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Christmas, 935

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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Free lecture on hogback stones

Govan hogback 5

Govan hogback (No.5)


This Friday, 12th December 2014, at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in Edinburgh, Dr Victoria Whitworth will be speaking about the hogback stones at Govan, Meigle and Inchcolm. I’m sorry to miss this lecture as it promises to be a fascinating discussion of a particularly enigmatic type of monument. Dr Whitworth, an expert on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland, is a lecturer in the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her book Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England was published in 2004 and reissued as a paperback in 2012. In addition to her academic research she also writes historical fiction set in Viking times and has already produced two novels (The Bone Thief and The Traitors’ Pit).

Friday’s lecture is free and runs from 1.00pm to 2.00pm. The venue is the Conference Room at RCAHMS which is located at 16 Bernard Terrace (postcode EH8 9NX). Further details can be found at the Eventbrite booking page.

Victoria Whitworth has her own website as well as a staff page at UHI. She can also be followed on Twitter.

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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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Links

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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Strathclyde crosses

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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The Bellahouston Stone

Bellahouston Stone Govan
A number of the early medieval cross-slabs at Govan were re-used as tombstones by local families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were usually carved with the initials of the deceased and, in some cases, with the date of death. This kind of re-use inevitably damaged the carved patterns from ancient times.

One of the re-used slabs has a rounded end which forms a curving arch around the head of the cross. Within the arched space is a post-medieval inscription: BELLIY HOUSTONS. Although no initials or date are visible, this stone was almost certainly re-used by the Rowans, an old Govan family whose residences included the Bellahouston estate on a road leading out to Paisley. Members of the Rowan family were very prominent in the local community at Govan from the 1600s onwards, right through to the nineteenth century. They played leading roles in important institutions such as the parish church (known today as Govan Old) and the Govan Weavers Society.

The date of the inscription is unknown but it was probably carved after 1726. In that year, the Bellahouston estate came into the possession of the Rowans when James Rowan of Marylands purchased it. The ancient stone at Govan was presumably used as a memorial for this branch of the family, perhaps marking the grave of James himself. The original decoration on the stone, comprising a cross with interlace patterns, was probably carved in the tenth century. A detailed description appears in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (ECMS), a magisterial survey of Dark Age sculpture published in 1903:

‘On the cross a three-cord plait, double-beaded. On the background of the cross (above the top arm) the modern inscription BELLIY HOUSTONS; (on each side of the arm) a three-cord plait; (on the left of the shaft) a chain of rings with bands passed through them at right angles, double-beaded; (on the right of the shaft) a four-cord (?) plait, double-beaded; and (below the bottom of the shaft) triangular interlaced work No.732, double-beaded.’

ECMS included illustrations of some of the Govan cross-slabs but not the Bellahouston stone. The illustrations were reproduced from photographs in Sir John Stirling Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899) which included the entire Govan collection. Interestingly, the images in Sir John’s book didn’t depict the actual monuments but plaster casts of them. The picture below shows the cast of the Bellahouston Stone alongside Sir John’s map of the kirkyard, on which I’ve marked the slab’s nineteenth-century location.

Bellahouston Stone Govan

Defacing ancient sculpture would now be considered an act of vandalism or, to give it a modern label, a ‘heritage crime’. Three hundred years ago, the Rowan family and their contemporaries would have taken a different view, one which was neatly explained by Catherine Cutmore in her study of the Govan gravestones:
‘The re-use of sites and monuments is a very ancient custom. People can draw on the power of the past and ancient rights in order to maintain their own power, especially in times of social stress. Monuments can be used in a similar way. They are visible evidence of earlier people and earlier power. ….The re-use of the older monuments was an effective way of expressing ancient ties to the land and emphasising status.’

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Notes

The name ‘Bellahouston Stone’ has been coined by me as a convenient header for this blogpost. The cross-slab is simply designated ‘Govan No.6’ in ECMS and ‘No.24’ by Sir John Stirling Maxwell. I think ‘Bellahouston Stone’ sounds less anonymous. It gives the slab a bit of individuality, like the names given to some Pictish stones.

Reference: Cutmore, Catherine An Archaeological Study of the Memorial Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan Old Parish Church. Society of Friends of Govan Old Annual Report (1997)

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Weaving Truth With Trust

Govan Old textile screen

The Victorian stained glass windows of Govan Old, seen through the textile screen (photograph © T Clarkson)


On Saturday 19th July I attended a ceremony at Govan Old Parish Church – the grand unveiling of the Weaving Truth With Trust textile screen. I’ve mentioned WTWT in an earlier blogpost and have been following its progress since it started a couple of years ago. The project has involved a number of organisations and individuals who have given various kinds of support but the whole thing has been guided by the creative energies of a four-strong team comprising artists Geraldine Greene, Alexandra Bowie and Fiona Fleming with archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

WTWT is closely connected with the Govan Stones project which is working to raise the public profile of the early medieval sculpture housed inside the church. The screen was designed to reflect not only the craftsmanship that produced the stones but also the artistry of later times when Govan had a flourishing textile industry. ‘Weaving Truth With Trust’ was the motto of the Govan Weavers Society, an organisation formed in the eighteenth century to support local handloom weavers and their families.

The WTWT screen hangs on a frame fitted to an arched opening inside Govan Old, thus forming a stunning backdrop to the Dark Age hogback stones. Woven from lace, the screen is a delicate, translucent piece of artwork with an almost ethereal aura. It not only compliments the five hogbacks but offers a vivid contrast to their hard, solid presence.

Photographs from the event of 19th July can be seen at the WTWT Facebook page.

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