Østerlars Church

Østerlars Church is on Bornholm, an island I have already discussed in a previous post on Hammerhus Castle which you can read here. Østerlars is truly remarkable. It is only one of four round churches on Bornholm, but it’s the biggest and the oldest.

Østerlars was constructed c. 1150 and is dedicated to Saint Lawrence. The name comes from a contraction of Laurentii Kirke which became Larsker and eventually Østerlars (øster meaning east) to distinguish it from another nearby church dedicated to St Nicholas.

As you can see Østerlars is round, apart from the little belfry built off to the side (which holds two bells dating from the 1640s and the 1680). As to why it was built round? There are a number of opinions, but no one knows for certain. It is possible that Østerlars and the other round churches on Bornholm were either inspired by or built by the Knights Templar. The Templars certainly built round churches (you can see two below from London and Cambridge), they were modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There is also a connection between Eskil the Archbishop of Lund and Bernard of Clairvaux who played a role in the foundation of the Knights Templar, so it isn’t impossible.

Templar Church London
Round Church Cambridge

Another, possibly more likely, answer is that the churches were built as fortifications, and the round shape was part of making the church more impenetrable. Østerlars was certainly built with many features that made it work as a fortification, originally the church wouldn’t have had a roof, and would have had a lower outer wall so it was possible to move around the outer passage that is now under the roof.

The walls are more than 2 m thick and the church sits on a site that commands a view of the country side.

There are also holes for a large bar on either-side of the main door, which argues that the church was probably built to ward off attack. If Østerlars was a fortification, it was probably never attacked as there’s no archaeological evidence of any battles on the site. It was most likely intended to be a place of protection and retreat for the congregation as well as a place of worship. Bornholm is in an important spot on the trade routes in the Baltic and was subject to attack by pirates as well as being a place of contention between several countries. The other possible theory is that Østerlars was built partly as an observatory. It’s also not impossible that Østerlars is circular for a combination of all three reasons.

Regardless of why Østerlars is round, it is beautiful. The conical roof isn’t original, the current version dates to 1744 and every single tile is wooden, but there are drawings from the late 17th century that show a very similar roof. The shingles on the roof are made from split Bornholm oak, they are regularly tarred to keep the weather out and are remarkably durable. These days modern equipment is used when the tiles need to be re-tarred, but in the past a chair was hung from the roof to administer the tar. You can see both the interior of the roof and the chair in the photos below.

It is also an extremely solid building, with 2m thick walls built in the double wall structure, with a cavity filled with soil and gravel. All the material was sourced locally. The walls are thick enough to have a stair running up to the second floor, as well as a substantial passage around the top of the church.

The interior of the church itself is no less impressive with an altar with the original stones. An organ, the font and the curved pews were added in later with successive renovations.

By far the most impressive part of the interior of Østerlars is the frescos. They were originally painted in the early 14th century, covered with limewash around 1600 as part of the Reformation and not rediscovered until 1889. They circle around the nave’s load bearing pillar and tell the story of the life of Jesus, beginning with the annunciation to Mary and ending with a very impressive depiction of judgement day.

You can see the story narrative unfold in the photos below.

As you can see, not all of the frescoes have survived. Also, there would originally have been more in other parts of the church. For contemporaries they would have been illustrative of the priest’s sermon which would have been in latin which was unlikely to have been understood by the locals. They are a truly incredible insight into the medieval world, in their depiction of clothing and garments and dreams and fears. Frescos from this era are not common, and these are a remarkable survival.

The landscape Østerlars stands in is an ancient one as well, with Iron Age, Roman and Viking settlements and artefacts. The Viking artefacts are particularly prominent with more than 40 runestones found on Bornholm. Three such stones were built into the fabric of Østerlars. The one you can see in the photo below was built into the belfrey before being removed. It reads: Broder and Edmund had this stone raised in memory of their father Sigmund. Christ and Saint Mikkel and Saint Mary help his soul. It dates to the mid to late 11th century.

Østerlars is still an active church, as well as being a building of national importance. It is very much central to its landscape and the history of Bornholm as well as being a truly beautiful and unique building.

References

Site visit 2018

Østerlars Church Booklet.

All the photos are mine.

Hammershus

Hammershus is the largest castle in Northern Europe and stands on a cliff 74 metres above sea level on Bornholm, a small but important island in the Baltic Sea.

Bornholm (you can see it and some of the common landscapes above) is off the coast of Sweden, but belongs to Denmark. It stands on important trade routes and there have been Iron Age, Roman, early Christian and Viking artefacts found on the island. It was a Viking centre, but it remained independent until the 10th century when it was controlled by Sweden. It then went back and forth between a few different powers (including Denmark) over the following centuries. It ultimately came to Denmark permanently in 1660. It’s a popular summer destination for Copenhageners and has significant medieval remains, including some astounding round churches and the topic of today’s post; Hammershus Castle.

While there were other structures on the site before, the Hammershus you see today was finished in the late 13th century and has been a site of domination and strife almost since its beginning. It commands an almost unassailable position, standing on a 74 metre high escarpment facing directly into the sea. The land route is steep and winding, making attack very difficult. The inner castle was also protected by a ring wall and three walled defence areas. Two more towers were added in the 16th century and north and south of the castle two lakes were damned to create even more defences.

Hammershus was most likely built by Jens Grand who was Archbishop of Lund. In the late 13th century there was a power struggle between Danish Royalty and The Church and it was probably as a statement of Church power that Jens Grand built Hammershus. The castle went back and forward between the Church and the nobility, mainly being used to impose authority on the island and its people and protect the control of the trade routes. The castle came into the hands of Hanseatic League- a powerful alliance of market towns- in the early 16th century. They expanded Hammershus, using local forced labor and financing it with high taxes, leading to ultimately unsuccessful rebellion. Hammershus remained an active fortress until the end of the 17th century, when most of the island’s defences were moved to Ronne (the capital). The castle was abandoned in 1743 and the locals were allowed to claim stone from it for their own uses, until Hammershus was put on the National Historic register in 1882.

The castle itself has some really interesting features as well. My favourite is probably the bridge

The bridge spans a 6 metre ravine and is supported by two stone piers. It is one of the best preserved medieval fortified bridges in Denmark, certainly one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. In the 15th century there would have been a wooden drawbridge spanning the final section of the ravine, which would have been guarded from the bridge guard house.

Another interesting feature is the main castle gate. This provided entry into the grounds of the castle. Originally it would have been a square tower, but a rampart wall was added in the 17th century

Just through the main gate is the remains of the storage house. It would have been used to hold the material collected as tax. This wouldn’t usually have been money, it was two stories so that grain and the like could be stored in the upper levels and the underneath could be used for live tribute, like oxen.

The key component of the oldest section of the castle is the Manteltarnet (Martel Tower), what in an English castle would have been known as the keep. When it was built Hammershus would have consisted of this keep and a ring wall. The gate to the entrance of the keep would originally have had a portcullis and the tower would have had three stories. You can see where the floors would have been from the holes in the walls. You can also see what is most likely some of the original ring wall in the photos. The keep was eventually replaced with a private residence for the lord of the castle.

It was also in this keep that Leonora Christina, the daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark, was imprisoned in 1660 with her husband Corfitz Ulfeldt for his collaboration with Sweden. They attempted to escape in the middle of the night by tying bed sheets together, or using a rope depending on what account you believe, and climbing down the tower, Ulfeldt was so unwell that he had to lowered. Unfortunately the escape was short lived as they were recaptured almost immediately. The eventually ransomed themselves by handing over most of their property, but were later changed with treason again. Ulfeldt managed to evade capture but Leonora Christina was captured in Dover when she was seeking help from Charles II. She was held without charge in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen castle for 22 years. While she was imprisoned she wrote her autobiography which was published posthumously.

Escapes aside, Hammershus is very much an amalgam, it was added to extensively in the 16th century, and you can see the marks of the years on the stone, the oldest parts are built of granite and the newer of the smaller style tile bricks.

Hammershus is a fascinating castle with a chequered past. This post was not intended to cover all of its complex history, but to underscore the highlights and give some insight into the largest castle in Northern Europe. It stands as a brutal testament to the extent of church authority in its heyday and the importance of Bornholm as an essential point in the Baltic trade routes. It is certainly worth visiting, as is Bornholm: I hope to cover Bornholm’s other magnificent medieval feature the round churches in a later post.

References:

Site visit 2018

https://www.britannica.com/place/Bornholm

https://bornholm.info/en/hammershus/

https://nordicwomensliterature.net/writers/leonora-christina-ulfeldt/

The photos are all mine.

Reykholt

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Built heritage in Iceland of any serious age is few and far between. Despite it being a very old country.  Reykholt is an unassuming site, but it was the home of Snorri Sturlson arguably one of the most important Icelanders to have ever lived. The real history of Iceland, Iceland’s castle’s and cathedrals so to speak, is the sagas. Snorri was the man who wrote many of them down (among other accomplishments). His home has rightly been preserved.

Snorri was born in 1179, he was an aristocrat in a time before Iceland had a king and before changes to law were written down. Between 1262 and 1264 Iceland handed itself over to Norway following a period of extreme unrest. After this law was codified, but during Snorri’s time- he was killed at Reykholt on the 23rd of September 1241- a law speaker recited all  changes to the laws at the law rock at Þingvellir. This recitation occurred during the meeting of the parliament known as the Alpingi each summer. The law speaker also interpreted the law. The Alpingi was a meeting of all the different chieftains to come to agreements on a wide variety of issues. You can see Þingvellir and an approximation of where the law rock was in the images below.

Þingvellir  itself is absolutely fascinating and I will be writing a post about it at a later date.

But to return to Snorri. He was the law speaker at Þingvellir from 1215-1218 and 1222-1231. He was  an immensely influential chieftain in Iceland, spending time in Norway with King Hakon Hakonson and becoming embroiled in affairs there as well.  He also owned a lot of land in Iceland, collecting the revenues from over 100 farms and holding 11 chieftainships, covering roughly a quarter of Iceland . While he was undoubtedly influential in his own time, what has made Snorri important to the history of Iceland is his role in the sagas. He recorded many of the sagas, not just the mythic ones but the stories of the life of Icelanders. Much of what we know about this period descends from his work. It is arguable whether he wrote them all himself, but if he didn’t they were probably written at Reykholt under his direction. One of the most important is the Edda, which is the source of most knowledge about Norse mythology. Snorri wrote down the pagan tales of Nordic poetry and culture, possibly in part to save them as new types of romantic and ‘courtly’ verse was making their way in from the rest of Europe. While Snorri’s writing may not have been incredibly influential in his own time, there is no doubt that it has come to be the main source for this period and much of what the history of early Iceland is based on.

Snorri certainly didn’t live a pure and noble life. He brought much of his trouble on himself through his machinations and arrogance. He was also power hungry and helped to contribute to the unrest that resulted in Iceland handing itself over to Norway. He definitely made an impact though.

Snorri died in September 1241 when Gissur Thorvaldsson, an old enemy of Snorri’s who had been married to one of Snorri’s daughters, had a letter from the King of Norway instructing Gissur to return Snorri to Norway (Snorri had left against the King’s orders in 1239) or to kill him. Gissur rode with 70 men to Reykholt. Snorri heard them approaching from where he was asleep and ran to the small house where the priest Arnbjorn was staying. He hid in the cellar. The priest gave him up in fear of his life and the men went down into the cellar. Snorri was alone and unarmed, an old man of 62. Simon, one of Gissur’s lieutenants, gave the order to kill and according to a contemporary account Snorri tried to order them to stop, saying “you will not strike” Simon replied “kill him now” Snorri insisted, drawing on all his authority, “you will not strike”.

It didn’t work. Snorri was struck the death blow by Arni beiskur and several other men continued to stab him. It was a sad end for a man who shaped the past and the future of Iceland for better and for worse.  Snorri’s life is much more complicated and interesting than I could possibly summarise here, see my references at the bottom of this piece if you want to learn more. 

You can see his (non contemporary) statue at Reykholt below.

The site of Reykholt itself is a difficult one in some ways. There are no contemporary buildings left, but the modern and 19th century buildings for the most part pay homage well enough to the original purpose. 

There are original features, but  most are archaeological remains, you can see some below.

The most interesting original feature is Snorralung (Snorri’s pool). The Book of Settlements shows that there was definitely a hot water pool being used on or near the site in the 10th century. When Snorri lived at Reykholt the site had become an active farm and church. The Sturlunga Saga, which was written after Snorri’s death by one of his nephews, depicts Snorri sitting in the pool talking with friends. You can see the pool in the photo below.

The pool is fed from the near by Skrifla hot spring via a conduit. It is built of hewn stones of geyserite slabs, the same that paved some of the surrounding medieval buildings. It is 4m in diameter and nearly a metre deep. The surrounds of the pool are not original, nor is the small roofed door you can see just above the pool. The roofed door and the turf around are in place to protect the remains of a passage that connected the original medieval buildings to the pool. It is in no way meant to replicate what the passage would have looked like, or how it would have been used. The pool was one of the earlier archaeological remains listed in Iceland in 1817. 

Reykholt is not a site that has been isolated and preserved as a ruin, there is a hotel and conference center and it has been an active religious site for much of its history.  It has also had a high school built on it and was a working farm into the 20th century, both of which have sadly destroyed some of the archaeology.

There is, however, an excellent cultural center explaining Snorri’s life and a library (which was sadly closed while I was there). In Snorri’s time it would have been a busy medieval farm very much in keeping with others of its type throughout medieval Europe. There has been extensive archaeological excavation at Reykholt. The farm on the current site was established around 1000 CE. The earliest buildings would  have been long houses. There was another slightly later separate structure  which was probably a church, though it has a sunken section which is very unusual for churches in Iceland. These buildings would have been wooden. 

There were a number of new buildings by the medieval period in which Snorri would have been living in Reykholt. There was most likely a dwelling called a stofa, which is a type of Norwegian timber house set on stone foundations. A stofa in Reykholt is mentioned in the Sturlunga Saga, but the specific building that might have been this structure has never been definitively identified.

The saga lists the source of the wood for the dwellings as a harbour in the north of Iceland. As the only other semi reliable source of wood in Iceland was driftwood, and Reykholt held the driftwood rights only on the western peninsula in the time period, the wood must have come from Norway . Driftwood in Iceland was a much sought after commodity as Iceland was largely deforested and because it was impregnated with saltwater so it withstood Iceland’s weather. Siberian trees like pine, fir and larch are brought to Iceland on the Arctic Ocean currents and more exotic woods like mahogany come on the Gulf Stream. When driftwood rights belonged to a particular person they cut their driftwood mark onto it when it was on the beach. This meant that they retained that right even if the driftwood went back out to sea and  was carried around to another beach. You can see some marked driftwood in the photo below.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_1405.jpg

But to return to Reykholt. The stofa was described as having a litlastofa attached to it, which might have been the private room for the master. If this was the layout, it was most likely from litlastofa that the passage to Snorri’s pool ran. The total length of the passageway is more than 30 m and the entrance was possibly behind a hidden door. There was also  a spiral staircase leading down to it (very rare in Iceland). It may have been intended as a secret way in and out of the house,  it may have been a status symbol, or it may have just been a way for the owner of the house (possibly Snorri) to access the pool without having to go out in the weather.

There were a number of dwellings at Reykholt, but the other building of most significance was probably the stave church which was built sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries. It would have stood slightly separate from the other buildings on the site. Stave churches are a fascinating and really beautiful construction. You can see the 12th century Urnes Stave Church from Norway in the photo below and read about its history here

Hot steam as well as water was also channeled through to various points on the site, possibly based on a hypocaust system. This sort of sophisticated design, along with the number, size and specific utility of many of the buildings (most individual buildings in Iceland had multiple utilities) indicate the importance of Reykholt and its high status in Icelandic society. This status is born out by other sources like the sagas. 

Reykholt is still very much part of its landscape too. You can see the remains of the original medieval road and the valley has been re-forested in recent decades. Woods are unusual in Iceland so these are important, as well as being a cultural touchstone for Icelanders.  You can see both the road and the woods in the photo below. 

 

Reykholt also sits on top of a knoll with clear site lines in a very fertile valley. The landscape in Iceland is absolutely key. Many of the nearby sites that feature in the sagas can still be visited. This includes the Deildartunga, which was a nearby region the inheritance of which was much disputed. Ultimately this dispute led to Snorri being fostered by Jon Loftsson who shaped the direction of his life. 

You can see the hot spring at Deildartunga in the photos below. 

The hot springs are Europe’s largest with a flow rate of 180 litres per second. The other pertinent nearby feature is Hraunfossar, an incredible waterfall that flows off the Hallmundarhraun lava field. It is named after Hallmun who, according to the Grettis Saga lived in the area. The author of the Grettis Saga is unknown,  but it was written around the same time that Snorri was writing so it was part of the same tradition. You can see the waterfall in the photos below.

These two natural features illustrate just how epic Snorri’s landscape and Iceland in general was and is. It’s easy to see how people came to believe in trolls, giants and meddlesome gods living in this sort of environment. Thankfully  Snorri and his ilk’s determination has preserved these stories. 

References:

Edda by Snorri Sturlson translated by Anthony Faulkes ISBN: 9780460876162

The Buildings of Medieval Reykholt: The wider context edited by Gudrun Sveinbjarnardottir ISBN:9789935231574

Sagaland by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason ISBN: 9780733338236

Site visit 2018

The photos are all mine

Urnes Stave Church in Norway

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Urnes Stave Church in Norway is probably the most remarkable medieval structure I have ever visited. It is aided in this status by the truly incredible surroundings.

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IMG_2139It is, however, its completeness as a 12th century wooden structure inside and out, and especially the carvings, which make it truly remarkable.

This is the first of what will be a series of posts on the history of Iceland, Denmark and Norway. I’m beginning with Urnes because of its uniqueness and because it is UNESCO World Heritage listed.

Urnes sits on eastern edge of the Luster Fjord. It was built around 1150. There had been churches on the site before, parts of which have been reused in the church you can see today. It is the oldest stave church in Norway and is so distinctive and so influential that its style has come to be known as Urnes Style when it is used in other buildings.

The name stave church comes from the large vertical load bearing posts which form the basis of the structure of the church. Essentially it is composed of a vertical rectangular frame. You can see a cross-section of Borgund stave church below, which gives you the idea of the interior structure necessary for a stave church (Borgund is a lot bigger than Urnes though)

IMG_2089There were once over 1000 stave churches in Norway, but now only 28 remain. Most were built between 1130 and 1350 though a few are later. The black death affected the construction of new buildings after the mid 14th century. The reason they survived, even though they are wooden, is because the wood is coated regularly in pitch to protect it from the weather (this is still done at Urnes). In the case of Urnes it has a stone foundation, which stops it rotting from the ground up. The previous church on the site was a post hole church, the holes have been found in archaeological investigations.

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Stave churches are not all the same, they are built along different lines and with different styles. For example you can see Ringebu Stave Church below

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Urnes is one of the smallest, but it is also the most lavishly decorated.

The carvings are truly incredible. They are an amalgam of Celtic, Viking and early Christian design. Some are extremely reminiscent visually of early illuminated manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

IMG_2105IMG_2106The carving above is the side door which is no longer used, but would most likely have originally been the main entrance. You can see a stylised lion in the carvings on the left. These carvings most likely come from the exterior of the earlier church and were reused in the current church. You can see the interior of the door below.

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Other exterior carvings from the earlier church include the post you can see below.

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The main entrance to the church is on the west end and you can see more medieval carving on the capitals and it is thought that the ironwork on the door might be original as well.

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When you look at the photos of the church from the front you will noticed that there is an odd flap open.

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This flap, along with some other panels, are usually closed to protect the delicate carvings beneath. I was lucky enough that when I visited it was open for a conference group and, while it is very weathered, it is still beautiful and thought to be medieval. IMG_2101

The timber the church is constructed of is largely pine with elements of hardwood. The turret on the church is not original, in 1702 it replaced an earlier one from 1680. The roof was also tiled at one point. The current shingles date to the 20th century when the church underwent careful restoration, when much of the protective cladding was also added.

IMG_2141IMG_2143Leaving aside the exterior of the church for the moment, the interior is just as if not more impressive.

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You can see that the floor in the nave is lower than the rest of the church, this was because there was an open space under the floor which was used for burials. It was discontinued in favour of the external cemetery in the 19th century at least partly because of the smell.

The ceiling is 17th century, originally it would have been open like the underside of a boat. The original windows would have been small and porthole like. As you can probably tell the interior has been changed quite a bit over the centuries, but there are still a lot of medieval elements. My favourites are the carved capitals on the columns which then rise up into romanesque wooden arches. These were quite possibly based on contemporary stone churches of the time and are certainly similar to stone churches I have seen in England and Ireland.

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Remarkably some of the medieval fittings have also survived: including the figure of Christ on the Cross with Mary and John which dates to the end of the 12th century

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A medieval candelabra

IMG_2126and the chandelier which hangs from the ceiling

IMG_2136The gallery you can see part of above the chandelier, and above the chancel in the earlier photo, was added later and sadly involved cutting some of the original columns and capitals.

The highly decorated altar and pulpit dates to the 1690s, the chancel was extended out in the early 1600s.

IMG_2127IMG_2131The paintings and figures you can see on the walls are also 17th century.

Originally there wouldn’t have been fixed pews, they were introduced after the reformation and the ones in Urnes are 17th century. The boxed pew you can see in the photo below was for women being brought into the church to be cleansed after childbirth.

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Urnes was probably built for the wealthy local Ornes family, but it was also a church used by the locals. It is an amalgam of styles as the needs of the church’s community changed. It is a testimony to the quality of construction that it is still standing today.

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In 1720 it was sold to local priest Christopher Munthe and it remained privately owned until the parish bought it in 1850. By 1881 it wasn’t needed any longer because the parish was reorganised and it was to given to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. The parish retained the burial rights in the churchyard and the right to hold services twice a year. This practice continues and Urnes is used by the local community for special occasions. In 1979 UNESCO included Urnes on its World Heritage Register

It met the three main criteria easily with UNESCO saying

Criterion (i): The Urnes Stave Church is an outstanding example of traditional Scandinavian wooden architecture. It brings together traces of Celtic art, Viking traditions and Romanesque spatial structures. The outstanding quality of the carved décor of Urnes is a unique artistic achievement.

Criterion (ii): The stave churches are representative of the highly developed tradition of wooden buildings that extended through the Western European cultural sphere during the Middle Ages. Urnes is one of the oldest of the Norwegian stave churches and an exceptional example of craftsmanship. It also reveals the development from earlier techniques and therefore contributes to the understanding of the development of this specific tradition.

Criterion (iii) : Urnes Stave Church is an ancient  wooden building and is outstanding due to the large-scale reuse of both decorative and constructive elements originating from a stave church built about one century earlier. It is an outstanding example of the use of wood to express the language of Romanesque stone architecture.

Urnes is truly astounding and for such a little church it certainly holds a lot of history.

 

References

Site visit 2018

Urnes Stave Church brochures

Urnes Stave Church Booklet

UNESCO Listing: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/58/

The photos are all mine.

Kells, County Meath

IMG_4212For a town with a population of not much over 6000 Kells has made an inordinately strong mark on Irish History.

It is best known as the original home of what is , arguably,  the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world.

But while the Book of Kells is truly incredible, and I’ll talk more about it later, Kells itself (especially the abbey) has its own fascinating history. I am also slightly biased as some of my family comes from Kells and the surrounding area. A plaque to one of my ancestors can still be seen in the church at the abbey.

This post isn’t going to cover the entire history of Kells, there’s simply too much of it. It will, however, look at the early history of the town, the Book of Kells, and some of the key buildings in town.

So to begin at the beginning.

There were possibly people in the area before, but the history of Kells as a settlement dates back to the 6th century, when it was a fortification of the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill.  The site was gifted to Saint Colmcille who founded the abbey which remains today, though none of the exisiting building are contemporary.

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The second image is an etching from the late 1700s.

Saint Colmcille (known in latin as Columba) was born to the ruling family of present day Donegal. Still standing in Kells today is Colmcille’s cell which dates around the 10th century. It is too late to actually have been used by Colmcille and was in fact probably an oratory that may have housed his relics, with some sleeping accommodation for some monks. IMG_4260

In roughly 561 Colmcille travelled to Scotland as a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ and to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded the abbey there. It went on to be one of the most influential in the area inspiring the foundation of other houses, including Lindisfarne. In the 9th century Iona was subject to fearsome Viking raids and they relocated most of the community to Kells in 804. It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona. It was definitely at Kells by 1007 when the Annals of Ulster record it as being stolen from the stone church in Kells.

This is not the church we see today. From 808 to 814 a new church was built, though it was rebuilt after the Viking raid of 920 and most likely again after other raids over the years. By 1655 it was well and truly in ruins and it was used as a horse barracks by Cromwell. The current church dates to 1788.

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It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.

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However there are parts of the site that do date to earlier. Firstly the round tower. Round towers are honestly one of my favourite structures ever and I’ve visited quite a number. You can find out more about their history in this previous post.

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The Kells round tower dates to the 10th century and it is 90 feet tall without its roof, which would have been conical. Is has six floors and would probably have been accessed by ladders. There is still a lot of debate as to the purpose of round towers. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

Kells Abbey also boasts three partly complete high crosses. There are between 60 and 70 high crosses remaining in Ireland (in varying states of repair), they are usually richly decorated often with biblical scenes and probably served as sermons in stone, telling the stories of the bible to the mostly illiterate population.

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The 9th century south cross depicts: the crucifixion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions den, the fall of man, the death of Able, Saints Paul and Anthony and the Evangelists.

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The 10th century west cross depicts: the entry into Jerusalem, the presentation in the temples, the miracle at Canna, the baptism of  Christ, Noah’s Arc and the fall of Able. There would have been more on the arms of the cross.

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion

There is also a north cross, of which only the stub remains and I don’t have a photo. In the town of Kells itself is the market cross, which unfortunately I didn’t see on my visit, so I don’t have a photo of it either.

The high crosses in the church yard were constructed in a time of great prosperity for the abbey and the town. By the tenth century it was the most important Columban abbey in Ireland. The downside was that as it was wealthy Kells became one of the most attacked towns in Ireland. In 951 a Viking raid was said to have carried off 3000 people and goods. By the 12th century Kells had been burned twenty one times and plundered seven times. These were not all Viking raids, several Irish kingdoms were also responsible. It was also not all raids. In 1152 the Synod of Kells was held and many laws were codified. It was in this period that the other treasure of Kells (apart from the Book of Kells) was probably made. the Crozier of Kells dates to the 9th 11th and 12th centuries and is housed in the British Museum.

By the time the Normans arrived in 1172 Kells (along with the rest of Meath) passed into the hands of Hugh de Lacey one of  Henry II’s barons and one of the key Normans in Ireland. A castle was constructed in Kells in around 1176, though pretty much nothing remains today. The town’s walls were constructed by de Lacey in the early 1170s. The Normans also founded the abbey of St Mary and the priory of St John again pretty much nothing remains of the buildings.

Over the following centuries Kells suffered and profited with the fortunes of both England and Ireland. It was burned a number of times and rebuilt, it was caught in raids and rebuilt. Today it is a small Irish town steeped in history and its greatest legacy and claim to fame is the Book of Kells.

I’ll be using two of my favourite books to discuss the Book of Kells.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

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It is a fascinating dialogue with some of history’s most interesting illuminated manuscripts. De Hamel not only tells the stories of the manuscripts, he traces his own journey in accessing the manuscripts. It is a truly remarkable read.

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan

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This book is an in depth examination of the Book of Kells and contains truly incredible facsimiles of much of the Book of Kells. The photos you’ll see below are my pictures of images in Meehan’s book, I apologise for the glare in a handful of them.

So, as I explained earlier the first definite mention of the Book of Kells was when it was stolen in 1007. The Annals of Ulster describes it thus:

“The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was sacrilegiously stolen in the night from the Western Sacristy of the church of Cennas. It was the most precious object of the Western Would, on account of its covers with human forms. The Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold [probably a shrine it was housed in] having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”

The Book of Kells remains a ‘treasure of the Western World.’ It is a national monument of Ireland, it’s included on the Memory of World list put together by UNESCO, it’s been on Irish coins, Irish stamps and its designs and scripts are synonymous with Ireland. Today it is housed in Trinity College library in Dublin and attracts 520 000 people to view it each year, of which I was one in 2012. You can see the viewing queue below

IMG_6389The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.

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But how did it come to end up in Dublin at Trinity College?

The Book remained in Kells until 1641 when Irish rebellion against Protestant settlers caused serious harm to Kells. The church would remain ruined for another forty years. It was decided the Book wasn’t safe there anymore so it was removed in Dublin probably in 1653 by the Governor of Kells Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan. Henry Jones the Bishop of Meath presented it along with the Book of Durrow to Trinity College. The Book entered popular consciousness in the early 19th century and at this time it was assumed that it dated to the 6th century and had been created by Columba. Queen Victoria was shown it as the book of Columba. In 1874 it was described as the oldest book in the world, which is definitely not true. The Queen’s visit and the Exhibition in Ireland generated even more interest and the Book became cemented in the consciousness of Ireland.

The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the four Gospels:

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.

The evangelists aren’t the only portraits in the Book of Kells. Other key biblical figures feature as well. Such as:

Jesus

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and Mary

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Along with others. It is reasonable to assume that originally portraits of Mark and Luke were probably also intended. They may have been lost over the years. The Book of Kells has been rebound at least five times. One of the most disastrous was the rebinding in 1826 by George Mullen. He trimmed the pages so he could gild them (losing decoration in the process), he painted some of the margins with purple wash and filled in all the natural holes in the vellum with new vellum.

The current binding was undertaken in 1953 by Roger Powel, many of Mullen’s additions were removed and Book of Kells was split into four volumes, one for each Gospel. The Book of Kells has had a hard life and it is remarkable that any of it has survived.

It is a symbol of a time of learning and culture. The detail is extraordinary as is the depth of colour, even in the pages that are predominately writing.

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The work is very Celtic, very much of its time. We have no hope of understanding what all the symbols and imagery would have meant to the people of the time. We can, though, appreciate it for its beauty and have the enjoyment of trying to understand the people who could have made something this exquisite.

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The Book of Kells will always be inextricably be linked with the town of Kells, as it should be. But as I hope I’ve shown, the Book is not the only worthwhile part of the history of Kells. This small Irish town has been at the heart of Irish history for centuries, it is well worthwhile being celebrated in its own right.

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

http://www.heritagetowns.com/kells.shtml

The photos are all mine apart from the photo of the plaque and one photo of the church which are by Penny Woodward (used with permission)

 

 

St Michael’s Mount

St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

IMG_4617St Michael’s Mount stands off the coast of Marazion in Cornwall.

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It can only be reached by boat or by a tidal causeway.

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The origins of the castle  are medieval, it began life as a 12th century monastery. The castle you can see today is formed from this original monastery, but the majority dates to much later. It is run and part owned by the National Trust but still part owned by the St Aubyn family who do still live in areas of the castle.

The origins of the rock itself are even older. The rock of the Mount is one of a number of granite outcrops along the Cornish coast. These are the remains of a granite intrusion that rose up some 300 million years ago and has worn down over millennia to the outcrops you see today. Others in Cornwall include St Agnes Beacon and the Godolphin Hills.

Geology aside, legend has it that the Mount was the work of giants. There are several versions of the tale, but one is that it was built by the giant Cormoran and his wife Cormelian. This particular legend adds that chapel rock, which lies between Marzion and the Mount, fell from Cormelian’s apron as she carried it to the Mount. You can see the rock below.

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Other stories tell of the Mount being used in the giants’ sports as a sort of platform where targets were laid to be hit by rocks thrown from Trencrom Hill. Looking at the Mount protruding so dramatically, it is very easy to see why it attracted stories of giants.

IMG_4606The Mount was probably used by the local Celts and has been caught up in Arthurian legends and the Tristan and Isolde myth in particular. It has also been tradition that it was a central point for shipping tin to the continent, but sadly this hasn’t been born out by archaeology.

The origins of the current castle on the Mount are medieval. There was probably secular occupation of the Mount before the 11th century, but in the late 11th century the Mount was granted (possibly by Edward the Confessor) to the monastery of Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. The matching  names of the two rocks is not a coincidence (but very confusing), their geographical and geological similarity wasn’t lost on the medieval monks.

Between 1135 and 1144 a church was built on the Mount by Abbot Bernard. It is this monastery which is the core of the existing building. The monastery was fortified in 1193 when it was seized by Henry de la Pomeray who disguised his men as pilgrims. Pilgrims were common on the Mount and the path you follow today runs along the main pilgrim route to the castle.

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The Mount was re-garrisoned a number of times through various English-French wars and the War of the Roses. The monastery was a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and came into Crown hands. In 1599 Elizabeth I sold it to Robert Cecil. In 1640 the Mount was sold to Sir Frances Basset and he fortified it for the Crown in the Civil War, the garrison surrendered in 1646 to Parliament and Captain John St Aubyn was put in charge. He bought the Mount from Basset’s son in 1659. It has been in the St Aubyn family ever since. The Mount has seen a number of battles including driving off a Napoleonic ship and being the site of  one of the beacons lit to alert London to the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

It was fortified again in World War II against German invasion and Ribbentrop had apparently chosen it as his residence if Germany won the war. In 1954 the National Trust was given part of the Mount and part remains in the ownership of the St Aubyns.

As you can see the Mount has had a long and varied history and any visit to it highlights its complex path. When I was lucky enough to go there in 2012 it was such a wet and miserable day that I certainly got a real feeling of how desolate the Mount can be.

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Getting to the Mount is very much tide dependant. Even in the horrific weather, which certainly added to to the drama of my visit, a large number of people were waiting impatiently for the tide to die down enough to cross to the Mount and climb up to the castle.

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The castle is very much not alone on the Mount. There is also an active harbour and town. IMG_4627IMG_4626There has been some sort of settlement on the rock for centuries and today 30 people live and work on the Mount.

The buildings that stand at the top of the Mount are collectively known as the castle, but also contain a church and a 19th century mansion. They are all built on the foundations, physical and metaphorical, of the original priory. There is also a Victorian garden clinging precariously to the edge of the Mount. I don’t have any photos of it specifically, it was too wet to get close enough, but you can see the very attractive wilderness in the photo below.

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When you reached the castle itself, its immensity is actually quite surprising.

IMG_4632I’m not going to cover every room in the castle, but just highlight some of my favourites.

The Library:

It was part of the monastic buildings, but from the late 18th century was used by the family for relaxing. What really strikes you as you walk in is how intimate and cosy the room is, especially when you consider the gale which was howling outside.

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The Chevy Chase Room:

This area was originally the priory’s refectory, but it became the great hall of the castle. The plaster frieze around the walls is of the medieval hunting ballad the Chevy Chase. The frieze was created some time between the late sixteenth and mid seventeenth century. It has been meticulously restored.

IMG_4638IMG_4643IMG_4645The other highlight of the Chevy Chase Room is the stain glass windows which were gathered from chapels and priories from all over Europe. IMG_4642

The Priory Church

It stands on the summit of the Mount and dates back to the original 12th century monastery, though the current building is very much an amalgam of the decades.

IMG_4650IMG_4656IMG_4657Protected inside the church is a truly beautiful 15th century lantern cross. It is carved from one piece of stone, which probably came from Padstow. The pinnacles are part of the nineteenth century restoration. It has four panels which depict: the Virgin and Child, a king who may be Edward the Confessor, the crucifixion and an ecclesiast who is probably one of the priors of the Mount.

IMG_4662The Blue Drawing Room

In complete contrast to the grand hall, library and the church is the Blue Room which is very late 18th-early 19th century

IMG_4665The room would have originally have been the Lady Chapel of the priory, which by the late 18th century had fallen into disrepair and was rebuilt as the drawing room you see today.

There are other intriguing parts of the castle, but what you are left with most after your visit is an impression of time, and in my case the power of the weather. The Mount reflects many eras and it remains in many ways a family home. It is a place steeped in legend as well as history and deservedly holds its place as one of the jewels of Cornwall.

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References:

Site visit 2012

Castles and Ancient Monuments of England by Damien Noonan. ISBN: 9781854106216

Cornwall: A History by Philip Payton. ISBN: 9781904880059

https://www.stmichaelsmount.co.uk/

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/st-michaels-mount

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000654

http://www.cornwall-online.co.uk/heritage-trail/heritage-national-trust/stmichaelsmount/Welcome.asp

The photos are all mine: the rain drops on the lens in some of them were a bit unavoidable.

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 25th: Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen

This is the final post in my advent calendar. Thank you to everyone who has read them along the way, commented, shared and most importantly enjoyed them. Have a great Christmas and holiday season

Ellen

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The Abbaye-aux-Hommes was founded by William the Conqueror. It was a Benedictine abbey and dedicated to Saint Steven. The church of Saint-Etienne was consecrated in 1077. The majority dates to the 11th century but the choir was redesigned in the 13th century to reflect the then contemporary gothic style. The majority of the church is built in the romanesque style. The monastic buildings were erected in the 11th century but they were destroyed in the first war of religion  (1562-63) the first of the wars fought between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots. They were rebuilt in the 18th century.

The church is also the burial place of William the Conqueror. His marble tomb can be seen in the photo above.

William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 despite the fact that the Pope had banned the marriage due to consanguinity, they were distant cousins. They fought the Papal ban for nearly a decade and when it was finally lifted both of them built abbeys in Caen as a sign of gratitude. Matilda’s abbey was the Abbaye-aux-Dames which was the subject of yesterday’s post. Matilda is also buried in the abbey she founded.

The French Revolution forced the closure of the monastery and the monks were removed. In 1802 the abbey church becme the parish church and in 1804 the monastic buildings became a boy’s school.

In WWII in 1944 the high school provided refuge for the residents of Caen during bombing and survived intact. The monastic buildings are now home to the local council.

References:

Site visit 2015

Abbaye-aux-Hommes information booklet.

http://www.caen-tourisme.fr/en/discover-caen/william-the-conqueror/abbaye-aux-hommes

https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2012/05/10/matilda-of-flanders-queen-of-england-and-duchess-of-normandy/

The photos are all mine.

 

 

Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 24th: Abbaye aux Dames Caen

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IMG_7109The abbaye was founded roughly in 1060 by Matilda of Flanders the wife of William the Conqueror. It was consecrated in 1066 and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. When Matilda died in 1083 she was buried in the abbaye and her tomb of black marble can still be seen today.

Matilda married William of Normandy in 1053 despite the fact that the Pope had banned the marriage due to consanguinity, they were distant cousins. They fought the Papal ban for nearly a decade and when it was finally lifted both of them built abbeys in Caen as a sign of gratitude. William’s abbey was the Abbaye-aux-Hommes which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. William is also buried in the abbey he founded.

In the late 11th century William II of England granted the abbaye the Priory of Horestead in England, they held it until 1414 when the alien properties in England were dissolved.

Until the French Revolution the abbaye sheltered young girls of the Norman aristocracy. In return the families gave a dowry to the abbaey.

The church exemplifies the most spectacular forms of Norman romanesque architecture. The extension to the chancel was added in the beginning of the 12th century.  and the crypt was probably an 11th century addition.

The Abbaye  buildings deteriorated significantly over the centuries many of the convent buildings were reconstructed at the beginning of the 18th century at the order the Abbess Madame de Froulay de Tesse. The work was done by Benedictine Architect Dom Guillaume de Tremblaye, it took nearly a century and is still incomplete in places.

The arrival of the French Revolution brought about the end of the abbaye. The convent was closed and the property sold off. The church was used as a forage warehouse and the convent became the barracks, this is the reason for the lack of wood and decoration.

In 1823 the buildings became the Hotel Dieu and from 1908 they were a hospice. The last of the St Louis hospice nuns left in 1984 and the buildings became the headquarters of the Regional council. The buildings were then restored again and cleaned extensively in the 1990s.

The church itself remains active today.

References:

Site visit 2015

The Abbaye Aux-Dames booklet

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/caen-abbaye-aux-dames

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/norf/vol2/p463

https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2012/05/10/matilda-of-flanders-queen-of-england-and-duchess-of-normandy/