Category Archives: British History

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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Filed under Cumberland, English History, Historic Churches in England, Historic places to visit in Britain, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet

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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Filed under British History, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Hertfordshire, Hertfordshire, Historic towns of Britain, Poetry

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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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of Wales, English History, Historic places to visit in Britain, Welsh History

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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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Cornwall, English Counties, English Landscape, English myths and legends, French Battlefields, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Touring Britain, Uncategorized

Fettiplace lies by Lambourn’s levels


Image of tomb of Sir Thomas Fettiplace, East Shefford, Berkshore

The stately alabaster tomb of Sir Thomas Fettiplace at St Thomas Church, East Shefford, Berkshire

By the banks of the Lambourn Gringolet bides

Resting and watching the reeds in the river

As I edge to that church where in past age

I knew a knight who kept these lands.

Fettiplace true sleeps tidy now,

His eyes in alabaster cast about

Yet nought they see for soul has passed.

Yet that fine effigy fast as stone

Makes in my mind him quick as men did know:

Loud laughing round the boar with ruddy lips,

His loyal servants sing of his success

And his wife with charm well warms won hearts!

Now at rest he reigns in royal peace

By Beatrice in this calm and blessed bower

To touch the hearts and souls of those like me

Who ride

Down old and ancient lanes

On tracks that we decide

In search of what remains

Of what our memory cannot hide.



St Thomas’ Church, the subject of this blog post, is found at East Shefford in the County of Berkshire. This delightful building is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

A detailed architectural assessment of the building can be found on this interesting site, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture.


 

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Into Laugharne in search of whispers


Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Sshh! it is quiet now after the blowing winds as qualmed Myfanwy waits

in the cobbled lane round the back for Mr Jones jolly to return from jaunts with jugging jars of ale alternative.

Silent, too, I have levelled at this old town of Llanffopohuoy on Gringalet by Pendine

where men now ride faster on destrier unimaginable in my mounting days.

It is day but day dawned delightful as a still, clear night;

out on the light, limpid water, seabirds in the sunshine linger.

The odd mew of gull, gullible tourist chit-chat and the chinking of china

in the tea shop by the shore can hardly shatter this silence now

but dark above us, standing stout, to shout stentorian

is the grey-stoned home of the Courtemains growling

through stilled lips at a land long lost when here

Lord Rhys met Henry to settle in much accord and who

in later years took this place from English hand

as through this part of Wales his lordship washed anew

before Llewelyn by destruction laid it low in later years.

Cast as Tudor palace this pile lived again

till fortune fair her back upon it turned and

where once was welcome then came weather

and homely husbandry fell sway to the humbling of the decades:

roofs fell in, ivy crept round and mortar to sand its destiny prescribed

until in recent years its stones afresh were stirred,

its pebbles polished for a poignant day

when poets proud would write their way

to fame and fortune and fate unkind

but whose fame immortal still blessed this inlet isle

held calm in deep Carmarthenshire long after they were gone.

I walk thus warily towards that place and now

where once was guard and garrison is but a shed

with gewgaws game to gently prise the silver

from the tourist’s tipping hand.

There sits Myfanwy, musically holding forth

by mouth with  friends and family at the  till,

happily diverting mind from home, home from men.

I approach for entrance and proffer pence appropriate;

her eyes swivel towards me as if a sudden

apparition apparent had chanced before her orbs

and then the words which all in Britain know so well

as a token of warm welcome – words thus spoke which

waft them home from worldly winds:

“We’re closed”, she crabs with apology none and in a moment

I was gone.

Mefanwy though your life be broke

don’t let it be to dark the sun:

’tis better you are softly spoke

so men can dream that you’re the one.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

Laugharne Castle, Carmarthenshire, once the home of Robert Courtemain and the place where Henry II met the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth and which, upon Henry’s death, was seized by Rhys in 1189. Much of the castle today was built in the thirteenth century under the de Brians and was later extensively modified in the Tudor period.

This view of Laugharne is the one which most who visit take back as their abiding memory of the place. It is certainly dramatic.

This view of Laugharne is the one which most who visit take back as their abiding memory of the place. It is certainly dramatic.

The entrance to Laugharne Castle today; until fairly recently, the castle was in a much worse condition and covered in ivy. Thankfully, the ivy has been removed and the ruins consolidated.

The entrance to Laugharne Castle today; until fairly recently, the castle was in a much worse condition and covered in ivy. Thankfully, the ivy has been removed and the ruins consolidated.

Laugharne today is more famous for the man who lived here than the Lord Rhys who seized Laugharne Castle in 1189. Dylan Thomas, creator of Under Milk Wood and other magnificent poetry lived in this beautiful spot at the end of his career.

Laugharne today is more famous for the man who lived here than the Lord Rhys who seized Laugharne Castle in 1189. Dylan Thomas, creator of Under Milk Wood and other magnificent poetry lived in this beautiful spot at the end of his career.

The banality of life, so much of which was celebrated by Dylan Thomas, is summarised in these garments, hanging in the breeze at the Boat House, Laugharne.

The banality of life, so much of which was celebrated by Dylan Thomas, is summarised in these garments, hanging in the breeze at the Boat House, Laugharne.

The Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd certainly had a great reason to capture Laugharne other than taking the castle itself; the view is quite wonderful.

The Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd certainly had a great reason to capture Laugharne other than taking the castle itself; the view is quite wonderful.

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Filed under Carmarthenshire, Castles, Castles of Wales, Poetry, South Wales, Welsh History