Thursday, April 30, 2009

Winter Home For A Medieval King - Lanercost Priory

Many medieval priories bear witness to a turbulent history and none more so than Lanercost Priory.

Dating from the mid 12th century, Lanercost was an Augustinian Priory built close to Hadrian's Wall. It was therefore en route from England to Scotland when King Edward I of England journeyed once again to do battle with the Scots, this time in 1306. Suffering from poor health and with a cold, bleak winter on the horizon, the King decided to make Lanercost Priory his home, and that of his 200 strong retinue, for several months. When he left in the Spring of 1307 he left behind him a rural community drained of resources which took a long time to recover. Ironically, after all they had done for their King, he died only 5 months later.

Just 5 years later it was another king, this time Robert The Bruce, King of Scotland who came to Lanercost Priory, leading an army up to its very doors.

Today Lanercost Priory is a beautiful church open to the public where services are still held. Its colourful history echoes in every piece of stone and even in the air as you walk around its grounds. However, if you cannot get there to see it for yourself, we have something that might help as the next best thing - a video of Lanercost Priory set to beautiful music (courtesy of Stephen Caudel).

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Stone Carvings & Medieval Graffiti

If you visit a medieval castle, medieval church or medieval priory, you will often come across stone carvings both inside and outside the buildings.

The carvings can vary in size and style and, indeed, the purpose for which they were made. Some medieval stone carvings are of strange-looking faces such as can be seen inside Caerlaverock Castle in South West Scotland. We took this photograph (left) on the ground floor of the castle in what had once been a room with a fireplace. The carvings were quite small and in vertical blocks so obviously served as some kind of ornamentation.

Others carvings you might find elsewere are of creatures or flowers though some are the marks left behind by men who were captive there - either imprisoned or who lived and worked there.

Such is the case with a most unusual set of medieval carvings in a stone wall within the keep of Carlisle Castle, one of the finest medieval fortresses in all England. We were lucky enough to see these first hand and here is one of our photographs (right). Now protected behind a glass door, it is not known exactly who made the carvings though some believe they were made by prisoners. What is known is that they were made in the late 1400's. Some of the carvings are detailed and ornate having been done with great care and skill whilst others are extremely basic with little skill having been employed. Essentially the whole wall is a wonderful piece of medieval graffiti.

The Lanercost Cross is an entirely different piece of medieval stone carving. Located within Lanercost Priory (its stump remains in the grounds outside), is the shaft of a stone cross with an inscription in Latin dating back to 1214. To learn more just visit our Lanercost Priory page where you can also enjoy an exclusive piece of video featuring music by Stephen Caudel.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Medieval Easter Eggs

In today's world, most Christians celebrate Christmas as the most important of the religious festivals in the year. After that comes Easter. However, it was not always the case for in medieval times people treated Easter with equal importance. In fact, they positively relished the coming of Easter because it followed 6 weeks of fasting (Lent), going without what were deemed pleasures such as eggs and meat.

So what happened to the eggs that were laid during Lent? Were they thrown away? No, they were boiled and preserved until Easter came; then children would be set the task of finding them (their parents having hidden them to represent the apostles who found Christ risen). Egg rolling competitions were also commonplace. Both traditions continue today of course - my own son at primary school used to look forward to egg rolling every Easter, even though he never won!

What medieval people did on East Sunday was, however, very different to today. When the day finally arrived, many would get up before dawn in order to watch the sun rise - literally bearing witness to the dawning of Easter Day itself. Then they would go to church, singing hymns in celebration on the way. Sometimes the local priest would lead them a group and village and town churches would toll their bells in celebration. Those who could afford it would also dress up in new clothes to mark the special celebration and after church, people would look forward to enjoying a day of no work and once again tucking into a hearty meal.

Wealthy landowners, usually the owners of medieval castles, were often happy to lay on a special feast for their friends, families and also their servants. Whether people were rich or poor, Easter was a time that everyone looked forward to and enjoyed in some way or other.

Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire holds an annual Easter Egg hunt within the castle grounds. Open to the general public, this year the hunt is called 'The Eggs Factor'. The challenge? To find the elusive Eastnor Easter Bunnies and Chickens who have escaped. Not only that but they have dressed up as their favourite pop stars. Sounds great fun!

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

From Medieval Mercenaries To Da Vinci

It's so strange how time and again medieval history and modern life come together.

Recently we have been reading "The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson. The story is enchanting and covers 700 years of history. So not much different than many romances? Oh, but this book introduced us to a very interesting term - "Condotta". In the book it's used to refer to bands of 14th century mercenary soldiers, principally Italian (with cross bows), who were available for hire across the fledgling German states.

So what can we find out about this term? Well, Wikipedia uses the term "Condottieri" as opposed to "Condotta". This is because the condottieri were the actual leaders of the condotta bands of mercenaries. The Wiki page in itself is fascinating reading - full of historical notes and very well written.

So where to next? Well, bizarrely we found this page which talks about toy soldiers recreating the Condotta but it as at the bottom of this page that the real surprise comes ... for this links takes you to a page about Leonardo da Vinci and how he might have created a Condotta. It is a wonderful piece of fantasy, essentially dealing with the idea of what could have happened if the Duke of Milan had developed some of Leonardo's ideas for warfare machines. The wonderful sketches that Leonardo left to posterity are evidence enough of his genius for invention - designs for tanks, assault chariots, flying machines and even helicopters!

Incredibly interesting how spotting an unusual term can take you on a journey through history, across different countries and from war through to great art. Such is the true power of language!

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