Kells, County Meath

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

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

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

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

So to begin at the beginning.

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

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

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

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 It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

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

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.

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

Jesus

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and Mary

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

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

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

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

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

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

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

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

 

 

Pembroke Castle

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Pembroke Castle in South West Wales is one of the most impressive castles on Welsh soil. I hesitate to say Welsh castle, because it wasn’t built by the Welsh. The building of Pembroke Castle was begun by Arnulph de Montgomery in c. 1093 as a key part of the Norman subjugation of this portion of Wales.

This first castle was nothing like the imposing fortress we see today jutting out into the Cleddau Estuary.

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Gerald of Wales, albeit writing in the late 1100s, described Pembroke as originally being “a slender fortress of stakes and turf.” But it was in an immensely strategic position and as such soon became an important fortress.

Pembroke was besieged by the Welsh is 1094 and in 1096, but both times it was held by the Normans led by Gerald de Windsor who was the custodian of the castle for Arnulph de Montgomery.  However by 1102 Arnulph had been implicated in a revolt against Henry I and was forced to flee and Pembroke castle and the lands around it were escheated to the crown. By 1105 Gerald de Windsor was custodian again, this time in the name of the crown, and he married the Welsh princess Nest. Nest is one of the most fascinating women of the period and much has been written about her. But in brief she was the daughter of the Welsh Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr, thus an important marriage prize as Rhys’ former kingdom made up much of what was now the lands of Pembroke. Nest was most likely the mistress of Henry I before she married Gerald and probably bore him illegitimate offspring. She was said to have been a great beauty and would have been very young, in her teens, when she was the king’s mistress. She was then married off to Gerald at least partly to lend credence to Gerald’s position as a royal officer and person in charge of Pembroke. She was then abducted, there is debate over whether it was willing or not, from  either Cilgerran Castle or Carew Castle both of which Gerald had begun to build

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Cilgerran Castle

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Carew Castle

She was abducted by Owen son of Cadwgan, another Welsh Prince. Owen came into Nest and Gerald’s chamber and Gerald hid or escaped, depending on which version you read, down the privy shoot and Owen abducted Nest, two of Nest’s children and possibly some castle treasure.  After much unrest Nest was eventually returned to Gerald and Owen ultimately died in rebellion against Gerald. Nest married again after Gerald died in the 1120s and had children from that marriage as well. Nest ended up with some important descendants including Gerald of Wales, who was descended from her and Gerald de Windsor. Gerald of Wales is one of the more prolific writers of the late 1100s and is responsible for works on both the people of Ireland and the people of Wales. He was born at the nearby Manorbier Castle.

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Manorbier Castle

Leaving Nest aside. After Gerald de Windsor died the castle remained in crown hands until the reign of King Stephen. The Earldom of Pembroke was officially created in 1138 and the de Clare family were the beneficiaries of its creation with Gilbert de Clare appointed as the ruler of the territory. There was also a small town growing up around the castle and we know that it had liberties and freedoms from fairly early on because there is a surviving charter from Henry II which discusses them. It reads, in one translation.

“Henry by the Grace of God, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine and Count of Anjou to the Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls of Justices, Barons and Sheriffs, and to all his faithful people of all England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Poitou, Gascony, and to all his men, whether dwelling on this side or beyond the seas greetings. Know that I have given and granted, and by this my present Charter, have confirmed in my burgesses of Pembroke all their liberties, immunities and free customs as freely and fully as they had them in the time of King Henry, my grandfather.”

Gilbert de Clare died in 1148 and was succeeded by his son Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. I’ve written more about Strongbow and especially the role he played in the Norman conquest of Ireland earlier and it can be found here.  Strongbow died in 1176 and King Henry II retained all his lands and the wardship of his daughter Isabel de Clare. Isabel became the heir to all of Strongbow’s lands including Pembroke when her brother Gilbert died as a minor in 1185. Isabel married William Marshal at the behest of Richard I in 1189 thus making Marshal one of the most powerful men in the country as Isabel held other lands in England, Ireland and France as well as those in Wales. Marshal wasn’t actually invested with the title of Earl of Pembroke until 1199 when King John came to the throne.  Marshal had the iconic Great Keep at Pembroke Castle built.
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Great Keep Pembroke Castle

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Inside the Great Keep of Pembroke Castle.

The Great Keep was built in c. 1200 in a time when square keeps were much more common. It stands at 75 feet high with walls approximately 20 feet thick at its base.  When William Marshal died the castle was inherited by his son William Marshal II. Marshal had five sons each of whom died childless. So when the last Marshal son, Anselm, died in 1145 all of Marshal’s extensive lands were divided up amongst the descendants of his five daughters. Pembroke Castle went to his daughter Joan’s descendants, she was married to Warine de Munchery. It was their son in law William de Valance who retook some of the surrounding lands that had been lost to the Welsh over the years. De Valance died in 1296 and the Earldom of Pembroke and thus the castle entered into a fairly quiet period. Until the death of Earl John Hastings in 1389 when the castle returned to the hands of the King in this case Richard II. Henry IV declared his son John to be Earl of Pembroke in c.1399 and later the castle bounced back and forth between sides in the War of the Roses. Its greatest claim to fame in this period is that Henry Tudor, later Henry VII was born there in 1456. 

IMG_5427You can see the tower he was most likely born in on the far right of the photo.

The physical buildings that can now be seen in Pembroke are products of various stages of its history. I’m not going discuss all of them, but I will mention a few.

The oldest part is the Norman Hall which was built probably under the rule of Richard Strongbow c. 1150-1170 when the defences would still have been made of timber.

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Norman Hall.

For me the most fascinating part of Pembroke Castle, apart from the Great Keep, was actually not built by any of the castle’s inhabitants. Wogan’s Cavern beneath the Norman Hall is a naturally occurring cavern. There have been tools dating back to the middle stone age found in it along with Roman coins. This suggests that the Cavern has been used for shelter for thousands of years. When the castle was built the cavern was used for storage and the entrance was protected as part of the defensive plan. It is one of the most surprising things I’ve ever seen in a castle. Largely because of its sheer immensity.

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Wogan’s Cavern

Pembroke Castle is very much a stronghold. It has played a part in most important eras of British History and is in and of itself a dramatic and imposing castle. I went there originally because of its connection to William Marshal. But I went back because it is a spectacular castle, a testament to the strength of its builders. It commands the Cleddau Estuary and you can see why it has been so formidable for so many years.

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References.

Pembroke for King and Country: Phil Carradice. ISBN: 09521092

and

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/dec/21/britishidentity.uk

and

Two visits to Pembroke Castle.

All the photos are my own.

Clonmines Medieval Town

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One of the more interesting medieval sites that not that much is known about. Clonmines is the remains of an abandoned town with the ruins of two churches, three tower houses and an Augustinian Priory. The town was a port that may have been connected with New Ross in the early 1200s. It was an important town. In the 1300s justice was dispensed from there and the road between Wexford and Clonmines was considered a main road. Unfortunately the town was abandoned in the 1600s when its harbour silted up, but there were Augustinians there still into the 1700s. Clonmines also maintained a political presence into the 1800s with the final MPs leaving in 1801.   
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Clonmines today is on private land so access isn’t possible, but the view across the river is staggering.

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For more information

http://www.bannowhistory.ie/journal-2-bannow-historical-society/