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.

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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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Sir Gawain and Gringolet go to St Neot in Cornwall


Image showing detail of mediaeval glass at St Anietus Church, St Neot Cornwall

Gruesome hanging shown in mediaeval window, St Anietus Church, St Neot Cornwall. Notice the counterweight.

In travelling all across the land I say

There are few gems more jewelled than just this place:

St Neot sitting in soft vales beside the Bodmin moor

Has much to marvel at, and more to see

Than in any place I know or I have seen these several years!

When I first wound with Gringolet in this world

In every church choice lights in chancels you would you see

But now our land has been levelled of such luxury

And empty now are many of the colours they once cast.

Not so St Neot calm above the winding road

For in its walls are wonders which bewitch

The eye, the soul, the senses and much more:

Glass from my own time, magnificent still methinks!

Look here, see Noah sailing in his ark

And there sweet ladies pray in soft calm thoughts;

Biblical stories beautiful in glass abound

In each and every light that lifts the soul.

Donors who once gave to this rich place

Are also shown, their arms as if caparisons

On this most holy church like cloth of gold in glass!

Fellow traveller, do not come this way without

a turn:

All who see St Neot sweet

Will gasp at what they learn.

They’ll never such another meet

Nor rich beauty will discern.

 

The church of St Anietus at St Neot has ancient origins stretching back to Saxon times. Since its rebuilding in the fifteenth century, the church has become famous for its remarkable collection of original mediaeval stained glass. These astonishing survivals include windows show the Creation, the story of Noah and of St Neot; each window is a joy to behold and well repays the journey to see. The interior also includes a wealth of monuments from different periods, in addition to a fabulous fifteenth century waggon roof. Even the churchyard contains much of interest, in particular a collection of ancient mediaeval wayside crosses. For more details of the church, please refer to this listing.

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 goes to Bygrave, an ancient settlement in aged fields


Image of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire

The delightful church of St Margaret of Antioch, Bygrave, Hertfordshire, which has Saxon origins.

The rains relented overnight revealing sun to bless the day

And so on Gringolet I ride the rolling road below the ridge

Where ancient men lie buried still in mounds majestic overhead;

And on to this shire’s soft edge I go and down to see Bygrave below.

This place has history as betrayed by boundaries of its bold fields

Which have the centuries survived as Saxon relics still and true

When others all around did under evil threat so ease to be enclosed;

A market place it once was but now more music do we hear

From roaming red kites high above than any padding in this street.

Yet Margaret of Antioch is here mild among this springtime bliss –

She presides in such a place as will most sweetly calm

The troubled minds of those who mingle mid the graves

And by the marshy moats which men once dug upon this mound

When few but brave men felt compelled to make their fortunes here

And those that did played nine men’s morris meekly by the church.

A simple place, blanched white in sun and shining like

A beacon in lands dark, remote, or bleak or bad

And which now are but a less-viewed vestige of a vanished age.

Let ancient Bygrave calm you too and capture in your troubled head

and thoughts

A time when folk did wander free

And played at idle sports

Below the shadow of some tree

In harvest time cohorts.

 

Bygrave in the county of Hertford is an ancient settlement which today sleeps atop rolling countryside just below the Royston Ridge. The church, St Margaret of Antioch, contains much of interest, including wall paintings, a fifteenth century font and the remains of a mediaeval rood screen. Parts of the building are Saxon in origin. The field system surrounding the village are of particular note; research shows that it was never enclosed. This landscape sensitivity report does give some cause for alarm, given that this ancient landscape has survived for so long. This particular survival is miraculous and it is Sir Gawain’s view that all must be done to protect it for future generations so they can know and understand how our ancestors lived.

 

 

 

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King Arthur’s Hall; all roofless and wind-blown


Image of King Arthur's Hall, Cornwall

The remains of King Arthur’s Hall on Bodmin Moor. The “Hall” is thought to be a Bronze Age ceremonial centre for cremation although some argue that it was a pound for animals.

Into Cornwall I climb seeking comfort from winds

Among lower levels of that lofty moor Bodmin;

Through fields richly-flanked by leaves of fair green

I come up to Blisland by blowing moor’s edge.

In that soft church I sit to regain of my senses

With its vault above me which arches twice vast

And shouts of Agincourt when its arcs were stretched

On shield-bearing angels, their wings wafting high

And sailing in joy over scenes from the centuries.

Rested, I rise onto Gringolet’s saddle

Who carries me slow up ascents to the moor

And there in the blowing wind blasting my body

And sharp-shafting showers that strike to the soul

I see that square building which bold sits in bog-land;

King Arthur’s Hall it is known in Kernow.

Yet no knight knows that place, not to my knowing,

The years have long passed that parsed of its purpose

And my uncle Arthur never nursed in that place

Ideas of adventure to alter his aims

For the season, or Christmas, or sweet holidays.

It is but a pound to pen but some sheep or maybe a place to bury

The dead.

Surrounded by gorse and granite stones

That Hall it must be said

Just now sits square in moors alone,

Its story long unread.

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