Category Archives: Dark Ages

Deck the Halls – where do halls originate?

anglo-saxon-christmas-bayeux-feast-300x222.jpg“Deck the Halls”  is a Victorian favourite but the refraining Fa la la-ing goes back to earlier ballad forms.  It may even be medieval in origin.

My interest isn’t in the origin of the tune or even in the boughs of holly interesting as they both may be.  This year’s History Jar advent is all about the hall – and there are a lot of them one way another – some of them are still family homes whilst others are ruins.  I shall be having a look at  Arbella Stuart whose residence was Hardwick Hall and some Jaocbite artefacts on display in Nunnington Hall if you want a taster of what’s coming. Today though I am exploring the origin of  the hall which will in its turn involve feasting – hence the image at the start of the post from the Bayeaux Tapestry involving Anglo Saxons enjoying a feast.

Healls first made their appearance in England in the fifth century at a point when the country was still under the influence of the Romans. So when we go in and out of our hallways at home without a second thought we are using a word with an Old English etymology.  The root of the word is Germanic and it simply means a spacious, covered place – we’ve arrived at Angles, Saxons and Jutes – as described by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century.

Halls were not places where children deposited coats and bag on bannisters. Nor were there the natural collecting ground of junk mail, plastic bags and stray shoes; oh no!  Halls were rectangular buildings owned by nobility  and monarchs, built out of wood, wattle and daub and covered in thatch.  Windows hadn’t taken off (windows are a compound word meaning the eye of the wind) so they weren’t what you might describe as light and airy.  There would be a large central fire.  The smoke from the fire would work its way out through the aforementioned thatch – ensuring that the inhabitants of the hall were nicely kippered but probably weren’t overly bothered by biting insects.  These kinds of halls are a little outside my period of interest (and well outside my preferred comfort zone) but there are people who go and spend their spare time re-enacting Saxon and Norse lifestyles.

For those of you who like your Saxon Halls a shade older there’re archeological excavations which yield post holes and other clues (such as animal bones and stray coins) about what the Saxons got up to in their rectangular halls.  Lyminge in Kent has hosted a party of archeologists on the trail of Kentish royalty since 2011. The site yielded evidence of three halls built in  succession to one another dating from AD600.  The hall wasn’t somewhere that the Kentish king lived – it was somewhere that he went to entertain his guests and for official duties.  The hall was part of a complex of buildings and when a large space was required then the mead hall was opened up and the party started.  It was a place for feasting, storytelling and drinking – which is why halls are sometimes prefixed by the word “mead” because that was the drink of choice.

There are archeological remains of mead halls in Yeavering (Northumberland), Bamburgh (Northumberland),  Rendlesham (Suffolk), Sutton Courtenay (Oxon),  and another in Hampshire.  Of course, there are probably many more than that lurking beneath the ground just waiting to be discovered but it is interesting in the case of Rendlsham that the location of the hall matches with one of six royal locations identified by Bede.

The next set of invaders also used halls – Scandinavians – added to our understanding of halls with the story of Beowulf and Grendel. In the tale, King Hrothgar had a mead hall which he called Heorot which translates are “hart”.  As well as demonstrating Hrothgar’s importance the hall was also a symbol of his wealth and a place for his warriors to come and relax, show off their ill gotten gains and boast about their martial prowess.  It also doubled up as an extra large guest bedroom where the aforementioned doughty warriors could sleep off their mead and ale induced hangovers.

So all that remains for me to do today is offer you a Saxon toast to good health – “waes hael!

wassail

 

 

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Muchelney Abbey

Tiles from Muchelney AbbeyMuchelney Abbey on the Somerset Levels was founded by the Saxon Kings of Wessex.  Unfortunately it is impossible to be precise about which one, as some of the charters granting land to Muchelney are medieval forgeries.  Evidence does suggest that King Ine of Wessex founded the abbey and then King Athelstan refounded it when he gave gifts to the abbey – in thanks for his victory over the Vikings at Brunanburgh or possibly as an ‘oops I’ve been a bit of a naughty boy’ offering in relation to his involvement in the murder of the Atheling Edwin in 933. The confusion about the abbey’s foundation may be because the area suffered under the Vikings.  After all, Muchelney is in the vicinity of the hovel where Alfred the Great burnt the cakes. Wedmore, where there was once a royal palace and where Alfred made a treaty with Guthrum is just up the road.

 

The ruins that remain today date from the twelfth century and reflect the Norman desire to found or support existing monastic houses.  There is also a very smart sixteenth century staircase in the abbot’s residence that must have looked a bit out of place when it became a farm house after the dissolution as well as some wonderful recumbent lions over the fireplace which date from a century earlier.

 

Muchelney is mentioned in the Domesday Book.  It turns up again some five hundred years later in Thomas Cromwell’s Valor Ecclesiasticus as being worth £447 with eight monks in addition to the abbot and prior. It had never been a large monastery – Glastonbury was too close for that to happen.

 

There were earlier visitations. The Victoria County History for Somerset mentions a visit in 1335 when the Bishop of Shrewsbury found the Benedictine monks sleeping in richly covered beds and going off for their meals on horseback rather than eating in the monastery itself. In addition the cloisters were being polluted with the presence of the laity – and not just men either. The Bishop also noted that the church was in a bad state of repair. The monastery was swiftly reformed by a new abbot but it didn’t spare the monks from a visit by the Black Death.

 

Cromwell’s commissioners also sent many letters about Muchelney.  The commissioner who arrived in January 1538 was Thomas Leigh (he made himself deeply unpopular during the first phase of the dissolution in Yorkshire.)   By 1538 Leigh had a handy assortment of damning phrases with which to write to his master. He described the abbot as being of “doubtful character” and the monks “unlernyd.” Unlearned or not the brethren at Muchelney could see which way the wind was blowing and swiftly surrendered the abbey into Leigh’s hands.

Henry VIII granted the abbey to his brother-in-law the Earl of Hertford.  The Earl, Edward Seymour whose sister Jane Seymour married the king two years earlier, went on to become Protector of England during his nephew Edward VI’s minority.

Seymour kept the abbot’s lodging turning it into a farm house which he let out to tenants. He used the rest of the monastery as a quarry.

When Seymour was executed for treason Muchelney returned to the Crown where it remained until 1614 when it was sold off by James I.

The church of Muchelney which stood next door to the abbey was not part of the abbey itself – so Seymour couldn’t strip the lead from the roof or take away its dressed stone!  However, the abbey had the living for the church. This meant that they could appoint the priest. An informative display also mentions the fact that the abbey was responsible for providing the vicar with bread and ale every day, meat twice a week, and eggs and fish on the other five days.

 

Victorian excavation of Mucheleny Abbey revealed medieval floor tiles belonging to the Lady Chapel. These were placed inside the church where they remain today as a reminder of how beautiful English abbeys must have once been.

 

 

 

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Filed under Dark Ages, Monasteries, Sixteenth Century

Edwin’s Place

KSCN0001King Edwin’s kingdom stretched from Edinburgh – Edwin’s Town- to the River Trent.   This was the Kingdom of Northumbria He was accepted as the High King or Bretwalda.  Following his marriage to Ethelburga of Kent (daughter of Ethelbert) in AD 627 he became Britain’s second Christian king. Bede described Edwin  as more powerful than any earlier king and as time passed he extended his kingdom to the Isle of Man and Anglesey.

His invasion of North Wales resulted in Cadwallada of Wales and Penda of Mercia forming an alliance against him and invading his kingdom in 633.  He and two of his sons were killed at the Battle of Heathfield  which could be near Cuckney or alternatively at Hatfield near Doncaster – though it would be unlikely for the next part of the story to be true if this were the case.

Edwin’s comrades carried his body from the scene of the battle and buried it in the forest.  They carried his head back to St Peter’s in York., though another version has Cadwallada displaying Edwin’s head on the ramparts of York’s city walls following a veritable  Saxon-killing spree.  In either event the battle was bloody and decisive.

 

Eventually it was decided that Edwin’s body should be buried in Whitby Abbey where his niece St Hilda was abbess.  By that time people were calling him a saint.  The spot where his body had been buried was deemed a holy place and a wooden chapel built on the site.  This became known as the ‘place of Edwin’ or Edwinstowe.

Edwinstowe was part of the royal manor of  Mansfield in 1066.  Inevitably, given the Norman kings love of hunting the land around Mansfield and Edwinstowe became part of a royal forest.  The Domesday Book of 1086 records the church, a priest and four bordars – these were essentially slaves working the priest’s land.  Twenty years later there was even less land being cultivated.

 

In later times King John, who had a hunting lodge at Ollerton, paid a priest to live in a nearby chantry to say prayers for his soul and for the souls of the people he had wronged.

The local people probably felt they ought to have been included in the number as they were bound by the strict forest laws that protected the timber and the game of royal forests.   Those caught breaking the law were taken before the Forest Court or Eyre which was held every six or seven weeks.  More serious offences were tried at the Nottingham Eyre.

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Filed under Dark Ages, Eleventh Century, Kings of England, Legends