Thursday, 31 May 2018

Phillack and the Hayle Estuary in the Late Roman and early medieval periods

The existence of early medieval Christian and secular centres in the Hayle Estuary, Cornwall, was mentioned in a previous post. The aim of the following post is simply to share—for the sake of interest—a number of pictures of some of the key sites and finds from this area, not least the important late fourth-/fifth-century chi-rho stone now built into Phillack Church, along with a brief discussion of the Late and post-Roman archaeological evidence from here.

St Ives Bay and the Hayle Estuary on Christopher Saxton's 1576 map of Cornwall, showing Phillack, Lelant, St Ives and Gwithian (image: PD via the BSJW Trust).

A topographic map of the Hayle Estuary overlaid on top of the satellite image of the area. Marked on the map are Phillack church, Carnsew fort, Lelant church, and the early chapel and fourth-/fifth-century burial site just to the north-east of Lelant church, marked here by a simple cross. The coastal zone, estuary and low-lying land is shown in blue, with the surrounding higher land shown in green, yellow, orange and purple, in order of increasing height; note, with regard to the early extent of the East Pool of the estuary before the modern era, the British Geological Survey map of this area accords relatively well with this topographic map, showing Holocene tidal flat (estuarine) deposits extending eastwards beyond the current limit of the estuary across to approximately the A30 Loggans Moor Roundabout. Click here for a larger version of this map (image: C. R. Green, based on a topographic map from topographic-map.com that incorporates satellite imagery © 2018 Google, TerraMetrics, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, and map data © 2018 Google, used in accordance with their attribution guidelines).

The Hayle Estuary is one of the few natural safe landing-ports of any size on the north coast of Cornwall and, as such, it is perhaps unsurprising that there should be evidence for activity here during the Roman and early medieval eras. In this light, the evidence from Phillack (or Egloshayle), which overlooks the East Pool of the Hayle Estuary may be of particular interest. A significant quantity of mainly Late Roman coins have been discovered from a number of sites in Phillack in recent years, with this regionally unusual concentration of Late Roman non-hoarded coinage including coins from eastern Mediterranean mints such as Alexandria and Heraclea that are rarely represented amongst site-finds in Britain.(1) Needless to say, such finds have attracted attention, being both supportive of the idea that the Hayle Estuary might have functioned as a Roman-era landing-port and also of there having potentially been a direct maritime trading link between Cornwall and the Mediterranean in the fourth century AD. Any such trading links between the north coast of Cornwall and Mediterranean would obviously prefigure the well-known post-Roman trading links between these areas, which are primarily evidenced by extensive finds of fifth- to sixth-century eastern Mediterranean imported pottery in the county (as discussed in a number of previous posts), and, as such, are of considerable interest, with the coins found at Phillack thus perhaps reflecting items lost or exchanged by seaborne long-distance traders who landed in the Hayle Estuary after following similar trade-routes to those in use in the following centuries.(2)

Two fourth-century AD Roman coins minted in the eastern Mediterranean and found on two different sites at Phillack. The top coin is a copper alloy nummus of Constantine I, mint of Heraclea, c. AD 330–3; the bottom coin is a copper alloy nummus of Constantius II, mint of Alexandria, c. AD 340. Click here for a larger version of these coins (images: PAS, CORN-367F46 and CORN-6D9753).

Phillack church; the church here was extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but contains an unusual amount of physical evidence for post-Roman/early medieval activity. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Moving into the fifth and sixth centuries, there is good evidence for Phillack and the Hayle Estuary continuing to be a site of some significance. First and foremost, links with the eastern Mediterranean are indicated by the discovery at Phillack of a rim-sherd of late fifth- or early sixth-century Phocaean Red Slip-Ware from what is now western Turkey associated with a number of pre-Norman long-cist graves, some of which were cut into the underlying bedrock, during a limited excavation of the edge of the churchyard due to road-widening work in 1973.(3) Second, an important and very early chi-rho stone was found in the church walls during nineteenth century rebuilding work and was subsequently incorporated into the gable of the south porch. Charles Thomas has argued that this stone almost certainly dates from the early to mid-fifth century AD and the stone has subsequently been compared to early chi-rhos from the continent and eastern Mediterranean, which is intriguing given the above finds from Phillack and the potential Early Byzantine origins of St Ia, the patron saint of nearby St Ives.(4)

Other evidence and finds from Phillack develop this picture further. For example, a probably late sixth- or early seventh-century memorial stone inscribed with the name CLOTUALI MOBRATTI still stands in the churchyard and the church also seems to have been the focus for more than a hundred early cist burials, found both within the current churchyard and in its immediate vicinity, whilst Phillack's original patron saint Felec is named in a tenth-century list of Cornish saints, suggesting an early origin and significance. Taken together, this concentration of early medieval evidence has been considered indicative of Phillack probably being a significant and very early Christian centre and burial site from the fifth century onwards, potentially one that was monastic in character and comparable with early Welsh monasteries such as Llandough, and Charles Thomas moreover raises the possibility that Christianity may have been introduced to here via the sea from Gaul or even further afield.(5)

A probably fifth-century AD small chi-rho stone from the porch gable of the church at Phillack, or Egloshayle, photographed with raking evening light to show up the surface detail. This chi-rho which has been compared to early chi-rhos from the continent and eastern Mediterranean, e.g. S. M. Pearce, South-Western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 2004), p. 244, and C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff 1994), pp. 199–200. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

A close-up view of the fifth-century Chi-Rho stone from Phillack; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Left: drawing of the Phillack chi-rho stone (photo: C. R. Green, from an original drawing by Charles Thomas in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro). Right: drawing of the other early chi-rho stone found in Cornwall, from St Helen's Chapel, Cape Cornwall, near St Just; the original was taken to St Just church where it was displayed for a while, until it was apparently thrown down a well in the Rectory garden in the nineteenth century by a Rector who objected to it as being 'Roman Catholic' (image: Langdon 1893, plate I, Internet Archive). Click here for a larger version of this combined image.

A perhaps late sixth- or seventh-century memorial stone inscribed with the name CLOTUALI MOBRATTI in the churchyard at Phillack, and a slightly modified drawing of the lettering from R. A. S. Macalister, Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (Dublin, 1945), vol. 1 (images: C. R. Green & Macalister 1945).

In addition to the finds from Phillack above the East Pool, there are also a number of interesting features around the Carnsew Pool, to the south of the mouth of the Hayle Estuary. This is the location for Carnsew Hillfort, a small coastal multivallate hillfort that commands the entrance to the Hayle Estuary and sits atop a low cliff around 15 metres high. The hillfort—which has been partially destroyed by ploughing, a deep railway cutting, and the construction of an ornamental park along its ramparts in 1845 ('The Plantation')—dates originally from the Iron Age, but there are indications of potential later activity. One of these is a Late Roman hoard of several thousand coins apparently deposited in the late third century in a bronze container; this was found a little to the west of the hillfort in 1825, when workmen were taking away the upper part of the cliff and the adjoining field during the construction of the Hayle causeway. Even more interesting is a late fifth- or very early sixth-century AD burial and associated inscribed memorial stone that originally stood at the foot of the hillfort on its eastern side. The stone pillar found by the grave in 1843 contains an unusually long Latin inscription running to ten lines which has been read as follows: 'Here in peace lately went to rest Cunaide. Here in the grave she lies. She lived 33 years.'(6) In light of this, it has been suggested that Carnsew Hillfort may well have had a role to play in our period, perhaps as a secondary centre of secular power within the post-Roman kingdom of Dumnonia, complementing an ecclesiastical centre at Phillack, with such a centre potentially being responsible for the distribution of Mediterranean imports within western Cornwall.(7)

Carnsew Hillfort, Hayle; the photo shows the north-east corner of this multivallate coastal hillfort, which was somewhat landscaped in the nineteenth century to become 'The Plantation'. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

The view from Carnsew Hillfort, which commands the entrance to the Hayle Estuary and sits atop a low cliff around 15 metres high. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Left: photograph of the late fifth- or very early sixth-century Cunaide Stone; this originally stood at the foot of the hillfort by a grave, but was set into a wall of The Plantation (a Victorian park created from the landscaped ramparts of Carnsew Hillfort) after its rediscovery in 1843 and was subsequently removed to Hayle Heritage Centre in December 2017. Right: drawing of the lettering on the stone from R. A. S. Macalister, Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (Dublin, 1945), vol. 1; note, Charles Thomas reads the inscription differently to Macalister: HIC PACE NVP(er) REQVIEVIT CVNAIDE HIC (IN) TVMVLO IACIT VIXIT ANNOS XXXIII, 'Here in peace lately went to rest Cunaide. Here in the grave she lies. She lived 33 years.' (Photograph and image: CISP & Macalister 1945).

A number of coins from a Late Roman hoard deposited in the late third century in a bronze container on the edge of the Hayle Estuary; it was found a little to the west of Carnsew Hillfort in 1825, when workmen were taking away the upper part of the cliff and the adjoining field during the construction of the Hayle causeway. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Phillack Church seen from Carnsew Hillfort, Hayle, with the sand dunes of The Towans behind. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

If there were arguably Late/post-Roman centres within the Hayle Estuary at Phillack and Carnsew, it is worth noting that they didn't stand alone. For example, on the western side of the entrance to the estuary at Lelant there is a probably fourth- or fifth-century AD burial site and an apparently early chapel located close to the cliff edge that was uncovered during the laying of the railway to St Ives in the late nineteenth century, and it has moreover been suggested that the churchyard within which Lelant parish church now sits may preserve the rectangular platform of a Roman fort that was well placed to control access to the estuary.(8) Likewise of potential interest is the Neolithic tor enclosure and Iron Age multivallate hillfort of Trencrom Hill, which is located 1.5 miles to the west of the Hayle Estuary. This impressive site not only overlooks both the Hayle Estuary and Carnsew Hillfort, but also has good views across St Ives Bay—whose skyline it dominates—to the north and Mount's Bay/St Michael's Mount on the south coast. Although the site is unexcavated, an early medieval inscribed memorial stone has been identified in a stile at the foot of the hill and there are reports of early medieval grass-marked wares having been found on the fort, which might offer a degree of support for Charles Thomas's suggestion of some sort of role for Trencrom Hill in the post-Roman era.(9)

Lelant Church and churchyard as seen from Carnsew Hillfort, Hayle, showing the intervisibility of the two sites; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

A closer view of Lelant's rectangular churchyard which sits around 1.5 metres above the surrounding ground; it has been suggested that the churchyard may preserve the rectangular platform of a Roman fort that was well placed to control access to the estuary. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

View of the entrance to the Hayle Estuary from the north-east corner of Lelant churchyard; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Trencrom Hill as seen above the Hayle Estuary near to Carnsew Hillfort; the hillfort dominates the western skyline both from the estuary and from St Ives Bay. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

A view of St Ives Bay and the entrance to the Hayle Estuary from Trencrom Hill; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

St Michael's Mount and Mount's Bay on the south coast of Cornwall as seen from Trencrom Hill; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

Notes

1.     R. D. Penhallurick, Ancient and Early Medieval Coins from Cornwall & Scilly, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 45 (London, 2009), pp. 183–90; M. Allen, P. De Jersey & S. Moorhead, 'Coin Register 2007', British Numismatic Journal, 77 (2007), p. 316; A. Tyacke, 'The work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Cornwall', Cornish Archaeology, 50 (2011), pp. 71–6 at pp. 74–5; Portable Antiquities Scheme database, e.g. CORN-6D9753, a copper alloy nummus of Constantius II, mint of Alexandria, c. AD 340, and CORN-367F46, a copper alloy nummus of Constantine I, mint of Heraclea, c. AD 330–33.
2.     S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74 at pp. 264 (n. 4) & 266; I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 377, 423–4; S. Moorhead, 'A group of fourth-century Roman coins from Phillack Towans, Cornwall', Portable Antiquities Scheme Annual Report 2005/06 (London, 2006), pp. 56–7; S. Moorhead, 'Curator's report: site scatter of 35 Roman coins', Portable Antiquities Scheme entry IOW-85AAB2.
3.     C. Thomas, Phillack Church (Gwithian, 1990), pp. 24–5; C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994), pp. 197–8; C. Thomas, A Provisional List of Imported Pottery in Post-Roman Western Britain and Ireland, Institute of Cornish Studies Special Report No. 7 (Redruth, 1981), p. 6; C. Thomas, 'The context of Tintagel: a new model for the diffusion of post-Roman Mediterranean imports', Cornish Archaeology, 27 (1988), 7–25 at p. 22.
4.     C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994), pp. 198–200; S. M. Pearce, South-Western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester, 2004), pp. 12, 149–51, 244; E. Okasha, Corpus of Early Christian Inscribed Stones of South-west Britain (Leicester, 2003), pp. 205–07.
5.     C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994), pp. 197–8, 206, 284–6; S. Turner, 'Making a Christian landscape: early medieval Cornwall', in M. Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, 300–1300 (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 171–94 at pp. 175–6, 178; S. Turner, Making a Christian Landscape: How Christianity Shaped the Countryside in Early-Medieval Cornwall, Devon and Wessex (Exeter, 2006), pp. 35–6; I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 39, 132–3, 138, 377–81; C. Thomas, Phillack Church (Gwithian, 1990), pp. 9–10, 25.
6.     For Carnsew Hillfort, see Historic England, 'Small multivallate hillfort, early Christian memorial stone and C19 landscaped paths at Carnsew', List entry no. 1006720. Details of the Roman coin hoard found just to the west are in R. D. Penhallurick, Ancient and Early Medieval Coins from Cornwall & Scilly, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 45 (London, 2009), pp. 50–1. For the probably fifth-century burial at Carnsew, see the extensive discussion in C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994), pp. 190–4, translation of the inscription from Carnsew at p. 193.
7.     On Carnsew as a potential important secondary centre of power within the Dumnonian kingdom, see C. Thomas, 'The context of Tintagel. A new model for the diffusion of post-Roman Mediterranean imports', Cornish Archaeology, 27 (1988), 7–25, especially p. 16 and fig. 3 (p. 17); C. Thomas, Tintagel: Arthur and Archaeology (London, 1993), pp. 95–6; C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff, 1994), pp. 193–5.
8.     For the fourth-/fifth-century burial site and early chapel at Lelant, see I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 134 (fig. 45), 375 (fig. 201), and 379–81; C. Noall, 'Nineteenth-Century discoveries at Lelant', Cornish Archaeology, 3 (1964), 34–6; Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. 31061; C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff 1994), p. 198, fig. 12.1. For the possible Roman origins of the current Lelant graveyard, see N. Cahill, Hayle Historical Assessment, Cornwall: Main Report (Truro, 2000), p. 21; Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. 140942; P. Herring et al, 'Early medieval Cornwall', Cornish Archaeology, 50 (2011), 263–86 at pp. 269–70.
9.     For the suggestion that Trencrom Hill may have had a significant role in post-Roman western Cornwall, see C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff 1994), p. 194; for the early medieval inscribed stone, see Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. 31051 and Celtic Inscribed Stones Project TCROM/1, online at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/cisp/database/stone/tcrom_1.html; for the report of early medieval grass-marked pottery from Trencrom Hill, see C. Thomas, 'Evidence for post-Roman occupation of Chun Castle, Cornwall', Antiquaries Journal, 36 (1956), 75–8 at p. 78.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

An eleventh-century Chinese coin in Britain and the evidence for East Asian contacts in the medieval period

This post is concerned with a rather curious and unique find of an eleventh-century Northern Song dynasty coin from China in Cheshire, looking first at its archaeological context before going on to explore the evidence for a degree of contact between people from East Asia and Britain in the medieval era, a topic that is of interest whatever the origins of this particular coin may be.

A Northern Song dynasty coin from China, minted during the Xining reign between 1068 and 1077, found in Cheshire; Click here for a larger version of this picture (image: PAS).

The coin in question was found in the Vale Royal area of Cheshire and has been identified by the British Museum as a cast copper alloy Chinese coin from the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960–1127), minted during the Xining reign period of Emperor Shenzong of Song between 1068 and 1077. Curiously, it appears to be a unique find from Britain—40 individual Chinese coins and one hoard are recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but only this eleventh-century example is of medieval date, with all of the other 146 Chinese coins being minted between the mid-seventeenth and early twentieth centuries. Needless to say, this coin has consequently been the subject of an understandable degree of scepticism, with the PAS record suggesting that it is 'doubtful that this is a genuine medieval find... more likely a more recent loss from an curated collection'. The aim of the following post is simply to ask whether it is at all possible that such a coin might have arrived in Britain during the medieval era, and, in doing so, review the evidence for contacts between East Asia and Britain in that period whatever our conclusion on this coin may be.

Looking first at the coin itself, recent losses or deliberate modern depositions of exotic finds are certainly encountered in Britain, including a group of 107 Chinese coins dated 1659 to 1850 found buried together at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria; another group of four coins from Foxhall, Suffolk; and a lovely Sasanian carnelian finger ring from East Sussex that was found with an odd collection of material of various dates including a modern replica of a Byzantine coin. Nonetheless, although the possibility of a loss from a curated collection certainly cannot be discounted, it can be perhaps overused as an explanation for 'surprising' finds—as Martin Biddle has observed, 'the proverbial absent-minded college don or cathedral canon, dropping items of his collection here, there and everywhere... has never seemed a very convincing character', and in recent years the hyper-scepticism over finds of at least some exotic coins in Britain has abated somewhat.(1) Given the above, it is worth looking at the local context of this medieval Chinese coin, to assess whether there are any positive reasons to believe it is part of such a 'suspicious' grouping of finds or deposited curated collection. The coin itself is one of a discrete group of 24 finds found in an area less than 100 metres in all directions from the findspot, and aside from the coin being considered here, none of these other finds appear especially 'suspicious' or exotic. They consist of two worn Roman coins (a common find across England, with 263,791 recorded on the PAS as of March 2018); two late medieval lead weights, two pieces of medieval copper-alloy casting waste, and two medieval or post-medieval weights; and fifteen post-medieval finds, dating from the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries and ranging from coins of Elizabeth I to rings, trade weights and musket balls. All told, the post-Roman finds from the site suggest relatively unremarkable activity on the site from c. 1300 to c. 1750, with nothing else found that might hint at a deliberate exotic deposition or loss from a curated collection.

Looking more widely at the context of such a coin, whilst no other medieval Chinese coins are known from Britain, this find would not stand entirely alone as a medieval-era East Asian import to these islands if it is genuine, with two British sites having apparently produced such items from stratified contexts. One of these medieval imports is a sherd of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain from a small cup or bowl that was found in a late fourteenth-century context at Lower Brook Street, Winchester. The other import is a small piece of bronze with the character 藤 engraved upon it, possibly representing the name 藤原, Fujiwara, apparently found in a context of c. 1300 in the north bank of the Thames at London.(2) Of course, both finds are markedly later in date than the apparently eleventh-century coin found in Cheshire, as are the other finds from the site where the coin was discovered (c. 1300–1750) and, indeed, the other non-textile East Asian imports known from elsewhere in medieval Europe, such as the fragments of a small Chinese qingbai bowl that were recovered from a late thirteenth-century context in the medieval castle at Lucera, Italy.(3) However, this chronological difference is perhaps not such a major problem as might be assumed. Northern Song coins appear to have been minted in exceptional quantities and to have remained in circulation long after their initial minting date, so that in the fourteenth century around 88% of the coins both in circulation within China and exported outside of it seem to have been actually minted under the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126). As such, if the Northern Song coin from Cheshire is a genuine medieval import then it might quite credibly have arrived at any point up to perhaps the late fourteenth century, resolving the above issue.(4)

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent in the late thirteenth century (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Such a potential thirteenth or fourteenth-century context for the arrival of an eleventh-century Chinese coin in Britain is not only supported by the archaeological evidence, but also by documentary sources. These texts make reference to both the presence of people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia and the presence of people who have, or may have, travelled from these regions in Britain during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For example, the Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck (d. c. 1293) encountered a man of English origin whilst visiting Mongolia in 1254 AD. The man in question, named Basil, was living at Karakorum (near Kharkhorin, Mongolia), the capital of the Mongol Empire between 1235 and 1260, and is described as 'the son of an Englishman'; he is also probably the 'nephew of a bishop' that William later mentions that he met at Karakorum and who he states was captured by the Mongols at Belgrade.(5) Moreover, Basil is not the only Englishman known to have been living among the Mongols during the mid-thirteenth century. Ivo of Narbonne, for example, reported in a letter copied by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora that the 'prince of Dalmatia' captured eight fugitives in 1242 during the surprise withdrawal of the Mongols from Central Europe, just as they were at the gates of Vienna, and that these captives included 'an Englishman' who
had twice come as an envoy and interpreter from the king of Tattars to the king of Hungary, and plainly threatened and warned them of the evils which afterwards happened, unless he should give up himself and his kingdom to be subject to the Tattars.(6)
This English envoy of the Mongols (Tatars/'Tartars') was apparently an exile from England who had lost all he owned to gambling at Acre, Israel, and then wandered 'in a shameful state of want' further east into modern Iraq and beyond before the Mongols persuaded him to join them due to his apparent skill with languages, at which point he then travelled with them until he returned to Europe and was finally captured in Austria. Given that he had clearly travelled huge distances with the Mongols and, most especially, his role as envoy and interpreter for the Mongol khan, it seems possible that he was an earlier English visitor than Basil to the Mongol capital of Karakorum, Mongolia.

A detail from Andrea di Bonaiuto's fresco 'The Way of Salvation/The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant', c. 1365–8, with the figures at the centre identified by Jacques Paviot as an English knight of the Garter talking to a Mongol (Paviot, 2000, p. 318; Delvin, 1929); the fresco is located in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Click here for a larger version of this image (image: Wikimedia Commons).

In addition to individual English people who were living amongst the Mongols on their own account or as slaves in the thirteenth century, there were also direct diplomatic contacts between Mongol rulers and the English then. Of particular note is the evidence for unidentified Mongol envoys ('Tartars') actually crossing the Channel to visit England in 1264, much to the apparent disgruntlement of the papal legate Guy Foulques—the future Pope Clement IV—who waiting in Boulogne for his own authorisation to cross!(7) Likewise, in 1287–8 the Turkic/Chinese Christian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma, originally from Beijing, China, visited Europe as an emissary of the Mongol Ilkhanate that stretched from Iraq to northern Afghanistan and met with King Edward I of England in Gascony:
And they went forth from that place, that is to say, from Paris, to go to the king of England, to Kasonia [Gascony]. And having arrived in twenty days at their city [Saint-Sever], the inhabitants of the city went forth to meet them, and they asked them, "Who are you?"And Rabban Sauma and his companions replied, "We are ambassadors, and we have come from beyond the eastern seas, and we are envoys of the King, and of the Patriarch, and the Kings of the Mongols."And the people made haste and went to the king and informed him [of their arrival], and the king welcomed them gladly, and the people introduced them into his presence. And those who were with Rabban Sauma straightway gave to the king the Pukdana [i.e. letter of authorisation] of King Arghun, and the gifts which he had sent to him, and the Letter of Mar Catholicus. And [King Edward] rejoiced greatly, and he was especially glad when Rabban Sauma talked about the matter of Jerusalem. And he said, "We the kings of these cities bear upon our bodies the sign of the Cross, and we have no subject of thought except this matter. And my mind is relieved on the subject about which I have been thinking, when I hear that King Arghun thinks as I think."And the king commanded Rabban Sauma to celebrate the Eucharist, and he performed the Glorious Mysteries; and the king and his officers of state stood up, and the king partook of the Sacrament, and made a great feast that day. 
Then Rabban Sauma said to the king, "We beseech you, O king, to give [your servants] in order to show us whatever churches and shrines there are in this country, so that when we go back to the Children of the East we may give them descriptions of them."And the king replied, "Thus shall you say to King Arghun and to all the Orientals: We have seen a thing than which there is nothing more wonderful, that is to say, that in the countries of the Franks there are not two Confessions of Faith, but only one Confession of Faith, namely, that which confesses Jesus Christ; and all the Christians confess it."And King Edward gave us many gifts and money for the expenses of the road.(8)
The route taken by Rabban Bar Sauma during his journey from Beijing to Gascony in the 1280s (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Yet another Mongol envoy named Buscarello de Ghizolfi, a Genoese adventurer who had settled in Persia, visited London in January 1290, accompanied by three squires who were probably themselves Mongols. Further envoys were sent from the Mongol Ilkhanate later that year, including a Mongol named Zagan and his nephew Gorgi, who were baptized by the Pope before being sent on to England on 2 December 1290 (accompanied again by Buscarello de Ghizolfi), and a certain Saabedin Archaon—a Nestorian cleric who had previously travelled to the west with Rabban Bar Sauma—who arrived after Zagan had left for England and who was, in turn, sent on with letters of credence in his favour addressed to Edward I by Pope Nicholas IV on 31 December.(9) Envoys were also dispatched in the opposite direction, with the regime at Acre sending the English Dominican friar David of Ashby eastwards in 1260 (he returned in 1274, accompanying the Mongol embassy that attended the Second Council of Lyon in that year) and King Edward I sending Geoffrey of Langley with Buscarello de Ghizolfi to the Mongol Ilkhanate capital of Tabriz, Iran, on a diplomatic mission in 1291.

In the early fourteenth century there is further evidence for direct diplomatic contact with both the Mongols and potentially China, which had been partly under Mongol control in the north since the first half of the thirteenth century and was ruled from 1271 by the Yuan Dynasty of China, founded by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. For example, in 1313 the royal household records for Edward II record a visit to England by an ambassador of 'the emperor of the Tartars', who Jacques Paviot suggests may have been representing the Great Khan in China, something perhaps supported by the fact that he was one William of Villeneuve.(10) This Franciscan missionary was one of seven suffragan bishops consecrated by Pope Clement V in 1307 to serve in the newly created archdiocese of Beijing, China (Khanbaliq), at the request of John of Montecorvino, the founder of the Chinese mission in the late thirteenth century. William is usually believed to have made it to India but to have then given up and not carried on to China with the others, instead returning to Italy, being next recorded at Avignon, France, in 1318.(11) However, this seems not to take account of the English record of his activities, which suggests that he returned to Europe as a Mongol envoy of 'the emperor of the Tartars' in 1313. Moreover, it is worth noting that Edward II sent a letter to the Emperor of China on 22 May 1313 in which he asks him to him to aid and protect the bishop William of Villeneuve, something that suggests that not only did William returned to Europe in 1313 as an envoy of the Great Khan in China, but also that he then aimed to return there.(12)

A fifteenth-century image of James of Ireland and Odoric of Pordenone in Sumatra, from BnF Français 2810, f.104r; click here for a larger version of this illustration (image: BnF).

In addition to the above, notice should also be made of the journey of James of Ireland, a cleric who travelled with Odoric of Pordenone to the east in the 1320s. Odoric's own account of the journey, written in 1330 after their return to Europe, indicates that they visited India, Sumatra, Java, and Champa (southern Vietnam), before arriving at Guangzhou, China, in 1323–4 and reaching Beijing in 1325, where they stayed for 3 years before travelling back home; Odoric died in 1331 at Udine, north-eastern Italy, and a present of 2 marks was subsequently paid to his companion, James of Ireland, according to the public books of Udine, who unfortunately then disappears from the pages of history.(13) Whether other subjects of the English king undertook similar journeys eastwards to Southeast Asia and China in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is unrecorded, but it is by no means implausible that they did so. Certainly, we know of a number of European merchants who travelled to China at this time, from Marco Polo and Peter of Lucalongo in the late thirteenth century onwards, and there seem to have been communities of Genoese and Venetian merchants living in Yuan China during the fourteenth century, with Latin tombstones moreover known from Yangzhou and Zaiton (Quanzhou) in China. In this light, it is interesting to note that late medieval English coins have apparently been found in Vietnam.(14)

In conclusion, it may well be that this apparently eleventh-century Chinese coin from Cheshire is a modern loss from a curated collection, for example. However, given the lack of other 'exotic' items from the site where it was found, the possibility that it was actually a genuine medieval loss can perhaps be at least considered. Certainly, coins like this seem to have continued to circulate in significant numbers in China well into the fourteenth century, and in this light it is interesting that the other, largely unremarkable, post-Roman artefacts found at the site range in date from c. 1300–1750. Likewise, it is worth noting that there is, in fact, a small quantity of archaeological evidence for East Asian imports into thirteenth-/fourteenth-century England and, perhaps more importantly, a significant quantity of documentary evidence referring to both the presence of people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia and the presence of people who had, or who may have, travelled from these regions in England during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In consequence, a potential context can be constructed for such a coin having arrived in England in c. 1300 or a little after, although this is—of course—not the same thing as saying that such an origin is by any means certain, especially whilst this coin remains a unique find in Britain.

The tombstone of Katerina Ilioni, daughter of the Genoese merchant Domenico Ilioni, dated 1342 and found at Yangzhou, China; click here for a larger version of this image (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Notes

1.     See, for example, M. Biddle, 'Ptolemaic coins from Winchester', Antiquity, 49 (1975), 213–15; S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; E. S. Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', in M. Biddle (ed.), The Winchester Mint and Coins and Related Finds from the Excavations of 1961-71, Winchester Studies 8 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 669–78; and C. Morrisson, 'Byzantine coins in early medieval Britain: a Byzantinist's assessment', in R. Naismith et al (ed.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (London, 2014), pp. 207–42.
2.     D. Whitehouse, 'Chinese porcelain in medieval Europe', Medieval Archaeology, 16 (1972), 63–78 at p. 68; P. Ottaway, Winchester: Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’: An Archaeological Assessment (Oxford, 2017), online; M. Cooper, 'Cultural survey, 1991', Monumenta Nipponica, 47 (1992), 99–105 at p. 100. My thanks are due to Andrew West for drawing my attention to the London find.
3.     D. Whitehouse, 'Chinese porcelain in medieval Europe', Medieval Archaeology, 16 (1972), 63–78 at pp. 67–8.
4.     On the long life of Northern Song coins and their medieval export to Western Asia and East Africa, see J. Cribb & D. Potts, 'Chinese coin finds from Arabia and the Arabian Gulf', Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 7 (1996), 108–18. Note, both coins and pottery seem to have been exported westwards from China in the medieval period, see for example Bing Zhao, 'Chinese-style ceramics in East Africa from the 9th to 16th century: A case of changing values ​​and symbols in the multi-partner global trade', Afriques, 6 (2015), online at http://journals.openedition.org/afriques/1836.
5.     W. W. Rockhill (trans.), The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55 (London, 1900), pp. 211, 222–3.
6.     J. A. Giles (trans.), Matthew Paris's English History (London, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 470–1.
7.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at p. 308.
8.     E. A. Wallis Budge (trans.), The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China; or, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma (London, 1928), pp. 185–7, spelling slightly modernised and adjusted for consistency.
9.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at pp. 314–5. The letters carried by Zagan and Saabedin are in the National Archives as SC 7/30/18 ('Commendation to Edward I of Andrew formerly called Zaganus, Buscarellus de Gisulfo and Moracius, envoys of Argon, king of the Tartars', 2 Dec 1290) and SC 7/31/16 ('Letters of credence to Edward I in favour of Saabedin Archaon, envoy of Argon, king of the Tartars', 31 Dec 1290); see also P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West 1221–1410 (London, 2005), p. 173, on Saabedin.
10.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at p. 317; for the view that he was sent by the Middle Eastern Mongol il-khan, see for example J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1998), p. 129.
11.     J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), pp. 22, 402, 403.
12.     T. Rymer (ed.), Foedera, Conventiones, Literæ, et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica, Inter Reges Angliæ et Alios Quosvis Imperatores, Reges, Pontifices, Principes, vel Communitates (London, 1739), vol. 2 pt. 1, p. 40 (22 May 1313), which is also discussed in K. Warner, Edward II: The Unconventional King (Stroud, 2014). Edward II also sent letters asking for aid to be given to William of Villeneuve to the emperor of Trebizond (Alexios II), the king of Georgia (Davit VIII), and the il-khan Oljeitu, suggesting the route that William of Villeneuve was intending on taking; a similar route was followed by Odoric of Pordenone in 1318, as related in his The Eastern Parts of the World Described (1330).
13.     Odoric of Pordenone, The Eastern Parts of the World Described, translated by H. Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither (London, 1913), vol. 2, pp. 97–267, and p. 11 for the gift to James of Ireland; J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), p. 457.
14.     J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), pp. 107–09, 372–4, 474, 663; L. Arnold, Princely Gifts & Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China & Its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250–1350 (San Francisco, 1999); J. Purtle, 'The Far Side: expatriate medieval art and its languages in Sino-Mongol China', in J. Caskey et al (eds.), Confronting the Borders of Medieval Art (Leiden, 2011), pp. 167–97; and J. Kermode, Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 2–3 at fn. 10 for the claim that late medieval English coins have been found in Vietnam.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Wulfric of Lincoln and the English Varangians: the first documented Byzantine ambassador to England in the early twelfth century

The following brief post is concerned with an early twelfth-century Byzantine ambassador to England who had the intriguing name of Wlfricus—or Wulfric—of Lincoln. Needless to say, this is a most interesting name for the first documented medieval ambassador from Constantinople to England to bear, and what follows looks briefly at what little we know of this embassy and its context.

A contemporary imitation of a coin of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenus (1081–1118), mint of Constantinople, found at South Shields, Tyne and Wear. Click here for a larger version of this photograph. Note, an imperial seal of Alexios I Komnenus has been also been found in England, just a few miles to the north-west of Lincoln at Torksey (image: PAS).

The sole reference to Wulfric of Lincoln and his early twelfth-century embassy on behalf of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenus is found in The History of the Church of Abingdon, a twelfth-century history thought to have been written by a monk of Abingdon Abbey who was apparently a contemporary of Abbot Faritius of Abingdon (d. 1117), with the text reaching its final form in the 1160s. He gives the following account of the embassy of Wulfric of Lincoln to England and Wulfric's subsequent visit to Abingdon and gift of a relic of St John Chrysostom to Abbot Faritius in the early twelfth century:
It is worthwhile, moreover, to record briefly how he obtained that very sacred arm [of St John Chrysostom]. Emperor Alexius of Constantinople at that time sent to England letters and gifts for King Henry and Queen Matilda. In that embassy, Wulfric, an Englishman by birth, native of the town of Lincoln, performed with great pomp, as befitted the guide of such dignity [i.e. the relic]. He was very bold in his close relations with that emperor, and sought and received from him these relics of the blessed John, with a view to the uplifting of his homeland. He went to Abingdon to commend himself to the brethren's prayers, and there most devoutly deposited these relics, together with the dust which is said to have marvellously burst forth from the tomb of St John the Evangelist, and a part of the bones of Macarius and Anthony the abbots. The abbot, moreover, received this and enshrined it fittingly in the way customary with him.(1)
Unfortunately, we are unable to date the event any closer than c. 1100–1117, but it seems likely that the gifts sent by Emperor Alexios to King Henry I and Queen Matilda included a piece of the True Cross that was subsequently kept at Henry I's foundation of Reading, as it was said to be kept 'in a cloth that the emperor of Constantinople sent to Henry the first, king of the English', and another piece given by Queen Matilda to her foundation of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, which was likewise said to have been given by the emperor Alexios.(2)

Needless to say, the fact that the first documented ambassador from the imperial capital of Constantinople to England was stated to be a native of Lincoln and bore the Old English name Wulfric is most intriguing. Given the date of the embassy and the name and origins of the ambassador, it is hard to avoid connecting this curious situation with the evidence for a significant Anglo-Saxon emigration from England to the Byzantine Empire in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest (occurring  c. 1075), discussed at length in a previous post, or the fact that a substantial proportion of the imperial Varangian Guard—the personal bodyguard of the Byzantine emperor—at Constantinople subsequently appears to be of English origin right through the twelfth century and up until the siege of Constantinople in 1204, if not beyond.(3) Indeed, as late as the mid-fourteenth-century, the De Officiis of Pseudo-Kodinus related that the Varangians who existed then still constituted a separate people and that, at Christmas, they wished the emperor length of life 'in their native tongue, that is, English'.(4)

A gold coin of the Byzantine emperor Michael VII Doukas (1071–8), in whose reign the English Varangians are thought to have arrived in Constantinople, found at Hambleton, North Yorkshire; the coin has been pierced for suspension and the placing of the hole implies that it was intended to be worn displaying the image of the emperor. Click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: PAS).

In light of all this, Wulfric of Lincoln would certainly seem to have a credible context within the Constantinople of c. 1100. Moreover, he wouldn't be the only such post-1066 Anglo-Saxon emigrant who took on important imperial duties in this period. For example, the 'Advices to the Emperor' in Kekaumenos's Strategikon, which was written in the late 1070s and then revised up to c. 1100, complains of the emperor favouring 'the foreigner who has come to us from England' and 'making him head of a department of state or general'.(5) Likewise, the account of a visit to Constantinople in c. 1090 by a monk named Joseph from Canterbury who encountered 'men from his own homeland (patria) and his own friends, who were part of the emperor’s household (ex familia imperatoris)'(6), is clearly noteworthy, as is Goscelin of Canterbury's (d. c. 1100) contemporary reference to an unnamed 'honourable man' from England who,
along with many noble exiles from the fatherland, migrated to Constantinople; he obtained such favour with the Emperor and Empress as well as with other powerful men as to receive command over prominent troops and over a great number of companions... He married a noble and wealthy woman, and remembering the gifts of God, built, close to his own home, a basilica in honour of the Blessed Nicholas and Saint Augustine, his patron.(7)
Finally, mention ought to be made of Hardigt, who is said to have been a member of the 'Oriental Angli' who was made both chief of the Varangian Guard and commander of the imperial fleet in the Laon Chronicle's thirteenth-century account of the Anglo-Saxon emigrants:
the Oriental Angli sent a man called Hardigt to the Emperor. He was reputed to be the strongest of all the Angli, for which reason he was suspect to the Greeks, who cunningly let loose a lion to devour him. Hardigt was alone in the courtyard of the palace. But he ran to the marble columns that stood in the atrium of the palace to use them as protection against the lion. Then (by a series of adroit manoeuvres) he succeeded in braining the lion by bashing its head on a column. This Hardigt of the race of the Angli was later wrongfully accused of treason by two Greeks, but he defended his innocence against them in a flight on foot, brave though they were. One of them he forced to the ground with his arm severed from his side; the other he fell upon and split him in two from his chest. The Emperor appointed this man leader of all his guards and not long afterwards made him commander of the naval forces.(8)
This specific element of the Laon Chronicle's account has been subject to some scepticism, but it is worth noting that Krijnie Ciggaar considers Hardigt to be a potentially genuine English emigrant who perhaps gained these roles in the later 1080s and 1090s, and Nancy Ševčenko furthermore observes that the seemingly slightly fanciful detail of the lions is arguably supported by a subsequent release of both lions and leopards to attack Lombard Crusaders camped outside the walls of Constantinople in 1101.(9) In any case, even setting Hardigt to one side, it seems clear that Wulfric of Lincoln's role as the Byzantine Emperor's ambassador to Norman England not only has a context in terms of the arrival of Anglo-Saxon emigrants in the Byzantine Empire after c. 1075, but also in the evidence for a number of these English exiles apparently fairly rapidly attaining important positions within the imperial household and the wider Byzantine state during the late eleventh century.

The distribution of eleventh- to twelfth-century Byzantine coins and seals in Britain, based on data from the PAS, the EMC, De Jersey 1996Biddle 2012 and Kelleher 2012; click here for a larger version of this map. Note the two major concentrations of coins and seals shown on this map represent the finds from Winchester and London (image: C. R. Green).

Notes

1.     J. Hudson (ed. & trans.), Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis: The History of the Church of Abingdon, Volume II (Oxford, 2002), p. 69.
2.     R. Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075–1225 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 108–09.
3.     See, for example, K. N. Ciggaar, 'L'émigration anglaise à Byzance après 1066. Un nouveau texte en latin sur les Varangues à Constantinople', Revue des études byzantines Année, 32 (1974), 301–42; C. Fell, 'The Icelandic saga of Edward the Confessor: its version of the Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 179–96; J. Shepard, 'The English and Byzantium: a study of their role in the Byzantine army in the later eleventh century', Traditio, 29 (1973), 53–92; J. Godfrey, 'The defeated Anglo-Saxons take service with the Byzantine Emperor', Anglo-Norman Studies, 1 (1979), 63–74; K. N. Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople: The West and Byzantium, 962–1204 (Leiden, 1996), pp. 140–1, 144, 146, 158–9. The connection between Wulfric of Lincoln and the English Varangians was first made by E. A. Freeman in his History of the Norman Conquest of England, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1876), vol. 4, pp. 847–8.
4.     S. Blöndal & B. S. Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium (Cambridge, 1978), p. 180; J. Shepard, 'Another New England? — Anglo-Saxon settlement on the Black Sea', Byzantine Studies, 1 (1978), 18–39 at p. 39; D. M. Nicol, 'Byzantium and England', Balkan Studies, 15 (1974), 179–203 at p. 192.
5.     C. Fell, 'The Icelandic saga of Edward the Confessor: its version of the Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 179–96 at p. 193; A. Shchavelev, 'A seal of Byzantine "Translator of the English" Patrikios Sphen: its date and socio-cultural context', in H. Ivakin et al (eds.), Byzantine and Rus' Seals (Kyiv, 2015), pp. 193–200 at pp. 196–8; J. Shepard, 'The English and Byzantium: a study of their role in the Byzantine army in the later eleventh century', Traditio, 29 (1973), 53–92 at p. 64.
6.     C. West, 'Constantinople, Jerusalem and Canterbury: Joseph the monk and the Norman Conquest', blog post, 18 September 2017, online at http://turbulentpriests.group.shef.ac.uk/constantinople-jerusalem-and-canterbury-joseph-the-monk-and-the-norman-conquest/; J. Shepard, 'The English and Byzantium: a study of their role in the Byzantine army in the later eleventh century', Traditio, 29 (1973), 53–92 at p. 91.
7.     Translated in D. M. Nicol, 'Byzantium and England', Balkan Studies, 15 (1974), 179–203 at p. 190. His name may have been Coleman, as the thirteenth-century Laon Chronicle account of the Anglo-Saxon emigrants mentions a man of that name who built a church in Constantinople; the church in question is often thought to be that of Bogdan Serai, especially in light of the apparent survival of grave-markers belonging to English Varangians there until the nineteenth century: K. N. Ciggaar, 'L'émigration anglaise à Byzance après 1066. Un nouveau texte en latin sur les Varangues à Constantinople', Revue des études byzantines Année, 32 (1974), 301–42 at pp. 313 and 328; C. Fell, 'The Icelandic saga of Edward the Confessor: its version of the Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 179–96 at p. 196; R. Byron, The Byzantine Achievement (London, 1929), p. 147 fn. 1.
8.     D. M. Nicol, 'Byzantium and England', Balkan Studies, 15 (1974), 179–203 at p. 187 (translation); K. N. Ciggaar, 'L'émigration anglaise à Byzance après 1066. Un nouveau texte en latin sur les Varangues à Constantinople', Revue des études byzantines Année, 32 (1974), 301–42 at pp. 305, 323 (text, lines 95–109) and 337–8 (commentary).
9.     K. N. Ciggaar, 'L'émigration anglaise à Byzance après 1066. Un nouveau texte en latin sur les Varangues à Constantinople', Revue des études byzantines Année, 32 (1974), 301–42 at pp. 305 and 337–8; K. N. Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople: The West and Byzantium, 962–1204 (Leiden, 1996), p. 141; N. P. Ševčenko, 'Wild animals in the Byzantine park', in A. Littlewood et al (eds.), Byzantine Garden Culture (Washington, D. C., 2002), pp. 69–86 at p. 79. For a contrasting view, see C. Fell, 'The Icelandic saga of Edward the Confessor: its version of the Anglo-Saxon emigration to Byzantium', Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (1974), 179–96 at pp. 186–8, who considers him to be a mistaken insertion of the deeds of Harald Hardrada into the Laon Chronicle's account of the Anglo-Saxon emigrants.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2018, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Monday, 26 February 2018

What lies beneath? A buried medieval chapel under Porthminster Beach, St Ives, Cornwall

The long, sandy beach of Porthminster, with its calm, blue waters, is located just below the railway station at St Ives, Cornwall, and has found favour since the late nineteenth century as a resort, especially after the retirement of its seine fishing fleet. However, its history stretches back much further than this, with its present-day sands and landscaped green areas said to conceal the buried remains of a medieval chapel and village that once stood below the cliffs here through until the fifteenth century.

Porthminster Beach, St Ives; click here for a larger version of this image (image: Robin Stevens, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The magnificent beaches and dunes of St Ives and its bay, down at the far south-western tip of Britain, have long been known for their ability to swallow buildings and structures whole. For example, Holinshed's Chronicles, written in the later sixteenth century, noted that the 'whole coast from St Ives' was 'sore choked with sand', and John Leland in c. 1538 observed of St Ives that the
most part of the houses in the peninsula be sore oppressed or over-covered with sands that the stormy winds and rages cast up there. This calamity has continued there little above 20 years... The best part of the town now stands in the south part of the peninsula, toward another hill for defence from the sands.(1)
This situation was confirmed in the early eighteenth century by John Hicks, a former mayor of the town writing in a now-lost manuscript history of St Ives in 1722. He reported that the original buildings of St Ives lay buried beneath the sands that were blown across from Porthmeor Beach, and C. S. Gilbert, who saw Hicks's history before its loss, noted in 1817–20 that
Mr Hicks says that the ruins of more than forty houses were to be seen in his time, in the north-west part of the town, and that whole streets had been discovered under the sands, at a place called the Floud, near the quay, by men who were digging out stones for building.(2)
An aerial view of St Ives and its beaches; the north-western beach is Porthmeor and the southern beach is Porthminster, with the town and the harbour between the two, shown here at low tide when it is dry. Click here for a larger version of this image or here for a zoomable version (Imagery © 2018 Google, TerraMetrics, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Map data © 2018 Google, used in accordance with their attribution guidelines).

This inundation of St Ives by the sands of its northern beach, Porthmeor, continued right up until the later eighteenth century and the completion (by 1782) of the high retaining sea-wall at Porthmeor, which John Smeaton had proposed in 1766 in order to stop this repeated burial of the town's houses and the related clogging of its harbour.(3) Of course, St Ives was not alone in having such problems: similar issues were encountered at Lelant, Phillack (Hayle) and Gwithian too, further around St Ives Bay. In 1662, for example, Lelant church was described as 'almost quite covered with sand blown up by the wind', whilst other writers back into the late sixteenth century indicate that Lelant had lost at least some houses to the drifting sands, and this situation continued here too into the eighteenth century, when the churchwardens’ accounts record payments for removing sand from the church. Indeed, the problem was only finally resolved when the dunes were planted with marram grass by the early nineteenth century.(4) Likewise, from Upton Barton in Gwithian parish there are accounts of a farmhouse having been overwhelmed with sand in the course of a single night sometime just after 1650, with the occupants having to escape through the upper windows—the remains of Upton were subsequently briefly visible in the winter of 1808–09 following a temporary shift of sand, but have not been seen again since and are now thought to lie around twenty feet deep within a very large sand-dune.(5)

Bearing all of the above in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that Porthminster beach at St Ives might similarly seem to conceal evidence of earlier buildings and activity. The primary evidence for such buried structures comes from the late nineteenth century, when the foundations of a chapel/oratory and some graves were reportedly exposed here by the shifting sands. The main account of this is found in John Matthews' 1892 volume entitled A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor, who associates the exposed structure with the medieval church that was presumably responsible for the present-day name of the beach and cove, Porthminster, first recorded in the fourteenth century (Cornish porth, 'cove, harbour', plus *mynster, 'endowed church', the latter element borrowed from English minster):
III. The chapel or oratory which formerly stood on the rocks under Penmester Hill, and which gives its name to the cover and neighbourhood of Porthminster ('the sandy cove of the church')... Some years ago the sand was washed down from the top of the beach, close to the Tregenna stream, leaving uncovered a portion of the foundations of this oratory, near which were found two stone coffins with leaden chalices, marking the interment of priests. It is said that these remains were deposited in the museum at Penzance, but I have never seen them. The find was made in about the year 1870...(6)
Porthminster beach, St Ives, in 1845; click here for an uncropped version of this image (image: PD, via the BSJW Trust).

Porthminster beach, St Ives, c. 1890–1900; click here for a larger version of this image and here for the uncropped version. The Tregenna stream can be seen as a darker line in the sand on the left of the image, coming down from the higher ground before apparently disappearing into the beach (image: Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress).

With regard to the exact location of this buried chapel and its associated graves, Matthews' description quoted above is not entirely helpful, identifying the remains simply as being found at the 'top of the beach, close to the Tregenna stream'. The Tregenna stream nowadays flows out across the south-eastern part of the beach, but as can be seen on early images and the 1877 OS map reproduced below, it originally flowed across what is now the start of the putting green—laid out in 1930—and down the centre of the beach, immediately to the left of the present-day beach shop and chalets when looking out to sea from the beach-front promenade, a course it occasionally partially resumes when it breaks its culvert. As to 'the top of the beach', this is more difficult. The images of Porthminster beach from 1845 and c. 1890–1900 included above show that the relatively steep area now occupied by green landscaping and a putting green were originally used to moor seine fishing boats and could potentially be considered part of the beach, appearing sandy in these early pictures, something apparently confirmed by the depiction of the area on the 1877 OS map. So, was the chapel at the top of this steeper area, or further down the Tregenna stream towards or actually under the beach as it exists today? Two further brief descriptions of the exposed remains by Matthews may be helpful in addressing this question, from earlier in his 1892 history and from his 1884 Guide to St. Ives and its Surroundings:
The Tregenna stream rises on the hill of that name, flows through the grounds of Tregenna Castle, and loses itself in the sands of Porthminster, near the foundations of an ancient chapel... (7)
Porthminster is at present the neighbourhood of the big sands to the south-east of the town. Literally, it is only the name of the beach itself, and signifies “the beach of the church”... After high tides, when the sand has been washed down by big waves, the foundations of the church are uncovered for a time.(8)
Porthminster beach, St Ives, on am OS map surveyed in 1877 and printed in 1887; click here for a larger version of this image (image: National Library of Scotland, 2017).

Porthminster beach in 2018 and 1877, with the outline of the modern features transposed onto the 1877 map; click here for a larger version of this image (Left: Imagery © 2018 Google, Map data © 2018 Google, used in accordance with their attribution guidelines; Right: National Library of Scotland, 2017).

Taken together, these two accounts suggest that the remains were exposed on the upper part of the current beach or the immediately adjacent areas to its rear, rather than on the higher parts closer to the railway viaduct. First, it is said that the Tregenna stream 'loses itself in the sands of Porthminster, near the foundations of an ancient chapel'. This description can perhaps be equated with the depiction of the stream on the photograph of c. 1890–1900, where the Tregenna stream can be seen emerging from the area of seine boats and then disappearing on the beach, with other early photographs showing a similar situation. It is also arguably supported by the OS map surveyed in 1877, above, which shows a straight course for the stream through until just after the current promenade in front of the putting green, when it adopts a more sinuous course. Whatever the case may be, the description would seem to imply a findspot at or close to the top of the current beach for the chapel remains.

Second, Matthews' 1884 comment that 'after high tides, when the sand has been washed down by big waves, the foundations of the church are uncovered for a time', obviously indicates a location that was both normally covered by sand and in an area that the highest tides could reach and temporarily expose before it became covered up by sand once more, rather than it being located well beyond the high tide line in the area of the putting green/former seine boat mooring area towards the railway viaduct. As to where the highest tides reached in the later nineteenth century, this clearly varied just as it does today—the 1877 OS map, for example, places the median high tide line some distance from the current promenade, around halfway down the beach, but 1930s OS maps and the photograph of c. 1890–1900 show it much closer to the promenade, a little way short of where the present-day beach shop and chalets now are sited. Once again, whatever the case may be, the description would nonetheless seem to imply a location for the remains as being both under sand and in the area at or close to the top end of the present beach.

The Porthminster beach shop and chalets (right, with multi-coloured doors) and the Porthminster Beach Café (on the left); the beach-front promenade runs between the putting green and the beach and behind the beach shop/chalets. Note, the Treganna stream is also present in the foreground, where it has re-emerged in the centre of the beach on its former alignment after apparently breaking its culvert in the winter of 2017–18; click here for a larger version of this photograph (image: C. R. Green).

All told, then, the available evidence suggests that the buried chapel and coffins observed in the late nineteenth century lay underneath sand somewhere in or close to the top area of the main beach, rather than much further up the slope towards the viaduct, probably in the approximate vicinity of the current beach shop or a little to its north-west based on the nineteenth-century course of the Tregenna stream. Turning to the question of just what this chapel represents and its likely date, Matthews associates it with the former medieval settlement of Porthminster. John Hicks, in his now-lost 1722 manuscript history of St Ives mentioned above, seems to have had access to town records that are no longer extant and noted the following for the reign of Henry VI (1422–61), according to the extracts of Hicks' MS published by C. S. Gilbert in 1817–20:
four French ships hovered round the coast of Cornwall, burnt the town of Marazion, and afterwards sailed round the Land's End, and landed at Porthminster, about a mile from St. Ives, which they burnt to the ground, and it has never since been re-built. They also killed twenty men, and carried much plunder on board their ships, with which, and other booty, they sailed for France.(9)
If this account is reliable, then it would offer us a potential terminus ante quem for the buried structure of the mid-fifteenth century, although one might wonder whether the reign of Henry VIII was not actually meant, rather than Henry VI, given that the town of Marazion is indeed recorded as having been burnt by the French in 1514 during his reign.(10) In any case, a terminus ante quem in either the mid-fifteenth or early sixteenth century would accord well with Susan Pearce's observation that the 'two stone coffins with leaden chalices' that Matthews records exposed near to the remains of the chapel/oratory are 'clearly full medieval'.(11)

Whether the chapel itself was purely 'full medieval' or had earlier origins/phases is, of course, uncertain, in the absence of solid archaeological or documentary evidence. On the one hand, whilst the chapel was presumably in existence before 1301, when the name 'Porthminster' is apparently first recorded, if 'Porthminster' does indeed refer to it then the somewhat curious presence of the English loanword mynster, 'endowed church' (< Latin monasterium), in the name might suggest a late foundation for the site and a possibly monastic character.(12) On the other hand, Imogen Tompsett has considered the Porthminster find to be a potential early medieval chapel/oratory site in her recent survey of the evidence from the South-West.(13) Certainly, it wouldn't be the only example of a buried early medieval chapel along the coast of Cornwall. For example, the so-called St Gothian’s Oratory ('the chapel in the sands') at Gwithian, St Ives Bay, was uncovered in 1827 and visible as a ruin until the early twentieth century before it was re-engulfed, and this seems to have been a small tenth-century church that was abandoned to the blowing sand after c. 1200, with a sequence of finds that could extend back as far as c. AD 700. Likewise, the well-known site of St Piran's Oratory near Perranporth—a probably tenth- to twelfth-century building with a likely unexcavated eighth-/ninth-century stage given the radiocarbon dates obtained from burials recently found there—was largely swallowed by shifting sand dunes sometime during the medieval period before being occasionally re-exposed and then partially excavated in 1835 and 1843 (it was reburied to protect it in 1980), and a potentially early chapel was uncovered underneath the sands of Lelant Towans in 1875 during the building of the railway link to St Ives.(14) However, given the sparseness of the documentation and the apparently late place-name and burials at Porthminster, such a possibility cannot be pushed too far at present.

Plan and drawing of the tenth-century St Gothian's Oratory, Gwithian, from J. T. Blight, Churches of West Cornwall (London, 1885), pp. 138–39; see C. Thomas, Gwithian: Notes on the Church, Parish and St Gothian’s Chapel (Gwithian, 1964), for a slightly more accurate plan of the oratory and a conjectural section based on earlier accounts (image: Internet Archive).

Notes

1.     John Leland, Itinerary, iii.21, quoted in J. H. Matthews, A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor (London, 1892), p. 48, and K. Newell, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey. Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: St Ives, HES Report no. 2005R069 (Truro, 2005), p. 19; note, I have modernised the spelling here.
2.     C. S. Gilbert, An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall (Plymouth, 1817–20), vol 2, part 2, p. 710.
3.     See J. Smeaton, Reports of the Late John Smeaton, F.R.S., 2nd edn. (London, 1837), pp. 199–204 at pp. 201–02 and plate 17. The retaining sea-wall at Porthmeor was apparently completed by 1782, see Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. MCO56020.
4.     C. Noall, 'Nineteenth-Century discoveries at Lelant', Cornish Archaeology, 3 (1964), 34–6, who gives details of the inundation of Lelant and mentions that of Phillack; D. Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall (London, 1838), vol 3, pp. 5–6 (Lelant) and pp. 339–40 (Phillack).
5.     C. Thomas, 'Minor sites in the Gwithian area (Iron Age to recent times)', Cornish Archaeology, 3 (1964), 37–62 at pp. 52–3; D. Gilbert, The Parochial History of Cornwall (London, 1838), vol 2, pp. 149–50.
6.     J. H. Matthews, A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor (London, 1892), p. 36; O. J. Padel, Cornish Place-Name Elements (Nottingham, 1985), pp. 167, 300; O. J. Padel, A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), pp. 194, 200; Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record nos. 29909 & 29909.01. Note, the South West Coast Path's St Ives Station–Carbis Bay walk guide, online at https://www.southwestcoastpath.org.uk/print-walk/471/, claims that 'Around 1875, the construction work on the railway line unearthed a number of shallow graves in the sand at Porthminster, followed by the discovery of several stone-built cists, buried more deeply. Nearby was a primitive building, thought to be an oratory or chapel.' This appears to be a mistaken application of the Lelant Towans finds of Spring 1875 to Porthminster beach, however, as it fits the description of the former exactly both in terms of finds and date (see C. Noall, 'Nineteenth-Century discoveries at Lelant', Cornish Archaeology, 3 (1964), 34–6), whilst differing significantly from all other accounts of the Porthminster finds.
7.     J. H. Matthews, A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor (London, 1892), p. 2.
8.     J. H. Matthews, A Guide to St. Ives and its Surroundings (St Ives, 1884).
9.     Transcribed in C. S. Gilbert, An Historical Survey of the County of Cornwall (Plymouth, 1817–20), vol 2, part 2, pp. 710–11; J. H. Matthews, A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor (London, 1892), pp. 36, 47. See footnote 12, below, for some fourteenth- and fifteenth-century references to the settlement of Porthmenstre (Porthminster).
10.     W. Page (ed.), Victoria History of the County of Cornwall (London, 1906), p. 484. Of course, an unrecorded mid-fifteenth-century event is by no means impossible: Fowey was certainly burnt in 1457 (see Page, Victoria History of Cornwall, p. 483), and a fortification was moreover built at St Ives in 1490, just to the east of the medieval pier and quay—known as the 'Castle', elements of it may survive in Quay House on the harbour front, see K. Newell, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey. Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: St Ives, HES Report no. 2005R069 (Truro, 2005), p. 18).
11.     S. M. Pearce, South-western Britain in the Early Middle Ages (London, 2004), pp. 102–03.
12.     As noted in K. Newell, Cornwall and Scilly Urban Survey. Historic Characterisation for Regeneration: St Ives, HES Report no. 2005R069 (Truro, 2005), p. 15, and Pastscape Monument no. 424926. Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. 29909 notes that the name Porthminster is first recorded in 1301 and it furthermore occurs in the name Walto Porthmaystre, Walter of Porthminster, in 1327 (J. H. Matthews, A History of the Parishes of Saint Ives, Lelant, Towednack and Zennor (London, 1892), p. 49). In 1362–3 it is found as Porthmenstre in the context of a writ of April of that year directing the Sheriff of Cornwall to restore property in a number of settlements, including Porthmenstre, to Henry son of Richard Trewennard and Richard Tyrel and Rose his wife (H. C. Maxwell Lyte (ed.), A Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds: Volume 4 (London, 1902), deed A. 10422 at p. 555), and it is mentioned again as Porthmenster in 1375 (H. C. Maxwell Lyte (ed.), A Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds: Volume 5 (London, 1906), deed A. 12086 at p. 240, cross-referenced to deed A. 10422). Other instances include a William Porthmynster who appears in the Penwith Hundred Court Roll for 1486–7 for assaulting William Bolenov 'with force of arms, namely with sword and stones, beat, wounded and maltreated him, in breach of the king's peace' (CRO AR/2/101/1); a Vivian Aunger of Porthmynster, 'fyssher', who appears alongside a Henry Aunger of Porthia [St Ives], 'fyssher', in 1433 (Calendar of Close Rolls, Henry VI: Volume 2, 1429-1435 (London, 1933), p. 287); and a reference to 'lands, &c. in the Gewe of Porthmynster' in 1483 (Lyte (ed.), Descriptive Catalogue of Ancient Deeds: Volume 4, deed A. 10054 at p. 500). For the meanings of minster/mynster in Middle English, see S. M. Kuhn (ed.), Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor, 1977), pp. 508–09.
13.     I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 126 (fig. 40), 128 (fig. 42), 379. On the name 'Porthminster', see Cornwall & Scilly Historic Environment Record no. 29909; O. J. Padel, Cornish Place-Name Elements (Nottingham, 1985), pp. 167, 300; O. J. Padel, A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Penzance, 1988), pp. 194, 200.
14.     St Gothian's Oratory: J. A. Nowakowski et al, 'Return to Gwithian: shifting the sands of time', Cornish Archaeology, 46 (2007), 13–76 at p. 58; A. Preston-Jones & N. Thomas, St Gothian's Oratory, Gwithian, Cornwall: Survey and Fencing, CAU report no. 2001022 (Truro, 2002); C. Thomas, Gwithian: Notes on the Church, Parish and St Gothian’s Chapel (Gwithian, 1964). St Piran's Oratory: I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 126 (fig. 40), 133, 334; S. Turner, Making a Christian Landscape: How Christianity Shaped the Countryside in Early-Medieval Cornwall, Devon and Wessex (Exeter, 2006), pp. 38, 49; D. Cole & J. Gossip, St Piran's Oratory, Perranzabuloe, Cornwall: Results of Evaluation, CAU report no. 2010R140 (Truro, 2010); J. Gossip, 'Dark Age skeletons found at Cornish chapel were early Christian children and women who could have been from same family', Culture24, 20 August 2015, online article. Lelant Towans: I. Tompsett, Social Dynamics in South-West England AD 350–1150: An Exploration of Maritime Oriented Identity in the Atlantic Approaches and Western Channel Region (University of Nottingham PhD Thesis, 2012), pp. 134 (fig. 45), 375 (fig. 201), and 379–81; C. Noall, 'Nineteenth-Century discoveries at Lelant', Cornish Archaeology, 3 (1964), 34–6; Cornwall & Sicily Historic Environment Record no. 31061; C. Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Post-Roman Inscriptions in Western Britain (Cardiff 1994), p. 198, fig. 12.1.

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