30 June, 2009

Twilight of Avalon, by Anna Elliott. Book review

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2009, ISBN 978-1-4165-8989-1. 426 pages.

Twilight of Avalon is subtitled “A novel of Trystan and Isolde”, and is billed as Book 1 of a trilogy. It’s set in Britain seven years after King Arthur’s death at the battle of Camlann, some time in the first half of the sixth century or thereabouts. Trystan, Isolde and King Mark (here spelled Marche) are famous characters in Arthurian legend, and other characters from the legends such as Merlin, Mordred and Arthur’s sister Morgan make appearances. The author’s note says that Madoc of Gwynedd is loosely based on the historical figure of Maelgwn Gwynedd. All the other main characters are fictional.

Isolde is the illegitimate daughter of Mordred, King Arthur’s son and nephew by incest with Morgan, and of King Arthur’s unfaithful wife Guinevere. Orphaned at the age of 13 when Mordred was killed fighting Arthur at Camlann, Isolde was married to Arthur’s heir, the boy-king Constantine and made High Queen of Britain, at least in name. Now Constantine has been killed, in battle as is thought (though Isolde knows it was murder), and Isolde’s position at court has become extremely precarious. She is widely distrusted as a witch, because of her descent from Morgan and because she has skills as a healer and a limited power of second sight. Evil King Marche of Cornwall is scheming to get the High Kingship for himself, and forces Isolde into marriage as part of a traitorous plot. With her only possible ally among the lesser kings dead in suspicious circumstances, Isolde flees from the court at Tintagel to seek evidence of Marche’s treason. She finds herself forming a reluctant alliance with a mysterious prisoner, Trystan, who has lately escaped from Marche’s dungeons, and his three rag-tag companions. Isolde must not only find a way to foil Marche’s treason, but also come to terms with her own past.

If you’re familiar with the story of Tristan and Isolde from Wagner’s opera or from the Arthurian romances, you’ll find Twilight of Avalon a very different take. Despite the “sweeping romance” promise in the cover blurb, the traditional romantic love story doesn’t make any appearance at all, though there are hints that it may be intended for Book 2 and/or 3. There’s no glamorous Camelot and no high chivalry. The setting is the darkest of Dark Ages, an unremittingly grim world of violence, chaos and betrayal. With few exceptions, the kings of Britain are violent, arrogant, deceitful, self-centred and/or a bit thick. None of them features on the list of tyrants named by Gildas in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain*, but they are clearly cut from the same cloth. The lives of the warrior aristocracy are nasty, brutish and short; you probably don’t want to imagine how miserable this world must be for the peasantry off-stage.

There are some fantasy elements to the novel, and some features of the traditional high medieval setting are retained. Tintagel is a stone-built castle with turrets and dungeons, travellers with no money living rough eat rabbit stew and wear rabbitskin cloaks**, literacy is so all-pervasive that an uneducated man who cannot read and write says of another character “he might as well have ‘Saxon’ stamped on his forehead”, copper coins are a standard medium of exchange and despite the chaos and poverty there is sufficient of a mercantile economy for a hermit living on a wild moor in the middle of nowhere to have ready access to a supply of wine. A crucial plot twist depends on Isolde having a real power of second sight that actually works, and another depends on a character apparently seeing a ghost conjured up by some supernatural power on Isolde’s part. Isolde has somehow induced total amnesia about her entire life prior to the battle of Camlann, apparently by effort of will, and hears strange supernatural voices. That said, there is much less mysticism and magic than in many Arthurian novels, which was a major plus point for me. An early reference to goddess-worship and the Christian church being responsible for the oppression of women had me rolling my eyes, but I was glad to find that the question of religion is more interestingly handled as the book develops, with an open-minded Christian hermit drawing a parallel between magic and miracles.

The pace is leisurely, not to say slow. With its minute-by-minute account of Isolde’s thoughts and feelings, the narrative can take a lot of pages to cover not very much ground. For example, the first two chapters (27 pages) are occupied by Isolde contemplating the body of her dead husband in church, and taking food to two prisoners and tending their injuries occupies 17 pages. About a third of the way in I had hopes that the plot might pick up, as Isolde decides to go in search of a goldsmith-cum-spy who can bear witness to Marche’s treachery, but was disappointed. The narrative promptly bogged down again in a sequence of escape, recapture, re-escape, re-recapture and re-re-escape interspersed with scenes of Isolde nursing just about every other character through illness or injury, the goldsmith was never mentioned again and the urgent need to find proof of Marche’s treasonous dealings seemed to just fade away. I wonder if the book was drastically cut to length and half the plot vanished, leaving these (to my mind) rather annoying loose ends, or if perhaps they are going to be picked up somehow in Books 2 and 3. I also felt the escape-recapture cycle got a bit repetitive for my taste. Guards working for an evil tyrant are traditionally inefficient, partly for plot purposes and partly because tyrannical leadership styles rarely get the best out of their subordinates, but having the same guards fall for the same trick pulled by the same prisoner twice within a few days stretched my credulity.

Twilight of Avalon is very much Isolde’s story, as all events are seen through her eyes and understood through her feelings. Fortunately, Isolde is an attractive and even admirable character. She is essentially powerless, a pawn in the games of kings like Marche, but she is not weak, she never whines and she never gives up. She makes use of her wits, her limited supernatural powers and whatever else comes to hand in her quest to outwit Marche. Isolde is also a gifted storyteller, and numerous tales and legends are nested into the narrative, giving an extra layer of depth to the setting. Isolde dominates the novel so completely that I found my perception of the whole book altering with my reactions to her character. Twilight of Avalon should suit readers who like to identify with a particular character, provided they take to Isolde and her emotional journey.

The secondary characters – everybody else – perhaps divide a little too readily into good and bad, though Madoc of Gwynedd is an interestingly complex character with a mix of qualities. I hope to see more of him in the sequels. I’d have liked to see more of his point of view in this novel, particularly with regard to his apparently sudden change of heart. I’d also have liked to see Trystan’s viewpoint. Isolde’s amnesia governs her reactions to him (and is essential to the plot), but Trystan has no similar amnesia and I was curious about his motivations and his opinion of (and feelings for?) Isolde. He spends most of the novel in a prison cell, almost as powerless as Isolde, yet he clearly has experience and skills as a soldier and a leader of men. I hope Trystan’s role will be further developed in the sequels.

Although billed as Book 1 of a trilogy, Twilight of Avalon feels to me like the first third of a single long book. The mystery of Trystan’s identity is resolved (for those readers who didn’t guess it as soon as he appeared, or at least as soon as he was named), but little else is. The outcome of Marche’s treasonous dealings, the ongoing war, Trystan’s role, Isolde’s position at court, and her relationship with the lesser kings and with Trystan are all To Be Continued.

First instalment in a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde legend, with a strong focus on Isolde’s emotional journey and a refreshingly low quotient of magic and mysticism.

*Madoc of Gwynedd is loosely based on Maelgwn Gwynedd, who is usually identified with Gildas’ Maglocunus, but if the character has done any of the outrageous things for which Gildas castigated his historical counterpart, they don’t feature in the book.

**There’s a debate about whether the Romans or the Normans introduced rabbits to Britain, but in the 13th century rabbit was an expensive luxury food. Rabbits didn’t become the ubiquitous free country pie filling until at least the late Middle Ages.

24 June, 2009

Old English gods and myths: Hell

First of an occasional series. Very little is known of the pre-Christian religion of the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’), because all the surviving Old English texts were written down after the conversion to Christianity and no written account of the previous religious beliefs survives. There are some snippets in Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, some place names, bits of word etymology, fragments in poetry that might be echoes of an older tradition, occasional archaeological finds, and extrapolation from accounts of related cultures such as Tacitus’ Germania and the Norse myths. I need hardly say that this is not as firm a basis as one would like for trying to reconstruct a lost religion (!). Nevertheless, it’s better than nothing, so with that caveat in mind let’s see where we get.

Origin of the word “hell”

The modern English word “hell”, meaning the dwelling-place of the dead, the underworld and/or a place of punishment after death, derives directly from its Old English counterpart “helle”. This occurs in early sources:

In King Alfred’s translation of Boethius (ninth century), Cerberus, the dog who guards the gates of Hades in Greek and Roman mythology, is called “helle hund".

In the Old English poem Beowulf, the monster Grendel is described as “feond on helle”, “an enemy from hell”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “helle” is cognate with Old Frisian (helle), Old Saxon (hellia, hel), Old High German (hella), Old Icelandic (hel), and Gothic (halja), probably originally meaning a hole or place of concealment. So the word is widespread in the Germanic languages, and was in use by at least the ninth century. It was probably in use much earlier, since it occurs in several languages and may therefore derive from a time before the languages became differentiated, though it’s always possible that the languages borrowed it from each other.

Descriptions of hell

Since “helle hund” was used in relation to Cerberus, “hell” was presumably considered to be roughly equivalent to Hades and was not confined to the Christian concept of hell. No description of the pagan English concept of hell has come down to us, but since the word was cognate with the Old Icelandic Hel, it’s a reasonable inference that the concept attached to the word was also similar to the Norse concept. Luckily, we have an idea what that was.

In Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, Hel referred both to the goddess of the underworld and to her realm. (This is similar to Greek and Roman mythology, in which Hades referred both to the god of the underworld and to the underworld itself). Snorri gives a vivid description of Hel and her realm:

But evil men go to Hel and thence down to Niflhel [Dark Hel]; and that is down in the ninth world.
--Gylfaginning chapter 3. Prose Edda.

Hel he threw down into Niflheim, and made her ruler over nine worlds. She has the power to dole out lodgings and provisions to those who are sent to her, and they are the people who have died of disease or old age. She has there an enormous dwelling with walls of immense height and huge gates. Her hall is called Eljudnir (Sprayed with Snowstorms), her dish is Hunger, her knife is Famine, her slave is Lazy, and her woman servant is Slothful. The threshold over which people enter is called Fallandaforad (Falling to Peril), her bed is named Kor (Sick-bed) and her bed curtains are called Blikjandabol (Gleaming Disaster). She is half black and half a lighter flesh-colour and is easily recognised). Mostly she is gloomy and cruel.
--Gylfaginning, chapter 34. Prose Edda.

When the Norse god Odin journeys to the realm of Hel to ask questions of a long-dead seeress, she tells him:

I was snowed on with snow, and smitten with rain,
And drenched with dew; long was I dead.
--Balder’s Dream

So the Norse Hel was thought of as a miserable place of cold and wet and hunger, presided over by a hideous monster. This is consistent with the description of Grendel’s bleak abode in Beowulf:

The fell and fen his fastness was
The march his haunt
--Beowulf, lines 102-103

…. walked nightlong
The misty moorland
--Beowulf, lines 161-162

…up steep screes, by scant tracks
Where only one might walk, by wall-faced cliffs,
Through haunted fens – uninhabitable country
--Beowulf, lines 1410-1411

Grendel, together with giants, ogres, elves and evil spirits, is described in the poem as the descendant of Cain, banished to the wastelands by God. Leaving aside the Christian gloss, the picture of a cold, wet, bleak and thoroughly miserable wilderness inhabited by monsters (one of whom, Grendel’s mother, is female), is entirely consistent with the Norse description of Hel in the Prose Edda.


So, it seems reasonable to infer that before they converted to Christianity the pagan English had a concept of a cold and miserable place called hell. As the word continued in use after conversion to Christianity as the name for a place of punishment after death, it seems likely that the original concept also included the idea that hell was the afterlife for people who weren’t favoured. Whether everyone who died a natural death went there, as Snorri says in Gylfaginning chapter 34, or whether evil people went there, as Snorri says in Gylfaginning chapter 3, is not clear. Quite possibly there were different traditions among different groups of people. If the word originated from a root meaning “hole” as the Oxford English Dictionary says (and I would take their word for most things on word origins), it seems likely that it derived from a description of the grave – a cold, wet, miserable hole in the ground where one went after death in the literal as well as metaphorical sense. This may tie in to the variable funeral customs observed in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cemeteries, and I’ll come back to this in a later post.

Was “hell” in Old English also used in its other common modern sense, as an expletive and an intensifier in colloquial phrases (What the hell, how the hell, go to hell, hell of a… etc)? I have no idea. Formal court poetry doesn’t generally use colloquialisms, and Old English poetry is more formal than most because of the demands of the alliterative measure. If there was an Old English dictionary of slang and swearing it certainly hasn’t come down to us. Since the word was in use and represented a place that you wouldn’t look forward to going to, as in its modern sense, it seems not unreasonable that it might also have been in use as an imprecation, and I use it in this sense in Paths of Exile. However, I think we can safely say that phrases that rely on hell being a hot place (when hell freezes over, snowball’s chance in hell, a cold day in hell, hell-fire) probably came into use later, after the shift to the Christian concept of hell as a fiery place.

ReferencesBeowulf. Translated by Michael Alexander. Penguin Classics, 1973. ISBN 0-14-044268-5.
Oxford English Dictionary. Available online by subscription at www.oed.com
Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse Byock. Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN 978-0-14-044755-2.

20 June, 2009

June recipe: Lemon syllabub

Syllabub has been a popular dessert since at least the sixteenth century, as the Oxford English Dictionary lists the first recorded use at around 1537. It generally involves cream, alcohol, sugar and a flavouring, often fruit, though there are as many variations as there are cooks. It makes a fine dessert for a summer evening.

Here's my recipe. The mixture tends to splatter more than ordinary whipped cream, so a large mixing bowl is a good idea, and if using an electric whisk (and it would be hard work to whip by hand), use a slow speed to begin with and increase to higher speed after the mixture has started to thicken.

Lemon syllabub

1 lemon
4 fl. oz (approx 100 ml) sherry, white wine or cider
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
3 oz (approx 75 g) sugar. I like light brown soft sugar for the warm colour and slight caramel flavour)
0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) double cream*

Put the lemon juice, lemon zest, sherry and nutmeg in a large bowl and leave to steep for an hour or two.
Stir in the sugar and mix until dissolved.
Pour in the double cream.
Whisk until the mixture is thick and standing in soft peaks (like ordinary whipped cream, or perhaps a bit softer).
Spoon into wine glasses or glass dessert bowls. I expect to get 6 or 8 portions out of this quantity, but it depends how big your wine glasses are.
Sprinkle with a little grated chocolate if liked. Chill in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours, then serve.

*I think double cream is called heavy cream in the US

15 June, 2009

The Sins of the Father, by Catherine Hanley. Book review.

Disclaimer: The Sins of the Father is published by Quaestor2000 who have also published my novel Paths of Exile, although I don’t think that has influenced my opinion.

Quaestor2000, 2009, ISBN 978-1-906836-11-5. 193 pages.

The Sins of the Father is set in May 1217 at Conisbrough Castle, Yorkshire, against the backdrop of the political turmoil at the end of King John’s reign. William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and his sister Isabelle are important secondary characters, and William Marshal (hero of The Greatest Knight) is a dominant off-stage presence. All the main characters are fictional.

Edwin Weaver, son of the bailiff at Conisbrough, is just reaching adulthood. Unpopular King John has recently died, and a faction of the English barons has proclaimed John’s nine-year-old son Henry as King, with the formidable William Marshal as Regent. This presents something of a political dilemma to the nobles who had previously rebelled against John and invited Prince Louis of France to be king. Do they support Prince Louis and risk William Marshal’s wrath, or do they change sides, join William Marshal’s campaign against Louis and risk being beaten by Louis who controls much of eastern England? William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, has decided to switch sides and is mustering troops at his castle of Conisbrough to join the siege of Lincoln, which he hopes will convince William Marshal of his loyalty. Edwin, standing in as bailiff for his dying father, is helping to organise the logistics and never expects these great affairs of state to impinge on his own unremarkable life. But when the Earl of Sheffield, a supporter of the new young king, is murdered at Conisbrough, William de Warenne fears that he will be implicated in the crime and accused of treason unless he can find the murderer before they set out to join the Marshal. The task falls to the acting bailiff of Conisbrough, Edwin Weaver. Can the inexperienced Edwin solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice in time?

This is a medieval murder mystery in the classic mould. A crime is committed, in a confined place with a constrained group of people, and the fictional detective (and, by extension, the reader) has to spot the clues and deduce the solution. As Edwin Weaver is clever but young and inexperienced, he has to call on help from Warenne’s squires, the military veteran in charge of the castle, the estate steward and even his dying father. This makes the investigation something of a team effort. It is also a coming-of-age story for Edwin, as he has to take decisions and responsibility and learns a great many things he would probably rather not have known about the nobility and about human nature in general.

The plot is well constructed with no obvious holes or loose ends. A neat trail of red herrings diverts the reader’s attention away from the real culprit almost until the final denouement, and when revealed the murderer and the motivation are credible for the time and for the characters involved. Some of the clues are handed to Edwin on a plate, either by his helpers or by sheer luck, but given his inexperience it would be difficult for him to solve the mystery any other way. It will be interesting to see if he has to do more of the detecting as the series develops.

As well as the mystery, The Sins of the Father paints a detailed portrait of life in early thirteenth-century England. As the bailiff’s son and stand-in, Edwin belongs to the common people but has to deal with the nobility, so he is an ideal character to show the reader all classes of society and the sharp social divisions between them. I say “class”, but “caste” might be more appropriate given the rigidity of the social divisions. Everyone’s place in society is determined by their father’s social position, with little if any scope for change and very little interaction between the classes. Edwin is horrified when he has to give orders to a noble squire who has been assigned to help him with the investigation, and a noble page is stunned to realise that a poor boy of about his own age could actually go short of food. Details such as the serving of dinner in the great hall, the upheaval caused by having to accommodate unexpected visitors of high rank, and the duties of a lord’s squire are all lovingly described.

Most of the characters are decent, likeable people, albeit with their fair share of human flaws. Only the fictional Earl of Sheffield, his brother and one of their squires are thoroughly unpleasant, three weasels who deserve each other. Edwin in particular is thoughtful and reflective, with potential for further development in the future. There is clearly scope for a sequel (or several sequels), even though the present mystery is solved at the end of the book. A useful historical note discusses some of the history behind the novel, and sets out the liberties taken and the characters invented.

Enjoyable murder mystery in an authentic setting.

09 June, 2009

Chester in the seventh century: surviving infrastructure

Modern Chester was founded in around 74 AD as the Roman legionary fortress of Deva, later acquiring part of the name of the Twentieth Legion to become Deva Victrix. It clearly had a large number of impressive Roman buildings, perhaps more impressive than most Roman cities in Britain. Deva was 20% bigger than the other legionary fortresses in Roman Britain (e.g. Eboracum, modern York), and contained the enigmatic Elliptical Building, so far unique in the Empire. The purpose of the Elliptical Building remains unknown, but it must have been an impressive structure in its day. Chester also had the usual components of a legionary fortress, including a headquarters building (principia), smart houses for the commander (praetorium) and senior officers, amphitheatre, stone defensive walls and a main baths building (thermae), not to mention a large harbour and a bridge crossing the River Dee. How much of this was still standing in the seventh century, and can we tell if people were still using it for anything?



Ranulph Higden, a monk at the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester (later the cathedral) wrote a description of Chester in the mid fourteenth century. He described underground passages (the sewers), huge stones inscribed with the names of ancient men (tombstones, or perhaps also other monuments or inscriptions?), and vaulted dining rooms (perhaps parts of the main bath building [thermae]) (quoted in Mason 2001). Evidently substantial parts of the Roman infrastructure were still standing at this date, getting on for a thousand years after Roman government came to an end in Britain. Say what you like about the Romans, they built to last.


Headquarters building
In the headquarters building, the rooms along the rear of the cross-hall were refloored several times during the fourth century, and the room west of the shrine-room (aedes) was converted into a secondary shrine. Mason (2001) gives no date for these repairs, but since there were several they presumably span quite a long period of time and indicate regular use and maintenance in most of the fourth century, if not later.

Elliptical Building
In the baths suite attached to the Elliptical Building, a new doorway was inserted and the mortar bedding for its timber door sill produced a find of 24 coins dated the reign of Emperors Valens and Valentinian (364-75 AD). The hypocaust was rebuilt, and part of the suspended floor was found still intact when excavated in 1969. Gold-working crucibles were found at the north end of the building, together with a gold solidus of the Emperor Magnentius (350-353 AD).

Coins of Theodosius I (379-395) and Arcadius (395-408) have been found in Chester, but no coins of Honorius (became Emperor in 408).

Excavation in the centre of the fortress has shown that there was no extensive complex of post-Roman timber buildings as at Wroxeter in this area. Possibly such structures existed elsewhere in the fortress and have not been discovered (or not recognised), but there is no evidence for them. David Mason states that the various timber buildings identified in Chester on various digs so far are now thought to belong to the Anglo-Scandinavian town of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Not much is known about the Roman bridge, except that it was on more or less the same site as the current Old Dee Bridge, which was built in the medieval period. It is not known how long the Roman bridge stood. The location of its replacement on the same site may indicate that the Roman bridge remained standing and in use long enough for the street plan of Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval Chester to become fixed and so dictate the position of the crossing. Or it may reflect the constraints of geology/geography, for example if it happens to be the only sensible place in the vicinity to build a bridge.

Baths complex
The thermae courtyard was repaired and resurfaced throughout the fourth century.

When the thermae complex was destroyed by development in 1964, parts of the walls were still standing in situ to a height of up to 13 feet (4 m), hypocausts and mosaic floors were still intact, and large sections of collapsed roofing vaults (barrel-vaulted concrete, estimated to have stood 53 feet above floor level) lay on the floors. A layer of “dark earth” containing charcoal and bits of animal bone had accumulated to a depth of 1 foot (30 cm) over the tepidarium floor, implying a considerable period of residential occupation. It is not known when the roof vault collapsed. However, if the “vaulted dining rooms” mentioned by Ranulph Higden refer to the vaulted and decorated bath complex, then parts of the building were still standing and still roofed in the middle of the fourteenth century.

The harbour and the rest of the Dee estuary downstream of Chester has been slowly silting up since the end of the Ice Age, and the harbour is now the low-lying dry land of Roodee racecourse. In the Roman perod it was a busy harbour and may have been the base for part of the Roman naval fleet. Shipping is recorded as having trouble getting upstream to Chester in the late medieval period, according to Mason. He also says that the Anglo-Scandinavian town of the ninth and tenth centuries relied on trade, and that the street frontages were cleared of Roman rubble because they were the most valued as commercial premises. If this is correct, it implies that the harbour was still capable of taking trading shipping at a useful volume, at least for shallow-draughted ships like those used by the Norsemen, until at least the tenth century. The harbour would presumably therefore also have been similarly functional in the intervening period.

Place name

It’s worth noting that there is no trace of the Roman name Deva Victrix in the modern name of Chester or in the names Bede knew for the city in when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731:

…which the English call Legacaster and the British more correctly call Caerlegion…
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Ch. 2

Bede was writing in Latin and called the city Urbs Legionis. This translates as “City of the Legion”, as do the English and British names he quotes, so the three names are really the same name in three languages.

This contrasts with some other Roman fortresses and cities, such as Winchester, Lincoln, York, Londinium, Wroxeter and Carlisle, where elements of the Roman name can be traced in the modern name. In turn, this may indicate that whatever Chester was used for after the Romans left, and whoever was using it, the Roman name was either discarded or lost.


The coin evidence may suggest that regular Roman Army troops were still stationed in Chester, getting paid in Imperial coinage and repairing and maintaining the fortress buildings up to about the end of the fourth century, but not during the reign of Honorius in the early fifth. It is of course possible that coins of Honorius circulated in Chester and that none has yet happened to be discovered by archaeology. However, given that the usurper Emperor Constantine III invaded Continental Europe from Britain in 407, presumably with an army, it is quite plausible that he took Chester’s garrison with him.

Chester hosted a major synod in 601 (Annales Cambriae), which is probably the same event as the meeting recorded by Bede in 603 or 604 and attended by seven bishops and “many very learned men” (Bede Book II Ch. 2). The synod and the possible ecclesiastical importance of Chester was discussed in an earlier post. It also has implications for the state of the surviving infrastructure. Seven bishops probably each brought a sizeable retinue, as no doubt did Augustine of Canterbury. If Chester was the site, this implies it was:
(a) an important and prestigious place, suitable for hosting a gathering of VIPs;
(b) had enough infrastructure to cope with them and their retinues in suitable style;
(c) was sufficiently well-connected to transport networks that a large number of people could be expected to travel to it;
(d) perhaps that it had some connection with the Brittonic Christian church or an important official thereof (perhaps a Bishop of Chester, as discussed earlier.

Chester in the seventh century probably still had the following infrastructure:

  • A fortress wall (possibly not fully intact – see earlier post);

  • A functioning harbour, at least for shallow-draughted vessels;

  • A bridge crossing the River Dee;

  • Part or all of the main baths complex (thermae), still standing and still roofed;

  • Probably some or all of the similarly robust structures, such as the headquarters building and perhaps the Elliptical Buildng, were also still standing and roofed, since they had been kept in good repair up to at least 400 AD and would have taken some time before they fell down;

  • Roman streets and roads on the alignments still in use today (and maybe some others that have since been lost);

  • A population living in and/or around the fortress, probably at a low density

The location of the synod suggests that the Chester may have been a centre of ecclesiastical power, as has been suggested for Wroxeter. It may also have been a centre of secular power, or the secular power (i.e. the king or local sub-king) may have been based elsewhere, again as has been suggested for Wroxeter.

Chester’s Roman name seems to have gone out of use some time before 731, since Bede knew the city as “City of the Legion” in three languages and not as Deva, Deva Victrix, or any derivation thereof . This isn’t universal for ex-Roman cities in Britain, since Bede knew his local city (modern York) by its Roman name of Eboracum. Nor does it just reflect the limits of Bede’s knowledge, since whoever wrote Annales Cambriae also knew Chester as “City of the Legion”, not as Deva.

The absence of Chester’s Roman name by 731 may suggest either a temporary period of abandonment during which the name was forgotten, or a deliberate decision not to use the Roman name. I would lean towards the deliberate decision, since it seems unlikely that Latin-speaking literate Brittonic churchmen would not have been perfectly capable of reading the city name off milestones or inscriptions if they wanted to, even if all other records had somehow been lost. Perhaps the local population had always called the fortress “the city of the legion”, reflecting its military function, in the same sort of way as the Gaelic name for modern Fort William is An Gearasdan, “the garrison”.

Mason DJP. Roman Chester: city of the eagles. Tempus, 2001, ISBN 978- 0-7524-1922-0.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X

Google Maps links
Fort William

06 June, 2009

Flowers and baby birds

Field of poppies. Normally this field is a rather undistinguished scrubby green, but for some reason this summer it has suddenly burst forth in a blaze of magnificent scarlet poppies.

Close-up of poppy flowers near the path, mixed in with ox-eye daisies and buttercups.

Drift of buttercups, looking as if someone spilt a pool of sunshine.

Fledgeling blue-tit chick perched obligingly on a windowsill while waiting for Mum to come along with food. This picture was taken about a week ago, and this morning there were three blue-tit chicks twittering and cheeping and pushing each other off the peanut feeder (Which is too far away to photograph with my steam-powered camera, and I wasn't about to go outside and disturb them). I wonder if one of them was this little fluffball, a week older and now independent?

Also a young robin, a fledgeling great-tit being given a lesson in how to work bird feeders by a harrassed-looking parent, a couple of adolescent blackbirds from the parents' first brood (I think they are now feeding nestlings on their second), and a noisy family of chaffinches. But none of them would come close enough to be photographed so you'll have to take my word for it.