The Magna Carta

To write about the Magna Carta is to tread already very well trodden ground. For a document that had little immediate impact, its mythology has echoed down the centuries.

I am not intending to write anything ground breaking or revelatory about the Magna Carta. This post is going to draw together my experiences with people and sites that hold together the thread of the history of the Magna Carta and explore the outline and background of the document’s story.

My interest in the Magna Carta began in year eleven at high school. As an Australian I didn’t get much of a chance to write about medieval history within the curriculum, but in year eleven we got to chose our own research project and I picked the Magna Carta. It was the first time I got to seriously research the medieval period and I still remember the pride with which I produced my 2000 word report. It only covered the basics, but it was a first step on a path that in many ways has ultimately led to this blog.

I’ve always found the Magna Carta interesting, because despite the reality of its actual contents it has come to be a symbol of Western style democracy. The Magna Carta was sealed (not signed) on June 15th 1215. It didn’t come out of nowhere, it was based on other charters from both England and the continent, but its legacy has been peculiarly enduring. The Rights of Man from the French Revolution are based on it, as is the American Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It is held up as a bastion of freedom against tyranny. All of this, I discovered when I began to research as a seventeen year old, has very little basis in the reality of the document.

The Magna Carta contains 63 clauses. Covering everything from fish weirs in the Thames and the Medway, to how heirs should be handled, to how specific people are to be treated. The two clauses that give the Magna Carta its formidable reputation at 39 and 40.

(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

These are proud words, but at the time (like the rest of the Charter) they had little to no effect. Apart from any other reason the Charter was repealed by the Pope by September 1215 and the rebel barons were excommunicated. It wasn’t until the Magna Carta was reissued in 1217 and 1225, under Henry III,  and when it first came into the King’s Statute Books, in the reign of  Edward I in 1297, that it began to have any real impact. Even so you only have to look at the rest of English history (the War of the Roses and  the Tudors for example) to show much effect it had on the power of kings to summarily imprison their subjects.

The Magna Carta was by the Barons for the Barons. It is an excellent reflection of what was concerning the nobility in 1215. It is worth remembering that none of the the clauses are given more importance than any other: fish weirs are just as important as not delaying justice. The Magna Carta was extracted from John under duress in an attempt to shore up their own authority. It was never intended to be catch all for every person and it is important to remember that it is a document born of war.

The conflict between King John and his barons was not one that was singular to John. His brother and father before him had all dealt with rebellious barons. It was under John however that it all came to a head in a perfect storm. A lot, but not all, of which was John’s fault. He took the throne in 1199 and it began badly as there was dispute over whether the throne should have gone to Arthur Duke of Brittany, the son of John’s dead elder brother Geoffrey. This was mainly important on the continent as Arthur was seen as a French puppet by many of the English.

Many of John’s failings in kingship were personal. He was inconsistent and could be very vindictive. Additionally after he lost the majority of the Plantagenet lands on the continent he had time to focus squarely on England, which the barons didn’t appreciate. It also didn’t help that he succeeded in having the whole country placed under interdict because he wouldn’t accept the Pope’s candidate as Archbishop of Canterbury. He was essentially bad at managing people and extremely suspicious. Even taking into account chronicler’s bias most contemporary accounts are reasonably consistent on John’s failings.

This led to revolt and ultimately in the Barons offering Prince Louis of France the English throne.

The role of the king and his lordship over the Barons was the core of the revolt. In 1214 in Bury St Emdunds 25 barons swore on the altar of St Edmund that they would try to force King John to accept the charter of liberties of Henry I, which was the precursor to the Magna Carta. The rough spot and the commemorative plaque can be seen in the photos below.

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Ultimately, with help from the French the barons backed John into a corner. The Magna Carta was agreed to by King John on June 15th 1215 at Runnymede. Runnymede was neutral ground as it is located half way between London (which had gone over to the barons) and John’s castle at Windsor. Also being a water meadow it was a naturally occurring in-between liminal space.

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The photos above are from the water meadows at Runnymede. Finding them was a bit of an ordeal. We got the train to the nearest station expecting there to be signs. This is a mistake I have made too many times before in relation to medieval sites. After getting sent in the wrong direction twice and accidentally dragging my mother through a swamp on her birthday we found the meadows (though we still missed the physical monument to the Magna Carta). I had very wet feet, but it was worth it. Apart from anything else it is a gorgeous example of an English water meadow. There are plaques in the town to some of the barons involved in the Magna Carta. You can see the one to William Marshal below.

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The Charter wasn’t an end though and as an attempt to abate civil war it was less than useful. It took King John’s death in 1216 to mark the beginning of the end of the conflict. He died, probably of dysentery, at Newark after losing his entire baggage train in the Wash (A tidal inlet in Norfolk and somewhere else I got my feet very wet walking to). You can see a copy of John’s effigy below (the original is in Worcester Cathedral) and a photo of the Wash as it looked in 2012, significant land has been reclaimed for farming.

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John’s death did not mean the immediate end of the civil war. His son Henry III took the throne, but he was only nine and the formidable William Marshal was appointed Regent of England.

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A copy of Henry III’s effigy (the original is in Westminster Abbey

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William Marshal’s effigy in the Temple Church in London (arguably)

marshal the youngermarshal the younger closeWilliam Marshal the Younger’s effigy (arguably) in the Temple Church in London.

Marshal is a man I’ve written about a lot before (I wrote my honours thesis on him) and you can find out more about him here. Marshal was an elder statesman by the time he became Regent in 1216. He was probably in his very late 60s. He had stayed loyal to King John at personal cost, and his son William Marshal the Younger had fought on the Barons’ side. It has been argued that this family divide was intentional to make sure there was a Marshal foot in either camp. Regardless, with John dead, barons started coming back into the royal fold, including  eventually John’s half brother William Earl of Salisbury, who had jumped ship in the dying days of John’s reign. Ultimately more than 115 defected back, but it took some longer than others.

william longspeeThe effigy of William Earl of Salisbury in Salisbury Cathedral.

By the time John died Prince Louis was very much in England and not willing to give up his claim to the crown. Ultimately it took the Battle of Lincoln, which was so successful for the royalist forces that it was known at the Fair of Lincoln, winning the Battle of Sandwich (despite Louis’ ships being led by the pirate Eustace the Monk) and Marshal ultimately bribing the Prince to get him to go back to France. By the time Marshal died in May 1219 he left behind a, comparatively, stable England.

But where did all this turmoil leave the Magna Carta? Today there are four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta. One belongs to Lincoln Cathedral because Hugh of Wells the Bishop of Lincoln was present when the Magna Carta was sealed and made sure a copy was brought back to the cathedral

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This copy is currently held in Lincoln Castle along with the 1217 Charter of the Forest which (in the name of Henry III, but under Marshal’s seal) was separated from the Magna Carta into its own individual document.

Lincoln castle2LincolnLincoln Castle.

Another copy is held at Salisbury Cathedral. It was probably brought by Elias Dereham, a priest of the Archbishop of Canterbury and has remained there ever since.

SalisburySalisbury Cathedral.

The final two copies are housed in the British Museum. One most likely originally came from Canterbury, the other is known as the ‘London Magna Carta’ and exactly how it ended up in London by the 17th century is unknown. Sadly the Canterbury copy is illegible. It did suffer some fire damage in 1731, but most of the damage was done in a failed attempt to restore the Charter in the 1830s. Sadly this copy is the only surviving 1215 copy that still has the original seal of King John attached, though it was severely melted in the 1731 fire.

british libraryBritish Library.

After the reign of Henry III the next key re-issue of the Magna Carta was by Edward I. In 1297 he issued (a revised version) officially into the English statutes. Interestingly enough I have actually seen one of the only surviving 1297 copies in Australia. It is held at Parliament House in Canberra. It is one of only four surviving copies and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. It was bought by Australia’s Chief Librarian for 12 500 pounds in 1951.parliament house canberra

Parliament House Canberra Australia.

Regardless of how little immediate effect the Magna Carta had, it is a document that has come to symbolise the core of Western Democracy. It has become mythology in its own right and its reality has got quite lost in the monumental legacy. A legacy that (right or wrong) Rudyard Kipling summed up best.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
The lissom reeds that give and take,
That bend so far, but never break,
They keep the sleepy Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Oh, hear the reeds at Runnymede:
‘You musn’t sell, delay, deny,
A freeman’s right or liberty.
It wakes the stubborn Englishry,
We saw ’em roused at Runnymede!

When through our ranks the Barons came,
With little thought of praise or blame,
But resolute to play the game,
They lumbered up to Runnymede;
And there they launched in solid line
The first attack on Right Divine,
The curt uncompromising “Sign!’
They settled John at Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
Your rights were won at Runnymede!
No freeman shall be fined or bound,
Or dispossessed of freehold ground,
Except by lawful judgment found
And passed upon him by his peers.
Forget not, after all these years,
The Charter signed at Runnymede.’

And still when mob or Monarch lays
Too rude a hand on English ways,
The whisper wakes, the shudder plays,
Across the reeds at Runnymede.
And Thames, that knows the moods of kings,
And crowds and priests and suchlike things,
Rolls deep and dreadful as he brings
Their warning down from Runnymede!

 

References:

Site visits in 2012, 2015 and 2017.

Magna Carta: Law, liberty, legacy by the British Library ISBN: 9780712357630

Blood Cries Afar: The forgotten invasion of England 1216 by Sean McGlynn ISBN: 9780752488318

https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-an-introduction

https://www.bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/magna-carta-english-translation

https://www.visitlincoln.com/magnacarta

https://magnacarta800th.com/events/st-edmundsbury/

https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/magna-carta

https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Art/Top_5_Treasures/Magna_Carta

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-05/australia-magna-carta/6072830

http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/kipling.html

The photos are all mine.

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

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

Ellen

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

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

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

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

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

References:

Site visit 2015

Abbaye-aux-Hommes information booklet.

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

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

The photos are all mine.

 

 

From Page to Place

This post should really be called: Places I’ve been to because I’ve read about them in historical novels. I decided, however, that it was too long a title.

I’m stepping a little outside my usual milieu for this post, but in my summary for the blog it does say “lots of books” and I’ve been a bit neglectful on the book front. Basically I’m going to take you through some of my favourite historical books and then elucidate some of the history of the places they inspired me to visit. So this will be part historical travelogue and part book review.

It won’t cover every place I’ve been inspired to see by books, but it will cover a good selection.

There also will be mild spoilers about the plots of the books, mainly because they’re historical novels and it’s a bit difficult to discuss the history they’re written about with out giving away some of the events they cover.

I’ve sorted them into medieval mysteries and historical novels and they’re listed in chronological order for the time they’re set.

Mysteries

Books: Sister Fidelma Series by Peter Tremayne 

At the time of writing this post the Sister Fidelma mysteries number 28 and Tremayne has been writing them since 1994. The mystery series is set, mainly, in mid seventh century Ireland. I say mainly because Fidelma does travel abroad occasionally. Fidelma  is a dalaigh, an advocate in the Irish system of laws that would come to be known as the Brehon laws. At the beginning of the series she is also a member or the religious community of Kildare. Fidelma is the daughter of Failbe Fland the king of Cashel, who died shortly after her birth. Her brother later becomes king of Cashel.  As well as being intriguing mysteries in their own right the Sister Fidelma series are also a fascinating window into the complex and layered legal system of Ireland in the 7th century and Celtic christianity. Celtic christianity is quite different to the Roman form which would become ascendant with time. For more information on the books and Sister Fidelma’s time, follow this link

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Place: Cashel, Ireland.

Fidelma is from Cashel and a number of the books are set in or around there, so naturally I looked it up. As soon as I did there was no doubt in my mind that I had to go there. It is one of the most incredible places I’ve been and is a favoured tourist destination in Ireland, so try to get there before all the buses roll up. The highlight for me is the 12th century Cormac’s Chapel with some truly spectacular surviving  wall paintings and a very early 12th century round tower both of which you can seen in the photos below.

I’ve written about the history of the Rock of Cashel before, so you can find more information here. 

Rock of Cashel

round tower cashel

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Books: Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters

These books were the progenitor of the medieval mysteries genre. They were also one of my earliest forays into medieval fiction, when my mother gave them to me to read when I was about 11. For those who haven’t come across them, the Brother Cadfael books follow former crusader turned monk and herbalist Brother Cadfael predominantly in Shrewsbury Abbey. The books are set in the Period of Anarchy in England (1135-1153). In creating Brother Cadfael, Peters not only illuminates Wales and the Marches of the time, but has created one of the most human and complex characters to ever lead a medieval mystery series, as well as starting the genre. The 20 books were published between 1977 and 1994 and there is also a TV series starring Derek Jacobi. So enduring is the appeal of Brother Cadfael that Shrewsbury Abbey has part of a stain glass window dedicated to him (you can see it in the photos below). For more information on the books click here.

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Place: Shrewsbury Abbey

Shrewsbury was one of the definites on my list of places to go in the Welsh Marches. There actually isn’t that much left of the Abbey itself, which was once an entire complex, but the church remains reasonably intact. The Abbey of St Peter and St Paul was founded by Earl Roger de Montgomery in 1083. It was a Benedictine monastery. It survived as a complete abbey until, like many other religious institutions, the dissolution of the monasteries. By the time the dissolution of the monasteries act was passed in 1536 the abbey was 34th out of 602 monasteries in terms of wealth. Abbot Thomas Boteler was given a pension and so were some of his monks when the abbey was dissolved in 1540. The majority of the buildings were demolished and sold off, some of the church survived though. The nave was left standing while the rest was demolished and a new east wall was built. This is the church you see remaining today. In the photos below you can see the interior and exterior of the remaining abbey and you can see where the new wall was built after the remainder of the abbey was demolished.

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Books: Owen Archer mysteries by Candace Robb

The Owen Archer series is set in mid 14th century York, in the dying years of the reign of Edward III. It follows Owen Archer a one eyed Welshman who was in the army of the Duke of Lancaster until he was blinded and no longer able to fight. He is seconded to John Thoresby, the Archbishop of York, Chancellor of England and a worldly and devious man. Thoresby sends him to York to investigate suspicious deaths and so begins the 10 book, so far, series. Owen meets and eventually marries apothecary Lucie Wilton and deals with all manner of crimes and mysteries for the Archbishop. The books paint a beautifully detailed picture of 14th century York as well as creating a truly memorable collection of characters both historic and fictional. For more information see the author’s site. 

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Place: York Minster

The Owen Archer books were not the only reason I went to York, but they were a large contributing factor. I do not have the time in this post to write about the history of the whole of York however, so I’m going to focus on the Minster which features heavily in the books. The original Minster dates to 627, when it was built for the baptism of Edwin King of Northumbria, the site of this building is unknown. The majority of the Minster that you can see now dates to the 13th century and later. The nave was constructed between 1280 and 1350, the north and south transept between 1220 and 1260 and the east end and central tower between 1361 and 1472. It is still very much an active church and remains one of the great cathedrals of England. The photos you can see below are the exterior, the altar and part of the nave, the magnificent quire screen with reliefs of the Kings of England on it and the roof of the Chapter House vestibule which dates to the 1270s and 1280s. IMG_0702IMG_0708IMG_0712IMG_0723

Books: The Burren Mysteries by Cora Harrison

The Burren Mysteries are set in 16th century Ireland in the region called the Burren just out of Galway. They follow Mara, Brehon (judge) of the Burren as she runs her law school and deals with investigating crimes in the region. They illuminate the intricate Brehon laws of Ireland, like the Sister Fidelma books, and bring life to one of the most spectacular areas of Ireland. Mara is a sympathetic, but strong character and her world feels very real. There are fifteen books in the series, at the time of writing this post, and the mysteries themselves are very much key to each of the novels. They are usually complex and fit well with the rule of law of the time. The true stars of the series for me though, will always be the Burren itself and the fascinating, ancient and egalitarian legal system of the Brehon laws. For more on the series see the author’s site

lady judge

Place: The Burren, Ireland

This series was the entire reason I was intrigued enough to go to the Burren when I was in Ireland. It is one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been. The ground is largely carboniferous limestone, the top soil was stripped off by glaciers, and wild flowers grow in profusion through the cracks, called grykes. There is also a number of monasteries, ancient monuments, churches and round towers making it close to my favourite place in Ireland. It is truly beautiful. I have written about it before, specifically about Temple Cronan, so you can read more here

You can get an idea of the area from the photos below.

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Historical Fiction:

Book: The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Greatest Knight follows the early years of William Marshal. From his early knighthood in 1167 until 1194 with the return of Richard I from Crusade and the birth of Marshal’s daughter Mahelt. Marshal was involved in the majority of the important events for the English crown in the this period and lived a complex and fascinating life, remaining a man of loyalty and integrity.  The book covers Marshal’s life admirably and it was the novel that introduced me to Marshal in the first place. I went on to read every biography I could find on him, and to write my honours thesis on the man, but this book will remain important to me because it was where I first met him. For more information on the Greatest Knight and its sequels see the author’s site.

greatest knight

Place: Marshal Sites.

The Greatest Knight introduced me to Marshal and led me to travelling to a great number of Marshal related sites. I am not going to go into detail about the life of William Marshal here. If you want more detail you can read my short piece about him here.

I have also written about his wife Isabel de Clare, from whom he gained lands, money and status here. 

For this post I am creating a visual diary of key Marshal sites, some of which I have already written about.

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Tintern Abbey in Wales, of which Marshal was a patron

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Chepstow Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for large portions of it and probably the doors in the photo above. For more information on the history of Chepstow Castle see this previous post here

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Pembroke Castle in Wales. Marshal was responsible for parts of it including the massive round tower you can see in the photos above. For more information on the history of Pembroke see this previous post

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Ferns Castle in Ireland. Marshal built most of it originally. For more information on the history of Ferns Castle see this previous post.

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Kilkenny Castle in Ireland. Built partly by Marshal. He was largely responsible for the early form of the round towers. There isn’t much of the medieval castle still visible.

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The Barrow River in New Ross in Ireland, St Mary’s Abbey in New Ross and one of the sections of the New Ross Tapestry.

Marshal founded the town of New Ross essentially so he could have a non royal controlled port in his lands in Ireland. He and Isabel de Clare were instrumental in the construction of St Mary’s Abbey. The panel of the New Ross tapestry depicts the storm which Marshal barely survived when crossing the Irish Sea in 1201. He swore to God that if he survived he would found an abbey. He did and it can be seen in the photo below. For more on Marshal, Isabel and Ireland see this previous post.

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Tintern Parva in Ireland.

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Hook Head Light house in Ireland, which was built on Marshal’s orders in the early 1200s as a landmark and to guide ships up to Marshal’s newly built port at New Ross. For more on the lighthouse see this previous post.

Lincoln castle

Lincoln Castle. While Marshal had nothing to do with the construction of Lincoln Castle it was the site of the one of the most decisive battles in English history, which had Marshal at its head. In 1217 the young Henry III’s forces, led by his Regent Marshal who was in his early 70s, met with the forces of Prince Louis of France who was trying to take England. The battle was a rout and Marshal’s forces were victorious. It was the beginning of the end of Louis’ attempt to gain the English crown. There were so few casualties it was known as the Faire of Lincoln. For more on the battle and the history of Lincoln Castle in general see this previous post. 

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The Temple Church and Marshal’s effigy there.

The Temple Church in London is one of the few surviving actually medieval churches in London. It was built by the Knights Templar and it is deliberately round to mimic the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Marshal joined the order of the Templars just before his death and was interred in the Church. The effigy was damaged severely during the Blitz but thankfully enough survived and it was restored.

Marshal died well for the medieval period,  managing his death and ensuring all the right steps were taken. For more information on Marshal’s death see this previous post.

Books: The Welsh Princes trilogy (especially Here Be Dragons) by Sharon Penman

Sharon Penman is probably my favourite medieval author. Here Be Dragons, the first of her Welsh Princes trilogy, was the first book of hers I read. The Welsh Princes Trilogy were also the books that got me interested in Wales. They follow the final years of Wales as an independent kingdom or kingdoms depending on how you look at. They focus on North Wales and the princes in Gwynedd.

Here Be Dragons  follows the life of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as Llywelyn Fawr (meaning Llywelyn the Great). He was a Welsh Prince from North Wales who united most, but not all, of Wales and held off the English.  You can find out more about Llywelyn in this previous post and about his wife Joan who was King John’s illegitimate daughter, in this previous post. 

The second book Falls the Shadow follows the end of Llywelyn and Joan’s lives and the life of their son Dafydd and Llywelyn’s grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. A large part of the narrative is also dedicated to the life and love of Simon de Montfort and his wife Eleanor of England (the sister of Henry III and daughter of King John). I’ve never written anything about the de Montforts, though I probably will at some point,  so I can’t provide an old post for more information. De Montfort has been credited with being the founder of the concept of the parliament and he led the barons revolt against Henry III. It is much more complicated than that of course, and he and Eleanor are both worth much more time than I can dedicate here. So to learn more about them at here’s a link to the Britannica article.

The final book in the trilogy is the Reckoning. I’ve only ever managed to read it twice because it depicts the fall of Wales to the English as well as the life of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd as he tries to fulfil his grandfather’s dreams of a united Wales. Like de Montfort I’ve never written about Llewelyn before, but you can find more about him here.

Penman brings the period alive and creates characters that are not only enduring, but who you really care about. The series is also helped by covering one of the most fascinating and sometimes unbelievable part of English and Welsh history. It was a time populated with many extraordinary people, but also a time of immense tragedy as a country fell. You can find out more about Sharon and her other books here.

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Place: Wales in general but several specific sites

While this trilogy inspired me to become interested in the history of Wales in general and certainly inspired me to go there, it would be a whole other post to discuss history of all of Wales. So I’m going to keep it simple and focus instead on a couple of places in Wales I would never have gone without reading these particular books.

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Llewelyn’s tomb in Llanrwst parish church

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Joan’s tomb in Beaumaris

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Conwy Castle. I visited this castle because it is an amazing example of late 13th century medieval architecture, for more on the castle see this previous post, and because it is on the site of the abbey where Llewelyn was originally buried. The town is also where a statue of Llewelyn stands, though it much smaller than it looks and smaller than it should be. You can see it below.

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I wanted to add in two natural rather than historical sites as well.

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Mount Snowdon. The photo is the view from the top. Penman describes the mountains in Northern Wales so evocatively that I had to see them. I was lucky enough to get spectacular weather when I took the train up Mount Snowdon.

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Aber Falls, known as Raeadr Fawr in Welsh. These falls feature in a particularly intense scene in Here Be Dragons. They are very close to Abergwyngregyn, a small Welsh town that was once one of the homes of the Welsh Princes. There is nothing left of the residence, but the waterfall is spectacular.

Book: Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

While this is a contemporary mystery it is the first book that introduced me both to the concept of history being written by the victors and the many arguments surrounding Richard III, so it is worthy of inclusion. If you haven’t read Daughter of Time do, everyone should if only so you can learn that history is not immutable fact.

Tey takes the unusual step of having her usual detective Alan Grant stuck in hospital with a broken leg. In his boredom, he begins to investigate the history of Richard III with the help of a young American student to do the leg work. The book looks at how the popular narrative of Richard III as a nephew killing villain has been constructed and Grant investigates until he finds what he sees to be the truth behind Richard III. I am not going to get into the Richard III debate here (though for the record I fall on the side of he probably didn’t kill his nephews but we can never really know) but regardless of where you fall in the debate, Daughter of Time is fascinating. It not only imparts a the history of Richard III and his period, but it deconstructs how history is constructed. In managing the latter in a readable, relatable and engaging way it is one of the most important books written.

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Place: Richard III’s grave and tomb

I was quite young when I read Daughter of Time, 12 or so I think, so while I was aware of Richard III and knew a little about him it was Daughter of Time which introduced me to arguments regarding the truth of his story and cemented my interest in the king. So while Sharon Penman’s Sunne in Splendour (a retelling of Richard’s life) also deserves credit, I’ve decided to list Daughter of Time as the main reason I went to Richard III’s grave and tomb in 2015.

I travelled especially to Leicester. I know both Richard’s burial in Leicester and the monument to him in the cathedral have their dissenters (there’s lots of articles about this, google it if you’re interested). I, however, found both the monument and Richard’s actual grave surprisingly moving. When I was there in 2015 the cathedral still had some work to do in providing information both about the cathedral and Richard III (though I’ve heard from other people they have improved substantially). The Richard III centre across the road was fascinating and a well realised tribute. You can see both Richard’s tomb in the cathedral and his grave in the photos below.

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Book: Henry VIII’s Shoes by Karen Wallace

This might seem to be an odd book to finish on. It’s a children’s book to start with and it’s actually set in the present day although Henry VIII does still feature. This however, for me, was the book that began my interest in history. It’s the story of a group of English kids who go to Hampton Court for a school trip, and find some shoes in the maze. They turn out to be Henry VIII’s shoes and then Henry himself shows up.. chaos ensues.

I was reading this as an eight year old when my grade 3 teacher (Mr Spaull) assigned a project where we could pick any historical figure we wanted. At my Mum’s suggestion, because of this book, I chose Henry VIII and the rest is literally history. I started with the Tudors and then moved back to the Plantagenets, read a lot of historical fiction and a bit of non fiction, studied history as much as I could at school, studied history at uni, did my honours degree in medieval history and ultimately ended up working in a history library (Australian history, but still) all because I was reading this book at the right time. So books and teachers can change lives, even in slightly unexpected ways.

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Place: Hampton Court

I’ve credited this book as the genesis of my interest in history, which is true, but in the spirit of this post it is also the primary reason I went to Hampton Court.

Hampton Court is probably best known for its association with Henry VIII. It was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but Henry took it from him in 1529. He expanded it greatly and was determined to make it a pleasure palace.

It wasn’t just Henry’s palace though. It was used by succeeding monarchs as well, including his three children. It was there, during the Hampton Court Conference, that James I commissioned the King James Bible. James’ son Charles brought an art collection, one which Oliver Cromwell admired  when he took over as Lord Protector of England. Charles II installed his mistresses there and William III and Mary II commissioned Christopher Wren to extensively remodel the buildings. Wren originally wanted to demolish the whole thing and start again but they didn’t have the money, so he settled for rebuilding the king and queen’s apartments. Hampton Court is now run by Historic Palaces. You can see photos of Hampton Court below.

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The photo above seemed to be a good way to finish. It’s taken in 2012 when I made it to the centre of Hampton Court maze, in a funny way I’d made it back to where I started my journey into history.

References:

Sister Fidelma and Cashel: 

Site visits 2012 and 2015.

Sister Fidelma’s time: http://www.sisterfidelma.com/fidelma.html

Brother Cadfael and Shrewsbury

Site visit 2012

Shrewsbury Abbey: http://www.shrewsburyabbey.com/A%20Rare%20Benedictine.html

Owen Archer and York Minster:

Site visit 2012

Candace Robb: http://www.emmacampion.com/books

York Minster guides.

The Burren Mysteries and The Burren

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Cora Harrison: http://www.coraharrison.com/burren.html

The Greatest Knight and William Marshal

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Elizabeth Chadwick: http://elizabethchadwick.com/knight/

The Welsh Princes and Sharon Penman

Site visits 2012 and 2015

Sharon Penman: http://www.sharonkaypenman.com/

Daughter of Time and Richard III

Site visit 2015

Henry VIII’s Shoes and Hampton Court

Site visit 2012

Hampton Court history: https://www.hrp.org.uk/media/1205/hcphistory_v1.pdf

The photos are all mine.

Cardiff Castle

 

IMG_4844Cardiff castle is a fascinating amalgam, part Roman foundations, part 12th century shell keep, part 19th century victorian gothic palace and part WWII bunker. It manages to encompass many of the key eras of British history, at the same time as being linked to some of the most interesting stories and people of the medieval period.

For me, naturally, the medieval section of the castle is the most interesting and the most important. I do, however, have a real soft spot for the Victorian gothic section, because it doesn’t pretend to be authentic medieval and it is just so gloriously over the top.

To begin from the beginning though. There is nothing much left of the Roman origins of Cardiff Castle. There were four roman structures on the site between c.54 and 400 CE, the final one was an 8 acre fort with ten foot thick walls. It was a central point for communication for the area. It was abandoned when the Romans left the area at the end of the 5th century CE.

The site was appropriated by the Normans, when they arrived in the late 11th century, to build the original motte and bailey castle. The castle you can see today dates largely to 1140 and was originally built by Robert of Gloucester, the illegitimate oldest son of Henry I of England, though the gatehouse is a 15th century addition. You can see the castle from several angles below.

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This is a classic shell keep, meaning that there would not have been permanent rooms in the interior of the keep. There would have been a collection of timber buildings and the structure would not have been roofed. The holes you can see in the walls are called putlog holes and are where the beams of the timber buildings would have been inserted into the wall.

This particular keep has 12 sides, a moat that is roughly 23 m and 2 m thick walls. The castle has two key claims to fame. Firstly that it was the final prison of Robert Duke of Normandy, also known as Robert Curthoes. He was the oldest son of William the Conqueror and was left Normandy as his inheritance. After various conflicts that are too convoluted to go into here, however, his younger brother Henry I of England captured Robert and took Normandy for himself. Robert spent the last 8 years of his life held in Cardiff castle until he died in 1134.

The other key claim to fame for this castle in the medieval period was the kidnap of its lord. In 1158 Welsh lord Ifor Bach stormed the castle and carried off William Earl of Glamorgan and his family. He was forced to ransom his freedom back.

The castle was also threatened by the Welsh in the 1200s and Gilbert de Clare, who held the castle at that point, had the black tower built in what is now part of the outer wall. It was linked to the keep by a massive wall, the remains of which you can see in the photo below. The wall was demolished by Capability Brown in the early beautification of the castle.

 

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The castle played a role in Owain Glyndwr’s revolt in the 1400s as well. It was severely besieged and almost lost before a relief garrison arrived.

Capability Brown  may have redesigned most the grounds in the 1700s, including filling in the moat, but it wasn’t him who made the castle what it is today. It was a collaboration between William Burges and the 3rd Marquess of Bute in the mid 1800s.

They re-excavated the moat, re-landscaped much of the grounds, uncovered the Roman foundations and built the ridiculously intricate Victorian gothic mansion that you can still see today. The mansion is very much based on medieval design, and a romanticism of the medieval period.

Burges mainly re-modeled exisiting buildings rather than building from scratch, but he did build the 150 foot high clock tower between 1867 and 1875. You can see some of the exterior below.

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It is, however, the interiors which are truly remarkable. The interiors are an amalgam of styles from the beautifully ornate Arab room:

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IMG_5033To the utterly magnificent banqueting hall which depicts key scenes the life and career of Robert Earl of Gloucester on the walls. Incidentally Robert of Gloucester was the father of William of Glamorgan who was captured from Cardiff in the 1150s.

IMG_4903IMG_4902IMG_4904IMG_4905IMG_4906IMG_4909There are beautiful hidden corners all over the 19th century palace, especially in the windows and the ceilings. Below are just a few examples.

IMG_4895IMG_4896IMG_5031After the 19th century the castle stayed in the hands of the Butes until 1947 when it was given to the city of Cardiff by the 5th Marquess of Bute.

The castle wasn’t severely damaged in World War II, through Cardiff was badly bombed. The outer walls however did serve as air raids shelters, which could hold up to 2000 people. You can see one of the areas used in the photo below.

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The castle stands at the centre of Cardiff, both literally and figuratively. The streets of the city radiate out from it, and it has been key to most parts of Cardiff’s long history. It is a truly fascinating place to visit.

References:

Site visits 2012 and 2015.

Welsh Castles and Historic Places ISBN: 9781850130307

Castles in Wales: A handbook by Gerald Morgan ISBN: 9781847710314.

http://www.cardiffcastle.com/

All the photos are mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 23rd: Caen

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Caen is William the Conqueror’s castle. It dates to c.1060 and would have been a wood and earth construction originally, though the walls were rapidly built in stone. It remains one of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe.

Inside the huge enclosing walls would have stood a ducal palace , some private houses and a parish church. It was Henry I of England who most likely built the towers on the walls in the early 12th century, though they were added to by the French in the 13th century.

In the 11th century the castle would have been entered the castle from the Northside, using a drawbridge over the defensive ditch, which never had water in it. The entrance would have been a tower gate, similar to that which you can see in Richmond castle in England.  Additionally in the 12th century there would have been an imposing keep within the walls. Built in c. 1120 by Henry I of England it is believed to have stood at nearly 30 meters high. Sadly it was largely lost during the French revolution.

One of the most fascinating survivals from the early medieval period within the castle walls is the 12th century exchequer hall. It was built again by Henry I. In the 12th century the hall would have most likely had two stories, with the ground floor being used for kitchens and the like and the upper floor being used as the ceremonial space. The building was heavily restored in the 1960s, but some Norman elements do remain.

Normandy fell to the French in 1204 and Phillip II of France added a curtain wall to Henry I’s keep along with four round towers and a dry moat. He also constructed the massive Porte des Champs gate as a replacement for the Norman tower gate in the castle’s ramparts as well as adding two new towers to the ramparts.

The English held Caen during the 15th century hundred years war and they refortified much of the ramparts adding a barbican to one of the gates. However by the end of the conflict gunpowder was beginning to render the still impressive walls useless and despite attempts to shore them up against canon fire the use of the castle began to diminish. By the French Revolution only one barracks building housing a regiment of disabled soldiers remained. Much demolition of the castle occurred during the French Revolution in retaliation for the imprisonment there of two MPs. While they didn’t destroy the Norman keep completely it was significantly damaged and it was ultimately dynamited to make way for a gunpowder store in the 19th century. By the end of the 19th century Caen castle was home to the Lefebvre barracks  and it was occupied by the Germans in WWII which led to further destruction as it was also bombed. The castle was opened to the public after WWII and now houses the Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts.

References:

Site visit 2015

Caen castle: 9782815100854

http://www.normanconnections.com/en/norman-sites/caen-castle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 21st of December: Trim Castle

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Trim castle is my second Irish castle and like Ferns it was built by an English baron on Irish soil. Unlike Ferns, Trim had no connection to the old Irish Kingdoms. In 1172 Hugh de Lacy was granted the Liberty of Meath by Henry II. It was an attempt by Henry to stop Strongbow taking all that he could of Ireland. Shortly after he was granted the land de Lacy erected a wood and timber motte and bailey castle at Trim. By 1176 this castle had been replaced, after it had been burnt down by one of de Lacy’s barons to keep it from Irish hands, with a stone keep.

While the rest of Trim is not that unusual by Anglo-Norman castle standards the keep very much is. It is built in a cruciform shape which was an experimental military design for the period.  The keep would have contained a public hall, great chambers for the lord and his family and a chapel, as well as quarters for castle officials and the garrison. Trim’s keep also has extensive cellars which were kept well stocked so that the keep could hold out in a long siege if necessary. In 1196 Walter de Lacy enlarged the keep adding new floors, and later a great hall was built at the third floor level. In the 13th century the side towers were extended and plinth at the base of the keep was added, which closed off one of the original doorways. While this made the keep more secure it did not make it especially accessible for large public gatherings and a great hall was built in the grounds outside the keep sometime after 1250.

Although the original wall around the keep would have been wooden, by 1180 a stone wall had been built, which would have contained stables and places for stores, there was also, eventually, a ditch added as well as a drawer bridge and three defensive towers and a stone gatehouse. In the 13th century weirs were put on the River Boyne which allowed for the moat/ditch to be flooded and a new gate was constructed to guard the south entrance to the castle.

Trim came into the Mortimer family in 1306 and they held it until 1425, parliaments were held at Trim in the 15th century but by the 16th the castle was in decline and eventually it was surrendered to Cromwell’s forces in 1649.

 

References:

Site visit 2015

OPW Trim visitor’s guide

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/midlands-eastcoast/trimcastle/

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: 19th of December: Caerphilly Castle

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Caerphilly is another Marcher castle, but it is much later in date than the other two on this list. It was begun in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare Lord of Glamorgan in response to Llywelyn the Last’s threats to the area. Gilbert de Clare took the area in which the castle stands in 1266 to try to stop Llywelyn the Last from moving further south. Construction of the castle was halted in 1270 when Llywelyn the Last attacked it. However it began again in 1271 and continued apace. What makes Caerphilly remarkable is that apart from some basic domestic remodelling in the mid 14th century there were no additions or changes to the castle as the years went past. This makes it an extraordinarily complete example of a late 13th century military castle. It is also an excellent example of the cutting edge of military defence at the time.

Caerphilly not only has walls with in walls making it the first, as well as arguably the best, concentric castle in Britain (between the outer entrance and the heart of the castle were 3 drawbridges, 6 portcullises and 5 sets of double doors) it also has the best use of water as a defence in a castle of this period. The immense water works are manmade lakes and moats and the waters are held back from the castle by earth dams. Caerphilly boats both an inner moat and an outer moat. Because Caerphilly was built on unused ground Gilbert de Clare was able to use all the modern techniques to create a truly massive castle, it occupies a spectacular 30 acres.

The first thing most people notice about Caerphilly is its precariously leaning tower. This is the south east tower and it currently stands at 15m high and leans an alarming 10 degrees out of line. Locals say it was caused during the Civil War bombardment, but it could also just have been subsidence no one is entirely sure.

The need for Caerphilly was negated by the crushing defeat of the Welsh at the start of the 13th century and after this the castle didn’t see that much use. The last real action it saw was when it was besieged by Isabella queen of Edward II in retaliation towards Hugh Despenser, but Hugh had already been taken and was in fact hanged in 1326. By the 16th century the castle was no longer in use and was falling towards ruin. The castle was saved from complete ruin by the Butes in the late 19th century.

References:

Site visit 2012

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/caerphilly-castle/?lang=en

http://www.castlewales.com/caerphil.html

http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/forget-pisa—its-leaning-2239600

 

The photos are all mine.

 

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 18th: Chepstow Castle.

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Chepstow is the second of the Marcher castles on this list, it is also the second with real involvement from William Marshal. It sits on a sheer escarpment of carboniferous limestone on the banks of the River Wye. Chepstow is probably my favourite castle and I will write about it in substantially more detail at a later date. I have written about the extraordinary surviving medieval doors before and that post can be found here.

Chepstow, known then as Striguil, was begun originally as a Norman castle. It was constructed by William Fitz Osbern shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. He was responsible for the beginning of the construction of the castle, but it is unlikely that he had the time to oversee the construction of the Norman great tower before his death in 1071. The great tower is the only substantial surviving part of the Norman castle, though it was extended by the Marshals in the 13th century.

While it will never, of course, be certain it has been argued that the great tower was built under the auspices of William the Conqueror when Chepstow was in royal hands from the 1075 until 1115. The great tower is definitely a Norman building regardless of whether it was built by Fitz Osbern or William the Conqueror, and this makes it one of the oldest dateable surviving stone secular buildings in Britain. It was also impressively built in stone when most other castles were still wood and earth motte and bailey constructions.

Chepstow came into the hands of the Clare family at the start of the 12th century and by 1148 it was in the hands of Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. Strongbow was the founder of the Norman occupation of Ireland and more can be read about him here. When de Clare died in 1176 all his estates passed to his son Gilbert, who was underage, and when Gilbert died, without ever coming of age, to his daughter Isabel de Clare. Isabel married William Marshal in 1189 and all of her extensive estates came to him. Isabel de Clare was a fascinating woman in her own right and you can read more about her here.

Marshal rebuilt the curtain wall with two round towers and the main gate house. Under the Marshals over the years other parts of the castle were extended and modernized. Chepstow came into the hands of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk, by right of his mother who was Marshal’s daughter, in c.1245. The Bigods were responsible for the building of the new hall block inside the castle walls as well as a large new tower in the south east corner of the castle and significant parts of the high walls.

After the death of Roger Bigod in 1306 Chepstow was in royal hands again and after this it passed in and out of various families over the centuries. It was modified by the Tudors and during the Civil War the it fell twice to parliamentary canon before it was refortified. Its final outing on the main stage of history was when Bigod’s tower was used as a prison, albeit a relative comfortable one, for Henry Marten one of the signatories of the death warrant of King Charles I. He was held in the tower at the order of Charles II, who spared his life, for roughly 20 years until his death at Chepstow in 1680.

After the Civil War and the Restoration Chepstow slowly crumbled into a picturesque ruin. It came into Cadw hands in 1984.

There is much more to write about Chepstow, not the least the absolutely fascinating well, but that is for another time.

References:

Site visit 2012

Chepstow Castle: Its history and buildings 9781904396529

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

http://www.berkshirehistory.com/bios/hmarten.html

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/chepstow-castle/?lang=en

The photos are all mine.

Advent Calendar of Castles: December 16th: Dolwyddelan Castle

 

dolwyddelan1dolwyddelan2dolwyddelan3My second purely Welsh castle. Dolwyddelan now stands on a farm guarding the Lledr Valley.

Like Dolbadarn, Dolwyddelan has very little documentary evidence. There is a tradition that Llywelyn the Great was born here, but more recent research has shown that there are other more likely locations.

Dolwyddelan was in fact probably built by Llywelyn the Great in c. 1200. It is part of his circle of mountain castles protecting the passes, Dolbadarn is another.

There is no documentary history before the conquest of Edward I except for a letter that Llywelyn the Last signed from here in 1275. Edward I besieged the castle in in 1282 until it was captured on January 1st 1283. His men wore white to be camouflaged in all the snow. The castle was sold in 1488 and by 1848 it was in ruins and in the hands of Lord Willoughby de Eresby. It was under his ownership that the keep was restored to its present condition.

The original keep would have only been two stories and the third story and the wall walk were possibly added under Edward I, the battlements and the wall walk were reconstructed by de Eresby. The west tower was also added later, possibly under Edward I.

References:

Site visit 2012

Wales Castles and Historic places: 9781850130307

Castles in wales: 9781847710314

http://cadw.gov.wales/daysout/dolwyddelan-castle/?lang=en

 

The photos are mine.