Boyle Abbey

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 defilement that 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.

References:

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

https://archive.org/details/annalsoflochcc01hennuoft/page/n11/mode/2up

https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/abbeys/boyle.php

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.

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/05/22/mellifont-abbey/

https://historicalragbag.com/2017/12/18/advent-calendar-of-medieval-religious-institutions-december-18th-boyle-abbey/

The photos are all mine.

St Govan’s Chapel

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 this is a holy well. The stories of the powers of Welsh holy wells and St Govan’s in particular is a long one, and one that has been covered in detail by this excellent article from the Pembrokeshire Historical Society. http://www.pembrokeshirehistoricalsociety.co.uk/famous-cure-diseases-st-govans-well-350-years/

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).

References:

Site visit 2012

https://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/attraction-listing/st-govans-chapel

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/st-govans-chapel

https://www.visitbritain.com/au/en/st-govans-chapel

https://www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/about-the-national-park/culture-and-heritage/land-of-legends/st-govans-chapel/

All the photos are mine.

The Basilica of Saint Denis and the Kings and Queens of France

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 resorted 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.

References:

Site visit 2012

Saint Denis Basilica Cathedral booklet

France in the Middle Ages 987-1460 by Georges Duby

http://www.saint-denis-basilique.fr/en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/recumbent-statues.html

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/tomb-of-dagobert.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Denis

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Merovingian-dynasty

https://www.britannica.com/place/France/The-failure-of-reunification-613-714#ref237300

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dagobert-I

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

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-IX

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/philippe-iv-le-bel.html

https://study.com/academy/lesson/basilica-of-st-denis-architecture-history.html

http://www.gcatholic.org/churches/data/basFR.htm

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-XVIII

https://www.britannica.com/story/did-marie-antoinette-really-say-let-them-eat-cake

The photos are all mine

Glendalough

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.

References:

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.

Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island, is off the coast of Northumberland and can only be reached by a very tidal causeway. You can see it in the photo below.

Lindisfarne is probably best known for its Priory, which was founded in CE 635. It was famed as the home of St Cuthbert, and it was here that the spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels were created in around 700 CE, in honour of St Cuthbert. You can see one of the opening pages of the Gospels below

The Gospels are held in the British Library and you can find out more about them here

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/lindisfarne-gospels

They Priory itself is truly beautiful and its other claim to fame is as the site of a devastating Viking raid in 793 CE. You can see the Priory ruins in the photos below

I have written about the Priory before in a short post for my medieval advent calendar- you can see it here. https://historicalragbag.com/2017/12/05/advent-calendar-of-medieval-religious-institutions-december-5th-lindisfarne/

This post, however, is not about the Priory. This post is about Lindisfarne Castle.

The castle began its life as an Elizabethan fort. It was built to protect the Lindisfarne Harbour, which was the last deep water port before the Scottish border. Building began in 1570 CE and some of the stone came from the Priory, which had been dissolved in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It took about two years to build and was garrisoned from the nearby Berwick. For the next 300 years it remained garrisoned as a sentinel, but saw pretty much no action. The guns and garrison were removed in 1893, and the castle was effectively left alone until it was ‘discovered’ by Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life, in 1901. He had it converted into a holiday home, though as you can see, it remained very much a fort from the outside.

Hudson commissioned architect Edwin Luytens to convert it for his family. Despite its forbidding external appearance it actually became quite a cosy, if eccentric, holiday house. You can still see pieces of the old fort poking through, though a lot of the original features were lost in the renovations. The best example of all the periods of the castle is the dining room

Lutyens put in a new fireplace and laid the herringbone floor, but he left the salt hole and bread oven from the garrison’s time and the low walls with the vaulted ceiling, which were installed in the 18th century, to hold the weight of the guns above.

In looking at the rooms that Lutyens created, you can see how a family would have lived here.

The castle was sold to Oswald Falk in 1921 and then to Edward de Stein in 1929. de Stein gave the castle to the National Trust in 1944 and by 1970, after de Stein died, the castle was opened to the public.

There is also some interesting garden history at Lindisfarne Castle. In 1911 Gertrude Jekyll designed a layout for a summer flower garden. Jekyll was renowned garden designer and had worked with Lutyens before, in fact Lutyens had a portrait commissioned of her in 1920 that is now in the Tate Gallery. You can see it below

The garden Jekyll designed was to the north of the fort, where the soldiers had previously grown vegetables, it is an area protected from the strong sea winds by a wall. In 2002 a plan to restore the garden was undertaken, trying to match the original plants. When I visited in 2012, the garden had sadly fallen a little by the wayside again, but it is still possible to get an idea of what was intended.

So Lindisfarne castle has lived an interesting life. Built from the stones of the far more famous Priory, 300 years as a military fort that saw little to no action, 70 years as a beloved holiday house and up until the present where hundreds of visitors a year come to view its patchwork of history. If nothing else it still commands an imposing position on the landscape, and from the top there’s an incredible view – you can just see Bamburgh Castle in the distance.

References:

Site visit 2012

National Trust Welcome to Lindisfarne brochure

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lindisfarne-castle/features/the-castle-peeling-back-the-layers

The photos are all mine, apart from the image of Gertrude Jekyll which can be found at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1c/Gertrude_Jekyll_by_William_Nicholson.jpg

And the image of the Lindisfarne Gospels which can be found here

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/lindisfarne-gospels

Ely Cathedral

In times like these, I think it is important to have beautiful things to read about. So I thought I’d put together a post on Ely cathedral. I’m not religious, but it is a truly beautiful building with a fascinating history. I have written about it before in my tour round medieval cathedrals post a couple of years ago, but I decided it deserved its own post.

Ely is a largely Romanesque Cathedral, which is unusual in the UK. Most UK cathedrals are gothic or later, with the occasional romanesque element remaining. But Ely retains many of its Romanesque features, especially on the exterior. You can see the curved and solid shapes rather than the more common gothic pointed and etherial shapes in the photos above and below. The building you see on the site today is an amalgam of centuries of development, the Romanesque style is largely Norman and in the case of Ely was mainly completed by 1189.

Ely is known as the ‘ship of the fens’ as it dominates what is pretty much the only high point in surrounding areas. In the medieval period it would have been surrounded by fenlands. Even now that a large amount of the fens have been drained you can see how it commands the landscape. The images below are taken from the roof of the cathedral.

Ely’s origins trace back further even than the Normans, back to the 7th century CE when it was founded as a monastery by St Etheldreda. Etheldreda was a Saxon Queen and when she died in c. 680 her shrine at Ely became a pilgrimage site. It was destroyed in 1541, but there is a slate in the cathedral in front of the high altar (I unfortunately don’t have a photo of it) to commemorate where it stood.

This original building was destroyed by the Danes in 870 but was re-founded as a Benedictine monastery in c.970 The buildings you see today were begun in the reign of William the Conquerer under the direction of Abbott Simeon. Ely was partly built as a mark of Norman authority in the aftermath of rebellions in the area such as Hereward the Wake’s against the still reasonably new Norman authority. Originally Ely church was the church for the monastery, but Ely became a cathedral in c.1109 when the Diocese of Ely was carved out of the Diocese of Lincoln. It still retained its place as a Benedictine foundation. You can see some of the remains of the monastic buildings in the photo below.

Ely was dissolved as a monastery in the dissolution of the monasteries in the mid 16th century though it continued as bishopric and ultimately a college of priests was run from the old monastic buildings. Remains of the cathedral’s time as a monastic site still remain in the cathedral itself, such as the prior’s door you can see in the photo below

Although the name is contemporary this intricately decorated door is one of three 12th century doors that led from the monastic buildings and the cloister into the cathedral. The other doors lead into the choir and the south transept (see below).

The prior’s door led straight onto the nave, which was serving as the parish church until the 1360s. The nave itself is one of the most spectacular parts of the cathedral.

One of the key remaining parts of the original Norman church, the nave itself is 75m long and the ceiling is 32m high. The roof is not original. There is a ledge that runs along the top of the Romanesque columns where the original roof would have rested. In 1240 the roof was reconstructed when the cathedral was extended. You can see some the extended areas in the photos below, they are noticeable more gothic than the Norman parts of the cathedral.

The basic interior structure of this secondary roof largely survives today, but it would have been open.

In the 1850s, however, the Dean of the Cathedral Dean Peacock was one of many who thought the open roof detracted from the overall beauty of the cathedral. As part of the restoration of the cathedral by architect Sir George Gilbert Scott he had a boarded ceiling inserted that followed the lines of the open roof. The painting you can see below, was also undertaken at this time.

Henry Styleman Le Strange was the artist. Originally he was painting other smaller areas of the cathedral, but by 1856 he’d agreed to Dean Peacock’s suggestion that he paint the entire ceiling, he began in 1858. The immense work was undertaken by tracing the drawings onto the ceiling. You can see local figures including Dean Peacock and the artist himself in the ceiling panels which depict biblical scenes. Sadly Le Strange was unable to complete his work as he died in 1862 and it was completed by Thomas Parry. To find out more about the ceiling, see the article I’ve listed in the references. Much of stain glass work in the cathedral dates from the Victorian era as well.

Even though the nave is spectacular, the highlight of the cathedral interior is, arguably of course, the octagon

The octagon is not original to the cathedral either, but its construction came about for a very different reason. In 1322 the original Norman crossing tower collapsed. It was said that the noise was so loud that the monks though there had been an earthquake. The sacrist Alan de Walsingham was given the job of rebuilding. He could have rebuilt the tower conventionally, but instead the master mason whose name we don’t know he had an octagonal lantern built of 23 m across. It was a truly mammoth task of engineering, the lantern itself is 12 m high. You can see some of the beams the hold the lantern below.

The view from the lantern down to the cathedral floor is dizzying.

Ely Cathedral has stood as the ‘ship of the fens’ for hundreds of years, and although it is built for the glory of god, I like to look at it as building that is beautiful in its own right regardless of if you believe in God or not. And I think beautiful things are what we need right now.

References

Site visit 2012

https://www.elycathedral.org/history-heritage/a-descriptive-tour-of-ely-cathedral

https://www.elycathedral.org/history-heritage/the-monastic-buildings

elycathedral.org/files/pdf/the_nave_ceiling.pdf

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and invention in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies

The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages.

The English Cathedral Through The Centuries by GH Cook

A Book of Medieval Outlaws: Ten tales in modern English edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren

Click to access the_nave_ceiling.pdf

Castle Rising

Castle rising was my first castle. I’m Australian, where castles are few and far between sadly. I’d been studying medieval history for years when I finally made it to the UK in 2012 and, after Cambridge, Ely and Bury St Edmonds (all castleless), we arrived at Castle Rising. It’s a curiously domestic little castle, compared to some of the behemoths that I was to see over the coming months, but it has a fascinating history and I’ll always have a soft spot for it as my first real medieval castle. I’ve actually written about it before as part of my advent calendar of medieval castles. You can see it here, but this post is going to have more detail and a lot more photos.

Castle Rising is in the village of Castle Rising, in Norfolk just out of King’s Lynn. It was built for William d’Albini the Earl of Arundel in c.1140. It was built in the reign of King Stephen, but may not have been a reaction to the Period of Anarchy as many of its contemporaries were. Castle Rising was definitely a castle built for defence, the massive earthworks you can see in the image below attest to this.

However, it was as much a symbol and an expression of d’Albini’s wealth and status. It is also possible it was built for his new wife Adeliza of Louvain who was the widow of Henry I and as a former queen would have been used to luxury. It was in Castle Rising that d’Albini would have entertained his friends and followers and held his honourial court for the region. The elaborate surviving decoration (especially the external decoration) in the keep shows how seriously he took this. Castle Rising was never intended primarily for defence and conquest as many of the earlier Norman Castles, and arguably Henry II’s later simple stone keeps were.

The keep itself is also unusually shaped, it’s almost cube like rather than the more stark straight military towers you see with other keeps. The keep is 15 m high and almost 21 m across on the narrower side. It would have probably been taller originally when the towers were complete.

Much of the structure of the keep is intact so you can have a reasonable idea of how it would have been used. You would have approached over a guarded bridge and the entrance to the keep is on the second story, which you would would have reached by climbing well defended stairs.

You would have then reached the great hall. The pictures below give you an idea of the great hall. In the first you can see the post holes where floor would have been. The final picture shows what it would have looked like from this floor level. The area below this absent floor would have been the basement, used primarily for storage.

Unusually the kitchens were also on the second floor.

You could also access the lord’s chamber

And the private chapel, which you can see me sitting in below (looking very pleased at my first ever castle)

The keep is not the only building on the site, with the remains of an 11th century church that actually predates the castle. It is partly buried by the earthworks.

The d’ Albini family died out in the 13th century and Castle Rising passed into the Montalt family. The Montalt family died out in the 14th century and Castle Rising came into royal hands. It was after this that the castle entered what is probably its best known phase when it became the residence of Queen Isabella, known as the she wolf of England. She was the Queen of Edward II and many argue she had a role in his murder. It has been argued that Castle Rising was her prison, ordered there by her son Edward III, but it is also just as possible that it was the residence she chose in exile. There were certainly buildings erected for her in the grounds of the castle. There are little in evidence today, but excavations have shown; general lodgings, a chapel, hall and kitchen. You can see what is most likely the remains of the chapel below.

Castle Rising ultimately came into the hands of the Howard family who still own and manage it today. Castle Rising might not have played a grand role on any political stage in its history, but it is a truly lovely castle to explore and the detail that remains gives you a sense of a real place that was actually lived in.

Bibliography

Site visit 2012

One of the fun things about writing this post was that it gave me the chance to dig out several of my castle books, and some of them are rather lovely so I thought I’d include a visual bibliography.

All the photos are mine.

Hammershus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

Site visit 2018

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

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

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

The photos are all mine.

Urnes Stave Church in Norway

IMG_3883

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

IMG_2097IMG_3884

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2107

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

IMG_3962

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

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

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

IMG_2116

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

IMG_2146

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

IMG_2102IMG_2103

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

IMG_3872

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

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

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

IMG_3878IMG_3875

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

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

IMG_2111IMG_2119IMG_2121IMG_2122IMG_2129IMG_2130IMG_2140

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

IMG_2113Along with a medieval bishop’s chairIMG_2125

A medieval candelabra

IMG_2126and the chandelier which hangs from the ceiling

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

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

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

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

IMG_2112

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

IMG_2147

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

It met the three main criteria easily with UNESCO saying

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

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

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

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

 

References

Site visit 2018

Urnes Stave Church brochures

Urnes Stave Church Booklet

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

The photos are all mine.