Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Gawain Poet

In my last post I showed how a certain 13th century Anglo-Scottish nobleman called Simon De Quincy was the same personage as the Clerk of Tranent. We also saw how he was responsible for writing the ‘Anteris of Gawane,‘ ie the ‘Adventures of Gawain.’ Some scholars have suggested the ‘Anteris‘ are the same as the very famous medieval poem Gawain & the Green Knight, as recently modernized by the Yorkshire-pudding poet, Simon Armitage.

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Nobody knows who wrote the poem, but it has come to us in the middle-english dialect of the NW Midlands of roundabout the year 1400.  The thing is, just as the contemporary brummie poet Chaucer was transcreating Bocaccio’s Decameron into his own midlands dialect, so the Gawain poet could have been handling older material. Indeed, the poem begins with the sentence, ‘I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde, with tonge,‘ proving the poem must have been long-established & fully-formed  before it came into thatt unnamed midland ‘toun.

 

The Curia Regis
The Curia Regis

A clue to the identity of the original poet comes with the uncomplete ‘Hugh de…‘ written at the top of the Gawain & the Green Knight manuscript. This is where the fun begins. Returning to the De Quincy’s of Tranent, we discover that Simon De Quincy’s niece, Hawise, was married to a certain Hugh de Vere, the 4th Earl of Oxford. He also held the important rank of Master Chamberlain of England, a pre-parliamentary position which gave him access to the Kings’ Court – the curia regis – during times of national decision-making. The Curia Regis was also known as the Aula Regis, which means we now possess a perfect match for Hugh De Vere & ‘Huchoun (little Hugh) of the Awle Ryale.‘ He appears in the 14th century Chronicle of Andrew of Wyntoun;

 

Hucheon,
þat cunnande was in littratur.
He made a gret Gest of Arthure
And þe Awntyr of Gawane,
Þe Pistil als of Suet Susane.
He was curyousse in his stille,
Fayr of facunde and subtile,
And ay to pleyssance hade delyte,
Mad in metyr meit his dyte
Litil or noucht neuir þe lesse
Wauerande fra þe suythfastnes.

 

To this Huchoun are also attributed the ‘Anteris of Gawane,‘ which really does show that the true origins of ‘Gawain & the Green Knight’ lie in the 13th century poetic scene that surrounded the De quincys of Tranent – the poem’s beheading motif was rampant in those days for a start, such as is found in the Continuations of Chretien’s Perceval. This poem, as well as Perlesvaus, have numerous similarities with Gawain & the Green Knight, suggesting a similar compositive epoch.

So… as ‘Huchoun,’ Hugh De Vere would also have written a, ‘gret Gest of Arthure,’ which could well be the Vulgaate-Cycle as mentioned in the last post…

 

The Clerk of Tranent

In the times of the Magna Carta & the Crusades, a rich Arthurian tradition sprang up on the pages of the French poets, a great deal of which is contained in what is known as ‘The Vulgate-Cycle,’ a vast collection of tales which abound with stories of Arthur’s knights all aquesting for the Holy Grail. In this text, the mytho-history of one the knights, Gawain, is brought to full fruition.

During my studies into the Vulgate-Cycle, I became convinced that one its creators must have had local knowledge of Endinburgh & its environs. In Scotland he places a certain water-protected fortress on a lofty ‘Saxon Rock,’ which perfectly matches Edinburgh castle, once half-surrounded by the now-drained ‘Nor Loch’ which is stated by Nennius as being given to Henghist & co back in the 5th century. The Vulgate-cycle adds that the Rock lay in the region of ‘Arestel,‘ which given the Anglo-Norman prediliction for changing ls to rs, perfectly connects with Edinburgh’s Lestalrig. Nearby, says the Cycle, lay the ‘Narrows of Godalente,‘ which fits in with Lothian once being the demense of the Brythonic tribe known as the Gododdin, who Ptolemy called the ‘Otalini.

340px-Arthur-Pyle_Sir_Gawaine_the_Son_of_Lot,_King_of_Orkney[1]

Now then, in the 16th century a Scottish poet called William Dunbar wrote a poem called the ‘Lament for the Makaris, a lovely elegaic piece dedicated to the dead poets of Scotland. One of the stanzas reads;

Clerk of Tranent eik he has tane,
That maid the Anteris of Gawane;
Schir Gilbert Hay endit hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He’s basically saying (in Old Scots) that the Clerk of Tranent wrote about Sir Gawain, whose stories were sometime later finsihed off by Sir Gilbert Hay. The mention of Gawain is significiant, for in it we can see that the Clerk of Tranent connects to the Vulgate-Cycle in two ways – through geography & subject matter. With the Vulgate Cycle being written in the early 13th century, between 1210 & 1230, then our investigation naturally leads to the ruling nobility of Tranent at that time. These were the De Quincys – Robert de Quincy had married Orabilis, a lady of Leuchars in Fife, through which he found himself in charge of lands about the East Lothian town of Tranent. He was from Northamptonshire, & was very much a post-conquest, French-speaking Anglo-Norman, which provides the language of the Vulgate-Cycle. Dying in 1204, he was succeeded by his son, Saer, but his other son, Simon became the CLERK to William I, King of Scots, in the early 13th century. His appearances in recorded history can be found here.

Bingo!

ScottishCastle[2]

Everything fits together so neatly here, & I believe that the identity of the Clerk of Tranent has now been ascertained. With the De Quincys being the builders of Tranent’s Fa-side Castle, we can now imagine Simon De Quincy composing the Vulgate-Cycle in its towered keep fresh from his wanderings around Edinburgh.

Dahn Sahf

Not so long ago I took a week-long journey to the south of England. Catching the bus to London, I got myself mixed up at the service station somewhere near Milton Keynes & got back on the wrong bus. By the time I got to London, pandemonium was about to kick off as a bird on the original bus – which had all my bags – stupidly quipped that I had said my bags contained a bomb. Security staff were just about to shut down Victoria station when I turned up demanding my bags & professing, ‘Im not a terrorist, Im from Burnley.’Not long after, I caught up with me old pal, Charlie, who put me up at his penthouse suite in Tulse Hill.

Charlie Fairclough
Charlie Fairclough

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The Old Bailey
The Old Bailey

Next day I was down to Brighton for a few days stay at the lovely pad of Jo, a girl Id met in Goa. The first night she took me to Tulley’s Farm Shocktober experience, & O my god it was well scary, hoods being put on yer head & led through tunnels full of chainsaw wielding psycopaths… genuinely unnerving.

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After partying with another bird Id met in Goa – the lovely Lula (I think she was number 8 or 9) – I got a wee Mumble mission, unearthing Brightons theaters, before setting off north Jo dropped me off at Crowborough. From there I walked a 7 mile hike along memory land, to Tunbridge Wells, the town where I began work on Axis & Allies back in 2001. It was cool, actually, for I was working on the final draft of the Jesus Jigsaw in the libraries of the south, & it was great to tinker with it in the town where I first took my writing seriously.

Pantiles, Royal Tunbridge Wells
Pantiles, Royal Tunbridge Wells
Clapham Library
Clapham Library
Hammersmith Bridge
Hammersmith Bridge

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Back in London, I had one last night with Charlie & set off walking to Victoria. En route, I stopped at the Latchmere theatre, near my old squat on Dorothy Road, Clapham, and mentioned I might be interested in sending some reviewers in. ‘Who are you’ they asked, ‘the Mumble’ I replied, ‘sure, you gave us our first five star review up in Edinburgh this August.’ That was a moment of pure serendipity, & I didint have the heart to tell them Divine – who reviewed the play – gave everyone 5 stars he so bloody hippyfied!

On Fealan Flot

In recent posts I have shown how Burnley was the site of the great battle of Brunanburh. Of the many clues that place the battle in that corner of East Lancashire was a passage in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle which states that the battle was fought somewhere between 15 & 40 miles from a place that could be navigable by Viking long-boats, from where they would enter the Irish Sea. The only other clue that the poem gives us as to the location of these is that the boats went to sea from a place described as ‘fealan flot,’ which translates something like ‘shingly place where boats can berth.’

The actual translations (from Boswoth & Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary) are:

Feallan: dusky brown (like all ancient names of colours, indefinite); of shingle

Flot: n. Water deep enough for sustaining a ship

Walton_Bridge,_with_fishermen_beyond_-_Geograph_-_557152

The above photograph is of Walton Bridge, a lovely grade II listed block of stones which spans the River Ribble in Preston, Lancashire, twenty miles to the west of Burnley. What we can recognize is that the Vikings would have used the Ribble as an entry point from the Irish Sea. Thus, the shingle beach at Walton Bridge is a perfect match for the ‘on fealan flot’ of the Brunanburh campaign. The bridge was built in 1712 on the site of a Roman ford, which makes it a perfect place for the sea-lanes to meet road traffic.

Close by, at Cuerdale, a great hoard of Viking silver was found in the 19th century, dated to roundabout the time of the Battle of Brunanburh (937 AD). Intriguingly, a antique Lancashire custom said that anyone who stood on the south bank of the Ribble at Walton-le-Dale, and looked upriver to Ribchester, would be within sight of the richest treasure in England. After re-examining the evidence, I found the crucial clue that dates the hoard to Athelstan’s reign. It is common knowledge that a number of coins, perhaps as many as 2000, ‘escaped’ the original hoard, rendering impossible an accurate dating. However, before these ‘thefts,’ one of the earliest numistatists to analyze the hoard. Joseph Kenyon (June 10th 1840), recorded a coin of Athelstan himself, as in;

The Anglo-Saxon coins are chiefly of St.Eadmund, Alfred, Edward the elder, and Athelstan; and as the last named monarch died in the 941, the coins have probably been buried for a period of about nine centuries.

Where the Athelstan coins are now, we don’t know, but I expect them to have been part of the 149 given to Queen Victoria as a gift, most of which have dissapeared. Either way, unless Kenyon was lying – which seems improbable – the Cuerdale hoard must now be dated to Athelstan’s time, & its proximity to Walton Bridge makes a connection to Brunanburh quite likely.

The Plains of Othlynn

In my last post I showed how one particular site in Burnley has all the hallmarks of being that of the famous Brunaburh, after which fortification one of the greatest battles to have ever been fought in Britain was named. The discovery formed a vital link in a chain which connects several pieces of historical information, the assemblance of which ultimately hones in on a certain ‘Castle Hill,’ by Towneley Hall in Burnley. In the past, several sites have been offerred for Brunanburh, none of which have satisied all the geographical notifications found in the two priniciple sources for the Brunanburh site – the Anglo-Saxon poem Brunanburh, & the Icelandic text known as ‘Egil’s Saga.’ Aside from Burnley, the chief candidates are;

Burnswark – Dumfries & Galloway
Brinsworth – South Yorkshire
Bromborough – Wirral
Lanchester – Northumbria

Let us now follow a simple process of elimination which will whittle the candidates down.

Clue 1 – ‘They at camp gainst any robber their land should defend.’ (asc)

Here we are told the the Anglo-Saxons were defending their own territory. In 937, the limits of England stretched from north Lancashire to Berwick on Tweed. This would then preclude BURNSWARK from the picture, which is sited very much in Scotland.

Clue 2 – ‘He rode (from Brunanburh) to the South country and of his travel tis to be told he rode night & day til he came westward to Earl’s Ness.’ (egil)

From this we can discern that the battlefield lay in a north easterly direction from a sea-port named Earl’s Ness. During the journey, a border was crossed, which divided the territory in which Brunanburh was situated from the ‘South Country.’ The obvious choice would be the old Viking port at Ness on the Wirral, for travelling north would see the journeyman leave ‘Southumbria’& enter ‘Northumbria,’ the border of which stretched between the Mersey & the Humber estuaries. Support comes from the Orkeneyinga Saga, which places a ‘Jarl’s Ness’ near Wales. This would then preclude both Bromborough & Brinsworth from the equasion.

Clue 3 – ‘All the day the West Saxons pressed on the loathed bands… the northmen sailed in their ships, a dreary remnant, on Dingesmere, Over deep water, they sought Dublin.’ (asc)

These passages indicate that the battle was fought within a days retreat of the Irish Sea, the Dingesmere of the Brunanburh poem, probably named after the Viking Ting on the Isle of Man. Egil’s Saga gives extra information, saying the ships were ‘far’ from the field. It would be safe to say, then, that the field would be somewhere between 15 & perhaps as much as 40 miles away from a navigable site in which the Viking longships could wait. This would then preclude our penultimate candidate, Lanchester.

So, we are left with Burnley, whose situation fits every piece of geographical information provided by the the Brunanburh poem & Egil’s Saga. In my last post I showed the historic reference of a possible Saxon stronghold, which has always been connected to an area of Burnley called Brunshaw.

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This wonderful pictorial description of Towneley in the 18th century shows Castle Hill just behind it, that raised site upon which a typical Saxon burh was built. Once the military threat to the region had been removed, after the English conquest of Cumbria, it made sense for the local lord to resituate his abode in the level & pleasant clearings of Townley. Castle Hill is a fascinating candidate for Brunanburh, indeed the only one of any true merit, & I began to search for the actual battlefield, which was fought ‘ymbe,’ or around, Brunanburh. This led me to begin looking at the obscure entry in the Irish chronicle known as the ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’ which places the battle at the Plains of Othlynn.

The heart of Burnley rests very much in a valley, parts of which are indeed very plain-like; stretching from Towneley to the River Brun. Beside the same river, the oldest parts of Burnley are to be found about St Peter’s Church, & are home to two very ancient monuments. One is Saint Paulinus’ cross, named after a 7th century preacher in the region, & the other is Saint Audrey’s well. Audrey was also a seventh century saint, whose name in Old English was Etheldreda.

Most scholars when looking at the etymology of Othlynn, plump for something like the pool (lynn) of Otha. Nobody, I believe, has looked at another possibility; that of the ash tree (ynn) of Othl. In the saints lives of Etheldreda, we are told how she fled the king of Northumbria, & on her journey south founded a monastery at a certain Alftham. Not long after leaving that place, she paused on a plain & struck her staff into the ground – which magically turned into an ash tree.

Etymylogically & historically, the ‘Plains of Othlynn’ are a perfect match for this obscure legend of Etheldreda. That she is remembered in the Burnley area for her sacred well is not the only way to tie Othlynn to Burnley, for Alftham would be the village of Altham four miles to the east of Burnley. A couple of miles later we come to Whalley, whose church was founded in the 7th century, fitting perfectly in with Etheldreda’s founding of a monastery at Alftham.

There is a certain natural beauty to the Othlynn solution, & one which reminds us just how much history can be packed into a single word. In this instance, there has been the killing of the proverbial two birds; that is the location of Etheldreda’s sacred ash, & the clinching evidence for Brunanburh having been in Burnley.