On the Trail of St. Margaret’s Dragon

 

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Crossgate’s Church of St. Margaret of Antioch is aligned to the May Day Sunrise

 

May Day in England is one of the most important festivals of the old Pagan Calendar and has its origins in the Ancient Pagan Fire Festival of Beltane. A key element in a number of the Old English May Day celebrations that are still enacted across the country is the greeting of the May Day Sunrise by celebrants. An activity associated with the birth of Summer and the Death of Winter which comes just eight days after the Festival of St. George.

At Minehead in Somerset, for example, May Day itself begins at dawn with a celebratory visit from the town’s ancient Hobby Horse, whose true origins are shrouded in mystery. On the other side of the Channel, in France, May Day has always been associated with St. Leonard of  Noblac, in spite of attempts by the Far Right to associate May Day with St. Joan of Arc’s victory over the English at Orleans; which is actually celebrated on May 8th.

St. Leonard, like St. George, is another slayer of Dragons and is associated in English legend with the once dragon infested St. Leonard’s Forest in Sussex. St. Leonard’s legend may have originally referred to the Saint’s stamping out of the old Pagan practices previously adhered to by the now vanished Celtic Lemovices, who gave their name to the modern city of Limoges, another location with which he is associated. And the fact that the Sussex village of Bolney in St. Leonard’s Forest was until comparatively recently a major centre for the production of charcoal may likewise indicate an ancient connection with the original Celtic Beltane Fires so recently revived at Edinburgh’s annual Beltane Celebrations.

 

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Map Showing England’s ‘Great Dragon Line’ along with a number of related alignments

 

The link between St. George and May Day is derived from his ancient association with the so called ‘Great Dragon Line‘: an alignment of ancient churches, chapels and prehistoric ritual centres, including Glastonbury Tor, Avebury Ring and St. Michael’s Mount, not to mention Ogbourne St. George, where the village church is dedicated to perhaps this most famous of dragon slayers. The Great Dragon Line is aligned to both the May Day Sunrise and the November Day Sun Set, linking this ancient pagan alignment, which finds its Solstice counterpart in the alignment between Stonehenge in Wiltshire and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, with the Christian Festival of All Saints: which falls on November 1st, just five days before St. Leonard’s own Feast Day on November 6th.

 

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Neville’s Cross: a key location in Durham’s May Day Sunrise Alignment

Here in Durham, this self same alignment appears to find its own Northern parallel in the alignment between Neville’s Cross, the site of an ancient monument erected to celebrate the English victory over the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in October 1346, and the church of St. Margaret of Antioch. Like St. George, St. Margaret has associations of her own with a fiery dragon. Of further interest in relation to this specific chapter in our story is the fact that St. Margaret’s cult became prevalent in England following the establishment of the Crusader Principality of Antioch during the late eleventh century. Of further relevance still in the additional fact that following the defeat and capture of the Principality’s founder, Bohemond I of Antioch, at the Battle of Melitene in 1100, Bohemond’s subsequent release in 1103 was attributed to Leonard of Noblac.

 

The alignment continues on to the now ruined Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene in Gilesgate, which was part of a Mediaeval Infirmary. Of further interest, and indeed relevance is the fact that both St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Mary Magdalene celebrate their Feasts in the month of July. St. Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day falls on July 22nd, whilst St. Margaret of Antioch’s Feast Day falls on July 13 in the Eastern Calendar, whilst her Western feast day falls on July 20th. Interestingly enough, the Constellation of Draco, with which St. Margaret’s Dragon is itself associated, is at its greatest visibility in the month of July.

 

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May Day Sunrise from Crossgate Peth: the ancient pathway that runs up from St. Margaret’s in Crossgate to Neville’s Cross

 

 

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On the Long Forgotten Trail of St. Cuthbert

 

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View of the Cathedral and Castle from Mountjoy

Every March, to mark the first of St. Cuthbert’s two annual feast days, which fall on the 20th March and the 4th September respectively, the Northumbrian Association conducts its annual St. Cuthbert’s Day Walk from St Mary’s and St Cuthbert’s Church, Chester-le-Street, to Durham Cathedral. According to the Northumbrian Association’s website, this annual walk in honour of St Cuthbert ‘is symbolic of the arrival of the body of and relics of St Cuthbert in Durham in 994 AD’; as well as the ‘construction of the Anglo-Saxon White Church, a precursor to today’s great Norman Cathedral’. Two subjects we have looked at in some detail already during the course of some earlier posts.

 

To anyone with a detailed knowledge of the historical period to which this annual ritual alludes, however, the direction and route of the walk seem a little bit irrational, to say the least, as we know that the original transfer of relics at this time actually took place from a completely different location and in the completely opposite direction. Prior to the establishment of the White Church and the development of the first stages of the Cathedral complex here in Durham, St. Cuthbert’s Relics had actually been deposited at Ripon; where the monks responsible for establishing the monastic community around which the Saint’s cult at Durham would eventually flourish had likewise previously taken up residence.

 

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Section of Roman road that St. Cuthbert’s relics would have travelled along en route to their final destination

 

But, in view of the fact that there are a great many anomalies in the legend of how Durham came to be chosen as the final resting place of the Saint’s Relics, along with a number of other key items that had been brought all the way from Lindisfarne when the monastic community there had been forced to abandon Holy Island, it is not something worth making much of. More important than this is the fact that the legendary sources themselves appear to be at odds with one another, and appear to produce conflicting accounts within the canonical texts that have come down to us.

As an example of what I mean, the apocryphal legend of the Dun Cow, that we examined in a previous post, recounts a series of events that are supposed to have taken place at Warden Law in Sunderland. This is curious as the events described in the legend itself are supposed to have occurred whilst the Relics of St. Cuthbert were on their way from Ripon to Chester-le-Street. A route that would not have included Warden Law, which lies to the North East of Durham, instead of directly along the old Roman Road on which Chester-le-Street is itself then as now still situated.

More than this though, on page 55 of the 2009 reissue of H.T. Gradon’s late nineteenth century classic work on ‘Ye Ancient Citie of Durham in Ye Olden Tyme’, originally published in 1883, the author identifies Mountjoy Hill as the possible site of the hill on which the monks rested, and from which they beheld the future site of the White Church at the end of their pilgrimage from Ripon. The fact that in former times there were a number of ancient crosses in the immediate vicinity of Mountjoy, including Phillipson’s Cross at the head of Hallgarth Street, which lies directly below the hill itself, all of which are said to mark the boundaries of the Sanctuary of St. Cuthbert, only serves to add substance to this particular line of thinking.

 

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View of Mountjoy Hill from a point close to the former site of Phillipson’s Cross

 

In a future post we shall look at the various legends and traditions associated with these crosses in more depth, in the meantime it is sufficient to say that there are quite a number of church dedications lying directly along the section of Dere Street which the party of monks would have had to travel down on their journey from Ripon to Durham. These include the Church of St Cuthbert and St. Mary in Barton, in what is now Richmondshire, and the nearby church of St Cuthbert at Forcett; both of which lie close to the old Roman Road of Dere Street as it makes its way north from the old Roman city of Eboracum, now York, in the direction of Piercebridge. This is the route that St. Cuthbert’s relics would have travelled to their final destination.

The additional fact that there appears to have been some sort human occupation of the site generally referred to as Old Durham in Roman times, something we have already noted in a previous post, may indicate the possible presence of a Roman branch road somewhere in the vicinity of the Hallgarth Street, Stockton Road, Church Street triangle. And, if this should turn out to have been the case it would perhaps explain how Bishop Aldhun and his monks came to be travelling on this side of the Peninsular to begin with: a subject we are likely to return to again in due course.

 

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View down Hallgarth Street from the vicinity of the now vanished Phillipson’s Cross

 

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On the Trail of the Old Dun Cow

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Sculpted Cathedral Effigy Depicting Durham’s Dun Cow Legend

In my last post I examined the Sedgefield Shrovetide Ball Game, in the context of a number of other traditional customs and legends. And, in so doing, conjectured that the possibility exists that this ancient tradition has its roots in some sort of Pre-Christian ritual; in all likelihood connected with the sacrifice of a bull. A not uncommon occurrence among many Prehistoric Cultures. In Roman times bull sacrifice, or Taurobolium, was closely associated with the Cult of the Mother Goddess. So, given the fact that such practices may have been carried on there since the earliest times, recently unearthed archaeological evidence which is suggestive of there having been a Roman settlement at Sedgefield could date the Shrovetide Ball Game’s original antecedents as far back as the Roman Era.

This considered, it should come as no surprise that, just a short distance along Front Street from Sedgefield’s ‘Bull Ring’, where the annual Shrovetide kick off always takes place, stands an ancient hostelry known as the Dun Cow Inn. The choice of name, in addition to being suggestive of some sort of ancient link with the Bull Ring itself, also connects the pub to Durham City’s oldest legend: that of its Cathedral’s foundation. A strange and inexplicable myth of which the true origins are obscure and may well have been lost, but which have become associated, since the Middle Ages at least, with the transfer of St. Cuthbert’s Relics from Chester-le-Street to Durham. Many such stories were originally Pagan Sun Myths, becoming associated with early Celtic Saints after the coming of Christianity.

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Sedgefield’s Dun Cow Inn

 

The legend, which is apocryphal, resembles in many ways the stories associated with the foundation of Niedermunster Abbey in Alsace, which is considerably earlier than the establishment of the first monastic community on the Durham Peninsula, predating it by more than two hundred and fifty years. According to tradition, the cart carrying the relics of St Cuthbert back to Chester-le-Street from Ripon, where they had been taken for safe keeping due to the predatory incursions of the Vikings, suddenly came to a halt on account of some supposedly miraculous power and could not be moved. The legend tells of how Bishop Aldhun, the founder of the first Cathedral, was graced with a vision of the Saint, who told him to take the relics to an as yet unknown location which he referred to as ‘Dunholme’. Next, the story recounts how the group of monks charged with escorting the cartload of relics back to Chester-le-Street then overheard two cow girls engaged in a conversation about a lost Dun Cow, which one of them had seen heading in the direction of Dunholme.

The story is clearly fabulous, and almost certainly contains some sort of hidden reference to something altogether different entirely. In my first post I mentioned how recent archaeological excavations on the site of the Cathedral have unearthed an unexpected example of high quality Roman pottery known to archaeologists as ‘Samian Ware’. Charred examples of Samian Ware have been found in the earliest burned strata of Roman London, dating from Boadicea’s well documented sack of the City in the years immediately after its original foundation. Taking this into account, it is perhaps of interest, and indeed relevance, that archaeological excavations on the site of St. Bride’s Church in London’s Fleet Street may shed further light on the Durham Dun Cow legend. The excavations were carried out after Wren’s architectural masterpiece, built after the Great Fire, was destroyed by a wartime bomb. Extensive digging revealed the existence of a Roman building, buried beneath no fewer than six later churches, which some scholars believe to have been the first original centre of Christian worship on the site.

 

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The Dun Cow Relief high up in the wall of the Cathedral.

 

The general consensus of opinion, among Christian scholars at least, is that some sort of Christian community was worshipping on the site from at least the late Roman Period. Possibly even earlier. What isn’t known, however, is how the Church came to be dedicated to St. Bride, a Scoto-Irish Saint, who, although she is more generally referred to as St. Bride in Scotland, is one and the same with Ireland’s St. Brigit. The historical Brigit was born in 453 AD and was a younger contemporary of St Patrick. Legend has it that she was the daughter of an Irish chieftain and a druidic slave, and her association with milk and cattle has led to speculation that many of the stories with which she is generally connected in Christian iconography were originally linked to an earlier pagan goddess of the same name. In view of the fact that there is an abundance of documentation, supported by archaeological evidence, substantiative of there having been extensive Christian worship in and around London well over a hundred and thirty years before St. Brigid’s birth, it is not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of that worship was in some way associated with one of her principal iconographic symbols. That of the milk cow.

This in itself would tend to suggest the legend of the Dun Cow may well conceal a hidden reference to there having been an earlier Christian community on the site, dating to before the arrival of Bishop Aldhune, and in some way linked to what in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries was to become the Cult of St. Bride. A whole host of equally fabulous legends directly linked to the Cult of St. Brigid, in which cows are a central feature, are still extant in Ireland and still form a part of popular culture; especially among the older and more conservative element in society. So, finding an equally apocryphal legend, likewise associated with cattle, woven around the founding of the first monastic community on the Durham Peninsular should perhaps be considered unsurprising.

One of the most recent theories that has been expounded, with regard to the foundation of Aldhune’s first Cathedral, is that his son-in-law Uchtred, Earl of Northumbria, had given him a substantial dowry consisting of extensive lands for the Church; following his marriage to Aldhun’s daughter. The principal exponents of this theory, which presently adorns the Durham World Heritage Site website, also put forward the view that the housing of St. Cuthbert’s Relics, on an easily defended peninsula, would enable Aldune’s community to establish a stable and prosperous centre of Pilgrimage which would bring in extensive revenue to the Bishopric. But first, one would need a truly spectacular miracle to ensure the sanctity of the location in order to bring in the pilgrims. What better than the legend of Durham’s Dun Cow?

 

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Dun Cow Lane leads down to St. Mary-le-Bow from the Cathedral and Palace Green

 

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Through the Bull Ring and Back!

 

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Sedgefield’s Bull Ring:  Starting Point of its Traditional Shrovetide Ball Game

 

Sedgefield’s annual Shrovetide ‘Ball Game’ is a unique local version of a variety of Traditional Mob Football Games that have been played across England every Shrove Tuesday since the Middle Ages. Although at least one local legend attributes the origins of this particular village game to the Thirteenth Century, when the stonemason responsible for completing St. Edmund’s Church is reputed to have challenged local villagers to a celebratory ball game, such practices are known to have been commonplace in this particular format since the reign of King Henry II in the Twelfth Century.

Perhaps the most famous of these Shrovetide, or Hocktide, Ball Games is the one played at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, referred to locally as “hugball”, which is generally attributed to King Henry II’s reign; although a similar ball game, played in the Old Apple Market at Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey, until nineteenth century aldermen put a stop to the proceedings due to the proliferation of broken windows, is said to date back to the seventh century. The Kingstonian legend is associated with King Cenwalh of Wessex, who, in spite of the conversion of his Father to Christianity, refused to accept the Christian religion. A fact that is recounted by Bede.

We shall return to the Kingston Ball Game in a future post, as the town with which the tradition is associated has a notable link with County Durham through the village of Walworth, a location that we visited in a previous post in connection with a series of apparently masonic associations between Walworth Castle and Gisors in France. Associations that bring us back once again to the reign of King Henry II, when many of these folk customs first appear in local records, and the octagonal keep at Durham Castle. Although these Shrove Tuesday Ball Games are comparatively few in number when compared to the vast proliferation of folk traditions associated with this particular date in the Christian Calendar, they are perhaps unique in that at least one of them, that which was formerly played at Kingston, appears to connect such customs with a Pre-Christian Tradition that seems to have become lost in the mists of time.

 

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To start the Game the Ball is passed three times through the Bull Ring.

 

Further evidence that this is indeed the case comes from the local Sedgefield Tradition of passing the leather ball, with which the game is played, three times through an ancient iron ring, commonly known as ‘The Bull Ring’, at both the start and the finish of each of these annual contests. The game kicks off at one o’clock in the afternoon, with the first enactment of this strange and curious ritual taking place at the start of the proceedings. The various contestants then attempt to ‘ally’ the ball, a part of the ritual that can never be officially achieved until after four o’clock. In former times two separate goals at either end of the village were used for the purpose of ‘allying’ the ball, but Sedgefield’s gradual expansion over the years has made this impossible and now only one ‘ally’ is extant: a beck, consisting of a small stream or rivulet, at the southern end of the village.

Once this has been done, the ball is passed through the Bull Ring another three times before the game officially comes to an end. The fact that the game’s original course appears to have been conducted around specific locations in the village gives the impression that its Mediaeval original played a similar function to other traditional customs, such as boundary walking, which were intended to mark out specific rights of way: many of which appear to have been linked with Bridleways, Footpaths and  Common Land. Much like the traditional ‘Beating of the Bounds’.

Other aspects of the game which appear to have been modified in more recent times, such as those traditionally linked with the role of the Parish Clerk in the proceedings, are suggestive of possible parallels with the game of Haxey Hood; which takes place at Haxey on Humberside every January the sixth. According to at least one local legend, the game of Haxey Hood may well have been played with a newly slaughtered bullock’s head before the introduction of a leather tube as a ball substitute into this ancient ritual. In a future post we shall look more into this related tradition as well. In the meantime, the fact that the Bull Ring at the starting point of Sedgefield’s Shrovetide Ball Game is of a specific type, that one might use to tether a bull before you slaughtered it, is perhaps sufficient evidence in itself to suggest that these two ancient customs are in some way interconnected with one another.

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St. Edmund’s Church Sedgefield has legendary associations with the original enactment of this ancient custom.

 

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Caer Weir or Din Guaire? Cymric Settlement or Roman Ruin?

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As we saw in an earlier post, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the exact point in time when a proper urban settlement was first established in the vicinity of Durham. Recent excavation on the site of the Cathedral’s Great Kitchen seems to suggest that some sort of human habitation on the Peninsular itself may be dated to the Roman Period, but thus far we have no definite record of a settlement to which we can put a name.

After the departure of the Roman Legions from Britain, many parts of the country fell into what can best be described as a ‘military anarchy’, with various factions, both foreign and indigenous, competing with one another to establish a basic sort of government. Sir Walter Scott, writing in the opening years of the nineteenth century speaks of this era in his “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”, published in two volumes in 1802, in the context of the “Gododdin”; described by one of its greatest translators, Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, as “The Oldest Scottish Poem”. “If we may trust the Welsh bards in their account of the wars betwixt the Saxons and Danes of Deira and the Cumraig”, Scott writes, referring directly to the era c.570 A.D., “imagination can hardly form any idea of conflicts more desperate than were maintained on the borders between the ancient British and their Teutonic invaders. Thus the “Gododdin” describes the waste and devastation of mutual havoc in colours so glowing as strongly to recall the words of Tacitus.”

A thousand years or so before these words appeared in print an obscure cleric, generally referred to as Nennius, compiled a volume of collected historical traditions, part fact, part fable, in which these events are likewise referred to. The “Historia Brittonum” is unique in that it forms an indigenous British counterpart to “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle”. And, in a section of Nennius entitled “The Northern History”, we find a series of direct references to the dashing military exploits of King Urien of Rheged, a sixth century British war leader who was the original model for the Sir Uriens of Arthurian Legend.

After a series of tracts proclaiming the genealogies of “The Kings of the Deirans” and “The Kings of the Bernicians”, the principal elements within the incoming Anglo-Saxon population here in the North East at this time, the author then goes on to recount how “Four Kings fought against them, Urien, Rydderch Hen, Gwallawg and Morcant. Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons. During that time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry were victorious and Urien blockaded them for three days and three nights in the island of Lindisfarne. But during this campaign, Urien was assassinated on the instigation of Morcant, from jealousy, because his military skill surpassed that of all the other Kings…….”

After the death of Urien, the British alliance collapsed and the flood of predominantly Anglian invaders rushed in. Elsewhere in Nennius’s book, we are informed of how “….Ida the son of Eobba, held the countries in the north of Britain, that is, north of the Humber Estuary, for twelve years, and joined Din Guaire, to Bernicia, and these two countries became one country, that is, Deur and Berneich, in English, Deira and Bernicia……” Thus, we find a formerly British enclave, referred to here as “Din Guaire”, literally “The Fortress on the River Wear”, being annexed by an early Northumbrian King who is known to have died about the middle of the Sixth Century, and incorporated into the Early Northumbrian Kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia.

So, is the place which is here referred to, in one of the earliest written sources relating to the history of the locality, to be found anywhere in the vicinity of Durham? All that we can say for sure is that the long vanished settlement to which the chronicler here refers is located somewhere in the area presently encompassed by the modern districts of Teesdale and Weardale. The reason for the uncertainty, as we shall see in a future post, is that there are at least two well documented candidate sites for the “Din Guaire” of the chroniclers. Possibly even three. And, as if that wasn’t enough, elsewhere, amongst the vast corpus of Arthurian poetry that has come down to us in the original manuscript collections referred to generally as “The Four Ancient Books of Wales”, we find direct references to an ancient North British stronghold known as “Caer Weir”.

“Taliesin I,
The ardent in song.
I will extoll Baptism,
Baptism, the Grace of God.
The fortresses of Cunedda are
shaken,
In Caer Weir and Caer Lliwelydd…..”

It is generally accepted that the final sentence of the above given tract refers directly to barbarian attacks on Weardale and Carlisle at the time when the English first arrived in Britain. As for the stronghold of Caer Weir, the exact location of it is still obscure, owing to the general lack of adequately assessed archaeological data at present. The nineteenth century translator, historian and antiquarian William Forbes Skene and others seem to have been generally convinced of it being located in the immediate vicinity of what is now Old Durham, most likely enclosed within the fortifications of the Iron Age camp referred to locally as Maiden Castle.

 

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Old Durham in early Summer as dusk approaches

 

Maiden Castle itself is an Iron Age fortification of a type generally referred to by archaeologists as a Promontory Fort, standing on a steep hill directly above the remains of what was generally believed in Skene’s time to be the finest example of a Roman villa in Co. Durham. However, more recent assessments of the locality, in line with current advances in the science of Archaeology, have concluded that the evidence available to us is not necessarily as strong as was previously thought. Although it is generally acknowledged that a building with a bath house has been successfully located, the exact context in which the evidence for the bath house needs to be interpreted is still open to speculation. Excavations of another villa at Ingleby Barwick near Stockton-on-Tees, on the other hand, have been considerably more conclusive.

As for Maiden Castle, James Dyer, writing in “The Penguin Guide to Prehistoric England and Wales”, published in 1982, makes similar claims that, thus far, excavations of the site have been similarly inconclusive, only yielding artifacts of Mediaeval origin; although the nineteenth century Durham historian, Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, was to present evidence that some would interpret as contradicting this. It is, however, important to note that during the era of which we speak, large numbers of previously abandoned Iron Age fortifications were reoccupied by the native Britons and used as strongholds from which to repel the invading English.

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Late Winter View of Maiden Castle from the A177

As to whether or not Maiden Castle was in any way used for such a purpose at this time is yet to be proven conclusively. What is also certain is that large numbers of Roman villas similar to the one generally believed to have existed at Old Durham are known to have been abandoned after the serious barbarian incursions which took place towards the end of the fourth century, when Hadrian’s Wall was breached in several places. And, the fact that there appears to be no archaeological data suggestive of any sort of reoccupation of many of these sites leaves one to suppose that it is not unreasonable to conclude that the area around Durham may well have been completely abandoned at this time.

The fact that place name evidence is similarly inconclusive might also mean that we could be looking for either one or two possible candidate sites worthy of further investigation, in relation to the specific written sources that have been examined above. Although it is very tempting to identify both Caer Weir and Din Guaire as a single location, and hastily jump to the conclusion that our original sources are referring specifically to Durham, the texts themselves are obscure and refer to events a century or so apart from one another. And, as we shall see in a future post, there are variant interpretations of the poetical and other sources in which King Cunedda, the Ancient British King whose dynasty is associated with Caer Weir in the verses of Taliesin, is himself referred to by name.

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On the Trail of the Green Man

 

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‘For wonder of his hewe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And overal enke grene….’
‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, I.147-150.

In my introductory post, I looked at Durham’s Green Men, whose Mediaeval images still adorn the Cathedral Cloister. Although unique in their own individual ways, these carvings are far from unique as a feature of Mediaeval Church Architecture. Images of the Green Man are found in Cathedrals across the country, from Hereford to Exeter and beyond. In Northern England, the image of the Green Man adorns the ancient Chapter House at York Minster: one of the great treasures of Mediaeval Ecclesiastical Craftsmanship in its own right.

Perhaps the most famous Green Men, however, are those who adorn the world famous Rosslyn Chapel at Roslin in Midlothian. Rosslyn Chapel, built by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, as a Catholic collegiate church, has inspired more than its fair share of speculative conjecture over the past thirteen years or so. Much of this speculation appears to have been derived from its alleged associations with the Knights Templar. Associations first documented by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in such books as ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ and ‘The Temple and the Lodge’; and later in the works of Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’.

As well as this somewhat speculative link with Rosslyn, which is derived for the most part from late and predominantly masonic legends, the Templars are also associated with a number of important, but somewhat more obscure, buildings in France. Although most people presently associate the Templars with locations such as the Temple Church in London, which is where much of the plot of the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel is focused, they actually had their original European power base in France; before their rise to prominence as the foremost Military Order of the Middle Ages made them a truly international organization.

 

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Effigies of Knights in London’s Temple Church

 

One of these buildings is the French Castle of Gisors in Normandy. The Castle of Gisors is interesting architecturally for a variety of reasons, most notably for its octagonal keep, built by King Henry I of England during his rule as Duke of Normandy in the opening decades of the twelfth century. During the years that followed the castle was held by the Knights Templar, who took possession of it between 1158 and 1160, by order of the French King. Previous to this, the castle had been associated with a branch of the de Chaumont Family who are believed to have become intermarried with the family of Hugues de Payens, the first Templar Grand Master.

Curiously, in the centuries that would follow another branch of the same family turn up in Durham in connection with Walworth Castle, at that time being held by the Hansards. According to Hilary W. Jackson, whose writings we shall return to in a future post, Robert Hansard of Walworth was married to one Beatrix de Chaumont, who appears on record in 1347. Within two years, however, the village of Walworth had been completely devastated by the Black Death and henceforth nothing whatsoever is known about the de Chaumont connection with the Bishopric.

Interestingly enough, the de Chaumont link with Gisors in France, which is believed to have persisted until the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century at least, appears to have some sort of connection with the Norman branch of the Sinclairs; some of whom traveled to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror. Indeed, Sir William Sinclair of Roslin’s own direct ancestor had been among those who had taken part in the great venture of 1066 that was to change the course of English history forever. And this, it would seem, may well connect the Castle of Gisors with Rosslyn Chapel. Indeed, a member of the Sinclair Family is on record as having married into the de Chaumont Family during the Twelfth Century, at around about the same time as the castle’s octagonal keep was apparently being built.

 

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Durham Castle’s Octagonal Keep

 

More interesting still perhaps is that just as a member of the de Chaumont Family turns up in the Bishopric, a major building project was to take place at Durham itself. The building project in question being none other than the rebuilding of the old Norman Castle Keep, constructed by Earl Waltheof of Northumbria on the orders of William the Conqueror in 1072, which stands just across Palace Green from the Cathedral and its Green Men. Like the keep at Gisors, this keep was likewise octagonal, which is how it appears today, although many more alterations to the building itself have since taken place. However, the fact that it was rebuilt in octagonal form during the incumbency of Thomas Hatfield, who sat as Bishop of Durham from 1345 to 1381, places the project in the very historical time frame in which we find a reference to the de Chaumont Family in the local historical record.

So, was there a connection between Durham and Gisors? And if so what was it? The Templar Order had by this time been utterly suppressed, its last Grand Master having been imprisoned at Gisors before his death. Once again though, our Green Men may point the way, as not only do we find examples of the same archetype up in Scotland a century or so later, at Rosslyn Chapel, but across the Channel in Normandy as well.

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An Early Christian link with the Celtic Realms

 

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Sculpted Cathedral Effigy Depicting Durham’s Dun Cow Legend

 

“…..now shift the scene, and let the curtain fall,
And our next entry be St. Cuthbert’s Hall.”
Sir Walter Scott, “Harold the Dauntless”, 3. xii

The modern County and City of Durham has its historical roots in the ancient Northumbrian Kingdom of Bernicia. About the year 628 the pagan English of Lindsey, south of the Humber, first embraced the Christian Faith; giving rise to the conversion of Edwin; first Christian King of the neighbouring Northumbrian province of Deira. The original source from whence these early conversions are recorded as having emanated is that of the See of Kent; founded by St. Augustine more than twenty years previously. And so it was that in the year 635 King Oswald of Northumbria sent to the King of the Scots for a Christian Bishop; heralding the arrival in England of St. Aidan; who was promptly granted the Island of Lindisfarne by his patron.

Although comparatively little is known about Aidan, the facts that are known about his life attest to his having been trained on the Hebridean Island of Iona; at the monastery founded by St. Columba. This early link between the Irish and the Northumbrian Churches is attested to by the archaeological record, in that Northumbria’s oldest surviving church structure, at Escomb near Bishop Auckland in County Durham, has a circular churchyard laid out in a style akin to those found in Ireland at this time. The ancient church at Escomb is generally accepted as being dateable to before 675 A.D., so it is by no means inconceivable that it has a connection with Aidan’s early mission from the north.

Durham City’s world renown as a major centre of Christian worship dates from considerably later historically speaking than the consecration of the church at Escomb. It would not be until 997 when a group of monks would arrive from Chester-le-Street under Aldhune or Aldwinus; founder of the first Cathedral. The fact that less than seventy years later a Franco-Norman army, under the command of William Duke of Normandy, would arrive in England, bringing the last Anglo-Saxon dynasty to rule this land to an abrupt and bloody end, has done much to obscure this early period in Durham’s history. In the decades directly after the Norman Conquest, Durham City and much of the surrounding area would be devastated as a result the rebellious inclination of its inhabitants, and this may well explain the lack of written records available to us in connection with this problem.

 

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View of the Castle from Crossgate

 

It is, however, a near certainty that some sort of Christian worship was being conducted somewhere in the vicinity of Durham City before the arrival of Aldhune. The only thing that we cannot say for sure is exactly where. One of the prime candidates to have been put forward as a possible centre for such activity is Crossgate, which lies on the Western bank of the River Wear; outside the City Walls and across the river from the ancient peninsular on which the Cathedral and Castle were founded. The fact that wood, as opposed to stone, was a very common building material for churches during Anglo-Saxon times perhaps explains why no trace of a Pre-Norman Church has thus far been found in or around Crossgate. The earliest recorded structure dates from the 12th Century and was a Chapel of Ease located on the site of St Margaret’s Church. From what we can gather it was built for the benefit of those inhabitants of Crossgate who did not wish to go out of the ‘Old Borough’, as Crossgate was originally called, to attend Mass at neighbouring St Oswald’s in Church Street.

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The Church of St. Margaret of Antioch in Crossgate

One vital piece of evidence, which has thus far been overlooked by most historical researchers looking into the early origins of Christianity in the City, is place names. At the very bottom of Crossgate, close to its intersection with South Street, and directly beneath St. Margaret of Antioch’s Church itself is St. Helen’s Well. As we shall see in a future posting, St. Helen, or St. Helena as she is sometimes known, is one of the oldest saints to have been venerated in Britain. As well as having been possessed of a very ancient cult peculiar to the Early Welsh Church, which preceded the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons by several centuries, her connection with the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great also links her to the foundation of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches in the Fourth Century A.D. Something we shall be looking at in detail in a future post.

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In the Realm of the Green Man

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Who are Durham’s Green Men and what is their significance?

‘If ye wil lysten this laye bot on littel whyle,
I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herd,…’
‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, I.30-31.

Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, the friend and correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, suggests in his voluminous ‘History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham’ that the Mediaeval church of St. Mary-le-Bow stands on the site of the original White Church built directly over the ‘Tabernacle of Bows’ in which Cuthbert’s body rested till the completion of Aldune’s original Cathedral. If so, this would suggest that the ‘Tabernacle of Bows’ of Durham legend may once have been a sacred grove some kind. In all probability connected with some sort of Druidical or another Pre-Christian form of worship.

If this should turn out to be true, Durham Cathedral, like the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which was constructed over the earlier Christian cathedral of St. Etienne founded by King Childebert of the Franks in 528 AD, may well stand close to the site of a Romano-Celtic temple. Indeed, the site where the magnificent Twelfth Century Cathedral, built by Maurice de Sully Bishop of Paris in 1163  presently stands, appears to have been an ancient Gallo-Roman temple complex where not just one, but an entire array of Pagan gods, including Esus the Woodcutter,  seem to have been venerated.

Writing in his ‘Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities‘, Charles Russell Coulter asserts that Esus is believed to have been a woodcutter to whom human sacrifices were made in his role as a god of vegetation and of war. Like the Biblical Jesus, his victims are believed to have been hung from trees and ritually wounded. An ancient relief on the so called ‘Pillar of the Boatmen‘, which originally stood in this very same Gallo-Roman temple under Notre Dame Cathedral, appears to show Esus dressed as a woodsman chopping down a tree. Did ancient Romanized Celts worship Esus in Durham before the establishment of Christianity as the State Religion of the Late Roman Empire? If so it would explain why the Christian Faith was so easily adopted here in Britain. And, it would also explain how what is to all intents and purposes the image of a Pagan deity or symbol came to adorn the Cloisters of Durham Cathedral.

In Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft to J.G. Lockhart esq.’, Letter 5, we find an extract from the ‘Confession of Bessie Dunlop the famous Witch of Dalry burned at the stake in 1576’ which gives us a clue as to how these woodland spirits were viewed by many in the Christian World of the Sixteenth Century:

‘She further confessed that one day while she passed through Grange Muir she lay down in a fit of sickness, and that a green man came to her, and said if she would be faithful he would do her good. In reply she charged him, in the name of God and by the law he lived upon, if he came for her soul’s good to tell her his errand. On this the green man departed. But he afterwards appeared to her with many men and women with him, and against her will she was obliged to pass with them farther than she could tell, with piping, mirth and good cheer; also that she accompanied them into Lothian, where she saw puncheons of wine with tasses or drinking-cups. She declared that when she told of these things she was sorely tormented, and received a blow that took away the power of her left side, and left on it an ugly mark which had no feeling.’

Saint or Devil? Dream or Nightmare? The Green Men that adorn the Cloister Bosses of the Eleventh Century successor to Aldhune’s first Cathedral Church are not telling.

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