Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

All images courtesy of James Wright.

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I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and James Wright

Book Corner: The Last Emir by SJA Turney

51oYQKZfjYLRisk everything; fight to the last: a taut and intense historical thriller from master author S.J.A. Turney

The relics of Christendom have been plundered during the long Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula. Newly minted Templar Sergeant Arnau de Vallbona must recover one of the most elusive to save his priory at Rourell in Spain.

Travelling to Majorca on a stealth mission to retrieve the bones of St Stephen, Arnau soon discovers the raid is more complex than it first appears: the mighty Almohad dynasty has laid claim to the island, and will fight them every step of the way.

Along with his companion, the aged warrior Balthesar, Arnau is in desperate straits. Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, it will take all their cunning and strength to escape with their prize – and their lives….

A thrilling and unexplored account of the Knights Templar, grounded in extraordinary research, The Last Emir is perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell, K.M. Ashman and C.F. Iggulden.

The Last Emir is the second book in S.J.A. Turney’s fabulous series recounting the exploits of the Knights Templars in Spain during the Moorish Conquest of the country. The first book in the series, Daughter of War was a gripping drama which followed the struggles of Titborga and Arnau as the found sanctuary and a purpose in the Templar preceptory at Rourell, run by the incredible preceptrix, Ermengarda, as they battled an unscrupulous Spanish nobleman intent on getting his hands on Titborga’s lands – at any cost. It was a wonderful, gritty story with every page filled to the brim with action.

And The Last Emir is no less immersive. The second book takes Arnau on a quest to Majorca, in search of a Holy relic, but finding only trouble and a dispute between rival Moorish factions. The story is skillfully told, weaving a tale of intrigue and betrayal, and blurring the lines between the rival factions. S.J.A. Turney paints a wonderful image of the island of medieval Majorca, taking the reader on a journey across the island, re imagining the amazing landscape, the loud, busy markets and the sumptuous palaces with such precision that you can almost see, hear and smell the bazaar, the preserved manuscripts in the library … and the blood and passion of battle.

‘I’m sorry.’

Balthesar threw him a withering  look that made his cheeks burn hotter. ‘Later,’ was all the older man said.

Peril, though, was following them that day, for as Arnau began to feel that perhaps they were almost safe, two mounted figures in black and white emerged from a side street ahead of them.

‘What now?’ gasped Arnau.

‘We have no choice. We’re trapped. Go back and we’re entering the noose you created for us. We have to cross the bridge, even if we have to kill those horsemen to do it. With luck the guards at the bridge have not heard about us yet.’

It appeared that kill the horsemen was precisely what they would have to do. the Two Almohad warriors spotted their quarry and, realising that they had ensnared them, roared victorious-sounding cries, then ripped their blades free of their scabbards and put heel to flank, charging towards the two Templars.

Arnau had time, as he drew his own sword, to register the shock of the two local guards at the bridge. They were arguing urgently and dithering, perhaps unsure whether to intervene or to remain at their assigned place by the bridge.

Beside Arnau, Balthesar also drew his blade. ‘Keep your mouth shut,’ he commanded, ‘if we are to get out of Al-Bulãnsa alive.’

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The only downside of this book is that not all the characters we met in Daughter of War appear in this story. Arnau and Balthesar are far away from their familiar surroundings, having to rely on their wits and their own abilities in order to survive and win their way back home. Arnau, in particular, is on a journey of discovery, of his own strengths and weaknesses, the differences between Islam and Christianity and of his companion in arms. Through his own trials, he has to learn that not everything is black-and-white, lines blur and whether a person is good or evil is not necessarily defined by their religion. He has already learned the brutality of war, but in The Last Emir, he also has to learn about the subtleties of war.

This is a fabulous novel, which takes a reader away from the preconceptions and mysticism of the Knights Templar and presents the Templars as they were, and as they were created; warrior monks fighting for Christianity and what is right.

Well researched, not only in the customs of medieval Spain, both Christian and Moor, but also in the rich history of the country, and of individual events of the time, S.J.A. turney’s attention to the historic detail infuses the story with anthenticity. The author has created a marvellous, gripping story. The narrative is wonderfully written with every page pleasure to read – long into the night. Arnau and his Templar colleagues are the best kind of heroes – those the readers can invest themselves in and always want to read more.

Waiting for Book 3 is already proving a challenge…

 

About the Author:

Sja

Simon lives with his wife, children and dogs in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.

Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.

Now, with in excess of 25 novels available and 5 awaiting release, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.

Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.

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Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Daughter of War by S.J.A. Turney

Today it is my pleasure to be a part of S.J.A. Turney’s Blog Blitz  with a review of his latest novel, Daughter of War.

An extraordinary story of the Knights Templar, seen from the bloody inside

Europe is aflame. On the Iberian Peninsula the wars of the Reconquista rage across Aragon and Castile. Once again, the Moors are gaining the upper hand. Christendom is divided.
Amidst the chaos comes a young knight: Arnau of Valbona. After his Lord is killed in an act of treachery, Arnau pledges to look after his daughter, whose life is now at risk. But in protecting her Arnau will face terrible challenges, and enter a world of Templars, steely knights and visceral combat he could never have imagined.
She in turn will find a new destiny with the Knights as a daughter of war… Can she survive? And can Arnau find his destiny?
An explosive novel of greed and lust, God and blood, Daughter of War marks the beginning of an epic new series from bestseller S.J.A. Turney. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and Matthew Harffy.
I had been looking forward to reading Daughter of War by S.J.A. Turney ever since i heard about the book. And I was not disappointed. Daughter of War is like no other Templar story I have read. The story is set in Spain, rather than the Holy Land, during the Reconquista. And has none of the mysticism that many Templar novels revolve around.
Rather than making the book unreadable, however, this makes the story all-the-more fascinating. the author concentrates on the fighting, monastic and community elements of the Templar order and, as a result, has managed to create a story that is both unique and refreshing. This is a must-read for any fan of the real Knights Templar.
What did I love about this book? Everything. The story revolves around a small Templar preceptory in rural Spain, which has attracted the attention and ire of an unscrupulous and greedy Spanish noble. The preceptory is run by Ermengarda d’Oluja – a woman – but a formidable, commanding woman who has become one of my favourite characters. If ever I write a Heroines of the Medieval World 2, Ermengarda will be in there! And that’s the amazing thing, Ermengarda is a real historical character who did run a Templar preceptory – I didn’t even know they had women in the Templars.
 
But if you think that because there is a female Templar, that this book would be any less gritty or warlike than any other Templar story, you’d be mistaken. Ermengarda is a woman of steel and an incredible character. S.J.A. Turney, however, has made sure to keep her within the male-orientated realm in which she lived. She extends the limits of female convention if the twelfth century, but never quite breaks them.
The story also deals with the powerlessness of women in the medieval era and the fact that they did not have the right to decide their own fate when it came to marriage. That they could be forced to marry wherever their family and betters decided. And this is what causes the conflict in Daughter of War.
… There, in an antechamber of ancient stone, beneath an elegantly vaulted ceiling, stood Titborga Cervelló de Santa Coloma in her mourning dress of pure white. The sound of loud conversation emerged from the great hall beyond the thick, heavy wooden doors and, though the details of the discussion could not quite be made out, they sounded purposeful and combative.
Arnau dropped to a knee and bowed his head in respect.
‘My lady.’
‘Rise, Señor de Vallbona,’ she said in an odd, worried tone.
‘How may I be of service?’ he asked, climbing to his feet once more and adjusting his grey bliaut swiftly.
Something about the way the lady’s eyes scoured the dim surroundings put him on edge, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet and suspicious. ‘You are one of Santa Coloma’a most trusted men, Arnau de Vallbona.’
‘I have striven in my time to serve your father appropriately,’ he replied, brow creased more than ever.
‘My father spoke of you often, and well. I have seen you with him. He held you in esteem, perhaps more than one might expect for your somewhat minor rank.’
Arnau stifled the disappointment and irritation he felt at the rather blunt remark. Keeping his expression carefully neutral, he nodded. ‘Your father was a great man. I looked up to him. Even at the end, I -‘
‘I need your help. Your oath, Señor de Vallbona.’
Now Arnau felt alarm. These were careful words spoken in a dangerous tone. What was happening? …
Arnau and Titborga are wonderful characters, each joining the Templar order for their own reasons, and each looking for their own purpose in life. Each character – indeed, every character in the book – is unique, with their own hopes and dreams – and challenges. The book takes care not to stereotype the Templars into over zealous religious fanatics, but gives each their individual stories.
Care is taken to enthuse the book with historical accuracy, be it of the region in which the story is based, of the Templar order in general and of the preceptory in particular. The level of research that has gone into this book is astounding and impressive and has helped to create the world of 12th century Spain, torn between Christian and Muslim inhabitants.
As a story, the pace is incredible and barely gives the reader any time to stop and think as the Templars deal with the growing crisis. The attention to detail of S.J.A. Turney means that the fight scenes, in particular, are incredible scenes that draw the reader in, until they’re cowering behind their sofa to hide from the swinging swords and flying crossbow bolts. The author is a true wordsmith and recreates the medieval world and people with a skill level that is rarely achieved and maintained.
Daughter of War has an air of authenticity that is rarely achieved by an author, you can feel the heat of medieval Spain, the desperation of people in a fight they are not sure they can win, and the determination of those who know they are in the right. However, above all, Daughter of War is one thing; it is a fabulously entertaining story, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
About the author:
S.J.A. Turney is an author of Roman and medieval historical fiction, gritty historical fantasy and rollicking Roman children’s books. He lives with his family and extended menagerie of pets in rural North Yorkshire.
To buy Daughter of War by S.J.A. Turney:

Amazon (UK); Kobo (UK);  Google Books (UK); Apple Books (UK)

Author Social Media Links

Twitter: @SJATurney

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My book

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly