This is going to be a slightly different post to usual, as it will not be straight history. I will cover some of the history of the ballroom above Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, Victoria, but I will be telling the story of how I experienced it for the first time (I’ve been trying to get inside for about ten years) as the exhibition space for Patricia Piccinini’s Miracle Constantly Repeated. So this piece will be part history, part personal narrative, and part art exploration. It also ties nicely back to a post I wrote some years ago about art interpreting historical spaces.
But back to the Ballroom. The Flinders Street Ballroom is one of those almost mythical places in cities, that everyone has heard of, and most people have never seen. The sort of place that pops up in newspaper articles every few years or so, with new ideas for its future, or stories of its past. These are the sort of places that strike at the heart of a city’s imagination, kind of like secret tunnels. But unlike most supposed secret tunnels, the Flinders Street Ballroom is very real.
Flinders Street Station has had trains running from roughly the same location since the 1850s, it’s the main station in Melbourne, and ‘meeting under the clocks’ remains a tradition to this day. The current buildings, you can see in the photos below, were the result of a design competition and were completed in 1910.
The Ballroom was not part of the original plan and was added during construction because of the creation of the Victorian Railway Institute. The VRI was founded in 1910 with the aim of promoting the intellectual, social and physical well-being of the members- who were largely railway staff. They still exist actually, though they have expanded beyond railway workers. The ballroom was originally the VRI’s lecture hall, and the other rooms housed, a gym with a boxing ring, a lending library which took books to members by train, and education classes at night. It was a similar concept to Mechanics’ Institutes, you can read more about MIs here. You can see members of the VRI in the then lecture hall in the photo below from the State Library of Victoria.
Much of the original lecture hall can still be seen today in the remaining fabric of the Ballroom. And you can see the activities of the VRI still reflected in the surrounding rooms. The message you can see scrawled on the wall in the final photo below, though, is thought to date to the late 1960s, once the upper floors had already begun to fall into disrepair.
By the early 1900s the lecture hall had become a ballroom, you can see an image of it all decked out in bunting from roughly the 1930s from Victorian Railways Corporation records, held at PROV, below.
By the 1950s, the dances there were so popular a mezzanine had to be added to accomodate more people. The balls always finished by midnight so everyone could catch the last train home.
By the 1970s the rooms began to fall into disuse, the last dance in the ballroom was held in 1983. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public use of the ballroom and surrounding rooms pretty much ceased completely. Every ten years or so another announcement of refurbishment pops up, there’s been ideas of locating the Melbourne City Library on the third floor (an idea I’d be in favour of as they badly need the space), of reopening the Ballroom as a ballroom, or running a school up there, along with many other concepts, none of which have come to fruition. The Andrews Government began restoring the whole Flinders Street Complex in 2015, including removing 10 tonnes of pigeon poo from the dome. The Ballroom is part of this redevelopment, but what it will be used for in the future remains very much up in the air. You can see some of development of the Ballroom (and the rest of the station) in the video below.
While the future of the use of the Ballroom remains uncertain, it has been open to the public occasionally. Either for Open House Melbourne (which ran on a ballot system which I was sadly never lucky enough to be successful in) or for artists to work in. This included the recent Rising Festival, which is where my journey into the Ballroom begins, and where we step away a little from the history and into the world of art.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve been trying to get into the Ballroom for about ten years, it’s just one of the those places that light up my imagination, and my desire to explore odd historical places (kind of the point of this blog). So when it was announced that Rising would be opening the Ballroom, I couldn’t get a ticket fast enough. Then, as has been a familiar story across the world, COVID reared its head again, forcing Melbourne into a two week lockdown, and effectively cancelling the festival, which was devastating to all involved. There was one bright light though. Miracle Constantly Repeated was being held inside in a space that wasn’t being used for anything else, so Rising managed to extend its run. And lucky enough for me restrictions lifted the day before I had my ticket. So I was one of the first groups to experience Patricia Piccinini’s extraordinary installation, in the endlessly fascinating Flinders’ Street Ballroom and surrounding rooms. For me the exploration of both the installation and the third floor rooms was a linear experience, so I thought I’d recreate it. There is just so much layered history in the rooms, that you’ll find a lot of pressed metal photography, and small corners where the origins of the stripped back rooms are poking their heads through. I hope you find it interesting, and it can give you a taste of the transcendental experience of the combination of the installations and the palpable sense of History that hangs over it all.
My journey began with the entrance to the stairs that lead you above.
I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I would find as I began the three story climb, even the stairs show a building that has lived a complex life.
Until ultimately you reach the top, and a corridor that seems to run into the horizon.
Piccinini’s installations are in the rooms along the corridor in both directions, culminating in the the full installation in the Ballroom, which really has to be seen to be believed.
As I wandered amongst their wonder, I was also exploring the building, finding the small places where time (and builders) had pulled back layers. But also looking at Melbourne literally from a new perspective.
There is also a lot of very lovely pressed metal, walls and ceilings, and I may have got slightly too excited about it, so I thought that rather than including them along the journey, I’d just do an overview.
Piccinini’s works is an exploration of nature and the urban environment, of a hybridisation between inanimate object and nature, with objects taking on natural characteristics, or nature adapting to more mechanisation, of chimeras’s who fit in both worlds and how humans find a place. But it is more than this too, she looks at elevating the notion of kindness and caring, for other humans and for the environment, of evolution and change. She creates odd creatures, that challenge how we see ourselves, she creates forests of flowering organs that tell stories of the future and the past, of rituals and ecology. She also has what has to be my favourite line for an exhibition description that “big sculptures don’t just have to be about important men in hats on horseback”.
It’s one of those exhibitions that you really need to see in person to appreciate, especially the way she has worked with the building. Everything I’ve said and will say is my own interpretation, based on the guides provided. You could view her work and experience something totally different, and that’s what I love most about art. We are seeing the expressions of someone else’s thoughts, but the pieces become our own as well, as we view them through the lens of all our own beliefs, and concepts of the world. I’m not going to include the whole installation, because if you have the chance you really should go and see it, but this should give you an idea.
You begin your journey with Diorama, an art with historic links that blurs the line between realism and the artificial.
We then move through to Sapling, where the concept of a tree’s personhood and sentience is explored.
In the same room as Sapling are the Shoeforms, which epitomise Piccinini’s concept of naturalised technology.
In a room further along you’ll find The Couple based around the central conceit of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, in this case what would have happened if Frankenstein loved the creature he created. It’s essentially a meditation on the importance of empathy and caring. I especially loved that Piccinini created the whole room around her ‘couple’ and how it felt incredibly lived in, with the aesthetic of the old building.
The following room was my favourite, ballroom aside. Celestial Field is mesmerising, the human and natural border are collapsing as flowers, like organs, grow and hang from the ceiling and in the middle is The Balance- the naturalisation of mechanisation, as two mechanical forms reach for each other.
I also shot a short video, just to give a real feel for the atmosphere Piccinini creates.
We move along to No Fear of Depths the aforementioned large sculpture of caring.
Probably my favourite of Piccinini’s individual works came next ‘The Supporter’ the idea of a natural environemnt growing out of an urban one, and a sybiotic relationship where humans, nature and the urban world, all sort of hold eachother together.
And finally we culminate in the Ballroom, which honestly I’m not going to try to describe, as the pictures speak for themselves.
As truly miraculous as Piccinini’s A Miricale Constantly Repeated is, the small parts of the building that speak with her work, the old bones that you can see, the small stories- which is kind of what this blog is about- matter to me as much, so I wanted to finish with those.
When thinking about what to write about today, I was looking at some of my recents posts, book reviews, castles and abbeys for the most part. So I thought, maybe I could write about a person? I hadn’t done a biography in a while, so I had a look at my books and my photos, photos are always a key decision maker when it comes to Historical Ragbag posts, and couldn’t decide on anyone. Therefore I had a look at some of my draft posts, things I’d either started writing about and didn’t finish, or posts that never got further than a heading. I came across one mysteriously titled, 13th century tiles, with nothing but the heading. I have written about medieval tiles before in the context of longer posts: Strata Florida Abbey in Wales and Mellifont Abbey in Ireland. Both have lovely examples of medieval tiles. You can see the posts in the links below
So what had been my original intention been in titling a post 13th century tiles? I’m not 100% sure, but regardless I decided that writing about medieval tiles a little more generally could be fun, and give me an excuse to visit the State Library for some books. So hence, this post was born. I hope you find it interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of medieval tiles, but it should be (I hope) a nice overall look at them, their purpose, how they were made, as well as lots of photos of course. I’ve deliberately changed the name to medieval tiles because I want to look beyond the 13th century.
As medieval tiles were floor coverings not that many survive in tact, undamaged, or in their original positions. This just makes the ones that have survived all the more precious.
To begin though, I said Historical Ragbag is about photos, hence here’s my favourite of my photos of a medieval tile
This tile is from Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, probably dates to the early 13th century and was excavated in the 1950s. It’s my favourite for two reasons, firstly the lion rampant design is still so clearly evident and secondly because I was allowed to hold it. It is surprisingly heavy, and made from earthenware with a lead glaze. It’s not the only medieval tile at Mellifont, you can see more in the photos below. As they were excavated in the 1950s they aren’t in their original positions, and while they have been laid out close to their original patterns, they are in a protected area because there was an issue with vandalism.
You’ll find common patterns across most medieval tiles. The ones at Mellifont encompass roughly 25 common designs. It is, though, the only place in Ireland where a lion and a griffin in a circle has been found.
Mellifont is a Cistercian abbey, the oldest in Ireland, and the introduction of tiles there in the 1230s is most likely due to the increasing Anglo Norman influence on Irish religious institutions. The tiles there are lovely, but they are not unusual in terms of medieval tiles more generally.
This brings me to the making of the tiles. It was first thought that they were made by the monks, but most likely they were made by laymen. Originally if you wanted a tile pavement for your religious institution, you’d pay a tiler who would set up on your land and make your tiles, as time went on and more tiles were needed commercial tileries were established. Definitely by the 14th century commercial tileries were the norm. They often stayed local though, and it wasn’t until the mid 14th century that importing tiles was more common. The commercial tileries were high quality, but the designs were more generic. So how were they actually made? A tile kiln was most likely two parallel chambers separated by a spine wall, with a furnace. The kiln was usually built of tiles as well. You can see a hypothetical tile kiln the in the image below- it is from the book Irish Medieval Tiles. The materials the tiles were made from was largely dependant on the soil in the local area. The glazes used for the patterns were lead, and the tiles were most likely fired at 1000 degrees centigrade.
Physical manufacture was only part of the process. The designs of the tiles, either in pattern or layout, was also incredibly important. The tiles would have been coloured, with yellow, green and white glazes being common. The local availability of material could also affect the colour choice. I’m going to run quickly through the main overall design types. I don’t have photographic examples that I can say are definitely correct to a type, so I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on description.
Plain Tile Mosaics: Essentially tiles that were glazed a single colour, without a design, of different shapes and arranged in a pattern.
Two Colour Decoration: A single colour tile with a design impressed on it with another colour, usually done with white clay.
Two Colour Mosacis: When the two colour principle was applied to different shapes to create a mosaic.
Two Colour Square Tiles: More complicated designs, where the design was the point of the tile, not the overall mosaic. These designs were usually figural, heraldic shields, lions, griffins and dragons, sometimes a national symbol.
Line Impression Decoration: These designs were incised into the tiles.
Line Impressed Mosaics: The designs were incised, but intended to be part of a broader mosaic pattern- often irregularly shaped.
Line Impressed Square Tiles: Designs incised into square tiles.
Relief Decoration: The design is impressed with a stamp.
Relief Decorated Mosaic: Stamped designs on tiles intended to be a mosaic.
Relief Decorated Square Tiles: Stamped designs on square tiles.
You can see some of the different colours and typical designs in the collection collated at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury below.
As time went on and the manufacture of tiles was more commercialised the designs on the tiles did become generic, but they would originally have had a figurative power beyond simply being beautiful. In theory the more ascetic monasteries, such as the Cistercians, kept the designs simpler but even in these cases symbolism can be found. Religious motifs were common, with allusions to the Virgin Mary, or a fish on an oval ground, a lily for the annunciation, the Lamb of God for the Templars, or Catherine Wheels for St Catherine. There were also pagan symbols, you find these in a lot of church carvings too, especially the Green Man and lions’ faces. These more figurative tile designs, like a lot of church art work, would have helped to convey the stories of religion and medieval life more generally to a largely illiterate population. Aside from the figurative, coats of arms were also popular along with other heraldric devices. These could indicate a patron of the institution, or a local family.
An excellent example of a mixture of the more generic imported tiles, with still some local influence, is Strata Florida in Wales. These have some really interesting patterns. They are most likely 14th century and were uncovered in the 1880s. They have heraldic images, the arms of Hugh Despenser, the Fleur de Lis of France which may be a nod to the Abbey’s mother house in Clairveaux, as well as a few allegorical designs. You can see them in the photos below.
As you can see they are a mixture of some impression designs and some probably either stamped or painted designs. These particular tiles became a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century and unfortunately some were souvenired. They are now kept under a roofed area for protection from the elements, but would have originally been laid in the main part of the Abbey and tradition is that only important guests and choir monks were allowed to walk on them. They were made in England and imported which might explain the presence of Hugh Despenser’s arms (you can see the shield in the top right of the second photo) as he was reviled by the Welsh.
Now, I promised pictures, so I wanted to move on to some examples of medieval tiles outside of Mellifont and Strata Florida. Hopefully they’ll give you an idea of some of the different uses of medieval tiles, and their geographic range. The selection is limited to tiles I have photographs of, but they should give you a good overview.
St Dogmael’s in Wales.
The tiles here are out in the elements and incredibly worn, you can see the impact that being a ground cover can have.
The Franciscan Friary in WaterfordIreland
Like St Dogmael’s these tiles exhibit the wear that medieval tiles are subjected to, but you can make out the remains of some inscribed designs.
A Pavement laid out in the Musee de Cluny- the middle ages museum- in Pairs.
This pavement dates to the end of the 13th century, is of two coloured tiles, with a mosaic border and you can see the heraldic Fleur de Lis as well.
Westminster Abbey is home to the Cosmati Pavement, an unparalleled work of inlaid stone from the mid 13th century. It stands at the high altar and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the abbey, but you can see it at this link https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/cosmati-pavement . The photo below is from the near the Chapter House, where you are allowed to take photos, and showcases some beautiful designs.
Winchester Cathedralin England
The tiles in Winchester are mainly 13th century and give you an incredible example of the sheer scale of some of these pavements in large religious institutions. They are the oldest area of medieval tiles to survive in England, and you’re still allowed to walk on them!
I wanted to finish the tour with a couple of anomolies, or different ways of covering the floor in medieval religious institions. The first Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the jewell box of a church that Louis IX of France had built to house the holy relics he collected. As you can see the floor is painted, the church dates to the mid thirteenth century.
Secondly, I wanted to look quickly at Chartes and its labyrinth. A subject I will return to in much more detail at a later point. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth inlaid into its floor. It most likely dates to the beginning of the 13th century, like a lot of our floor tiles, its exact purpose has never been clear, but pilgrims continue to come to walk its meditative meanderings.
So that brings us to the end of our exploration of medieval tiles. They were first and foremost floor coverings, but they were also beautiful, hand made and told their own stories. The ones that survive are in varied states of repair, but they can give you an idea of how truly majestic these pavements would have been.
Medieval Floor Tiles by Jane A Wight
Irish Medieval Tiles by Elizabeth Eames and Thomas Fanning
I enjoyed writing my first real book review on this blog (Joan: Lady of Wales) so I thought I’d branch out into a different area of history and write another. Also, there hasn’t been much Australian history on Historical Ragbag for a while and Vida Goldstein is always a good place to start. Vida is someone who should be much better known worldwide, a leading suffragist (they’re different to suffragettes), first woman to stand for national parliament anywhere in the Western world, rousing speaker, peace campaigner through World War I and life long advocate for social justice. She has been quite unfairly relegated to the shadows of history. Jacquline Kent’s book works to change that.
I have written about Vida before. In fact I first came across her in year eleven when I was allowed to pick any topic of Australian history and I chose the Australian suffragists. Then when I saw the movie Suffragette in 2015 I decided Vida needed her own blog post. So you can find out more about her in the link below
This is primarily a book review though and, while I’d love the chance to talk more about Vida herself, I should return to the book.
I devoured this book. What Kent does so well is explores Vida’s life as a whole, rather than focussing on her suffrage work, or her war work, or her education work, or her tilts at parliament. She situates her firmly in the narrative of her time, a time of intense change and upheaval. Kent also follows Vida through to her later life (she died in 1949) putting this remarkable woman firmly back on centre stage where she should be. Kent draws parallels with the experiences of modern day female politicians, especially Julia Gillard, which really drives home the message of how much work there still is to be done, but also how much we can learn from Vida and her experiences.
But to go back to the beginning, Kent’s book is largely chronological, the first thing I learnt is that I’ve been pronouncing Vida’s name wrong. I’d been saying Veeda Goldsteen where as Vida herself pronounced it with Viida (as in with a long I) Goldstine (again the long I). I’ve been correcting myself in my head ever since.
Kent does tell Vida’s story chronologically for the most part. Though the book begins with a prologue of sorts, exploring the most iconic image of Vida (see below)
Kent starts the narrative proper with Vida’s family history. It’s when Vida and her family relocate to Melbourne, however, that you really start getting the sense of Vida as a person. The picture Kent paints is of a woman dedicated to her ideals, sometimes to her own detriment (for example her complete refusal to join a political party limited her likelihood of being elected- though it is a position I very much sympathise with), a tireless advocate and champion for social justice, who always worked quietly (as in never violently) but incredibly persistently. She never gave up and was deservedly famous in her own time, especially with her campaigns to be elected to parliament. For her first attempt in 1903 she toured regional Victoria for two months speaking in country towns all over the state, speeches the local newspapers covered in great detail. In fact some of the commentary would be familiar to current female politicians too. The Avoca Times reported “Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat.“
At this point Victorian women could not vote in state elections, but they could vote federally and run for parliament. Vida campaigned hard and as an independent candidate she received 51 497 votes for the Senate, about half of that of the top polling male candidate. She remained philosophical though and would go on to run for parliament (in various different areas) a further four times. She was never successful, but she succeeded in having her issues heard and paved the way for future female parliamentarians. It is fitting that an electorate is named after her (even if it is a now a bluechip Liberal seat that has only ever been held by a man).
What Kent does best in Vida: A woman for our time is to place Vida in the context of her own time. This is in many ways what I found most interesting, as it tells Vida’s story more broadly. It also means you learn a lot about Australia’s early history before the historical narrative gets hijacked by World War I as Australia’s foundation story. As I already knew a little about her role in politics, I was absolutely fascinated with her role in the anti-conscription and peace movement in WWI and the extent of the movement itself. Vida helped set up the Australian Peace Alliance in the midst of war frenzy, aiming to bring together all the disparate groups advocating for peace, including Trades Hall, quite a few unions, the Quakers and the Free Religious Fellowship. The fight for peace was, obviously, not ultimately successful, but the movements did manage to see off the conscription referendum, though the fight got quite nasty at times. This era is something I might come back and explore in a later post. Vida was at the forefront of so many movements, and her persistence (as well as the hard work of a lot of other people-which Kent very much acknowledges) was the core of her often successful activities.
Kent not only places Vida in the context of her times, but also in the context of her family. Vida was a very much a product of her upbringing and the support of her family. Her family is also the source of fascinating Melbourne history sidetracks. Her sister Elsie, for example, was married to the somewhat eccentric activist Henry Howard Champion and they ran the fabulously named Book Lovers Library, which was a Melbourne institution until 1936. This also sent me down the rabbit hole of the Book Lovers Library and other early libraries in Melbourne, which seeing as I work for one was really very interesting.
In her later years Vida became an adherent of the Christian Science Movement and withdrew more from public life, when she died at the age of 80 on the 15th of August 1949 she’s didn’t leave much of a financial or material legacy. Her legacy as a trailblazer and advocate was infinitely more important.
This is by no means a full account of Vida’s life. For that you’ll need to read the book. Essentially, in Vida: A woman for our time what Kent does is brings Vida’s whole story into the light. Kent highlights her role in the rapidly changing society, the context of her family, her activism and worldwide recognition (including a very popular US speaking tour). Kent does this at the same time as contextualising what Vida’s struggles mean for us today, and exploring several fascinating and not well known enough areas of Australian history. She brings Vida out of the shadows and places her back in the broader narrative of Australian history- right where she belongs.
Vida: A woman for our time by Jacqueline Kent can be found at:
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.