Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore
Next to the legendary kingdom of Urien‘s Rheged lay another, smaller kingdom. We don’t know what it was called, but in the third quarter of the 6th century, north-west Cumbria and the Solway area were ruled by a man called Gwenddoleu.
Investigating Gwenddoleu is like looking through cracked bottle-glass windows: you see a flash here, a hint there. Sometimes you see something clearly, and sometimes you squint and turn and it’s still just a suggestion. There are several sources which mention Gwenddoleu – the Annales Cambriae; the Welsh Triads and genealogies; the Merlin poems of the Black Book of Carmarthen; the Chronica Gentis Scottorum – but the references are veiled, fleeting, and sometimes of dubious date. Continue reading
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 sources are thin on the ground; secondly, so many people have decided that they’d like him to be King Arthur that it all gets rather tired and emotional; and thirdly, a Certain Local Tourist Attraction.
Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c.550- c. 650: peoples and sites in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, John T. Koch, ed. (2005), isbn 9781851094400.
In reality, it goes likes this. Sometime in the early 6th century, Urien was born. He was a brythonic (a form of old Welsh)-speaking Briton, 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. Continue reading
Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.
It’s remarkable that some pivotal events and figures in history are so little known. Oddly enough, everyone in Cumbria thinks they know about Dunmail. There’s the shopping centre in Workington; a Dunmail Close and a Dunmail Crescent; a guest house; a fantasy book character; until its recent sad demise, a rather tasty beer; and a brand of mattress. Some people might even mention Dunmail Raise, which is closer to the mark.
Dunmail Raise is a pile of stones in the middle of the road between Grasmere and Thirlmere. Not that long ago it was on the dividing line between the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, and had a wall over the top of it. There are no carvings, or fencing, or English Heritage signs: it’s just an unremarkable-looking heap. And yet, when the mountain pass was widened not all that long ago, the site’s ancient reputation ensured that the pile of stones was largely left alone. This is startling when you consider that similar road-widening efforts have led to the removal of stone circles and standing stones. Continue reading
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 of Edenhall, 13th century V&A Museum no. C.1 to B-1959
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. Continue reading
Cumbria isn’t alone in having a number of coffin paths, or corpse roads. These days, they’re footpaths between one village and another, sometimes marked with crosses and punctuated with low stone benches. The paths cross water at least once, intersect other paths, and are curiously unpopular amongst locals after dark. Their function until a hundred or so years ago, was simple: these are the routes taken by coffin-bearers to the nearest church with a burial ground. Some routes were just a couple of miles, others much longer, but all cover wild and largely uninhabited territory. Continue reading
Move over Harry Potter: Cumbria has its own basilisk story. The basilisk, or cockatrice, was a feared mythical beast much talked-about from medieval times until the eighteenth century. Descriptions varied; they almost always had some cockerel body parts (unlike JK Rowling’s snake-like version), with a lizard’s, or dragon’s tail, and optional wings. They killed their victims with poisonous venom or by turning them to stone with a glance. Continue reading