henry VIII’s Act of Suppression of the Monasteries was passed in 1534, it took some time for all the monasteries to be suppressed, especially remote sites like Boyle. So Boyle hung on until 1584 when it was finally dissolved and its abbot Abbot Glaisne O’Culleanain was executed in Dublin when he refused to renounce Rome. Boyle was leased to William Usher from 1589 until 1599 and then until the 18th century it was under military occupation, and was known as Boyle Castle. It came into the hands of the Commissioners of Public Works as a National Monument in 1892 and is today in the hands of the OPW.
Before it was restored in 20th century, Boyle was allowed to return somewhat to nature. You can see some etchings of it in the 1800s below.
So despite being a military fortification for over 300 years, a surprisingly large part of the Cistercian structure of Boyle remains. You can see some of the surviving structures in the photos below
The jewel in the crown at Boyle though is the church.
It is a truly remarkable survival and actually my reason for wanting to write about Boyle, because it has some incredible carvings. The church was built over a number of years, with sections begun with the foundation of the abbey in 1161 including the presbytery and the transepts, where the tower also began.
The church was not built quickly. Its construction was interrupted by things like raids from Anglo-Norman lords, but a building of its grandeur simply takes time to build. The church wasn’t consecrated until 1218, and even then it was most likely not entirely complete, you can see elements of both Romanesque and gothic, and an early adoption of more English styles, such as the tower. The earliest part dates to the late 12th century and the latest part, mainly the north piers, to the start of the 13th. It was added to as time went on as well, with much of the current tower dating to the 1300s. The really interesting thing about Boyle’s church is its grandeur. Cistercian churches were meant to be plain and austere, towers were frowned upon because they were considered extravagant and elaborate carvings and ornamentations were also not approved. Boyle’s church, however, adheres to none of these rules. Illustrating how the Irish Cistercian churches were separating themselves from the General Chapter of the Cistercian order which led to the Mellifont Conspiracy.
To return though, to the carvings I keep mentioning. When the church was complete, there were nearly 40 new capitals (the top part of a column) that needed to be decorated, and it is these decorations that survive today. Again, this was against Cistercian tradition. Most were adorned with floral motifs, which were fairly common at the time.
Others were decorated with animals and similar figures.
The most remarkable though is one that depicts little men
This carving, and some of the animals, was completely out of keeping with anything you’d find in any Cistercian church. This indicates the Irishness of these churches, and their separation from the rest of the Cistercian order. They also indicate the wealth and influence of Boyle Abbey, and apart from anything else they are just lovely.
These aren’t the only carvings to survive at Boyle, you can see some of the others that have become dislodged over the years in the small museum on site. These include a sundial- which you can see on the left.
Boyle Abbey represents much of Irish history, with its incursion from Anglo-Norman lords and the English, along with conflict with the broader Cistercian order. Boyle is part of a large network of Cistercian churches throughout Ireland, but it stands out for its size and grandeur and especially its carvings.
Site visit 2015
Boyle Abbey OPW booklet
The Antiquities of Ireland Volume I Grosse
The Daily Telegraph Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland by Damien Noonan
Smith, Brendan. “The Armagh-Clogher Dispute and the ‘Mellifont Conspiracy’: Diocesan Politics and Monastic Reform in Early Thirteenth Century Ireland.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 26–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29742491. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
St Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire Wales, is one of those places that has stories seeped into it. There’s not a lot of information, but it’s a fascinating place so in the tradition of Historical Ragbag, I thought I’d write about it. Especially because my last two posts have been so long and in depth, I thought something with a few more pictures and a little bit shorter might be nice too, so I settled on St Govan’s.
I wanted to start with the coast that St Govan’s is nestled in. The spectacular coastline is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, but St Govan’s itself is actually situated on land owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s called the Castlemartin Range, and means that it isn’t always open to visitors when the military is using the area. The Pembrokeshire National Park and The Ministry of Defence work closely together to preserve and protect this bit of coastline. You can see just how beautiful if is in the photos below.
You would be forgiven for missing St Govan’s. I had no idea it was there certainly. I was lucky enough that the owner of the BnB I was staying in knew I was interested in medieval history and drove me to some of the best medieval sites in the region. St Govan’s is nestled so close into the rock, it is almost invisible.
In winter waves can break over the Chapel. I was lucky enough to be there in excellent weather, it is still somewhat of a precarious descent though.
When you reach the bottom of the steps, you are met with a secluded door.
Once you walk through the Chapel, you can see why it is so prone to incursion by the sea.
So the history of this little Chapel, built into the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, is actually quite up for debate. All sorts of stories have grown up around it over time, it is even arguable who St Govan was and how he came to give him name to the Chapel. The spelling of ‘Govan’ is relatively contemporary with earlier maps referring to the chapel as St Gouen, Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He could have been the nephew of St David, or possibly a disciple of St Eilfyw who baptised St David, or both. According to the information sign at the chapel, St Govan was most likely St Gobham who was the Abbot of Dairinis in County Wexford in Ireland, but there is an argument that this St Gobham was a totally seperate person who became confused with Govan over time because of the similarity of the names and two sources that got confused. It also gets murky because there is the possibility that the name Govan is a bastardisation of Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. This is unlikely (apart from the fact that Gawain is probably legendary), it is a story that has become woven into the history of the chapel over the centuries, and doesn’t seem to have any vaguely contemporary references. Most likely St Govan, if he existed at all, was a local saint possibly connected to St David. Regardless of who he was; at some point in probably the 5th century Govan came to the area and set up a monastic hermitage on the site the chapel now stands on. The current building dates to later than this, but I’ll return to that in a moment.
So the next question is, why did St Govan decide to set up a monastic hermitage on this site? Now, as you’ll see will become common in the history of St Govan’s, there’s a few different version of the story. The basic narrative is that he was being pursued by pirates, or the local villagers, or bandits of some kind and he couldn’t find safe refuge, so he prayed and a cleft in the rock opened miraculously for him to hide in. In one version the rocks closed so tightly around him to protect him that his ribs left an impression in the stone. Then in thanks he built a hermitage there and stayed the remainder of his life. St Govan’s Chapel is certainly in a small cleft in the rock, though I don’t think it was opened miraculously by God.
The other part of this legend is St Govan’s Bell. Again there are different versions, but the gist is that St Govan had a silver bell that he used to warn people of pirates in the area. The pirates stole the bell and St Govan prayed for its return and angels brought the bell back and set it in stone, so St Govan could still send out warnings. The large rock to the right of the Chapel is said to be this bell, and is still called bell rock.
Another, slightly more poetic version of the story can be seen in the BBC Cymru clip below, it also gives you a great idea of the landscape surrounding St Govan’s.
So, so far we aren’t sure exactly who St Govan was, or why he was there, or what he was doing, but there are lots of good stories. Now let’s turn to the Chapel itself. It was built on the site in either the 11th, 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, depending on who you talk to, and it is possible that versions of it were built in all of these centuries. It was definitely restored in the 1980s, which is why it is so intact. In particular I think the roof is the most recent. The Chapel itself is a single chamber measuring 5.5m by 3.7m with three doors, one of which opens into a natural cave which you can see in the photo below.
This cave is known as the saint’s cell, and it most likely here that the original St Govan set himself up before any version of the chapel was built, it is also possible that this is where he hid from the pirates (or whoever else was chasing him). It is right next to the altar in the chapel proper. There are a couple of intriguing legends that tie to the saint’s cell, one is that Jesus hid in there at one point, possibly from pirates (though no one seems clear on why Jesus was in Wales hiding from anyone). There is also the legend that if you climb into the cell and can turn around while making a wish, that it will come true. So again St Govan’s history is almost more of myth than of fact, but that in many ways makes it more interesting.
So the interior of the Chapel proper is quite sparse there is an altar, a piscina (a place for disposing of holy water etc), some stone benches and a well, along with some small windows looking out to sea. I will return to the well in a moment. You can see the interior of the Chapel in the photos below.
But to return to the wells. There are two at St Govan’s but only the one outside the Chapel is named for the saint. You can see it under the little domed cover in the bottom right of the photo below.
So the well at St Govan’s would have been famous locally for centuries, but the earliest recorded mention of it as a place to visit is from 1662 where a traveller John Ray said “Thence the same day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the sea side, where under the cliff stands a little chapel, sacred to the saint, and a little below it a well, famous for the cure of all diseases. There is, from the top of the cliff to the Chapel a descent of 52 steps”
Before I return to the well, I just want to quickly make a point about the steps. There is a legend that it is impossible to exactly count the number of steps down to the Chapel. Every account certainly seems to give a different number ranging between 50 ish and 70.
Returning to the well though. “Cure of all diseases” is a lovely catch all. Pilgrims did definitely go there to be cured over the centuries, and even into the 19th century sick people were visiting St Govan’s well in the hope of miraculous cures. As travel became easier more people were able to visit the well and it became known for cures for “scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints” according to one account from the late 19th century. By 1922 however, the well was dry, as it remains today and St Govan’s story, and the Chapel’s story began to drift back into obscurity. Though it has remained a lovely and rather fascinating tourist destination, as well as having a very real history interwoven with myth. It’s definitely well worth visiting for the location alone, but I wouldn’t be looking for a cure for COVID there (sadly).
This is part two of my exploration of the life of Henry the Young King. This post is going to cover the last nine years of his life, from when he travelled with his knights to fight on the tournament circuit in c.1175 to his death in 1183. Part one covered his life up to this point, and can be read here.
As I explained in part one, I can not cover all of Young Henry’s life, as that would be an entire book. In fact there is an excellent book on Young Henry- Henry The Young King: 1155-1183 by Matthew Strickland which I highly recommend if you want to know more, I have drawn on it heavily for both posts. I’m also not going to rehash what I’ve already written, but like the first post I will be conveying a series of vignettes of Young Henry’s life. I will pick up where I left off. His time on the tourney field.
In c.1175 Young Henry received permission from his father Henry II to travel to the continent to take part in the tournament circuit. He had taken part in tournaments before, but this wasn’t just attending the odd tournament here and there, this was an extended tour of the tournament fields of France. This is one of the best known periods of Young Henry’s life. This is mainly because the History of William Marshal devotes a significant portion of its content to the tourney exploits of its hero William Marshal, and thus Young Henry who was his lord during this period of time.
I want to pause in my narrative about Young Henry at this point to explore the tournament circuit just a little, to give an overview of what exactly Young Henry was involved in. I’ll then move on to the fantastic descriptions of some of his exploits that can be found inthe History and other contemporary sources.
So the tournament circuit is essentially what it sounds like, a series of tournaments in this case conducted around what is now considered France. Henry II was not a fan of tournaments, and had banned them in England possibly because he was concerned that they would stir up too much dissent. Tournaments were popular as training grounds for martial ability, a place to make a name and fortune for younger sons, and for nobility of all ranks to earn prestige and reputation. In the late 1100s tournaments were so popular it was possible to attend one every two weeks roughly if you so desired.
This was not polite jousting, with pretty colours and maidens’ favours that is the popular image of tournaments today. They could be quite brutal, with melees and hard fighting. The aim wasn’t to kill your opponent, it was to capture them to claim a ransom. People did die in tournaments though, in fact Young Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey was killed in a tournament in 1186.
Tournaments at the time were usually three day events and were sponsored by a great lord, such as the Count of Flanders. The lord, or lady, who sponsored the event was responsible for promotion, providing prizes, organising events around the tournament and making sure there was seating for the spectators. These were the high point of medieval entertainment and the nobility came from far and wide to watch and take part. The key component of the tournament, as far as Young Henry was concerned, was the melee which usually took place on the final day of the tournament. This was essentially a no holds barred cavalry charge between different teams of knights. The aim was to capture other knights for ransom, but prizes were also awarded for the best fighters. For example William Marshal was once awarded a pike (as in the fish) as a prize.
The melee was certainly worthy of the name- knights fought in teams but they didn’t wear ‘team’ colours. They all shouted the battle cry of their lords, but it was easy enough (and it did happen occasionally) to mistake friend for a foe. So it was into these exciting, brutal and most of all brilliant world of tournaments that Young Henry threw himself with much enthusiasm. You can see the violence of the melee depicted in the the 14th century Codex Manesse below. You claimed a ransom from another knight often by tearing off their helmet and wrestling them off their horse.
To begin with Young Henry and his knights were not incredibly successful, but over time they began to develop a reputation as amongst the best on the tournament circuit. It must have been a godsend for Young Henry, as he finally had the chance to build a reputation for himself, away from his father, and in an area where it turned out he excelled. At the height of his prowess on the tournament circuit he had more than 200 knights fighting under his banner, of which 15 were lords who had mesnies (men who followed them) of their own. Marshalling all these fighters was William Marshal the hero of the History and who was ultimately responsible for making sure Young Henry wasn’t captured. Young Henry was one of the few kings to take to the field and was recognisable because he wore his own heraldic device on his shield, banner and probably horse which made him a recognisable target. A king’s ransom would be the ultimate prize for most of the knights on the field. He definitely led from the front though; with the History describing him as many a time it happened that, when he spurred on, so the companies with him spurred on too, so vigorously as they advanced that those riding towards them from the other side could not withstand their charge. And it often happened that the other side had far more men than they, and yet they were thrown into disarray by the might power of the King’s companies.
Between 1176 and roughly 1180 Young Henry was a star of the tournament circuit. The History described him as a worthy, fine, and courtly man later in his life performed such high exploits that he revived the notion of chivalry, which as the time, was near to extinction. He was the gate, the way and the door through which chivalry returned, and he was her standard bearer.
The History goes onto record some of the more amusing exploits on the tournament field, such as the time when Marshal was leading a captured knight through the town of Anet and when Marshal wasn’t looking and the knight swung himself off his horse, onto a gutter and got away. The History says that the King saw it; he said not a word, preferring not to. It then goes on to say that it was all seen as a splendid trick. The tournament field gave Young Henry the chance to be different, to stand on his own reputation. Ralph of Diceto, who was a dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, recorded in 1179 that Young King Henry, the king’s son, left England and passed three years in tournaments spending a lot of money. While he was rushing all over France he put aside the royal majesty and was transformed from a king into a knight, carrying off victory in various meetings. His popularity made him famous; the old king was happier counting up and admiring his victories. What is interesting about this passage is firstly that it conveys that Young Henry was very much in the middle of the fighting, but also that his father approved of his foray into the world of tournaments because it added to his reputation. This second point contradicts the theory that Henry II would have disapproved of his spendthrift son. It is possible that he was happy that Young Henry was suitably occupied and thus not pestering him to rule parts of the Plantagenet Empire- as Henry II was not keen on relinquishing power. You can see Henry II’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey beside Eleanor of Aquitaine’s in the photo below.
So the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift is contemporary. It was somewhat of a double edged sword, because he needed to make the best impression he could, it was part of his reputation on the tournament circuit, and this involved largess and being open handed with his men, but he was also accused of running up debt. The History described it as It is true that the Young King, in the castles in town in every place he happened to come to, led such a lavish life that, when it came to the end of his stay, he had no idea how to take his leave. When it came to the last day, debtors would appear, men who had supplied him with horses, garments and victuals. Most of the debtors would have known that his money came from Henry II, so would have continued to lend knowing that Young Henry had the revenues of the crown to draw upon. It is worth noting that not all his spending would have been his, his retinue would have contributed and as they jockeyed for position within his household knights, including William Marshal, would have sought payment and favour from him. It was partly to keep them all in the luxury they thought they deserved that Young Henry would have spent his money.
So that brings me to the end of this vignette; Young Henry as the doyen of the tournament field was an important part of his life, and probably the first time he had real purpose and direction. There was also an ugly side of this band of young knights that flocked around the Young King. There was one incident in particular that I wanted to mention, as it isn’t mentioned inthe History mainly because it does not portray Young Henry in the ideal chivalric light that the History for the most part paints him. In 1176 Adam de Chirchdowne, who was Young Henry’s vice-chancellor, was discovered passing messages to Henry II. He was essentially warning Henry II that Young Henry had met with several nobles who were hostile to Henry II. Young Henry and his retinue were going to have Adam put to death either by hanging or flaying alive as he viewed the betrayal as treason. The Bishop of Poitiers intervened saying Adam was a Clerk and couldn’t be punished by the secular court, but once he’d left Young Henry exacted revenge. Roger of Hoveden described it as:
The king, the son, on his return, upon coming to Poitiers, took Adam de Chirchedowne, his vice-chancellor, who was a clerk of Geoffrey, the prior of Beverley, chancellor of the king, the son, and caused him to be beaten with sticks, charging him with having disclosed his secret counsels to the king, his father; and after being thus beaten, he had him led naked through the streets of the city of Poitiers, while, being still whipped, proclamation was made by the voice of a herald, ” Thus does he deserve to be disgraced who reveals the secrets of his master.”
Not exactly the act of the a paragon of chivalry.
Young Henry wasn’t only on the tournament circuit at the end of the 1170s, he was involved at least a bit with government. Roger of Hoveden records him a present at Windsor at Christmas 1176. You can see the keep of Windsor castle in the photo below:
Young Henry was then at Nottingham with Henry II when, with the bishops, they divided the kingdom of England in to six parts and appointed 3 justices to each section. He certainly held a peace of sorts with his father, fighting with him in various small wars in France.
Another small, but tragic vignette into the life of Young Henry occurred in 1177. Young Henry’s wife, Margaret who was the daughter of Louis VII of France, was delivered of a son who was either still-born or who only lived for a handful of days. I say this is a small vignette because it is only mentioned in passing by the chroniclers, it must have loomed large in Young Henry’s life and the life of his Queen. It’s sometimes hard to remember that even though the infant mortality rate was high, losing a child must have still been an incredibly painful experience. I am moving to speculation here, but it isn’t too far fetched to think that Young Henry must have had some dynastic plans, and he’d been married to Margaret since 1160 and this was the first pregnancy- though both were only in the mid twenties at this time.
I’m now going to jump forward a few years to the beginning of the end. Young Henry was doing things in between 1177 and 1183- he undertook more tourneying, he fought alongside his father in a number of French wars, he helped shore up the tottering reign of his brother in law Phillip II the new King of France, a task Henry II also helped with and which he would probably come to later regret. But by 1183 things were starting to unravel.
Young Henry and Henry II had managed to maintain peace since his rebellion in 1173, but by the 1st of January 1183 it began to implode. The key issue is that Henry II’s plans were dynastic, he wanted his empire to stay together- you can see an image of what the Plantagenet Empire looked like at the height of its power in the image below (if you read part one you’ll have seen this already)
He envisioned Young Henry as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Anjou, Richard as Duke of Aquitaine and Geoffrey as Duke of Brittany and John as possibly Lord of Ireland, or various other domains he tried to bequeath to him to overcome his appellation of ‘lackland’. He saw them as all working together, effectively paying homage to Young Henry as King of England. Unfortunately (and this is grossly simplifying a complex situation) he didn’t cede authority well, the brothers weren’t interested in working together (unless they were rebelling against each other or their father) so his plan had quite a few holes. It was one of these holes that tipped the balance in January 1183.
The hole was Richard, Aquitaine and paying homage to Young Henry. Homage was complicated, because while it was a swearing of allegiance, it also bound the person to whom homage was being sworn to protect the rights of the person swearing homage. So like the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift and a a prince dispensing largess, homage was a double edged sword. The dispute began in 1182 when Richard built a castle on lands that would have traditionally been part of Anjou. Anjou was part of the territory that Young Henry would have inherited from his father, even though he had no control over it at this point. He most likely saw Richard as encroaching on his patrimony before he’d even had a chance to rule it. There was a patched up peace for the Christmas court in 1182 at Caen- you can see Caen castle in the photo below.
The situation came to a head in January 1183 in Le Mans. Henry II wanted Geoffrey to swear homage to Young Henry for his lands he held as Duke of Brittany, which went off pretty much without a hitch. He’d already performed this homage in 1169 to Young Henry in Young Henry’s position as Duke of Normandy. Henry II wanted Richard to perform homage as well. This was a bit tricker because Aquitaine wasn’t considered a subject of any of the lands Young Henry held. Richard considered himself Young Henry’s equal. He was claiming the rights to Aquitaine through his mother-as Young Henry was inheriting from primogeniture through their father.
Ralph of Diceto described Richard’s anger at the proposed act of homage,
Since he came from the same father and same mother as his brother, it was not right for him to acknowledge his elder brother as superior by some sort of subjection. Rather, by the law of firstborn sons, the paternal goods were due to his brother, and he claimed equal right to legitimate succession to the maternal goods.
Essentially Richard was seeing himself a Duke of an independent Aquitaine, which is not how Henry II had envisioned his empire running after his death. He had most likely envisioned Young Henry taking his place as the head of the family and as overlord of all the domains being held by his brothers. Eventually though, Henry II did persuade Richard to perform the act of homage provided that Young Henry swore that he would formally recognise that Aquitaine was to be held by Richard, and any heirs he might have, undisputed.
It should have worked, but Young Henry had other ideas- he refused to accept Richard’s homage. He cited that he could not as he had already pledged himself to help the recalcitrant Aquitainian barons who had be rising up against Richard. He said that he had made this pledge due to the castle that Richard had built, and urged Henry II to take the castle away from Richard. Roger of Hoveden recorded Richard’s reaction
Richard, feeling greatly indignant at this, withdrew from the court of the king, his father, and going to Poitou, his own territory, built there some new castles and fortified the old ones.
Henry II prevailed on all three brothers to come to Angers to swear a perpetual peace between them, you can see Angers castle in the photo below (it dates to the 14th century but is on the site that had been home to the Counts of Anjou for centuries)
Richard was persuaded to hand his castle over to Henry, probably to stop Young Henry from having an excuse to meddle in Aquitaine. So a peace again was patched up, but it was short lived. In February 1183 Geoffrey was sent to work out a truce with the rebels, but he immediately sided with them instead- which was most likely pre-arranged with Young Henry. Young Henry offered to act as an intermediary, but ultimately he joined forces with Geoffrey and the Aquitainian barons and thus began another family war- one that was to be the Young King’s last.
There was a couple of key points to this conflict that it is worth examining, but as this is supposed to be about Young Henry and his life I am not going to go through what can be called the brothers’ war in great detail.
So the key points:
Firstly it is arguable who the instigator of the conflict was. It seems that Geoffrey and Young Henry were trying to provoke Richard to give them a legitimate reason to rise up against him. It’s possible that Young Henry thought that if he could take Aquitaine then he would finally have some lands of his own to rule and, with the resulting revenues, not be beholden to his father. Geoffrey’s motives are murkier, but he may have been trying to put a stop to a situation where Richard ruled Aquitaine after their father’s death and started trying to take chunks out of Brittany. He may have seen Young Henry as a lord of Aquitaine that would be better for him. He may have also rebelled because Henry II hadn’t handed over all of the lands and rights that came with the Dukedom of Brittany- which Geoffrey held by right of his wife Constance. Henry II was in some ways an instigator as well, because in a moment of anger when his second attempt at peace failed and Richard left the court again, according to the History he declared (speaking about the Aquitainian barons and their fight against Richard) “Go on then, go to their aid, said the father, I’ll permit that.” So they left the King, and therewith that strife began which was not resolved until everyone all around had the worst of it.
The last words aptly sum up the brothers’ war, as everyone certainly had the worst of it.
So the second point that is important about this war is how it was fought. Geoffrey and Young Henry had learnt from their rebellion in 1173 and the forces they established against Richard were extensive. Gerald of Wales described it as an army greater than was ever before assembled at any time by a man having neither territory or treasure. This is typical Gerald of Wales- biting to say the least, but he isn’t wrong that it was a formidable army. The History describes it as
They retained in their service knights and soldiers, mercenaries and crossbowmen, fine footsoldiers and archers. And the high-ranking barons in the region, whom the count [meaning Richard], whom they hated bitterly, had treated badly, rode in great numbers, every one of them of a mind to fight for they would have loved to humble the pride of count Richard, if only they had the opportunity and could get the upper hand
This was a force to be reckoned with.
So these are the two key points to the start of the war: Geoffrey and Young Henry against Richard. You can see Richard’s effigy from Fontevraud in the photo below
This brings me to my next vignette of Young Henry; as a commander in his final war. He continued to protest to his father that he was trying to make peace between Geoffrey, the Aquitainian barons and Richard. Henry II continued to believe him until he tried to approach Limoges and was shot at by Geoffrey and the Young King’s forces. With Richard’s duchy seriously under threat in an increasingly incendiary war (the countryside and the people living there was being ravaged by mercenaries hired by Young Henry and Geoffrey) Henry II ended up on Richard’s side.
So once again Young Henry was in rebellion against his father. It was a culmination of all that had gone before, and even in rebellion Young Henry continued to act as an intermediary between the two forces. Whether this was in good faith or not we can never really know, but it does show how tentative he was, even in rebellion he couldn’t really find the place where he fitted.
This brings me to one of my last vignettes, Young Henry taking the cross. At St Martial, he swore on the holy relics that he would take the cross. We don’t know what his motivation was, it could have been genuine, Young Henry was an adventurer, and taking the cross would have certainly been an adventure. It could also have been a way out of a sticky situation. Most likely Young Henry hadn’t intended to end up in rebellion against Henry II, he was trying to fight Richard not his father, but he had sworn to the Aquitainian barons to help them, so he couldn’t back down even when his father entered the war on Richard’s side. So taking the cross, could have been his get out of gaol free card so to speak. Roger of Hoveden, has Henry II initially making this cynical assessment saying that Henry II was thinking that he had done this more through indignation than religious feeling
Hoveden then goes on to describe an emotional scene where Henry II begs Young Henry not to take the cross, but becomes convinced that Young Henry was sincere in his desire, he also promised to equip him for the trip. Henry II was an astute ruler and he must have recognised that having Young Henry out of the way meant that he would be more able to bring Geoffrey to heel. Additionally he’d be able to de-intensify the volatile situation in what had become a very nasty war- especially for the people living in the countryside that was being ravaged by Geoffrey and Young Henry’s routiers. So Young Henry and Henry II patched up a peace between the two of them. It was not to last though, Roger of Hoveden says
Shortly after, the king the son, pretending that he wished for peace, requested his father to send to him Maurice de Crouy with a truce, and some other barons ; and while some of their followers were conversing with him, they were slain in the presence of the king the son, by the enemies of our lord the king.
Now Hoveden is biased towards Henry II, and it is arguable whether this event actually occurred, but it was shortly after this Young Henry, finally and irretrievably threw in his lot with the rebels, he stopped trying to patch up even pretend peace with his father.
Thus began his final weeks.
Young Henry’s first problem was that he was running out of money. Henry II had vast resources to draw on, Young Henry simply didn’t and he knew that his routiers would only stay loyal if they were paid. Young Henry didn’t have many options, but the ones he chose can be seen as painting him in a sadly desperate light. He began robbing churches. Roger of Hoveden describes one such depredation
Money now failing him, the king, the son, proceeded to Saint Mary de Roche Andemar, stripped the tomb of Saint Andemar, and carried away the treasures of the church.
This wasn’t the only church he robbed, though he did promise to pay it all back, but it was the last. Which brings me to the final vignette of Young Henry. His death.
Before I discuss it though, I want to put the church robbing in a little context. It wasn’t seen as honourable in his own time, but it was not unheard of. Strickland argues, that he was building a war chest for a renewed campaign which was stopped by his untimely death. We will probably never know if his actions were basically to keep his troops paid, or if he was planning something bigger, because barely days after this final depredation, he was dead.
Roger of Hoveden says
In the course of a few days after this, the king, the son, seeing that he could not do any material injury to the king, his father, in consequence of indignation and rancour of mind, was attacked by a severe malady at a village called Martel, not far from the city of Limoges.
The History of William Marshal re-enters the picture here, because Marshal was back with Young Henry, just before his death. He’d been banished, according to the History because of calumny brought against him by jealous members of Young Henry’s household, and had been earning his way fighting for various lords for some time. The History has Young Henry saying to his Chamberlain Ralph fitz Godfrey Ralph, go to find the Marshal for me through any land you have to, and do not stop until you find him. I beg and pray that you tell that I am summoning him in good faith not to fail to come to me. And never let it show, whether in public or in private, that I ever had any mind to bear him ill-will; rather let him be again both lord and master of my household, just as he ever was, or even more so, so that nobody notices any difference. And let him know that I have found proof of the treachery which was concocted out of vicious envy by those damnable traitors.
Marshal- after having received letters of conduct from Henry II, and apparently offers of letters from the King of France and Duke Richard, returned to Young Henry’s side, to be in time to witness his death.
Death in the medieval period was a mercurial thing, because it was possible to die well. I have written about this before- so I won’t go into detail here. You can read my previous post on a good death below- Marshal’s death 36 years later is another good example (though for different reasons)
When Young Henry became sick so soon after robbing Andemar it was seen as divine retribution. So when he realised he was dying. Young Henry enacted the most spectacular example of repentance, and in doing so established his reputation, and enforced the ideal of him a chivalric champion.
Both Roger of Hoveden and the History have accounts of Young Henry’s death and in many ways as a theatrical performance, it was very much in line with the pageantry that was his life.
Hoveden records that:
He was first attacked with a fever, and then by a flux of the bowels, which reduced him to the point of death. On seeing that his death was impending, he sent for our lord the king, his father, who refused to come to him, as he dreaded his treachery.
Young Henry was determined to repent of his sins in his death and he had bishops summoned for confession of these sins and he gave to Marshal the responsibility of bearing his cross to Jerusalem. The History recorded him as saying
Marshal, Marshal, you have ever been loyal to me, a staunch supporter in good faith. I leave you my cross, so that on my behalf you can take it to the Holy Sepulchre and with it pay my debts to God.
Marshal agreed and spent nearly three years in the Holy Land, buying his own grave palls while he was there. But that’s another story.
Roger of Hoveden’s account of Young Henry’s death is detailed to say the least:
After this, laying aside his fine garments, he placed upon him haircloth, and fastening a cord around his neck, said to the bishops and other religious men who stood around him : “By this cord do I deliver myself, an unworthy, culpable, and guilty sinner, unto you, the ministers of God, beseeching that our Lord Jesus Christ, who remitted his sins to the thief when confessing upon the cross, will, through your prayers and His ineffable mercy, have compassion upon my most wretched soul.” To which all made answer, “Amen.” He then said to them: “drag me out of this bed by this cord, and place me on that bed strewed with ashes,” which he had caused to be prepared for himself; on which they did as he commanded them, and placed under his head and feet two large square stones; and, all things being thus duly performed, he commanded his body be taken to Rouen in Normandy, and there be buried. After saying this, being fortified with the viaticum of the holy body and blood of our Lord, in the fear of the Lord, he breathed forth his spirit
The History records his final words as being to Marshal
You will bear my body to the church of Notre Dame in Rouen, once my soul has parted company with it. And another thing I pray and beg of you is that you beg my father for mercy, asking him to curb his anger against me and to give me his blessing. After that he said “To the glorious God in Heaven I commend you, since I can no longer speak with you, now that Death is laying hands on me, Death who harries me with such cruelty that I cannot feel heart or body, or limb. But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.” So much he said and his soul departed.
And thus Young Henry died, at the age of 28 on the 11th of June 1183-a king but not really a king. There were arguments over where his body was to be buried (he wanted his brain and intestines buried at Martial at Limoges as a further act of contrition and the people of Le Mans managed to co-opt and actually inter his body) but ultimately he had his wish and he was interred in Rouen Cathedral. You can see the cathedral in the photo below, along with his (non contemporary) effigy.
Henry II was distraught at his son’s death, especially as he had not believed him and had refused to come to his side. It was not the end of the brothers war- but the Young King’s part in it was over so I will leave it there.
These posts do not cover all of Young Henry’s life, but I hope I have succeeded in illustrating it in vignettes, and if you’d like to know more I highly recommend Strickland’s book.
Young Henry is one of history’s classic ‘what ifs’. If he hadn’t died, there would have been, probably, no Richard the Lionheart and no King John- one of England’s most turbulent times in history could have been very different- no Magna Carta, no barons revolt, no Robin Hood legend the list goes on. Rather like the sinking of the White Ship and the death of William the Aethling in 1120 a single death re-routed the course of English history. His legacy is also complex. Dismissed by some as an idle spendthrift, lauded by others as a paragon of all virtues.
The History’s final verdict on Young Henry was always going to be laudatory because Marshal served him, but it lays out the paragon of virtue angle quite well.
A man of such worth that no man was ever his equal as regards valour and liberality. Never did Arthur or Alexander, whose lives were noted for their noble deeds, perform so many in such a short time. If God, by his command had allowed him to live a long life, he would have quite surpassed those two in valour and noble deeds.
As always with history the truth is probably somewhere in between. A King in name only with no authority or purpose, a son arguably driven to rebellion by a father who could not relinquish control. A young knight, who fought valiantly on the tournament field, a flower of chivalry and a despoiler of churches, a rebel and a loyal son, a want to be crusader, a husband and very briefly a father. Young Henry was all of these things. But he is almost held in amber- in stasis because he died before he could become more. If he had lived longer and become king in more than name, his legacy could have been completely different, or it could have been worse, extravagance and misplaced loyalties leading to disarray and break up of the Plantagenet Empire even earlier (most of it fell to the French under King John). We can simply never know. I do think it is interesting, and as always with the History of William Marshal you have to take it with a bucket of salt especially when it puts speeches in people’s mouths, that the History has his last words as
But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.
I hope with these posts I have helped a little to make sure he is remembered.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853.
Crouch, David. William Marshal. London: Routledge. 2016.
When asked about the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the two that are most often remembered are Richard the Lionheart and John, the two that lived to be kings after their father’s death. Henry and Eleanor had five sons though. The first William, died in infancy and the third Geoffrey was Duke of Brittany and died in a tournament in 1186. It was his son, Arthur, who was King John’s rival claimant to the throne of England. There was another son though, one who too often is forgotten in the annals of history. Henry was their second son, he was heir to the Plantagenet empire that Henry II and Eleanor had built and he was crowned during his father’s lifetime, a continental custom, so he was a king in his own right. He died, however, in 1183 at the age of 28 and as time went on his story was eclipsed by his younger brothers.
I first came upon Henry the Young King, as he came to be known, when I was researching William Marshal, as Marshal began his career in the royal household as Young Henry’s tutor in arms and effectively the captain of his knights (Marshal will be elucidated later in this post). The post is not going to uncover anything new about the life of Henry, there was an excellent biography written about Henry in 2016 by Matthew Strickland if you would like more information. However, as this is a blog of the odds and ends of history and for better or for worse Henry’s story has fallen a little into the cracks, I thought it was worth telling.
There aren’t really any contemporary images of Henry. His effigy in Rouen Cathedral is not contemporary, and most examples of his great seal are damaged.
He was described by one of his chaplains Gervase of Tilbury as
He was tall in stature, and distinguished in appearance; his face expressed merriment and mature judgment in due measure; fair among the children of men, he was courteous and cheerful. Gracious to all, he was loved by all; amiable to all, he was incapable of making an enemy. He was matchless in warfare, and as he surpassed all others in the grace of his person, so he outstripped them all in valour, cordiality, and the outstanding graciousness of his manner, in his generosity and in his true integrity. In short, in this man, God assembled every kind of goodness and virtue, and the gifts which fortune usually bestows on single individuals of special distinction, she exerted herself to give all together and in richer measure to this man, so as to make him worthy of all commendation.
This description obviously has to be taken with a bucketful of salt as Gervase was definitely biased. Depending on which chroniclers you read Young Henry was either the hard done by heart of chivalry- though chivalry is not a contemporary term – or an ungrateful spendthrift who rose up in rebellion against his father unnecessarily, and incited incendiary war. As with most things in history the truth is probably somewhere in between. This post can not possibly cover his entire life, so I am going to focus on the key moments, in a series of vignettes. This is part one of two and will cover Young Henry up to his rebellion against Henry II. Part two will cover the last ten years of his life, his time on the tournament circuit and his death- which is an interesting story in and of itself.
Young Henry was born in 1155 in London, not long after his father was crowned King of England. It was a time of hope and relative peace after the bitter years of civil war known as the Period of Anarchy. He was baptised by the Bishop of London, and when Henry II had his barons swear fealty to his oldest son William in April 1155, he also had them swear to Young Henry if William died prematurely. Henry II had come to the throne at the end of a brutal dynastic war, so he was shoring up his succession. William died in 1156 and was buried with his great grandfather Henry I in Reading Abby, he was only 3. So Young Henry became the heir to the Plantagenet Empire.
The next key vignette was Young Henry’s marriage. This might feel like I’m jumping a bit far into his lifetime, but in fact we’re only looking at 1158. In 1158 discussions began about betrothing Young Henry, now three, to Margaret the one year old daughter of Louis VII the King of France. Betrothing children this young wasn’t that unusual. It actually had little to do with the children themselves and more to do with agreements over land and alliances. In this case it was stipulated that if Young Henry died, one of his brothers could be substituted. The two children were betrothed in c. 1160. The agreement was only intended to be a betrothal, as far as Louis VII was concerned, but Henry II wanted the land that came as part of Margaret’s dowry as well as being concerned with Louis’ new marriage (in case he produced a son), so he had the two children married in November 1160. Roger of Hoveden described the marriage as Henry, king of England, caused his son Henry to be married to Margaret, the daughter of the king of France, although they were as yet but little children, crying in the cradle. Roger of Hoveden goes on to say that Louis was indignant. There was little he could do about it though and peace was eventually restored by 1161.
Being married this young was actually very unusual, as marriage was somewhat of a rite of passage, but nevertheless Young Henry was a husband by the time he was five. Margaret was raised in Henry II’s court, though not necessarily with Young Henry. The children would still have known each-other growing up.
Young Henry’s childhood is interesting, though there is not a great deal of detail known. It is worth noting that in 1162 he was placed in the household of Thomas Becket, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a sign of high favour to Becket, and Young Henry would have grown up in Becket’s household, which was well known for its pomp, ceremony and extravagance with Beckett at its centre. Henry II on the other hand was known to be careless of his appearance and the quality of his food and wine, though he was conscious of the importance of ceremony and symbolism. This early environment, may have had an effect on Young Henry’s behaviour in later life. Becket would later infamously fall out with Henry II and was martyred in 1170.
I’m now going to jump forward to Young Henry’s coronation, also in 1170. It wasn’t an English custom to crown the heir in the father’s lifetime, but Henry II wanted to be very sure to shore up his succession. Young Henry was no longer a child, he was fifteen, and would have had his own household by this point. By now Thomas Becket and Henry II were at odds, this is pre Becket’s martyrdom, so he wouldn’t crown Young Henry as he’d exiled himself from England. This was an issue because the Archbishop of Canterbury crowning the King was an important part of the conferment of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of the coronation. After much back and forth and strife between Henry II and Thomas Becket in the end Roger the Archbishop of York crowned Young Henry in Westminster in July 1170. The Pope forbade the coronation in a letter to the bishops and archbishops of England saying We forbid you all by our apostolic authority , from crowning the new king, if the case shall occur without the consent of the archbishop and the church of Canterbury, nor shall any of you put forth his hand, contrary to the ancient customs and dignity of the church, or in any way forward the coronation aforesaid. The letter was too late as Young Henry had already been crowned. There isn’t a contemporary description of the detail of the coronation, but from descriptions of other coronations such as Richard I’s, it would have been full of ritual and ceremony. Roger of Hovden described it as He himself caused the above-named Henry, his son, to be crowned and consecrated king at Westminster, by Roger, Archbishop of York, who was assisted in this duty by Hugh bishop of Durham, Walter, bishop of Rochester, Gilbert, bishop of London, and Jocelyn, bishop of Salisbury ; no mention whatever being made of the blessed Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, to whom by right of his see the coronation and consecration belonged. You can see Westminster Abbey in the photo below.
After the coronation a grand banquet was held in the next door Westminster Hall- it had been built by Henry II’s great uncle William Rufus and was one of the largest freestanding halls in Europe. You can see it in the photos below.
There is a story from the coronation banquet, which may or may not be true but is interesting regardless. The story is that Henry II served his son personally at table to honour him (even though it could have been seen as demeaning of his kingship), Young Henry is then said to have commented that it was quite normal for the son of a count to serve the son of a king. This would have been seen as an enormous slight on Henry II’s authority as the King. It’s probable that Young Henry never said this, it is also possible that Henry II never served him directly, as most of the accounts are from later sources seeking to denigrate Henry II. What’s interesting though is that the story survived, and you can see how it is building a narrative of the diminished authority of Henry II and the flippancy of Young Henry. You can see an early 13th century depiction of the scene and the coronation in the image below. It comes from a life of Thomas Becket.
Once Henry had been crowned he was, in theory, invested with the same authority as his father. Henry II went on to have most of his barons swear to Henry Roger of Hoveden described it as The day after this coronation, the king, his father, made William, king of the Scots, and David, his brother, and the earls and barons of the kingdom, pay homage to the new king, and swear ‘fealty to him against all men, saving their fealty to himself.
The History of William Marshal described this decision as once the deed that been done, many a day afterwards that he would have readily undoneit.
The problem from here on in, was the theory and the practice of the authority of a king. Henry II may have given Young Henry a crown in his lifetime, but he didn’t give him any actual authority. The Plantagenet Empire stretched across England and a lot of what is now France, and while Henry II had made his son a king, the crown didn’t result in any lands to rule or administer independently. You can see a map of the Plantagenet Empire at its height in c.1188 in the image below.
The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y tywysogion encapsulated the problem perfectly when it said In that interval, when king Henry the eldest was beyond the sea, his son Henry the younger, the new king, came to him to enquire what he ought to do; for since he was a king he had many knights, and he had no means of rewarding those knights with presents and gifts, unless he received a loan from his father; and this was in the time of Lent. And his father said to him that he would give him twenty pounds a day, of the money of that country, for expenditure and that he should not have more. And he said that he had never heard of a king being a man on pay, or under wages and that neither would he be. After the son has taken advice, he went to the city of Tours, to obtain money on loan from the burgesses of the city; and when the king heard that, he sent messengers to the burgesses to forbid them under the pain of losing all their property, to lend anything to his son. And without delay he sent trust men to watch his son lest he go anywhere without notice.
So essentially Young Henry was a king without a kingdom. This was the core of the reasons that led to my next vignette; Young Henry’s rebellion against his father.
In 1173 Young Henry rose up against his father Henry II. He escaped from his father’s watch at Chinon and rode for Chartres when he knew his father in law Louis VII was in residence. You can see Chartres Cathedral in the photo below.
His flight had been somewhat precipitous though, as it took his allies, including his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, Louis VII, and various French and English barons by surprise. It was none the less a formidable coalition facing Henry II. There was one very unusual factor about this rebellion, Eleanor of Aquitaine. While sons rebelling against their fathers was not unheard of in this period and there had been other rebellions by Henry II’s barons already, a rebellion partly instigated by a queen was almost unheard of. But then Eleanor of Aquitaine was definitely a woman who stood outside the norm for her time. She’s one of my favourite historical figures but I won’t go into detail about her here. I have written about her before and you can see that post here. You can see Eleanor’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey in the photo below.
Henry II’s other sons rebelled for similar reasons to Young Henry, he wouldn’t share authority. They were given then trappings of power rather than any actual ability to exercise it, and in many ways were supplicants to their father the same way Young Henry was.
So at the age of 18 Young Henry was a king and undertaking a rebellion against his father. As a rebellion it began promisingly enough with Roger of Hoveden hyperbolically stating:
The whole of the kingdom of France, and the king, the son of the king of England, Richard his brother, earl of Poitou, and Geoffrey, earl of Bretagne, and nearly all the earls and barons of England, Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, and Brittany, arose against the king of England the father, and laid waste his lands on every side with fire, sword, and rapine : they also laid siege to his castles, and took them by storm, and there was no one to relieve them.
Hoveden continued on to compare the rebellion to a prophecy of Merlin’s
The cubs shall awake and shall roar aloud, and, leaving the woods, shall seek their prey within the walls of the cities ; among those who shall be in their way they shall make great carnage, and shall tear out the tongues of bulls. The necks of them as they roar aloud they shall load with chains, and shall thus renew the times of their forefathers
Henry II was beset on all sides and Young Henry was in the middle of it all.
The beginning of Young Henry’s rebellion, marked another milestone, his knighthood. Ordinarily Young Henry would have been knighted before his coronation, and although there is no record of it occurring, normally we would assume that he would have been knighted as a key part of his transition to manhood. In this case though, we have a relatively contemporary source which tells a different story. The History of William Marshal is a near contemporary biography of William Marshal, (who I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Marshal was one of the key figures throughout this period. He was born the fourth son of a not hierarchically important baron, and rose to become Regent of England by his death in 1219. He served five kings, but he began his career in Young Henry’s household. You can see Marshal’s effigy in the photos below.
So the History records Marshal knighting Young Henry in 1173 as he is about to take up arms against his father at the head of a large force. “But there is this, my dear lord,” they said: “you have still not been knighted, and that is not to everyone’s liking, we feel. We would all be a more effective force if you had a sword girded on; that would make the whole of your company, more valorous and more respected, and would increase the joy in their hearts.” The young King replied: “I will willingly do that, and I can tell you that the best knight who ever was or will be, or has done more or who is to do more, will gird on my sword, if God please.” At this the sword was brought before the King, and, once he had it in his hand, he went straight up to the Marshal, brave man that he was, and said to him: “From God and from yourself, My lord, I wish to receive this honour.” The Marshal had no wish to refuse him; he gladly girded on his sword and kissed him, whereupon he became a knight, and he asked that God keep him most valerous, honoured and exalted, as indeed he did.”
Now the History is very biased towards Marshal, but it is unlikely that it would put this story front and centre, if it was completely untrue. Therefore it is most likely that Marshal knighted Young Henry, an important step on Young Henry road to manhood and military leader.
Young Henry’s rebellion started promisingly, and the fighting continued, with neither side really gaining the upper hand. Henry II sued for peace at the end of 1173 offering his sons lands. Roger of Hoveden records that he offered Young Henry: a moiety of the revenues of his demesnes in England, and four fitting castles in the same territory ; or, if his son should prefer to remain in Normandy, the king, the father, offered a moiety of the revenues of Normandy, and all the revenues of the lands that were his father’s, the earl of Anjou, and three convenient castles in Normandy, and one fitting castle in Anjou, one fitting castle in Maine, and one fitting castle in Touraine
It could be argued if Henry II had made this offer before the rebellion Young Henry may have rebelled. It was not enough however, Henry II’s offer was spurned and the fighting continued. It looked like the rebels might have been successful, but Henry II was a formidable military commander and with some luck and, according to the church, intercession from Thomas Becket who was a saint by this point, Henry II prevailed by late 1174.
The History was written in the early 1200s under the reign of Henry III, Henry II’s grandson, so it does not dress up the rebellion as desirable. The spin it put on it however, is that Young Henry was badly advised saying “Dear lord, you should not show your anger to your son or those in his company, but to those who advised him to act as he did. The ones to suffer for it should be those who advised him to turn traitor, and they should be considered more base for what they did.” This is the picture that is often painted of Young Henry, easily led. It seems that Henry II took this advice as he forgave his sons and most of the rebels eventually. The exception was his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who remained his prisoner (in reasonably salubrious circumstances) for 16 years until his death in 1189.
To return to Young Henry though. After his rebellion failed in 1174, he stayed with his father in England for more than a year. The History records when he got sick of this saying So, the young King Henry, who did not find it the slightest bit amusing to be so long confined in England, acted upon the advice and counsel of his companion and approached his father, a man who loved him very dearly. He said “if it did not incur your displeasure, it would be most welcome and pleased to me to go over the Channel for my sport, for it could be a source of much harm to me to stay idle for so long, and I am extremely vexed by it. I am no bird to be mewed up; a young man who does not travel around could never aspire to any worthwhile thing, and he should be regarded as of no account.”
So Young Henry, with his father’s permission, travelled with his knights, including William Marshal, to the continent where he commenced his time on the tournament circuit. This brings me to my next vignette; the young king’s career on the tournament field. And that is where I will begin part two of this post, which will deal with the last ten years of Henry’s life, his time on the tournament field and his death at the age of only 28. I’ll leave part one with an image from Matthew Paris’ Historia Anglorum from the mid 13th century that depicts Henry the Young King in a little archway between Henry II and Richard I. You can see the close up of Henry in the first image, then the whole page in the second. See you soon for part 2.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853.
My post on the burial places of the kings and queens of England has been the most popular post I have ever written. This is despite the fact that, although I visited all the sites, I was not allowed to take photos in either St Georges Chapel in Windsor or Westminster Abbey where the majority of them are buried. With this in mind and from a desire to write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID, I thought I’d have a look at the Basilica of Saint Denis- the burial place of most of the Kings of France. Now unfortunately I don’t have all my research material with me at the moment, so rather than an examination of each monarch, I’m going to look at the church itself and highlight some of the more interesting monuments. Saint Denis gets overlooked for the more popular Notre Dame by most people visiting Paris, but for my money it is the more interesting church, even before Notre Dame burnt down. It is pretty spectacular; inside and out:
I wanted to start by looking at what makes the church a basilica rather than just a church. The title of basilica is granted by the Vatican, but it can also be the style of the church. In the case of Saint Denis it is old enough that the designation of basilica dates back to 5th century, when it was given the label because it had a floor plan that was the same as a Roman civic building, that is three naves that were used for administration of justice. Although the church was significantly rebuilt by Abbot Suger in the 12th century the designation remained. Typically of a basilica Saint Denis is built on the bones of a saint, was a key site for pilgrimage and became the centre of a town. Saint Denis might now be in Paris, but it definitely wasn’t when it was built and the town of Saint Denis sprang up around it. In 1966 the church was given cathedral status as the seat of the diocese of Saint Denis.
So, regardless of whether you call it a church, a basilica or a cathedral, Saint Denis is very old. The first church on the site built in the 5th century would have been part of a wider abbey and is thought to have been built on a Roman church yard, where the bones of Saint Denis were buried. It was extensively rebuilt under the Norman rule and in the 12th century Abbot Suger remodelled it to the gothic masterpiece you see today. However, not all of it is original. While it was added to over the centuries, especially under Louis IX in the 13th century, over the years in began to fall into disrepair. By the French Revolution, it became a symbol of the power of kings, and was thus badly damaged. The lead from the roof was melted down and some of the royal tombs were destroyed. The remains of the kings and queens were removed and mixed with lime and thrown in a mass grave, but many of the monuments on the royal tombs were preserved for the new national museum. The church was then used as a warehouse. French writer François-René de Chateaubriand in his work Génie du Christianisme, described this ruin: “Saint-Denis is deserted. Birds fly in and out, grass grows on its smashed altars and all one can hear is the dripping of water through its open roof”. Restoration began under Napoleon who thought about being buried there and restoring a line of emperors, and then when the monarchy was restored, for a short period of time anyway, restoration continued. The royal tombs were restored to the church in the 19th century, in what was at least close to their original positions. Over the 19th century Saint Denis became a trialing ground for conservation and restoration, a process that has in some ways continued to the present day. The most recent restoration was the facade which took place between 2012 and 2015. Although not all that you see is original, this is a building that is at the heart of the history of France and its patchwork reflects the chequered history of its country. You can see what it would have looked like as an abbey in the photo below.
That is a bit of a background to the church itself. I would now like to turn to some of the kings and queens who were buried there. This post is not going to go into immense detail about every monarch interred in Saint Denis, but I will have a look at some of them. To begin though, how did Saint Denis become the burial place for the Kings and Queens of France? It wasn’t until the 10th century that it became the key site for royal burial. Up until this point Saint Denis was competing with several other cemeteries. Royal burials were popular because they attracted visitors and in some cases pilgrims, which brought in revenue for the religious institutions where the member of the royal family was buried. They were also more likely to receive largess for other members of the family. When the Capetians ascended the throne at the end of the 10th century, they made Saint Denis their royal necropolis, and from then on most kings and queens were buried there until the 19th century- though there were of course exceptions.
There’s simply too many royal burials at Saint Denis to examine each of them. During the period of time it was used as the royal necropolis 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 men of the kingdom were interred there. Today there are just over 70 effigies and monumental tombs in Saint Denis. One day I might revisit this, and look at the burial places of the all the Kings and Queens of France. But at the moment I’m going to explore a few.
I want to begin with the end. Louis XVIII was the last king to be interred in Saint Denis. Starting at the end might seem like an odd way to tell this story, but in many ways he exemplifies Saint Denis as a royal necropolis as he worked to restore it as a symbol of the monarchy. Louis XVIII was Louis XVI’s younger brother and once Louis XVI was executed, he declared himself regent to his nephew and then when his nephew died he declared himself Louis XVIII in 1795. Now as this was in the middle of the French Revolution-the declaration was somewhat of a moot point. Louis wandered around Europe for a bit, but he did eventually manage to become King of France (actually residing in the country) in 1814 and was the last monarch to be interred in Saint Denis. You can see his grave in the image below.
I want to continue with the king and queen who are, arguably, the best known of the French monarchy, and are inextricably linked to Louis XVIII. Louis XVI and Marie Antionette. There are two monuments to them in the church. You can see both in the photos below.
Neither of the effigies are contemporary. The black graves are where the remains of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were reinterred by Louis XVIII. The other statue was completed in c.1830 at the behest of Louis XVIII. It shows Louis XVI and Marie Antionette in prayer- most likely as a way of rehabilitating the monarchy and tracing Louis XVIII back to them- legitimising his claim to the throne. As people and monarchs in their own rights hundreds of books have been written, movies have been made and the story of French Revolution told and told again. I’m not intending to retell their stories in this post (it would make it incredibly long for one thing). I will say one thing. Marie Antionette does receive a fair amount of flack in popular culture for being a Queen so completely divorced from the fate of her people that when they ran out of bread she famously said “let them eat cake.” Like most famous sayings, it didn’t happen. There is absolutely no evidence that she ever said it. It wasn’t attributed to her until 50 years after her death; and was applied tongue in cheek more generally for out of touch monarchs. I will leave my discussion of Marie Antionette and Louis XVI there, except to say that Louis was executed first on the 21st of January 1793 and Marie Antionette on the 16th of October 1793. They probably weren’t the worst monarchs France had ever had, but their idea of monarchy could not stand up against the changing times.
So I started at the end, now I’m going to go back to the start Saint Denis and Dagobert.
In the crypt of Saint Denis are remains of the structures that would have been below the site of the church- this is roughly where the tomb of Saint Denis would have been. Saint Denis was possibly the first Bishop of Paris, he was martyred in c.285 CE and is the patron saint of France. You can see the archaeological tombs in the photo below.
The other beginning at Saint Denis is Dagobert- the first French King to be interred in the church. You can see the monument to him in the photo below
It’s not contemporary and was constructed in the 13th century, but it depicts the king’s soul making its way through the afterlife. Due to his transgressions towards the church, he appropriated quite a lot of church property, he is first sent to hell but in the top panel you can see Saint Denis, Saint Martin and Saint Maurice seizing his soul from the hands of the demons and taking it off to paradise. His recumbent effigy is facing where the relics of Saint Denis would have been, showing Saint Denis as the protector of the monarchy. Dagobert himself, was an interesting figure. He was buried in Saint Denis in 639 CE and actually technically wasn’t a King of France, mainly because France as we know it today didn’t exist. The Kingdom of the Franks was a loosely held together group of smaller territories most of which are included in what we would now consider to be France. Dagobert inherited a partly held together kingdom from his father Chlotar II, Chlotar had pulled together Burgundy and Austrasia (Austrasia covered what we would now see as north eastern France, Belgium and parts of Western and Central Germany). Dagobert managed to hold this together and called himself King of the Franks from 629 until his death in 639, he pre dates Charlemagne who was the first king to hold the majority of what is now France. For our purposes the most interesting thing Dagobert did was be the first king to decide to be buried at Saint Denis. The church was already sacred, because it held the relics of Saint Denis, but Dagobert’s decision put the church on the path to becoming the necropolis of the French monarchy and Saint Denis on the path to being the protector of the royal family.
So those are our book ends. The first and the last kings to be interred in Saint Denis. I thought I would include a king somewhere in the middle- who was also responsible for much of the 13th century work on Saint Denis that you see today. Louis IX is someone I’ve written about before- in passing mainly in relation of Angers, but I want to discuss him briefly here. His effigy has not survived in Saint Denis, though the effigies of two of his children who died in infancy have, and they’re very rare examples of metal tombs. You can see them in the photo below.
Louis IX actually died in Tunis on crusade in 1270 and the flesh was boiled from his bones so they could be sent back to be interred in Saint Denis (this was not an unusual occurrence) his relics didn’t arrive back in Paris until 1271. Louis IX didn’t only refashion Saint Denis, he also collected holy relics including (apparently) a piece of the crown of thorns and a piece of the true cross and his personal chapel Sainte-Chappelle in Paris is a true jewel-box of medieval architecture (you can see it in the photo below)
Louis IX came to the throne at the age of 11, and his mother Blanche of Castille ruled as regent for his minority, she was the grand daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He married Margaret of Provence, whose sister Eleanor of Provence was married to Henry III of England so there was a close relationship between the two royal families. Louis was a pious, but strong king and France held an important place on the European stage during his reign. He led two crusades, somewhat successfully, and expanded the inquisition, so as far as the church was concerned he was an excellent king, he was supported by the people of France as well and they canonised him unofficially after his death in 1270. He was officially canonised by Pope Boniface in 1297 in the reign of his grandson Philip IV, partly in attempt to appease Philip in the ongoing conflict between the papacy and the French king. Philip IV was interred in Saint Denis, and his son Charles IV had his effigy constructed in c. 1327. You can see it on the far left in the photo below.
So that brings me to the end of my discussion of Saint Denis and some of the kings interred within. One day I might come back and write a post more specifically about the Kings and Queens of France, but for now I hope this post has given you some insight into a magnificent church and its funeral monuments. I’m going to conclude with some final photos of some of the monuments I haven’t discussed but will hopefully one day return to.
Site visit 2012
Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral booklet
France in the Middle Ages 987-1460 by Georges Duby
Time might seem an odd topic for a blog about history. Time, however, and the keeping and tracking of it, does have a history, and reflections on this can perhaps lead us to some insight into how we manage time now. So, this post will be a little divergent from my norm, for a start there aren’t going to be a lot of pictures, time is hard to photograph, and it is a bit more, well reflective than my posts usually are.
The first reason I decided to write this post, is because of a GLAMR (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Records) group called New Cardigans, who have a blog theme for each month and August’s was time. I’ve never written to it before because it’s never matched closely enough with my historical bent. In this case though, I’ve taken it as inspiration to do some research. The second reason is, at the moment time is a fickle beast. I live in Melbourne, which has just gone into stage 4 restrictions. This means we can’t leave the house without specific reasons, most work (including libraries) are not included in the reasons. So, I’ve packed up a significant quantity of books, journals and the like and taken them home. These restrictions are new, and while we are settling into them the best word I’ve heard to describe the experience of time is liminal. The way the sea shore is both land and sea- time has become liminal, it’s at a threshold as we wait until we can all begin moving again- and it’s a nicer word than purgatory.
Time has become to odd, dragging like a troll’s knuckles, then you look back and wonder where all the days went. The lack of definitive routine and structure is shaping how we all think, feel and experience not only the world, but the concept of time itself. It’s ironic that in this era where we can all measure time down to the millisecond, where we pride our selves in our hectic lifestyles, rushing from one thing to the next, that time seems to have ceased to have real meaning. We stand on this threshold and instead of letting it pass, I wanted to have a look at what time is and what it has meant to those in the past, to see what bearing it can have on our experience and the future.
It’s actually one of the issues I’ve had writing medieval fiction. They didn’t measure time to the second the way we do. So I had to find a heap of other words to designate small periods of time, because you can’t say ‘she waited a second’ or ‘a minute later’, or the like. I usually settled on words like ‘heartbeat’ and ‘moment,’ but I still had to go back to do a global search and remove the few that I’d missed because they were so automatic. Time also has a key role in history- as in the way we see the past. We tend to parcel it out into eras or periods, especially when looking at the Western concept of history, where one era begets another, in an inexorable linear fashion. The Ancient Greeks beget the Romans, who beget the medieval period (the ‘dark ages’ a term that is now outmoded still seem to get left by the wayside), which begets the Renaissance, which begets the Enlightenment, which begets the Industrial Revolution, which begets the modern period. This is a gross generalisation, and as I said very much a Western view- as there was plenty going on in the rest of world that this dominant historical narrative discounts completely. It also simplifies how fluid time and history are, they don’t fit neatly into little boxes. For the most part, ages and epochs tend to be named by scholars looking back- I can guarantee people weren’t wandering around Florence in the 1600s thinking- Ohh I’m living in the Renaissance (the term was probably coined by Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century- he certainly popularised it). These broader historical narratives, that shape our idea of how time has passed in the past, also tend to discount small stories- so the history that becomes ‘fact’ is often only a facet. This leads me to consider what our ‘era’ will be, what will our ‘narrative’ be? Because, I don’t think anyone can deny that at the moment we are living history- a mainstream narrative history that will be taught in schools- the same way the Spanish Flu and the Black Death are today.
But, even living through something that we can all see is history with a capital H, it isn’t all that we experience everyday. There is so much deeper nuance to each lived day, and at the moment time is a big component of that. For me it’s been finding ways to fill it, when I’ve spent so much time not having enough time. There’s been baking, writing (including this blog), reading, walking, riding, tv show watching, much the same as everyone else. But, with this new lockdown, time seems to be spooled out in front of us, offering hope but also frustration, as the desire to fill it marks our days. So I’m turning to the past, to see how time was understood in eras where it couldn’t and wasn’t marked to the second, when it perhaps had less concrete everyday meaning.
The Ancient Greeks, did measure time, they did measure hours- in fact it was a novel concept to them. There were complaints about the introduction of the sundial because people stopped eating when they were hungry and started eating as prescribed times. Herodotus reported that the Greeks had taken the concept of the hour- splitting the day into 12 hour divisions- from the Babylonians. The night didn’t have a division for civilians, but for the military it was broken down into segments, though the length varied with the seasons. A specific division of a day was only possible with time measuring devices, such as sundials and water clocks and public variants of these were produced. It also meant that measuring time was largely an urban phenomenon.
I realise that in skipping forward now to the medieval period- which is the historical era I am most familiar with- that I am following the same prescribed historical past that I discussed earlier. However, as this is a blog about time, not a thesis or a book, some era jumping is necessary. The medieval concept of time, was very much driven by the Church. Especially in the cities where the canonical hours, could in some cases be heard in the ringing of the church bells. The church divided time into seven periods of prayer as reminders of the Passion of Christ; Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. They were roughly divided up with daylight- Compline was usually sunset, Matins sunrise, and sext midday. These ‘hours’ shifted over time and again time was measured with physical devices such as sundials and water clocks.
You can see what is thought to be an early Irish sundial in the photo below- the stick is not contemporary.
The canonical hours were by no means exact, but they were a beginning of a structure of a day. It is also worth noting that church bells rang for just about everything, and each city and in fact each church in each city would have had a different way of ringing the hours.
Time wouldn’t begin truly dictating life until a more accurate form of measurement could be invented. Where and when the first mechanical clocks were invented is a matter for debate. In looking at England, mechanical clocks definitely existed by the 1300s because Norwich Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedrals had them installed between 1321 and 1324, you can see Lincoln Cathedral in the photo below.
Prior to mechanical clocks, time measuring relied either on weather dependant devices like sundials or water clocks, which worked by water (or another liquid) pouring from one container to another and in some cases lifting a weight- these were not workable long term. There is, however, no specific time when a mechanical clock was invented. There sadly isn’t a surviving chronicle proclaiming ‘eureka- today we invented the mechanical clock’- we do know a little about how they worked though. The earliest worked on a system of cogs, didn’t have a face and were simply made to strike the hour. In the video below you can see the rediscovery of what is thought to possibly be the earliest surviving mechanical clock in Salisbury Cathedral
You can see Salisbury Cathedral in the photo below. It is incidentally home of one of the original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta.
So, with the introduction of the mechanical clock, time began to be able to to be more measured, and therefore it began to have a tighter control on our lives. As time went on, pardon the pun, the big shift in time measurement becoming a civil rather than church concept was driven by the rise of the merchant classes. Being able to account for time, became valuable monetarily and by the 15th century clocks were moving from the public sphere into the private sphere. Towns also began to exert control on populaces through time. Municipal signal systems operated through bell towers, denoting things such as curfews (another concept we are becoming uncomfortably familiar with), town assemblies, proclamations and the like. Town bell towers began to take on civic identity with towns being known by their bell towers, and to destroy a bell tower was to destroy part of the identity of the town. So time played out on the civic and the individual stage.
A more modern concept of time keeping, began with the recognition of the monetary value of time, but also as time began to standardised, especially across public clocks in the cities and towns. As clocks became for accurate, time became more standardised and smaller measures of time could be recorded and adhered to. Clocks themselves also became smaller- it is possible that Richard III owned something that resembled what we would now see as a watch. It is also possible that he had a clock at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which would have chimed the hours- how useful it would have been on the field of battle I’m not entirely sure, it certainly didn’t bring Richard III victory.
Once time became money, it became important in guilds, determining who had spent more time doing what and if we jump rapidly through the epochs we hit the concept of world time. Up until the 18th century time had been standardised geographically, lots of areas had their own times because there wasn’t such wide communications that broader standardisation was needed. Towns having their own times, known as burgher times, clung on in some places until the international Meridian Conference in 1884. The purpose of The Meridian Conference, held in Washington, was to set a universal day and fix the prime meridian. The need for this world wide consensus came about because of the industrial revolution, with shipping and train travel meaning that consistency in time was essential for commercial and personal purposes. The resolutions that the conference adopted were:
That it is the opinion of this Congress that it is desirable to adopt a single prime meridian for all nations, in place of the multiplicity of initial meridians which now exist.
That the Conference proposes to the Governments here represented the adoption of the meridian passing through the centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude.
That from this meridian longitude shall be counted in two directions up to 180 degrees, east longitude being plus and west longitude minus.
That the Conference proposes the adoption of a universal day for all purposes for which it may be found convenient, and which shall not interfere with the use of local or standard time where desirable.
That this universal day is to be a mean solar day; is to begin for all the world at the moment of mean midnight of the initial meridian, coinciding with the beginning of the civil day and date of that meridian; and is to be counted from zero up to twenty-four hours.
That the Conference expresses the hope that as soon as may be practicable the astronomical and nautical days will be arranged everywhere to begin at midnight.
That the Conference expresses the hope that the technical studies designed to regulate and extend the application of the decimal system to the division of angular space and of time shall be resumed, so as to permit the extension of this application to all cases in which it presents real advantages.
This is where Greenwich Mean Time was adopted, as the standard starting point for every time zone on the time zone map. I’m not going to go into detail about Greenwich Mean Time, you can find out more about it here https://greenwichmeantime.com/what-is-gmt/
So, we began with musing about liminal time in a Pandemic, and we have ended with the standardisation of time on an international scale. We now all have phones, or watches or even smart watches that let us know exactly what time it is all the time. We might find our lives governed by time, but it is worth remembering that time is a concept that took a conference to agree on international standards. So in this odd space, where time seems to both stretch and to snap, to be infinite and meaningless, but also corralled into minutes and seconds, that ultimately time is a human concept that we could, in theory, let go. Maybe a pandemic where we can’t run around and live our hectic lives, is a good spot to take a step back and see time as something to be appreciated rather than to be filled. Regardless, this has not been by any means an exhaustive history of time, but I hope it has given you something to think about, and that you’ve had the time to think it.
History of the Hour: Clocks and modern temporal orders by Gerhard Dohrn-Van Rossum