Saturday, December 31, 2016

The changing faces of Santa Claus

History Extra

© Alamy

On 23 December 1951, the Catholic clergy at Dijon organised an execution of Santa Claus. An image of him was hanged from the railings of the cathedral and then burned in front of several hundred Sunday School children. Santa Claus arouses strong feelings.

 The Anglo-American Santa Claus or Father Christmas has come to dominate the modern Christmas. You can find him in the department stores of Tokyo and Singapore as well as New York and London. But who is he? His characteristics were set out by Clement Moore in his poem, A Visit from Santa Claus, published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinental: he was “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf”; he arrived on a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer; and came down the chimney with a sack of toys for children.

 Essentially he’s a composite figure: a bit of St Nicholas, an element of the old English personification of Christmas and quite a lot of pagan mythology. It has even been suggested that this figure at the heart of our mid-winter feast draws on shadowy memories of shamans of central Asia, who were believed to be able to fly after eating the red and white fly agaric mushroom and entered yurts via the roof. At any rate, he’s very different to Saint Nicholas, an ascetic figure on a white horse.

 Santa through the ages

 1) Christmas is cancelled
Attempts were made to ban Christmas under the mid-17th century Commonwealth, which held that there was no Biblical mention of the date of Christ’s birth and that the festival gave rise to feasting, drinking and bawdy behaviour. “Old Christmas” is told to keep out by a Cromwellian soldier. The personification of Christmas was known as Old, Sir or Captain Christmas.

 2) A heroic drinker
Victorian images of Old Christmas, the pre-modern spirit of Christmas, vary from a jovial, almost Dionysian, figure, a Lord of Misrule dispensing alcoholic good cheer, to a lean and gaunt aged man, rather akin to Old Father Time athough he, nevertheless, still brings warmth and refreshment.

 3) Wheezy bringer of gifts
If Clement Moore described Santa Claus in words, it was his fellow American, the illustrator, Thomas Nast, who fixed the appearance of this spirit of Christmas until well into the 20th century. His drawings for Harper’s Weekly which he began in 1863, show Santa as much like Moore’s “jolly old elf” though in his later work he settled on a portrayal closer to that which has now become traditional: a large jovial white-bearded figure, dressed in a red suit with a matching cap.

 4) Father Christmas goes to war
By the late 19th century, Father Christmas, as he was called in Britain, had become a central figure in Christmas festivities, even depicted delivering presents to British troops serving in Afghanistan.

 5) He’s the real thing
What has become the definitive image of Santa Claus was created from the 1930s to the 1960s by Haddon H Sundblom in his many adverts for Coca Cola. He exudes warmth and kindliness, has a luxuriant white beard and wears a long red jacket trimmed with white fur and fastened with an enormous belt and long leather boots. He is, however, secular and somewhat sanitised like the modern Christmas itself; there’s still an echo of the Lord of Misrule in his “Ho ho ho” but the pipe has gone and instead of holding a flowing bowl he drinks Coca Cola.

 6) These boots are killing me
Although the modern Christmas is an Anglo-American creation, the British Father Christmas dresses differently to the American Santa. He wears a long red habit trimmed with white fur and a hood rather than the red suit and cap favoured in America. Increasingly the British Father Christmas was replaced by the American Santa Claus.

 7) US Santa’s not welcome
The Anglo-American Santa is not always welcomed in European countries by those who cherish their own customs and versions of seasonal visitors. The Dutch Saint Nicholas is not popular with traditionalists in the Netherlands. The municipal authorities of Assen were not tolerant of one Santa who went there in 1994. As reported in the Sunday Times on 4 December, the police ran him out of town.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas carols: the history behind 5 festive favourites

History Extra

Three medieval carol singers depicted in a card from 1911. (Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo) 1)

The Twelve Days of Christmas

 Of all the Christmas carols we sing today, none presents more of a challenge than The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its baffling list of lyrics. What exactly are we to make of this aviary of birds – the swans, geese, doves, hens and calling birds – and what on earth is a partridge (strictly a ground bird) doing up a pear tree? The origins of the carol make things a little clearer. Historians generally agree that the verse first evolved as a festive memory game. The list of objects or animals grows with each verse and forfeits are imposed for forgetting one.

 But that still leaves us with the problem of the partridge. While the English partridge is a creature of fields and moors, its French cousin is apparently more likely to find itself up a tree. And if the partridge really is French then it would be called une perdrix. Correctly pronounced ‘pere-dree’, suddenly this word sounds an awful lot like that pear tree. Could it, perhaps, just be an elaborate international game of Chinese whispers that has left us with a partridge stuck forever in a misheard pear tree?

 One interpretation of the carol places its origin in the 16th century. The list of bizarre gifts given by the carol author’s ‘true love’ becomes a secret code for Catholics – whose religion had to be practised in secret after the Reformation – to share their beliefs. So the ‘true love’ becomes God himself and the partridge Jesus Christ. The ‘two turtle doves’ are the old and new testaments, ‘three French hens’ the Trinity, ‘four calling birds’ are the four Gospels, all the way through to ‘twelve drummers drumming’ – the twelve points of the apostles’ creed. If you were a Tudor child, wouldn’t you much rather recite this than your catechism? 

2) We Wish You a Merry Christmas

 What’s interesting about this catchy little carol are the customs it reveals. Both wassailing and mumming were still going strong under the Tudor monarchs, with carollers and players going from door to door performing. It was terribly bad luck not to reward their efforts with food and drink, including the ‘figgy pudding’ – an early version of what we now know as Christmas pudding.

Three young carol singers. (Keystone/Getty Images)

3) Deck the Halls

 One popular 16th-century song was the carol we know today as Deck the Halls. Back then it was a favourite Welsh song, originally titled Nos Galan. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it acquired Christmassy words and became part of our own festivities. In its earliest form, Deck the Halls was just a folk song, but one with some rather naughty words. Translated directly, the Welsh text reads something like this:

 Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la

Oh! how blessed are the blisses, Words of love, and mutual kisses, fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la These words would not have suited the prim Victorians, so when Thomas Oliphant came to write an English text for the melody in the 1860s he started from scratch, co-opting the dancing melody and lively ‘fa la la’ chorus for an altogether more innocent celebration of Christmas preparations.

A Christmas carols greeting card received 1893. (Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)

 4) The Holly and the Ivy

 Although this charming carol, based on an English folk tune, probably dates from the 17th century, its symbolism is far older. Both the festivals of Saturnalia and Yule placed great emphasis on evergreens. The Romans would exchange boughs of holly and ivy with their friends during the festival, while both the Scandinavians and the Anglo-Saxon pagans would decorate their homes with the evergreens they saw as symbols of eternal life.

 So try as Christian carol writers might to impose their own symbols on the plants – the red holly berry as Jesus’s blood, the white holly flower his shroud – they have to work hard to displace earlier layers of meaning. Some think there’s a further secret layer of meaning to the carol. Is the holly, with its phallic prickles, a symbol of the masculine, and the clinging ivy of the feminine? English courtiers were fond of such hidden language and holly-and-ivy carols could have formed the basis of courting games.

 5) Silent night

 A firm favourite throughout the 19th century was the lovely Silent Night. Schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr first performed the carol in the church of St Nikola in Oberndorf, Austria, in its original German (Stille Nacht) on Christmas Eve 1818.

 Legends attached to this timeless carol persist, to a point where it’s hard to dig out the truth from among them. One charming tale tells of mice chewing through vital sections of St Nikola’s organ, leaving the church without music at Christmas. The resourceful young teacher and priest, so the story goes, stepped in to save the service by composing a simple carol that could be sung with just guitar accompaniment.

 These extracts are taken from Carols from King’s (BBC Books, £9.99) by Alexandra Coghlan, a music journalist and former Cambridge choral scholar.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Medieval Ring Found in Robin Hood’s Forest Hideout May Net Finder a Small Fortune

Ancient Origins

An amateur treasure hunter with a metal detector turned up a Medieval, gold ring that was set with a sapphire stone in Sherwood Forest—haunt of the legendary (or real) Robin Hood. Experts have examined the ring and believe it may date to the 14th century.

The amateur, Mark Thompson, 34, had been using an inexpensive detector that he bought on the online auction website Ebay. He is a painter of fork-lifts and had been searching for treasure for just a year and a half, says the Daily Mail.

The ring may net him a small fortune if it truly is worth its estimated maximum value of $87,000 (70,000 British pounds). He detected metal underneath his wand just 20 minutes into his recent session in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. The British Museum is examining the ring with the expectation of formally declaring it treasure.

The British Museum is analyzing the ring and may declare it to be national treasure, though the finder would collect any reward. (Mark Thompson photo)

Online news accounts of the find said Mr. Thompson expected to find scrap metal of no value or coins of little value, but when he turned up the soil he saw the glint of gold.

One side of the ring depicts a baby, possibly the Christ child, and the other side depicts a female saint, both engraved into the gold of the ring. Mr. Thompson reported the find to proper authorities.

“I called my friend who came down to take a look and help see whether there was anything else related nearby,” Thompson told British news outlets. “If it does prove to be as valuable as we think it might be, it would completely change my life. I’m renting at the moment and I’d love to be able to buy a house or move into somewhere more comfortable.”

A regional finds liaison officer, Dot Boughton, said the ring is being examined by the coroner. The coroner may confirm the ring as treasure at an inquest, after which museums will have a chance to display the ring. Mr. Thompson would collect any reward.

Ms. Boughton has written a report, says the Sun, that compares the stone to another that adorns the tomb of William Wylesey, who died in 1374 and who was the archbishop of Canterbury.

The ring is not believed to be contemporaneous with Robin Hood, who, according to legend, operated with his gang out of Sherwood Forest in the 13th century, around the time of King John. It is unknown who Robin Hood truly was or even if he was more than just a legend but a real historical figure.

A statue of Robin Hood at a castle in Nottinghamshire, where the legendary robber was an outlaw in Sherwood Forest. ( Wikimedia Commons photo /Olaf1541)

He differs from other robbers of the time, including Fulk Fitzwarin and Eustace the Monk, who were real people and not just legendary. Legends say Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

One thing all three of these robbers and other fugitives have in common was that they used the king’s private forest reserves for refuge. The forests of Sherwood and Barnsdale, which are rife with old legends, were supposed to have been the kings’ private lands where they could hunt.

Historians think there may have been two historical figures from whom the legend of Robin Hood derives. Other outlaws also possibly took the name, which further confuses the historical record.

 Top image: Experts have valued the ring between $25,000 (20,000 British pounds) and $87,000 (70,000 pounds). The man who detected it, Mark Thompson, will collect any reward associated with the gold ring set with a sapphire stone. (Mark Thompson photo)

By Mark Miller

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Stunning Celtic Horse Harness Became Treasured Brooch of Norwegian Viking Woman

Ancient Origins

During the summer of 2016, a beautiful bronze brooch was found opportunely at Agdenes farm, at the outermost part of the Trondheim Fjord in mid-Norway, buried as a status symbol in the grave of a Viking woman. An analysis of the precious artifact revealed that it is a 9th century ornament that was originally a Celtic horse harness and was likely stolen during Viking raids in Ireland.

 The Decorations Imply that the Jewelry Was Designed in Ireland
The well-maintained piece of jewelry is an ornament with a bird figure that has fish or dolphin like patterns on both sides. The decorations suggest that it was probably created in a Celtic workshop, probably in Ireland, between the 8th and 9th century. What’s more surprising though, it’s the fact that it was originally used as a fitting for a horse’s harness. The holes at the bottom and traces of rust from a needle on the back, reveal that it had probably been turned into a brooch at a later stage.

Some of you might wonder now how a fitting from an Irish horse’s harness ended up being brooch for a Norwegian Viking but those who are familiar with Vikings, a successful historical drama television series written and created by Michael Hirst for the channel History, shouldn’t be surprised. As the show clearly shows, Norwegian Vikings took part in relentless raids of the British Isles.

According to Heritage Daily, Aina Margrethe Heen Pettersen, a doctoral student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Historical Studies, works with finds brought to Norway during the Viking age and verifies what the popular TV series shows, “A housewife in Mid-Norway probably received the fitting as a gift from a family member who took part in one or more Viking raids to Ireland or Great Britain. When she died, the jewelry was given to her as a burial gift. It has stayed underground until it was found by chance this summer.” She also adds that this is not the first time they have found such pieces of jewelry from that era in a woman’s grave, and speculates that this was a way for Vikings to show their love to their women after they returned from their conquests to the British Isles.

Vikings undertook relentless raids of the British Isles. Thorir Hund kills King Olaf at the Battle of Stiklestad (public domain)

The Visual and Cultural Significance of The Symbols
It looks like love and affection weren’t the only reason Vikings handed such objects to their women, or other female family members. The Vikings who participated in the early raids to the British Isles and made it back alive, gave these objects to female family members not just as gifts but also as trophies that gave them a prestigious status within the Viking societies. The fittings were then transformed into pieces of jewelry, and were worn on traditional Norse clothing as brooches, pendants or belt fittings. Heen Pettersen says about this common practice that became a tradition, “As a result, it became clear to everyone that those women had family members who had taken part in successful expeditions far away. There are traces of gold on the surface of the jewelry, so it was originally covered in gold. It therefore appeared to be more valuable than it actually was. In addition, each piece of jewelry was unique, so the owner did not risk having the housewife next door turn up with the same piece of jewelry.”

An example of how a Viking woman would have worn her brooch.

The Grave Has Been Disturbed
Heen Pettersen claims that the impressive jewelry was discovered by a civilian with a metal detector so it can’t be considered a find from an archaeological site that was officially excavated. Additionally, the fact that the bronze brooch was not found in the original grave, clearly shows that the grave was disturbed at some point. Regardless these misfortunes, Heen Pettersen is pretty satisfied with the finding and says to Heritage Daily that its cultural and historical value is undeniable, “The new find from Agdenes farm shows that the area was populated in the first part of the Viking Age. Even though it is a random find, it is a nice reminder that Mid-Norway was involved in the early contact with the British Isles.”

Top image: The Celtic harness found buried with a Viking woman in Norway (Photo: Åge Hojem / NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Festive QI facts: 8 things you (probably) didn’t know about the history of Christmas

History Extra

This Victorian Christmas greetings card c1880 depicts a mouse riding a lobster. The card wishes the recipient 'Paix, Joie, Sante, Bonheur' or 'Peace, Joy, Health and Happiness'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The book of weird and wonderful trivia is compiled by members of the team behind the BBC Television series QI including John Lloyd CBE, the show’s creator; John Mitchinson, QI’s first researcher; James Harkin, QI’s Head Elf and producer of QI’s BBC Radio 4 show The Museum of Curiosity; and Anne Miller, a scriptwriter and researcher for QI. Described as a portal, the book features 1,342 factual nuggets about which readers can find out more by visiting and entering the page number of the fact that interests them. The book comes 10 years after the publication of the first QI book, The Book of General Ignorance.

 Here we bring you eight historical festive facts featured in 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted…

 1) In the 17th century, Christmas turkeys walked from East Anglia to London in three months.

 2) Murderous frogs featured on Victorian Christmas cards, along with children being boiled in teapots and mice riding lobsters.

 3) After noticing that she washed up bare-handed, Margaret Thatcher sent the Queen rubber gloves for Christmas.

 4) The fake snow in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and White Christmas (1954) was made of asbestos.

American actors Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye sing together in a scene from the 1954 film 'White Christmas'. (Photo by John Swope/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

 5) Orthodox Jewish couples abstain from sex on Christmas Eve. Rabbis used to advise them to pass the time tearing toilet paper instead.

 6) Christmas presents in Greece aren’t delivered by Father Christmas but by Saint Basil.

 7) Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas 1956 so she could take time off to finish To Kill a Mockingbird.

 8) Cary Grant and Clark Gable met once a year to exchange unwanted monogrammed Christmas gifts. 1,342

 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted is published by Faber & Faber Ltd.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy Boxing Day

December 26

Boxing Day - is a traditional celebration, dating back to medieval times, when gifts were given to employees, the poor, or to people in a lower social class. 

What is Boxing Day?
Boxing Day is a national Bank Holiday, a day to spend with family and friends and to eat up all the leftovers of Christmas Day.  The origins of the day, however, are steeped in history and tradition.

Read More

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

I am grateful for your support and interest in my work. 

God bless.

Mary Ann Bernal  

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Medieval Christmas: how was it celebrated?

History Extra

Christmas merriment in an old English manor in the 1500s. (© North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy)

1) Don’t go over the top
Medieval Christmas wasn’t quite the all-encompassing celebration it often is today, so relax a little. Christmas, the Feast of Jesus’s Nativity, was important, but more significant was Easter, and perhaps also the Annunciation – that moment celebrated on 25 March when God was supposedly conceived in Mary’s womb.

 2) Be wary
Much of the medieval world didn’t celebrate Christmas, and if you were a medieval Jew, Christmas could be a time of danger. At Korneuburg in around 1305, townsfolk accused the Jews of procuring a consecrated communion wafer at Christmas and desecrating it, whereupon it ‘bubbled blood-drops, like an egg sweats when it is cooked’. Stories like these – imagining Jews conspiring to attack Jesus’ vulnerable body, present in the wafer – could lead to terrible reprisals.

The medieval Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) inveighed against those Muslims who adopted Christian festivities, particularly criticizing what he saw as an imitation of Christmas in the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (mawlid).

 3) Fast then feast
For those who did celebrate Christmas, it wasn’t just one day, but a season covering at least the 12 days from 25 December to Epiphany on 6 January. Sounds good? There’s a rider: Christmas was preceded by a month of fasting in the season of Advent. Advent was seen as a time of special preparation for God’s coming, his adventus, into the world – both in the infant Jesus, and at the end of time at the apocalypse.

Advent was supposed to be a time of exile, desire, longing, and repentance. So instead of trampling on your fellow shoppers, why not emulate medieval saints and trample on sin, temptation, and unfortunate demons?

 If crushing demons is too much effort, at least keep rich foods off the menu. Fasting was central to the sacred rhythm of time in medieval Europe. (It’s no surprise that when reformers wanted to protest against the church in the 16th century, they held a sausage eat-in during a fast.)

 4) Reign victorious
William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas 1066. Christmas is a clever time to inaugurate a reign: you can nod to the classical imagery of an emperor’s triumphal entry into the city, his adventus. And since midwinter is too cold for battles, you can be, like Jesus, a prince of peace. Just as the kingdom of God entered the world in the infant Jesus, so too your reign could be born at Christmas.

William I the Conqueror (1027–87), being crowned king at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 5) Turn the world upside down
If your tastes don’t run to a full imperial coronation, why not celebrate Christmas by inverting the social hierarchy? Mirroring pagan traditions, inversions of order occurred across medieval society around Christmas. One of the most colourful was the election of a boy bishop, who presided over processions and church ritual on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December).

 In a surviving example of a boy bishop's sermon, the boy bishop wishes that all his schoolteachers would end up on the gallows at Tyburn. One chronicle records how, at the Abbey of St Gall in the 10th century, King Conrad tried to distract the procession of the boys by strewing apples down the processional route; the boys were, however, so disciplined that not an apple was touched. Inversion could, however, be less controlled: in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court, a ‘lord of misrule’ was responsible for a death.

 6) To tree or not to tree?
 Evergreen trees feature in the ritual life of many cultures, but medieval Christmas trees are hard to trace. We have stray references, particularly from the later middle ages, but their popularity exploded only in the 19th century.

 Alternatively, decorate your house with candles (no electricity!), and holly and ivy. Gifts were more commonly given not on 25 December, but on New Year’s Day or elsewhere in the Christmas season.

 7) Make mickle melodie
Carols multiplied in the late middle ages – a sign of Christmas’s rising importance. They are often ‘macaronic’ – uniting learned Latin with vernacular languages, and so mixing the high and low, divine and human, in textual form. As devotion to Mary increased, these Christmas songs often hymned her purity:

 Ther is no rose of swych vertu As is the rose that bare Jhesu. Alleluya.

 For in this rose conteynyd was Heuen and erthe in lytyl space, Res miranda (translation: what a wondrous thing).

 Other carols were slightly less pious:

 The boar’s head, I understand, Is chief service in all this land; Wheresoever it may be found, Servitur cum sinapio (translation: it is served with mustard).

 Many of the medieval carols we sing today have had their rhythms regularised and their harmonies rewritten to suit later tastes. If you are a purist, return to the complex rhythms and intricate interweaving lines of manuscript carols. Or you might like to accompany carols with bagpipes, associated with shepherds watching their flocks.

Medieval singers. (© Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy)

 8) What to eat?

We know the boar’s head was on the medieval menu from the records of the Christmas feasting of Richard de Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford in the 13th century. Along with boar, Richard served beef, venison, partridges, geese, bread, cheese, ale and wine.

 Christmas was also a time for charity and sharing food – at Christmas in 1314, some tenants at North Curry in Somerset received loaves of bread, beef and bacon with mustard, chicken soup, cheese and as much beer as they could drink for the day. Gifts of food were sometimes enforced: for the right to keep rabbits, the town of Lagrasse had to give their best bunny to the local monastery each Christmas.

 One chief characteristic of medieval food was its seasonal variation, so you’ll need to source your food from what you have around you, flavoured with spices like pepper, ginger, cloves and saffron.

Foods you won’t see on the menu include chocolate and turkey, first brought to Spain under Ferdinand II in the 16th century.

9) Have a vision
Biblical accounts of Jesus’s birth were often supplemented by other stories or visions in the medieval world. If a vision is not granted to you, you might piously meditate on those of St Bridget of Sweden, a saint from the 14th century: Bridget saw Mary’s womb “very heavy and swollen”, and, as she prayed, “the infant in the womb moved, and at that very moment, in the flash of an eye, [Mary] gave birth to her son”.

 10) Build a crib
To complete your medieval Christmas, set up a nativity scene in a cave. I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t a stable or inn be more biblical? Don’t stress about this kind of historical accuracy – it didn’t really become a consideration until the 16th-century.

 You’ll be following the example of St Francis, who famously set up a nativity in a cave at Greccio. The earliest accounts record that Francis was so moved by the crib that as he spoke the word ‘Bethlehem’ during the Christmas Mass, his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.

 Dr Matthew Champion is a research fellow in medieval and early modern history at St Catharine's College Cambridge.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Face of King Robert The Bruce is Brought Back to Life 700 Years After His Death

Ancient Origins

Almost 700 years after his death, a team of scientists and historians have produced comprehensive virtual images of the face of Robert the Bruce, a 14th century King of Scotland, and one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England.

The images were recreated from the cast of a human skull held by the Hunterian Museum and are the result of a two-year research project by researchers at universities in Glasgow and Liverpool.

Robert the Bruce Arguably the Greatest Scottish Historical Figure of All Time

Even though most historians will agree that Robert the Bruce is the greatest of all Scottish heroes, the famous Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart gave all the heroics to his compatriot William Wallace, making Bruce out to be nothing more than a self-serving opportunist. In reality, however, Robert Bruce played probably the most significant role in Scotland’s national resistance that later developed into a war of independence. After many years of bloody and heroic battles that lasted for nearly three decades, in 1320 Bruce and the Scottish nobles issued the Declaration of Arbroath asserting Scottish Independence, “For as longs as one hundred of us shall remain alive we shall never in any wise consent to submit to the rule of the English, for it is not for glory that we fight … but for freedom alone”.

However, a truce with Edward II of England failed to stop hostilities which continued until Edward II was deposed in 1327. The Treaty of Edinburgh between Robert Bruce and Edward III in 1328 recognized Scotland's independence, ending the 30 years of Wars of Independence. Edward agreed to the marriage of Robert Bruce’s son David to his younger sister Joan daughter of Edward II. Robert Bruce died at his house in Cardross a year later of a serious illness described by some as leprosy.

Statue of Robert the Bruce (1929) in front of the gates at Edinburgh Castle. (CC by SA 3.0 / Ad Meskens)

The Reconstructed Face of Robert the Bruce Shows that He Could Have Had Leprosy

Robert the Bruce actually did suffer from leprosy, according to the conclusions of the scientists after recreating his face from his skull. For years, scholars have argued about whether the legendary Scottish king was infected with the disease, with some suggesting there was a medieval cover-up so he would not have to relinquish the throne, while others claiming that he was the victim of a smear campaign. However, his newly reconstructed images of his face highlight that his skull shows the telltale signs of leprosy, including a disfigured jaw and nose. Professor Caroline Wilkinson, director of the Face Lab at LJMU, who also reconstructed the face of Richard III, said at Archaeology News Network, “We could accurately establish the muscle formation from the positions of the skull bones to determine the shape and structure of the face. We produced two versions – one without leprosy and one with a mild representation of leprosy. He may have had leprosy, but if he did it is likely that it did not manifest strongly on his face.”

Two versions of Robert the Bruce’s face were produced. This one shows how he may have looked after leprosy disfigured his face. Credit: FaceLab / Liverpool John Moores University.

DNA Could Answer Many Questions About the Legendary Scottish King Even though we do not have any reliable visual depictions of Robert the Bruce and all the written records referring to him tell us nothing about his appearance, the good news is that DNA testing could offer us all the information we need to establish his hair and eye color. However, there is a problem according to Dr. Martin MacGregor, a senior lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow and the project’s leader, “The skull was excavated in 1818-19 from a grave in Dunfermline Abbey, mausoleum of Scotland’s medieval monarchs. After the excavation the original skeleton and skull were sealed in pitch and reburied, but not before a cast of the head was taken. Several copies of the cast exist, including the one now in The Hunterian, but without the original bone we have no DNA.” Professor Wilkinson adds: “In the absence of any DNA, we relied on statistical evaluation to determine that Robert the Bruce most likely had brown hair and light brown eyes.” And continues saying that for now this is the most realistic image we can have about Bruce’s appearance, “This is the most realistic appearance of Robert the Bruce to-date, based on all the skeletal and historical material available.”

The plaster cast of Robert the Bruce’s skull (CC by SA 3.0)

Top image: The digitally-reconstructed image of the face of Robert the Bruce. Credit: FaceLab / Liverpool John Moores University.

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Q&A: How did the Normans learn to build castles?

History Extra

The Great Tower at Chepstow Castle, one of the earliest Norman stone structures in the British Isles. (© Tosca Weijers/

The Normans, as is widely appreciated, were originally Norsemen: Vikings who settled in the area around the Seine estuary in the late ninth and early 10th centuries. The traditional date for the founding of Normandy is AD 911, when the authority of the Norman leader, Rollo, was recognised by the king of France.

 Castles appeared somewhat later, with the earliest examples being constructed around the turn of the first millennium. They differed from earlier fortifications by being smaller and taller: the distinctive feature of early castle design was the great artificial mound of earth, or motte. Dating a mound of earth is difficult, since it relies on the discovery of datable ‘small finds’, and so establishing a precise chronology for mottes is impossible. Nor is it possible to say for certain how and why the design originated, other than to observe that the rise of castles seems to coincide with an intensification of lordship across northern France in the decades around the millennium. Evidently someone had the notion of building a great mound of earth to assert his power and the idea caught on fast.

 The Normans began ditching their Norse culture and adopting French customs almost from the minute of their arrival. During the 10th century, for example, they embraced Christianity, the French language and the habit of fighting on horseback. Learning how to build castles was therefore simply part of an ongoing process of acculturation. According to contemporary chroniclers, a great surge of castle-building took place during the troubled years of William the Conqueror’s boyhood in the 1030s and 1040s.

 “Lots of Normans, forgetful of their loyalties, built earthworks in many places,” wrote William of Jumièges, “and erected fortified strongholds for their own purposes.”

 Answered by Marc Morris, historian, author and broadcaster.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Archaeologists Explore Incredible Ancient City in Supposed Backwater Region of Greece

Ancient Origins

A collaboration between Greek, Swedish, and British researchers has resulted in some interesting discoveries at a previously unexplored 2,500-year-old city in Thessaly, Greece. Their findings are beginning to change the way archaeologists look at the region – an area which was previously believed to be “backwater during Antiquity.”

The Vlochos Archaeological Project (VLAP), which explored the site, reports that the group of researchers consists of scientists from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Karditsa (Greece), the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) and the University of Bournemouth (UK). They have just completed their first season exploring the ruins at a village called Vlochos in Thessaly, about a five-hour drive north of Athens.

The Cultural Past of Ancient Thessaly
Thessaly was one of the traditional regions of Ancient Greece. During the Mycenaean period, Thessaly was known as Aeolia, a term that continued to be used for one of the basic tribes of Greece, the Aeolians. Meteora: the Impressive Greek Monasteries Suspended in the Air Five Legendary Lost Cities that have Never Been Found

At its greatest extent, ancient Thessaly was a wide area stretching from Mount Olympus (home of the Greek Gods) to the north to the Spercheios Valley to the south. It was home to extensive Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures around 6000 BC-2500 BC. Mycenaean settlements have also been found in Thessaly – for example, tablets bearing Mycenaean Greek inscriptions, written in Linear B, were found at the Kastron of Palaia Hill, in Volos.

In Greek mythology, Thessaly was the homeland of the heroes Achilles, Jason, and of course, the legendary tribe of Myrmidons. Homer's Iliad said that the Myrmidons were led by Achilles during the Trojan War. According to Greek myths, they were created by Zeus from a colony of ants and therefore took their name from the Greek word for ant, myrmex.

Thetis giving her son Achilles weapons forged by Hephaestus. Detail on an Attic black-figure hydria from 575–550 BC. ( Public Domain )

An Untapped Find The head of the team, Robin Rönnlund, told The Local that some of the remains in the area were known but had been dismissed before as part of an irrelevant little settlement on a hill. It wasn’t until Rönnlund and his colleagues began searching the location that it turned out to be way bigger in size and archaeological significance than they could have dreamed.

Aerial view showing the outline of fortress walls, towers, and city gates. ( University of Gothenburg)

As Rönnlund explained to The Local , “It feels great. I think it is [an] incredibly big [deal], because it's something thought to be a small village that turns out to be a city, with a structured network of streets and a square. A colleague and I came across the site in connection with another project last year, and we realized the great potential right away. The fact that nobody has ever explored the hill before is a mystery."

Archaeologist Johan Klange measuring the Classical-Hellenistic fortifications on the hill of Strongilovoúni. ( VLAP)

 Finds from 500 BC The team discovered the ruins of towers, walls, and city gates on the summit and slopes of the hill. Additionally, during their first two weeks of field work in September, they found ancient pottery and coins, dating back to around 500 BC. After that, the city is thought to have prospered from the 4th to 3rd century BC before it was abandoned – possibly when the Romans took over the area.

Fragment of red-figure pottery discovered at the site. It is from the late 6th century BC and probably by Attic painter Paseas. ( University of Gothenburg )

 Rönnlund hopes that his team won’t need to excavate the site. Instead, they would prefer to use methods such as ground-penetrating radar, which will allow them to leave it in the same condition as they found it.

A second field project is planned for August next year and Rönnlund is optimistic about the future finds and results. He said :

"Very little is known about ancient cities in the region, and many researchers have previously believed that western Thessaly was somewhat of a backwater during Antiquity. Our project therefore fills an important gap in the knowledge about the area and shows that a lot remains to be discovered in the Greek soil.”

The site with the road leading up towards it. ( Swedish Institute at Athens )

Top Image: The city’s acropolis is barely visible on the hill on a cloudy day. Source: University of Gothenburg

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Gold Pendant Found in Denmark Depicts Norse God Odin, and May Have Been a Sacrifice to Avert the Disastrous Weather of 536 AD

Ancient Origins

Odin, the high god of Norse mythology, rode his eight-legged horse Sleipnir through the nine worlds dispensing ecstasy to all those who invoked him. Now an image of a man with a horse depicted on a gold pendant from the 6th century AD has been found by an amateur with a metal detector on a Danish island. Experts speculate it depicts Odin in part because it has the text “The High One,” one of Odin’s titles.

While the horse on the pendant does not have eight legs, the man’s head is hovering above it. The horse’s head appears to have antlers or horns. The pendant is believed to date to 536 AD, a year that was plagued by severed weather conditions.

Also depicted on the gold pendant is a swastika, which was not then a symbol of racism or white “supremacy.” The Nazis of pre-World War II and World War II Europe and later neo-nazis co-opted the symbol. It has been known for millennia in various places around the world, including among people of color, as a cosmic sign and one of good luck.

The gold and silver pieces found by a man with a metal detector on a Danish island may have been part of sacrificial offerings in 536 AD to the god Odin to avert harsh, cold weather. (Museum Lolland-Falster image)

The metal-detecting amateur, Carsten Helm, and his sons turned up the gold pendant and some other gold and silver pieces nearby on the island of Lolland. The Museum Lolland-Falster says Odin’s image has been found on many artifacts across Northern Europe, some with the words The High One, so they assume this is the same deity. Odin was and still is considered by neo-pagans or Asatruar the high god of the Aesir, one of two main families of Norse gods. The other are the Vanir, with whom the Aesir had some contact and intermarriage.

Odin in blue as the Wanderer, with Mime (Wikimedia Commons/Arthur Rackham painting)

“It is a really exciting discovery," says Marie Brinch, curator at the Museum Lolland-Falster. “Although it is a known type, it is a rare and exciting find—over time there have been only three found on Lolland, the latest in 1906—and from all over northern Europe we are aware of only around 1,000 pieces, most of which are from Denmark and the Nordic region.”

She said the pendant is so exciting because it is among the earliest depictions of Norse religion. This charm appears to show Odin as a shaman, she said. Shamans in ancient religions and still today make contact with the world of spirits in ecstatic union. As a god, it is possible Odin was in contact with shamans invoking him.

The museum says another interpretation of Odin’s image on the pendant is that he was a known as a healer of horses. The press release from the museum doesn’t mention this, but Odin’s vehicle or mount was a magical eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. has a section on Sleipnir that states: “The eight-legged horse as a means of transportation used by shamans in their ecstatic travels throughout the cosmos is a motif that can be found in a staggering number of indigenous traditions from all over the world. Sleipnir is ‘the shamanic horse par excellence,’ just as Odin is the shamanic god par excellence.”

Odin on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir (public domain)

Another theory about the gold and silver jewelry is that it was part of a sacrifice, possibly including of humans, to avert the very cold winters of the 6th century AD. Ms. Binch explained:

“It is possibly linked to a major natural disaster that took place in 536. Written sources from both the Roman Empire, Europe, the Middle East and even China tell of a year when the sun was not shining and there was frost in summer. We do not know exactly what happened, but there are indications that a violent volcanic eruption or a meteor strike threw ash or dust in the atmosphere and thus caused a prolonged period of reduced sunlight. Such an event certainly made people afraid. The harvest failed, and neither humans nor animals were able to get enough to eat. In such desperate times it was natural to call upon the gods for help by sacrificing … and the more precious things, the better. The event has been traumatic for the survivors, perhaps we can find traces of the idea of Ragnarok – the end of the world. It is an interesting thought that the beginning of [the epic] Völuspá just mentions that the sun disappears, and then follows Fimbul Winter - three winters without summer between. … The correlation is striking. It was not just wealth, sacrifices were made, but magical amulets and symbols. And maybe it was hoped that the shiny gold could help bring the shining sun back?”

Top image: Odin Riding Forth on the Cover of "Legends and Lore" (Cory Funk / flickr)

By Mark Miller

Monday, December 19, 2016

Numerous Statues of Sekhmet, The Lioness Goddess of War, Unearthed in Egypt

Ancient Origins

A team of Egyptian archaeologists excavating the Mortuary Temple of King Amenhotep III in Luxor, a city in southern Egypt and the capital of Luxor Governorate, have brought to the surface an impressive number of statues of the goddess Sekhmet, daughter of the ancient Egyptian sun god Re.

 The Significance of the Goddess Sekhmet in Ancient Egyptian Religion
The lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, also known as Sakhmet or Sekhet, was a member of the Memphite Triad, thought to be the wife of Ptah and mother of Nefertem. Linked with war and retribution, she was believed to use arrows to kill her enemies with fire, her breath being the hot desert wind as her body took on the glare of the midday sun. She often represented the destructive force of the sun as well. According to the Egyptian legends, she came into being when Hathor was sent to earth by Ra to take vengeance on man. She was the one who slaughtered mankind and drank their blood, only being stopped by trickery. However, being mother of Nefertem, who himself was a healing god, gave her a more protective side that manifested itself in her aspect of goddess of healing and surgery. The priests of Sekhmet were specialists in the field of medicine, arts linked to ritual and magic. They were also trained surgeons of remarkable caliber. According to many historians, this is the main reason King Amenhotep III had so many statues of Sekhmet surrounding him, as he was suffering from many health problems and he hoped the goddess may cure him; a theory that is verified by Mahmoud Afifi, head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, who claimed that the many statues of the goddess in the temple of Amenhotep III were possibly intended to protect the ruler from evil and disease.

Wall relief of Sekhmet, Kom Ombo Temple, Egypt (CC by SA 3.0)

The Statues Have a Great Historical and Artistic Value German Egyptologist and the project director Hourig Sourouzian, who also discovered fourteen statues made of black granite portraying the Lionhead goddess Sekhmet back in 2013, told Ahram Online, "They are of great artistic quality". The statues were discovered in four parts, including three busts and one headless torso, in the Kom El-Hettan archaeological area on Luxor's west bank. Sourouzian supervises the excavation of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project, which aims to save the remains of the three millennia old temple and ultimately reinstall its scattered artefacts to the site, so they can be presented in their authentic design. Sourouzian stated that her team discovered the Sekhmet pieces in great condition, buried in the temple's hypostyle hall—a roofed structure supported by columns.

One of the recently discovered busts of Sekhmet (Ahram Online)

The Statues Are Currently Stored in Warehouses Supervised by the Ministry of Antiquities Mahmoud Afifi told Ahram Online that the Egyptian authorities will do anything it takes to keep the statues of the Goddess safe, “All statues of the goddess are now stored in warehouses supervised by the Ministry of Antiquities for security reasons,” also saying that when excavations at the site are finished and the temple is opened to guests and tourists, the statues will be placed back in their original position.

Adjacent statue of Sekhmet in profile Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (CC by SA 3.0)

In addition to the statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet, Sourouzian's team of archeologists have discovered large pieces of sphinxes carved in limestone, as well as a small torso of a deity in black granite, which are in bad state at the moment and they will need to be treated for some time before they are exposed for public view. The exhibit that launches on December 12, will celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Luxor Museum, and will display a rich collection of 40 artifacts discovered by archaeologists on the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project. The artifacts will also include a collection of amulets and Greco-Roman coins among other objects of significant historical value.

Top image: Sekhmet - Kom Ombo, Egypt (Thomas Leplus / flickr)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The vilification of Wallis Simpson

History Extra

Edward and Wallis Simpson, the Duke and Duchess, 1956. Cut off from the royal family and with no role to play, they spent their time in France and the USA. (Philip Halsman/Magnum Photos)

 In the summer of 1936 Lady Diana Cooper remarked that “Wallis is wearing very very badly. Her commonness and Becky Sharpishness irritate”. As far as the English upper classes were concerned, Wallis Simpson was a cunning social climber, like Becky Sharp in William Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. They simply could not understand what King Edward VIII saw in her – a woman considered too lower-class to qualify for any kind of royal attention, as well as being a divorcee and an American.

But Edward adored her. He had met her in 1931, when he was Prince of Wales, and she was married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson. It was not long before they were in love. “My own beloved Wallis”, he wrote in 1935, “I love you more & more & more & more… I haven’t seen you once today; I can’t take it. I love you”.

 Edward’s friend Winston Churchill believed that Wallis was good for him. “Although branded with the stigma of a guilty love,” he said, “no companionship could have appeared more natural, more free from impropriety or grossness”. Well-read, with a lively sense of humour, Wallis had a warm and sincere heart. She was devoted to her mother and her aunt and she did not conceal – even in circles where paid work was thought to be vulgar – the fact that her aunt worked for a living. Her servants liked her as well. “All the maids,” said a kitchen maid, “spoke well of Mrs Simpson”.

The Prince of Wales with Churchill in 1919. Churchill thought that Wallis, who Edward first met in 1931, five years before he became king, gave him "more confidence in himself". (Getty Images)

 By January 1936, when Edward became king, he had decided to marry Wallis. It was said in court circles that Wallis was scheming to be queen. But this was not true: rather, she wondered if it might be better to “be content with the simple way” – where she would be his mistress, rather than his wife. But Edward swept aside her misgivings and persuaded her to start proceedings for divorce. In November 1936, when she had obtained her decree nisi, he announced his marriage plan to the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. As sovereign, he was free to marry anyone he liked, except a Roman Catholic, under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. But Baldwin said it was impossible: public opinion would not approve of a divorced woman becoming queen. Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere came up with a solution – a morganatic marriage, by which Wallis would become Edward’s wife, but not his queen. It became known as the “Cornwall plan”, because Churchill suggested that Wallis could be styled the Duchess of Cornwall.

 Until the start of December 1936, only the tiny world of Society, with a capital “S”, knew about Edward’s love for Wallis, because it had been kept out of the news. But on 2 December 1936, the story broke. The nation was stunned: the streets were packed and newspapers sold as fast as they were printed. “Papers full of harpy & the King”, wrote Mrs Baldwin in her diary.

The Establishment, led by Baldwin, the Church of England, the Tory press and the royal court, had expected the nation to oppose Edward’s plan for marriage. But to their horror, most people wanted to keep him as their king on any terms. He was immensely popular: like Princess Diana many years later, he had a star quality that was irresistible. But more than anything, he was appreciated for his concern for ordinary people, with whom he had served at the front in the years of war, and for his many visits to the poor. Many people also liked the idea that Wallis, like them, was not rich and privileged. “It is character that Counts here, & in the Great Beyond, not a Tytle” [sic], wrote a woman from South Wales to the king.

 The country was divided, just as it was split in 1997 after the death of Diana. On the one side, there was the Establishment. On the other, there was the mass of ordinary people, as well as middle-class liberals and intellectuals, like George Bernard Shaw. “The People Want Their King” insisted a Daily Mail headline. Diners rose in restaurants to propose a toast to Edward and in the cinema, the National Anthem was heard with enthusiastic clapping and shouts of “We want the King”. The newsreels acknowledged there was a crisis, but presented it as a love story, not a scandal. In the Commons, MPs cheered when Churchill stood up to demand that no pressure be put on the king. Many people suspected that Baldwin wanted to get rid of Edward – that Wallis was “a godsend”, because she provided the perfect excuse to bounce him off the throne.

 But over the weekend of 4–6 December, there was a proliferation of rumours through the nation, planting seeds of doubt. There was widespread speculation that Churchill was going to form a “King’s Party” and bring down the government. It was also rumoured that, in the words of Sir Horace Wilson, Baldwin’s advisor, Wallis was “selfish, self-seeking, hard, calculating, ambitious, scheming, dangerous”. Most damaging for Edward, a story was spread that Wallis was a friend of von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, and was selling the nation’s secrets. These sorts of things, observed the publisher Francis Meynell, “were bound to be said but other incidents of which I heard made one view her with much suspicion on this point”.

A sympathetic portrait of Wallis Simpson in 'The Bystander', April 1937: she wrote in an October 1936 letter to Edward “I feel like an animal in a trap”, which is rather how she appears here. (Credit Illustrated London News)

 But Wallis had met Ribbentrop only twice; the first occasion was a large luncheon, which was also attended by Churchill. Neither she nor Edward were part of any social circle frequented by Hitler’s ambassador. He was a favourite guest of Lord and Lady Londonderry and of the social hostess, Mrs Ronnie Greville, who admired Hitler and fascism. But Mrs Greville’s royal friends were Albert, the Duke of York, and his wife Elizabeth (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth) – not Wallis and Edward.

 On 3 December, the day after the story broke, Wallis had fled to the south of France to stay with friends. She was a resourceful woman: she had survived an abusive first marriage and had travelled extensively through Europe and Asia. But she had sensed a “mounting menace in the very atmosphere” and felt close to a nervous breakdown. Once away from England, she became aware that Edward, who had by now been told by Baldwin that a morganatic marriage was impossible, had decided to abdicate. She tried to stop him. On 7 December, she issued a statement to the press – that she was willing to renounce the king. Baldwin was unnerved: “Only time I was frightened. I thought [the king] might change his mind”. He quickly sent a telegram to the Dominion prime ministers, stating that he had “every reason for doubting bona fides of Mrs Simpson’s statement”.

 Edward stood firm in his decision to go. On 10 December, knowing Baldwin was going to make an announcement to the House of Commons, Edward sent him a note, asking him to tell the House of Mrs Simpson’s efforts to prevent him from giving up the throne. Horace Wilson pinned a note of his own to the one Edward had sent: “I asked the PM whether he had any intention of mentioning Mrs Simpson (If he had, [I] was quite willing to draft appropriate passages!). The PM said he would make no reference”.

 On 11 December, Edward gave his own speech to the nation, which Churchill had helped him to write. It had become impossible for him, he said, “to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love”. Wallis listened in France, lying on a sofa with her eyes closed. “Darling,” she wrote to him afterwards, “I want to see you touch you I want to run my own house I want to be married and to you”.

Edward VIII asked Baldwin to tell the House of Commons that Wallis tried to dissuade him from abdicating. The prime minister’s advisor noted (pictured below) that Baldwin had no intention of doing so. (Credit The National Archives)

(Credit The National Archives)

 They were finally married on 3 June 1937, in France. But the new king, George VI, forbade any of Edward’s brothers or his sister from attending the wedding. Then he sent word that the title of HRH – Her Royal Highness – would not be extended to Wallis. She would be simply Duchess of Windsor. It was a wounding blow to Edward – and it meant that in the end, his marriage to Wallis was morganatic. “I hope you will never regret this sacrifice,” Wallis wrote to Edward, “and that your brother will prove to the world that we still have a position and that you will be given some jobs to do”.

 But this was not to be. The couple made repeated requests for useful employment, but were turned down. It was feared in court circles that, as Horace Wilson told Neville Chamberlain in December 1936, Mrs Simpson intended “not only to come back here but… to set up a ‘Court’ of her own and – there can be little doubt – do her best to make things uncomfortable for the new occupant of the Throne. It must not be assumed that she has abandoned hope of becoming Queen of England”.

 “I think you know,” wrote George VI in December 1938 to Chamberlain, now prime minister, “that neither the Queen [Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother] nor Queen Mary have any desire to meet the Duchess of Windsor”. Churchill observed sadly of the Duchess of Windsor, “No-one has been more victimised by gossip and scandal”.

 The ugly rumours lingered on, even beyond Wallis’s death in 1986. In a sense, they became worse, because the Establishment’s perception of Wallis in 1936 prevailed, eclipsing the sympathetic view of ordinary people at the time. It is maintained that a China Dossier exists, listing sexual tricks learnt by Wallis in Shanghai, which she had used to ensnare the king – but nothing has been found in any archive. The allegation that she was a Nazi agent is still current, even though there is no reliable evidence in either the British or the German national archives.

 In 2005, Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, a divorcee, on the very morganatic basis denied to Edward: Camilla became Duchess of Cornwall and was styled HRH. If this solution could be achieved for Charles and Camilla, then why had it not been possible for Edward and Wallis? “I am profoundly grieved at what has happened,” wrote Churchill to Lloyd George on Christmas Day 1936. “I believe the Abdication to have been altogether premature and probably quite unnecessary.”

 Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and author of The People's King: The True Story of the Abdication (Penguin Books, 2003).

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Earliest Remains of Monks, Who May Have Known King Arthur, Unearthed in England

Ancient Origins

It is conceivable that 5th or early 6th century humans, whose remains were recently excavated at Glastonbury in England, may have known King Arthur or St. Bridget—two towering figures of early British legend. They are the oldest known remains of monks in the British Isles, says a story about the dig in The Guardian. A group doing a community training excavation turned up the remains at Beckery Chapel in Somerset—a medieval chapel that has an earlier foundation of a monastery and a nearby cemetery with 50 to 60 bodies in it, The Guardian states.

An illustration of Beckery Chapel (Somerset Routes)

The monks that were unearthed died around 500 AD, but burials continued into the early 9th century, the article states. From historical and archaeological evidence, experts have tentatively concluded that monks used the site until later in the 9th century, when Vikings attacked Somerset.

Legends say St. Bridget, an important Irish saint with roots in an earlier Celtic goddess, visited the site in 488 AD, after which it became a place of pilgrimage.

“Brigit: In Celtic mythology, goddess of knowledge, fire, the hearth, and poetry. Brigit is a culture goddess, her name being found in various forms throughout Britain as well as the Continent. When the Irish became Christian, Brigit was, according to some scholars, metamorphosed into St. Brigit,” says the Facts on File Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend.

“St. Bride,” a 1913 painting by John Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

The community dig turned up two previously unknown bodies and workers took bone samples of seven others for radio carbon testing. The earliest of them, probably a monk, died between 406 and 544 AD.

Archaeologists found the cemetery in the 1960s, but radio carbon dating of ancient material was still unrefined and imprecise. Dr. Richard Brunning, director of the excavations, said the finds were exciting and surprising and added that archaeologists and historians have been waiting for 50 years to answer the question of when these people lived.

 It was in France that monasticism started around or shortly before 400 AD, The Guardian says. It spread to the British Isles bordering the Irish Sea, including western England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. These findings are the earliest evidence of monasticism in the United Kingdom, Dr. Brunning told The Guardian.

“There are various saints’ lives that suggest people might be founding monasteries, but they are vaguely dated and it is uncertain how far you can trust them, because, obviously, it is in their own interests to big up the history of whatever saint they are writing about, and they are usually written several hundred years afterwards,” Dr. Brunning told The Guardian.

Some say St. Bridget and King Arthur, a legendary British ruler who led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th centuries AD, visited Beckery Chapel, which the older monastery and cemetery are near.

This South West Heritage Trust photo shows two phases of the chapel, the outer walls having been added later.

Twenty-five local people did the dig, which lasted about two weeks and was overseen by the South West Heritage Trust. Archaeologists will write up the findings for a journal and the site will open for public visits and have interpretation panels. Nearby “Glastonbury Abbey is a big tourist attraction itself, so it just adds to that wider Glastonbury story,” Dr. Brunning said.

John Morland actually first excavated the medieval chapel in the 1880s, and Philip Rahtz continued in the 1960s, but because radio carbon dating was new the exact age of the site was unknown, The Guardian states.

Top Image: This skeleton of a person about 45 years old are the remains of a man who died between 425 and 579 AD, radio carbon dating has shown. Legend says St. Bridget, an Irish saint, visited Beckery Chapel in 488 AD and it became a place of pilgrimage. (South West Heritage Trust photo)

By Mark Miller