In search of King Arthur in sand-swept Pennard


Image of Pennard Castle

The lonely, sand swept walls of Pennard Castle, Glamorganshire, here showing the twin-towered gatehouse.

To come from the seas,      across sandy shoals,

By boat on the waves     to beach at Pennard

Lets all see a castle     so grand and serene

That folk are at once     all won over with joy!

When I was a knight     in these lands long ago

I came to this place     so proud on my horse

And jousted with jollity     in jaunts with my friends

In front of King Arthur,     the fairest of all,

And lovely Waynor     with her wondrous grey eyes.

With Sir Bors and Sir Lucan,     boystrous and bold,

And also Sir Lancelot     that most skilful at tourney,

I fought in the field     with my lady’s sleeve

As a token of truth     in telling of my love.

The banners all blue     and those others so bright

Did fly in the wind      afloat and a-flutter

With silks all soft blowing     which I myself saw.

By those walls on those cliffs     all those knights made a clatter

As hoof and hard armour     all hammered at once

And cheers rose in chanting     with every man’s challenge

Until at the close     when a champion was called.

But those days are now done,     they have drawn to a close,

Which once bore brave witness     to chivalry wondrous;

The winds which blew banners     have now brought just sand

And that castle I knew     has all crumbled and cracked.

Where Arthur watched from,     those walls are all wracked

That once saw that fighting     in those long-off days

And the land and the village     and all those loyal folk

Have all dwindled and gone     as the sand drowned them all in

its way.

We look upon that fort

So strong in Arthur’s day;

It is sadly now but nought

And his knights all gone away.


About Pennard Castle…

Pennard Castle on the Gower Peninsula is a small stone castle, built on a former ring work castle. It is lightly-built but in a commanding site which safe-guarded access to the land below it, in particular the valley of the Pennard Pill which advances inland from the beach. According to Cathcart-King, it is first mentioned in 1322; the remains today comprise the remnants of a twin-towered gatehouse, a small round mural tower, a larger square tower, a section of wall and the foundations of the great hall. The life of the castle was short, succumbing to the incursion of sand dunes in the fourteenth century which also led to the decline and then desertion of the neighbouring village. In his evocative, if somewhat inaccurate description of the ruins (and their cause) in the 1920s, CWC Oman states, with a somewhat laconic air, “It is a melancholy site, half filled with drifting sand; for though it stands on a rock, the wind has piled it deep with fine detritus from the neighbouring golf links – where may be seen the only signs of life in this rather depressing corner of the peninsula”. 

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Image of King Arthur

Support a new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death)

Arthurians and others with an interest – this blog is written in the style of the fourteenth century alliterative poets.

I am currently crowdfunding my second book through Unbound, in this case the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), written by an unknown hand in c.1400.

If you would like to pledge for your own limited edition copy, with your own name in the back as a supporter, please click here.


More images of Pennard Castle…


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King Arthur comes alive with all of his knights!


Image of King Arthur and his knights

The knights of King Arthur from a fifteenth century manuscript – the Alliterative Morte Arthure captures the speed and thinking of the fourteenth century in one fabulous poetic creation.

Of all of the heroes of the British isles

There is none better known than noble King Arthur

Yet despite his renown and that of his Round Table

Most romances it seems were not written here.

Yet there is one which was worked up near Lincoln

That told of his torments when tackled by Rome;

Of his battle to take on Sir Lucius alone

To reclaim his lands that this man also claimed.

King Arthur’s Death is how many do know it,

A salutary tale of soldierly strength;

A poem that plucks great strings of pure valour,

A song for all folk who seek ancient heroes!

It speaks of his journey, of crossing great seas

To face down that Emperor and force him away;

It tells of the battles between boisterous knights

As the king crossed the continent to fight with Sir Lucius.

Yet this is no romance with ladies and courtiers,

This is no story of delicate deeds;

It tells of how kings in long distant times

Had to rally their leaders in loyal command.

Sir Lot and Sir Lancelot put others to flight;

Sir Cador of Cornwall crashes through knights;

Sir Gawain the mighty against his great foes,

Arthur’s great advocate advancing to fame!

But battles abroad cast a cautionary note

And for Arthur he shuddered for all his arms used;

Sir Mordred at home assumed that great kingdom

So Arthur again had to win back his lands.

He does so of course but at great kingly cost:

His once great Round Table was brought to low ruin;

His most loyal knights were all lost in the fight

And so with his sword that king sought his great foe

Alone.

He battled with Mordred

Until he heard him moan;

He killed that man stone dead

But so too his life was gone.


Pledge for this brand new book – and have your name in the back as a supporter!

This post celebrates a new translation I am working on of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur’s Death), a magnificent poem of the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century written somewhere in Yorkshire or Lincolnshire in about 1400.

Like my translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s Death will be published by Unbound and will be richly illustrated with over 30 of my pen-and-ink drawings, based on contemporary mediaeval manuscripts. The book can only happen with your help; if you would like to see it become reality – and have your name in the back for all time as a patron and subscriber, please click here for more information

Different pledge rewards available (see below)

The images below show three of the pledge rewards on offer for supporters of the book – but you can simply pledge for the book on its own. Every pledge received before the book is sent to print, no matter the size, will ensure your name appears in the back of the book.

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Brentor on Dartmoor by foot and on high


Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor

Church of St Michael of the Rock, Brentor, Dartmoor, Devonshire

Up out of Tavistock,      along the straight road,

We come now to Brentor      bold like a stark thumb

As it stands above Dartmoor      alone dark and brooding;

A church there for years,     challenging and cheerless.

Yet climb with me stranger     with stout legs and striding,

Let your boots bound on boulders     till you get to the top,

And there you’ll find solace     with blowing winds blasting

Against the tight granite     which grips God’s home here.

Push that door smartly     for it scrapes the flat stones

Of the entrance to this place     which is dark inside;

Fear not the cold gloom     or your eyesight in gloaming

For warm welcome breath     sweet blows on your face

Of the grace and the glory     of those gone before

Who made this place special     to prick at your soul!

Glass of Saint Michael,     great granite font,

Monuments left      to those lost long ago;

Plain yet so precious     these simple-formed things

Hold you in their grasp     almost weeping in pain

As they tell of their stories     of lives long since spent

And once lived in the cold     before you were alive.

I Pray now in penitence     for sport I have made

In blissful unknowing     of blood shed and blown

In the tors of old Dartmoor     tight-lipped and unspoken

But placed on these walls     that speak now to me and

Don’t hide.

Brentor upon its rock

Is for miles like a guide

Helping travellers to unlock

That wind-blown countryside.


The church of St Michael of the Rock (St Michael de Rupe) at Brentor, Devonshire, stands 1100 feet above sea level on an extinct volcanic cone, the prominence of which has long attracted people to the site. The base of the main rock is surrounded by the remains of an Iron Age hill fort.

The church itself, diminutive by any standard and most likely some form of chantry chapel, was established by Robert Giffard in the 12th Century although much of this has long since disappeared, being enlarged and rebuilt over the centuries. Much of what we see today dates from the 13th and 15th centuries although with considerable restoration in the nineteenth century which has obscured a great deal of the early work at the site.

Elements of the original building survive in the form of the font, of plain type, which dates from the fifteenth century and the tower. The exterior also includes an unusual sun dial on the southern face of the tower; curiously the church, despite its diminutive size, retains a door on its northern and southern sides.

For more details, please see the Historic England listing here

Coming soon by the Author:

Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – different to those which will appear in the bookshops – please click here

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The Viking Stones at Gosforth


Image of Gosforth Cross.

Almost like Yggdrasil itself, the Gosforth cross rises from the tree of life to be crowned with a cross.

Coming down that lane from Lakeland’s scratching crags

On Gringolet I ride towards the green of coastal plain,

And there alight at Gosforth as it lies in lowering sun

With its memories of raiders who once came this far inland.

A little bland, perhaps, this place it seems – but not on close inspection;

For there within its hedgy bounds a cross soars up to skies

That tells of Vikings and their ways, and what became of them,

When heathen gods were banished by all those that did live here.

From ashen roots of Yggdrasil its round stem turns to square

By which its upper reaches speak the triumph of the Lord

With triquetra carved declaring of the Holy Trinity

While further down our eyes will see Loki, Sigyn and more.

The church seems new compared to this but looks can be deceiving:

Inside more Viking carvings kept by those who came before.

Two hog-backed graves, all humped and whole, found buried in old times

And fine upon the wall we find the Fishing Stone of Thor!

Six hundred years have lapsed since I last walked round here

in awe:

This church has been much changed

(And with it, ancient lore);

Its stones all rearranged

Yet what joys lie through the door!


History

St Mary’s Church is to be found in the centre of the village of Gosforth in Cumberland. Although the building gives the initial appearance of being a typical Victorian church (it was rebuilt in the late 19th Century), it still retains many features from its earlier incarnations, with the oldest internal fabric dating from the 12th Century.

Of particular note is the great cross in the churchyard, which stands over fourteen feet tall and is decorated with scenes which have been interpreted as showing different elements of Norse mythology. The churchyard also contains the stump of a second cross.

Inside the church, the visitor is treated to two fine hogback graves with detailed and ornate carving. These were found buried under a 12th Century section of the old church building when the Victorian restoration of the nave took place in 1897, and clearly pre-date the original wall.

The “Fishing Stone”, also in the church, may be a fragment of the second cross outside. It features an image of Thor and Hymir the giant as they fish for Jormungandr, the great serpent which encircles the world.

Listing Details to be found here

New Book by the Author:

Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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Into the lands of Mortimer at Wigmore


Image of Wigmore castle.

Looking up towards the shattered towers of Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford

When this land was once separate from all those in Wales,

And that dyke built by Offa to demark the fields,

Some semblance of peace came for a short while

As princes and kings came to enjoy the calm.

But peace did not reign long in these border pastures

So there were the Marches which men made their own

To keep for the king lest they came to be captured

And curtail the powers of great English lords.

So was the case of the men they called Mortimer

Who with warlike power did marshal these lands;

With great iron grip and gritty resolve

They conquered with castles which they came to build.

And here we are now at the one they called Wigmore;

A bastion of boulders brazen above

The small town below which cowers beneath it.

A short climb through brambles to crumbling walls

Rewards now the traveller with towering turrets:

A shell keep, some baileys and stretching views

Over fields and lands and with wildlife free roaming

Which in the past were not safe to walk through.

But for all of their powers that Mortimer family

Came in the end to fall far from grace:

Killers of Edward and crowning a kingdom

They were by his son deposed of their powers.

That first Earl of March grew far too big

and grand.

Roger was disliked

He overplayed his hand;

At Tyburn was he spiked;

And the king then took command.


Wigmore castle in the county of Hereford is a castle of the marcher lords. These lords, in managing difficult border lands, possessed many unique privileges which enabled them to govern almost as semi-independent lords with distinct powers to fight, hold court and to collect certain taxes. The castle dates back to the 11th Century although much of what survives today dates from the early 13th Century and later. Much of the current building reflects the work of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (1287–1330), although some of the masonry is later. 

Roger Mortimer became de facto ruler of all England after he and Isabella, the estranged queen of Edward II arranged for the king’s deposition and murder in 1327. Despite enjoying some influence at the beginning of the reign of Edward III, the king had him arrested in 1330 and executed for treason.  Wigmore was returned to the Mortimers in the later 14th century, although its heyday was by then over. Roger’s heir,  also called Roger  (1328–60), went on to become a founder member of the Knights of the Garter. 

The castle today is managed by English Heritage. When I first visited the place in the 1980s it was overgrown with brambles and almost inaccessible. Today, while some of this wildness has been preserved, the visitor is able to walk around by way of demarked pathways which did not exist until the 1990s.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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Sir Gawain and Sir Walter atte Lea


Image of tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea in Albury

The much damaged remains of the tomb of Sir Walter Atte Lea, who helped in calming the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381

And so we went riding through dark woods and groves,

Gringolet and myself going slow down wind-ways,

Till we came unto Albury set high on its hill

With eyes over Hertfordshire at sweet summer tide

Where Walter atte Lea lies asleep in repose

In a bier by a window beside a bright light

That shines upon him and his wife lying there.

What now he whispers I wish I could hear

But all of his voice has gone blown with the barley

Along with the words that he spoke long ago

To Richard the boy king who ruled with weak reason

When peasants in Essex and Suffolk and Kent

Did rise up against those grasping greedy for tax!

Walter wanted to walk with his own peasants there

To tackle them himself and not to allow

Central courts to oppress them and cause much contempt

When he had to live there and treat with his men

And help rule his lands without disloyal folk.

Repression he argued had gone way too far

And if it did not stop well then doom must swift follow

For sure.

He talked with his men there

Who knew his local law

Walter saw what was right fair

In talking with the rural poor.


The Church of St Mary at Albury in Hertfordshire contains a variety of monuments and brasses to attract the casual visitor. The tomb of Sir Walter atte Lea, referred to in this post, is now sadly much defaced and has also been moved at some time in the past. Sir Walter atte Lea (also known as Sir Walter atte Lee) himself played a key role during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, attempting to deal with complaints locally rather than to impose harsher penalties from a distant monarchy. He appears to have handled the matter incompetently although this did not stop his further advancement under Richard II, as this link reveals. The location of the church, atop a hill surveying much of the surrounding countryside, means it commands attractive views over the east Hertfordshire uplands.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here


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A trip to Painscastle with Sir Gawain


Image of sheep at Painscastle in Radnorshire/Powys

Sheep stand guard on the mounds of Painscastle in Radnorshire/Powys

 

To Radnorshire now as once was known we ride

And up beyond Clyro’s motte to mounds magnificent in the hills:

Painscastle now we see, peeping proudly from its fields

Surveying every scene of hereabouts, a silent bearer of old news.

What a place this was when I well knew its prime!

Built on Roman roots, we think, but rounded now by Norman spades

And cast in scarps scoured from the hill by sweat of men long dead.

Pain Fitz John its founder piled these heaps of earth

Upon this hill to stake his claim in marcher hinterlands;

Then lord Rhys did wrestle it in war from Maud whose name it also bears

In memory of her proud defence, defiant in the land against the Welsh.

Yet where are the walls that well I knew and halls and houses here?

All gone? All gone! Like barley blown away by autumn winds

And now not one stone stands upon another which once with king I saw!

Yet Henry did this place shore up when Welshmen rose again

And so Pain’s castle proud it stood against the warring spears

Built on the labour of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and loyal shires!

But now up here silence only sings Paincastle’s siren call to tourists in

its sleep:

Pain and Maud have gone save for their name

With what’s left just ditches deep.

Is this what becomes of Norman fame;

Great mounds slow munched by sheep?

 

Painscastle in Radnorshire (Powys) is one of the finest motte and bailey castles in the Welsh marches and well repays a visit.  Founded in the early 12th Century by Pain Fitz John, Lord of Ewyas, it was re-fortified during the reign of Richard I by William de Braose III whose wife, Maud, defended it against the Welsh (and by whose name the castle is also known). Simple in plan, Painscastle comprises a large bailey, a small hornwork/barbican earthwork and an enormous motte.  The earthworks themselves are of great proportion; the site itself may once have had Roman origins.

Under threat from a new Welsh uprising, the castle was considerably rebuilt by Henry III and, between July and September 1230, his army remained there while the castle was “splendidly rebuilt in stone and lime”. It appears that much, if not all, of this work was robbed out in later centuries; the Inventory of Ancient Monuments in Radnorshire laconically laments this fact, stating accurately that the surface of the earthworks is “broken here and there by mounds, as though masses of overturned masonry were buried beneath the soil”. And thus it seems, even today.

Note to the visitor: located in a remote hamlet, the castle hides behind a farmhouse and it is only correct that permission must be sought from the farmer to see the remains.

New Book by the Author: Michael Smith’s new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will be published in July 2018. To pre-order your special collector’s limited first edition – with your name in the back – please click here

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