Originally posted 7th September 2023

Classically, burials with grave goods have been interpreted as pre-Christian while graves without grave goods have been interpreted as Christian. However, the reality is more complicated, especially since there appear to be distinctions even within graves with grave goods. Some of these are clearly gendered: at Holywell Row in Suffolk, men and women had different grave goods - amethyst, cowries, and keys for women; weapons for men - but some women were found lying flat (otherwise a position associated with men in this cemetary) with no bracelets and ornaments on the left shoulder, while women with their legs bent (the majority) tended to have bracelets and ornaments on both shoulders. This may reflect a social difference. In some older graves, animal bones were found and here again the differences are gendered: dogs and horses with men (there has only been one woman found in England from this period with a dog skeleton in her grave); pendants made from boars’ teeth and tusks with women; and beaver teeth with women and children. In accordance with the connection between grave goods and pre-Christian beliefs, these pendants appear in greater numbers after missionaries began to appear, possibly as a reaction to the presence of Christian missionaries

The most spectacular grave goods are those belonging to the noble and warrior classes. Since there are generally more distinctive items in these graves, we can see a lot more of the complexity around grave goods and religious beliefs around the time Christianity was spreading in England and among the related cultures in what is now France and Scandinavia. A famous example is the Sutton Hoo burial, which combined a classic pagan burial - a king in his ship, surrounded by his treasure, in the grand tradition of Beowulf - with some Christian artefacts: two silver spoons marked “Saulos” and “Paulos”, which may have been gifts on conversion to Christianity, the inscriptions being a reference to St Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus. The person buried at Sutton Hoo has been identified as King Raedwald of East Anglia, who was baptised but appears to have mingled Christianity with pre-Christian beliefs in life as well as in death; according to Bede he “had in the same shrine an altar for the holy Sacrifice of Christ side by side with a small altar on which victims were offered to devils”. However, the appearance of Christian votive objects among grave goods was widespread in Europe and neither Bede nor any other Christian writer appears to have objected to it. Indeed, some such burials are found inside churches; it appears that the presence or absence of grave goods can in itself tell archaeologists very little about the beliefs of the deceased or their family.

The main effect Christianity seems to have had on the tradition of grave goods is to redirect expenditure from furnishing a grave to paying for prayers for the deceased person’s soul. In Carolingian Europe in the mid 700s there is increasing evidence of gifts and endowments to religious institutions in exchange for prayers and by the ninth century many monasteries had “books of commemoration” for the names of the thousands of people for whose souls the monks prayed. In this new culture, it made much more sense to spend money on prayers rather than on lavish grave goods.

Originally posted 14th September 2023

Ednyfed Fychan ap Cynwrig was a Welsh nobleman of the late 1100s and early 1200s who served as seneschal in the household of Llywelyn the Great and his son Dafydd. This was an extremely prestigious and responsible position - arguably equivalent to Prime Minister - and Ednyfed was trusted to represent his prince in discussions with the kings of England and he was considered so indispensable that he was rewarded for his service with freedom from royal dues for himself and all other descendents of his grandfather. Ednyfed also becomes important to English history because he is considered the patriarch of the Tudor dynasty; Henry VII was his descendant through his eldest son Goronwy.

Ednyfed came from a line of relatively minor landholders in Conwy. His father, Cynwrig, was the first member of the family to join the royal household and he and his sons formed the largest single family group in the direct service of a prince at the time. Ednyfed was Llywelyn’s steward by about 1216, when he may have been about 45, and before this legend has it that he was a noted fighter; in the 1500s there was a tradition that in about 1210 he had led Llywelyn’s forces against the Earl of Chester and had presented the severed heads of three English lords to the prince after the battle; this was recorded by the inclusion of three heads in the family heraldry.

After Llywelyn’s death in 1240, Ednyfed played a key role in the succession of Dafydd and became one of his key advisers. Ednyfed himself died in 1246, but his sons went on to also hold prominent positions at court. He was buried in his personal chapel in Llandrillo-yn-Rhos (Rhos on Sea in English). The modern church was built in the 1400s on the same site and Ednyfed’s tombstone has been incorporated into the structure. During his life, Ednyfed had also built a motte-and-bailey castle on Bryn Euryn, the hill fort overlooking the town - nothing survives today - and a manor house which was rebuilt in the 1400s as Llys Euryn, the ruins of which can still be seen.

Originally posted 21st September 2023

Richard Plantagenet, the third Duke of York, was born on 21st September 1411 and would go on to become one of the most important players in the Wars of the Roses and the father of two Yorkist kings: Edward IV and Richard III. He was descended from Edward III through both his parents, since his father was the son of Edward’s fifth son - the first Duke of York - and his mother was the the great-granddaughter of Edward’s third son. However, he had a difficult start to any kind of political career as his father was executed when he was four years old, having been involved in a plot to assassinate king Henry V. Fortunately, Henry did not extend the attainder against Richard’s father to Richard, possibly helped by the fact that his uncle Edward, Duke of York, fell heroically at Agincourt and redeemed the family name. Richard was therefore able to inherit the dukedom of York as well as the earldom of March when he came of age and become an extremely powerful landholder and potential political leader.

Richard was made Lieutenant of France in 1440, becoming the main commander of the war and the defence of Normandy from the French crown. He moved to Rouen with his wife and three of his children were born there, including the future Edward IV. It was not the first time Richard had been sent to France; his first posting was in 1436, as a replacement for the recently-deceased duke of Bedford. Then he was too inexperienced to truly take on the role - though he did a great deal to restore English authority in Normandy - but now he became a powerful local landholder and reorganised local government, reducing French representation but making an effort to identify Norman grievances and address their complaints. However, he suffered frequent military opposition that he was able to do very little about especially when the duke of Somerset was sent to France on an independent mission and received most of the funds that had been earmarked for York’s efforts.

Some historians argue that this insult was one of the things that set York on a path towards claiming the throne himself, which he did in 1460. However, at the time there was no sign Richard was estranged from the court or that he intended to assert his right to the throne; he appeared to be happy to support Henry VI. It was only later, after Henry’s authority had largely collapsed, that he would claim the crown himself.

Originally posted 28th September 2023

This Friday is Michaelmas, the feast day of Michael and All Angels, which was also the first day of the mediaeval fiscal year, the end of harvest time and the beginning of winter. It was one of the four “quarter days” on which servants were hired and rent was due and still begins one of the four terms of the courts of England and Wales. The association with court terms is also mediaeval: during the reign of Edward III in the 1300s, the duties of local justices of the peace were regularised to include holding judicial sessions during four seasons of the year, beginning at Michaelmas, Epiphany, Easter, and the Translation of St Thomas. These were known as quarter sessions and continued until they were abolished in 1971.

Since Michaelmas was the beginning of the fiscal year, lords’ household accounts were kept from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. These included the amount of grain, wine and beer, and other staple foodstuffs that were supplied to the household - and which of the lord’s manors they came from - as well as stable supplies and the number of horses, and the guests that the lord had hosted. They also listed other outgoings such as alms for the poor. The steward of the household, who kept these accounts, was a trained professional; beginning in the reign of Henry III in the 1200s, courses in household management were available in Oxford.

Michaelmas also has special food-related traditions. The Michaelmas Goose is traditionally eaten on Michaelmas after being fattened on the stubble left from the harvest and it is a traditional time for goose fairs; the Nottingham Goose Fair is still held over a week around Michaelmas, though geese are no longer available there for purchase. Legend has it that the association between Michaelmas and geese began with Elizabeth I, who is said to have been eating goose when she got the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada and to have resolved to always eat it on Michaelmas day. It is also traditionally the end of the blackberry season; it’s said that on this day the Devil was thrown out of heaven and landed in a blackberry bush. In his rage, he stamped and spat on the blackberries (and in some versions urinated on them), making them inedible.