The Rise and Fall of Penrith Castle, Or, why it’s Not a Good Idea to have Royal Relatives

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

Penrith Castle, Cumbria

I would have been happy to tell you about Penrith Castle last year, if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a point when I was being hounded by various members of local press and radio anxious to establish that St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith should be putting in a bid to be the burial-place of the newly-disinterred Richard III. Now, I like to make my historical connections as much as the next gal, but I do not get into that kind of politicised argy-bargy.* However.

Penrith is an interesting castle. It’s not really on the Continue reading

Penrith’s 10th-century Futhark Brooch

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?

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Let me introduce this unnamed brooch. It was found near Penrith and acquired by the British Museum twenty years ago Continue reading

The Hanged Man at Beacon Hill

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.

Hanging_of_William_Kidd from the Pirates Own Book (1837)

Hanging “in chains”

One dark Tuesday night in November, 1766,  a butcher called Thomas Parker was on his way home after a very good day at Penrith market. He stopped off at the Cross Keys pub in Carleton, where he had a jolly old time downing lots of beer and treating all his friends. Eventually, the pub landlord realised that Parker had had far too much and stopped serving him, offering to put him up for the night to sleep it off. Parker refused, and set off to walk the last couple of miles back to Langwathby. Continue reading

Cumbria’s Great Pestilence, 1597-8

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.

Rubbish in Penrith's Plague Stone
Rubbish in Penrith’s Plague Stone

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. Continue reading

Urien of Rheged: Not Cumbria’s Arthur

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

The Luck of Edenhall

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.

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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

Owain and the Battle of Brunanburh, 937CE

Giant's Grave, Penrith copyright DMcIlmoyleI 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. Continue reading

Adam Bell: Cumbria’s own Robin Hood

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 forestCopyright D Mcilmoyle

Among the leves grene

Where that man walke both east and west

Wyth bowes and arrowes kene Continue reading