The link below is to an article reporting on ruins found near Hadrian’s Wall.
Category Archives: England
The UK now has a female prime minister and Elizabeth II has been queen for more than six decades, but few would associate Anglo-Saxon England with powerful women. Nearly 1,100 years ago, however, Æthelflæd, “Lady of the Mercians”, died in Tamworth – as one of the most powerful political figures in tenth-century Britain.
Although she has faded from English history, and is often seen as a bit-part player in the story of the making of England, Æthelflæd was in fact a hugely important figure before her death in 918, aged around 50. Indeed, the uncontested succession of her daughter, Ælfwynn, as Mercia’s leader was a move of successful female powerplay not matched until the coronation of Elizabeth I after the death of her half-sister Mary in 1558. So, while Bernard Cornwell’s novels and the BBC series The Last Kingdom are cavalier with the historical facts, perhaps they are right to give Æthelflæd a major role.
Æthelflæd was born in the early 870s. Her father, Alfred “the Great” had become King of the West Saxons in 871, while her mother, Eahlswith, may have been from Mercian royal kindred. At the time, Anglo-Saxon “England” was made up of a series of smaller kingdoms, including Wessex in the south, Mercia in the Midlands and Northumbria in the far north. All faced encroachment by Viking forces that were growing in strength and ambition, as outlined in Charles Insley’s article The Strange End of the Mercian Kingdom and Mercia and the Making of England by Ian Walker.
Æthelflæd spent most of her life in the Kingdom of Mercia married to its de facto ruler, Æthelred. Mercia had seen some dark days by the time of her marriage. In the eighth and early ninth centuries, the Mercian kings had had good cause to consider themselves the most powerful rulers in southern Britain. But by the 870s, the kingdom had suffered dramatically from the Viking assaults which had swept across England.
One king, Burgred, had fled to Rome, and his successor, Ceolwulf II, was seen as a mere puppet by the West-Saxon compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and disappeared between 878 and 883. Soon, the East Midlands were ruled by Scandinavians – what became known as the “Danelaw” – and so the kingdom ruled by Æthelflæd and Æthelred was by then just the western rump of the old Mercia.
Nevertheless, Æthelflæd and Æthelred together engaged in massive rebuilding projects at Gloucester, Worcester, Stafford and Chester, overseeing the refounding of churches, new relic collections and saints’ cults. Famously, in 909, the relics of the seventh-century saint, Oswald were moved from Bardney, deep in Scandinavian-controlled Lincolnshire, to a new church at Gloucester. Perhaps appropriately, for a couple facing the Vikings, Æthelflæd and her husband had a great attachment to the saint, a warrior king and Christian martyr. Æthelred was buried alongside Oswald in 911, and Æthelflæd joined him seven years later.
Powerplay and politics
At the time, Athelred and Æthelflæd did not call themselves king or queen, nor do the official documents or coins refer to them as such. Instead, they used the title “Lord/Lady of the Mercians”, because Alfred had extended his authority over Mercia and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”.
But they acted like rulers. Æthelflæd, with her husband and her brother Edward the Elder, King of the Anglo-Saxons, launched a series of military campaigns in the early tenth century. These brought all of England south of the Humber and Mersey river under Anglo-Saxon control and rolled up the Scandinavian lordships which had been established in the East Midlands and East Anglia.
These advances were backed up by an energetic programme of fortification, with burhs (fortified towns) built in places such as Bridgnorth, Runcorn, Chester and Manchester.
But while she called herself a “lady”, outsiders, especially the Welsh and Irish, saw Æthelflæd as a “queen” and she surely wasn’t just her husband’s subservient wife. As Alfred the Great’s daughter, the role Mercia and the Mercians would play in the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons was at stake.
A potent widow
But Æthelflæd really came into her own following her husband’s death in 911, although it seems that he had been in poor health for the best part of the previous decade. The Mercian Register in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, certainly celebrates her deeds from 910 onwards.
In 915, she successfully campaigned against the Welsh and the major Welsh kings, and in England she began further to expand her kingdom. In 917-8, her army took control of Viking-occupied Derby and Leicester, and just before her death, the “people of York” – that is, the Scandinavian lords of southern Northumbria – also agreed to submit to her.
For a brief moment, she had authority not just over her own territory in Mercia, but over the Welsh, the Scandinavian East Midlands and possibly part of Northumbria, making her perhaps one of the three most important rulers in mainland Britain – the others being her brother Edward king of the Anglo-Saxons and Constantin II macAeda, King of the Scots.
This made her a major political actor in her own right, but also a respected and feared figure. Even more remarkably, she passed her authority on to her daughter, Ælfwynn, who was around 30 when her mother died. The rule of Ælfwynn in Mercia, which attracts virtually no comment at all from historians, lasted about six months before her uncle Edward launched a coup d’état, deprived her of all authority and took her into Wessex.
Æthelflæd’s legacy is enigmatic, wrapped up in the “making of England”. But she was a ruler of consequence in an era defined by male authority. Indeed, her project to rebuild the kingdom of Mercia and the Mercians might have placed midland England at the heart of later history.
Philip Morgan, Senior Lecturer, Keele University; Andrew Sargent, Lecturer in Medieval History, Keele University; Charles Insley, Senior lecturer, University of Manchester, and Morn Capper, Lecturer in Archaeological Heritage, University of Chester
Last month, priceless botanical specimens were destroyed after an apparent miscommunication between scientists and Australian customs officials.
Although unfortunate, the incident has focused attention on the importance of being able to share scientific specimens around the world, and the vital role that herbaria play in modern science.
Despite being sometimes described as “museums for plants”, herbaria aren’t just natural history storage and displays. In this era of DNA barcoding, big data, biosecurity threats, bio-prospecting, and global information sharing, herbaria are complex and evolving institutions.
The modern herbarium is steeped in tradition and full of antiquities, but it also leads the application of modern approaches to understanding our past, present and future natural world.
The power of 8 million specimens
If you tell someone that you work at a herbarium, most will ask “what’s that?”, or perhaps “oh, what kind of herbs do you grow there?”.
Conventionally, a herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are stored and managed in an organised and structured way by curators and botanists who specialise in plant taxonomy and systematics.
There are some 3,000 active herbaria worldwide. As a collective, they contain more than 380 million specimens, spanning collections dating back as far as 500 years ago.
In Australia there are nine state, territory or national herbaria that, along with some university collections, hold close to eight million specimens. Four major Australian herbaria hold over a million specimens:
The National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne
The National Herbarium of New South Wales, Sydney
The Australian National Herbarium, Canberra, and
The State Herbarium of South Australia, Adelaide.
Herbarium specimens exist in many forms, including “pickled” plants or plant parts such as flowers or other delicate structures, dried specimens still attached to the surface on which they grew (like tree bark and rocks), and fruits or seeds preserved whole. But the overwhelming majority are dried, pressed plant specimens attached to archival card. Alongside these specimens there are sometimes drawings, paintings or photographs of the species, which capture details that are not discernible in the preserved specimen.
The Australasian Virtual Herbarium
The plant specimens don’t just exist on their own inside herbaria. Along with the specimens, the accompanying information is vital, such as where and when they were collected, specific details of the environments where they were collected, and who collected them.
In Australia, the major herbaria have been actively adding this information into a digital repository, resulting in a world-leading dataset: the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.
The collation of these resources helped to inspire the development of the Atlas of Living Australia, and gives anyone with an internet connection access to specimen records from around Australia and the world.
Specimen-based, online data sets provide evidence of what species are found in a particular place at a particular time. They are a direct link from the presence of a species in the field, to collections of physical specimens held in herbaria, with the current name (that is, the latest changes in taxonomy) for that specimen.
There are many applications of such evidence including tracking changing species distributions such as ferals and weeds (an example of the weed “Salvation Jane” is shown in the figure above). Herbaria have been active in supporting detection of biosecurity threats. New introductions of species to Australia need careful determination of their identity and herbaria work with agencies to assist with this.
Sometimes, herbarium or museum specimens are the only evidence that a species existed at all. For example Gentianella clelandii, a species of native Gentian, is only known from the collection made of it in 1947 in the South East of South Australia. This species and others like it are likely to have been lost as a result of changing land use in the region at this time.
Samples from Cook, Flinders and Baudin
Important historical, scientific or cultural plant specimens exist in herbarium collections.
Plants collected during the voyages of early European explorers – including Dampier, Cook, Flinders and Baudin – are still found in herbaria. Some of these plants were also shipped live back to Europe, and have been grown in gardens and in scientific collections all over the world.
Remarkably, due to the care in methods of preserving them, these specimens are often in excellent condition more than 200 years after their collection and still able to be used productively in scientific research.
These historical specimens are often the first known collections of a previously undescribed species. If so, they will be designated as “type” specimens by the taxonomist naming the new species. Type specimens are very important as they allow the work of taxonomists to have a global frame of reference. This allows scientists to work out if two (or more) species have been assigned the same name.
Herbarium records enable resource managers to track distributions of both pest plants and endangered plants, providing a historical and current view of how widely spread and common the various species are across Australia.
You say River Red Gum, I say Yarrow
Taxonomy is the science of describing, classifying and naming plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomists do the work of describing and arranging plant species into classifications based on their morphology (what they look like), their genes and sometimes other features.
While highly scientific by nature, taxonomy is also vital to society at large. For invasive plant control, for border control, for environmental management and for urban planning, there must be no ambiguity as to which plant species we are talking about. Common names of plants can be misleading, the same plant often having many different common names. For example, the Australian iconic tree species Eucalyptus camaldulensis is known as River Red Gum, Blue Gum, Murray Red Gum, Red Gum, River Gum and Yarrow. We know these are all the same species, because taxonomists can compare herbarium specimens and determine if they share the same characteristics.
Expansion of the search for new biological compounds for human use — including medicines, food, cosmetics and other applications — exemplifies the problem of misapplied taxonomic names. For example the search for bioactive compounds in marine algae yields very different results for different species.
But imagine if there wasn’t a way to apply the precision of taxonomy in the search for information on the characteristics of a species to be used for biological control? Not only would time and money be lost, but the incorrect species could be used and unforseen outcomes may occur.
An example from the insect world is the Southeast Asian termite. A potentially harmful species of the termite genus Coptotermes was known regionally by another name, affecting its management as a pest causing building damage in the Americas and Malaysia.
Herbaria as a research resource
In addition to storing and organising specimens, larger or highly specialised herbaria usually have an associated research program. Focus scientific areas typically include taxonomy, systematics (how living things are classified and named), evolutionary biology, conservation biology and applied botany (using plants for economic benefit) .
Many herbaria have molecular genetics laboratories attached to them. DNA can be extracted from many specimens, even very old ones, and thus they can become a core part of ongoing DNA based scientific research. Today, DNA barcoding can provide a rapid tool for identifying species when flowers or fruits are not available, or if we have only fragments. Globally, DNA barcodes are now available for more than 265,448 species in the BOLD database. This aggregation of DNA sequences, which for plants are linked to herbarium vouchers, are a global resource that can be used in a “big data” context to explore ideas.
The value of herbaria samples extends beyond just the plants themselves. Herbarium specimens have been used to collate data for inferring changes in flowering times, leaf morphology and species ranges with climatic shifts.
Scientists also analyse chemicals that herbarium specimens have been exposed to, such as heavy metals associated with urban development, and different elements incorporated as leaves grow. Knowledge about waxes on leaf surfaces, as well as inhabitation by insects, fungi and bacteria are all possible through herbarium samples.
The global network of herbaria share specimens so that taxonomists and other researchers can benefit from their existence. With online resources making it known exactly what specimens are in which herbarium, there is an ever growing set of demands made on the use of specimens.
Curators who look after collections must balance the requests for using specimens in the present with long term preservation. The ability to track the impact of climate change and other unforeseen influences on plant health may make our current herbaria collections even more priceless in years to come.
The Last Kingdom – BBC’s historical drama set in the time of Alfred the Great’s war with the Vikings – has returned to our screens for a second series. While most attention will continue to focus on the fictional hero Uhtred, his story is played out against a political background where the main protagonist is the brooding and bookish mastermind Alfred the Great, vividly portrayed in the series by David Dawson.
But was Alfred the Great really that great? If we judge him on the basis of new findings in landscape archaeology that are radically changing our understanding of warfare in the Viking Age, it would seem not. It looks like Alfred was a good propagandist rather than a visionary military leader.
The broad outline of King Alfred’s wars with the Vikings is well known. Oft defeated by the great army of the Vikings, he took refuge in a remote part of Somerset before rallying the English army in 878 and defeating the Vikings at Edington. It was not this one victory that made Alfred great, according to his biographer Asser, but the military reforms Alfred implemented after Edington. In creating a system of strongholds, a longer-serving army and new naval forces, Asser argues that Alfred put in place systems which meant that the Vikings would never win again. In doing so, he secured his legacy.
It is a well-known story, but how accurate is it? Research by a team at UCL and another at the University of Nottingham into the archaeology and place-name evidence for late Anglo-Saxon civil defence presents a slightly different picture.
Many towns claim to have been founded by Alfred as part of his plan for defending England. This idea rests largely on a text known as the Burghal Hidage, which
which lists the names of 33 strongholds (in Old English burhs) across southern England and the taxes assigned to their garrisons, recorded as numbers of hides (a unit of land). According to the list, under Alfred a military machine was created whereby no fewer than 27,000 men, some 6% of the total population, were assigned to the defence and maintenance of what has been described as “fortress Wessex”.
Over the past 40 years, much archaeological evidence has been gathered about the Burghal Hidage strongholds, many of which were former Roman towns or Iron Age hill forts that were reused or refurbished as Anglo-Saxon military sites. Others were new burhs raised with an innovative design that imitated the regular Roman plan.
It has been argued that the latter represent an “Alfredian” vision of urban planning. But the evidence doesn’t entirely bear this out. For example, in Winchester radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic dating suggests the new urban plan was probably built around 840–80, almost certainly, therefore, before Alfred’s victory of 878 and probably before he even became king. Excavations in Worcester, by contrast, show that the distinctive “Alfredian” street plan there only came into use in the late tenth or early 11th century, around 100 years after Alfred’s death.
Archaeological evidence shows that many Bughal Hidage strongholds started as defensive sites which only later developed into towns. Sometimes this occurred at the same location, but in the case of strongholds at Iron Age hill forts, such as Burpham (Sussex), Chisbury (Wiltshire), and Pilton (Devon), more suitable locations for defended towns were sought nearby. While the general development of early emergency measures – where defence policy was determined by inaccessibility and expediency – are testimony to Alfred’s civil defence strategy, the more long-term development of purpose-built towns, around which England’s economy and administration became organised, only took place during the reigns of Alfred’s successors.
Landscapes of defence
The major strongholds listed in the Burghal Hidage have received much attention, but landscape research is also now helping to provide a fuller picture, allowing us to identify important early route-ways and river crossing-points.
Place-names containing such compounds as Old English here-pæð or fyrd-weg, both meaning “army road”, are especially important. But place-names also suggest the existence of elaborate systems of beacons and lookouts, often spaced at regular intervals, visible to each other and to known strongholds, and providing control over important route-ways. Written sources and archaeological excavation confirm that beacons were in use in the early 11th century. Landscape analysis is also helping to identify the important mustering sites, crucial to mobilisation, without which the military system would not have worked.
Putting all this evidence together makes it likely that Alfred the Great’s military innovations were part of a continuing development, that started in the eight century in Mercia and continued long after his death. Alfred built on existing structures, at first using what was already in place, such as hilltop defences and mustering sites of the eighth and early ninth centuries, but many of the most innovative developments in defensive organisation clearly occurred in the reign of his son, Edward the Elder (899–924). Indeed, the little closely datable evidence that can be gleaned from the major burhs, all points to a long chronology of stronghold construction.
Alfred’s defensive genius lay not in the creation of burhs, then, but in the way he adapted earlier strategies to suit the drastically altered military demands of the Viking age. His first steps towards a reliable and more constant system of military service ensured the continuous availability of troops. But the glories afforded him in popular imagination as the architect of “fortress Wessex” no longer, it seems, stand.
Battle site shows the Norman conquest took years longer than 1066 and all that
The possible discovery of the site of a 1069 “sequel” to the Battle of Hastings is a reminder that the Norman Conquest wasn’t just a case of 1066 and all that. In fact William the Conqueror faced repeated threats to his power from both inside and outside the kingdom during his reign.
Writer Nick Arnold claims to have identified the site of a battle in 1069 which marked the last major attempt of Godwine and Edmund, the sons of the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson, to regain power following their father’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Historical sources tell us that the 1069 encounter took place at the mouth of the River Taw in North Devon and, by combining this with scientific data, Arnold has narrowed down the location to a spot between Appledore and Northam. While an interesting piece of historical detective work in its own right, the potential identification of this site is a reminder that the Norman Conquest took years, not days.
Challenges to William’s rule
Admittedly, in the history of medieval military encounters, the Battle of Hastings was unusually decisive. This hard-fought battle resulted in the deaths of King Harold and a large portion of the English aristocracy. With the removal of much of the ruling elite, William the Conqueror and his Norman allies (in reality a mixture of men drawn from various regions of France and Flanders) took over the controls of a remarkably centralised Anglo-Saxon state.
But it would be wrong to think that the Norman Conquest ended there. While much of the population probably accepted that the country was, in effect, under new management, not everyone welcomed the change. The late 1060s and 1070s saw significant challenges to William’s rule in England, of which the attempted invasion by King Harold’s sons in 1069 was just one.
Our most reliable witness to events at this time, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, tells us that in 1069 “Harold’s sons came from Ireland at midsummer with sixty-four ships into the mouth of the Taw”. The naval force mentioned was almost certainly supplied by the Norse kingdom of Dublin and reflects previous ties between King Harold and Dublin’s overlord, King Diarmait of Leinster.
This was the second attempt by Harold’s sons to mount an invasion and the second time that they had targeted the south-west. In 1068 they had attacked Bristol and ravaged Somerset, before being seen off by English forces under Eadnoth the Staller, who was killed in the encounter. They were repelled again in 1069, this time by a Breton lord, Count Brian, who seems to have taken over responsibility for defence of the area.
‘Harrying of the North’
The brief return of the Godwinsons in 1069, however, was a mere sideshow compared to the full-scale rebellion in the north later that year. This was led by English earls in support of Edgar the Ætheling, who claimed the throne as the closest male relative of William and Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor. Like the attempted invasion by Harold’s sons, this rebellion was made possible through an alliance with a foreign power: in this case, King Sweyn of Denmark, who provided a fleet of 240-300 ships. William’s response was to gather his army and “utterly ravage and lay waste” to the region in what became known as the Harrying of the North, forcing the northern earls into a truce.
The Danes, meanwhile, remained a disruptive force in England until the following summer, when they left laden with plunder largely taken from the abbey at Peterborough. All of which underlines that the events playing out in England were part of political struggles in the context of her European neighbours. For the Normans, conquest was an ongoing campaign that lasted years, not something that was handed to them by virtue of Harold’s death at Hastings.
Although Arnold’s purported discovery of the 1069 battle site can be admired as an ingenious piece of detective work, only archaeologists will be able to prove his claims. In reality, this announcement adds only a limited amount to our current knowledge of historical events, which means any identification of the site in which the Godwinsons made their last great bid for power is probably of more significance to a local audience than to a national or academic one.
But if anything it should remind us of the turbulent years after 1066, when the Norman conquest was by no means assured – and it seemed as if Hastings’ immediate legacy had been to turn England itself into a battleground.
As 2016 begins, the recent public interest in hunting for royal burials shows no sign of abating. Hardly has the dust begun to settle on Richard III’s expensive new tomb in Leicester than work is starting on locating the resting place of another medieval monarch, Henry I (d. 1135), in Reading (like Richard III, Henry is also thought to be under a car park).
Meanwhile, the Church of England is stoutly refusing to allow DNA tests to be carried out on bones thought to be those of the “princes in the Tower” who disappeared in 1483, and who may be buried in Westminster Abbey.
With the honourable exception of Alfred the Great (d. 899), whose bones were – disappointingly for some – probably not found in recent Winchester excavations, this interest has tended to concentrate on the kings of England after 1066 at the expense of earlier kings, kings of British kingdoms other than England and queens. That is probably typical of the wider public consciousness of – and interest in – the Middle Ages, but it’s not exactly representative of the period. So here are five remarkable royal burials that present puzzles worthy of attention – and that might help add just a little bit of diversity, too.
1. Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642)
Oswald was a warlike leader of the northern kingdom of Northumbria, but adopted Christianity with all the zeal of the convert that he was. He so impressed the Irish missionary Aidan by his acts of charity that the latter seized his arm and exclaimed: “May this hand never perish!” Sure enough, it didn’t, remaining uncorrupted after Oswald’s death (or so the story goes).
But it wasn’t just Oswald’s hand that had a remarkable fate. Oswald was killed on the battlefield by pagan Mercians and the Welsh, and his head and limbs put on stakes. Some of these remains were later taken to the monastery of Bardney in Lincolnshire. When this fell under Viking rule in the tenth century, the West Saxon royal family mounted a raid to steal the royal remains and bring them back to English-controlled land. What happened next isn’t entirely clear, but for the modern bone hunter the problem isn’t a lack of evidence – it’s too much of it. In the Middle Ages, five different establishments claimed to own Oswald’s head, from Durham in England through to Hildesheim in Germany, whose magnificent head reliquary survives to this day.
2. Eadgyth (d. 946)
Until Oswald’s bones are located, the oldest identified remains of any English – or British – royalty are those of a woman, Eadgyth, daughter of King Edward the Elder. And they’re not even in England. Eadgyth’s brother King Aethelstan sent her and her sister Eadgifu to Germany to allow Duke Otto of Saxony to take his pick of the two for marriage. Otto chose Eadgyth, and when he became emperor, she was anointed as his queen. She remained in Germany until her death in 946.
In 2008 her tomb in Magdeburg in Germany was opened and, although carbon dating failed, isotopic tests confirmed that the remains were indeed Eadgyth’s. But what’s puzzling is that not all of Eadgyth was actually in the lead casket: her hands and feet were nowhere to be found and most of the skull was missing. What happened to these? Experts at the time of the exhumation suggested that thieves had struck in search of holy relics – but Eadgyth wasn’t generally considered a saint, so the mystery remains.
3. Harold II (d. 1066)
Everybody knows what happened to King Harold on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066 – but what happened afterwards? Confusion set in early. A contemporary text, The Song of the Battle of Hastings, says that he was buried on a cliff top; a later source claims he survived the battle and lived for many years as a hermit; but other texts – and most historians – suggest he was buried in Waltham Abbey, which he had endowed.
Predictably, there is now much talk of finding his tomb. But even if the tomb could be found, could we be sure that it was really Harold inside it? According to the 12th-century Waltham chronicle, Harold’s face was injured beyond recognition by battlefield wounds – and the fallen king was identified for burial only by mysterious “secret marks” on his body known to his concubine, Edith Swanneck. Can we be quite sure that Edith could not have been mistaken?
4. Margaret (d.1093)
Margaret was another victim of the Norman conquest, but one whose life took a happier turn than Harold’s. Descended from King Alfred the Great, she was brought up in exile in Hungary before marrying the Scottish king Malcom III. She was treated as a saint soon after her death and her chapel can still be seen in Edinburgh castle. A gospel book she owned also survives in London.
But what remains of Margaret herself is elsewhere. She was buried in Dunfermline Abbey on her death, but later her head was removed and taken to Edinburgh as a relic and in the confusion of the Reformation it ended up in France, where it was lost in the revolution. Other parts of Margaret’s body were transferred to Spain by Philip II. When Queen Victoria paid for the restoration of Margaret’s tomb in Dumferline, it was probably therefore the restoration of a cenotaph.
However, in 1862, a Scottish Catholic bishop travelled to Spain to ask for the return of some of Margaret’s remains. He duly secured a relic, which he brought with him back to Edinburgh where it stayed for a century. In 2008, this relic – apparently part of Margaret’s shoulder – was ceremonially handed back to St Margaret’s church in Dunfermline.
5. Llwelyn ap Gruffydd (d.1282)
Llwelyn was the last leader of an independent Wales and met his fate resisting English imperialism in the shape of Edward I. Hardly had he been killed than his head was cut off and sent to London (though this was less grisly than the treatment meted out to Llwelyn’s former ally, the rebel baron Simon de Montfort, whose testicles were draped over his decapitated head). Llwelyn’s head was stuck on a pike at the Tower of London, where it remained for more than a decade to impress onlookers.
What happened to the rest of Llwelyn isn’t certain. He was probably buried at Cwmhir Abbey in central Wales. But the archbishop of Canterbury at the time wasn’t entirely sure of this – and even wrote a letter to seek confirmation. The abbey is now in ruins, but no archaeological excavations have taken place to certify the last resting place of (most of) the last independent Welsh ruler.
Witches have long been an international obsession. From King James I’s book Demonologie (1597) and the famous Pendle witch trials in Lancaster (1612), to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (first performed 1611) and Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches (1647), there are countless factual and fictional tales of witchcraft. The recent release of the film, The Last Witch Hunter, is yet another example of this cultural fascination.
But the colourful, fictional yarns often are far removed from the reality of witchfinders and the trials that the accused – mostly women – faced. And, in some cases, are much more a reflection of contemporary anxieties.
The 17th century witch trials staged in Newcastle upon Tyne, for example, offer a stark glimpse of the reality, complicating our received understanding of history as represented in film and fiction. The simple paradigm of the self-interested mercenary (witchfinder) in pursuit of the disenfranchised victim (witch) is rendered more complex by the social, political, gender, and economic contexts of the age.
In 1650, towards the end of the English Civil War and within memory of a 1636 outbreak of plague, Newcastle upon Tyne’s Puritan magistrates invited in an unnamed Scottish witchfinder. Known as the “bell-man”, he asked “all people that would bring in any complaint against any woman for a witch, they should be sent for and tried by the person appointed”.
There was also an implicit financial motive in his endeavours – for each successful prosecution, the Scottish witchfinder would receive 30 shillings, about ten times the average daily wage.
A bloody affair
In 1655, Ralph Gardiner’s England’s grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade recorded an account of the Newcastle witch trials that followed. He noted that 30 women were brought to the town hall, stripped, and “pricked” by a bodkin or pin, the evidence gleaned resulting in the public execution of 16 people (including one man). One woman, Margaret Brown, implored God to give some sign of her innocence – and, at her execution, Gardiner recorded, “as soon as ever she was turned off the ladder her blood gushed out upon the people to the admiration of the beholders”.
While many of the accused in such cases were old, economically disadvantaged and female, this was not always the case. Gardiner also demonstrates this in his account, offering a somewhat romantic challenge to the stereotype of the old crone.
The Scottish witchfinder, for example, claimed that he could identify one witch by her appearance. In response, Lieutenant Colonel Hobson (who served in the parliamentarian New Model Army and was deputy governor of Newcastle) protested that by this logic, such a young and attractive woman could not be a witch. Her public trial, in a pseudo-sexual gesture, involved the exposure of her body up to her waist, after which she was eventually cleared of being “a child of the devil”.
Various other accounts of witchcraft in north-east England identify occurrences such as visions of headless bears, and one woman being ridden like a horse to a Witches’ Sabbat.
Given such stories, it is no surprise that witches and their craft have pervaded contemporary culture. Famous literary examples include Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), and Jeanette Winterson’s more recent novel, The Daylight Gate (2012). Then we have American Horror Story: Coven (2013), a TV show addressing the legacy of the Salem witches (1692).
Film representations also offer us some problematic insights into recuperating the idea of the “witch-hunt”. The Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves (1968), for example, says much more about the time in which it was filmed than the historical truth.
In the film, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his sidekick John Stearne (Robert Russell) seem to have sole responsibility for condemning witches. Historically, however, this was a joint effort between the witch hunters, local people and town councils – witchfinders often worked with the support of the local authorities.
Instead, The Witchfinder General articulates American anxieties regarding traditional authority around the time of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The film’s portrayal of corruption, and the implied lack of confidence in the political administration are suggestive of that contemporary moment. There was also revulsion at the time to the strong sexual and violent imagery in the film. The playwright Alan Bennett said it was: “The most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen.”
The recent release of The Last Witch Hunter also reflects contemporary concerns. Vin Diesel’s character, Kaulder, asks at one point if we are to judge a witch “without interrogation”. In this scene, the witch is brought to trial with a hood over his head, recalling the alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay.
Rose Leslie’s character in the film, a goth woman named Chloe, also challenges some of our more stereotypical views of witches, as did the attractive teenage witches in 1996 film The Craft. She asks: “What do people know about witches anyway? That we’ve green skin and pointy hats and we’re mean?”
Despite this corrective, she also circulates some common mistakes, referring to the witches who were “burnt at the stake in Salem”. Of course, history tells us that the Salem witches were put to death by hanging.
So how can we understand the pervasive image of the witch? The problem with presenting witch-hunts for modern-day audiences is that it presupposes one coherent set of historical beliefs and procedures. In fact, the real witch trials were far more complex than some popular cultural material might suggest.
The link below is to an article that looks at this day in history in 1758 and the birth of Horatio Nelson.