From Cuddy’s Corse to Palace Green


St. Cuthbert’s Day Procession to Palace Green 2019

In an earlier post from 2017 I raised the issue of the route taken by the Northumbrian Association’s annual celebratory St. Cuthbert’s Day Walk from Chester-le-Street to Durham Cathedral. One of the principal reasons for this was that the present course of the route, and the way it is promoted, both by the Northumbrian Association itself and the Durham Cathedral website, give the false impression to many day visitors to Durham that this is the real route that St. Cuthbert’s body would have taken towards its final resting place on the Durham Peninsular; after years of wandering from place to place following the laying waste of the Northumbrian coast by the Vikings in 875.

Although reference to, and close scrutiny of, the Northumbrian Association’s specially prepared leaflet and map, which have popularized this walk over the years, reveal that the route of ‘Cuddy’s Corse’, the name by which this perambulation is generally known, only follows the route taken to Durham by St. Cuthbert’s Relics ‘in spirit’, the claim that ‘this last journey’ was taken directly from Chester-le-Street to Durham is entirely false. The original route by which the Treasures of St. Cuthbert travelled to Durham was not from North to South, as has been suggested in the previously referred to leaflet, but from South to North: entirely the opposite direction.


The 2019 Annual St. Cuthbert’s Day Procession arrives on Palace Green with the Mayor’s Bodyguard at the head of this year’s band of latter day pilgrims. 

In the year 995, just over two hundred years after the first Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793, another Danish invasion had forced the removal of St. Cuthbert’s Relics to Ripon. No mention of this movement southwards is made in the Northumbrian Association’s leaflet, although a more detailed account of Cuthbert’s coffin’s travels appears on its website, where the ‘canonical’ version of the story, complete with what is almost certainly a corrupt reference to ‘Warden Law’, is given verbatim. I have touched on the Warden Law story in an earlier post, and will be visiting this episode in the legend again at a later juncture. Suffice to say that if the monks really had been travelling to Chester-le-Street from Ripon it is doubtful that they would have travelled via Warden Law, as the generally used route would have been up the old Roman Road that ran from what was at that time ‘Ceddesfeld’, now Sedgefield, to the old Roman fort of Concangis and beyond.

Ripon, the original starting point for this last and final journey, is located just south west of the old Roman Road of Dere Street, which runs north from the former capital of the Roman Province of Britannia Secunda at Eboracum, now York, and on towards Trimontium; the Roman fort at what is now Newstead, near Melrose, in the Scottish Borders. The exact course of the road is traceable today at least as far as St. Boswell’s in Roxburghshire, and has a longstanding association not only with St. Cuthbert himself, but also with his principal mentor, St. Boisil; described by the Venerable Bede as ‘a priest of great virtue and prophetic spirit.’


Exposed fragments of Roman paving from a section of Dere Street just north of Willington in County Durham  

This, therefore, is not only the route along which Cuthbert himself would have travelled in his own lifetime to many of the numerous locations with which hs name has become associated, but also in death; in that the shortest route from Ripon to Durham follows the section of Dere Street that leads up through Vinovium near Bishop Auckland and on through Brancepeth via what is now Hunwick. A vital clue as to where his remains would almost certainly have travelled following their passage through Brancepeth can be found in the little known local legend of Holywell Hall.


I shall be devoting an entire future post to the Holywell Legend at a later juncture. In the meantime, it will suffice to relate that according to a tradition that has thus far escaped the attentions of Richard W Hardwick and the compilers of the ‘St Cuthbert’s Final Journey’ website, St. Cuthbert’s body is believed to have rested at Holywell at some point around the year 882 during its well documented travels with the Lindisfarne Community shortly before it came to rest at Chester-le-Street. Holywell Hall is located along a section of the Weardale Way that runs through and past a series of ancient Medieval properties, including Croxdale Hall and nearby Low Butterby Moat, from a point along Dere Street just outside of Brancepeth to a location along the Roman Road from Sedgefield just south east of Durham and Shincliffe Bridge. Given these facts it is a near certainty that this is the course along which St. Cuthbert’s Relics would have found their way to Mount Joy and on to their final resting place on the Peninsular, as well as on to Chester-le-Street during the preceding century; as this was the shortest direct route from Ripon to both of these locations during the Early Middle Ages.


We shall be visiting this territory again in a series of future posts. In the meantime, it is perhaps worth noting that when Alchfrith, king of Deira, founded his new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became its praepositus hospitum or guest master under Eata of Hexham. Previous to this both Eata and Cuthbert had been resident at Melrose Abbey, which Eata had taken a hand in founding following his dispatch from Lindisfarne, in the company of eleven other monks, shortly before his election as its first Abbot in 651. Given what we have seen in the preceding paragraphs it is pretty much indisputable fact that both Cuthbert and Eata would likewise have travelled along Dere Street on their journey south to Ripon in 658. An additional fact which probably makes the Weardale Way route a considerably more viable Pilgrimage Route than the one that is generally taken from Chester-le-Street to Durham each St. Cuthbert’s Day weekend in our own century.


Section of Dere Street approaching  the Roman fort of Vinovium from the North along the very same route that Cuthbert would have travelled from Melrose to Ripon in the company of Eata.

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Draco, the Draconids, and the Early Northumbrian Christian Missionaries

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Draco coils around the North Celestial Pole, from a set of constellation cards published c.1825

July has been an interesting month for Astronomers around the World. As the seventh month moves into the eighth month of August even social media and the blogosphere have been announcing that we are on the verge of a ‘close encounter with Mars’, as the Red Planet makes its way ‘closer to us now than at any time in the past 15 years’. Earlier in the month, in the build up to the ‘Blood Moon’ of last weekend, the website announced a ‘cosmic event that only happens every 35,000 years’. The event to which their article referred, which was to take place on July 27, involved a situation in which the planet Mars gave the impression of being ‘as big as the Moon’. Yet another interesting Astronomical phenomenon that has overshadowed a regular annual event in the July skies across the Northern Hemisphere: the evening appearance of the Constellation of Draco in the heavens.

From the point of view of the particular topic with which much of this blog is primarily concerned, the early Ecclesiastical History of Durham, and the primordial Northumbrian See that preceded the foundation of the Prince Bishopric, this is a particularly significant time of year: as far as the Borough of Crossgate in the City of Durham is concerned at any rate. The principal reason for this is that July 13th marks the Feast Day, in the Eastern religious calendar at least, of Crossgate’s patron Saint, St. Margaret of Antioch. Whilst in the West, the Feast of St. Margaret of Antioch takes place seven days later, on July 20th. Add to all this the additional fact that St. Margaret herself is associated in legend with the very Dragon with which the Constellation of Draco is itself inextricably linked, and it is not unsafe to draw the conclusion that the fixing of her Feast Day in both Eastern and Western Traditions alike may have something to do with the Dragon that features so prominently in her legend.


The Tower of the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch in Crossgate

These facts only confirm what I myself have asserted elsewhere in some of my previous posts, that the Lives of the Saints provide us with a kind of ‘Da Vinci Code‘ of sign and symbol that, to those who have sufficient knowledge to understand it, appears to incorporate a whole range of mathematical, astronomical and scientific knowledge; hidden away from the uninitiated. Early Biblical sources, such as the Old Testament Book of Joshua, make direct reference to such astronomical phenomena as the first ever recorded Solar Eclipse. A fact that is now universally acknowledged by the Scientific community. This in itself provides a very plausible explanation as to why such Cosmic happenings have been viewed for centuries as the harbingers of Apocalyptic events. Something which is still a major feature of sensationalist reporting by the mainstream media across the Globe right down to the present day.

Indeed, in the build up to last weekend’s ‘Blood Moon Eclipse’, those who are accustomed to following current affairs, either on social media or across the World Wide Web, were bombarded with the usual pseudo-scientific predictions that religious leaders have been subjecting us to for centuries: whilst the real significance of these events, and how they relate specifically to the earliest religious writings and texts, was almost entirely missed. It is now universally acknowledged that the builders of the Great Pyramid were themselves possessed of extensive scientific, mathematical and astronomical knowledge. Knowledge which would eventually be passed down to the builders of our great churches and cathedrals. Much of this astronomical knowledge appears to have been linked to the observation of the Pole Star, which, at the time that the Pyramids were being built,  around 2600 B.C., was Thuban, in the Constellation of Draco.

As is well known, the earliest Christian texts were written either in Aramaic, the Ancient Syriac dialect spoken by Jesus and his Disciples, or else in Greek. Combining this with the additional fact that that the internationally renowned archaeologist and filmmaker, Professor John Romer, has demonstrated extensively how early Eastern Christian iconography gradually developed out of the late religious art of the pagan Greek Classical World, and it is easy to see how and why many early Christian legends, particularly those of eastern provenance, would have incorporated hidden Astronomical references into their largely allegorical meanings. When something is just too ridiculous to be true, such as many episodes in the Saints’ Lives actually are, it is usually because the mythology that is there recounted has some sort of symbolic meaning completely unrelated to literal interpretation. As we shall now see, this may well have a bearing on the hagiographic sources relating to the life of yet another early Northumbrian Saint, that of St. Wilfred of York.

Like his contemporary, St. Cuthbert (634-687), Wilfred (633-709) is renowned for his tireless devotion to the interests of the Northumbrian Church. Among his greatest achievements was the conversion of the Pagan South Saxons of what is now Sussex on the South Coast of England. In an earlier post, we looked at some of the legendary connections between certain parts of Sussex, where Wilfred may well have been active during the course of his great evangelical mission to the South Saxons, and a cycle of mythologies in which the archetype of the Dragon plays a pivotal role. Perhaps then it is no coincidence that St. Wilfred’s Feast Day, 12 October, falls at a time when the so-called ‘Draconids‘, a meteor shower that appears to originate from the Constellation of Draco, has just passed through the visible portion of the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

Interestingly enough, St. Wilfrid is not the only early Christian Missionary seemingly linked to the Northumbrian Church whose mission appears to have taken him into a domain previously lorded over by dragons. St. Serf, who, according to legend evangelized much of what is now Perth and Kinross during the sixth century A.D., appears to have had a mythical confrontation with a dragon of his very own; this time at Dunning in the old Celtic Mormaership, or Earldom, of Strathearn. Like the legend of St. Margaret, many aspects of St. Serf’s legend seem too strange and curious to be true. One story, that he was the son of Eliud, King of Canaan, and his wife Alphia, an apparent daughter of a King of Arabia, seems somewhat far-fetched until one realizes that the earliest Christian artifacts that have come down to us seem to be suggestive of Christianity having been introduced into Britain, in what is now Northern England at least, by early Syrian converts with links to the Roman Army.

In an earlier post, we looked at the connections between St. Patrick’s Family and the Roman Army, in the light of surviving Roman military inscriptions. These appear to link a number of individuals, connected with the Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, with the city of Palmyra in what is now Syria. In view of this, it is perhaps significant that some scholars have conjectured that ‘Arbeia’, the name given by the Romans to their fort at South Shields, is in some way derived from the Aramaic word for the Arabs (Arbaya) of what was at that time Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. If so, it would appear that the legends relating to St. Serf’s parentage may not be so far-fetched after all. Interestingly enough, St. Serf is also linked in legend to the ancient church at Simonburn Village near Hexham in County Northumberland. Itself just a stone’s throw from the very section of Hadrian’s Wall where some of the previously referred to inscriptions, connected with the self-same Syriac element within the Roman Army in my earlier post, are known to have originated.

Although the present Church of St. Mungo at Simonburn appears to be of thirteenth-century origin, there is evidence of worship on the site going considerably further back. This includes a so-called ‘Hoggs Back‘ tombstone, believed to be of a particular type of Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries of the current era, as well as what are alleged by the compilers of the Megalithic Portal website to be pieces of Anglian or Roman chamfered impost moulding in the east wall of the porch. Perhaps, in view of what we have also noted elsewhere in my text, it is also significant that the so-called ‘Dark Sky Discovery Observatory‘ is located at nearby Battlesteads; just a short distance up the road. The additional fact that St. Serf’s feast day also falls in the month of July is also well worth noting into the bargain.

So what are we to make of these legends and how should we interpret them? As we have already noted, in former times the Pole Star was located in what is generally referred to as the Constellation of Draconis. Then, during the First Millennium BC, thanks to a phenomenon generally referred to as ‘The Procession of the Equinoxes’, the star presently known as ‘Kochab’, or Beta Ursae Minoris, became the brightest star closest to the Celestial Pole. However, due to the fact that Beta Ursae Minoris was never close enough to be taken as marking the exact location of the Pole, the closest true successor to Thuban in the Constellation of Draco was Polaris, in the Constellation of Ursa Minor. The fact that all of these legends appear to have originated at a time when the exact location of the Celestial Pole was in a state of obvious transit, and at a time when the religious and political state of the then known world was going through a serious amount of upheaval, may explain at least some of the more curious aspects of these clearly related mythologies. The reason why the Pole Star would have been so important to so many early Christian missionaries would have been that in an age before the compass or GPS the stars held the key to successful navigation, whether by sea or over land; something we are likely to look at again in a future post.


The Constellation of Draco (Wikimedia Commons Licence)

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In the Footsteps of St. Patrick




Bath House at Vindolanda; one of several Roman military sites in Northumberland with links to the family of St. Patrick (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


In spite of the fact that when most people think of the distant beginnings of the English Church the name that springs most immediately to mind is that of St. Augustine of Canterbury, the true origins of Christianity in Durham and Northumbria originate with St. Patrick’s Mission to Ireland in the early Fifth Century. Although the Northumbrian Church traces its foundation to St. Aidan’s response to King Oswald’s request that missionaries should be sent from Iona some twenty-seven years after St. Augustine’s arrival on the Island of Thanet, monastic life on the Island of Iona began at the instigation of St. Columba; whose ecclesiastical background is firmly rooted in the Irish Church founded by St. Patrick.

Early hagiographic sources accredit St. Brigid, who lived between 451 and 525, Patrick, and Columba with being the three joint Patron Saints of Ireland. St. Brigid, who has featured already in some earlier postings on this blog, is generally represented as the daughter of a Pictish slave girl named Brocca, who had been converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick, and a Prince of the Royal House of Leinster named Dubhthach. Columba, on the other hand, was the great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, whose son Lóegaire mac Néill is believed to have been an important royal convert of St. Patrick. This considered, it is perhaps highly significant that direct evidence appears to exist for Patrick’s own family connections to a number of Roman Military officers on Hadrian’s Wall, in a region that would one day become part of the early See of Northumbria.

According to early hagiographic legend Easter 433 saw a major confrontation between St. Patrick of Ireland and a group of Irish Druids. The story goes that the episode took place when Easter is supposed to have coincided with the Pagan Festival of Beltane: a Celtic Fire Festival associated with the beginning of Summer. The controversy at the heart of the matter supposedly arose when Patrick lit a Paschal Fire on top of the Hill of Slane where the remains of a Christian abbey now stand. The story goes that Patrick did this in defiance of the then High King, Lóegaire mac Néill, who had previously decreed that no other fires should be lit whilst a Beltane Fire still burned on the Hill of Tara, where he himself had his royal capital. In spite of this, no action was taken against Patrick and the Christian Mission was permitted to continue; much to the consternation of some of the Pagan priesthood.

Nowadays this key event in Patrick’s Ministry is almost entirely forgotten, as it has been largely superseded in terms of importance by the great bacchanal that now dominates St. Patrick’s own Holy Day on March 17th. March 17th may be an excuse for binge drinking among Irish communities across the globe, but the real life Saint who inspired Ireland’s National Day was in reality a Roman with military connections. What’s more, he was born in Britain of all places. And, as if that wasn’t enough, in all probability the only drink he would have approved of, apart from watered down communion wine, was water from the sacred spring at Struell Wells near Downpatrick in County Down. An ancient Holy Well close to where he himself lived. So who was the real Patrick and where did he come from?


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Inscribed Roman Stonework in the Anglo-Saxon Crypt at Hexham Abbey where a lost inscription linked to St. Patrick’s Family was unearthed in 1725. (Wikimedia Commons)


A Roman military inscription on a buff sandstone altar, officially lost since 1860, may hold the key to some still obscure hagiographical facts relating to the life of Ireland’s patron saint. The inscription, which first came to light in 1725, when the Anglo-Saxon crypt, built entirely out of Roman worked stones, was first opened at Hexham Abbey in County Northumberland, may also contain a guarded reference to the God of the Christians, thus shedding further light on the true origins of Christianity in Britain.

Beginning with a partially damaged reference to what is generally perceived to have been the Second Legion of Augustus, ‘LEG A…’, the original Latin text is believed by scholars to have read as follows: ‘Quintus Calpurnius Concessinius, prefect of cavalry, after slaughtering a band of Corionototae, fulfilled his vow to the god of most efficacious power.’



The Pilgrim’s Passage in the Anglo-Saxon Crypt at Hexham Abbey close to where the lost inscription was found. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Born somewhere close to the Western Seaboard of Britain to Roman parents, the young ‘Magonus Sucatus’, later to be known as Magonus Sucatus Patricius, spent his early years in and around the obscure Roman settlement of Bannavem Taberniae. It is generally believed that Bannavem Taberniae was once located somewhere in Cumbria, close to the modern town of Ravenglass. Although some have sought to identify Patrick’s birthplace with Banwen in South Wales, the contents of this inscription make their argument increasingly unlikely, particularly in the light of a number of new discoveries in the field of archaeology; which appear to put certain obscure references in some of the earliest surviving biographical material relating to him into greater textual perspective.

Ludwig Bieler, editor of what is largely recognized as the ‘canonical version’ of the reconstructed original Latin text of St. Patrick’s own autobiographical ‘Confessio‘ was the first to identify Quintus Calpurnius Concessini as an ancestor of St. Patrick’s Mother Concessa; whose family were also closely related to St. Martin of Tours. Martin’s Father appears to have been a cavalry officer serving in a contingent of cavalry generally referred to as ‘palatini’, which have been described as elite units, ‘normally part of the exercitus praesentales‘ or ‘imperial escort armies’; which came into being after the reorganization of the Imperial armies during the reign of Constantine the Great.

Previous to this, many such units were attached as Auxiliaries to larger formations such as the Legio II Augusta: the very unit whose name appears at the head of the inscription on the now vanished altar recovered from the Anglo-Saxon crypt at Hexham Abbey. And, following recent excavations carried out by the Vindolanda Trust at the nearby Roman fort of Vindolanda, a whole range of artifacts directly associated with such units, including some of the best preserved examples of complete Roman cavalry swords so far excavated in Britain, have been unearthed in the vicinity; along with a number of children’s toys which almost certainly belonged to members of the military families of those serving along the northernmost Roman Frontier.

Some of the finds date back to about A.D. 120 according to the archaeological team responsible for the excavations led by Dr. Andrew Birley, which would appear to date them to the very time when we know that the Legio II Augusta was directly involved in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall: around 122 A.D. or thereabouts. If the inscription dates from the early Second Century, which it probably does, given the abundance of archaeological evidence we now have linking the kind of military activities that Quintus Calpurnius Concessini would have been involved with in the vicinity to this very period, then there may be a direct connection to what is generally believed to be one of the earliest known surviving Christian monuments in Britain; which is said to date from the same era.

The monument, which was found in a cemetery close to the Roman Fort of Arbeia at South Shields, located on the furthest Eastern extremity of Hadrian’s Wall, appears to have been set up by one Barates, a merchant from Palmyra in Syria, in honour of his native British wife. Another tombstone, inscribed with a dedication to either Barates himself or else another Palmyrian of the same name, has been recovered further along the Roman Wall at Corbridge, a site with connections to both Vindolanda and nearby Hexham, where the altar inscription associated with Quintus Calpurnius Concessini was originally found. Indeed, wooden Roman writing tablets, which were also among the artifacts unearthed at Vindolanda, suggest that the Roman garrison may have known the location in question as either ‘Corstopitum’ or ‘Coriosopitum’, and that it may likewise have been referred to subsequently as ‘Coria’ by elements of the local population: a name denoting that it was a tribal centre of some kind.

In addition to being the most northerly town in the Roman Empire, Corstopitum, Coriosopitum or Coria was quite possibly the tribal capital of the Corionototae: the self same tribal group that appears to feature in the Latin inscription of Quintus Calpurnius Concessini; whose victory over the Corionototae it records. Although some have suggested that the Corionototae ‘may not have been a specific tribe, but a war-party resisting Roman authority, since the name derives from Indo-European’ word ‘*koryos (war band, army)’ and ‘teuteh (people, nation)’, others have explored a number of other possibilities. The Corionototae feature in Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason’s ‘Encyclopedia of European Peoples‘, and it has also been suggested that they were either a sub-tribe of the Brigantes, a tribal confederation whose territory appears to have stretched as far south as the River Tees in North Yorkshire, or else linked with the Irish Coriondi. Their name has also been compared to the Gaelic Cruthin, which is normally interpreted as referring to the Picts: another large confederation of tribes whose territories were centred around Morayshire in Northern Scotland and Wigtownshire to the South West.

These latter claims may well shed further light on the early life of St. Patrick, in that the territory of the Southern Picts is known to have bordered on the furthest western extremity of Hadrian’s Wall, close to the Roman fort of Aballava, at Burgh-by-Sands, which was part of a chain of forts specifically constructed to hold the Southern Picts at bay. Close at hand, another Roman fort, referred to as Maia, stands directly adjacent to the village of Bowness-on-Solway: which may well turn out to have been the ‘Bannavem Taberniae‘ of Patrick’s birth. The word ‘Bannus’ in Latin generally refers to a legal proclamation of some kind, whilst the word ‘Taberna’ refers to a hut, a stall, a booth or shop; which may in fact denote the presence of some sort of customs or immigration office close to the military settlement. Given the fact that Patrick’s Father, Calpurnius, was a Decurion, a senior civil administrator, probably denotes that he may have had some sort of connection with local officialdom at a very high level; which makes the original location of Bannavem Taberniae close to Bowness-on-Solway all the more likely.

Some obscure biographical anecdotes in a ‘Life of St. Patrick‘ by the Medieval Cistercian hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness (fl. 1175-1214), which may be based on oral traditions intergenerationally preserved contemporaneously by the local Cumbrian population among whom he himself worked and wrote, suggest that Patrick’s birthplace was directly adjacent to a Roman military camp. An equally obscure reference in the text to a location referred to as ‘Empthor’ by the author in question may likewise be a corruption of the word ‘Imperator’; and could in fact refer to an Imperial Roman inscription of the type found on milestones such as the one at Harraby Bridge just outside of Carlisle; the ‘Lvgvvalivm Carvetiorvm‘ of the Roman ‘itinera’ or administrative records. The fact that his Father is on record as having been a Decurion, a member of an administrative class which was not only responsible for public contracts and the maintenance of public order, but also supervised the collection of taxes at local level, may also connect Patrick’s family with the regional capital at Carlisle where his Father’s rank would have ensured his membership of the local city senate.

The forts at Carlisle, Corbridge and Vindolanda are all located along the so called Stanegate, or “stone road”, a Roman military road which derives its name from an Old Norse term for a paved highway. Close at hand is another former Roman military installation at what is now Carrawburgh, but which in Roman times was referred to as Brocolitia. The site is unusual because although comparatively small by Roman standards the fort was served by no fewer than three religious sanctuaries. The first of these, a Third Century Mithraeum, a shrine dedicated to the God Mithras,  the second, a ‘Nymphaeum’,  a sanctuary dedicated to the ‘Nymphs and Genius Loci’, and the third, a sacred spring known as ‘Coventina’s Well’, have all been extensively excavated. The most significant of these three shrines in relation to our particular line of enquiry, however, is the Mithraeum, due to the fact that, according to a newly published scientific paper by Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physics professor at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, it is directly oriented to the Rising of the Sun on what is now Christmas Day.



The Mithraeum at Brocolitia which is aligned to the Sun Rise on Christmas Day. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


Of further relevance is the additional fact that one of the altars inside the Mithraeum is clearly dedicated to the Cult of Sol Invictus, an aspect of the Victorious Sun God whose specific cult day was December 25th. More significant still is the fact that the fort which the Mithraeum was built to serve lies just west of the northernmost point of Hadrian’s Wall, at Limestone Corner. To the Ancients, who would have observed the Sun’s path from East to West across the Southern Horizon as a sacred journey taken by the Deity itself in its symbolic ‘Sun Chariot’, depicted here at the Mithraeum on the most North Westerly of its three altars, the North was the region of the Divine Sun’s death and subsequent rebirth. A fact which would almost certainly make this one of the most culturally significant Mithraeums within the Empire, if not its largest or most artistically embellished.

This considered, it may also be of some significance that Tírechán’s seventh-century Collectanea gives Patrick’s full name as follows: ‘Magonus, that is, famous; Succetus, that is, god of war; Patricius, that is, father of the citizens; Cothirthiacus, because he served four houses of druids.’ Although a number of different theories have thus far been developed specifically in relation to the name Cothirthiacus, the reference to Patrick having served ‘four houses of druids’ may refer just as easily to his ancestral background as it does to his period of servitude in Ireland before his Christian Mission: a time when he himself had been sold as a slave by marauding pirates. Indeed, his father, Calpurnius, in addition to being decurion, was also a deacon, an important position in the early Roman Christian Church; whilst his grandfather, Potitus, is also on record as having been a priest. There were after all four specific cults being worshipped within the confines of this multi-shrined sanctuary, which would most probably have been served by a caste of hereditary priests to which Patrick’s own family may well have been related.

In view of these facts, and the transitionary period that organized state religion is known to have undergone during the reign of Constantine the Great, when the Pagan Cult of Sol Invictus gradually transformed itself into the Catholic, or ‘Universal’, Christianity of the Early Church, it is by no means impossible that Patrick’s Paternal ancestors would have been connected in some way with the service of the three military shrines at Brocolitia: which, as I have already attempted to make clear, appear to have been associated with no fewer than four separate religious cults. Should this turn out to be the case, and in view of the newly discovered link between the so called Carrawburgh Mithraeum and the December 25th alignment previously referred to, it is by no means impossible that they themselves were in some way involved in this gradual transition process, from Pagan to Christian. Exactly at what level though is at present unclear.

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On the Trail of St. Margaret’s Dragon



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.



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.



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.



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



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.



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.



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.



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


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.


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.



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?



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!



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.



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.


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?


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
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.



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.


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



‘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.



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.



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



Sculpted Cathedral Effigy Depicting Durham’s Dun Cow Legend


“… 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.



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.


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


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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