29 September, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman fort: Cnobheresburg?

The remains of the Roman shore fort are by far the most impressive visible features on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort, with three of the four walls and their massive bastions still standing to near full height (see my previous post for pictures). However, although the site may well have started with the Romans in the third century or so, it doesn’t appear to have ended with them. Archaeological evidence indicates occupation in the centuries after the end of Imperial Roman rule in Britain, and may even connect with some snippets of history.


A hoard of high quality glassware, of Roman and Germanic styles, was found buried in the fort (English Heritage) – see picture on the fort information board in my earlier post. The glassware is dated to the early fifth century, so must have been buried at some date after that (possibly considerably after, if the vessels were prized heirlooms kept for a long time).

The English Heritage listing record says that the field east of the Roman fort was the site of both a Roman military cemetery and an early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery, with several cremation burials discovered in 1756 (English Heritage). The report says “Most of the urns illustrated in the records are identifiable as having been of pagan Saxon type”. The report doesn’t suggest a date, but cremation cemeteries are typically associated with the fifth and sixth centuries. Stylistic dating, on the basis of changing fashions in the design of jewellery or other grave goods or the decorations on the cremation urns, can sometimes narrow the date range, but if the urns were excavated in 1756 that dating evidence may not have been recorded.

Inside the fort, an inhumation cemetery has been excavated in the south-west corner with the remains of a large timber building on the south side of the cemetery. The cemetery was radiocarbon-dated to the sixth to tenth century. In the north-east corner, traces of irregular oval timber structures were identified, associated with pottery dated to the mid-seventh to ninth century (English Heritage).

The south-west quadrant of the fort was later occupied by a Norman motte, constructed in the late 11th or early 12th century (English Heritage).


Bede mentions a site called Cnobheresburg, which was granted to the Irish monk Fursey by King Sigebert of the East Angles as the site for a monastery in around 633:

[...]Fursey set himself with all speed to build a monastery on a site given him by King Sigbert [...] This monastery was pleasantly situated in some woods close to the sea, within the area of a fortification that the English call Cnobheresburg, meaning Cnobhere’s Town.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book III ch.19

The location of Cnobheresburg is uncertain. It was presumably in East Anglia, since King Sigebert was able to grant it to a monastery, and from Bede’s description it was some sort of fortification close to the coast. Bede’s phrase ‘within the area of’ may imply that it was a large fortification and the monastery did not occupy all of it. All this is consistent with Burgh Castle as a possible location for Cnobheresburg. The mid-seventh-century pottery and the sixth-to-tenth-century inhumation cemetery inside the fort are also indicative of occupation at the right sort of date, especially if the timber building beside the cemetery was a church.

However, there may have been other fortifications along the coast of East Anglia that would also fit Bede’s description and that have since been lost to coastal erosion (there was a Roman shore fort at Felixstowe, for example). Unless or until further evidence is found, the identification is open to interpretation.

St Foillan

Fursey’s brother St Foillan is said to have taken over as abbot of the monastery of Cnobheresburg and to have fled to Nivelles in what is now Belgium with the books, relics and remaining monks in 651 after Penda of Mercia invaded East Anglia and sacked the monastery (see Wikipedia article on St Foillan). If Cnobheresburg monastery was completely destroyed and abandoned in 651, this could be inconsistent with the date of the inhumation cemetery and the pottery at Burgh Castle, both of which suggest some form of occupation extending into the ninth or tenth century, well after St Foillan’s departure. However, it is possible that not all the monks left with St Foillan, or that others rebuilt the monastery after his departure (or that the story is unreliable; the source for it is a record from the monastery at Nivelles, and I do not know the date of the document or its reliability).


Nothing is known of Cnobhere. The second element of the personal name is ‘here’, meaning ‘army’, so it would be a suitable sort of name for a warlord, and a warlord is the sort of person one might expect to be associated with a fort, but this is pure speculation.

Since the name Cnobheresburg was established by the time the site was granted to Fursey, Cnobhere (whoever he was) presumably pre-dated the 630s. It is perhaps likely that he was long gone by then, or he might have objected to having his fort handed over to a monk, although he may have been a party to the transaction for all we know.

Church of St Peter and St Paul

The church of St Peter and St Paul stands just north of Burgh Castle Roman fort, an attractive small church with a round tower. The listed building record identifies the tower as late 11th century, with the rest of the church being later (British Listed Buildings). See earlier post for more details.

If the building near the cemetery inside the fort walls was an early church, the church on the current site may have replaced it at some point, perhaps when the fort site became unsuitable or was taken into use for some other purpose. Since the inhumation cemetery inside the walls has a date range in the sixth to tenth century, somewhere in or after the tenth century may be a likely time for the church to have moved. There are many possible reasons why the church might have relocated. I can think of at least three, and no doubt there are others:
  • The Viking raids of the ninth and tenth centuries, which hit East Anglia hard and may have led to abandonment of the monastery, with the church later rebuilt on a different site;

  • Norman takeover of the fortified area for the motte and bailey castle, requiring any church/monastery/inhabitants within the walls to move to a different site;

  • Collapse of the west wall of the fort – it is not known when the collapse happened, and it may have been sufficiently alarming an event to prompt relocation of the church in case the rest of the fort followed suit.


The various archaeological findings on the site of Burgh Castle Roman fort suggest a surprisingly long history:
  • third and fourth century use as a Roman military base;

  • hoard of expensive Roman- and German-style glassware, dated to the early fifth century and therefore buried at some (unknown) date after that;

  • ’pagan Saxon’ cremation cemetery on the site of the Roman military cemetery in the field east of the fort, date uncertain but probably somewhere around the fifth / sixth century;

  • traces of timber structures in the fort interior with pottery dated to the mid-seventh to ninth century;

  • inhumation cemetery in the fort interior, radiocarbon dated to the sixth to tenth century.

Between them, these take us almost up to the existing church tower at the nearby church of St Peter and St Paul (eleventh century). Burgh Castle may not have been inhabited continuously, but it seems reasonable to infer that it was in use at least on and off over several hundred years.

The monastery mentioned by Bede that was founded at Cnobheresburg in the early to mid seventh century is an obvious candidate for association with the inhumation cemetery and the timber structures and pottery inside the walls. The dates are reasonably consistent, assuming that Cnobheresburg did not cease to exist when St Foillan left in 651, and an inhumation cemetery is the sort of thing one would expect to find on a monastic site, especially if the associated timber building was a church. However, the identification of Burgh Castle with Cnobheresburg is not proven.

If Burgh Castle is the site of Cnobheresburg, it’s an attractive speculation (but no more than that) to associate Cnobhere, who gave his name to the site at some date before the 630s, with the hoard of glassware and/or with the early pagan Saxon cremation cemetery identified in the field east of the fort. This field was also the site of a Roman military cemetery. This does not necessarily indicate continuity of occupation. Roman cemeteries often had tombstones and mausolea, some of which may have remained standing for a long time. It is perfectly possible that the people who used the cremation cemetery arrived on the site after the fort had been abandoned, recognised the Roman cemetery as a burial place – or simply as unsuitable for agriculture because of the standing remains – and used it as an appropriate place to inter their own dead. In this scenario, one could imagine Cnobhere as the leader of a group of Anglian raiders-turned-settlers (like the later Norse), who took over the fort and made it his base, either having found it abandoned or having evicted the previous inhabitants. However, the re-use of the Roman cemetery may also be consistent with continuity of occupation. The Roman garrison could have handed over to a replacement garrison of federate troops, who brought a different funeral rite with them. Or possibly the Roman garrison or their descendants simply changed the funerary rite they chose to use, possibly to reflect a change in their perceived identity. In such a scenario one could imagine the eponymous Cnobhere as the last Roman commander (the Late Roman Army had Germanic officers in high command) or his descendant, the sort of person who could have owned a hoard of expensive Late Roman glassware, deciding to go into business for himself as a local ruler when orders and supplies stopped arriving from HQ, and signalling his independent status by changes in social customs, including (but not necessarily limited to) the preferred funeral rites. Something similar may have happened at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, with a change in building structure to a warlord-style timber hall on the site of the fort granary, as discussed in earlier posts here and here. I need hardly add that this is speculative.

Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
British Listed Buildings, available online
English Heritage listing, available online

27 September, 2011

September recipe: Plum sponge pudding

Late plums, such as the variety Marjorie’s Seedling, are still in season in September, and make excellent puddings. Plum sponge pudding is simple and delicious, and can be eaten hot or cold according to the weather. Here’s the recipe:

Plum sponge pudding

1 lb oz (approx 450 g) plums
4 oz (approx 100 g) sugar
4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
2 eggs

Halve and stone the plums.

Grease a heatproof dish and put the plums in the bottom. The fruit should come no more than halfway up the sides of the dish, or the juices may boil over during cooking.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Beat in the eggs.

Stir in the flour, and mix thoroughly until smooth. It should just drop off the spoon.

Spread the sponge mixture over the plums.

Bake in a hot oven at around 180 C for 25-30 minutes until the sponge is risen and golden brown. Some of the plum juice will probably bubble up through the sponge during cooking.

Serve hot or cold with cream, ice-cream, natural yoghurt or custard.

If there is any left over, it will keep in an airtight container for two or three days at room temperature.

I usually expect to get about 6 portions out of this recipe.

18 September, 2011

Kingdom of Summer, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed: Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4022-4072-0. 329 pages. Advance review copy supplied by publisher.

Kingdom of Summer is the second in Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, sequel to Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier). The story still revolves around Gwalchmai (Sir Gawain in the later legends), though it is narrated by his (fictional) servant Rhys ap Sion. Many of the characters are figures from the legends, including Morgause, her husband King Lot of Orkney, their sons Gwalchmai and Agravain, Morgause’s illegitimate son Medraut, Arthur’s knights Cei and Bedwyr, and Arthur himself. Maelgwn Gwynedd, historical king of Gwynedd in the early to mid sixth century, appears as a secondary character*. The central character, Rhys ap Sion, and an Irish servant girl called Eivlin are fictional.

Rhys ap Sion is a freeborn farmer, peaceably working his family’s land near the River Severn. When a wounded warrior, Gwalchmai ap Lot, seeks hospitality at the farm in a bitter winter, Rhys feels drawn to him and goes with him as his servant to Arthur’s stronghold at Camlann and then on a diplomatic mission to Maelgwn Gwynedd. There Rhys encounters Gwalchmai’s sinisterly beautiful mother Morgause and suave brother Medraut, not to mention their attractive Irish serving girl Eivlin. As Rhys learns more of the dark secrets haunting Gwalchmai’s past, he comes to realise that the schemes afoot threaten not only Gwalchmai but Arthur’s kingdom itself.

Fantasy is less dominant in Kingdom of Summer than in Hawk of May, a plus point for me. Gwalchmai still has his magical Otherworld sword and horse, and supernatural duels and healing miracles feature in the plot, but for me the strongest aspect of the novel was the interplay between the characters. Apart from Morgause, who is evil incarnate (as expected from her role in the previous book), everyone has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Gwalchmai is at first sight the ideal hero of legend, brave, courteous and near-invincible in battle, but he is haunted by his not-entirely-honourable treatment of a woman several years earlier, and he is endearingly hopeless at practical matters such as obtaining food and shelter. Agravain is a complete contrast, brash, arrogant, inclined to casual violence and not given to thinking if he can help it, but also likeable in his ebullience. Medraut is a contrast again, charming, subtle and persuasive. The conflicts between the three Orkney brothers are sharply drawn, and test Rhys’s loyalty to Gwalchmai.

Rhys himself, as the narrator, is a central character in the novel, and the tale is as much his as Gwalchmai’s. A hard-headed farmer – both literally and figuratively – he is rather out of his depth in the world of warrior honour and Otherworldly weapons, and his down-to-earth common sense is both a support and a contrast to Gwalchmai’s rather abstract concerns. The Irish girl Eivlin is a delight. Her first line, on being asked where she got that kettle, is to reply, “A hen laid it in the rafters, having been affrighted in a coppersmith’s shop”, which sold me straight away. In her own way, she demonstrates as much courage and loyalty as any of the warriors.

There are two distinct plot strands, Gwalchmai’s search for the woman he wronged and Morgause’s evil schemes to destroy Arthur and all he stands for. The first is resolved – although there is, I think, scope for it to reappear – and the second is clearly setting up for a climax in the last book of the trilogy. I shall be interested to see how it plays out.

There’s a sketch map in the front for anyone who is unfamiliar with the geography of Arthurian Britain, although not all the place names are marked and Less Britain appears to be placed in modern Picardy and Normandy rather than its more usual location in modern Brittany. The ARC has no historical or author’s note, although there may be one in the finished version. Not that it matters greatly, because the Arthurian legends have been told and retold so many times that they have near-limitless scope for interpretation.

Second in an engaging fantasy trilogy retelling the story of Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) of Arthurian legend.

*Although Maelgwn is dated to the early to mid sixth century (died in 547), I’m not sure that Kingdom of Summer is intended as set in the same period; Maelgwn may have been displaced earlier in time to make him contemporary with Arthur’s heyday. The author’s note for Hawk of May commented that ‘the novel is only partially historical’, so chronology is not that important.

14 September, 2011

Author Michael Dean – book signings and talk in Colchester and Chelmsford

Michael Dean, author of The Crooked Cross (reviewed here in 2009), will be signing copies of his new novel, Thorn, at Waterstones in Chelmsford on Saturday 17 September 2011 12 noon – 2 pm.

Michael will also be giving a talk about the book and signing copies at Colchester Library on Saturday 24 September 2011, 11 am – 12 noon.

Thorn is published by Bluemoose Books, ISBN 9780956687647. It’s a historical novel set in mid-17th-century Amsterdam, and featuring the philosopher Spinoza and the artist Rembrandt.

Here’s the blurb:

THORN is a Rabelaisian tour through Amsterdam in the mid-17th Century and very, very funny.

In 1656, at the height of The Dutch Golden Age, two giants of European culture meet: philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a Jew of Portuguese descent, and Rembrandt van Rijn, the greatest Dutch Master, find themselves inextricably linked through a failed mercantile venture and membership of the freethinking ‘Waterlanders’ which, in challenging the Calvinist doctrine of the day, pits them against the authorities in Amsterdam.

I’ve read THORN and I think it’s an astonishing book; very powerful, exciting, disturbing and also very funny. It is true to the ideas of its great protagonists Spinoza and Rembrandt and makes the parallel that their lives were made almost impossible because they both sought the truth. It’s a powerful, shocking and moving story of religious intolerance and, as such, more relevant today than it might appear on the surface. DAVID NOBBS

So if you're in the Chelmsford or Colchester area of Essex, UK, over the next couple of weekends, you may like to go along. I expect to review Thorn here in due course (I have a copy on order but it hasn't arrived yet).

01 September, 2011

Fire in the East, by Harry Sidebottom. Book review

Penguin, 2009. ISBN 978-0-141-03229-0. 391 pages

Set in 255-256 AD, mainly in the Roman frontier city of Arete (Dura Europos) on the River Euphrates in modern Syria. The central character, Ballista, is based on a historical Roman officer, although little is known about the historical figure. The Roman Emperors Maximinus Thrax, Gallienus and Valaerian, and the Persian King Shapur, are historical figures who appear briefly or have an important off-stage presence. All the other main characters are fictional. The siege of Arete is a real event, known from some remarkable archaeological discoveries (see the Wikipedia page).

Originally sent to Rome as a diplomatic hostage for his father, chief of the Angles in what is now southern Denmark, Ballista has risen to high command in the Roman Army. His career has taken him to the frontiers of the Empire on the Danube and in the far west. Now he is on his way to face the Empire’s greatest threat of all, the Sassanid Persians in the east. Posted to the frontier city of Arete on the River Euphrates, last outpost of the Roman Empire, Ballista is given the title Dux Ripae (War-leader of the Riverbanks) and charged with defending the city against the expected Persian invasion. But Ballista has few troops to strengthen the city’s depleted garrison. Watching the Persians’ enormous army mass before the gates of Arete, Ballista knows that to hold the city with the limited resources at his command will take a feat of military genius – or a miracle. And to make matters worse, there is at least one murderous traitor at large in the city, intent on sabotage, assassination and betraying Arete to the Persians...

This is a military adventure with plenty of action – naval battles, desert ambush, assault and siege engineering – reflecting the author’s background as an academic expert on ancient warfare. At first, the pace is leisurely to slow, as Ballista and his staff travel across the Mediterranean in a trireme on the way to Syria to take up his appointment. This section felt like something of a travelogue, perhaps because it is so clearly a prelude to whatever is going to happen when Ballista takes up his command, although it gives the reader time to get to know the main characters and introduces some of the various religions and cultures. Once they reach Arete and begin the preparations for the city’s defence the pace picks up, and when the siege itself gets underway it becomes positively gripping. The last half of the book, as the Persians try various ingenious methods to take the city and Ballista’s defenders try equally ingenious methods to stop them, reminds me a little of Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings (and in case anyone is wondering, that’s a compliment). The mounting evidence of a traitor, or traitors, in the city adds to the growing menace of the Persian army outside to ratchet the tension ever higher. As the narrative is told in third person from a variety of points of view, the reader sometimes knows things that the main characters do not, which also helps to build suspense. Ballista is both intelligent and highly experienced, so he is always trying to out-think the Persians as well as out-fight them – and the Persians in turn are always trying to out-think him. If you have even the slightest interest in military engineering and have wondered how artillery, assault towers, siege ramps, battering rams and mines were used in practice, this is a book for you.

Contrasting cultures, opinions and religions are well drawn. Arete has a mix of classical paganism, various Eastern religions and Christianity, and a Persian slave boy provides a zealous description of the Persians’ religion. Ballista’s religious beliefs from his childhood among the Angles are based on Tacitus’ Germania and Norse mythology (in the total absence of any sources in between), so don’t be surprised to encounter the Viking gods in this novel; if anything, the slightly incongruous note helps to reinforce Ballista’s situation as an outsider to patrician Roman society. The prose style is straightforward modern English with a generous helping of modern four-letter words, sprinkled with archaic terminology for period colour and with an attractive line in sardonic humour.

The ‘end’ of the novel is clearly only a pause leading into further adventures, and the historical notes in the Appendix make it clear that at least two more novels will continue Ballista’s story. The half-century or so between 235 AD and about 285 AD is sometimes called the ‘Third-century crisis’, reflecting the many political and military upheavals that shook the Roman Empire as it got into a habit of losing battles and rattled through short-lived Emperors like a bored child through a toy box. It’s a period with plenty of scope for drama, and as it is also a poorly documented period – possibly because everyone was too busy trying to stay alive and on the right side of the chaotic politics to write anything down – very little is known about it so the scope for historical fiction is similarly immense. The author comments in his historical note that one of his academic colleagues congratulated him on his choice of setting because “...so little is known for sure that no-one could prove me wrong.”

Nevertheless, as the author says, he has taken care with the historical background. Even when events and people are not known with any certainty and have to be invented, something is often known in broad terms about the world in which the story takes place, such as technology, trade routes, material culture and so on. A detailed Appendix gives a brief introduction to the known history, people and places, together with suggestions for further reading. A list of characters may help to keep the cast straight, although I found the writing sufficiently clear that I did not need to refer to it, and a detailed glossary defines most of the period terminology for readers unfamiliar with the setting. Two maps at the front of the novel are invaluable for understanding the geography and the detailed progress of the siege.

Gripping military adventure set against the dramatic background of the Roman third-century crisis in the Near and Middle East.