The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


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Tintagel Head Celtic Monastery, Cornwall

Map of Tintagel Island in Cornwall.

Map of Tintagel Island in Cornwall.

   OS Grid Reference: SX 05003 89064. On the rocky, windlashed headland of Tintagel-Head, in Corn-wall, near the ruins of Tintagel Castle which was built in c 1145, are the scant foundations of what was considered to be a Celtic monastery, dating from the beginning of the 6th century AD. This was probably a high-status Dark Age monastery with royal connections. There are also the walls of a 12th century chapel of St Julitta which is attached to the monastic buildings. It has always been assumed that the monastery here on Tintagel Head was founded in 500 AD by St Juliot, Julitta, or Julianta, a princess who hailed from south Wales, and might be one and the same as St Uletta. Tintagel Castle has long had “romantic” associations with King Arthur and Merlin the Magician. Today the monastic remains lie on Tintagel Island, which is all but cut-off from the rest of the headland where the castle ruins are situated. There is limited access from the castle to Tintagel Island through a deep chasm in the headlands via a footpath and bridge, but its very precarious and great care “should” be taken, especially if weather conditions are against you.

   The monastic site here at the south side of Tintagel Island, with its rectangular-shaped buildings all joined together, was excavated in the 1920s and 30s by C. A. Raleagh Radford (1900-1999) – at which time it was thought to be a high status Celtic monastery, but more recently a few historians have opted for the possibility that it might have been a trading centre due, perhaps, to the large amounts of pottery (known as Tintagel Pottery) found at the site, says Geoffrey Ashe ‘A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain’. Another large building (site E) that was a part of the monastery lies beneath a garden, while other little clusters of buildings (sites B.C. and F) lie to the S and SE of the main monastic site, which is known as site A. These clusters of buildings were probably the monastery’s farm and stables. By the 9th century it seems the monastery here at Tintagel was abandoned, its buildings left to go back to nature and the mists of time, but to be re-invigorated again in the 1920s by an archaeological dig! 

   There is a lot of very good field information on the Celtic monastery at Tintagel in the work ‘The Quest for Arthur’s Britain’, edited by Geoffrey Ash. It says that with regard to excavations on the island: “These excavations showed that the headland of Tintagel had been the site of an extensive Celtic monastery. Four different phases identified in one of the buildings indicated a long period of occupation. Imported pottery from the east Mediterranean established an initial date in the fifth or early sixth century. A silver penny of King Alfred (871-99)—the latest artifact antedating the castle—may represent no more than the loss by a pilgrim to a deserted oratory which was no longer the centre of a living community. Pottery of the twelfth century and later, though relatively common on this site, was never found in the layers associated with the monastery.

   “The Celtic monastery of Tintagel was bounded on the landward side by an earthen bank, now crowned by the thirteenth-century curtain, and by a broad, flat-bottomed ditch. The upper part of the existing bank is a twelfth-century heightening, but the base, some 30 feet across and 8 feet high, dates from the fifth or sixth century. Like its medieval successor, the monastic bank ran from the edge of the scarp overlooking the eastern valley to within a short  distance of the protruding boss of rock, leaving the same narrow entry. Early texts often speak of the monastic vallum, a term indicating the enclosure which fenced in the cashel or settlement occupied by the community. It seems always to have been a physical barrier, an earthen bank, a rampart of turf or a hedge. But it also had a spiritual meaning, separating the city of God from the world outside.

   “Within the enclosure the monastery consisted of groups of buildings, each with its special function. Eight such groups were located, of which six were explored and planned; the other two had been too far destroyed by the medieval castle. Two further sites were noted in folds of the cliff, and others probably await identification.

Plan of Celtic monastery at Tintagel, Cornwall.

Plan of Celtic monastery at Tintagel, Cornwall.

   “The first and largest site examined lay on the eastern edge of the plateau; it was centred on the twelfth-century chapel. The Celtic site consisted of a long range of buildings facing east on to a court which was bounded on the far side by the cliff, here forming the edge of the plateau. The range was approached from the south by a path running along the edge of the plateau; this is now reached by a modern zigzag approach rising up from the inner ward of the castle. The original way is likely to have been along the plateau, which has here been destroyed by the encroachment of the sea. At the south end of the range of buildings, a small square room thrust forward from the general line, together with the stub of a wall, suggest a gate with a lodge providing access to the court. With the court, a much-ruined stretch of walling immediately south of the later chapel is probably part of an older oratory. Beside it is the base of a square block of masonry, a tomb shrine or leacht. These tomb shrines are a normal feature in Celtic cemeteries; they housed the relics of saints or founders.

   “On the far side of the chapel a number of graves have been discovered. The oratory with the tomb of the saint would be the primary objective of visiting pilgrims. In its immediate vicinity one would expect to find the various buildings catering for their needs. There would be a treasury containing other relics, perhaps possessions of the saint. There would also be a sacristy, where the vessels needed for the service of the oratory would be stored. A guesthouse for the refreshment of pilgrims might also be found in this area, together with rooms needed by those members of the community charged with the care both of the pilgrims and of the lay community, of which the pastoral care was the responsibility of the monastery.

   “On this basis, it may tentatively be suggested that the southern end of the range, with a large central hall and smaller rooms grouped on one side and to the back, represents the guesthouse. The central part, now appearing as a single room, has been much damaged by the later chapel. Originally it may well have been subdivided, and here, in the vicinity of the oratory, one might expect the treasury and sacristy. This would leave the smaller rooms at the north end for the needs of those members of the community whose duties were with the lay world. This range had a long history. Four distinct building phases could be recognized. Normally the phases indicated adaption, while retaining the main structure of older date. Even so, a life of some three centuries is not likely to be too long for the existence of this community, and it could well have been in being for a far longer period.”

   And what about the founder/foundress of the Celtic monastery on Tintagel Head. Who was St Juliot or Julitta? The thinking is that the founder was St Uletta (Ilid). She was, according to legend, one of the many daughters of King Brychan Brycheaniog and was the founder of the first church at Llanilid, Mid-Glamorgan, in Wales, and is commemorated there with St Curig. In c 500 AD she went with other members of her family to Cornwall. We know that she was close, spiritually, to her sister St Morwenna and her brother St Nectan. It seems, however, that in Cornwall her original name was St Juliana (Iludiana) and over time the name became Juliot and Julitta; and soon after her arrival in Cornwall she established the monastic community at Tintagel.

   But St Juliot has been much confused with an early 4th century Christian martyr called St Julitta, who was commemorated with her three-year-old son St Cyricus in the west country. Their cultus was brought to Cornwall in the Middle Ages. St Juliot, however, is perhaps the patroness of Luxulyan church, Cornwall, with a feastday on the sunday nearest 29th June, according to David Farmer ‘Oxford Dictionary Of Saints’.  In Cornwall St Juliot (Julitta) is sometimes referred to as a “martyr” due to confusion, again, with the 4th century saint of the same name. St Juliot is also commemorated at Lanteglos-by-Camelford, Cornwall, where a holy well is named for her. And St Juliot in the Valency Valley, north-east Cornwall, is named after the saint. A few historians have suggested that St Juliot was, in fact, a male saint! St Julitta’s feastday at Llanilid church in Mid Glamorgan, Wales, is given as 30th June.

Sources and related websites:

Ashe, Geoffrey,  A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain, Longman Group Limited, London, 1980.

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary Of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004.

http://www.archaeology.co.uk/specials/the-timeline-of-britain/tintagel.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Ilid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Juliot

http://www.thisisnorthcornwall.co.uk/king_arthur.html

Jones, Sally, Legends of Cornwall, Bossiney Books, St Teath, Bodmin, Cornwall, 1980. 

Spencer, Ray, A Guide to the Saints Of Wales and the West Country, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1991.

The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, (Edited by Geoffrey Ashe), Paladin Frogmore, St Albans, Herts, 1976.

Westwood, Jennifer, Gothick Cornwall, Shire Publications Ltd., Princess Risborough, Bucks, 1992.

                                                                 © Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.

 


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St Eithne’s Grave, Eileach An Naoimh, Argyll and Bute, Inner Hebrides

Aethne's Grave on Eileach an Naoimh (photo credit: Gordon Doughty Geograph)

Aethne’s Grave on Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Doughty (Geograph)

    OS grid reference: NM 6302 0964. The little Scottish island of Eileach-an-Naoimh (Rock of the Saint) is one of the Garvellach Islands, in the Firth of Lorne, and is the reputed burial place of St Eithne, mother of St Columba, making it a ‘holy island’. On this very remote, windswept island are the scant remains of a Celtic monastery with beehive huts, two chapels and a graveyard with three crosses, and 80 metres to the south-west is the traditional site of St Eithne’s grave, which is marked by a grave-slab bearing an incised cross. In old texts the island was called Hinba. And to this little island St Columba and other ‘saintly’ figures came from time to time for a deeper solitude and contemplation – this fact being borne-out because the island was, and still is, largerly inaccessible. There are no ferries or steamers alighting in Port Cholumcille, but some pilgrims do visit the island and pay their respects at St Eithne’s grave, though they have to hire their own boats! The island of Mull is 6 miles to the north and Scarba 4 miles to the south-west, while the mainland of Argyll is 6 miles away.

    Author Reginald B. Hale in his work ‘The Magnificent Gael’, tells us that: “Eithne came of the royal line of Leinster kings. Her husband Felim macFergus was a chieftain of the dynastic family of Ui Neill, heirs of the mighty Niall-of-the-Nine Hostages, High king of Ireland. So their little son was born a prince of the Blood Royal and would inevitably live his life in the glare of the political limelight. His parents had every reason to hope that someday he might hold the scepter of the High King and reign at Tara.

    “But the child also had another heritage. His great-great-grandfather Niall had been a heathen and an unabashed slave raider. However several of his sons had been converted by St Patrick, the ex-slave who brought Christianity to the Irish. One of these sons was Conall Gulben, king of Donegal. St Patrick with his staff marked a cross on King Conall’s shield and from then on his descendants took as their symbol a Hand grasping a Cross. From the time of his conversion his clan had been staunch for the faith. So it was that Felim macFergus, grandson of Conall, was himself a deacon of the Church and his son was born into a devout Christian family.”

    Hale goes on to say that: “Felim and Eithne took their child six miles to Kilmacrenan to be baptized by the priest Cruithnechan which is pronounced “Crenan”. He was christened Colum, which in Latin is Columba. He also received the traditional family name of Crimthann that means a fox, an animal admired by the Gaels.”

    But we know that Columba was born beside Lough Gartan in Co Donegal (521 AD) where there are the Medieval ruins of what is locally called St Eithne’s Convent. And there is a St Eithne’s Well at Termon. The site of St Columba’s birth, near the southern shore of the lough, is marked by the so-called ‘Natal Stone’, and nearby are the saint’s holy well, the Stone of Lonliness, and the saint’s ruined church. His birth was miraculous we are told. St Eithne had a dream in which she was given a beautiful robe with colours similar to the wild flowers, but the wind blew the robe away. However, the wind-blown robe grew in size and spread out to cover the land, mountains and islands – this being a sort of divine portent regarding her son who would eventually take Christianity to the northern Pictish High King, Brude, and his people sometime after 565 AD – at a time that was “dark” in many respects, but for St Columba it was a time of ‘great joyfulness’.

    In 563 AD Columba set sail for Iona and was accompanied by members of his family including his mother and also disciples and servants. Later, he founded a great monastery on the island which became a college of learning; he took the message of Christ to the Picts and established many other monasteries and churches in Scotland. His mother retired to the Island of Hinba (Eileach-an-Naoimh) where she was cared for by Ernan, who was St Columba’s uncle and also prior of the monastery of Hinba, founded by St Brendan. Women were not allowed in the monastery. St Eithne died and was buried on the island in the mid to late 6th century. Her ‘reputed’ grave is located on the Peak of Hinba, 80 metres south-west of the monastery, where a circular enclosure (11 feet in diameter) with three standing stones marks the site, one of these being a grave-marker (2½ feet high) bearing a thin equal-armed Greek cross with terminals, beneath which is a thinner spike. And there are a number of recumbent stones and a kerb running around the site. The grave seems to be positioned so as to look out over the Firth of Lorne.

    But some historians question the grave-site. A few think that it may in fact date from the Iron-Age, or earlier, and others think it may be the burial site of more than one person? But I think it should be pointed out here that the type of burial that was around in prehistoric times was more than likely to have existed well into the early Christian period – the so-called Dark Ages of the 5th-7th centuries AD.

The Monastery Chapel, Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Brown, Wikipedia.

Monastery Chapel, Eileach an Naoimh by Gordon Brown, Wikipedia.

    The monastery on Eileach-an-Naoimh often ascribed to St Brendan, rather than St Columba, is a ruin consisting of low drystone walls with a number of bee-hive huts (hermits cells) around it, one of which is a double construction. There are two small ruined chapels that are said to date from the 9th-12th centuries and a graveyard with three stones bearing incised crosses, and also a circular feature that is probably an early Christian grave, maybe that of Ernan the first prior? The monastery was probably burned c 800 AD and thereafter it suffered from a number of attacks by invaders from overseas, including the Vikings. The monastic site on Eileach an Naoimh is probably the oldest religious ruin in Scotland.

Sources:

Hale, Reginald B., The Magnificent Gael, R.B.Hale, Otawa, Canada, 1976.

http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2014435    © Copyright Gordon Doughty and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

https://canmore.org.uk/site/22364/garvellachs-eileach-an-naoimh

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eileach_an_Naoimh   Photo by Gordon Brown Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0

Newton, Norman., The Shell Guide To The Islands Of Britain, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1992. 

The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, 1963.


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Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, by Edward White

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (photo by wilson44691 - Wikipedia)

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire (photo by: wilson44691 – Wikipedia)

    OS grid reference: NZ 9030 1122. On the headland of the east-cliff (up the famous 199 steps) and above the seaside town of Whitby, north Yorkshire, stand the formidable ruins of Whitby Abbey, which was initially founded as a priory sometime after 1078 by Reinfrith, then in c 1105 it became a Benedictine abbey. It was finally dissolved on 14th December, 1539. On the same site back in 657-58 AD an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded by Oswy, the King of Northumbria. This ‘then’ became a double monastery for both men and women and was headed by St Hilda (614-680 AD), a Saxon princess who had travelled ‘here’ from Hartlepool at the request of the king; Hilda being the daughter of a prince by the name of Hereic, who was apparently poisoned in 616 AD.

    In 663 AD the famous ‘Synod (Council) of Whitby’ took place at the monastery itself and, was significant in that it brought together both the  Celtic and Roman churches! In 867 AD the Saxon monastery of Whitby was destroyed by Viking raiders. The majestic ruins of Whitby Abbey that we see today date, for the most part, from the mid 13th century. St Hilda (Hild) died on the 17th November (her feast-day) in 680 AD – her passing being mentioned by the Venerable Bede and ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’. In the Dark Ages Whitby was called ‘Streonshall’ and continued to be called that until at least the Viking Invasion in the 9th century, but probably the old name continued to be used long after that.

    The following ‘Whitby Abbey’, which I will quote” in full is taken from ‘Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire’, 1993, an excellent compilation of work by Edward White – that was first edited by him whilst residing in London (1883) – and then published in the antiquarian work ‘Old Yorkshire’, in 5 volumes. White says:- 

“This famous Abbey was founded by Lady Hilda, whose death took place twelve-hundred years ago, and an enquiry into the special circum-stances which induced her to build the Abbey opens up an interesting chapter in ancient local and general history. This will be seen when we consider what England was when Hilda’s Abbey and College first arose, a lighthouse above the ocean — waters in the seventh century — when it first shone like a Pharos over the old kingdom of Deira, which was one of the chief provinces of the kingdom of darkness.”

“England was, from North to South, along its whole eastern side, and far up in the Midland Counties, a thoroughly heathen country, and had been heathen for 200 years preceding, ever since the departure of the Romans. What makes this fact so striking and terrible is that during the 400 years of the Roman Dominion, nearly the whole country had been evangelized. St Ninian, after whom one of Whitby’s churches is named, was a Scottish nobleman educated in Rome, who became one of the chief evangelists of the ancient races during the Roman times. The British tribes, and their neighbours, the Irish people, had thus early received the Gospel. When the Saxons came and saw, and conquered Britain, they restored heathenism over the whole area of their conquests. It was almost as if any army of Hindoos should now land in England, vanquish the inhabitants, drive the remnant towards the West, and establish Indian idolatry on the ruins of our Christianity. We are the descendants of those Saxon heathens, and we still call our week-days after the names of their impure gods and goddesses, Sun-day, Moon-day, Tuisca’s day, Woden’s, Thor’s day, Freyga’s day—a fearful memorial of the overflow of the ancient British Christianity.”

St Hilda's Statue at Whitby (photo credit Wilson44691 for Wikipedia)

St Hilda’s Statue (photo Wilson 44691 for Wikipedia)

“The conquered Britons retired westward, fighting all the way, into Cornwall, into Devonshire, into Wales, into Cumberland, and Westmoreland, and Lancashire; and they took their Christianity and civilization with them, leaving behind a vast and awful night of  barbarous Saxon paganism—of paganism with its ignorance, ferocity, blood-thirstiness, drunkenness, and lust. Eastern and Midland England for 200 years, from the time of Hengist to the time of Hilda, was full of ferocious tribes, battling all along the west with the remnant of the British aborigines, and battling just as fiercely with each other. When St Hilda was a young woman all central England, or Mercia, was held by a savage Pagan Sovereign named Penda, 80 years of age, a sort of Saxon Cetewayo, master of a powerful army, who for fifty years had made a war upon his neighbours. And it was in consequence of the destruction of this terrible old Pagan warrior by King Oswy at Winwidfield, near Leeds, in 655, that Hilda was enabled in 658 to found her abbey. Penda had previously slain King Oswald in the west, and hanged his mangled body aloft at Oswald’s tree, now Oswestry.” 

“A monastery of the ancient ages is often thought of as necessarily an abode of idleness, and even of licentiousness. Such no doubt many of the religious houses at last became, and even this great Benedictine house at Whitby among the number in its latter days. Its present ruin is, according to Dr. Young, the visible punishment of the sins of its lates inmates. But in the earlier centuries a great monastery was often a stronghold of the good cause against the powers of darkness—and this mighty foundation of Hilda’s was among the noblest in England. Its purpose can hardly be understood, unless we remember that in the first half of the seventh century, there was in all Europe no more awful Aceldama and “abomination of desolation” than this northern part of England. The Saxon Heathen and Pictish Highlanders, had repeatedly laid the land waste in their wars, and made its rivers flow with blood. The country was scarred with the black marks  of conflagrations of farms and homesteads. Deira invaded Mercia, and old Mercian Penda invaded Deira again and again. Bernicia invaded Lancashire and North Wales, and North Wales invaded Bernicia and Deira, or Northumberland and Yorkshire. All the history of these parts that remains is the history of cruelty, wrong, and bloodshed. No power but one could save and civilize Saxon heathenism, and turn this hell of the angles into a paradise. That power was Christianity.”

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960's)

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960’s)

“The kings had begun to hear of what Christianity had done for other states  and nations in Europe, and they were growing weary of their own wars and miseries. The monasteries which arose in that age, in the midst of the forests and open countries, were, then, strongholds of Christianity and civilization. A great monastery well placed aloft, like Cassino or Streonshall, and wisely and holily governed, was a Bethesda or Pool of Mercy with many porches. It was (1) a Temple for the worship of the living and eternal God, amidst the grotesque and degrading horrors of paganism, where the light of truth shone on high over the pagan pande-monium. (2) It was a place of education for both sexes. The Princess Hilda, grand-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria, founded here (after the modern American fashion) a college and school for both sexes, for both monks and nuns. Many of these were persons, like Hilda, well on in life and weary of the world; some of these were young, some even almost boys and girls. Her first charge was the little Princess Elfreda, well-born on her mother’s side; for there had been a succession of Christian Queens. First, Bertha, a French Princess, married Ethelbert, the King of Kent, and brought Christianity with her. Their daughter was Ethelburga, who married King Edwin in the great well-built Roman city of York, the capital of his kingdom of Deira. There daughter was Eanfleda, who married King Oswy, still a heathen; and their child was Elfreda, who was educated as a Christian at Whitby. In three cases Christianity came with the wife to a pagan husband. Who could say how great a blessing, or how great a curse, every young woman carries with her in her marriage, according as she is a loving wife and worshipper of God, or a heathen-ish worldling. Thus a monastery was a College and a School, and often had a learned Library. We still possess the catalogue of good books in manuscript, which this Abbey treasured up in the 12th century, beginning with the Bible. Part of the work of the place always was to copy good books, the priceless legacies of elder times, as it is now a good work to give or to lend them. A monastery inspired by such persons as Hilda and her fellow-workers was next a great mission centre, whence educated men went forth on foot to evangelise the neighbouring villages and towns; and many were the cells and village churches which were set up by the godly monks from Whitby College.”

“The noble St Chad, or Ceadda, of Lindisfarne, was often here; and so holy and laborious a worker and walker was he, that the people in after-times fancied that a healing virtue remained in the springs and pools where he baptized the heathen Saxons whom he converted; so that the name of “St. Chad’swell,” or Shadwell, is found over half of England, and has reached as far as London. For long Ceadda’s central abode was at Lastringham, beyond Pickering; and afterwards, in his last days when full of years and honours, he was made the Bishop of Litchfield, the first  of a series of eighty, ending with Bishop Maclagan.” 

3.  A monastery was also a great school of medicine, and place of healing. There were stored up all manner of receipts, wise and unwise, for the medical use of plants and treatment of wounds. And thence went forth elder Sisters of Mercy, to nurse the poor people of Whitby 1200 years ago”

“4.  A great monastery was a fountain of civilization in all the useful arts, such as agriculture and gardening. The best intelligence of the time was frequently brought to bear on the culture of a great abbey’s  possessions. It was also a school of the fine artsof music, singing, painting, and preeminently of architecture. It was likewise a school of  poetry, for here Caedmon sang his inspired song of the creation, and commended to the semi-barbarous Saxons divine ideas in strains that echoed far and wide over Saxon England, and gave prophetic hints of Miltons of the future yet to come.”

“And (5) lastly, a great monastery was a visible monument of all the Past Divine History of the world, as well as a written prophecy of a better kingdom to come.”

“All this was in the design of the Princess Hilda, when she planted her great Abbey upon these heights; and since she was, beyond all reasonable doubt, a devoted Christian, her object was in a great measure realized. For the great church and college of Whitby became to Yorkshire, and far beyond it, a fountain of salvation. Her religion was clothed in the idiom, the ceremonial, the con-ceptions of her own day; and much of that external investure was no doubt the growth of ages of gradual departure from the apostolic model. But what a grand and noble woman was this, who kindled so great a light on that sublime eminence, the memory of whose noble works was powerful enough 400 years after her death, to create another race of men to  rebuild the fallen in new splendor on the very site of her earlier enterprise.”

Now arose the early monasteries of Canterbury, of Glastonbury, of Streonshall—to this last king Oswy assisting  by the gift to Hilda of twelve manors, prompted thereto by the remorseful desires of a heart that repented itself of its previous blood-stained and violent career. Now hence-forth the figure of the Princess Hilda rises on her sacred hill, towering aloft above the desolated villages of Saxon Deira, a true messenger of peace to the troubled people. Her monastery continued for 200 years to be the central light amongst this darkness; and the gleam that shone through the rounded windows of her humble early church was truly a light of life to the Saxons. Then, as you know,  followed in the 9th century the complete destruction of the first modest and mostly wooden fabric by the Danish pirates, and an utter desolation of Streonshall for 200 years, indeed until after the Norman conquest. Then the Norman Percys, moved by the horrors of William the Conqueror’s desolation of Yorkshire—as Hilda had been moved 400 years before by the similar horrors of the Saxon war Desolations—began the re-building of the Abbey and Monastery, of which, and its subsequent additions, we can see the noble ruins to day.”

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

“Now again 400 years followed of growing magnificence, of cease-less worship, of holy song, devout study, of strenuous labour by twenty-five generations of the black-robed Benedictine monks among the surrounding towns and villages; and alas, of increasing superstition, increasing depravation of manners, increasing sloth and forgetfulness of God, until the crisis was reached of the Tudor reigns; when the voice of England, thundering indignantly like a northern tempest against the apostate church, supported Henry VIII in the dissolution and plunder of the Abbeys, then possessed of at least one-third of the cultivated land of the kingdom, and ruin fell upon Streonshall, with its precincts full of the dust of saints and kings, in the just judgment of God.”

Sources:-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitby_Abbey

https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilda_de_Whitby

Smith, William., Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire, (orig. edt. by William Smith, 1882-3. Selected & Edt. by Dawn Robinson-Walsh, 1993), Printwise Publications, Tottington, Bury, Lancs., 1993. [Stories & Tales of Old Yorkshire selected from the work ‘Old Yorkshire’ 5 vols, 1882-3.]

 


Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, Southern Ireland

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Church, Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Irish grid reference: Q 4030 0620. Just off the R559 Cois Farraige (or the Carrig) road to the east of Murreagh on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry, stands the 7th century Kilmalkedar Monastic Site, also known as Cill Malcheadair. Here we find a small 12th century roofless Romanesque church, a rare Dark Age sundial, an Ogham and Latin inscribed stone and some cross-inscribed slabs, one of which is called ‘the Alphabet Stone’ and, there are some pre-Christian holed ‘balaun’ stones, holy wells and early medieval grave-markers – in what is a ‘very’ beautiful and holy setting in the far south-west of County Kerry, some 5 miles north-west of Dingle on the R559 road.

The first church and a monastery, were established here at Kilmalkedar in c 600 AD by St Maolcethair (Maolcedar), the son of an Irish king (of Ulster). A building called ‘St Brendan’s House’, actually an oratory, can also be found here and, close by the pilgrims’ road (Cosan na Naomh) leads on to Mount Brandon from where St Brendan departed for foreign lands in the mid 6th century. About 1 mile to the south-west of Kilmalkedar is the famous boat-shaped building known as ‘the Gallarus Oratory’, which dates maybe from the 8th century. The Celtic monastery of Kilmalkedar is known from history to have been a renowned school of learning during the early medieval period.

The ancient roofless Romanesque chapel dates from the mid-12th century, though there was obviously an earlier religious building on this site, maybe dating back to the Dark Ages when both St Brendan and, later St Maolcethair were in residence here. There are a number of very beautiful architectural features in the church. It consists of a chancel and nave – the chancel measures roughly 6 metres by 5 metres – while the nave is roughly 8 metres by 9 metres. The church is said to resemble the more famous Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, County Tipperary.

In the excellent article ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’ by Patrick O’Sullivan for the Ireland’s Own magazine we are informed that the church was: “built in the Romanesque style of the twelfth century, typical features being the round headed doorway and the high pitched gables”. But there are a number of other features too including the barrel-vaulting and a lower section of the corbelled stone roof, and some carved window surrounds have survived. The chancel dates from 1200; and the west doorway has a ‘tympanum’ with carved stone head. O’Sullivan in his article goes on to say: “The original roof of the church has long since given way but the East Window, known locally as Cno na Snaithaide, the eye of the needle, still remains. It has long been the tradition for pilgrims to pass through the window nine times, especially at Eastertime, when it was believed that doing so would grant them the promise of eternal life”.

Standing in the chancel is the famous ‘Alphabet Stone’, dating probably from the 6th century AD, which is 4 feet high, but is broken at the top. On its west face the Latin alphabet and an earlier inscription DNI which is probably ‘domini’. The north face has a thin, damaged cross while the south face has an equally thin Latin cross with scrolled ends. And outside in the graveyard a 6 foot high slender Ogham stone with a little round hole at the top. The Latin inscription on this is: ANM MAILE INBIR MACI BROCANN which is translated as: ‘In the name of Mael Unbir, son of Brocan’, and on the opposite side (along the edge) is the Ogham notch inscription reading the same. This stone is thought to date from the 5th or 6th century AD.

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kilmalkedar Sundial Co Kerry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in the churchyard is a 4 foot high rectangular shaped stone with sundial markings beautifully carved onto it. O’Sullivan says of this: “The beautiful sundial is marked with segments which correspond to the divisions of the monastic day”. He goes on to say: “The northwest face meanwhile is decorated with a cross of arcs, the later now thought to be a symbol of pilgrimage, as it appears on many stones associated with early pilgrimage routes”. And further he says: “While the lines on the Kilmalkedar sundial end in half moons, or semi circles, other examples have lines that end in three pronged forks. There are two decorative fret motifs at the top of the shaft of the Kilmalkedar sundial, everything about it evocative of an age when the pilgrims made their way to the holy mountain. It is the easiest thing in the world to picture some of them stopping by the sundial, telling the time of day from the way in which its face was shadowed by the sun”, he says.

There are a number of interesting early Medieval grave-markers set among the more modern gravestones, these may indicate where monks from the monastery were buried between the 8th-12th century. Also, there are two holy wells – one for St Maolcedir, founder of the monastery here, and the other belongs to St Brendan whose ruined, roofless oratory (St Brendan’s House) stands 50 metres to the north. St Brendan’s holy well is located at the south-east side of his two-roomed oratory.

Also in the churchyard, a hefty and tall slab-cross with a thin (unfinished) cross carved onto it, and a number of early medieval grave-markers in the form of crosses, including a small T-shaped tau cross. These probably mark the graves of the monks who lived at the monastery between the 8th-12th centuries AD.

Some 50 metres to the north, near St Brendans House, there are two pre-Christian balaun stones with several depressions or bowl-like holes in them – though what these were originally used for is uncertain, maybe milk, or some other substance was placed in the holes as a kind of fertility aid, or for healing purposes? During the early Christian period these holes may have been used by missionaries for holy water and, subsequently baptism of the local people. Close by is the pilgrims road (Saint’s Road) which leads from Kilmalkedar to Brandon Mountain from where legend says St Brendan the Navigator sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on his long journey to other lands back in the mid-6th century AD, according to Katharine Scherman in her delightful book ‘The Flowering of Ireland’.

Sources:

Bord, Janet & Colin., Mysterious Britain, Paladin Books, London, 1974.

http://www.irelandtravelkit.com/irish-romanesque-church-kilmalkedar-county-Kerry/

http://irishantiquities.bravehost.com/kerry/kilmalkedar/kilmalkedar.html

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilmalkedar

O’Sullivan, Patrick., ‘Marking The Passage Of Time’, Ireland’s Own, (Various Dates), Wexford, Ireland.

Scherman, Katharine., The Flowering of Ireland, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1981.


Meteora, Plain Of Thessaly, Greece

The Monastery of Meteoran, Greece (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Monastery of Meteoron, Greece (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Latitude: 39.726457. Longitude: 21.626565. At the north-eastern side of the Plain of Thessaly, central Greece, to the north of Kalambaka lie the monasteries of Meteora, a Christian enclave where in 950 AD Barnabas and his fellow hermits came to live in inaccessible rock-hewn caves and, later, in 1350 the first hermitage was established on Dupiani Rock by the monk, Nilos. At about the same time Greek Orthodox monks sought sanctuary here by building monasteries on top of high, rocky pinnacles over 1,000 feet up. These Christian monasteries lie to the north of the Pineios river on the edge of the Pindhos Mountain, along bending roads and winding tracks that seem to go on forever into a strange land of towering outcrops of red sandstone and conglomerate rock that have been fused together over thousands/millions of years, forming ‘strange geological formations.’ There are twenty-four lofty pinnacles, many having monasteries and churches on top that seem to mingle in with the very rocks that they sit on. The largest of the monasteries is Moni Meteoron on Platys-Lithos (The Broad Rock) at an altitude of 1,752 feet; and the name Meteora is said to mean ‘In the heavens above’ or ‘floating in the air.’ Kalambaka in the Pineios Valley is 1.5kms to the south of Meteoron and the village of Kastraki is 1km south.

There were twenty-four monasteries in all between the 14th and 16th centuries but today only six are still inhabited, two of which are convents of Orthodox nuns. The most famous and largest of these monasteries ‘The Great Meteoran’ or Theotoko Meteoritis on Broard Rock was founded sometime after 1350 by St Athanasios Koinovitis (1305-83) who had earlier travelled here from Mount Athos, in Greece. Athanasios is a Greek Orthodox saint who is honoured on 6th March as St Athanasios Meteoritis. The monastery is dedicated to the ‘Metamoposis’ or Transfiguration, and it’s church of 1388 is cross-in-square shaped, being enlarged in 1550 by the Serbian monk, Josaph. On the East Rock stands Moni-Varlaam founded in 1517 by the two brothers Theophanes and Nectarios of Ioannina on the site of a hermitage established in 1350 by the monk Barlaam. The monastery had to be restored after it suffered bomb damage in World War II. Its monastic church ‘Agion Panton’ or All Saints is a typical cross-in-square building. A couple of interesting relics were ‘reputedly’ housed here, namely the finger of St John and the shoulder blade of St Andrew, and there are lovely frescos depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The Moni-Rossanis or Russanu monastery (Russian monastery) stands on top of an inaccesible rock. It was founded in 1639 on the site of a hermitage of 1388. Now a convent, its church dedicated to St Barbara is richly decorated with well-preserved frescos that are said to date from 1566. Agios-Nikolaos Monastery (St Nicholas) opposite Dupiani Rock was founded in 1588 and enlarged (1628). A basilica-like church has lovely frescos that date from 1527. The Agia-Triada Monastery (Moni-Triada) was founded in 1438 and is dedicated to the Holy Trinity; its church was built in 1476. The monastery is quite exeptional in beauty. There are damaged frescos dating from 1692, while the Chapel of Agios-Ioannis (St John) dates from 1682 and is hewn out of the rock. It is reached by way of a narrow stone stairway which leads up from the valley below.

The rocky cliffs of Meteora (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The rocky cliffs of Meteora (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

One of the best monasteries is probably Agios-Stefanos Nunnery. This was founded in 1312 by the Emperor Andronicus III (Palaiologus) 1328-1341. It used to have a small basilica, but the main church Agios-Charalampos (St Charalambos) was built in 1798 and has wood carvings, the Iconostasis, abbots throne, choir stalls, lecterns and Epirus carvings etc. The Chapel of St Stephan has frescos (1500), while the treasury (monastery museum) houses old icons, manuscripts, reliquaries and a skull set in silver that is said to be that of St Charalambos, an early Christian martyr (AD 198). Two other monasteries: Ypapanti and Pantokrator (Christ) are now ruined. There are several churches hidden-away on the rocky pinnacles, while others can be found in the valley below Meteora. These churches that are linked to the monasteries include: Ayia-Trias, Ayia-Pro Ilias, Ayia Analipsis and Panagia.

In the great tome ‘Strange Worlds Amazing Places,’ 1994, one passage sums up the demise of Meteora: “The eerie fascination of Meteora’s geology and the spiritual pull which the place exerts are largely responsible for its current demise as a religious centre. As Meteora increasingly becomes a museum piece which attracts thousands of tourists each year, aspiring young monks and nuns are unwilling to join the monasteries, while older devotees flee from them, to seek solitude elsewhere.”

Up until last century anyone wishing to visit the monasteries of Meteora had to endure climbing up a precarious rope-ladder, but nowadays it is somewhat easier as there is a pulley system (a net-and-rope device) with a sort of seat to sit on while a monk operating a windless from a gantry above, hauls you up over a thousand feet!

Sources:

Photos Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteora

Strange Worlds Amazing Places, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London W1, 1994.

Book of Natural Wonders, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc, New York & Montreal, 1980.

Gouvoussis C., Greece, Editions K. Gouvoussis, Athens, Greece, 1970.

http://www.great-adventures.com/destinations/greece/meteora.html


Clonmacnois Monastic Site, County Offaly, Southern Ireland

Clonmacnois Cathedral (photo credit: JohnArmagh - Wikipedia).

Clonmacnois Cathedral (photo credit: JohnArmagh – Wikipedia).

Irish grid reference N0099 3066. The monastic site of Clonmacnois or (Cluain Mhic Nois) meaning ‘the fields of the hogs of Nos’, stands within a walled monastic enclosure beside the banks of the River Shannon near Shannonbridge, Co. Offaly, Southern Ireland. It dates from 545 AD when St Ciaran (Kieran) 512-545, son of a chariot-maker from Rathcrogan, Co. Roscommon (Connaught), founded a great monastic establishment here, surrounded on the landward side by boggy land. There are three 9th century crosses, two round towers (one of which is still intact), upto 200 grave-slabs from the 8th-12th centuries, the ruins of eight roofless churches and also St Ciaran’s Cathedral, and many other interesting antiquities. Clonmacnois was once referred to as ‘a monastic city’ that originally had 105 monastic buildings, before the Vikings and, later the Normans came here in 1179 and, very sadly, destroyed many of them. In 1552-3 the site and it’s remaining buildings were badly damaged by the terrible atrocities following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, ’caused by’ the “English”. Clonmacnois lies just north of the R444 ‘Back Road’ between Moate and Shannonbridge, while the town of Athlone is 4 miles to the north on the M6/R446 roads.
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Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnois.

Cross of the Scriptures.

Perhaps one of the finest and best preserved of the the high crosses (now partially restored) is that called ‘The Cross of the Scriptures’ (the Western Cross), dating from the early 9th century AD, near the west door of the cathedral. It stands at 4 metres (13) feet high and is made of sandstone; the front face shows scenes from the Life of Christ and other biblical scenes. The bottom panel (front) shows King Dermaid, son of Fergus, or of Aed? of the southern Ui Neill clan, helping St Ciaran the disciple of St Finnian of Clonard to build the first section of his monastery in AD 545 – with what could be a tree in between them? At the base of the cross there are scenes showing horses pulling a cart and, warriors riding on horses. An inscription recalls ‘a prayer for Colman who made this cross for King Flan’. The other two 9th century scultured high crosses – ‘the North Cross’ is badly damaged and the South Cross beside Temple Dowling is also quite damaged, but both still very rich in Celtic-style carvings.

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One of the two round-towers stands to it’s original height of 17 metres and was used as a bell-tower for Temple Finghin (or St Finghin’s church), while the other, O’Rourke’s Tower, is damaged at the top, but is still some 20 metres high. Of the remaining churches The Nuns’ Church is perhaps the best. This dates from 1167 and is Irish-Romanesque in style; the carved chancel arch has beautiful geometric design-work; also the ruined St Ciaran’s Cathedral, which replaced an earlier 9th century cathedral, probably dates from the 13th or maybe 14th century, and has some beautiful carved figures of saints above the north doorway; the west doorway dates from 1200. The collection of 200 grave-stones inscribed with crosses and inscriptions in prayer-form are now housed in the visitor centre at the site, and there are another 500 smaller stones, some very fragmented. One stone, in particular, is round-shaped with a hole in the centre and a large incised-lettered inscription to the memory of SECHNASACH, an abbot who died in 928 AD; and another grave-slab with an elaborate Latin cross has an inscription in prayer-format to the memory of MAELFINNIA, an abbot of Clonmacnois who died in 921 AD. These stones would have marked the graves of former abbots of the 7th-9th centuries AD and, also a number of high kings of Mide, Brefni, Tara and Connacht. There are also three richly carved cross-shafts with Celtic ornamentation, but they are without their cross-heads.

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Cross of the Scriptures (panel), Clonmacnois.

Cross of the Scriptures (bottom panel)

St Ciaran, however, only lived for another seven months after the foundation of his monastery, dying at the age of thirty-three in 545 AD, or possibly 549 AD of yellow fever, according to some historians in the field of Irish monasticism. But undoubtedly this is one of Ireland’s “greatest monastic centres”, with much still remaining from the Early Christian period, although many of it’s monastic buildings are now in a somewhat ruinous state. Clonmacnois was regarded as ‘A Cradle of Celtic Christianity’ for 600 years. A hoard of Hiberno-Norse coins, dating from the late 11th century, was dug up close to the site in 1979 by a group of school children, and a number of other monastic antiquities including implements, bones and an ornamental twisted gold rod and copper-alloy ring, thought to be Hiberno-Norse. To the west of the monastic site and just north of St Ciaran’s National School, are the earthworks and walls of a Norman castle. The famous Clonmacnois crozier is now displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin.

Sources:-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clonmacnoise

King, Heather.A (Editor)., Clonmacnois Studies Vol 1 Seminar Papers 1994, Duchas The Heritage Service, Dublin, 1998.

Scherman, Katharine, The Flowering of Ireland – Saints, Scholars & Kings, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1981.

Reader’s Digest., Illustrated Guide To Ireland, The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1992.

Bord, Janet & Colin., Mysterious Britain, Paladin (Granada Publishing), London, 1984

With thanks also to ‘The Megalithic Portal’ http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=27062


Dysert O’ Dea, Co.Clare, Southern Ireland

R2841 8484. The monastic site of Dysert O’ Dea is 5 miles north-west of the town of Ennis on the R476 road and then via a country lane heading west to the ruined medieval chapel of Dysert. It stands about 1 mile away from the southern shores of Ballycullinan Lough. The village of Corofin is 3 miles to the north. There is nothing much else here in the way of houses, only a roofless medieval chapel that is built on the site of an 8th century Celtic monastery, founded by St Tola. But, there is a ruined round-tower, a splendid high cross, a holy well and some fantastic medieval stone carvings. A few miles to the north-west Dysert Castle has an Archaeological Centre that traces the history of the area from prehistoric times to the more recent.

doorway at dysert o'dea monastery

Doorway at Dysert O’ Dea monastery (Photo credit: Rob React)

The name Dysert or Disert is Latin for “isolated place” or “hermitage” so here we have the hermitage of Tola that is sometimes given as Cill an Disirt Tola “Cell of Tola”. St Tola founded the monastery here and was first abbot. He died in 735 AD and is commemorated on 30th March. Nothing is left of the Celtic monastery today – the ruined and roofless chapel probably stands upon the site. Essentially, the chapel is 12th century, though a few bits are earlier. Of interest here is the Romanesque doorway, which has 19 carved heads on it’s arch, 12 of these are human, the others are animals and bird heads. The heads seem to look down in a grim fashion with very blank expressions, but that’s what they are supposed to do. There are another three arches inside that also have carvings and the west-window gable has some very fine decoration. The east window is formed by three tall arches, while the doorway has four arches.

In the graveyard to the east of the chapel stands the 12 foot high St Tola’s High Cross (Cross of blessings) that dates from the 12th century, but was restored in the 17th century with pedestal and square base, and is said  to be the finest example of it’s kind. On it’s east face are carvings of Christ crucified and below that a bishop, probably St Tola. On the opposite side there are other carvings with animals and human figures in an interlacing fashion as well as geometric designs, while the pedestal is also decorated.

English: Photo by William Bennett

Tola’s High Cross at Dysert O’ Dea. Photo by William Bennett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the north-west side of the graveyard is the stump of a round-tower dating from the 11th-12th century. This was almost destroyed in the 17th century by the soldiers of Cromwell, but originally it was the tallest tower in Ireland at 33 metres high with a circumference at the base of 18 metres. There is an arched doorway facing east, narrow slits and two windows at the west side, one of which is ogee-headed. The monks of old would have used the tower as a place of safety, and as a place for the storage of valuable books and monastic treasures in times of trouble. Today it is only a 5 metres high stump.

Near the high cross is St Tola’s holy well, once a place of pilgrimage on the saint’s feast-day, 30th March every year. The well had long been visited by the faithful who had been coming here for hundreds of years in the hope of a miraculous cure, but the well was covered over in the last century, only to be restored again recently in 1986. All in all, a lovely peaceful place to visit with much to keep the antiquarians amongst us, happy and enthralled with the many beautiful Romanesque stone carvings.