Originally posted 3rd August 2023

King Sigurd I of Norway, also known as Sigurd Jerusalemfarer, became king in 1103 at age 13, alongside his two half-brothers, one of whom was only a toddler. His father, known as Marcus Barelegs for his liking for short clothing, had been Christian but had retained a Viking love of battle and as soon as Sigurd was old enough he decided to follow in his footsteps; the Crusader States offered the perfect opportunity. Travel between Scandinavia and the Middle East wasn’t unheard of; pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem, Scandinavians had served in the armies of the First Crusade, and a significant number served in the elite Varangian Guard in Constantinople (now Istanbul), acting as bodyguards for the Byzantine Emperor. However, in 1107 Sigurd would lead the largest military expedition to make the journey from the far north - sixty longships, according to an Icelandic poem, probably carrying about 10,000 men - and his crusade also marked the first time a European king would personally lead a crusading army.

Sigurd overwintered in England, where he was welcomed by Henry I, and then in the spring of 1108 he set out south to overwinter again in northern Spain, possibly attracted by the possibility of a visit to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. His stay there was less peaceful after an arrangement with a local lord for supplies fell through and Sigurd’s men instead turned to pillaging the countryside, finally pillaging the lord’s castle. The rest of the journey around the Iberian Peninsula involved Sigurd’s first encounters with Muslims, especially since at the time Portugal was under Muslim rule. Snorri Sturluson, a chronicler writing in the 1200, approvingly wrote about how Sigurd conquered land, slaughtered the occupants who refused to be baptised, and “made much booty”.

Once in the Medeterranian, Sigurd’s army attacked the Balearic Islands to the east of Spain. These are now a well-known tourist destination, including Majorca and Ibiza, but then were mostly known as a centre for piracy and slave-trading. The first island they reached was Formentera, which was occupied by African and pirates who had built a stronghold based around a natural cave system. According to the sagas, Sigurd personally led an ingenious attack on the stronghold. He ordered his men to take two small boats to the clifftop above the caves and then lower them down, loaded with warriors who kept up covering fire with arrows and stones. Meanwhile, Sigurd himself led an attack up the cliff that culminated in lighting fires at the cave mouths to smoke out the occupants. Again, Snorri writes approvingly of the resulting slaughter and plundering and the noteriety of Sigurd’s success may have inspired later Christian attacks on the islands.

Once Sigurd arrived in Acre in modern northwest Israel, he was welcomed by Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem, and given a splinter from the True Cross, the most holy relic in Christendom. He then assisted in the siege of Sidon (now in Lebanon and also known as Saida) before travelling to a warm welcome in Constantinople. Many members of Sigurd’s army enlisted there as mercenaries, but Sigurd donated the gilded dragon head from his ship in the church of St Peter, traded his fleet of ships for horses, and returned home over land to find Norway thriving under his brother’s rule. He would go on to suffer from mental health issues, including hallucinating fish in his bathtub, but nonetheless ruled Norway peacefully alongside his brothers and outlived them both.

Originally posted 10th August 2023

The church of Saint Helena and Saint Mary in Bourn was built in the 1100s, replacing the first village church built after the Norman Conquest. The original church was built by Sheriff Picot of Cambridgeshire, possibly sometime around 1086. It wasn’t the first church in Bourn, since before the Conquest two priests held a hide of land in Bourn which couldn’t be separated from the church. However, there’s no other record of the original Saxon church. It may have been on a different site, since the current site is close to Picot’s castle (Bourn Hall now stands in the castle enclosure).

The church as it is seen today only has some of the original stonework: mostly columns and part of the south walls of the chancel and the south aisle. Part of the north tower arch is discoloured by fire and there is a theory that this may have happened in 1266 when the nearby castle was sacked by supporters of Simon de Montfort. However, many of the stones used in the church are recycled and some stones from the tower have been set with the burned face inwards, so they were presumably not burned in their current location.

The church is notable for having a twisted spire. The date of the spire itself is unclear, but when it was restored in 1912 it included lead panels marked “John Ferrar” and “IF 1620”. The tower was built in the 1200s, but it does not appear to have originally been planned, or at least it was not planned to be so large; the aisles on either side of the nave were originally closed to the west and were altered to continue them into the tower. The spire also appears to have been reconstructed and reduced in height at some point. The twist could have been introduced during any of these changes.

Originally posted 23rd August 2023

The Sutton Hoo helmet is the most famous Anglo-Saxon helmet found in England, but it was not the first. The Benty Grange helmet was found in 1848, 91 years earlier, though it was not cleaned and conserved until 1948. It is badly decayed, reduced to little more than a metal framework, but as with the Sutton Hoo helmet some of the decoration survives, including its most notable feature: a small model of a boar as a crest on the top of the helmet.

Boar-crested helmets are mentioned in Old English poetry such as Beowulf, which refers to “the boars on the helmets/iron-hard, gold-clad” (lines 1110-1), but none had previously been found and there is only one other example of a boar that may have been attached to a helmet. The boar is believed to have been a symbol of the goddess Freya and, if so, it is also notable that it is positioned facing a cross attached to the nose protection of the helmet. The cross may have been retrofitted to the helmet; it is a composite of an equal-armed cross that may originally have been mounted on a cup or other object and a strip of silver added to make it taller and thinner, better suited to its new location on the helmet.

The helmet was found in an anglo-saxon burial mound or hlaew. Such monuments were built for people of very high rank and were often specifically located on boundaries. The Benty Grange hlaew is now in the Peak District National Park, overlooking the A515, which follows the route of a Roman road. It is also near the Arbor Low stone circle and may have shared the skyline with it when it was built. This location, combined with the luxurious grave goods - as well as the helmet, there was the remains of a chain shirt, the silver rim of a cup, several enamel objects believed to have come from a large hanging bowl, and other valuable items including the faint traces of silk - indicate that the person (or people) buried in the mound were extremely high-status.

Photo of the chapel

Originally posted 30th August 2023

The Leper Chapel is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Cambridge and is the last surviving building of the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene, the first hospital to be founded in Cambridge, probably before 1150 but it was first recorded in 1169. It was probably founded by the burgesses of Cambridge, since they had the right to appoint the Warden. This was at a time when leprosy was reappearing in Western Europe, possibly brought back by returning crusaders who had contracted it in Palestine, and the hospital in Cambridge was one of many that were starting to appear, often - as here - placed at city gates near major roads, which meant that they were visible to passers-by as a reminder of sin and of the generosity of the patrons who paid for them.

The oldest surviving set of regulations for a leper hospital comes from Montpellier in France and also dates to the 1150s. The Montpellier hospital appears to have operated in a similar way to a monastery: would-be patients gave up their personal property on arrival and served a novitiate, though in the case of the hospital this was only ten days long. At any time during that period they were free to reclaim their property and leave. Once they were full members, the patients were required to attend church regularly and were referred to as brothers and sisters. According to the Third Lateran Council of 1179, leper hospitals had to have their own chapels and cemeteries with dedicated priests, which helped with the segregation of those diagnosed with leprosy and also meant that the hospitals were not required to pay tithes to the local bishop.

One noteworthy leper hospital was the one in Jerusalem, which was incorporated in the 1140s as a military order: the Order of Saint Lazarus, dedicated to the patron saint of lepers. According to a book of the laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem drawn up around the turn of the 12th Century, knights diagnosed with leprosy were required to join the Order of Saint Lazarus so they could be segregated from the general population while also continuing to serve a military role.