Just a quick one this time so you know I’m still here! My recent post on the Kingmoor Ring got me thinking about a number of things. Firstly, whilst people in southern England probably expect to find anglo-saxon archaeology, it’s a bit of a novelty in Cumbria. Secondly, why are we surprised to find an inscription that is a variety of good luck charm? And thirdly, why does this ring get a fancy name with capitalisations – actually, it gets two because it’s sometimes known as the Greymoor Ring – when other fabulous, and magical, things do not?
Beacon Hill in Penrith is one of those places you might like to avoid at Halloween. For, says local tradition, your nose may catch the noisome odour of rotting flesh before coming upon the gruesome sight of a man’s body rotting in a gibbet hanging high above the town.
Last week, I found myself behind the care home at Tynefield on the southern edge of Penrith and saw this block of stone. It was filled with rubbish and rainwater, but was clearly man-carved and looked an awful lot like the base of a medieval stone cross. And this, indeed, is what it is, but that’s not its main claim to fame. This stone block is in fact Penrith’s Plague Stone, and a grade 2* listed monument.
You’ll know about the plague from primary school lessons about the 1665 Great Plague of London, but that was far from being the earliest, or most fatal plague epidemic. After a century or so of argument amongst historians and biologists it now seems certain1 that the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that lives in fleas, which in turn live on rats. When the rat dies, the fleas jump ship to the nearest warm-bodied alternative, which was often humans.
So, this is my 22nd post on this blog, and I’m only just attempting Urien. The reasons for this are several: firstly, it’s so long ago that there are no truly reliable sources; secondly, so many people have decided that they’d like him to be King Arthur that it gets subjective; and thirdly, a Certain Local Tourist Attraction.
In reality, it goes likes this. Sometime in the early 6th century, Urien was born. He was one of the old-Welsh-speaking Britons, and he ruled over a small kingdom called Rheged. Urien had a court bard, Taliesin, who recorded Urien’s wars in a series of poems which became very popular in Wales in succeeding centuries.
Cumbria is home to a number of ‘lucks’, or drinking vessels that are believed to protect a home and its residents from ill fortune. Perhaps the most famous is the Luck of Edenhall.
Edenhall is a small village near Langwathby in the Eden valley, and it was the seat of the Musgrave family for several hundred years.
The Luck is a glass beaker, with blue, green, red and white enamel and gilding, in a case bearing the initials, ‘IHS’ – the Greek rendering of Jesus. The glass is believed to be of Syrian or Egyptian origin, and it was made some time around the 13th or 14th century; a similar one was gifted to the Cathedral of Douai in 1329. The combination of location and date strongly suggest that the glass was brought back from the Crusades.
I find it hard to believe that this date, 937CE, isn’t burned on all our memories as a pivotal point in English, and especially Cumbrian, history. It really should be, especially for those of us who live in the north. The battle took place not in Cumbria but at a place called Brunanburh. No one’s sure exactly where this was, but the odds are that it was Bromborough on the Wirral. This was at the old border between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, so this makes sense.
Cumbria has had its very own Robin Hood character for centuries. As it says in the poem, Adam Bell, written in 1557,
Mery it was in the grene forest
Among the leves grene
Where that man walke both east and west
Wyth bowes and arrowes kene