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.
Boyle Abbey is in the town of Boyle, in County Roscommon in Ireland. I have written about it before as part of my Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions in 2017, you can see that post here. This post is going to go into more detail though.
Boyle Abbey is one of the many Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. I have written about the foundation of the Cistercian order, Bernard of Clairvaux and the spread of the Cistercian order in Ireland in this previous post about Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland. https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/
Suffice to say that the Cistercian order was founded on the concept of a life devoted to prayer, study and manual labour. It was a reaction against the more worldly and lavish monasticism that had risen out of the Benedictine monasteries, and the idea was a return to the original ideals of the Order of St Benedict. The Cistercian abbeys all followed a relatively similar layout and you can see how Boyle would have looked originally in the photo below.
Cistercian abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient, relying on fishing and farming to support their communities. Boyle Abbey, like most Cistercian foundations, relied on water and it lies on the banks of Boyle River. The water would have been used for drinking, running the mill and flushing drains. In Boyle, not all the monastic buildings remain even in ruin, as it was converted to a military barracks in the 16th century. You can see the walls and the gatehouse in photo below
There are treasures that survive at Boyle though, especially in the exquisite carvings in the church, but I’ll return to them a little later. To begin at the beginning.
The first monks arrived at Boyle Abbey in 1161. It was a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey which you can see in the photo below.
Abbeys were often founded by a specific person or family. For example Tintern Parva, also in Ireland, was founded by William Marshal in thanks for surviving a particularly rough crossing of the Irish Sea. You can see Tintern in the photo below.
In the case of Boyle though, we don’t know who the founder was, if any, but the MacDermot Family who were Lords of Moylurg were patrons from early on in Boyle’s existence.
Once Boyle was founded in 1161 it maintained its self sufficiency, for the most part continuing as it always had through the years. There are a handful of times where it did step onto the centre stage. The first was in 1202 when the Anglo-Norman lord William de Burgh, who was in alliance with the King of Connacht, ransacked Boyle Abbey for three days. The Annals of Loch Ce described it as
They reached the monastery of Ath-da-larag on the Buill [Boyle Abbey], in which they fixed their residence; and they were three days in it, so that they polluted and defiled the entire monastery; and such was the extent of the defilementthat the mercenaries of the army had the women in the hospital of the monks, and in every place in the entire monastery besides. No structure in the monastery was left without breaking and burning except the roofs of the houses alone; and even of these a great portion was broken and burned. No part of the buildings of the entire monastery was allowed to the monks and the brothers, excepting only the dormitory of the monks, and the house of the novices.
This was part of broader fighting both between the Anglo-Norman lords, who had arrived in Ireland in 1169 and began to claim large swathes of Ireland, John King of England and the Irish chieftains and kings. These depredations would have slowed down the construction of Boyle’s buildings as well, the church was still being built at this point. In fact Boyle was almost a perpetual construction site.
Boyle’s next moment in the limelight was when the Abbot was involved with the Conspiracy of Mellifont. This was part of a broader conflict between the Cistercian General Chapter in Clairveaux in France and the Cistercian abbeys in Ireland. The General Chapter believed that the Irish abbeys were answering only to Mellifont and were behaving not in accordance with the rule of the General Chapter. It’s perfectly possible that this didn’t mean that their conduct with problematic, more that they just weren’t directly under the control of the General Chapter as much as the General Chapter wanted. It was a conflict years in the making, but resulted in the General Chapter deposing five of the abbots of Irish Cistercian monasteries, including Boyle, and ensuring that they were answerable directly to the General Chapter in Clairveaux, taking Mellifont out of the chain of command. This conflict was also part of the even broader conflict between the native Irish and the Anglo-Norman world.
Unfortunately for Boyle this secondary conflict continued and it was caught in the middle more than once. In 1235 it was attacked by the English who, according to the Annals of Loch Ce
broke open the sacristy; and all its valuable things, and its mass-chalices and altar cloths, were taken of it.
Eventually reparations were paid.
Apart from being the site of a few prominent burials Boyle stayed out of centre stage until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. While Henry VIII’s Act of Suppression of the Monasteries was passed in 1534, it took some time for all the monasteries to be suppressed, especially remote sites like Boyle. So Boyle hung on until 1584 when it was finally dissolved and its abbot Abbot Glaisne O’Culleanain was executed in Dublin when he refused to renounce Rome. Boyle was leased to William Usher from 1589 until 1599 and then until the 18th century it was under military occupation, and was known as Boyle Castle. It came into the hands of the Commissioners of Public Works as a National Monument in 1892 and is today in the hands of the OPW.
Before it was restored in 20th century, Boyle was allowed to return somewhat to nature. You can see some etchings of it in the 1800s below.
So despite being a military fortification for over 300 years, a surprisingly large part of the Cistercian structure of Boyle remains. You can see some of the surviving structures in the photos below
The jewel in the crown at Boyle though is the church.
It is a truly remarkable survival and actually my reason for wanting to write about Boyle, because it has some incredible carvings. The church was built over a number of years, with sections begun with the foundation of the abbey in 1161 including the presbytery and the transepts, where the tower also began.
The church was not built quickly. Its construction was interrupted by things like raids from Anglo-Norman lords, but a building of its grandeur simply takes time to build. The church wasn’t consecrated until 1218, and even then it was most likely not entirely complete, you can see elements of both Romanesque and gothic, and an early adoption of more English styles, such as the tower. The earliest part dates to the late 12th century and the latest part, mainly the north piers, to the start of the 13th. It was added to as time went on as well, with much of the current tower dating to the 1300s. The really interesting thing about Boyle’s church is its grandeur. Cistercian churches were meant to be plain and austere, towers were frowned upon because they were considered extravagant and elaborate carvings and ornamentations were also not approved. Boyle’s church, however, adheres to none of these rules. Illustrating how the Irish Cistercian churches were separating themselves from the General Chapter of the Cistercian order which led to the Mellifont Conspiracy.
To return though, to the carvings I keep mentioning. When the church was complete, there were nearly 40 new capitals (the top part of a column) that needed to be decorated, and it is these decorations that survive today. Again, this was against Cistercian tradition. Most were adorned with floral motifs, which were fairly common at the time.
Others were decorated with animals and similar figures.
The most remarkable though is one that depicts little men
This carving, and some of the animals, was completely out of keeping with anything you’d find in any Cistercian church. This indicates the Irishness of these churches, and their separation from the rest of the Cistercian order. They also indicate the wealth and influence of Boyle Abbey, and apart from anything else they are just lovely.
These aren’t the only carvings to survive at Boyle, you can see some of the others that have become dislodged over the years in the small museum on site. These include a sundial- which you can see on the left.
Boyle Abbey represents much of Irish history, with its incursion from Anglo-Norman lords and the English, along with conflict with the broader Cistercian order. Boyle is part of a large network of Cistercian churches throughout Ireland, but it stands out for its size and grandeur and especially its carvings.
Site visit 2015
Boyle Abbey OPW booklet
The Antiquities of Ireland Volume I Grosse
The Daily Telegraph Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland by Damien Noonan
Smith, Brendan. “The Armagh-Clogher Dispute and the ‘Mellifont Conspiracy’: Diocesan Politics and Monastic Reform in Early Thirteenth Century Ireland.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 26–38. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/29742491. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
St Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire Wales, is one of those places that has stories seeped into it. There’s not a lot of information, but it’s a fascinating place so in the tradition of Historical Ragbag, I thought I’d write about it. Especially because my last two posts have been so long and in depth, I thought something with a few more pictures and a little bit shorter might be nice too, so I settled on St Govan’s.
I wanted to start with the coast that St Govan’s is nestled in. The spectacular coastline is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, but St Govan’s itself is actually situated on land owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s called the Castlemartin Range, and means that it isn’t always open to visitors when the military is using the area. The Pembrokeshire National Park and The Ministry of Defence work closely together to preserve and protect this bit of coastline. You can see just how beautiful if is in the photos below.
You would be forgiven for missing St Govan’s. I had no idea it was there certainly. I was lucky enough that the owner of the BnB I was staying in knew I was interested in medieval history and drove me to some of the best medieval sites in the region. St Govan’s is nestled so close into the rock, it is almost invisible.
In winter waves can break over the Chapel. I was lucky enough to be there in excellent weather, it is still somewhat of a precarious descent though.
When you reach the bottom of the steps, you are met with a secluded door.
Once you walk through the Chapel, you can see why it is so prone to incursion by the sea.
So the history of this little Chapel, built into the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, is actually quite up for debate. All sorts of stories have grown up around it over time, it is even arguable who St Govan was and how he came to give him name to the Chapel. The spelling of ‘Govan’ is relatively contemporary with earlier maps referring to the chapel as St Gouen, Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He could have been the nephew of St David, or possibly a disciple of St Eilfyw who baptised St David, or both. According to the information sign at the chapel, St Govan was most likely St Gobham who was the Abbot of Dairinis in County Wexford in Ireland, but there is an argument that this St Gobham was a totally seperate person who became confused with Govan over time because of the similarity of the names and two sources that got confused. It also gets murky because there is the possibility that the name Govan is a bastardisation of Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. This is unlikely (apart from the fact that Gawain is probably legendary), it is a story that has become woven into the history of the chapel over the centuries, and doesn’t seem to have any vaguely contemporary references. Most likely St Govan, if he existed at all, was a local saint possibly connected to St David. Regardless of who he was; at some point in probably the 5th century Govan came to the area and set up a monastic hermitage on the site the chapel now stands on. The current building dates to later than this, but I’ll return to that in a moment.
So the next question is, why did St Govan decide to set up a monastic hermitage on this site? Now, as you’ll see will become common in the history of St Govan’s, there’s a few different version of the story. The basic narrative is that he was being pursued by pirates, or the local villagers, or bandits of some kind and he couldn’t find safe refuge, so he prayed and a cleft in the rock opened miraculously for him to hide in. In one version the rocks closed so tightly around him to protect him that his ribs left an impression in the stone. Then in thanks he built a hermitage there and stayed the remainder of his life. St Govan’s Chapel is certainly in a small cleft in the rock, though I don’t think it was opened miraculously by God.
The other part of this legend is St Govan’s Bell. Again there are different versions, but the gist is that St Govan had a silver bell that he used to warn people of pirates in the area. The pirates stole the bell and St Govan prayed for its return and angels brought the bell back and set it in stone, so St Govan could still send out warnings. The large rock to the right of the Chapel is said to be this bell, and is still called bell rock.
Another, slightly more poetic version of the story can be seen in the BBC Cymru clip below, it also gives you a great idea of the landscape surrounding St Govan’s.
So, so far we aren’t sure exactly who St Govan was, or why he was there, or what he was doing, but there are lots of good stories. Now let’s turn to the Chapel itself. It was built on the site in either the 11th, 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, depending on who you talk to, and it is possible that versions of it were built in all of these centuries. It was definitely restored in the 1980s, which is why it is so intact. In particular I think the roof is the most recent. The Chapel itself is a single chamber measuring 5.5m by 3.7m with three doors, one of which opens into a natural cave which you can see in the photo below.
This cave is known as the saint’s cell, and it most likely here that the original St Govan set himself up before any version of the chapel was built, it is also possible that this is where he hid from the pirates (or whoever else was chasing him). It is right next to the altar in the chapel proper. There are a couple of intriguing legends that tie to the saint’s cell, one is that Jesus hid in there at one point, possibly from pirates (though no one seems clear on why Jesus was in Wales hiding from anyone). There is also the legend that if you climb into the cell and can turn around while making a wish, that it will come true. So again St Govan’s history is almost more of myth than of fact, but that in many ways makes it more interesting.
So the interior of the Chapel proper is quite sparse there is an altar, a piscina (a place for disposing of holy water etc), some stone benches and a well, along with some small windows looking out to sea. I will return to the well in a moment. You can see the interior of the Chapel in the photos below.
But to return to the wells. There are two at St Govan’s but only the one outside the Chapel is named for the saint. You can see it under the little domed cover in the bottom right of the photo below.
So the well at St Govan’s would have been famous locally for centuries, but the earliest recorded mention of it as a place to visit is from 1662 where a traveller John Ray said “Thence the same day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the sea side, where under the cliff stands a little chapel, sacred to the saint, and a little below it a well, famous for the cure of all diseases. There is, from the top of the cliff to the Chapel a descent of 52 steps”
Before I return to the well, I just want to quickly make a point about the steps. There is a legend that it is impossible to exactly count the number of steps down to the Chapel. Every account certainly seems to give a different number ranging between 50 ish and 70.
Returning to the well though. “Cure of all diseases” is a lovely catch all. Pilgrims did definitely go there to be cured over the centuries, and even into the 19th century sick people were visiting St Govan’s well in the hope of miraculous cures. As travel became easier more people were able to visit the well and it became known for cures for “scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints” according to one account from the late 19th century. By 1922 however, the well was dry, as it remains today and St Govan’s story, and the Chapel’s story began to drift back into obscurity. Though it has remained a lovely and rather fascinating tourist destination, as well as having a very real history interwoven with myth. It’s definitely well worth visiting for the location alone, but I wouldn’t be looking for a cure for COVID there (sadly).
This is part two of my exploration of the life of Henry the Young King. This post is going to cover the last nine years of his life, from when he travelled with his knights to fight on the tournament circuit in c.1175 to his death in 1183. Part one covered his life up to this point, and can be read here.
As I explained in part one, I can not cover all of Young Henry’s life, as that would be an entire book. In fact there is an excellent book on Young Henry- Henry The Young King: 1155-1183 by Matthew Strickland which I highly recommend if you want to know more, I have drawn on it heavily for both posts. I’m also not going to rehash what I’ve already written, but like the first post I will be conveying a series of vignettes of Young Henry’s life. I will pick up where I left off. His time on the tourney field.
In c.1175 Young Henry received permission from his father Henry II to travel to the continent to take part in the tournament circuit. He had taken part in tournaments before, but this wasn’t just attending the odd tournament here and there, this was an extended tour of the tournament fields of France. This is one of the best known periods of Young Henry’s life. This is mainly because the History of William Marshal devotes a significant portion of its content to the tourney exploits of its hero William Marshal, and thus Young Henry who was his lord during this period of time.
I want to pause in my narrative about Young Henry at this point to explore the tournament circuit just a little, to give an overview of what exactly Young Henry was involved in. I’ll then move on to the fantastic descriptions of some of his exploits that can be found inthe History and other contemporary sources.
So the tournament circuit is essentially what it sounds like, a series of tournaments in this case conducted around what is now considered France. Henry II was not a fan of tournaments, and had banned them in England possibly because he was concerned that they would stir up too much dissent. Tournaments were popular as training grounds for martial ability, a place to make a name and fortune for younger sons, and for nobility of all ranks to earn prestige and reputation. In the late 1100s tournaments were so popular it was possible to attend one every two weeks roughly if you so desired.
This was not polite jousting, with pretty colours and maidens’ favours that is the popular image of tournaments today. They could be quite brutal, with melees and hard fighting. The aim wasn’t to kill your opponent, it was to capture them to claim a ransom. People did die in tournaments though, in fact Young Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey was killed in a tournament in 1186.
Tournaments at the time were usually three day events and were sponsored by a great lord, such as the Count of Flanders. The lord, or lady, who sponsored the event was responsible for promotion, providing prizes, organising events around the tournament and making sure there was seating for the spectators. These were the high point of medieval entertainment and the nobility came from far and wide to watch and take part. The key component of the tournament, as far as Young Henry was concerned, was the melee which usually took place on the final day of the tournament. This was essentially a no holds barred cavalry charge between different teams of knights. The aim was to capture other knights for ransom, but prizes were also awarded for the best fighters. For example William Marshal was once awarded a pike (as in the fish) as a prize.
The melee was certainly worthy of the name- knights fought in teams but they didn’t wear ‘team’ colours. They all shouted the battle cry of their lords, but it was easy enough (and it did happen occasionally) to mistake friend for a foe. So it was into these exciting, brutal and most of all brilliant world of tournaments that Young Henry threw himself with much enthusiasm. You can see the violence of the melee depicted in the the 14th century Codex Manesse below. You claimed a ransom from another knight often by tearing off their helmet and wrestling them off their horse.
To begin with Young Henry and his knights were not incredibly successful, but over time they began to develop a reputation as amongst the best on the tournament circuit. It must have been a godsend for Young Henry, as he finally had the chance to build a reputation for himself, away from his father, and in an area where it turned out he excelled. At the height of his prowess on the tournament circuit he had more than 200 knights fighting under his banner, of which 15 were lords who had mesnies (men who followed them) of their own. Marshalling all these fighters was William Marshal the hero of the History and who was ultimately responsible for making sure Young Henry wasn’t captured. Young Henry was one of the few kings to take to the field and was recognisable because he wore his own heraldic device on his shield, banner and probably horse which made him a recognisable target. A king’s ransom would be the ultimate prize for most of the knights on the field. He definitely led from the front though; with the History describing him as many a time it happened that, when he spurred on, so the companies with him spurred on too, so vigorously as they advanced that those riding towards them from the other side could not withstand their charge. And it often happened that the other side had far more men than they, and yet they were thrown into disarray by the might power of the King’s companies.
Between 1176 and roughly 1180 Young Henry was a star of the tournament circuit. The History described him as a worthy, fine, and courtly man later in his life performed such high exploits that he revived the notion of chivalry, which as the time, was near to extinction. He was the gate, the way and the door through which chivalry returned, and he was her standard bearer.
The History goes onto record some of the more amusing exploits on the tournament field, such as the time when Marshal was leading a captured knight through the town of Anet and when Marshal wasn’t looking and the knight swung himself off his horse, onto a gutter and got away. The History says that the King saw it; he said not a word, preferring not to. It then goes on to say that it was all seen as a splendid trick. The tournament field gave Young Henry the chance to be different, to stand on his own reputation. Ralph of Diceto, who was a dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, recorded in 1179 that Young King Henry, the king’s son, left England and passed three years in tournaments spending a lot of money. While he was rushing all over France he put aside the royal majesty and was transformed from a king into a knight, carrying off victory in various meetings. His popularity made him famous; the old king was happier counting up and admiring his victories. What is interesting about this passage is firstly that it conveys that Young Henry was very much in the middle of the fighting, but also that his father approved of his foray into the world of tournaments because it added to his reputation. This second point contradicts the theory that Henry II would have disapproved of his spendthrift son. It is possible that he was happy that Young Henry was suitably occupied and thus not pestering him to rule parts of the Plantagenet Empire- as Henry II was not keen on relinquishing power. You can see Henry II’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey beside Eleanor of Aquitaine’s in the photo below.
So the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift is contemporary. It was somewhat of a double edged sword, because he needed to make the best impression he could, it was part of his reputation on the tournament circuit, and this involved largess and being open handed with his men, but he was also accused of running up debt. The History described it as It is true that the Young King, in the castles in town in every place he happened to come to, led such a lavish life that, when it came to the end of his stay, he had no idea how to take his leave. When it came to the last day, debtors would appear, men who had supplied him with horses, garments and victuals. Most of the debtors would have known that his money came from Henry II, so would have continued to lend knowing that Young Henry had the revenues of the crown to draw upon. It is worth noting that not all his spending would have been his, his retinue would have contributed and as they jockeyed for position within his household knights, including William Marshal, would have sought payment and favour from him. It was partly to keep them all in the luxury they thought they deserved that Young Henry would have spent his money.
So that brings me to the end of this vignette; Young Henry as the doyen of the tournament field was an important part of his life, and probably the first time he had real purpose and direction. There was also an ugly side of this band of young knights that flocked around the Young King. There was one incident in particular that I wanted to mention, as it isn’t mentioned inthe History mainly because it does not portray Young Henry in the ideal chivalric light that the History for the most part paints him. In 1176 Adam de Chirchdowne, who was Young Henry’s vice-chancellor, was discovered passing messages to Henry II. He was essentially warning Henry II that Young Henry had met with several nobles who were hostile to Henry II. Young Henry and his retinue were going to have Adam put to death either by hanging or flaying alive as he viewed the betrayal as treason. The Bishop of Poitiers intervened saying Adam was a Clerk and couldn’t be punished by the secular court, but once he’d left Young Henry exacted revenge. Roger of Hoveden described it as:
The king, the son, on his return, upon coming to Poitiers, took Adam de Chirchedowne, his vice-chancellor, who was a clerk of Geoffrey, the prior of Beverley, chancellor of the king, the son, and caused him to be beaten with sticks, charging him with having disclosed his secret counsels to the king, his father; and after being thus beaten, he had him led naked through the streets of the city of Poitiers, while, being still whipped, proclamation was made by the voice of a herald, ” Thus does he deserve to be disgraced who reveals the secrets of his master.”
Not exactly the act of the a paragon of chivalry.
Young Henry wasn’t only on the tournament circuit at the end of the 1170s, he was involved at least a bit with government. Roger of Hoveden records him a present at Windsor at Christmas 1176. You can see the keep of Windsor castle in the photo below:
Young Henry was then at Nottingham with Henry II when, with the bishops, they divided the kingdom of England in to six parts and appointed 3 justices to each section. He certainly held a peace of sorts with his father, fighting with him in various small wars in France.
Another small, but tragic vignette into the life of Young Henry occurred in 1177. Young Henry’s wife, Margaret who was the daughter of Louis VII of France, was delivered of a son who was either still-born or who only lived for a handful of days. I say this is a small vignette because it is only mentioned in passing by the chroniclers, it must have loomed large in Young Henry’s life and the life of his Queen. It’s sometimes hard to remember that even though the infant mortality rate was high, losing a child must have still been an incredibly painful experience. I am moving to speculation here, but it isn’t too far fetched to think that Young Henry must have had some dynastic plans, and he’d been married to Margaret since 1160 and this was the first pregnancy- though both were only in the mid twenties at this time.
I’m now going to jump forward a few years to the beginning of the end. Young Henry was doing things in between 1177 and 1183- he undertook more tourneying, he fought alongside his father in a number of French wars, he helped shore up the tottering reign of his brother in law Phillip II the new King of France, a task Henry II also helped with and which he would probably come to later regret. But by 1183 things were starting to unravel.
Young Henry and Henry II had managed to maintain peace since his rebellion in 1173, but by the 1st of January 1183 it began to implode. The key issue is that Henry II’s plans were dynastic, he wanted his empire to stay together- you can see an image of what the Plantagenet Empire looked like at the height of its power in the image below (if you read part one you’ll have seen this already)
He envisioned Young Henry as King of England, Duke of Normandy and Anjou, Richard as Duke of Aquitaine and Geoffrey as Duke of Brittany and John as possibly Lord of Ireland, or various other domains he tried to bequeath to him to overcome his appellation of ‘lackland’. He saw them as all working together, effectively paying homage to Young Henry as King of England. Unfortunately (and this is grossly simplifying a complex situation) he didn’t cede authority well, the brothers weren’t interested in working together (unless they were rebelling against each other or their father) so his plan had quite a few holes. It was one of these holes that tipped the balance in January 1183.
The hole was Richard, Aquitaine and paying homage to Young Henry. Homage was complicated, because while it was a swearing of allegiance, it also bound the person to whom homage was being sworn to protect the rights of the person swearing homage. So like the idea of Young Henry as a spendthrift and a a prince dispensing largess, homage was a double edged sword. The dispute began in 1182 when Richard built a castle on lands that would have traditionally been part of Anjou. Anjou was part of the territory that Young Henry would have inherited from his father, even though he had no control over it at this point. He most likely saw Richard as encroaching on his patrimony before he’d even had a chance to rule it. There was a patched up peace for the Christmas court in 1182 at Caen- you can see Caen castle in the photo below.
The situation came to a head in January 1183 in Le Mans. Henry II wanted Geoffrey to swear homage to Young Henry for his lands he held as Duke of Brittany, which went off pretty much without a hitch. He’d already performed this homage in 1169 to Young Henry in Young Henry’s position as Duke of Normandy. Henry II wanted Richard to perform homage as well. This was a bit tricker because Aquitaine wasn’t considered a subject of any of the lands Young Henry held. Richard considered himself Young Henry’s equal. He was claiming the rights to Aquitaine through his mother-as Young Henry was inheriting from primogeniture through their father.
Ralph of Diceto described Richard’s anger at the proposed act of homage,
Since he came from the same father and same mother as his brother, it was not right for him to acknowledge his elder brother as superior by some sort of subjection. Rather, by the law of firstborn sons, the paternal goods were due to his brother, and he claimed equal right to legitimate succession to the maternal goods.
Essentially Richard was seeing himself a Duke of an independent Aquitaine, which is not how Henry II had envisioned his empire running after his death. He had most likely envisioned Young Henry taking his place as the head of the family and as overlord of all the domains being held by his brothers. Eventually though, Henry II did persuade Richard to perform the act of homage provided that Young Henry swore that he would formally recognise that Aquitaine was to be held by Richard, and any heirs he might have, undisputed.
It should have worked, but Young Henry had other ideas- he refused to accept Richard’s homage. He cited that he could not as he had already pledged himself to help the recalcitrant Aquitainian barons who had be rising up against Richard. He said that he had made this pledge due to the castle that Richard had built, and urged Henry II to take the castle away from Richard. Roger of Hoveden recorded Richard’s reaction
Richard, feeling greatly indignant at this, withdrew from the court of the king, his father, and going to Poitou, his own territory, built there some new castles and fortified the old ones.
Henry II prevailed on all three brothers to come to Angers to swear a perpetual peace between them, you can see Angers castle in the photo below (it dates to the 14th century but is on the site that had been home to the Counts of Anjou for centuries)
Richard was persuaded to hand his castle over to Henry, probably to stop Young Henry from having an excuse to meddle in Aquitaine. So a peace again was patched up, but it was short lived. In February 1183 Geoffrey was sent to work out a truce with the rebels, but he immediately sided with them instead- which was most likely pre-arranged with Young Henry. Young Henry offered to act as an intermediary, but ultimately he joined forces with Geoffrey and the Aquitainian barons and thus began another family war- one that was to be the Young King’s last.
There was a couple of key points to this conflict that it is worth examining, but as this is supposed to be about Young Henry and his life I am not going to go through what can be called the brothers’ war in great detail.
So the key points:
Firstly it is arguable who the instigator of the conflict was. It seems that Geoffrey and Young Henry were trying to provoke Richard to give them a legitimate reason to rise up against him. It’s possible that Young Henry thought that if he could take Aquitaine then he would finally have some lands of his own to rule and, with the resulting revenues, not be beholden to his father. Geoffrey’s motives are murkier, but he may have been trying to put a stop to a situation where Richard ruled Aquitaine after their father’s death and started trying to take chunks out of Brittany. He may have seen Young Henry as a lord of Aquitaine that would be better for him. He may have also rebelled because Henry II hadn’t handed over all of the lands and rights that came with the Dukedom of Brittany- which Geoffrey held by right of his wife Constance. Henry II was in some ways an instigator as well, because in a moment of anger when his second attempt at peace failed and Richard left the court again, according to the History he declared (speaking about the Aquitainian barons and their fight against Richard) “Go on then, go to their aid, said the father, I’ll permit that.” So they left the King, and therewith that strife began which was not resolved until everyone all around had the worst of it.
The last words aptly sum up the brothers’ war, as everyone certainly had the worst of it.
So the second point that is important about this war is how it was fought. Geoffrey and Young Henry had learnt from their rebellion in 1173 and the forces they established against Richard were extensive. Gerald of Wales described it as an army greater than was ever before assembled at any time by a man having neither territory or treasure. This is typical Gerald of Wales- biting to say the least, but he isn’t wrong that it was a formidable army. The History describes it as
They retained in their service knights and soldiers, mercenaries and crossbowmen, fine footsoldiers and archers. And the high-ranking barons in the region, whom the count [meaning Richard], whom they hated bitterly, had treated badly, rode in great numbers, every one of them of a mind to fight for they would have loved to humble the pride of count Richard, if only they had the opportunity and could get the upper hand
This was a force to be reckoned with.
So these are the two key points to the start of the war: Geoffrey and Young Henry against Richard. You can see Richard’s effigy from Fontevraud in the photo below
This brings me to my next vignette of Young Henry; as a commander in his final war. He continued to protest to his father that he was trying to make peace between Geoffrey, the Aquitainian barons and Richard. Henry II continued to believe him until he tried to approach Limoges and was shot at by Geoffrey and the Young King’s forces. With Richard’s duchy seriously under threat in an increasingly incendiary war (the countryside and the people living there was being ravaged by mercenaries hired by Young Henry and Geoffrey) Henry II ended up on Richard’s side.
So once again Young Henry was in rebellion against his father. It was a culmination of all that had gone before, and even in rebellion Young Henry continued to act as an intermediary between the two forces. Whether this was in good faith or not we can never really know, but it does show how tentative he was, even in rebellion he couldn’t really find the place where he fitted.
This brings me to one of my last vignettes, Young Henry taking the cross. At St Martial, he swore on the holy relics that he would take the cross. We don’t know what his motivation was, it could have been genuine, Young Henry was an adventurer, and taking the cross would have certainly been an adventure. It could also have been a way out of a sticky situation. Most likely Young Henry hadn’t intended to end up in rebellion against Henry II, he was trying to fight Richard not his father, but he had sworn to the Aquitainian barons to help them, so he couldn’t back down even when his father entered the war on Richard’s side. So taking the cross, could have been his get out of gaol free card so to speak. Roger of Hoveden, has Henry II initially making this cynical assessment saying that Henry II was thinking that he had done this more through indignation than religious feeling
Hoveden then goes on to describe an emotional scene where Henry II begs Young Henry not to take the cross, but becomes convinced that Young Henry was sincere in his desire, he also promised to equip him for the trip. Henry II was an astute ruler and he must have recognised that having Young Henry out of the way meant that he would be more able to bring Geoffrey to heel. Additionally he’d be able to de-intensify the volatile situation in what had become a very nasty war- especially for the people living in the countryside that was being ravaged by Geoffrey and Young Henry’s routiers. So Young Henry and Henry II patched up a peace between the two of them. It was not to last though, Roger of Hoveden says
Shortly after, the king the son, pretending that he wished for peace, requested his father to send to him Maurice de Crouy with a truce, and some other barons ; and while some of their followers were conversing with him, they were slain in the presence of the king the son, by the enemies of our lord the king.
Now Hoveden is biased towards Henry II, and it is arguable whether this event actually occurred, but it was shortly after this Young Henry, finally and irretrievably threw in his lot with the rebels, he stopped trying to patch up even pretend peace with his father.
Thus began his final weeks.
Young Henry’s first problem was that he was running out of money. Henry II had vast resources to draw on, Young Henry simply didn’t and he knew that his routiers would only stay loyal if they were paid. Young Henry didn’t have many options, but the ones he chose can be seen as painting him in a sadly desperate light. He began robbing churches. Roger of Hoveden describes one such depredation
Money now failing him, the king, the son, proceeded to Saint Mary de Roche Andemar, stripped the tomb of Saint Andemar, and carried away the treasures of the church.
This wasn’t the only church he robbed, though he did promise to pay it all back, but it was the last. Which brings me to the final vignette of Young Henry. His death.
Before I discuss it though, I want to put the church robbing in a little context. It wasn’t seen as honourable in his own time, but it was not unheard of. Strickland argues, that he was building a war chest for a renewed campaign which was stopped by his untimely death. We will probably never know if his actions were basically to keep his troops paid, or if he was planning something bigger, because barely days after this final depredation, he was dead.
Roger of Hoveden says
In the course of a few days after this, the king, the son, seeing that he could not do any material injury to the king, his father, in consequence of indignation and rancour of mind, was attacked by a severe malady at a village called Martel, not far from the city of Limoges.
The History of William Marshal re-enters the picture here, because Marshal was back with Young Henry, just before his death. He’d been banished, according to the History because of calumny brought against him by jealous members of Young Henry’s household, and had been earning his way fighting for various lords for some time. The History has Young Henry saying to his Chamberlain Ralph fitz Godfrey Ralph, go to find the Marshal for me through any land you have to, and do not stop until you find him. I beg and pray that you tell that I am summoning him in good faith not to fail to come to me. And never let it show, whether in public or in private, that I ever had any mind to bear him ill-will; rather let him be again both lord and master of my household, just as he ever was, or even more so, so that nobody notices any difference. And let him know that I have found proof of the treachery which was concocted out of vicious envy by those damnable traitors.
Marshal- after having received letters of conduct from Henry II, and apparently offers of letters from the King of France and Duke Richard, returned to Young Henry’s side, to be in time to witness his death.
Death in the medieval period was a mercurial thing, because it was possible to die well. I have written about this before- so I won’t go into detail here. You can read my previous post on a good death below- Marshal’s death 36 years later is another good example (though for different reasons)
When Young Henry became sick so soon after robbing Andemar it was seen as divine retribution. So when he realised he was dying. Young Henry enacted the most spectacular example of repentance, and in doing so established his reputation, and enforced the ideal of him a chivalric champion.
Both Roger of Hoveden and the History have accounts of Young Henry’s death and in many ways as a theatrical performance, it was very much in line with the pageantry that was his life.
Hoveden records that:
He was first attacked with a fever, and then by a flux of the bowels, which reduced him to the point of death. On seeing that his death was impending, he sent for our lord the king, his father, who refused to come to him, as he dreaded his treachery.
Young Henry was determined to repent of his sins in his death and he had bishops summoned for confession of these sins and he gave to Marshal the responsibility of bearing his cross to Jerusalem. The History recorded him as saying
Marshal, Marshal, you have ever been loyal to me, a staunch supporter in good faith. I leave you my cross, so that on my behalf you can take it to the Holy Sepulchre and with it pay my debts to God.
Marshal agreed and spent nearly three years in the Holy Land, buying his own grave palls while he was there. But that’s another story.
Roger of Hoveden’s account of Young Henry’s death is detailed to say the least:
After this, laying aside his fine garments, he placed upon him haircloth, and fastening a cord around his neck, said to the bishops and other religious men who stood around him : “By this cord do I deliver myself, an unworthy, culpable, and guilty sinner, unto you, the ministers of God, beseeching that our Lord Jesus Christ, who remitted his sins to the thief when confessing upon the cross, will, through your prayers and His ineffable mercy, have compassion upon my most wretched soul.” To which all made answer, “Amen.” He then said to them: “drag me out of this bed by this cord, and place me on that bed strewed with ashes,” which he had caused to be prepared for himself; on which they did as he commanded them, and placed under his head and feet two large square stones; and, all things being thus duly performed, he commanded his body be taken to Rouen in Normandy, and there be buried. After saying this, being fortified with the viaticum of the holy body and blood of our Lord, in the fear of the Lord, he breathed forth his spirit
The History records his final words as being to Marshal
You will bear my body to the church of Notre Dame in Rouen, once my soul has parted company with it. And another thing I pray and beg of you is that you beg my father for mercy, asking him to curb his anger against me and to give me his blessing. After that he said “To the glorious God in Heaven I commend you, since I can no longer speak with you, now that Death is laying hands on me, Death who harries me with such cruelty that I cannot feel heart or body, or limb. But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.” So much he said and his soul departed.
And thus Young Henry died, at the age of 28 on the 11th of June 1183-a king but not really a king. There were arguments over where his body was to be buried (he wanted his brain and intestines buried at Martial at Limoges as a further act of contrition and the people of Le Mans managed to co-opt and actually inter his body) but ultimately he had his wish and he was interred in Rouen Cathedral. You can see the cathedral in the photo below, along with his (non contemporary) effigy.
Henry II was distraught at his son’s death, especially as he had not believed him and had refused to come to his side. It was not the end of the brothers war- but the Young King’s part in it was over so I will leave it there.
These posts do not cover all of Young Henry’s life, but I hope I have succeeded in illustrating it in vignettes, and if you’d like to know more I highly recommend Strickland’s book.
Young Henry is one of history’s classic ‘what ifs’. If he hadn’t died, there would have been, probably, no Richard the Lionheart and no King John- one of England’s most turbulent times in history could have been very different- no Magna Carta, no barons revolt, no Robin Hood legend the list goes on. Rather like the sinking of the White Ship and the death of William the Aethling in 1120 a single death re-routed the course of English history. His legacy is also complex. Dismissed by some as an idle spendthrift, lauded by others as a paragon of all virtues.
The History’s final verdict on Young Henry was always going to be laudatory because Marshal served him, but it lays out the paragon of virtue angle quite well.
A man of such worth that no man was ever his equal as regards valour and liberality. Never did Arthur or Alexander, whose lives were noted for their noble deeds, perform so many in such a short time. If God, by his command had allowed him to live a long life, he would have quite surpassed those two in valour and noble deeds.
As always with history the truth is probably somewhere in between. A King in name only with no authority or purpose, a son arguably driven to rebellion by a father who could not relinquish control. A young knight, who fought valiantly on the tournament field, a flower of chivalry and a despoiler of churches, a rebel and a loyal son, a want to be crusader, a husband and very briefly a father. Young Henry was all of these things. But he is almost held in amber- in stasis because he died before he could become more. If he had lived longer and become king in more than name, his legacy could have been completely different, or it could have been worse, extravagance and misplaced loyalties leading to disarray and break up of the Plantagenet Empire even earlier (most of it fell to the French under King John). We can simply never know. I do think it is interesting, and as always with the History of William Marshal you have to take it with a bucket of salt especially when it puts speeches in people’s mouths, that the History has his last words as
But I ask you, in the name of God, to remember me.
I hope with these posts I have helped a little to make sure he is remembered.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853.
Crouch, David. William Marshal. London: Routledge. 2016.
When asked about the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the two that are most often remembered are Richard the Lionheart and John, the two that lived to be kings after their father’s death. Henry and Eleanor had five sons though. The first William, died in infancy and the third Geoffrey was Duke of Brittany and died in a tournament in 1186. It was his son, Arthur, who was King John’s rival claimant to the throne of England. There was another son though, one who too often is forgotten in the annals of history. Henry was their second son, he was heir to the Plantagenet empire that Henry II and Eleanor had built and he was crowned during his father’s lifetime, a continental custom, so he was a king in his own right. He died, however, in 1183 at the age of 28 and as time went on his story was eclipsed by his younger brothers.
I first came upon Henry the Young King, as he came to be known, when I was researching William Marshal, as Marshal began his career in the royal household as Young Henry’s tutor in arms and effectively the captain of his knights (Marshal will be elucidated later in this post). The post is not going to uncover anything new about the life of Henry, there was an excellent biography written about Henry in 2016 by Matthew Strickland if you would like more information. However, as this is a blog of the odds and ends of history and for better or for worse Henry’s story has fallen a little into the cracks, I thought it was worth telling.
There aren’t really any contemporary images of Henry. His effigy in Rouen Cathedral is not contemporary, and most examples of his great seal are damaged.
He was described by one of his chaplains Gervase of Tilbury as
He was tall in stature, and distinguished in appearance; his face expressed merriment and mature judgment in due measure; fair among the children of men, he was courteous and cheerful. Gracious to all, he was loved by all; amiable to all, he was incapable of making an enemy. He was matchless in warfare, and as he surpassed all others in the grace of his person, so he outstripped them all in valour, cordiality, and the outstanding graciousness of his manner, in his generosity and in his true integrity. In short, in this man, God assembled every kind of goodness and virtue, and the gifts which fortune usually bestows on single individuals of special distinction, she exerted herself to give all together and in richer measure to this man, so as to make him worthy of all commendation.
This description obviously has to be taken with a bucketful of salt as Gervase was definitely biased. Depending on which chroniclers you read Young Henry was either the hard done by heart of chivalry- though chivalry is not a contemporary term – or an ungrateful spendthrift who rose up in rebellion against his father unnecessarily, and incited incendiary war. As with most things in history the truth is probably somewhere in between. This post can not possibly cover his entire life, so I am going to focus on the key moments, in a series of vignettes. This is part one of two and will cover Young Henry up to his rebellion against Henry II. Part two will cover the last ten years of his life, his time on the tournament circuit and his death- which is an interesting story in and of itself.
Young Henry was born in 1155 in London, not long after his father was crowned King of England. It was a time of hope and relative peace after the bitter years of civil war known as the Period of Anarchy. He was baptised by the Bishop of London, and when Henry II had his barons swear fealty to his oldest son William in April 1155, he also had them swear to Young Henry if William died prematurely. Henry II had come to the throne at the end of a brutal dynastic war, so he was shoring up his succession. William died in 1156 and was buried with his great grandfather Henry I in Reading Abby, he was only 3. So Young Henry became the heir to the Plantagenet Empire.
The next key vignette was Young Henry’s marriage. This might feel like I’m jumping a bit far into his lifetime, but in fact we’re only looking at 1158. In 1158 discussions began about betrothing Young Henry, now three, to Margaret the one year old daughter of Louis VII the King of France. Betrothing children this young wasn’t that unusual. It actually had little to do with the children themselves and more to do with agreements over land and alliances. In this case it was stipulated that if Young Henry died, one of his brothers could be substituted. The two children were betrothed in c. 1160. The agreement was only intended to be a betrothal, as far as Louis VII was concerned, but Henry II wanted the land that came as part of Margaret’s dowry as well as being concerned with Louis’ new marriage (in case he produced a son), so he had the two children married in November 1160. Roger of Hoveden described the marriage as Henry, king of England, caused his son Henry to be married to Margaret, the daughter of the king of France, although they were as yet but little children, crying in the cradle. Roger of Hoveden goes on to say that Louis was indignant. There was little he could do about it though and peace was eventually restored by 1161.
Being married this young was actually very unusual, as marriage was somewhat of a rite of passage, but nevertheless Young Henry was a husband by the time he was five. Margaret was raised in Henry II’s court, though not necessarily with Young Henry. The children would still have known each-other growing up.
Young Henry’s childhood is interesting, though there is not a great deal of detail known. It is worth noting that in 1162 he was placed in the household of Thomas Becket, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a sign of high favour to Becket, and Young Henry would have grown up in Becket’s household, which was well known for its pomp, ceremony and extravagance with Beckett at its centre. Henry II on the other hand was known to be careless of his appearance and the quality of his food and wine, though he was conscious of the importance of ceremony and symbolism. This early environment, may have had an effect on Young Henry’s behaviour in later life. Becket would later infamously fall out with Henry II and was martyred in 1170.
I’m now going to jump forward to Young Henry’s coronation, also in 1170. It wasn’t an English custom to crown the heir in the father’s lifetime, but Henry II wanted to be very sure to shore up his succession. Young Henry was no longer a child, he was fifteen, and would have had his own household by this point. By now Thomas Becket and Henry II were at odds, this is pre Becket’s martyrdom, so he wouldn’t crown Young Henry as he’d exiled himself from England. This was an issue because the Archbishop of Canterbury crowning the King was an important part of the conferment of sovereignty, and the legitimacy of the coronation. After much back and forth and strife between Henry II and Thomas Becket in the end Roger the Archbishop of York crowned Young Henry in Westminster in July 1170. The Pope forbade the coronation in a letter to the bishops and archbishops of England saying We forbid you all by our apostolic authority , from crowning the new king, if the case shall occur without the consent of the archbishop and the church of Canterbury, nor shall any of you put forth his hand, contrary to the ancient customs and dignity of the church, or in any way forward the coronation aforesaid. The letter was too late as Young Henry had already been crowned. There isn’t a contemporary description of the detail of the coronation, but from descriptions of other coronations such as Richard I’s, it would have been full of ritual and ceremony. Roger of Hovden described it as He himself caused the above-named Henry, his son, to be crowned and consecrated king at Westminster, by Roger, Archbishop of York, who was assisted in this duty by Hugh bishop of Durham, Walter, bishop of Rochester, Gilbert, bishop of London, and Jocelyn, bishop of Salisbury ; no mention whatever being made of the blessed Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, to whom by right of his see the coronation and consecration belonged. You can see Westminster Abbey in the photo below.
After the coronation a grand banquet was held in the next door Westminster Hall- it had been built by Henry II’s great uncle William Rufus and was one of the largest freestanding halls in Europe. You can see it in the photos below.
There is a story from the coronation banquet, which may or may not be true but is interesting regardless. The story is that Henry II served his son personally at table to honour him (even though it could have been seen as demeaning of his kingship), Young Henry is then said to have commented that it was quite normal for the son of a count to serve the son of a king. This would have been seen as an enormous slight on Henry II’s authority as the King. It’s probable that Young Henry never said this, it is also possible that Henry II never served him directly, as most of the accounts are from later sources seeking to denigrate Henry II. What’s interesting though is that the story survived, and you can see how it is building a narrative of the diminished authority of Henry II and the flippancy of Young Henry. You can see an early 13th century depiction of the scene and the coronation in the image below. It comes from a life of Thomas Becket.
Once Henry had been crowned he was, in theory, invested with the same authority as his father. Henry II went on to have most of his barons swear to Henry Roger of Hoveden described it as The day after this coronation, the king, his father, made William, king of the Scots, and David, his brother, and the earls and barons of the kingdom, pay homage to the new king, and swear ‘fealty to him against all men, saving their fealty to himself.
The History of William Marshal described this decision as once the deed that been done, many a day afterwards that he would have readily undoneit.
The problem from here on in, was the theory and the practice of the authority of a king. Henry II may have given Young Henry a crown in his lifetime, but he didn’t give him any actual authority. The Plantagenet Empire stretched across England and a lot of what is now France, and while Henry II had made his son a king, the crown didn’t result in any lands to rule or administer independently. You can see a map of the Plantagenet Empire at its height in c.1188 in the image below.
The Welsh Chronicle the Brut y tywysogion encapsulated the problem perfectly when it said In that interval, when king Henry the eldest was beyond the sea, his son Henry the younger, the new king, came to him to enquire what he ought to do; for since he was a king he had many knights, and he had no means of rewarding those knights with presents and gifts, unless he received a loan from his father; and this was in the time of Lent. And his father said to him that he would give him twenty pounds a day, of the money of that country, for expenditure and that he should not have more. And he said that he had never heard of a king being a man on pay, or under wages and that neither would he be. After the son has taken advice, he went to the city of Tours, to obtain money on loan from the burgesses of the city; and when the king heard that, he sent messengers to the burgesses to forbid them under the pain of losing all their property, to lend anything to his son. And without delay he sent trust men to watch his son lest he go anywhere without notice.
So essentially Young Henry was a king without a kingdom. This was the core of the reasons that led to my next vignette; Young Henry’s rebellion against his father.
In 1173 Young Henry rose up against his father Henry II. He escaped from his father’s watch at Chinon and rode for Chartres when he knew his father in law Louis VII was in residence. You can see Chartres Cathedral in the photo below.
His flight had been somewhat precipitous though, as it took his allies, including his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, his brothers Richard and Geoffrey, Louis VII, and various French and English barons by surprise. It was none the less a formidable coalition facing Henry II. There was one very unusual factor about this rebellion, Eleanor of Aquitaine. While sons rebelling against their fathers was not unheard of in this period and there had been other rebellions by Henry II’s barons already, a rebellion partly instigated by a queen was almost unheard of. But then Eleanor of Aquitaine was definitely a woman who stood outside the norm for her time. She’s one of my favourite historical figures but I won’t go into detail about her here. I have written about her before and you can see that post here. You can see Eleanor’s effigy from Fontevraud Abbey in the photo below.
Henry II’s other sons rebelled for similar reasons to Young Henry, he wouldn’t share authority. They were given then trappings of power rather than any actual ability to exercise it, and in many ways were supplicants to their father the same way Young Henry was.
So at the age of 18 Young Henry was a king and undertaking a rebellion against his father. As a rebellion it began promisingly enough with Roger of Hoveden hyperbolically stating:
The whole of the kingdom of France, and the king, the son of the king of England, Richard his brother, earl of Poitou, and Geoffrey, earl of Bretagne, and nearly all the earls and barons of England, Normandy, Aquitaine, Anjou, and Brittany, arose against the king of England the father, and laid waste his lands on every side with fire, sword, and rapine : they also laid siege to his castles, and took them by storm, and there was no one to relieve them.
Hoveden continued on to compare the rebellion to a prophecy of Merlin’s
The cubs shall awake and shall roar aloud, and, leaving the woods, shall seek their prey within the walls of the cities ; among those who shall be in their way they shall make great carnage, and shall tear out the tongues of bulls. The necks of them as they roar aloud they shall load with chains, and shall thus renew the times of their forefathers
Henry II was beset on all sides and Young Henry was in the middle of it all.
The beginning of Young Henry’s rebellion, marked another milestone, his knighthood. Ordinarily Young Henry would have been knighted before his coronation, and although there is no record of it occurring, normally we would assume that he would have been knighted as a key part of his transition to manhood. In this case though, we have a relatively contemporary source which tells a different story. The History of William Marshal is a near contemporary biography of William Marshal, (who I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Marshal was one of the key figures throughout this period. He was born the fourth son of a not hierarchically important baron, and rose to become Regent of England by his death in 1219. He served five kings, but he began his career in Young Henry’s household. You can see Marshal’s effigy in the photos below.
So the History records Marshal knighting Young Henry in 1173 as he is about to take up arms against his father at the head of a large force. “But there is this, my dear lord,” they said: “you have still not been knighted, and that is not to everyone’s liking, we feel. We would all be a more effective force if you had a sword girded on; that would make the whole of your company, more valorous and more respected, and would increase the joy in their hearts.” The young King replied: “I will willingly do that, and I can tell you that the best knight who ever was or will be, or has done more or who is to do more, will gird on my sword, if God please.” At this the sword was brought before the King, and, once he had it in his hand, he went straight up to the Marshal, brave man that he was, and said to him: “From God and from yourself, My lord, I wish to receive this honour.” The Marshal had no wish to refuse him; he gladly girded on his sword and kissed him, whereupon he became a knight, and he asked that God keep him most valerous, honoured and exalted, as indeed he did.”
Now the History is very biased towards Marshal, but it is unlikely that it would put this story front and centre, if it was completely untrue. Therefore it is most likely that Marshal knighted Young Henry, an important step on Young Henry road to manhood and military leader.
Young Henry’s rebellion started promisingly, and the fighting continued, with neither side really gaining the upper hand. Henry II sued for peace at the end of 1173 offering his sons lands. Roger of Hoveden records that he offered Young Henry: a moiety of the revenues of his demesnes in England, and four fitting castles in the same territory ; or, if his son should prefer to remain in Normandy, the king, the father, offered a moiety of the revenues of Normandy, and all the revenues of the lands that were his father’s, the earl of Anjou, and three convenient castles in Normandy, and one fitting castle in Anjou, one fitting castle in Maine, and one fitting castle in Touraine
It could be argued if Henry II had made this offer before the rebellion Young Henry may have rebelled. It was not enough however, Henry II’s offer was spurned and the fighting continued. It looked like the rebels might have been successful, but Henry II was a formidable military commander and with some luck and, according to the church, intercession from Thomas Becket who was a saint by this point, Henry II prevailed by late 1174.
The History was written in the early 1200s under the reign of Henry III, Henry II’s grandson, so it does not dress up the rebellion as desirable. The spin it put on it however, is that Young Henry was badly advised saying “Dear lord, you should not show your anger to your son or those in his company, but to those who advised him to act as he did. The ones to suffer for it should be those who advised him to turn traitor, and they should be considered more base for what they did.” This is the picture that is often painted of Young Henry, easily led. It seems that Henry II took this advice as he forgave his sons and most of the rebels eventually. The exception was his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who remained his prisoner (in reasonably salubrious circumstances) for 16 years until his death in 1189.
To return to Young Henry though. After his rebellion failed in 1174, he stayed with his father in England for more than a year. The History records when he got sick of this saying So, the young King Henry, who did not find it the slightest bit amusing to be so long confined in England, acted upon the advice and counsel of his companion and approached his father, a man who loved him very dearly. He said “if it did not incur your displeasure, it would be most welcome and pleased to me to go over the Channel for my sport, for it could be a source of much harm to me to stay idle for so long, and I am extremely vexed by it. I am no bird to be mewed up; a young man who does not travel around could never aspire to any worthwhile thing, and he should be regarded as of no account.”
So Young Henry, with his father’s permission, travelled with his knights, including William Marshal, to the continent where he commenced his time on the tournament circuit. This brings me to my next vignette; the young king’s career on the tournament field. And that is where I will begin part two of this post, which will deal with the last ten years of Henry’s life, his time on the tournament field and his death at the age of only 28. I’ll leave part one with an image from Matthew Paris’ Historia Anglorum from the mid 13th century that depicts Henry the Young King in a little archway between Henry II and Richard I. You can see the close up of Henry in the first image, then the whole page in the second. See you soon for part 2.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Aurell, Martin. The Plantagenet Empire 1154-1224. (trans.) David Crouch. Harlow: Pearson Education. 2007.
Strickland, Matthew. Henry The Young King 1155-1183. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2016
Roger of Hoveden. The Annals of Roger of Hoveden Comprising the History of England and Other Countries of Europe from A.D 732 to A.D 1201. (trans.) Henry T. Riley, Volumes I & II. London: H.G Bohn. 1853.
My post on the burial places of the kings and queens of England has been the most popular post I have ever written. This is despite the fact that, although I visited all the sites, I was not allowed to take photos in either St Georges Chapel in Windsor or Westminster Abbey where the majority of them are buried. With this in mind and from a desire to write about something that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID, I thought I’d have a look at the Basilica of Saint Denis- the burial place of most of the Kings of France. Now unfortunately I don’t have all my research material with me at the moment, so rather than an examination of each monarch, I’m going to look at the church itself and highlight some of the more interesting monuments. Saint Denis gets overlooked for the more popular Notre Dame by most people visiting Paris, but for my money it is the more interesting church, even before Notre Dame burnt down. It is pretty spectacular; inside and out:
I wanted to start by looking at what makes the church a basilica rather than just a church. The title of basilica is granted by the Vatican, but it can also be the style of the church. In the case of Saint Denis it is old enough that the designation of basilica dates back to 5th century, when it was given the label because it had a floor plan that was the same as a Roman civic building, that is three naves that were used for administration of justice. Although the church was significantly rebuilt by Abbot Suger in the 12th century the designation remained. Typically of a basilica Saint Denis is built on the bones of a saint, was a key site for pilgrimage and became the centre of a town. Saint Denis might now be in Paris, but it definitely wasn’t when it was built and the town of Saint Denis sprang up around it. In 1966 the church was given cathedral status as the seat of the diocese of Saint Denis.
So, regardless of whether you call it a church, a basilica or a cathedral, Saint Denis is very old. The first church on the site built in the 5th century would have been part of a wider abbey and is thought to have been built on a Roman church yard, where the bones of Saint Denis were buried. It was extensively rebuilt under the Norman rule and in the 12th century Abbot Suger remodelled it to the gothic masterpiece you see today. However, not all of it is original. While it was added to over the centuries, especially under Louis IX in the 13th century, over the years in began to fall into disrepair. By the French Revolution, it became a symbol of the power of kings, and was thus badly damaged. The lead from the roof was melted down and some of the royal tombs were destroyed. The remains of the kings and queens were removed and mixed with lime and thrown in a mass grave, but many of the monuments on the royal tombs were preserved for the new national museum. The church was then used as a warehouse. French writer François-René de Chateaubriand in his work Génie du Christianisme, described this ruin: “Saint-Denis is deserted. Birds fly in and out, grass grows on its smashed altars and all one can hear is the dripping of water through its open roof”. Restoration began under Napoleon who thought about being buried there and restoring a line of emperors, and then when the monarchy was restored, for a short period of time anyway, restoration continued. The royal tombs were restored to the church in the 19th century, in what was at least close to their original positions. Over the 19th century Saint Denis became a trialing ground for conservation and restoration, a process that has in some ways continued to the present day. The most recent restoration was the facade which took place between 2012 and 2015. Although not all that you see is original, this is a building that is at the heart of the history of France and its patchwork reflects the chequered history of its country. You can see what it would have looked like as an abbey in the photo below.
That is a bit of a background to the church itself. I would now like to turn to some of the kings and queens who were buried there. This post is not going to go into immense detail about every monarch interred in Saint Denis, but I will have a look at some of them. To begin though, how did Saint Denis become the burial place for the Kings and Queens of France? It wasn’t until the 10th century that it became the key site for royal burial. Up until this point Saint Denis was competing with several other cemeteries. Royal burials were popular because they attracted visitors and in some cases pilgrims, which brought in revenue for the religious institutions where the member of the royal family was buried. They were also more likely to receive largess for other members of the family. When the Capetians ascended the throne at the end of the 10th century, they made Saint Denis their royal necropolis, and from then on most kings and queens were buried there until the 19th century- though there were of course exceptions.
There’s simply too many royal burials at Saint Denis to examine each of them. During the period of time it was used as the royal necropolis 42 kings, 32 queens, 63 princes and princesses and 10 men of the kingdom were interred there. Today there are just over 70 effigies and monumental tombs in Saint Denis. One day I might revisit this, and look at the burial places of the all the Kings and Queens of France. But at the moment I’m going to explore a few.
I want to begin with the end. Louis XVIII was the last king to be interred in Saint Denis. Starting at the end might seem like an odd way to tell this story, but in many ways he exemplifies Saint Denis as a royal necropolis as he worked to restore it as a symbol of the monarchy. Louis XVIII was Louis XVI’s younger brother and once Louis XVI was executed, he declared himself regent to his nephew and then when his nephew died he declared himself Louis XVIII in 1795. Now as this was in the middle of the French Revolution-the declaration was somewhat of a moot point. Louis wandered around Europe for a bit, but he did eventually manage to become King of France (actually residing in the country) in 1814 and was the last monarch to be interred in Saint Denis. You can see his grave in the image below.
I want to continue with the king and queen who are, arguably, the best known of the French monarchy, and are inextricably linked to Louis XVIII. Louis XVI and Marie Antionette. There are two monuments to them in the church. You can see both in the photos below.
Neither of the effigies are contemporary. The black graves are where the remains of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were reinterred by Louis XVIII. The other statue was completed in c.1830 at the behest of Louis XVIII. It shows Louis XVI and Marie Antionette in prayer- most likely as a way of rehabilitating the monarchy and tracing Louis XVIII back to them- legitimising his claim to the throne. As people and monarchs in their own rights hundreds of books have been written, movies have been made and the story of French Revolution told and told again. I’m not intending to retell their stories in this post (it would make it incredibly long for one thing). I will say one thing. Marie Antionette does receive a fair amount of flack in popular culture for being a Queen so completely divorced from the fate of her people that when they ran out of bread she famously said “let them eat cake.” Like most famous sayings, it didn’t happen. There is absolutely no evidence that she ever said it. It wasn’t attributed to her until 50 years after her death; and was applied tongue in cheek more generally for out of touch monarchs. I will leave my discussion of Marie Antionette and Louis XVI there, except to say that Louis was executed first on the 21st of January 1793 and Marie Antionette on the 16th of October 1793. They probably weren’t the worst monarchs France had ever had, but their idea of monarchy could not stand up against the changing times.
So I started at the end, now I’m going to go back to the start Saint Denis and Dagobert.
In the crypt of Saint Denis are remains of the structures that would have been below the site of the church- this is roughly where the tomb of Saint Denis would have been. Saint Denis was possibly the first Bishop of Paris, he was martyred in c.285 CE and is the patron saint of France. You can see the archaeological tombs in the photo below.
The other beginning at Saint Denis is Dagobert- the first French King to be interred in the church. You can see the monument to him in the photo below
It’s not contemporary and was constructed in the 13th century, but it depicts the king’s soul making its way through the afterlife. Due to his transgressions towards the church, he appropriated quite a lot of church property, he is first sent to hell but in the top panel you can see Saint Denis, Saint Martin and Saint Maurice seizing his soul from the hands of the demons and taking it off to paradise. His recumbent effigy is facing where the relics of Saint Denis would have been, showing Saint Denis as the protector of the monarchy. Dagobert himself, was an interesting figure. He was buried in Saint Denis in 639 CE and actually technically wasn’t a King of France, mainly because France as we know it today didn’t exist. The Kingdom of the Franks was a loosely held together group of smaller territories most of which are included in what we would now consider to be France. Dagobert inherited a partly held together kingdom from his father Chlotar II, Chlotar had pulled together Burgundy and Austrasia (Austrasia covered what we would now see as north eastern France, Belgium and parts of Western and Central Germany). Dagobert managed to hold this together and called himself King of the Franks from 629 until his death in 639, he pre dates Charlemagne who was the first king to hold the majority of what is now France. For our purposes the most interesting thing Dagobert did was be the first king to decide to be buried at Saint Denis. The church was already sacred, because it held the relics of Saint Denis, but Dagobert’s decision put the church on the path to becoming the necropolis of the French monarchy and Saint Denis on the path to being the protector of the royal family.
So those are our book ends. The first and the last kings to be interred in Saint Denis. I thought I would include a king somewhere in the middle- who was also responsible for much of the 13th century work on Saint Denis that you see today. Louis IX is someone I’ve written about before- in passing mainly in relation of Angers, but I want to discuss him briefly here. His effigy has not survived in Saint Denis, though the effigies of two of his children who died in infancy have, and they’re very rare examples of metal tombs. You can see them in the photo below.
Louis IX actually died in Tunis on crusade in 1270 and the flesh was boiled from his bones so they could be sent back to be interred in Saint Denis (this was not an unusual occurrence) his relics didn’t arrive back in Paris until 1271. Louis IX didn’t only refashion Saint Denis, he also collected holy relics including (apparently) a piece of the crown of thorns and a piece of the true cross and his personal chapel Sainte-Chappelle in Paris is a true jewel-box of medieval architecture (you can see it in the photo below)
Louis IX came to the throne at the age of 11, and his mother Blanche of Castille ruled as regent for his minority, she was the grand daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He married Margaret of Provence, whose sister Eleanor of Provence was married to Henry III of England so there was a close relationship between the two royal families. Louis was a pious, but strong king and France held an important place on the European stage during his reign. He led two crusades, somewhat successfully, and expanded the inquisition, so as far as the church was concerned he was an excellent king, he was supported by the people of France as well and they canonised him unofficially after his death in 1270. He was officially canonised by Pope Boniface in 1297 in the reign of his grandson Philip IV, partly in attempt to appease Philip in the ongoing conflict between the papacy and the French king. Philip IV was interred in Saint Denis, and his son Charles IV had his effigy constructed in c. 1327. You can see it on the far left in the photo below.
So that brings me to the end of my discussion of Saint Denis and some of the kings interred within. One day I might come back and write a post more specifically about the Kings and Queens of France, but for now I hope this post has given you some insight into a magnificent church and its funeral monuments. I’m going to conclude with some final photos of some of the monuments I haven’t discussed but will hopefully one day return to.
Site visit 2012
Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral booklet
France in the Middle Ages 987-1460 by Georges Duby
Glendalough, is a name to conjure with. Standing in County Wicklow, it is an amazingly intact example of a scholastic form of Christianity that grew in Ireland, centred around remote communities, where a simple life was lived and learning was at its core. It is by no means the only such site remaining. The bigger, showier Clonmacnoise sometimes gets more of the attention, but in its remote and quiet beauty, Glendalough has to be my favourite.
I have written about Glendalough before, as part of an advent calendar of medieval religious institutions in 2017, but this post will go into more detail about the history of the site itself and the buildings that can be found on it.
The first place to start with Glendalough is its name. It comes from the Irish; Gleann de Loch which translates as a valley of two lakes. The name really exemplifies the quiet, isolated beauty of the place.
St Kevin founded Glendalough in the second half of the 6th century CE, it wouldn’t have been on the site where the main monastic settlement now stands. When he originally came into the area it wasn’t to begin a monastic settlement, he wanted to live as a hermit. St Kevin was probably born in the first half of the 6th century CE and would have grown up with the development of Celtic christianity, which was rooted in holy men seeking isolated places to live an ascetic lifestyle and be closer to God. So this is probably what Kevin was intending when he first moved into the Glendalough region. It was said that he lived alone for seven years, possibly in the site now known as St Kevin’s cell.
You can see the remains of what would have probably been a beehive cell, like those you see on Skellig Michael- you can see them in the photo below. You can learn more about Skelling Michael here
The spot has a spectacular view over the nearby lough, which is one of the loughs of Glendalough’s name
When students began to arrive to learn from St Kevin, he moved the settlement possibly across the lake, but also possibly to the site it now stands on. Essentially, either way, he needed more space.
The site you see today is a combination of a number of eras and was occupied as a monastic settlement from roughly 600 CE to 1500 CE. Glendalough, might have begun with one man but it became a monastic school, a place of scholarly learning. Monastic schools, like Glendalough, trained young men as scholars, often fostering the children of the Irish kings. They also produced manuscripts, sometimes copying them, sometimes creating a completely new manuscripts and shared them with other scholastic institutions. In the case of Glendalough, there were close ties with Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, you can see it in the photos below.
Life at Glendalough was not always a peaceful one though. There were viking raids in 790 CE, 894 CE, 889 CE and 938 CE. These would have been swift raids and would have resulted in the theft of precious objects and possibly monks, as well as destruction of property, but they would not have stopped the overall growth of Glendalough itself. By the early 1100s the diocese of Glendalough covered over 50 000 acres. This was now far beyond what St Kevin began, and the community of monks and scholars would have been supported by a broader community of farmers, craftsmen, and labourers. It was effectively a town. Pilgrims would also have come to Glendalough, seeking absolution from a variety of sins, up to and including murder. This was a thriving self sufficient community. The future of Glendalough, indeed the future of Ireland, changed when the Anglo-Normans invaded in 1169 CE. I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail here regarding the Anglo-Norman invasion, but a basic run down is that King Dermot MacMurrough invited some of them to help him reclaim his Kingdom of Leinster. Essentially they never left. It allowed Henry II to establish an Anglo-Norman toe hold in Ireland that expanded as the years and centuries passed. This influence was seen in Glendalough in some of the later buildings, which reflect more Norman style architecture. It was also under Norman influence that Glendalough was incorporated into the Dublin diocese in 1214 CE. Glendalough survived through wars between the local Irish tribes and English forces from Dublin. It was actually ransacked by the English in 1398 and it was partly ruined. Over the succeeding centuries Glendalough slowly declined and gradually fell into disuse by the start of the 16th century. When the last of the Irish chieftains fled in 1601 CE- an event known as the Flight of the Earls- any hope of re-establishing the community (which had been a Gaelic symbol) vanished. The buildings were left to become ruins, you can see what it looked like in the late 18th century in the engraving below.
Glendalough remained unprotected until the 1870s CE when it was taken over by the Board of Works. Thankfully, quite a lot still survives and you can really immerse yourself in the world of Glendalough.
I’m now going to go through some of the buildings you can see in Glendalough, I’m not going to cover all of them, but hopefully I’ll give you a good overview. As I said earlier it is made up of a number of structures from different eras.
I wanted to begin with the gates.
Glendalough would have originally had a wall surrounding the main settlement, and a gated main entrance with a watchtower. The gates you see today would have originally had a second story, but nothing remains of it today, the stones you can see in the ground are actually part of the original road into the settlement. These gates are the last remaining gateway to a monastic site in Ireland.
There are a number of buildings surviving in the Glendalough settlement itself. The two that stand out the most are St Kevin’s Church and the round tower. I’m going to start with St Kevin’s Church. It is a truly remarkable building, and is both largely intact and original.
St. Kevin’s Church is dedicated to St Kevin and most likely replaced a wooden church that stood on the site. The belfry looks a bit like a chimney, so it is also known as Kevin’s Kitchen. The church most likely dates from the 1100s CE, though the tower was probably added later. There would have been a second story within the church, which would have acted as living quarters. You aren’t allowed into the church, but if you are wondering how I have included a photo of the interior, you can see my method in the image below.
The other building which features most in all depictions of Glendalough is the round tower.
The purpose of round towers is very much up for debate, and I’ve written about the round towers of Ireland before. So you can discover more about them here. This particular round tower dates most likely from the early 1100s CE. The round tower at Glendalough is just over 100ft tall (30.5m), the cone on the top is not original, as it collapsed in a storm and was replaced in 1876. The tower tapers as it climbs, at its base the diameter is 4.9 m and 4.2m by the time you reach the top. It also extends about .9 m below the surface to rest on a gravel subsoil. I love round towers, for their idiosyncrasies and the Glendalough Round Tower is one of the best examples I’ve seen.
The other key building in the settlement is the cathedral. The oldest parts of the cathedral date to 900-1000 CE, with some additions from 1100-1200 CE
It was only designated as a cathedral until 1214 CE when the Glendalough Diocese was combined into the Dublin Diocese. The exterior stonework is rough, but would most likely have been plastered originally. The building is a bit of an amalgam, with the chancel definitely being added later and being of rougher construction than the rest of the building. There is still some lovely carving that you can see in the images above. The other interesting feature of the cathedral is an embrasure in one wall. It would have had a door for storing precious objects and the small basin in it is the piscina, and would have been using for pouring away holy water so it couldn’t be used for unauthorised purposes.
The final building I’m going to discuss is actually a short walk from the main settlement of Glendalough. St Saviour’s Priory was probably the last of the major buildings at Glendalough. It stands alone in a landscape that can’t have changed much since it was built in the mid 12th century CE. It is also the most elaborate of the Glendalough buildings, with a clear Norman Romanesque construction. It was restored in 1875. It is an unusually wide building, but what is most memorable for me, and most interesting, is the amount of carvings that have survived. You can see them and the church itself in the photos below.
So that brings me to the end of my journey through Glendalough. I haven’t covered every building surviving in the settlement, but I hope I’ve given you a good idea of its history, importance and beauty. If you take nothing else from this post, I hope you’ve had the chance to appreciate how striking Glendalough truly is. I’ll leave you with one more picture of the round tower.
Site visit 2015
Glendalough: A guide ISBN: 9181905487462
The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume II Grosse
Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 Daibhi O Croinin
The Daily Telegraph: Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland
The photos are all mine, apart from the first photo of St Kevin’s, the photo of me leaning into St Kevin’s and the photo of the exterior of the Cathedral. These were taken by Penny Woodward.
The story of King John and the loss of his treasure in The Wash, is one for the ages. It might look like a damp paddock, but there is a real possibility that some of King John’s crown jewels, and in some ways even more important written records, are buried somewhere in the wide expanse.
The Wash is a large tidal inlet in Norfolk in the UK. You can see it in the image below.
The story of King John and The Wash has to begin with John and the last few years of his reign. He was an unpopular king, for a number of reasons. I have looked at John’s reign in the light of the Magna Carta before, but I will cover the salient points here, as it is important to understanding how John ended up in Norfolk in 1216, sending his baggage train across The Wash.
John was not a popular king with his barons. He wasn’t the first king to have disputes with his barons, both his father (Henry II) and his older brother (Richard I) had dealt with baronial rebellion, but the situation came to a head under John. Most of John’s failings in kingship were personal, he was inconsistent and could be very vindictive if he perceived himself wronged. He also inherited a country that was in debt, due to his brother’s crusade and the ransom that had had to be paid for Richard’s release when he was captured on the way home. It also didn’t help that John lost most of the Plantagenet lands in what is now France. This, not only put some of his barons in a difficult position of owing homage to the French King for their lands in France, but also gave John more time to focus on England. This is only the briefest of snapshots of the problems of King John’s reign. Suffice it to say that by the time our story begins, John had been forced to seal the Magna Carta (which actually had very little affect at the time) and was in retreat, because the barons had nominated Prince Louis of France as their choice of King and Louis was on English soil fighting for the kingship.
In October 1216, while Louis was laying siege to Dover Castle with not that much success, John was ravaging his way through Suffolk and Norfolk. The situation for King John had been dire. The only prominent lords left on his side were William Marshal who was Earl of Pembroke and the Earls of Chester, Derby and Warwick. Even John’s half-brother William Earl of Salisbury, who had been unflinchingly loyal in the past, had gone over to Prince Louis and the rebellious barons. Prince Louis held London. There was little money left and the situation was described in History of William Marshal as “the King has scarcely any resources.” There was a glimmer of hope towards the end of 1216 as some of the lords looked like they were coming back into the fold, and there was tension between the French Barons in the opposing camp and the English Barons who had sided with Louis, with the English Barons thinking (rightly) that the French were in the war to claim more land in England, even at the expense of their English allies. We will never know what the fate of the war would have been if John had remained king though, because on the 11th of October John departed Kings Lynn, after being welcomed by the townsfolk, for Swineshead Abbey. He sent his baggage train on the more direct across the Wellstream Estuary, the Wash. This was a recognised route that was four and half miles long and there would have been guides as the sands were treacherous. It was a reasonable time for crossing as it was spring tide so the water should have been a long way out. It is probable though that they started out late, as October was a month for heavy fogs, and they would have fanned out across The Wash to get across as quickly as possible. It is also worth noting that the shape of the estuary was very different in 1216, they would have actually had to ford some streams that ran into the estuary and the sands surrounding the safe path were incredibly treacherous. You can see what the Wash looked like in 1216 in the image below
Whatever the reason, the baggage train seems to have become bogged down and as contemporary chronicler Roger of Wendover described it “he lost all his carts, wagons, and baggage horses, together with his money, costly vessels, and everything which he had a particular regard for ; for the land opened in the middle of the water and caused whirlpools which sucked in every thing, as well as men and horses, so that no one escaped to tell the king of the misfortune.”
Wendover then goes on to add that John narrowly escaped, which might imply that he’d reached the other end of the Wash and came back to help, in time to see his entire baggage train go under the waves. It is possible that it was simply the incoming tide and the quagmire of the sands that took out King John’s train, but there has been discussion of an offshore earth quake, which would be the ultimate irony for an unlucky king.
John was not well though. His illness, which he may have contracted at Kings Lynn when they feasted him, was worsening he travelled on but by the time he reached Newark he couldn’t go any further. He died of dysentery on the 18th of October, leaving his kingdom to his nine year old son Henry and the Regency in the hands of William Marshal- who I have written a lot about before and you can see it here.
Ironically for John, his death ended the civil war, as most of the Barons who had taken up arms against him, had nothing against Henry III. There was a handful more battles (including a sea battle) and ultimately the French were bribed, but Prince Louis did leave the country and by the time Marshal died in 1219 the country was relatively peaceful.
But the story of the King John and The Wash does not end with John’s death. The question remains what was in the carts, and why hasn’t it ever been found?
My story with The Wash began in second year university, when I wrote a fictional story about the demise of the baggage train, so when I went to the UK in 2012, I had to see it. I admittedly got a little lost trying to find an estuary that is actually very large. I went into a local post office and was given the map you can see below.
We followed it as best we could and eventually I found a track that seemed to lead out to The Wash.
You can see me trudging out as a tiny figure on top of the embankment in the photo below, I got very wet feet walking out.
The view from the end is partly The Wash but also partly farmland, as large parts of what would have been sands in the medieval period have been reclaimed. The atmosphere was perfect though, with a cold drizzle and low hanging mist. You could almost imagine the baggage train wending its way in front of you.
And that brings me back to the baggage train, its contents and why it has never been found. I’ll start with the latter. There have been many attempts over the years to locate the remains of the baggage train, largely because of the treasure it was supposed to have been carrying. Even using modern technology nothing has been found conclusively. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly it is entirely possible the extensiveness and the complete demise of the baggage train was exaggerated by medieval chroniclers. It is also possible, however, that the disaster really was as described and in the intervening 800 years so much has moved in The Wash, with reclaimed farm land and re-routed rivers, that anything buried beneath the sands in the vast estuary is still there. Nothing substantial has ever been found, yet…
But what is there to find? It’s the stories of treasure that have made the tale of King John’s baggage train’s damp demise so interesting. So was there actual treasure?
The answer is, possibly. There would definitely have been valuables, and as a historian I feel for the demise of the extensive paper records that probably would have been with the train too, but treasure? Honestly, it’s arguable. The argument starts with a line from Roger of Wendover, who we met earlier, he describes John (after he learns of the loss of the baggage train) that “he felt such anguish of mind about his property which was swallowed up by the- waters, that he was seized with a violent fever and became ill”
So if Wendover is to be believed then there was material in the train that was very personal to John. The remainder of the argument is based on work done by A.V Jenkinson in the early 1900s in looking back over the records of what ‘treasure’ John had. What Jenkinson is establishing is what John might have had in the baggage train when it met its watery fate. On the 24th of June 1215 John issued a writ to no less than 16 abbots and priors to send him their valuables for safe keeping- what was sent was all meticulously recorded and it numbered:
143 cups and 14 goblets, 14 dishes, 8 flagons, 5 pairs of basins, 40 belts, 6 clasps, 16 staffs, 52 rings and 2 pendants; besides 4 shrines, 2 gold crosses, 3 gold combs, a gold vessel ornamented with pearls (a present from the Pope), 2 candelabra, 2 thuribles and 3 golden phylacteries.
These were high quality items, with several studded with precious stones and made of gold. He made some other gains from excommunicated monks as well, but the key to the possible treasure is royal regalia. There was his own regalia and coronation robes and the royal regalia of Empress Maud (John’s Grandmother). They were usually held by the Templars and the Hospitallers, but John seems to have wanted them with him, in the upheaval following the Magna Carta in 1215, as he reclaimed both sets. The regalia of Empress Maud was said to contain:
A great crown which came from Germany, a tunic of purple, sandals of the same cloth, a belt of embroidery (orfrasio) with stones, a pair of shoes with frets of embroidery, a pair of gloves, dalmatic of dark purple, a royal pallium of purple with morse and brooch of gold, a silk cloth for bearing above the king in his coronation, a great sceptre of the same ” regale,” a golden wand with a dove at the top, two swords, to wit the sword of Tristram and another sword of the same ” regale,” the golden spur of the same ” regale,” a cup of gold of 8 marks 2 oz. weight, and a cross of gold of 3 marks 7£ oz. weight
The other regalia held:
one wand of gold with a cross, ” to wit a sceptre ” ; a red belt with precious stones which belonged to the ” regalia” another belt of black skin, padded within (furratum) with red sendal, with precious stones, cut, set in a chase ; another belt of leather padded with red sendal with great stones set in a chase ; another belt of red leather padded with white leather with great cut stones set in a chase; another belt of black leather with roses and bars of gold without stones; a necklace or collar (monile) set in the middle with diamonds surrounded by rubies and emeralds ; nine great necklaces with many precious stones ; a crown with precious stones with a cross and seven flowers ; a royal tunic of red samite with embroideries with precious stones in orles ; a pair of gloves with stones and another pair with flowers of gold ; a white tunic of diaper banded with embroidery ; a ” regale ” of red samite orled and marked all over with the cross in embroidery, with stones ” great, divers and precious,” with two brooches for attaching the said pall ; a pair of sandals of samite with embroidery; two pairs of samite shoes; and eleven pairs of basins weighing 62 marks.
If this isn’t treasure then I don’t know what is.
The question though remains, was all this fantastical booty actually in the baggage train when it drowned in The Wash? the answer we can never be sure. However, as John had specifically collected it together to keep it safe in troubled times, it is unlikely that he would have dispersed it again. Additionally, none of it is mentioned again in later lists of royal regalia, such as Henry III. Henry was crowed with a simple gold circlet that probably belonged to his mother, but that was because he was nine and his Barons needed him crowned quickly, to help stem the civil war. However, if you look at a list of royal regalia of Henry III from 1220, it is clear that almost none of John’s items appear and some of it is cobbled together of old things of John’s, possibly in an attempt to re-create a lost regalia.
So is all this gold and belts and crowns and basins and fabled swords under the sand in The Wash?
It’s certainly possible and they haven’t show up anywhere else, so unless they were melted down and it wasn’t recorded (which isn’t impossible) the likelihood is that they were on that baggage train. Whether bits and pieces have been found quietly over the last 800 years (remember it would be scattered this wouldn’t be hoard) and how much would survive those conditions is anyones guess. But it does make what looks like a damp paddock, suddenly a lot more interesting.
Site visit 2012
King John by W.L Warren
TAGG, G. F. “KING JOHN’S TREASURE: AN INVESTIGATION INTO ITS LOSS AND POSSIBLE LOCATION.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 120, no. 5192, 1972, pp. 508–523. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41370897. Accessed 22 June 2020.
Roger of Wendover. Roger of Wendover’s Flowers of History from the Descent of the Saxons to A.D 1235. (trans.) J.A Giles, Volume II. London: Henry G. Bohn. 1849.
Anonymous. History of William Marshal. (ed.) AJ. Holden. (trans.) S. Gregory & (notes.) David Crouch, Volumes I, II & III. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society. 2002.
Blood Cries Afar: The forgotten invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn ISBN: 9780752488318
The photos are all mine- apart from the photo of me in the distance (which was taken by Penny Woodward), the map of the Wash in 1216 which comes from the Tagg article and of course the Google Maps image.