Thursday, 23 June 2011

At Pentecost King Arthur held his Court

Whitsun (also Whitsunday, Whit Sunday or Whit) is the name used in the United Kingdom for the Christian festival of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples (Acts of the Apostles chapter 2). In England it took on some characteristics of Beltane, which originated from the pagan celebration of Summer's Day, the beginning of the Summer half-year in Europe.

The name is a contraction of “White Sunday”, attested in “The Holy-Ghost”, which thou did send on “Whit-Sunday” in the Old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding.

Excerpt from The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinback

King Arthur held Whitsun court at Winchester, that ancient royal town favored by God and His clergy as well as the seat and tomb of many kings. The roads were clogged with eager people, knights returning to stamp in court the record of their deeds, of bishops, clergy, monks, of the defeated fettered to their paroles, the prisoners of honor. And on Itchen water, pathway from Solent and the sea, the little ships brought succulents, lampreys, eels and oysters, plaice and sea trout, while barges loaded with casks of whale oil and casks of wine came tide borne. Bellowing oxen walked to the spits on their own four hooves, while geese and swans, sheep and swine, waited their turn in hurdle pens. Every householder with a strip of colored cloth, a ribbon, any textile gaiety, hung it from a window to flap its small festival, and those in lack tied boughs of pine and laurel over their doors.

In the great hall of the castle on the hill the king sat high, and next below the fair elite company of the Round Table, noble and decorous as kings themselves, while at the long trestle boards the people were as fitted as toes in a tight shoe. Then while the glistening meat dripped down the tables, it was the custom for the defeated to celebrate the deeds of those who had overcome them, while the victor dipped his head in disparagement of his greatness and fended off the compliments with small defensive gestures of his hands. And as at public penitence sins are given stature they do not deserve, little sins grow up and baby sins are born, so those knights who lately claimed mercy perchance might raise the exploits of the brave and merciful beyond reasonable gratitude for their lives and in anticipation of some small notice of value.

This no one said of Lancelot, sitting with bowed head in his golden-lettered seat at the Round Table. Some said he nodded and perhaps dozed, for the testimony to his greatness was long and the monotony of his victories continued for many hours. Lancelot’s immaculate fame had grown so great that men took pride in being unhorsed by him—even this notice was an honor. And since he had won many victories, it is possible that knights he had never seen claimed to have been overthrown by him. It was a way to claim attention for a moment. And as he dozed and wished to be otherwhere, he heard his deeds exalted beyond his recognition, and some mighty exploits once attributed to other men were brought bright-painted out and laid on the shining pile of his achievements. There is a seat of worth beyond the reach of envy whose occupant ceases to be a man and becomes the receptacle of the wishful longings of the world, a seat most often reserved for the dead, from whom neither reprisal nor reward may be expected, but at this time Sir Lancelot was its unchallenged tenant. And he vaguely heard his strength favorably compared with elephants, his ferocity with lions, his agility with deer, his cleverness with foxes, his beauty with the stars, his justice with Solon, his

stern probity with St. Michael, his humility with newborn lambs; his military niche would have caused the Archangel Gabriel to raise his head. Sometimes the guests paused in their chewing the better to hear, and a man who slopped his metheglin drew frowns.

Arthur on his dais sat very still and did not fiddle with his bread, and beside him sat lovely Guinevere, still as a painted statue of herself. Only her inward eyes confessed her vagrant thoughts. And Lancelot studied the open pages of his hands—not large hands, but delicate where they were not knobby and scarred with old wounds. His hands were fine-textured—soft of skin and very white, protected by the pliant leather lining of his gauntlets.

The great hall was not still, not all upturned listening. Everywhere was movement as people came and went, some serving huge planks of meat and baskets of bread, round and flat like a plate. And there were restless ones who could not sit still, while everyone under burden of half-chewed meat and the floods and freshets of mead and beer found necessity for repeated departures and returns.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Why the tales of King Arthur and his Noble Knights of Round Table are so popular and fascinating?

For a man who may or may not have wandered Britain some 1,500 years ago, King Arthur retains the enviable knack of making his regal presence felt.

Merlin, Excalibur, Guinevere, Lancelot, the Lady in the Lake - all the components of his story are instantly familiar both in his erstwhile homeland and in much of the world.

Modern historians might query whether there is any real evidence for his existence, but none doubt his lasting hold over the popular imagination.

His, after all, is a tale that takes in romance, heroism, chivalry, honour and, of course, the promise that its hero will one day return to rescue his people.

Little wonder, then, that the entertainment industry continues to cheerfully plunder it.

Camelot, a Channel 4 drama starring Eva Green and Joseph Fiennes, is only the latest in a series of big-budget takes on Arthurian legend. Recent years have witnessed the 2008 BBC series Merlin, 2007's Colin Firth blockbuster The Last Legion and 2004's King Arthur, starring Keira Knightley and Clive Owen.

Nor is this a recent fad. No less a Hollywood icon than Indiana Jones was confronted by Arthur's mythology in his third big-screen encounter, while John Boorman's 1981 fantasy Excalibur and Robert Bresson's 1972 film Lancelot also re-imagined the saga.

Perhaps most memorable of all, however was 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with its less than reverent take on the story - ("strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government").

What all demonstrate is that somehow, over time, the story of a fifth or sixth-Century Romano-Celtic warrior resisting Anglo-Saxon settlement became the basis of one of the West's most treasured chronicles.

Academics have attempted to identify contemporary figures on whom Arthur may have been based, and his name appears as a military commander in Nennius's 830AD account History of the Britons.

However, most experts agree that the story was popularised by the 12th Century History of the Kings of Britain, written by the Oxford-based Welsh scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth.

According to Geoffrey, his work was based on a secret lost Celtic manuscript to which only he had access. It told of Guinevere, Merlin, the sword Caliburn - later known as Excalibur - and Arthur's final resting place in Avalon.

The historian Michael Wood, who explored the Arthurian sagas in his books In Search of England and In Search of Myths and Heroes, regards Geoffrey's work as, essentially, pro-Celtic propaganda, based on a desire to mythologise Britain's pre-Saxon heritage rather than verifiable fact.

But ultimately, he believes the veracity or otherwise of the legend is irrelevant - more important being the grip it has held on the collective imagination ever since.

"These myths have the power to get recycled by different cultures because they are great stories," says Wood.

"They suggest there was this golden age of lost innocence. They are still living stories that connect with people. He gets appropriated by everybody. It's endlessly repeatable - the hero fighting the dark, evil hordes."

Certainly, the story of Arthur developed a life of its own after Geoffrey's account became the medieval equivalent of a bestseller.

The French writer Chretien de Troyes introduced the Holy Grail to the story as well as Lancelot, who cuckolds Arthur.

In 1191, monks claimed to have discovered the remains of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury abbey. Though latter-day cynics have observed that the building had recently suffered a fire and an influx of tourists would have been of great assistance to the restoration fund, the find cemented the area's status as the focal point of English mysticism and crystal healing shops.

Through this process, over time, Arthur transmogrified from a fierce Celtic warlord to a wise, noble and honourable national father-figure.

Terry Jones, co-director of Monty Python's interpretation of the myth, and a keen historian, says he was always cynical about the Arthurian legend and its supposed virtues for this reason.

But nonetheless, he says he recognised that the universality of the tales made them an ideal backdrop for Pythonic humour.

"The ideas of chivalry are very suspicious," he says. "The reality of the time was of men clad in armour going around beating up undefended people. The whole notion of chivalry was about dressing it up to make it respectable.

"But when we did the Holy Grail we knew it was a good story that everyone recognises. Everybody tries to claim Arthur for themselves - the French and the Welsh, not just the English."

Indeed, Nick Higham, professor in Early Medieval and Landscape History at the University of Manchester and an expert in Arthurian myth, believes the sagas help us chart the development of national identity on these islands.

Although Geoffrey of Monmouth presented Arthur as a Celtic hero, Prof Higham says, this legend was, in turn, appropriated by the Normans, who found the notion of a noble, pan-British, non-Anglo-Saxon hero politically useful.

Likewise, he says, the Tudor dynasty appropriated Arthur on the basis of their Welsh heritage. And in the early 20th Century there was an upswing of interest as contemporary analogies were drawn with a British hero fighting invaders from Germany, Prof Higham argues.

"Because there's nothing known about Arthur in reality, he's incredibly malleable and you can present him however you want him," he says.

"As the consequence of a series of peculiar accidents, Arthur has been portrayed as the solution to our cultural problems down the ages."

Romantics may hope that, one day, Arthur will return to rescue his people.

But if he lives on through his legend, the ancient monarch, it would appear, has never really gone away.


BBC News Magazine

Rediscovering Glastonbury Abbey Excavations - Symposium at Glastonbury Abbey, 9 June 2011

Glastonbury Abbey (February 2011 Contest)

Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey began soon after the site was purchased for the Church of England in 1907, although a series of trenches had been dug by St John Hope three years earlier.

Since then, the 34 seasons of excavations up to 1979 exposed most of the plan of the medieval church and evidence of earlier phases of the monastery.

Despite significant archaeological discoveries and the great importance of Glastonbury Abbey in understanding British monasticism, very little of this evidence has been published. In 1981, Ralegh Radford (Director of excavations 1951 - 1964) published an interim report suggesting a series of churches, a Saxon enclosure ditch, potentially the earliest cloister in Britain, and craft-working activities including unique glass furnaces. Several attempts at full publication were never completed and consequently details of these discoveries remain unavailable.

Following Radford's death in 1999, his excavation archive was retrieved and deposited with the National Monuments Record at Swindon, making the publication of a full report a feasible proposition.

In 2007, a one-year pilot project, funded by the British Academy, demonstrated the enormous potential of the excavation material, in particular the Radford archive which was found to be almost complete. One season of Radford's excavations, the chapter house, were selected for detailed analysis, and a geophysical survey of the Abbey Site was undertaken by the University of Reading. An interim report on the chapter house was published as a Fieldwork Highlight in Medieval Britain and Ireland 2007, Medieval Archaeology 52.

The current project involves full analysis of the excavation records, the results of which are now being entered into an Integrated Archaeological Database.

A geophysical survey of accessible areas of the Abbey precinct and cloister has been carried out. The finds are being analysed by a prestigious team of specialists.

The results of the project will be published by the Society of Antiquaries with a generous donation from Linda Witherill, who took part in Radford's excavations at the Abbey. The database will be archived with the Archaeology Data Service as an interactive online resource.

Abbey volunteers have also made an invaluable contribution to the project: Peter Poyntz-Wright, a member of the excavation team in the 1950s and 60s, has been transcribing the original site notebooks, Doug Forbes is scanning photos and drawings, Lindsay Beach has audited and sorted finds ready for specialist study and a team have gallantly marked thousands of tile fragments and pottery sherds.

In addition to publication of the results, two one-day symposiums will also be held, one at Glastonbury Abbey in June 2011, and one in London in November 2012.

Click here for more information on the programme for the Glastonbury Abbey Symposium.


Glastonbury Abbey Symposium

EBK: Glastonbury Abbey

Monday, 6 June 2011

Marlborough Mound where the legendary wizard Merlin was purported to be buried has been found to date back to 2400 BC.

Radiocarbon dating tests were carried out on charcoal samples taken from Marlborough Mound, which lies in Marlborough College's grounds.

The 19m (62ft) high mound had previously mystified historians. Some believed it dated back to about 600 AD.

English Heritage said: "This is a very exciting time for British prehistory."

Dig leader Jim Leary said: "This is an astonishing discovery.

"The Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape.

"For centuries people have wondered whether it is Silbury's little sister; and now we have an answer. "

Silbury Hill, an artificial man-made mound about five miles away, also dates back to 2,400 BC.

Marlborough Mound was reused as a castle and became an important fortress for the Norman and Plantagenet kings.

It was also the scene for major political events, such as the general oath of allegiance sworn to King John in 1209.

Nicholas Sampson, Master of Marlborough College, said: "We are thrilled at this discovery, which confirms the long and dramatic history of this beautiful site and offers opportunity for tremendous educational enrichment."

The work is part of a major conservation programme being undertaken by the Marlborough Mound Trust.


BBC News Wiltshire

Silbury Hill

The steep sides and flat top of Silbury Hill may be newer than thought