Originally posted 7th July 2023

The royal enclosure at Yeavering (or Ad Gefrin) was the principal palace site of the Anglo-Saxon kings of Bernicia in what is now South-eastern Scotland and part of Northumberland. It was a politically and geographically important location which also has other claims to fame; the valley of the River Glen acts as a strategic corridor between England and Scotland. Flodden, the site of the English victory of Flodden Field in 1513, is just to the north nand the Annales Cambriae sites the first of the legendary twelve battles of King Arthur on the River “Glein”.

The Yeavering complex itself was built at the foot of an Iron Age hill fort and appears to have begun its heyday under the reign of King Aethelfrith. It appears to have originally been a pre-Christian site with its own temple complex that was later converted into a Christian church. This action was in like with the instructions of Pope Gregory during the conversion of Britain to Christianity (and, especially, to Roman Catholicism as opposed to the British style of Christianity that still survived from Roman times); he said that wherever possible “pagan” temples were to be converted to Christian use rather than being destroyed and Yeavering’s Building D2 may be an example of this. Excavations in 1977 showed that it had two structural phases of which the later was significantly larger and more elaborate, entirely enclosing the former and apparently built while the older building was still standing. This may be associated with a visit by the missionary Paulinus in 627 at which he allegedly spent 36 days baptising new converts in the River Glen.

It’s not certain that Building D2 was a pre-Christian temple converted to a church and Yeavering did have a purpose-built church: Building B. However, this was a later structure. Building D2 was surrounded by burials, many of them with the dead person’s head towards the West, rather than East as is typical for Christian burials, and was also associated with pits containing several ox skulls that may be associated with pre-Christian sacrifices and post-conversion feasting, especially since five years after Paulinus’ visit his host King Edwin died and despite 36 days of baptisms the people of Bernicia almost immediately returned to their original faith.

In a glimpse into the past, the excavation of Building D2 also showed that the original building’s foundation trench had broken through a Bronze-age stone-lined grave containing a cremation urn and a jet necklace. A trail of beads was found leading south from the broken-open grave for several yards, suggesting that the (probably) man who was digging the trench ran off with a handful of the jet beads he’d just found to show his colleagues. Bead necklaces were a common ornament for women in the 400s-600s and recycled beads including jet have been found in burials as far away as Cambridgeshire. Many historians and archaeologists believe beads that had been found on ancient sites were considered magical, which would have made this an especially exciting find.

Originally posted 14th July 2023

On 14th May 1216, England was invaded by a French army led by the Dauphin Louis, eldest son and heir of King Philip Augustus. Philip had been doing his best to undermine and destroy the Angevin Empire brought together by Henry II, usually by supporting rival claimants to any Plantagenet incumbent, including other Plantagenets, for example the future Richard I against Henry II when Henry hesitated to officially appoint Richard as his successor. In 1200 Philip had confiscated King John’s French lands after John abducted and married the teenage heiress Isabel of Angouleme, who was already engaged to another of Philip’s vassals, and in 1216 he declared John’s crown forfeit because of his alleged murder of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Louis was in England to help the barons remove and replace the allegedly-deposed king and the invasion was still ongoing when John died in October.

John was replaced by his nine-year-old son Henry III, who was crowned at Gloucester Abbey with a lady’s circlet because Westminster and all the usual regalia were under the control of Louis’ supporters. He was the first child to succeed to the throne since before the Norman Conquest and his main rival was a grown man and tried warrior. Fortunately, his main supporter was the elderly but extremely capable Sir William Marshal, who became regent, leading a council consisting of the Earl of Chester, the papal legate, and the bishop of Winchester.

Marshal’s first job was to reconcile the various warring factions and deal with the French invasion, since many of the barons said they would choose a new king from the Capetian dynasty - meaning Louis - rather than submit to one of John’s descendants, “for the same were not worthy to bear the name of king”. At the time of John’s death one estimate puts 97 barons on Louis’ side - plus a French invasion force - and 36 on young Henry’s and Henry was also broke. Despite that, Marshal led a successful attack on Louis’ supporters in Lincoln on 20th May 1217. The naval battle of Sandwich was a further blow to Louis’ plans, making it impossible for him to bring in reinforcements, and after receiving a payoff and undergoing a humiliating absolution ceremony he sailed for home in September, allowing Henry III to finally enter his capital.

Originally posted 20th July 2023

The term ‘manor’ is often associated with the manor house and associated lands, but during the middle ages it was a territorial unit of lordship, associated with a collection of legal rights and entitlements as well as land. The peasants on a manor and their lord were bound to each other by a range of ties and obligations, arbitrated through a manor court, as well as rights over land, which was the main source of wealth for most of the middle ages.

The “classic” medieval manor consisted of a large demesne (land kept for the use and maintenance of the lord’s household) and a large proportion of unfree peasants who rendered labour services including farming the demesne: work carried out on top of farming their own smallholdings, which had to provide food for their families, cash crops to pay for fees and any money rent, and fodder for animals. For example, in 1279 the manor at Coney Weston in Suffolk had - among other types of land - 340 acres of arable land in the demesne and 430 acres of arable land held by peasants. However, the “classic” model is not the most common one and the ratio of demesne to peasant land does not necessarily reflect the productivity of either.

Theoretically, the demesne land would be more productive; the lord not only had command over a large labour force but could also be entitled to rights such as requiring peasants to keep their sheep in his sheep-fold, which meant that the lord got an improved manure supply for fertiliser. However, study of tithe returns shows this may not have always been the case. For example, Oakington in Cambridgeshire was divided into multiple manors, but in the late 1300s the only manor with any meaningful demesne land was owned by Crowland Abbey and the remainder of the land was mostly held by smallholding peasants with an average holding of 11 acres. Unusually, Crowland Abbey continued to extract labour services even after the Black Death rather than commuting them to rent payments as many landlords did.

In Oakington, peasants grew a slightly different mixture of crops on their own holdings than were grown on the demesne, with less wheat and more fodder due to the difficulty of growing lush grass in the local soil. Peasants also appear to have prioritised crops that had a higher yield per acre rather than higher yield per seed, which may also be a consideration accounting for the difference, and peasants seem to have primarily sown crops that drained fewer nutrients from the soil. As a result, even though the peasant and demesne lands were intermingled in the same three fields under, theoretically, the same three-field rotation system, peasant land appears to have been noticeably more productive than demesne land. This may have been affected by use of the field recorded as fallow in the manor records for black peas, which not only provided fodder but also choked weeds and, though the people at the time would not have known this, improved the soil by fixing nitrogen. What’s more, despite the requirements of labour service on the lord’s land, peasants almost certainly put in more and harder work on the smallholdings that fed their families than the great demesne of the lord.