Matilda of England: A question of perspective: Part One.

The above photo is the non contemporary memorial for Matilda of England. As there are quite a lot of Matildas found in the medieval period in England, I’m going to start by clarifying who I’m talking about. My Matilda, also known as Maud, was the only legitimate surviving child of Henry I of England, and was made his heir.

Matilda is a very prominent figure in 12th century medieval history, and as such a lot has been written about her, so I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I will tell Matilda’s story, but in a series of vignettes of the key moments in her life, but I also want to talk about perspective. This question brings me back to the image above. The wording on her tomb, I think, is really interesting. The loose translation is

Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood.

Matilda daughter of Henry King of England and Duke of Normandy, Wife of Henry Emperor, mother of Henry father of Richard the Lionheart.

The final untranslated section is about the reinterment of her remains in Rouen Cathedral, but I’ll come back to that part later.

The key link to perspective, for me, is that Matilda is defined by her relationship to others. In my short description of her at the beginning of this post, I could find no other way to describe her but as in her role and relationship with others. This was the only way to give context, and it is not lost on me that in doing so I am falling into the same paradigm, as those who wrote the description on her tomb. The inscription was written in the 19th century when her remains were reinterred in the cathedral, but it is believed that the words of the first sentence were commissioned by her son Henry II, on her original tomb. The second sentence has to have been written later as it references her grandson Richard the Lionheart.

Either way, this epitaph shows inescapably how Matilda’s life has been construed by history, as a wife, daughter and mother, not as a ruler in her own right, not in some ways as a person in her own right. This is true of most medieval women who manage to stick their heads above the parapet of history, and actually have some of their story survive the decay of time. In Matilda’s case though, the question of perception extends beyond this, because she is judged in her ability to rule differently to male rulers of her time, both by her contemporaries and by subsequent historians. It is this question of perception, that is at the heart of this series of posts.

If you want to learn more about Matilda, I highly recommend Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley. An in depth biography which places Matilda back in the position in history the she should always have occupied, that of a woman with her own skills and power, on the level of male rulers of her time. This book stands in line with other books about medieval women that are coming out now. In the past the paucity of sources has meant that medieval women have very much hovered in the shadows, but as more active work is done to dig them out, their stories are coming back into the light. I’ve just finished an excellent book about the Queens of Jerusalem, which I’ll review later, and I’ve already written a review of the recent book about Joan Lady of Wales, which you can find here.

But to return to Matilda and her story. As I said earlier I am not intending to write an exhaustive account of Matilda’s life.

Matilda was not born with the destiny of being Queen of England. Fairly soon after her own birth in c. 1102, her brother William was born. They were the only two legitimate children of Henry I of England, a king known for having at least 20 illegitimate children. Their mother was Matilda of Scotland, a very pious woman, who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Matilda of Scotland’s mother Margaret, was the Granddaughter of King Edward Ironside and the sister of Edgar the Aeithling. Edgar was actually elected king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but William the Conquerer put paid to that. So Matilda and William were the binding together of both the new and the old royal families. William was known as William the Aethling, an English not Norman term for heir.

From a very young age Matilda was intended for the fate of most royal princesses, marriage to a secure alliances and power for her family. As such, at the age of 8 she was sent to what is now Germany to be the wife of Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor (the second of the Henry’s mentioned), he was 24. While they were formally betrothed and she was crowned queen in 1110 they were not married until 1114 when she reached the canonical age of consent- I’m sure you can do the maths there. In the intervening four years, she was trained in the world of the German court of the Holy Roman Empire, and her role as queen consort. This would have been her life, if not for two factors.

The first was that Henry V died in 1125, leaving Matilda a childless widow- if she’d had a son she might have been able to act as regent. Despite this, she would probably still have remained in Germany if not for the second factor-a disaster that rocked medieval England, the sinking of the White Ship. It was the 900th anniversary of the sinking at the end of last year, so I’ll give you a little background. It was November 1120 and Henry I was sailing back to England from Barfleur, one of the main ports from which to cross the Narrow Sea (today’s it’s more of a fishing village). The White Ship was a magnificent new and shiny ship and (according to contemporary chronicler Oderic Vitalis) its master Thomas FitzStephen approached Henry I, saying his father had carried Henry I’s father (William the Conqueror) to England and I ask you, my lord king, to grant me his fief: I have a vessel which is aptly called the White Ship, excellently fitted out and read for the royal service.

To which Henry was reported as replying Your request meeting with my approval. I have indeed chosen a fine ship for myself and will not change it, but I entrust you my sons William and Richard [Richard was one of the illegitimate ones] whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm. So essentially most of the young nobility sailed on the White Ship, including another illegitimate daughter of Henry I. William the Aethling, allowed the sailors to open the wine in celebration. They decided to to try to overtake the king’s fleet which had already made it to open water, but they were drunk and unlucky and the White Ship struck a rock not far out of the harbour and sank. Some accounts have William the Aethling being put on a boat by his guards, but insisting on going back to rescue his sister, and the small ship was overwhelmed. In the end it is likely that only one person survived, a butcher called Berold who managed to cling to a piece of wood. His cloak was makes of sheep’s wool, so he didn’t die of hypothermia as the more finely dressed nobility did.

When Henry I found out Oderic says, he was overcome with anguish. You can see him depicted mourning the sinking of the ship in the illuminated manuscript of Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle from the early 14th century.

Henry moved on quickly, because he had to. He married, Matilda of Scotland was long dead, Adeliza of Louvain, who was probably in her 20s. Henry was in his early 50s, but he’d sired many illegitimate children, so it would have been expected that he would have a son with Adeliza. This was another turning point for Matilda, because if a son had been born (Adeliza went on to have a number of children in a later marriage) she would have stayed in Germany. But no son was forthcoming so in 1127 Henry dragged Matilda back to England and forced his barons to swear to accept her as his heir. It’s a testament to his personality that they agreed. William of Malmsbury described the situation as All therefore, in this council, who were considered as persons of any note, took the oath. While all the barons did swear, it is worth noting two men in particular; Robert of Gloucester and Stephen of Blois. They were the greatest landholders in England at the time. Robert was Henry I’s illegitimate son, possibly the oldest of Henry’s illegitimate children, and Stephen was Henry’s nephew. Both would become extremely important to Matilda’s story.

What Henry I was doing, oddly enough, was forcing power upon Matilda. There had never been a queen of England ruling in her own right. There wasn’t even really a word for it. The Anglo Saxon word for queen “cwen’ and the latin word ‘regina’ meant wife of the king. This is what Matilda had been to Henry V, but what Henry I was setting her up as was queen regnant, queen in her own right with the same status as an anointed king.

As Matilda re-enters the story here, her lack of agency is evident. She was not given a choice in going to Germany in the first place, but she would most likely have seen it as home having lived there since she was eight. She in fact styled herself as Empress Matilda for the rest of her life, and her son Henry II was known as Henry FitzEmpress. William of Malmsbury described her position as The empress, as they say, returned with reluctance, as she had become habituated to the country which was her dowry, and had large possessions there.

Matilda, now roughly twenty-five, was brought back to England, and thrust into another completely new world. Henry chose her for a reason, making it very clear, according to William of Malmsbury, that it was Matilda to whom alone the legitimate succession belonged, from her grandfather, uncle, and father, who were kings; as well as from her maternal descent for many ages back: inasmuch as from Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who first subdued or expelled the other kings of the island, in the year of the incarnation 800, through a line of fourteen kings, down to A.D. 1043.

We do not know what Matilda thought about her new position, we know she was at the ceremony and she accepted the position of authority, these were binding oaths, and we know from her subsequent behaviour that she believed fundamentally in her own right to rule. None of the sources talk about her in this ceremony beyond Henry I’s reasons for choosing her. They all focus more on the men who swore to her and the precedence of who swore first. Again Matilda becomes a symbol in her own story.

Even though Henry I had chosen her as his heir no one, expect possibly Matilda, thought she would be able to rule without a husband, preferably to produce a male heir to secure the succession. The choice of husband was fraught though. Firstly, it was unclear how the prospective husband would be king, as the barons had sworn to Matilda, but medieval law, both secular and church, clearly made the woman subject to her husband. What Henry I really wanted was Matilda to marry, produce a male heir and for himself to live long enough for that heir to be old enough to rule.

But first a husband had to be chosen. A foreign marriage risked a foreign lord ruling over the barons, but an English marriage risked raising one baron above all the others, which none of them were really keen on either. In the end Henry I turned to an old alliance. William the Aethling had been married to Fulke of Anjou’s daughter to secure the bottom of the border of Normandy, but that betrothal hadn’t survived the White Ship. Henry still wanted the border secure though and Fulke’s son Geoffrey was of marriageable age. To make him a suitable match for Matilda his father would soon be dispatched off to be King of Jerusalem (by right of marriage to another famous queen Melisende) so Geoffrey could be Count of Anjou. You can see a relatively contemporary image of Geoffrey below.

It is unlikely that Matilda was in favour of the match. She was a widow, one of the only times that a medieval woman held any power in her own right, and Geoffrey was only 13, an untried youth. She was also marrying a Count, when her last husband had been an Emperor. A letter from Hildebert of Lavardin alludes to conflict with her father at this time, saying he wanted to write to her about the will of the king and what the father’s breast was feeling about the offence of the daughter. Roger de Toringi described Henry I as he despatched his daughter, the empress, into France to be married to Geoffrey. It’s fairly clear that Matilda had no choice, but she did acquiesce because they were betrothed in May 1127 where they would have met for the first time. They married in June 1128. She was escorted to her wedding by Robert of Gloucester and Brien FitzCount. Both of whom would become key figures later in Matilda’s story.

As this post is intended to be a collection of vignettes, I’m going to skip forward a little in time. Her marriage to Geoffrey was famously acrimonious, they separated within a year, and they continued to live separately until 1131 when another council was held in England. Both Henry I and Matilda were present and William of Malmsbury described it as the oath of fidelity to her was renewed by such as had already sworn, and also taken by such as hitherto had not. It was also at this council that, according to Henry of Huntingdon, it was determined that the king’s daughter should be restored to her husband, the Count of Anjou, as he demanded. She was accordingly sent, and received with the pomp due to so great a princess. It is worth noting that Huntingdon never refers to Matilda by name, she is either the king’s daughter or the Countess of Anjou, once again defined by her relationship to others.

Matilda did not make her own decision to return to her husband. The reunion worked well enough, they may have both decided that the sooner they had an heir the sooner they could have as little to do with each other as possible, that on the 5th of March 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, christened Henry. Henry I must have been delighted. He did not manage to fulfil his dream to live long enough to see his grandson grow up as a viable heir to the throne though. Henry I died unexpectedly in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, she’d had another son christened Geoffrey in 1134 (she almost died giving birth). She didn’t hasten immediately to England for a couple of reasons; it would have taken time for the news to reach her, she was also pregnant again with her third child which made travel difficult, and because after having done everything that was expected of her, after producing two male heirs and after two councils where all the barons of the land and princes of the Church swore to uphold her as heir, she may have reasonably assumed they would keep to their oaths. It was not to be though. Her cousin, Stephen of Blois (remember him from earlier) moved incredibly quickly to steal her throne. Henry died on the 1st of December 1135 and Stephen was crowned on the 22nd of December 1135, with the support of the barons. Once he was crowned he was irrevocably an anointed king. And thus began the period of anarchy described by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a time When Christ and His Saints Slept.

I want to pause Matilda’s story, we’ll get back to her response to the usurpation in a moment, to look at Stephen. He was backed by his powerful brother Henry Bishop of Winchester, but William of Malmsbury described him beautifully

He was a man of activity, but imprudent: strenuous in war; of great mind in attempting works of difficulty; mild and compassionate to his enemies, and affable to all. Kind, as far as promise went; but sure to disappoint in its truth and execution. Whence he soon afterwards neglected the advice of his brother, befriended by whose assistance, as I have said, he had supplanted his adversaries and obtained the kingdom.

This would be the pattern of Stephen’s reign, a good man but not a good king.

But we left Matilda in Anjou, pregnant, with her crown stolen. She and Geoffrey were in the process of taking parts of Normandy after Henry I died, and Matilda was probably in Argentan in the south when she found out that her crown was lost. Stephen not only had her crown, he had the treasury of England and while Normandy gave Matilda a starting point, she simply didn’t have the resources to challenge Stephen directly, not with all the barons who had sworn to her supporting him. She couldn’t even style herself at Queen of England, as Stephen’s wife (confusingly also called Matilda) had been crowned Queen. Facing a seemingly unsolvable problem, she could have resigned herself to being Countess of Anjou, and living a reasonably obscure but probably fairly safe and uneventful life. As we will come to see, safe and uneventful were not Maud’s coin of choice.

She did stay quiet for a while, there really wasn’t much she could do while pregnant, and she styled herself as daughter of the King of England and Empress, empress as I said earlier is a title she would continue to use for the rest of her life. There is not a lot known about Matilda in this period, Stephen consolidated his power in England, with the only rebellion being Matilda’s uncle David King of Scotland, which came to nothing.

Stephen’s honeymoon and Matilda’s brush with obscurity was not to last though. Soon the barons began to take advantage of Stephen’s easy-going nature, and to rebel as soon as they saw that there wouldn’t be consequences. Essentially the first rebellion was Baldwin of Exeter, but when Stephen forced him to surrender his castles he not only let Baldwin go free but let the whole garrison go, with no repercussions. Even the pro Stephen chronicle the Gesta Stephani couldn’t manage to make it sound like a sensible decision, the chronicler described it as Stephen “being desirous rather to arrange all things upon an amicable and peaceful footing, than to foster a spirit of discord and disunity.” Although Stephen was ultimately successful in driving Baldwin off, by letting him go he drove him straight to Matilda and Geoffrey, where his arrival was hailed with great joy and Stephen’s gains began to crumble. This was only the middle of 1136, so six months into Stephen’s reign and the cracks were beginning to show.

To return to Matilda though. Baldwin’s dissatisfaction was just the tip of the iceberg. Stephen systematically alienated much of the remaining barony, and rebellions popped up like spot fires across the country. The key defection though was Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, one of the most powerful landholders in the country and from 1138 Matilda’s staunchest supporter. More men came over to Matilda’s side, and in 1139 Matilda returned to England for the first time in ten years.

Matilda’s landing in England was due to the support of another woman we have already met. Adeliza of Louvain, her step mother. Adeliza would have been a similar age to Matilda when she married Henry I so that was most likely when they developed a relationship. When Henry I died, Adeliza married William d’Aubigny one of Henry’s advisors and later Earl of Arundel. You can see one of the castles they built, Castle Rising, below.

For Matilda though, Adeliza and William’s key holding was Arundel castle (which Adeliza held in her own right as part of her dower). It is about five miles inland on the south coast of England. Adeliza agreed to let Matilda and her forces land on the 30th of September 1139. Robert departed immediately for his stronghold at Bristol to collect his remaining troops and Matilda remained in Arundel castle, taking the first real steps towards her crown.

The triumph was short lived unfortunately. She had been at Arundel for less than a week when Stephen arrived unexpectedly, with troops. This was a crux point for Matilda. She didn’t have a stronghold in England yet, her supporters were scattered rebellions rather than a directed force, Robert was in Bristol, and Arundel Castle wasn’t hers to command. Adeliza and William were also in a difficult position because William hadn’t renounced his fealty to Stephen. Adeliza played pretty much the only card she had, and played it well. John of Worcester described the situation as

When, however, he [Stephen] learned that the ex-queen  had received the ex-empress, with her large band of retainers, at Arundel, he was much displeased, and marched his army thither. But she, being awed by the king’s majesty, and fearing that she might lose the rank she held in England, swore solemnly that no enemy of his had come to England on her invitation; but that, saving her dignity, she had granted hospitality to persons of station, who were formerly attached to her. 

Stephen could have taken Matilda at this point, but it would have involved a siege and Robert was in Bristol, and would have come to his sister’s aide, along with her other supporters. Adeliza had put him in a bind as well, because it wasn’t technically illegal for her to have invited her step daughter to Arundel. Stephen as was so often the case throughout his reign, did the honourable thing. He let Matilda go to Robert in Bristol. It seems like an act of lunatic chivalry, and some contemporary chroniclers saw it that way, but none of his options were ideal. Regardless Matilda left Arundel and joined Robert at Bristol. For the first time, in England, in person, on the quest for her crown. Thus the period of anarchy began in earnest, and Stephen probably grew to regret his decision.

And that is where we will leave Matilda for now. Part 2 will cover the years of fighting as Matilda tried to become Queen in her own right, and in the process did actually rule parts of the country.

References:

Primary sources:

The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis: Volume VI edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall 1978. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/ecclesiasticalhi0006orde

Letters of Matilda of Scotland: Queen of the English https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/64.html

Letters of Matilda of England, Empress https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/27.html

William of Malmsbury

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50778/50778-h/50778-h.htm

Robert de Toringi

Henry of Huntingdon

https://archive.org/stream/chroniclehenryh01foregoog/chroniclehenryh01foregoog_djvu.txt

Gesta Stephani

https://archive.org/details/churchhistorian03stevgoog/page/n84/mode/2up

John of Worcester

https://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/History/JohnofWorcester/Chronicle_John2.html

Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle image

http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_20_A_II

Geoffrey of Anjou image

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geoffrey_of_Anjou_Monument.jpg

Secondary sources:

Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley.

The White Ship: https://www.medievalists.net/2013/05/was-the-white-ship-disaster-mass-murder/

https://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/blog/death-and-anarchy-white-ship-disaster

The photos are mine.

Medieval Tiles

When thinking about what to write about today, I was looking at some of my recents posts, book reviews, castles and abbeys for the most part. So I thought, maybe I could write about a person? I hadn’t done a biography in a while, so I had a look at my books and my photos, photos are always a key decision maker when it comes to Historical Ragbag posts, and couldn’t decide on anyone. Therefore I had a look at some of my draft posts, things I’d either started writing about and didn’t finish, or posts that never got further than a heading. I came across one mysteriously titled, 13th century tiles, with nothing but the heading. I have written about medieval tiles before in the context of longer posts: Strata Florida Abbey in Wales and Mellifont Abbey in Ireland. Both have lovely examples of medieval tiles. You can see the posts in the links below

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/09/09/strata-florida-tiles/

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

So what had been my original intention been in titling a post 13th century tiles? I’m not 100% sure, but regardless I decided that writing about medieval tiles a little more generally could be fun, and give me an excuse to visit the State Library for some books. So hence, this post was born. I hope you find it interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of medieval tiles, but it should be (I hope) a nice overall look at them, their purpose, how they were made, as well as lots of photos of course. I’ve deliberately changed the name to medieval tiles because I want to look beyond the 13th century.

As medieval tiles were floor coverings not that many survive in tact, undamaged, or in their original positions. This just makes the ones that have survived all the more precious.

To begin though, I said Historical Ragbag is about photos, hence here’s my favourite of my photos of a medieval tile

This tile is from Mellifont Abbey in Ireland, probably dates to the early 13th century and was excavated in the 1950s. It’s my favourite for two reasons, firstly the lion rampant design is still so clearly evident and secondly because I was allowed to hold it. It is surprisingly heavy, and made from earthenware with a lead glaze. It’s not the only medieval tile at Mellifont, you can see more in the photos below. As they were excavated in the 1950s they aren’t in their original positions, and while they have been laid out close to their original patterns, they are in a protected area because there was an issue with vandalism.

You’ll find common patterns across most medieval tiles. The ones at Mellifont encompass roughly 25 common designs. It is, though, the only place in Ireland where a lion and a griffin in a circle has been found.

Mellifont is a Cistercian abbey, the oldest in Ireland, and the introduction of tiles there in the 1230s is most likely due to the increasing Anglo Norman influence on Irish religious institutions. The tiles there are lovely, but they are not unusual in terms of medieval tiles more generally.

This brings me to the making of the tiles. It was first thought that they were made by the monks, but most likely they were made by laymen. Originally if you wanted a tile pavement for your religious institution, you’d pay a tiler who would set up on your land and make your tiles, as time went on and more tiles were needed commercial tileries were established. Definitely by the 14th century commercial tileries were the norm. They often stayed local though, and it wasn’t until the mid 14th century that importing tiles was more common. The commercial tileries were high quality, but the designs were more generic. So how were they actually made? A tile kiln was most likely two parallel chambers separated by a spine wall, with a furnace. The kiln was usually built of tiles as well. You can see a hypothetical tile kiln the in the image below- it is from the book Irish Medieval Tiles. The materials the tiles were made from was largely dependant on the soil in the local area. The glazes used for the patterns were lead, and the tiles were most likely fired at 1000 degrees centigrade.

Physical manufacture was only part of the process. The designs of the tiles, either in pattern or layout, was also incredibly important. The tiles would have been coloured, with yellow, green and white glazes being common. The local availability of material could also affect the colour choice. I’m going to run quickly through the main overall design types. I don’t have photographic examples that I can say are definitely correct to a type, so I’m afraid we’ll have to rely on description.

Plain Tile Mosaics: Essentially tiles that were glazed a single colour, without a design, of different shapes and arranged in a pattern.

Two Colour Decoration: A single colour tile with a design impressed on it with another colour, usually done with white clay.

Two Colour Mosacis: When the two colour principle was applied to different shapes to create a mosaic.

Two Colour Square Tiles: More complicated designs, where the design was the point of the tile, not the overall mosaic. These designs were usually figural, heraldic shields, lions, griffins and dragons, sometimes a national symbol.

Line Impression Decoration: These designs were incised into the tiles.

Line Impressed Mosaics: The designs were incised, but intended to be part of a broader mosaic pattern- often irregularly shaped.

Line Impressed Square Tiles: Designs incised into square tiles.

Relief Decoration: The design is impressed with a stamp.

Relief Decorated Mosaic: Stamped designs on tiles intended to be a mosaic.

Relief Decorated Square Tiles: Stamped designs on square tiles.

You can see some of the different colours and typical designs in the collection collated at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury below.

As time went on and the manufacture of tiles was more commercialised the designs on the tiles did become generic, but they would originally have had a figurative power beyond simply being beautiful. In theory the more ascetic monasteries, such as the Cistercians, kept the designs simpler but even in these cases symbolism can be found. Religious motifs were common, with allusions to the Virgin Mary, or a fish on an oval ground, a lily for the annunciation, the Lamb of God for the Templars, or Catherine Wheels for St Catherine. There were also pagan symbols, you find these in a lot of church carvings too, especially the Green Man and lions’ faces. These more figurative tile designs, like a lot of church art work, would have helped to convey the stories of religion and medieval life more generally to a largely illiterate population. Aside from the figurative, coats of arms were also popular along with other heraldric devices. These could indicate a patron of the institution, or a local family.

An excellent example of a mixture of the more generic imported tiles, with still some local influence, is Strata Florida in Wales. These have some really interesting patterns. They are most likely 14th century and were uncovered in the 1880s. They have heraldic images, the arms of Hugh Despenser, the Fleur de Lis of France which may be a nod to the Abbey’s mother house in Clairveaux, as well as a few allegorical designs. You can see them in the photos below.

As you can see they are a mixture of some impression designs and some probably either stamped or painted designs. These particular tiles became a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century and unfortunately some were souvenired. They are now kept under a roofed area for protection from the elements, but would have originally been laid in the main part of the Abbey and tradition is that only important guests and choir monks were allowed to walk on them. They were made in England and imported which might explain the presence of Hugh Despenser’s arms (you can see the shield in the top right of the second photo) as he was reviled by the Welsh.

Now, I promised pictures, so I wanted to move on to some examples of medieval tiles outside of Mellifont and Strata Florida. Hopefully they’ll give you an idea of some of the different uses of medieval tiles, and their geographic range. The selection is limited to tiles I have photographs of, but they should give you a good overview.

St Dogmael’s in Wales.

The tiles here are out in the elements and incredibly worn, you can see the impact that being a ground cover can have.

The Franciscan Friary in Waterford Ireland

Like St Dogmael’s these tiles exhibit the wear that medieval tiles are subjected to, but you can make out the remains of some inscribed designs.

A Pavement laid out in the Musee de Cluny- the middle ages museum- in Pairs.

This pavement dates to the end of the 13th century, is of two coloured tiles, with a mosaic border and you can see the heraldic Fleur de Lis as well.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is home to the Cosmati Pavement, an unparalleled work of inlaid stone from the mid 13th century. It stands at the high altar and you aren’t allowed to take photos inside the abbey, but you can see it at this link https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/cosmati-pavement . The photo below is from the near the Chapter House, where you are allowed to take photos, and showcases some beautiful designs.

Winchester Cathedral in England

The tiles in Winchester are mainly 13th century and give you an incredible example of the sheer scale of some of these pavements in large religious institutions. They are the oldest area of medieval tiles to survive in England, and you’re still allowed to walk on them!

I wanted to finish the tour with a couple of anomolies, or different ways of covering the floor in medieval religious institions. The first Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the jewell box of a church that Louis IX of France had built to house the holy relics he collected. As you can see the floor is painted, the church dates to the mid thirteenth century.

Secondly, I wanted to look quickly at Chartes and its labyrinth. A subject I will return to in much more detail at a later point. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth inlaid into its floor. It most likely dates to the beginning of the 13th century, like a lot of our floor tiles, its exact purpose has never been clear, but pilgrims continue to come to walk its meditative meanderings.

So that brings us to the end of our exploration of medieval tiles. They were first and foremost floor coverings, but they were also beautiful, hand made and told their own stories. The ones that survive are in varied states of repair, but they can give you an idea of how truly majestic these pavements would have been.

References

Medieval Floor Tiles by Jane A Wight

Irish Medieval Tiles by Elizabeth Eames and Thomas Fanning

Medieval Tiles: A handbook by Elizabeth Eames

https://historicalragbag.com/2014/09/09/strata-florida-tiles/

https://historicalragbag.com/?s=mellifont

https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/cosmati-pavement

https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/chapter-house

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/labyrinth-chartres-cathedral

The photos are all mine.

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.

Easy to Evil Medieval History Quiz.

This month’s post is going to be a quiz, I haven’t done one for a while so I thought it’d be a nice change. The rules are straight forward: Read the question, look at the picture (it will be some type of extra information) and scroll down below the picture for the answer. Keep track of your score-including bonus points- and find out how you did at the end. There are four sections: Easy, Medium, Hard, Evil. Five questions to a section. All of the answers can be found somewhere on this blog, or in posts that will be written soon.

Enjoy.

Easy

Question 1: Which King of England was known as the Coeur de Lion?

Answer: Richard I: The photo is of his effigy in Fontevraud Abbey

Question 2: What was sealed in Runnymede in June 1215?

Answer: The Magna Carta. The photo is Runnymede

Question 3: What city is home to the medieval cathedral in the photo below? (sadly it doesn’t look like this now)

Answer: Paris: The Cathedral is Notre Dame (taken in 2012 so well before the fire)

Question 4: What is the name of the medieval illuminated manuscript written by monks in a small town in Ireland in the 9th century and now housed in Trinity College Dublin?

Answer: The Book of Kells.

Question 5: What abbey are a significant number of the Kings and Queens of England buried in?

Answer: Westminster Abbey.

Medium

Question 1: Where was Richard III buried? (the name of the town but you get a bonus point for being more specfic)

Answer: Leicester. Bonus point if you said either under a car park, Leicester Cathedral or Greyfriars)

Question 2: Which English queen (arguably) was known as an Empress and bonus point for why?

Answer: Matilda or Maud and because she had been married to Henry the Holy Roman Emperor. The photo is her burial plaque in Rouen Cathedral.

Question 3: Which Irish saint baptised the grandsons of the King at the Rock of Cashel?

Answer: Saint Patrick

Question 4: What embroidery depicts the events leading up the Battle of Hastings in 1066 as well as the battle itself?

Answer: The Bayeux Tapestry.

Question 5: Which Granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine ruled France as the regent for her son Louis IX

Blanche of Castile. The picture is Angers castle which she was instrumental in building.

Hard

Question 1: Which Irish King was responsible for bringing the English to Ireland in the 1170s?

King Diarmuid MacMurrough of Leinster. The photo is his grave in Ferns Ireland.

Question 2: Which welshman wrote The Topography of Ireland and The Conquest of Ireland in the 1180s?

Answer: Gerald of Wales (also acceptable Giraldus Cambrensis). The photo is his birthplace Manorbier Castle.

Question 3: Which Icelandic Lawman and writer from the 13th century is responsible for much of what we know about Norse Mythology- as he was one of the first to write down the sagas?

Answer: Snorri Sturlson. The photo is of his hot spring at his home in Reykholt in Iceland.

Question 4: What former capital of Norway is home to the castle known as Haakon’s Hall?

Answer: Bergen.

Question 5: Where was Iceland’s Alpingi (a sort of early parliament) held?

 Answer: Þingvellir

Evil

Question 1: What is the name of the oldest stave church in Norway? Bonus point for the decade it was built in.

Answer: Urnes. It was built in 1150. The photo is of some of the remarkable carvings.

Question 2: Which French king built Sainte Chapel and for what purpose? You need both to get the point.

Answer: Louis IX and to house his holy relics- including the crown of thorns.

Question 3: What date did William the Conqueror die? And where is he buried?

Answer: 1087 and Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen.

Question 4: Where is the lighthouse built under William Marshal’s direction?

Answer: Hook Head in Ireland.

Question 5: What castle Henry I imprison his cousin Robert Curthoes in?

Answer: Cardiff Castle

So that’s it. How did you do?

1-5: Ok you know some medieval stuff

6-10: Impressive ish, nearly half way there

11-15: Excellent well done, you might actually have read a lot of this blog.

16-20: Stupendous, well done. Long time follower of Historical Ragbag- or a really impressive knowledge of random medieval history.

21-22 (remember those bonus point): Inconceivable!

23: Sure you didn’t write the quiz?

Østerlars Church

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

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

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

Templar Church London
Round Church Cambridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Site visit 2018

Østerlars Church Booklet.

All the photos are mine.

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.

Mellifont Abbey

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth is one of the most interesting if inconspicuous (at first glance) abbeys in Ireland.

IMG_4578 (1)

It was founded by St. Malachy, with a group of Irish and French monks in 1142. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries. They also deliberately founded daughter houses. By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Mellifont. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

It was Bernard’s friend St Malachy who founded Mellifont Abbey. He was granted the land by Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, King of Airghialla. It was founded with roughly 300 monks and 300 conventuals. The church in the abbey was consecrated in 1157. The remains of part of the transept can be seen below.

IMG_4582

The foundation was part of a general re-evaluation of christianity in Ireland. There were several Synods leading up to Mellifont’s foundation in 1142. Furthermore the Cistercians were only one of a number of continental orders that arrived in Ireland at around the same time.

Mellifont might have been the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was the mother house for at least 8 daughter houses by 1153, including Boyle Abbey which was founded in 1148. The church of which can be seen below.

IMG_3704

The Cistercian Order spread quickly, partly because of Ireland’s landscape, which worked well for the Cistercian model of isolated self-sufficiency. The abbeys were also supported by the incoming Norman-French/ English nobility who came to Ireland in c.1170. Many of the Cistercian abbeys can be found in parts of Ireland that were  under Norman control by 1200. An example is Tintern Abbey which was founded by William Marshal.

Marshal came to visit his lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word. As thanks to God for their survival he founded Tintern Abbey, which  stands on Hook Head Peninsula. It’s known as Tintern of the Vow as well as Tintern Parva, meaning small Tintern in Latin. It can be seen below.
tintern parva

IMG_1983

It is a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Wales, which also stood on Marshal land. It can be seen below.

IMG_2483

As you can see from the photos of other surviving Cistercian abbeys there is comparatively little left at Mellifont. IMG_4577IMG_4569IMG_4567IMG_4571It, like many other abbeys, was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Following the Dissolution the buildings came to Sir Edward Moore who converted them into a fortified residence. It played a role in several Irish wars and during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William based his headquarters there. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century and eventually ended up in the hands of the state in the 1880s.

Despite that lack of large buildings remaining there are some fascinating surviving features. The one most people notice is the lavabo which dates to the beginning of the 13th century and would have been where the monks washed before entering the refectory. You can see it in the photos below. It is an unusual survival partly because it was octagonal.

IMG_4568IMG_4566Additionally much of the intricate stone work has survived and can be found preserved in the visitors centre. Examples can be seen below.

My favourite survivals however are the medieval tiles. I’ve written about medieval tiles before and that can be found here. 

The tiles at Mellifont aren’t in the original positions and they are kept in formation in a closed off area because they were damaged by vandalism. They were most likely first introduced to Mellifont sometime after 1230. Roughly 25 differnet  patterns adorn the tiles. They all represent common medieval tile design, none are unique to Mellifont. You can see examples of surviving tiles below. IMG_4557IMG_4560

IMG_4561

I was also lucky enough to be able to have a look at some of the individual tiles which are in storage, including a really lovely lion rampant tile (see below). The tiles are surprisingly heavy and are earthenware with a lead glaze. They were fired in batches in a kiln. Mellifont would have bought them in, not made them on site

IMG_4564Most of these tiles were discovered during an excavation in the 1950s.

The overall evolution of Mellifont Abbey architecturally was key to religious architectural development in Ireland generally. It would have possessed some of the most dramatic and beautiful church buildings in Ireland. By 1540 Mellifont held estates that extended to 50 000 acres making the abbot one of the wealthiest landlords in the country. It was remodelled on several occasions and it is likely that other religious buildings across Ireland would have been based on its design. The photo below is a model which shows how the abbey itself might have looked at the height of its powers.

IMG_4502

Mellifont benefited from the support of many noble families including local Irish nobility, especially in its early years before the Norman conquest. For example Dervogilla, who was the wife of O’Rourke of Breffini, gave a gold chalice for the altar and furnishing for nine other altars as a gift for the consecration of the church in 1157. Only a little before this gift Dervogilla had, unwittingly, become one of the key sources in the Norman invasion of ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was King of Leinster. He was involved with the other kings of Ireland in various disputes and battles. In 1152 during yet another conflict he carried off Dervogilla, who was the wife of his old enemy O’Rourke, and her cattle. Depending what source you believe she may have been consenting as her husband was a bit of a tyrant. This abduction was a personal insult to O’Rourke and he held a grudge. Although O’Rourke managed to reclaim Dervogilla, a little over a year later, he never forgave or forgot Diarmait. His grudge helped to lead to Diarmait’s loss of his kingdom in 1166 and his subsequent request for help from Henry II, which brought the Norman/French to Ireland in 1169. The never left again.

Dervogilla may have stayed with her husband after being reclaimed, but as well as Mellifont she had the Church of the Nuns at Clonmacnoise built. You can see some of Clonmacnoise in the photo below.

IMG_3598Dervogilla retired in 1186 to Mellifont and she died there. It is possible that she was buried in the wall of the church and legend has it that she was buried the wrong way round because she was a “fallen woman”.

Mellifont Abbey was at the core of faith in Ireland from its foundation in 1142 until its dissolution in the 16th century. It shaped the way religion was enacted in the country and it shaped the development of many other religious houses. For what now, especially in comparison to other sites, seems to be a small and inconspicuous grouping of walls and buildings it is of national historical importance.

References:

Site visit to Mellifont, Boyle, Clonmacnoise in 2015. Site visit to Tintern Pava in 2012 and 2015. Site visit to Tintern 2012.

Mellifont Abbey OPW guide-book.

Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1333 by Goddard Henry Orpen. ISBN: 9781851827152

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1980: Mellifont Abbey: A Study of Its Architectural History by Stalley. pg 264  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25506059

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy :Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth: Liam de Paor, J. Hunt, H. J. Plenderleith and Michael Dolley pg 110. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154

A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in medieval Ireland. Dr. Breda Lynch. ISBN. 9781453561003

Special thanks to Lindsay from OPW at the site who answered all my questions and showed me the tiles.

The photos are all mine.