Archive for the ‘Strathclyde’ Category

From the late ninth century to the mid-eleventh, when Govan was the chief ceremonial centre of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the king and his family probably spent their Christmases there. As the second most important date in the Christian calendar, December 25th was an opportunity for Dark Age monarchs to display their religious credentials. It was a day when the entire royal entourage or court, comprising all the chief nobles and senior clergy of a kingdom, gathered together for a solemn mass. In Strathclyde, this Christmas service would normally have taken place in the ancient church where Govan Old stands today. The mass would have been followed by a suitably lavish festive feast, perhaps at the royal hall across the river in Partick. We know of one year, however, when the king of Strathclyde spent Christmas in another land, far from the familiar fields of his own country.

The king in question was Owain, whose reign spanned the 920s and 930s – one of the most turbulent periods in Britain’s history. We first hear of him in 927, when he attended a meeting of important leaders at the River Eamont near Penrith. The meeting was summoned by Athelstan, king of England, the most powerful ruler in Britain at that time. Athelstan’s ambitions surpassed even those of his illustrious grandfather Alfred the Great, for he wanted to be acknowledged as ruler of the whole of Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall. He wanted all other folk – English, Welsh, Scots, Viking settlers and Strathclyde Britons – to recognise him as their overlord. Needless to say, not everyone was happy to oblige, but it may have seemed easier to just go along with his lofty ideas, at least for a while. At the meeting beside the River Eamont in 927, a number of prominent rulers – King Owain of Strathclyde, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland), King Hywel (from South Wales) and the English lord Ealdred of Bamburgh (in Northumbria) – all gave their pledge to Athelstan. They seemingly swore an oath of friendship with him, promising not to get too cosy with his Viking enemies.

The pact of peace seems to have endured for seven years until, in 934, Constantin of Alba and Owain of Strathclyde incurred Athelstan’s wrath.They broke their pledge, so Athelstan marched north to reassert his authority. With him on this expedition were Hywel and other Welsh kings, each leading a warband to bolster the English army. In a remarkable display of military power, Athelstan led his troops as far north as Aberdeenshire, while his fleet raided in Caithness. Both Constantin and Owain eventually surrendered, the price of their defeat being an oath of allegiance to Athelstan. Like the Welsh kings they now became his vassals or ‘under kinglets’ (Latin: subreguli). Henceforth, their kingdoms had to send regular tribute-payments to England while they themselves were obliged to attend the English court. How often they travelled south is unknown but we know of at least a couple of occasions when they were among Athelstan’s entourage, either together or singly. In 935, for instance, they were both present at Cirencester in Gloucestershire, for their names appear in a list of witnesses to a charter (a document recording a grant of royal land) issued at the old Roman city. At the end of the same year, Constantin was strangely absent when the English court assembled in Dorset, at the city of Dorchester. This was in the heartland of Wessex, the ancestral domain of Athelstan’s family. Here the English king issued another land-grant, and Owain was present as a witness.

The charter in question was dated 21 December, just four days before Christmas, so we can be fairly sure that Athelstan had decided to spend the festive season in Dorset. His whole entourage – family members, chief nobles and senior bishops – would have been obliged to remain with him, regardless of where else they wanted to be. So, too, would the vassal rulers from other lands, the subreguli who owed allegiance. Constantin of Alba didn’t turn up, presumably because he had shaken off the English yoke, but Owain and Hywel and other kings were in attendance. No doubt Owain wished he was spending Christmas in Govan, celebrating the Nativity with his own friends and family, but it was not to be. However, at some point in the following year, he followed Constantin’s example by rejecting English overlordship. These two kings then formed an alliance with the Vikings of Dublin and began to plot Athelstan’s downfall. In the autumn of 937, the three allies invaded England in great strength. Athelstan responded by defeating their combined armies at Brunanburh, one of the most famous battles of the Dark Ages.

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Appendix: The Christmas charter

Charters were usually written in Latin by scribes attached to the king’s court. The majority are records of gifts of royal land to monasteries. A detailed description of the land being granted was normally followed by a list of witnesses who ‘agreed and subscribed’ the grant, each marking his attendance with a small cross. The first name on the list was the grant-giver himself (the king), followed by senior clergy, vassal-rulers (subreguli) and members of the nobility.

The charter issued by Athelstan at Dorchester on 21 December 935 recorded a gift of land to Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. After Athelstan himself, the most important witnesses were the two leading clergymen in England: the archbishops of Canterbury and York. These were followed by the vassal-rulers, with Owain of Strathclyde moving into top spot in the absence of Constantin of Alba. Hywel, second in seniority, came next. After Hywel the other Welsh kings stepped forward to mark their presence, but I’ve not included them in the extract shown here:

Ego Æthelstanus, ierarchia florentis Albionis prædictus rex, cum signo sanctæ semperque venerandæ crucis coroboravi hunc indiculum et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfhelmus Dorobernensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfstanus Eboracensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Eugenius subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Howel subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + ….

[Translation] I, Athelstan, king of flourishing Albion in possession of the office, confirmed and subscribed this document with the mark of the holy and always to be venerated cross. + I, Wulfhelm, archbishop of the church of Canterbury, agreed and subscribed. + I, Wulfstan, archbishop of the church of York, agreed and subscribed. + I, Owain, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. + I, Hywel, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. +….

The full text of this charter can be found at The Electronic Sawyer. Owain’s attendance at the English court is discussed in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (p. 83) and in Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba (pp. 167-8).

King Owain of Strathclyde

The British Isles in AD 935, showing places mentioned in this blogpost.

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Dumb Proctor Lochwinnoch
Renfrewshire-based bookseller and publisher Chris Morrison recently sent me these two Victorian sketches of the Dumb Proctor, an early medieval monument now used as a grave-marker in the public cemetery at Lochwinnoch. The images come from Volume 2 of Archaeological and Historical Collections of the County of Renfrew, published in 1890.

In a blogpost last year I mentioned that the Dumb Proctor was originally a free-standing cross carved in the last phase of the Govan sculptural style. I also showed my own attempt at a reconstruction of how it might look today if the cross-head hadn’t been cut off. The 1890 book was referred to in passing but I didn’t cite it in the bibliography at the end of the post.

I am grateful to Chris for providing the sketches, which I’ve added to my file of notes on this enigmatic monument. The Dumb Proctor is one of a number of Govan-style stones for which I’m hoping to compile detailed ‘biographies’ relating to history, art, preservation, re-use and conservation.

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Blogpost (2013): The Dumb Proctor of Lochwinnoch

The Grian Press (Scottish local history)
Grian Books (rare & out-of-print items)

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New book

Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age
Those of you who have visited my other blog Senchus in the past couple of days will already know about my new book. It’s being printed at the moment and will be published later this month, by Birlinn of Edinburgh.

It tells the story of the kings of Strathclyde in the period when the Govan Stones were carved (ninth to eleventh centuries AD). The central chapters highlight the relationship between Strathclyde and Anglo-Saxon England during a troubled era when ambitious Viking warlords posed a threat to both kingdoms. As a major centre of power of the Clyde kings, Govan inevitably gets quite a few namechecks, as well as appearing on several maps. The carved stones in the old parish church are also mentioned a number of times. In the photo section in the middle of the book the first image is a stunning portrait of the hogbacks by Tom Manley whose camera has documented so much of Govan’s heritage in recent years.

A more detailed description, with a list of contents, will appear at the Senchus blog when the book is published.

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Just a quick note to say I’ve uploaded a new post about the sculptured crosses of the Govan School at my Strathclyde blog. It’s basically a whistle-stop tour of this type of monument, with most of the surviving examples listed. Click the link below to take a look.

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age: Strathclyde crosses

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Govan Doomster Hill

Govan in 1757, sketched by Robert Paul. Doomster Hill at left.

The Doomster Hill was a massive artifical mound that dominated the Govan landscape until its destruction in the mid-nineteenth century. The above illustration from 1757 shows it with a tiered or ‘stepped’ profile, a shape characteristic of sites used as assembly-places in the Viking period. It seems likely that it acquired this profile on the orders of the kings of Strathclyde, perhaps around AD 900 when the kingdom had close political contact with powerful Viking warlords in Dublin who had a man-made mound of similar shape. The Old Norse word for assembly is thing (pronounced ‘ting’) so it may not be too wide of the mark to speak of Govan’s ancient mound as a ‘thing site’. We can imagine it being used by the kings of Strathclyde as a venue for ceremonies and as a focus for public gatherings. It would have been part of an early medieval ‘ritual landscape’ which included not only a royal burial-ground and church (on a site now occupied by Govan Old) but also a processional pathway linking church and hill.
Govan Doomster Hill

The 1757 sketch was re-worked nearly 150 years later by T.C.F. Brotchie.

In the past couple of years I’ve developed a keen interest in the Doomster Hill. This has been boosted in 2013 by my participation in a community heritage project called ‘Some Thing Is Missing’ (‘STIM’ for short). STIM’s main objective is ‘to bring together young volunteers from various backgrounds to investigate the history and heritage in Govan surrounding the mysterious historical site at Water Row: the Doomster Hill‘. The Thing in the title is the assembly or parliament held on the hill in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. Sometime before 1850, this huge ancient monument was completely destroyed, so it is therefore Missing from Govan’s present-day landscape. I am one of several ‘expert witnesses’ who have been providing historical, archaeological and geographical background so that the STIM team members (known as ‘landscape detectives’) get an idea of the different contexts in which the Doomster Hill site has functioned over time. In a series of workshops we’ve been exploring the layers of history that have made this part of Govan so significant.

One layer that I had not previously studied in detail is the period before the emergence of the kingdom of Strathclyde in the fifth century AD. I knew of a people recorded by the Romans as Damnonii (or Dumnonii) who inhabited the Clyde valley in the Iron Age, but I had never ventured further back into the Bronze Age or earlier. It’s a knowledge gap I needed to fill. Fortunately, at the first STIM workshop in July this year, Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage gave an excellent introduction to prehistoric settlement in the lands around the River Clyde. This whetted my appetite to learn more, especially about the origins of the Doomster Hill itself. Ingrid and other archaeologists have surmised that the hill could have been a prehistoric barrow adapted and re-shaped by the kings of Strathclyde. An old report of bone fragments being dug out of the summit in the 1830s seems to support this theory, and my own discussions with Ingrid have persuaded me that it is probably correct.

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill: a prehistoric burial-mound?

At the beginning of September, I returned to Govan for another STIM workshop with the landscape detectives. This involved a morning session in which we examined the history of Viking Age assembly sites, followed by an afternoon walkabout around the western edge of the Riverside Housing Estate (where the Doomster Hill once stood). The detectives told me of an earlier walkabout in the same area with Ingrid Shearer and prehistorian Kenny Brophy, an account of which is available at Kenny’s blog. I’ve posted a link at the end of this post. Suffice to say, I’m now even more convinced that Govan’s ancient hill was already thousands of years old when the kings of Strathclyde turned it into a thing site. Interestingly, Kenny observes that the early medieval arrangement of hill, church and royal pathway might simply have maintained a ritual landscape whose origins reach far back into the remote past. He notes that Govan’s two historical eras of greatness – as a royal capital in the Viking Age and as a major shipbuilding centre 800 years later – may have been preceded by an even older one that we can barely glimpse today:
‘ … it seems very likely that the Doomster Hill started life not 1200 years ago, but perhaps more than 4000 years ago, a massive Neolithic or Bronze Age burial mound. If this were to be the case, then Govan had a third era of greatness, as a centre of power and pilgrimage in prehistory.’

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill re-shaped as a stepped mound or thing site, c.900 AD. Did it still contain a prehistoric burial, traces of which were rediscovered in the 1830s?

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Kenny Brophy’s blogpost

Some Thing Is Missing: the landscape detectives have a project blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The project is based at Fablevision on Water Row, overlooking the Doomster Hill site.

The Doomster Hill gets a mention at the website of the international Thing Sites project.

Northlight Heritage is involved in a number of projects at Govan including the recent redisplay of the Govan Stones.

My online article on the Doomster Hill gives a historical summary of the site.

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Centres of power

In the past few days I’ve been working up a new post for my other blog Senchus. I’ll be looking at a controversial topic: the famous battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937 at an unidentified location somewhere in what is now northern England. The victor at Brunanburh was Athelstan, king of the English, a grandson of Alfred the Great. The leaders on the losing side were King Anlaf (‘Olaf’) of Dublin, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland) and King Owain of Strathclyde. In the blogpost I’ll calculate the distances travelled by the respective armies to a couple of places suggested as the site of the battle, and then mark the routes on a map. I’ll take the starting-point for each army as the leader’s principal centre of power or ‘royal capital’.

The map below represents an early stage in the exercise. It shows the ‘capitals’ of the main protagonists in the Brunanburh campaign: Winchester, chief power centre of the West Saxon dynasty who ruled most of Anglo-Saxon England in the tenth century; Dublin, headquarters of the most powerful Viking kingdom in the British Isles; Scone, home of the Gaelic-speaking kings of Alba; and Govan, the royal capital of Strathclyde. Two other places are also shown: York, the great stronghold of Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria; and Bamburgh, an ancient coastal fortress in Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) held by a hereditary line of English lords.

Each of these places was a hub of political authority and military strength, and each played a role – directly or indirectly – in the sequence of events leading up to the Brunanburh campaign. Five of the six – Winchester, Dublin, York, Scone and Govan – were the most important centres of power in tenth-century Britain and Ireland. Govan’s membership of this elite quintet has frequently been overlooked but cannot be denied. Sculpture and archaeology confirm its status as one of the major royal capitals of the Viking Age.

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

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Netherton Cross
A detailed blogpost on the Netherton Cross is in the pipeline but, for the moment, here are three photographs to introduce the cross to those of you who haven’t seen it before.

Briefly, this free-standing sandstone cross is a product of the ‘Govan School’ – the stonecarving style of the Strathclyde Britons – in an outlying district 12 miles from the main sculptural centre at Govan. The low-quality carving and lack of intricacy suggest that it belongs to the later phase of the style, when the standard of craftsmanship was waning. A date of c.1050, around the time when the Strathclyde Britons lost their independence, would probably not be wide of the mark.

Netherton Cross
The cross formerly stood beside the River Clyde but is now in the grounds of the new parish church at Hamilton. Devotees of ‘Dark Age’ Celtic sculpture could quite easily walk past this enigmatic monument without being aware of what it is. On one side it has a central boss, flanked by two triangular shapes, above an interlace pattern; the other side shows a crudely carved human figure above a central boss which has two pairs of snakes uncoiling from it. Other patterns are difficult to make out but were identified in Victorian times and noted in antiquarian literature. I’ll describe all the carvings more fully at some point.

Although rather simple and unsophisticated, the Netherton Cross is one of my favourite examples of Strathclyde sculpture. It’s a hefty piece, with a weight and bulk that give it an impressive aura. This and the older example from Barochan are the only two free-standing crosses of the Govan School that still remain intact.

Netherton Cross

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The three photographs are copyright © B Keeling. Two of them appear in my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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