From a Roman to a medieval tower

In the Middle Ages, the ruins of old Roman forts were often built on top of to create medieval castles. One great example of this is the so-called Multangular Tower in York, constructed when the city was called Eboracum by the Romans and visited by emperors as distinguished as Septimius Severus and Constantine.  The latter was particularly known in York as his father had been governor of the province.

If you look at the photos I took on my visit below – you’ll notice that the bottom half of the tower has smaller stones and lines of red bricks one associates with Roman forts.  Then above you have the addition of arrow slits from the medieval period.  The walls would probably have fallen into a certain degree of decay in the centuries immediately after the Romans left but wars with Scotland in particular, meant that the medieval city had to re-fortify later on.

Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower Multangular Tower

Battle wounds in the Middle Ages

Viking skull

A concerted attempt to decapitate this chap

A sword or axe has sliced into this head - he didn't survive!

A sword or axe has sliced into this head – he didn’t survive!

Viking skull

Trauma to the side of the skull

An almight blow to the back of the head here

An almighty blow to the back of the head here

Injuries to the pelvis crop up a lot from stab wounds

Injuries to the pelvis crop up a lot from stab wounds

Viking warrior

This soldier was lightly armed and injured just about everywhere – no head protection!

I’ve just returned from a trip to the northern English city of York – a place absolutely dripping in medieval history and I will be sharing some of the wonderful things I saw with you in upcoming blog posts.

Today – I’m going to share some gruesome evidence of battles fought in the 11th century between Vikings and Saxons and later on, Vikings and Normans. Strange to say that most of the leaders involved on all sides were related to each other – basically part of the northern European aristocracy.  But in those violent times, that didn’t stop them sticking axes in each others’ heads.

Back in the 1970s, archaeologists started to find the remains of the Viking city of York – dating back to the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.  If you know your English history, then you’ll be aware that after the Romans left in the early 400s, there were various waves of invaders including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The Saxons eventually established kingdoms like Mercia and Wessex only to see the whole eastern half of England gobbled up by fiersome Vikings from Scandanavia.

I went underground to look at the remains of the Viking city – well below today’s modern street level – and snapped some skulls of those who fell in battle.





Lost castles of London

Baynard’s Castle.  Montfichet Tower.  Savoy Palace.  Even to most Londoners, the names of these buildings would mean little today.  Ask a citizen of this great city, how many castles there are within London, they’d more than likely point at the Tower of London and say – one.  And that’s certainly true today.  Because other castles that once existed in the British capital have either been demolished or burnt down. They’re certainly not there anymore.

If you had been wandering round London a few years after the Norman Conquest in 1066 – let’s say in the Templar era between 1118 and 1307 – you’d have seen an impressive structure near to where the river Fleet flowed into the Thames.  The Fleet, by the way, now runs through a sewer – channeled  out of sight by the Victorians.  Baynard’s Castle dominated this spot in London marking the westernmost point of the old Roman city.

The castle was built by a Norman called Ralph Baynard but there appears to have been a structure there under the Viking king Canute – because it’s recorded that he had somebody executed in the castle in 1017.  Baynard came over with William the Conqueror and was Sherriff of Essex. The family seems to have run into problems with William’s son king Henry I and the castle was demolished in 1213 by king John.

Though it rose up again, it suffered another fire in the 15th century, was restored by the Tudors and then finally incinerated during the Great Fire of 1666 – never to re-emerge.

Nearby – on Ludgate Hill – a Templar knight would have seen Montfichet’s Tower, another Norman construction to keep a close eye on the unruly citizens of London. While Baynard’s gave added protection where the old Roman wall met the river (and the Tower of London was situated where the wall met the river in the east), Montfichet guarded a key road over the river Fleet that would one day become Fleet Street.

Montfichet didn’t last so long – being demolished by….king John!  Clearly an avid demolisher of castles. There are said to be tunnels relating to the tower under an office block called Montfichet House at 29 Ludgate Hill and the public has been barred from seeing them.

Finally – on the road out of the medieval city of London – there were great palaces built along the Strand leading to Westminster, the seat of government and the great abbey. One of these was the Savoy Palace owned by John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in the Middle Ages. However, his power did not stop him falling foul of the ordinary people who hated him for introducing a poll tax. During the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, his palace was burned to the ground by a mob.

Today – the Savoy hotel is on the site of that now disappeared palace.

Savoy Hotel

Hard to believe a medieval palace once stood here

Savoy Palace

The Savoy Palace continued in various forms till it was demolished in the 19th century

A corner of medieval London

Yesterday, I was in the City of London and standing outside Bank tube station, I took three photos to examine the Templar-era medieval history of one small corner of the great city that I live in and adore.

Without moving an inch – I first snapped the street sign for Lombard Street.  Why is this called Lombard Street? This was a grant of land from Edward I (remember him? The king who fought Braveheart) to the Lombards – merchants from northern Italy. The modern day party representing the north of Italy in the Italian parliament is called the Lombardy League. So who who were the Lombards?

Back in the Middle Ages, these commercially minded people were the descendants of a Germanic tribe that invaded Italy in the sixth century. They had come to London in good faith but things went badly wrong in the 14th century.  During the peasant revolt of 1382, an army of disgruntled serfs stormed London and went on the rampage – they took a particular dislike to well-heeled foreigners.

Their leaders John Ball, Jack Straw and- Wat Tyler, with more than thirty thousand men, went straight through London to the Palace of the Savoy, a very fine building on the Thames as you go towards the King’s Palace of Westminster, and belonging to the Duke of Lancaster. They quickly got inside and killed the guards, and then sent it up in flames. Haying committed this outrage, they went on to the palace of the Hospitallers of Rhodes, known as St John of Clerkenwell, and burnt it down, house, church, hospital and everything. Besides this, they went from street to street, killing all the Flemings they found in churches, chapels and houses. None was spared. They broke into many houses belonging to Lombards and robbed them openly, no one daring to resist them. In the town they killed a wealthy man called Richard Lyon, whose servant Wat Tyler had once been during the wars in France. On one occasion Richard Lyon had beaten his servant and Wat Tyler remembered it. He led his men to him, had his head cut off in front of him, and then had it stuck on a lance and carried through the streets. So those wicked men went raging about in wild frenzy, committing many excesses on that Thursday throughout London.

Behind me yesterday, I found a small covered alley – still existent – nestled between two banks: Pope’s Head Alley.  It doesn’t look particularly interesting now but according to the diariest Pepys in the 17th century, it was a centre for the sale of cutlery, turnery and toys.

And finally a blue plaque to a Lord Mayor of London called Gregory de Rokesley who held the position an astonishing eight times during the 13th century. He was a wealthy goldsmith – like many of the nearby Lombards – and took his name from a town in Kent. He was also a mighty wool merchant.

Not only was he mayor, but also a chamberlain to King Edward I – and master of the Royal Mint. It was his job to put a stop to the fraudulent practice of coin clipping, where bits of coin were shaved off by criminals. His coat of arms appeared in the stained glass windows of old St Paul’s cathedral, burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Lombard Street Pope's Head Alley Gregory de Rokesley

Theft from English medieval church

Templars everywhere should be on the watch out for two stolen 15th century painted wooden panels ripped out of a wooden screen at Holy Trinity church in Torbryan, Devon.  The BBC has reported on this very tragic incident and hopefully the criminals will be apprehended soon and the panels restored.  The church has been disused for a while now and it seems crazy that these panels – one of the few examples of medieval painted images to have survived Henry VIII’s Reformation and Cromwell – should have been left unguarded.

View the BBC report HERE.   Here is an amateur video of the church from YouTube.

A Portuguese queen and the Templars

Last month, I visited the Portuguese town of Ponte de Lima – a beautiful Roman and medieval settlement that still has an ancient bridge and part of its old walls. Standing guard over Ponte de Lima is a statue of Teresa – the town’s founder and a friend of the Knights Templar (though not of her own son).

Teresa was born in 1080 at a time when the 350 year old grip of the Muslim caliphate on what is now Spain and Portugal was loosening by degrees. Christian kingdoms had formed in the northern half of the Iberian peninsula and Teresa was the daughter of king Alfonso VI of Castile and Leon.  She was married off to Henry of Burgundy, a nobleman from a part of modern France which would be the cradle of the Templar order and home to the great saint and protector of the Templars, Bernard of Clairvaux.

The Burgundians lent their muscle to the fight against the Muslim rulers of what would become Portugal.  A new territory was carved out that became known as the “County” of Portugal.  Teresa took the lead in pushing south past the Mondego river towards what is now Lisbon but was then an Arabic city called Al-Usbunna.  In this endeavour, Teresa began to grant land to the Templars as shock troops – particularly in the area between the rivers Mondego and Tagus where neither Christians nor Muslims seemed to have the decisive upper hand.  It was a very dangerous no-mans’ land.

The Muslim “Moors” were not about to lie down and let Teresa push them back and attempted to take back the city of Coimbra, which she successfully defended.  As a result of that victory, Pope Paschal II referred to her as “Queen” of Portugal – thus recognising Portugal as not just a county but a kingdom.

This infuriated the Christian kingdom of Leon, which regarded Portugal as just a county, an appendage of their realm. To complicate matters, Alfonso VI of Leon had died and his kingdom was now ruled by a legitimate daughter called Urraca – effectively half sister of Teresa. They now went to war and an additional source of friction was that the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela (firmly in Urraca’s lands and home of James the apostle’s relics) was trying to assert ecclesiastical supremacy over the Archbishop of Braga (firmly in Teresa’s territory).

Teresa saw off Urraca but her star wanes from this point onwards while her son, Afonso Henriques, took a more intransigent position than his mother asserting full independence from Galicia for Portugal. By one of those strange twists of fate, Teresa found herself at war with her own son defending Galicia’s interests – I’m not going to even try to explain how this happened in a short blog post – you’ll have to read it up. But it is completely bizarre and typical of medieval dynastic power politics. At the battle of Sao Mamede – Afonso Henriques defeated his own mother and became first king of a truly independent Portugal.

Dona Teresa

Teresa grants a charter to Ponte de Lima

Ponte de Lima

Me and a medieval battle scene

City walls of Ponte de Lima

City walls of Ponte de Lima

Shield of Portugal

Shield of Portugal