31 January, 2015

Llangors Crannog

Viewing platform

Llangors Lake (also called Llyn Syfaddan and Brycheiniog Mere) is the largest natural lake in South Wales. It is located in south-east Wales, not far from Brecon.

Map link: Llangors Lake 

Llangors Lake was formed by glacial meltwater after the last Ice Age. It is a shallow lake (only about 7 m deep), notable for an abundance of fish and water birds (and a legendary aquatic monster or afanc).  It is also the site of the only known crannog in England and Wales.

Llangors Crannog

A crannog is an artificial island, typically constructed a little way offshore in an inland lake, river or estuary.  Crannogs were dwelling places, with access either by boat or via a causeway to the shore. Most of the known crannogs in the British Isles are in Ireland and Scotland, where they range in date from the Neolithic to the early medieval period.

Llangors Lake is the only known example of a crannog in Wales, and perhaps reflects Irish connections.

Llangors crannog from the shore
The Llangors crannog was excavated by archaeologists in 1989-1993. It was constructed from bundles of brushwood laid on the lake bed and held in place by hardwood beams and a ring of massive split oak piles, with a layer of sandstone boulders placed on top of the brushwood to create a platform about 25 m across (Wait et al 2005).

According to the information board at the site, dendrochronology dating on the timbers indicated that the crannog was constructed from trees felled in 889–893 AD. It would have been a very considerable construction project, requiring substantial resources in material and labour.

The excavation found a fragment of a very high-quality embroidered textile and a bronze hinge from a reliquary of a style associated with Ireland in the 8th to 9th centuries AD. This is consistent with the Llangors crannog having had high-status occupants, and the reliquary hinge suggests an ecclesiastical connection. One of the Llandaff charters records that a King Awst of Brycheiniog granted ‘Llan Cors’ and its surrounding estate to a Bishop Euddgwy in the 8th century AD (Wait et al 2005). The charter may just be a post hoc ecclesiastical attempt at a land grab, but it is consistent with the presence of the reliquary hinge and may reflect a genuine church connection. Perhaps the crannog was the site of a royal and/or episcopal hall.

Destruction of the crannog

A destruction layer of charcoal and charred timber indicated that Llangors crannog had been destroyed by fire (Wait et al 2005).

The destruction layer may relate to an event recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

A.D. 916.  This year was the innocent Abbot Egbert slain, before midsummer, on the sixteenth day before the calends of July.  The same day was the feast of St. Ciricius the martyr, with his companions. And within three nights sent Ethelfleda an army into Wales, and stormed Brecknock; and there took the king's wife, with some four and thirty others.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online 

Ethelfleda is Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians and daughter of Alfred the Great. ‘Brecknock’ is an alternative spelling of ‘Brycheiniog’.

The kingdom of Brycheiniog

Brycheiniog (anglicised version, Brecon) was an early medieval Brittonic kingdom in what is now south-east Wales. Its eponymous (legendary?) founder, Brychan, is traditionally said to be the son of a Brittonic mother and an Irish king. Whether literally true or not, the legend is consistent with connections between Brycheiniog and Ireland, which might account for the Irish-style reliquary hinge and the construction of a crannog, a type of dwelling more often associated with Ireland.

According to Asser’s Life of Alfred, Brycheiniog had been an ally (or vassal state, depending how voluntary the arrangement was) of Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great, seeking protection against attacks from Gwynedd.

Helised, also, son of Tendyr, king of Brecon, compelled by the force of the same sons of Rotri, of his own accord sought the government of the aforesaid king [King Alfred]
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online

The ‘sons of Rotri’ were the kings of Gwynedd, sons of Rhodri Mawr. Attacks by Norse raiders may also have added to the pressure, as Annales Cambriae says that Norsemen laid waste Brycheiniog in 895.

894  Anarawd came with the Angles and laid waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi.
895  The Northmen came and laid waste Lloegr and Brycheiniog and Gwent and Gwynllywiog.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

The date of the alliance between Brycheiniog and Alfred is not precisely stated.  Since it was against the sons of Rhodri, it was presumably after the death of Rhodri Mawr in 878. Anarawd ap Rhodri of Gwynedd co-operated with ‘the Angles’, presumably Alfred, in 894 according to the Annales Cambriae, so the relationship between Brycheiniog and Alfred was most likely established before then. This suggests a date some time in the 880s.

As the crannog was built with timber felled in 889-893, its construction may have been a response to all this political and military upheaval, perhaps a desire for a secure place of refuge in the face of many threats and/or an attempt to proclaim an identity as an independent kingdom and resist being swallowed up as a vassal state.  I wonder if it was in existence when the Norse ‘came and laid waste Brycheiniog’ in 895, and if so, whether it was attacked and how it withstood the attack. Or indeed whether it was built as a reaction to this Norse attack, using timber that had already been felled a few years earlier.

Whatever the nature of the relationship between Alfred and the king of Brycheiniog, Aethelflaed clearly did not regard Brycheiniog as an ally at the time of her attack in 916. Possibly she felt that it was a Wessex arrangement that did not apply to her in her capacity as Lady of the Mercians, or that it had been negated by the death of Abbot Egbert, or that circumstances had changed and an alliance from the previous generation was no longer relevant.

It can’t be often that one queen captures another queen in battle. I wonder about the story or stories behind these fragments of archaeology and the laconic references in the chronicles. Who was the now-unknown Abbot Egbert, how was he murdered and why was he so important that his death started a war? Why did Aethelflaed blame Brycheiniog for the murder?  Was the attack on Brycheiniog really revenge for the abbot’s death? Aethelflaed seems to have acted very fast if she despatched an army within three nights of the abbot’s death, especially as news would take at least some time to travel. Was Abbot Egbert’s death merely a convenient cover for some other motive? (or an unrelated event that was attributed an unwarranted significance by an ecclesiastical chronicler who assumed that everything revolved around church affairs?)  What did Aethelflaed think of Alfred’s alliances with the various Brittonic kingdoms?  Aethelflaed and the queen of Brycheiniog may have known each other personally, or at least have met at royal court events. I wonder what they thought of each other.

Nowadays, Llangors Lake is a tranquil place between the Black Mountains on one side and the Brecon Beacons on the other. You can’t get to the crannog itself (except maybe by boat; I have no idea whether you might need a permit to land there). A walkway leads out from the shore to a modern viewing platform, with a central shelter under a roof like an Iron Age house and a gallery all round to give uninterrupted views of the crannog, the lake and the surrounding mountains. Information boards explain a little about the geography and history of the lake and the archaeological investigation on the crannog. If our visit is anything to go by, it’s home to a lot of dragonflies, ducks and swans (alas, I didn’t spot the afanc).
Llangors crannog from the viewing platform

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translation available online 
Annales Cambriae, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online 
Wait G, Benfield S, McKewan C. Rescuing Llangors Crannog. British Archaeology 2005;84, available online


Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for the crannog history lesson. Very interesting! Lends itself to all kinds of story possibilities.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Interesting. I had no idea crannogs were still in use and even built in the 9th century AD.

Carla said...

Constance - yes, lots of scope for the imagination :-)

Gabriele - I was surprised about the ninth-century construction and the apparenty very short life. I associate crannogs mainly with the Iron Age in Scotland and early medieval in Ireland, and they often seem to have been used on and off for centuries. Perhaps this one was an experiment copying a crannog someone had seen in Ireland to see if it would alo work in Wales (the foundation legend of Brycheiniog is probably just that, a legend, but it may well reflect contemporary Irish connections at the time the legend was in circulation), which could account for the late date. If it was destroyed within a decade or two of construction, as seems to have been the case, it may not have looked like an experiment worth copying, so it stayed a one-off.

Rick said...

It can’t be often that one queen captures another queen in battle.

Q x Q happens all the time on the chess board, but I can't think of another historical instance.

It sounds as if the crannog was a response to an ongoing crisis. And as it turned out, an unsuccessful response - no wonder it wasn't repeated.

Carla said...

Rick - there musst surely be some, but I can't think of one either (which is why this one caught my attention). I can't believe it'ss unique but it's certainly unusual.

Yes, an unsuccessful response as it turned out, so not much of an advert for this new Irish way of doing things, and not surprising that it seems it never caught on. I wonder if crannogs worked better in Ireland and Scotland, for some reason? Or possibly they had become sufficiently well established as a must-have status symbol that any practical shortcomings were disregarded.

Rick said...

Perhaps also the nature of warfare had changed. A crannog is good protection against, say, raiding attacks. But if the attacker has time and resources to obtain boats, not so much.

Carla said...

Or there was something about the specific circumstances of the attack on Llangors that meant the attack succeeded. The chronicle account says the queen was in residence, since she was captured there, but it doesn't give any indication of the rest of the defence force, the relative strength of the attacking force, the tactics, etc... A sample of 1 is not a great basis to generalise from :-)