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Lector Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice

My Manchester Metropolitan University page: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hpp/research/current-phd-students/

Please help fund my research: http://www.gofundme.com/medievalgardensandparks

In my blog post https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/an-attempt-to-buck-the-trend/ I wrote about how different people looked at Dolbadarn Castle (Latitude 53.116526; Longitude -4.114234) from different perspectives and viewpoints. This month I had an article published in the journal ‘Archaeology in Wales’ for 2014 entitled “Dolbadarn Castle: A Thirteenth Century Royal Landscape” (pp.63-72).. I won’t recount the full article here but I will offer a few insights into the castle’s design and symbolism.

The round tower at Dolbadarn Castle
The round tower at Dolbadarn Castle

The round tower at Dolbadarn is a very sophisticated structure, and in seeking a parallel for it, rather than look at other marcher round towers it would appear that the Wakefield Tower in the Tower of London is perhaps the closest in form and function.

The Wakefield Tower at The Tower of London
The Wakefield Tower at The Tower of London

Whilst the exterior now appears unremarkable, subsumed and altered – with tourists passing by it to reach for them ‘the main event’ of The White Tower, the interior gives some idea of its original purpose.

The interior of the Wakefield Tower, Tower of London
The interior of the Wakefield Tower, Tower of London

The Wakefield Tower was constructed during the reign of King Henry III as part of his new royal lodgings. Work by Curnow, published in 1977 and by Thurley, published in 1995, demonstrated that the Upper Room of the Wakefield Tower was used as the King’s Great Chamber and was designed to contain a ‘chair of estate’.

As part of my research I went back and re-examined the original reports on the conservation of Dolbadarn Castle by the Ministry of Works in the 1940s and 1950s and the subsequent description by the RCAHMW in their second volume on ‘Caernarvonshire’, published in 1960. I also went to the castle on several occasions (helped by living in the village of Llanberis just next door) and re-examined the fabric for myself.

The interior of the round tower at Dolbadarn Castle can, for ease of explanation, be divided into four sections. The flooring arrangements for the round tower were discussed by McNeill and compared to other round towers (2003: 99).  The lowest section comprises a basement, and this would have been reached through a trapdoor in the floor. It is here that high-value goods are likely to have been stored, with the vent providing some air circulation once the trapdoor was closed. At first floor level is the doorway into the round tower, protected by a portcullis which would have been raised to allow entry inside. Looking around the room clockwise, the first floor provided access to the garderobe tower, to a doorway on the opposite side of the room and to the right of this is a fireplace, whose chimney flue runs through the thickness of the wall.

The second floor was accessed from the spiral staircase which ran within the width of the wall. Looking around the room clockwise, there is a large window opening into which the portcullis slid, followed by the second floor access to the upper floor of the garderobe tower. To the right of these are two windows, a fireplace whose chimney flue runs through the thickness of the wall and finally another window.

What is immediately apparent is the difference in the amount of light which would have originally entered the first and second floors respectively. The first floor has no windows, and two doors, one of which, next to the fireplace was much narrower than the other, the portcullis protected entrance. By contrast the second floor has four large windows, allowing light to flood into this room.

Interior of the first floor of Dolbadarn Castle from the entrance door.
Interior of the first floor of Dolbadarn Castle from the entrance door.
Interior of the second floor of Dolbadarn Castle from the internal staircase.
Interior of the second floor of Dolbadarn Castle from the internal staircase.

The second floor would appear to have served at Llywelyn ab Iorwerth’s Great Chamber, in a similar fashion to the King’s Great Chamber on the upper floor of the Wakefield Tower. A ‘chair of estate’ would have sat on the wall opposite the spiral stair entrance, and with light entering the room from all sides it would have made for an impressive meeting with the ‘Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon’. The mountains of Snowdonia, including Snowdon itself served as the backdrop to Llywelyn, as they could be seen from the second floor windows, or by climbing the spiral stairs to view them from the wall walk round the roof of the tower.

The Round Tower of Dolbadarn Castle from the lower slopes of Mount Snowdon.
The Round Tower of Dolbadarn Castle from the lower slopes of Mount Snowdon.

Next week I’ll explain how the Wakefield Tower and the Round Tower at Dolbadarn are different – and why medieval coinage may have something to do with this.

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Avengers Assemble…Part II

In 1378 a Mercenary Captain fighting in the Hundred Years War was assassinated. His name was Owain ap Thomas, and he was a Welshman fighting for the French against the English, and his assassination was ordered by the English Crown.

Assassination of Yvain de Galles at the siege of the castle of Mortagne-sur-Gironde - from Jean de Wavrin’s 'Chronique d’Angleterre' British Library Royal 14 e iv
Assassination of Yvain de Galles at the siege of the castle of Mortagne-sur-Gironde – from Jean de Wavrin’s ‘Chronique d’Angleterre’ British Library Royal 14 e iv

[Owain is on the right falling backwards – his assassin, John Lamb, is behind him].

This might sound a sub-plot from ‘Game of Thrones’, but this was all very real and had repercussions which we are only just really beginning to understand in terms of the history, archaeology, literature and art history of this particular man.

Owain ap Thomas was also known as Owain Lawgoch or Yvain de Galles. His career as a mercenary captain in France, Switzerland and Guernsey, lasted from what the documentary sources can tell us from 1363 to 1378. He was buried in the nearby chapel dedicated to St.Leger, and his mercenary company continued on, fighting for the French Crown without him.

The story of Owain ap Thomas was written about by in A.D. Carr (1991). Owen of Wales: The End of the House of Gwynedd. University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1064-8. Copies are hard to find, but if you are interested in the period you should try and find a copy. The book identified the manors (consisting of a manor house and associated land) which Owain left behind when he went to France, and these were in Powys, Gloucestershire, Cheshire and Surrey. Inquisitions were held by the authorities in each of these places to find out when he had left and what property and possessions he had left behind.

The manor in Surrey was at Tatsfield (Latitude 51.287393; Longitude 0.029869080) and had been in Owain’s family for three generations. His grandfather Rhodri ap Gruffudd (brother of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd who had been Prince of Gwynedd until his death in 1282) had come into possession of the manor in about 1310, and it belonged to his son Thomas from 1315 to 1363.

I’ve been researching the archaeological evidence for the estates of Owain Lawgoch since 2004, and a paper on them was included in a book published in 2008 entitled ‘Mercenaries and Paid Men: The Mercenary Identity in the Middle Ages’. You can download a copy of the paper from http://works.bepress.com/spencer_gavin_smith/ The history of Tatsfield in the years after 1363 is for me, particularly fascinating. The manor itself ceased to exist as an administrative entity after Owain left, and it was handed over to the lords of the adjoining manor of Titsey (Latitude 51.278615; Longitude 0.014226437). They constructed a court house in Tatsfield to deal with the administration of the cases that happened there, but they continued only to live in Titsey.

I directed an excavation in Tatsfield in 2004, and the evidence from this and from the historical evidence I’ve also been able to research, suggests that the Manor House there was dealt with in the same way the Llysoedd were removed during the Edwardian Conquest (see https://medievalparksgardensanddesignedlandscapes.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/avengers-assemble-but-where/). The paucity of building materials left on the site suggested careful dismantling rather than simply pushing the building over and rendering it unusable. Doing this would leave a visible marker and a place where assembly could happen, and the proximity to London – only 20 miles to Westminster – would have been an even more potent and visible reminder than a series of castles along the north Wales coast.

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Shropshire and Everything After

When I started writing my PhD, I made a conscious decision to include North-West Shropshire with the parameters of my data collection. Which, on the face of it, doesn’t appear to be that exciting or ground breaking.

Apart from the small matter that Shropshire is in England and I was also looking at sites in Wales.

When I began reading round the topic I noticed how the Wales – England border defined the remit of book writers, even when the border, in this case, is a permeable construct. Families have, and will always live on both sides of the border for various reasons, so I failed to understand why the books stop when the archaeology, history, geology and topography don’t?

map-of-england-and-wales-border-i10

In some cases I do understand why. Books can be commissioned by national organisations, who by definition, have to stop at the border. But other books, not bound by this parameter, do not.

North-West Shropshire is an integral part of my study. Without reference to it, how would I understand the influences being passed by medieval families living both sides of the border?

Goods and Services also travelled across the border, and can now be found as archaeological finds or written records.

The research into the area around Wem, Oswestry, Whitchurch and Ellesmere is progressing very well, and I’m looking forward to be able to add the information I’ve collated to the already rich record. And as an example the medieval park at Coton near Whixall is perfect.

The park at Coton is mentioned in the Domesday Book. But then, for some reason, references are lacking. It may be that the park didn’t attract any paperwork, simply because the family who owned were not litigated against. Normally, a park only crops up in the record when somebody either breaks into it, or feels they should own part of it for one reason or another.

The park is mentioned in a Survey of 1561 – but appears by this date to be much reduced in size, and by 1833, it surrounded Coton Hall.

coton

The park is still visible – the oval can be seen running to the west of Coton Hall, south to Coton Farm, north with Woodend Hall on the left and then round to Woodside Farm and Home Farm.

This one example also has some visible archaeology outside the park, whilst I was mapping this park I found a building close to Coton Farm.

Coton AP

The Red Circle highlights the foundations of a building, whilst the blue arrow is pointing at the south east boundary of Coton Park.

Further work will enable me to work out the relationship between these two monuments and add to the archaeology of North West Shropshire.

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Please fund my Cutting Edge PhD Research…

Funding. Apparently even in these times of austerity it is available for cutting edge research…unless of course the people holding the purse strings don’t realise what you are researching is cutting edge.

And that is my problem in a nutshell.

I’m working on a topic which straddles the disciplines of archaeology, history, literature and art. It is also designed to enhance the information about some of the most iconic castles and landscapes which dot North Wales and the borderlands. I’ve written, so far, 122 letters to charities and other bodies asking for financial assistance.

So far, nothing.

All of the letters were speculative, and aimed at organisations I thought either would, should or may have an interest in my research. Attached to the letter I e-mailed was my most recent published article on my research and my CV to show my publication record.

Some e-mails went unanswered, even after three attempts, (once a week to ensure that they were not missed in the volume of other e-mails that might have been arriving in the same inbox). Some replies were perfunctory, stating simply they did not fund individuals, others more generous with encouragement to complete my research in their refusals to assist.

Others provided links to other organisations which they thought might be able to assist, and these were dutifully followed up – although to no avail.

Which all leaves me in an odd situation. I can stand in a room of my peers and relate my research – to which I invariably receive the question “You honestly can’t find funding!”. Which suggests that there is funding out there for this kind of multi-disciplinary work, but that for some reason I’ve yet to find out who controls it.

I’m signed up to restart my PhD this September at Manchester Metropolitan University, and I could of course borrow the money as a Career Development Loan – which is fine in theory – but if money like this is available as a loan – then where is the equivalent grant for researchers in situations like me.

I’m not saying my research is the most worthwhile cause that could be funded, but I’m certain that what I’m working on will have long term repercussions for the discipline as a whole. And if future generations of archaeologists can look at my work and build upon it, I’ve done the best I can.

If you think you can assist or if you think you know someone who can and you pass this on to them. Thank You.

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Giant Novelty Roundabout

To an archaeologist, context is everything. Show them a find and because they invariably know what it is from the vast store of broken objects in their head, the question will be “Where did you find it?”. Sometimes however, the relationship between context and object becomes eroded, or even worse, lost completely. The object can sometimes then take on a life of its own, generating a history and archaeology which can hamper its further interpretation or reinterpretation.

Caernarfon Castle (Latitude 53.139370; Longitude -4.2769593) is one of the most famous castles in Wales, and probably Europe (with perhaps a bit of North America and Canada thrown in for good measure). It’s big, bold, brash, iconic and an illustration of the power of the myth that is King Arthur.

The last one? Really?

The history narrative the majority of people know, and more importantly believe in, is that written by the victors. And as a consequence certain phrases assembled from the narrative become part of the stock phrases of description, ‘Edward the First’s Iron Ring of Castles’ is almost always included for example – just type it into a search engine of your choice just to see how ubiquitous it has become.

Over time, the archaeological context between the castle and the town has slowly been eroded, with the excavations within the castle walls being small scale, piecemeal affairs and excavations around the castle walls having to contend with the 19th and 20th development and redevelopment of the Slate Quay (to the south of the castle) and the former medieval quay (to the west of the castle).

The construction of the principal Local Council Administrative Offices (to the north of the castle) during the 1980s and the development of Castle Square, known in Welsh as ‘Y Maes’ – The Field (to the east of the castle), most recently in 2009, have all made for a very different experience for today’s visitor, compared to their medieval predecessor.

Where can we visit then, to gain at least some idea of the original context of the current Caernarfon Castle, and its predecessor, the original Caernarfon motte and bailey Castle?

I lived in Caernarfon for six years, and during this time, part of my PhD research concentrated on the landscape context of the Castle, Town Walls and its hinterland. Which is when I found this view.

DSCF1610

I’ve never seen this image published in any of the academic books on the subject, and it gives a very good idea of how the castles (built one on top of each other) could be seen in the wider high status landscape of the associated medieval park.

I identified the park from a combination of aerial photographs, tithe and ordnance survey maps, fieldwork and place name studies. The fieldwork proved to be particularly rewarding, with the pebble-dashed building in the centre left of the image marking the eastern edge of the park boundary and surviving banks and ditches are visible on the northern side. From the point of view of high-status vistors availing themselves of the facilities available in the park, both the Welsh Princes of Gwynedd and the subsequent English Crown enjoyed the same opportunities, if not quite the same view.

What ever you may think of the current Caernarfon Castle, it is certainly an impressive backdrop to a landscape created and managed by the Royalty they deposed. And importantly provides some context for the reasons behind the construction of the Edwardian Castle on the shore of the Menai Straits.

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Standing on the Toes of Giants

In 2003 I was waiting to stand on the stage of the Llansilin Village Hall in front of 200 or so people. (I say ‘so’ because the Llansilin Local History Society, who were hosting the event had put out 200 chairs and all of these were occupied, and in addition several more people were stood at the back of the hall).

It was six years since I’d begun my research into the site of Sycharth motte and bailey castle (Latitude 52.824530; Longitude -3.1808960). In the intervening period I’d discovered how much there was to learn – about archaeology and academia.

A few weeks previously, whilst putting the lecture together, I’d decided the title would be ‘Has Anyone Seen The Confounded Bridge’. In 1891 a tile drain had been laid in the ditch around the motte, and during this work, a piece of timber 21 feet long had been found. The 1914 ‘Inventory of Denbighshire’ published by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (and now available as a free of charge download) http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/HI/ENG/Publications/Bookshop/?book=66 duly noted this, but offered no further information as to the whereabouts of the timber.

A piece of timber 21 feet long in a castle motte ditch is likely to have been part of the bridge sill beam, from which the bridge superstructure would have been built. As I liked to use catchy titles for my lectures, I thought using a Led Zeppelin lyric would be quite off-beat and quirky, and would highlight the fact that this piece of timber had gone missing and that maybe the local population might be able to help track it down.

My mum had come along, mostly as moral support, because she was by now very, very (you know how it is), very familiar with my research. As we sat there on a couple of chairs I told her that a woman called Dr. Enid Roberts would be attending. Dr. Enid Roberts was a legend. In the 1960s she had provided a translation of the poem to Sycharth to Douglas Hague, the Director of the original archaeological excavation, and during the 1970s had published a series of articles on the genre of medieval Welsh Praise Poetry to houses. The fact that she had come to hear me lecture was an absolute honour…and had made me just a little nervous.

As we looked round we spotted a man reading a copy of the 1960s excavation report. Someone had obviously decided to do their homework, and I thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. The introductory slide for my lecture was up on the screen on rotation with slides advertising the forthcoming Llansilin Local History Society, and I noticed the man laughing at my slide and pointing it out to his friend sat beside him.

And then it dawned on me who the man was. It was Robert Plant, former singer with Led Zeppelin. He was laughing at the fact I’d used lyrics from one of his songs as my lecture title. I went outside and told my friends who was in the Hall. They said “Aren’t you nervous of standing up in front of Robert Plant to give a lecture?” I said, “No. He’s come to listen to me, but Dr. Enid Roberts is in there in the front row and I’m petrified!”.

After the lecture, Dr. Roberts told me that I had done some excellent work and gave me some pointers as to what I should look at next. Whilst my friends ended up in the local pub with Robert Plant. But I learnt soon after that some academics were not always going to be as immediately helpful as Dr. Enid Roberts.

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‘To Begin at the Beginning’…or ‘Has Anyone Seen That Confounded Bridge?’

Lines from Dylan Thomas ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Led Zeppelin ‘The Crunge’. Which probably seem to be an odd way to start a blog on Medieval Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes. However, in their own way, they have led to this blog being written. So, I thought I’d attempt to explain why I feel I should blog on this topic (although I am sure other topics will find a place at some point).

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith and I currently work as an archaeologist in the contracts section of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, who are based in Bangor, North West Wales.

My blog will be about the research I have been carrying out for my PhD thesis entitled ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’. As it is still a work in progress, the blog will highlight why I’m carrying out the research, and how the disciplines of Archaeology, History, Literature and Art all entwine to make this topic so interesting to study.

I’m from the town of Wrexham in North East Wales, (Latitude 53.045083; Longitude -2.9931521). I went to both Welsh Language Primary and Secondary Schools, so I’m comfortable using either language. I chose to read Heritage Conservation at Bournemouth University for my Undergraduate Degree, and during my second year, I was, like most other students at that time of their University lives, casting around for a dissertation.

One day, I was in the University Bookshop and I saw a paperback entitled ‘The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr’, written by someone called R.R. Davies. I’d not done history at GCSE, and at A Level the curriculum I studied covered the 19th and 20th centuries. I was aware of Owain Glyn Dŵr – what school child, and especially one in North East Wales where he came from, couldn’t fail to have heard of him. But beyond a few basic facts I didn’t really know very much at all.

So I bought the book.

And within a few pages I was hooked. Not by any inherent nationalism fuelled by being in a University on the south coast of England but by the beautiful way the book was written. I ‘understood’ for the first time how history can be brought to life by the deft touch of someone who has a mastery of the sources at their fingertips. I curated that book – it became something I involved and devoted my time to in order to try and gain some understanding of a world which occupied the same space as I had growing up, but a very different time.

But, I found there was a problem with the book, and one I wanted to solve.  

Within the chapter on Owain Glyn Dŵr was a small section which dealt with his house, known as Sycharth (which probably translates as Sych ‘Dry’ and (g)arth ‘Courtyard’). According to R.R. Davies there was a contemporary poem which described the house and its surroundings, and the photograph of Sycharth published in the book showed that the site was still there and had not been built upon. In addition to the poem, in 1966 an archaeological excavation report had been published about work on the site.

Which all left me confused. If the poem described the site, and archaeologists had excavated there, why had R.R. Davies written so little?

I had my dissertation topic. Now to start on the research.