Category Archives: Medieval history

Time Team at Governors Green

Domus Dei, October 2007.

Domus Dei (Image via Wikipedia)

Well Time Team last night didn’t disappoint. Or rather, it did – but it was so disappointing from a historical point of view, it didnt disappoint my premonitions!

The expressed aim of the programme was to uncover the history of the medieval Hospital at the Governors Green area of old Portsmouth, adjoining what is now known as the Garrison Church, which has its origins as part of the Hospital complex. Known originally as Domus Dei, or God’s House, the Hospital was razed in 1540 during Henry VIII’s disolution of the monasteries. The chapel survived, however, and the adjoining land was used to build the Governors House.

The concept of a medieval hospital is very different from our image of operating theatres, accident and emergency et al. Medieval hospitals did exactly what they said on the tin – provided hospitality in a godly setting and manner. In particular pilgrims would use hospitals during their travels to shrines – such as nearby Winchester of Chichester, and places further afield such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They have a very rich and interesting social history, particularly in a port such as Portsmouth, a place that was so important to the defence of the realm too.

The feeling I had from the programme was that the team had not done their research properly at all. They were speculating about things that we already knew about, if only they had bothered to listen to people who tried to tell them! The geophysical survey told us everything that we needed to know, namely that there is an impressive range of buildings under Governors Green, and with some clever use of maps, documents and overlays it shouldnt take too much to interpret them, without the need for digging. I’m also surprised that they thought they could overlay an old tudor map on the current OS map without any errors at all – of course there are going to be anomalies. How you make such a cock-up in the most mapped town in the kingdom is beyond me.

What’s also disappointing, is that Time Team found plenty of interesting 18th Century finds, such as military uniform buttons and clay pipes, but these weren’t shown in the programme – probably because the aim of the programme was to look at the medieval hospital. Yet it would also have been interesting to find out more about Portsmouth’s history as a garrison town. All of the finds, incidentally, have been handed over to Portsmouth City Museums and Records Service, as the local Museum.

Predictably we also had the ubiquitous Portsmouth Grammar School kids turning up in their blazers, as always happens when anything of any significance happens in Portsmouth. You would think there aren’t any other schools in the city. A chance to involve other young people in Portsmouth’s history was missed.

So, essentially, much research, three days digging, much expertise and resources were spent telling us that what we already knew was there, was in fact, actually there all along! I’m really not sure what the programme achieved at all. It seems to be more about the programme than any kind of historical importance. Don’t get me wrong, Time Team have done some fascinating things over the years, and I used to love it when I was younger, but finding out about how the programme works behind the scenes has been kind of like meeting your idols, only to feel let down.

If anyone would like some light entertainment, Time Team at Governors Green can be watched on Channel 4 On Demmand here.

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Summer of Blood by Dan Jones

(Review by Scott Daly)

A 3-word review on the front of this book reads like this: ‘Bold. Surprising. Unputdownable’. Within that trio the one I would most agree with is ‘Surprising’. You see, I was most motivated to buy and read this book by my lack of knowledge of this subject. Of course, I knew the famous names involved: Wat Tyler, John Ball, and the boy King Richard II, but as far as the actual events surrounding the Peasants Revolt of 1381, my expertise was decidedly limited.

I think one of the problems people have when revisiting the Peasants Revolt is the connotations that the term ‘Peasants Revolt’ incurs. It’s extremely easy to think of illiterate countryside yokels banding together in an ill-planned march on London equipped with burning pitchforks and agricultural instruments as weapons. However, upon reading Dan Jones’s Summer of Blood, I found that most of my pre-conceived notions of this historical incident were ultimately subverted. The ‘Peasants’ of 1381 from Kent and Essex were in Medieval terms fairly affluent. Although little is known of Wat Tyler now, he was clearly a talented general with a flair for focusing the anger of the mob. John Ball, his ‘partner in crime’ as it were, was an egalitarian preacher who was somewhat of a thorn in the side of the church establishment. Egalitarian?! Do the words ‘medieval’ and ‘egalitarian’ ever go together in the same sentence? It’s also extremely surprising to read about how the mob of 1381 went about targeting the perceived wrongdoers in the highest echelons of society. The real figure of hate was John of Gaunt, who was effectively the ruler of England during King Richard II’s minority. At all times during the revolt, the rebels were actually outwardly loyal to the young King. They were more concerned with removing men like Gaunt and the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury from the positions of power they enjoyed during the Kings minority. Sudbury was beheaded in the Tower of London, and John of Gaunt’s great Savoy Palace was burned after the rebels entered London.

Where this book really succeeds is in the way it delivers the narrative of the events during the Summer of Blood. Unusually for a book in the popular history genre, Jones uses very short chapters, which serves to really drive the story along at a ferocious pace. This also really brought home to me just how quickly the crisis spiralled out of control for the Royal party, and just how close the rebels came to effecting a dramatic upheaval of English society. It’s also probably fair to say that the events of The Peasants Revolt do lend themselves rather well to this type of historical writing. The meeting between the King and the rebels at Smithfield is the stuff of legend, and its dramatic resolution almost unbelievable. However, whilst helping to quicken the pace of the narrative, the shortness of the chapters leaves the book as a whole feeling a little light. I personally felt it could have been at least 50 pages longer, which would have helped to embellish the causes and consequences of the revolt with more details and explanations.

In the end though, it’s appropriate to end this review in this way: The Peasants of 1381 were protesting against a poll tax levied by the rich who were in control of government and wanted the poor people of the country to bear the brunt of it. Are we basically living in the same type of society today as the peasants were 600 years ago?

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Robin Hood – the film review

A few days ago I went to see the new Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott Film Robin Hood.

Now, Robin Hood is one of those great myths of folklore that everyone knows. Except, there is no real concrete proof about any of the details. Sure, there are probably grains of truth there somewhere in the midsts of time, but like most myths, its likely that they have undergone a game of chinese whispers.

This film does not pander to the perceived wisdom of Robin Hood – if you’re looking for something to get penickity over every little ‘historical accuracy’, you’ll enjoy this one. Its a liberal reworking of the story. The story begins with Richard the Lionheart’s Army beseiging a castle in France on the way home from the Crusades – pretty inaccurate to say the least. There the Lionheart is killed. Robin of Locksley was killed in the aftermath, and his identity was assumed by Robin Longstride (Crowe), an Archer, accompanied by his band of men.

Upon returning to England, Longstride delivers the Crown to the new King John. Longstride and his men then made their way to Nottingham, where Crowe’s character fully assumes Locksley’s character. Meanwhile King John’s ally Godrey proves to be a French agent who is fermenting rebellion and a French invasion. John sees the light in time, and the Baron’s join forces to repel the invasion at the white cliffs of Dover. After their victory, however, John reneges on his promise of freedoms for his people. Only then, at the end of the film, do Longstride and his men become outlaws and take to the woods.

Once you get away from the fact that its different, its actually quite an imaginative reworking. Sure, its not historically accurate, and it doesnt fit in with the ingrained myth. But Robin Hood has only ever been a myth anyway, and is it such a bad thing if you digress from a myth? I think in terms of the social history – clothes, terms of address, behaviour, lifestyles – it seems pretty accurate to me.

Aside from the historical considerations, its a very enjoyable film – as you might expect the action scenes are great. There are a handful of Crowe-esque action film cliches, but perhaps that is to be expected. And, interestingly, the ending leaves a sequel not only possible, but likely.

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Portsmouth Paper #1 – Portchester Castle by Barry Cunliffe

Over 80 Portsmouth Papers have been published since their inception in 1967. Although the rate of publication has slowed somewhat, they remain an amazing resource for the local historian, and make Portsmouth one of the most written-about cities for its size in Britain. I know they came in handy when I writing my dissertation. Over the coming weeks I will be bringing you a summary of some of the best numbers in the series.

One of the most ironic things about the first ever Portsmouth Paper, is that its subject is not in Portsmouth at all. Yet Portchester Castle was one of the earliest and most important factors in human activity in the Portsmouth area, so the cross-boundary activity can surely be forgiven!

In 1967 Barry Cunliffe was already one of Britain’s most foremost Archaeologists. Now, 43 years later, Sir Barry Cunliffe is retired, after a career that culminated as Professor of International Archaeology at the University of Oxford. He has also served as the President of the British Council for Archaeology, a Governor of the Museum of London, the interim chair of English Heritage, and he is currently the Chair of the Friends of the British Museum. Professor Cunliffe is even one of the references on Mick Aston’s CV!

Excavations began at Portchester Castle in 1961. The first three years were spent excavating the Roman walls. Focus then shifted to the inner bailey of the Castle, with digging beginning in the South West quarter.

The first traces of occupation at Portchester date from the First Century AD, in the form of small amounts of pottery and a few post-holes. It is known that in AD 43 the Roman Fleet was stationed in Britain, and a system of Roman forts and fleets remained on the south and east coasts for several centuries. Coins found in the walls at Portchester date their construction to some time after AD 268. The walls were a significant feature, being 10 feet thick and up to 20 feet high. 24,000 cubic yards of flint and mortar were used. Cuniffe gives us a vivid picture of how the walls were built, and includes a fascinatng picture showing the join between the work of two Roman building gangs. Outside of this main wall projected a number of D-shaped Bastions.

Gates are always bound to be a weak point in any fortification. At Portchester the two gates are found on the ‘Land’ and ‘Water’ sides. Both of these sections of the castle have been heavily modified and rebuilt over the centuries, and detailed illustrations show the various stages of rebuiding. Aside from the gates, evidence of Roman buildings has been found in the inner bailey, such as latrines. The rubbish deposits found in the Castle give us a very full picture of Garrison life in the Castle – animal bones, for instance.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the site was not occupied militarily. However, it is likely that people used the Castle as shelter. Ancient Anglo-Saxon chronicles tell us that in AD 501 a man named Port landed at Portsmouth and killed a noble man. Excavations at Portchester have found evidence of Saxon activity at the Castle, however there is no link to the mysterious Port. However Portchester is extremely significant, as so few examples of Saxon settlement remain. From the 10th Century documentary sources relating to Portchester are much more common, and it is clear that parts of the Watergate in particular are of late-Saxon origin.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the Castle found a new lease of life. The Domesday Book tells us that the Castle had a hall, and excavations in 1965 and 1966 uncovered its location. It seems that the 11th Century Castle contained a manorial hall, and other associated buildings, possibly of pre-Norman origin. By the early part of the twelfth century the Castle was in Royal hands. A programme of military and domestic works took place, including the rebuilding of both gates. An inner bailey was constructed, as a residential area and an inner stronghold. According to Cunliffe, the Norman builders even robbed several feet from the thickness of the outer Roman walls. The large keep remains the most impressive building in the Castle complex.

The mid twelfth to mid thirteenth centuries saw numerous modifications. the Keep was increased in height, and a number of smaller buildings were built inside the inner bailey – halls, kitchens and living rooms. Kings frequently used the Castle while hunting game in the Forest of Bere, or as a stopping point before sailing to France. Although the Royal retinue would have inhabited the inner bailey, the outer bailey would have been occupied by many people. Shortly after 1133 an Augustinian Priory was built in the south-east quarter, however twenty years later the monks left for Southwick! The Priory buildings continued to be used as St Mary’s Church.

The importance of Portchester gradually receded, due to the growing importance of Portsmouth. However Richard II continued to use the Castle as a residential retreat, and the subsequent buildings can adequately be described as a Palace.

This is a masterful Paper indeed. Eloquently written by THE authority on archaeology, it is informative, well illustrated with graphics and photographs – including some great archaeological drawings. Perhaps it is not as well referenced as other Papers, but it is after all an archaeological report, and not a pure work of history. Over 40 years old, the first Portsmouth Paper also remains one of the best.

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Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.

Crenellations

Crenellations

There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.

Watergate

Watergate

Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.

Latrines

Latrines

On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.

Arch

Arch

After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.

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Filed under Ancient History, Architecture, Local History, Medieval history, out and about, Uncategorized

Saladin – Hero of Islam by Geoffrey Hindley

Saladin

Saladin has a vaunted place in Medieval history, normally tagged along with ‘Crusades’ and ‘Richard the Lionheart’. Its a common feature of history that folklore will find two adversaries and link them together irretrevably. But does this ‘versus’ school of history take anything away from the individuals concerned?

One of the problems about our understanding of Saladin, is that his place in history normally begins when Richard the Lionheart landed in the Holy Land. When in fact, he had a long career much predating the Third Crusade. While western readers may not be particularly interested in anything that happened pre-Lionheart, it is vital to understand how Saladin’s early life led to his development into one of the first – and indeed very few – leaders who managed to achieve pan-islamic unity in a common cause.

I must admit to having trouble following the early chapters, with the numerous caliphs, emirs, vizirs and sultans that existed throughout the Middle East in the 12th Century. As I’m not exactly a Medieval Historian, it is very hard to get to grips with the political situation that affected the Crusades. But what I can substantiate from Hindley’s account, is that Middle East politics were incredibly complex, even 850 years ago. It was an incredible achievement by Saladin to unite such disparate groups.

What does the story of Saladin tell us about the modern era, particularly regarding past troubles in Palestine? Firstly, that viewing the issue of the Middle East in terms of religion versus religion is not adequate – in 1189 islamic unity was extremely fragile to say the least. Also, that there was a significant amount of chivalry between the two sides. Attempts to paint one side or the other as infidels were largely a construction. Saladin much admired the dedication of the crusaders in fighting for their cause, whereas many crusaders keenly absorbed eastern culture.

It would be all to easy to express revulsion at the frequent massacres and atrocites that were committed during the Crusades. But is this right? We are guilty of looking through modern eyes at events that took place long ago, in an era of completely different social codes – the war crime is a twentieth century phenomenon. Yet in the same context, codes of chivalry were prevalent among Christian and Muslim alike.

Perhaps these are events that modern day inhabitants of the Middle East might like to reflect on? Far too often in history old misdemeanours and unpleasant events are dragged up and misused as justification for yet more bloodshed. While past events should not be forgotten, they should be learnt from. When Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade faltered just before Jerusalem, Saladin promised that Christian pilgrims would be allowed ino Jerusalem unhindered. An example of magnanitude that encaspsulates an extraordinary man.

Saladin – Hero of Islam is published by Pen and Sword

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The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I must confess to being quite tired of narrative military history. As much as ‘the history of…’ accounts are important, in that they are the building blocks of history, they can be rather dry and predictable. I much prefer to read books that either take a long view and look at trends, changes and continuities, or attempt to drill down and investigate mysteries, explode myths or answer questions.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to pick up this book by John Keegan for the princely sum of £2.99. John Keegan is one of the main figures in late twentieth century school of military historiography, alongside other figures such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Terraine and Michael Howard. Among Keegan’s books that I have read and enjoyed are Churchill’s Generals – a study of senior British Army officers in the Second World War – and Six Armies in Normandy – A look at the national contingents that fought in the Battle of Normandy.

I often feel that military histories that look at just one battle, at one particular point in time, are like listening to one particular second in a much longer symphony. What becomes before and after makes all the difference, by isolating it we remove it from its natural habitat. Therefore I much admire this work, which sees Keegan looking at the human experience of war over hundreds of years. To do this in detail is a tall order, so three case studies are used – Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. Each provides an extremely useful yardstick for comparison to what came before and what came after – what changed, and why? What stayed the same?

Keegan does very well to make some very complex events more understandable – such is the essence of well-written history, after all. An approach that I particularly like is breaking each battle down into the different kinds of combat that were experiences – ie at Agincourt various combinations of Archer, footsoldier and knight; at Waterloo infantry, cavalry and artillery; and at the Somme infantry, artilley and to a lesser extent machine gunners. What is noticeable is how the change in combat was motivated by technology – from Agincourt to Waterloo the development of gunpowder, and from Waterloo to the Somme by rifling, more efficient high explosives and machine guns.

Against this framework looks at more human factors – how the social composition of the armies in question evolved, and how the development of weapons changed the type of wounds that a soldier might expect to suffer. Keegan even considers such interesting points as historical trends in looting. A salient point, however, is one that seems obvious to us only after we read it – that over the time in question battles involve more and more people, over a bigger and bigger space, and lasted for longer and longer. Such was the evolution towards total war.

Critics of Keegan might point out that he gives little consideration to political factors, but personally I find his refreshing. Im not sure if any Tommy Atkins was particulary worried about politics when lying wounded in the Mud at Agincourt, Waterloo or the Somme. As important as Clausewitz’s maxim is about war being the pursuit of politics through other means, does politics really have to overshadow every facet of military history? If we are studying strategy, yes. But when it come to the face of battle, no.

My only criticism is that the Somme was coming up for 100 years ago, and thus Keegan’s arguments are somewhat adrift, bearing in mind we are now in the nuclear age. Perhaps a new edition including an example from the Second World War might be pertinent, and put the Somme in greater context than leaving it as a bookend?

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Filed under Book of the Week, historiography, Medieval history, Napoleonic War, World War One