Leap Day & and the Roman Calendar February 29th

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

I have just come back from my very first Leap Year Walk, which I gave tonight for London Walks. It was one of a series of my walks, which are about the year through London’s History. So far, I have done, a New Year Walk, an Imbolc Walk (1 February, St Brigid’s Day), a Spring Equinox Walk, a May Day Walk, a Summer Solstice Walk, an Autumn Equinox Walk, a Halloween Walk, and a Winter Solstice Walk. All, at their core, have the subject of the year, how it is arranged, and celebrated in different cultures and different times in London.

I hoped to get this post done, today, but on arrival at home my burglar alarm was ringing, so had to get an emergency electrician out to pacify my neighbours, and tracking down the fault meant turning my house upside down. I rushed it out, with many bad proof reading errors and ommissions, And have now, on the dawn of a new month, and a new Season, updated it. Probably, knowing me, it still has a far few errors! Now, I am rushing to look after my Grandson!

So, the reason there is a leap year, is that the Sun and the Moon have different cycles, which cannot be easily aligned. And secondly, the solar year is not a fixed number, it is not 365 days, but 365 days and a bit.

Originally though, probably, most cultures lived their lives with time keeping controlled by time markers from their everyday environment, days and nights, the waning and waxing of the moon, the seasons, and the changes in the rising and setting of the Sun. Budding nature would have provided other markers as to when to sow, to harvest, to prune, to slaughter, to worship and marry.

The months were given by the cycle of the Moon, which also gave us tides and menstrual cycles. The months were given names, which were often associated with the weather. The trouble was that the Solar year did not align with the Moon, soon the months would get out of kilter with the seasons. So over time, the society would find it was winter in June, or summer in December. (which is OK if you live in Australia).

Society dealt with this in a number of ways. It could be ignored, why shouldn’t it be cold in June, why should June always be in Summer? Another way was to add in extra days, or months, every so often to make sure June remained in the Summer. This is what Egypt, the early Romans and the Celts did. They kept their months aligned to the actual movements of the Moon, and aligned their Solar Year with it by the addition of extra days or a month or two. or a combination of both.

I reported on this in my post on the Terminalia for February 23rd. As I wrote:

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. February was the last month of the original Roman year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month every so often, called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years, the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year. (For more on Terminalia look at my post for February 23rd on Terminalia-god-of-the-boundary)

Now, as the Roman Republic became more sophisticated, the intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage, and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons.

Caesar spent time with Egyptian Astronomers, trying to understand their solution to the problem. They identified that the year was not 365 days long but 356.25 days, so JC ‘fixed’the issue with a leap day every four years. Based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. The new calendar was inaugurated on the Kalends of Januarius 709 AUC, or as we would call it I January 45 BC. It became, in time, something the Romans were very proud of – rationalising, measuring, time itself. Romans counted their dates from the time their City was founded by Romulus in what we call 753 BC or 753 BCE. So, 45 BCE in our reckoning is 709 ab urbe condita (AUC ‘from the founding of the City) as the Romans saw it.

I prefer not to use BCE because it seems ‘dishonest’ to me. The idea of AD BC was made up based on a guess as to when Jesus was born. Changing BC to BCE may rid the date of an explicit Christian identification but masks the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘Common Era. What the Common Era is, is the idea made up in the Late Roman period guessing when Jesus was born/ So I think call a spade a spade, even if it’s a broken meaningless spade that is not fit for purpose, either replace it with something rational, or real or call it what it is.

The interesting thing is that Caesar put the leap year in on the 24th February. Why? Because February, being the month of death, was the end of the year. March 25th was originally the beginning of the Roman year (Caesar moved it to January 1st). Why March 25th? Because it was the Spring Equinox. If you look at my post for March 25th you will find out it is the date of the creation of Humanity, the Birthday of Adam, the conception of Jesus, and until 1752, the day the year number changed in Britain.

The other strange thing about the new leap day was that it was not called February 25th. It was not given a number. Rather, February 24th was two days long. This continued in Britain until the date February 29th started appearing in calendars in the 15th Century, although the legendary Lawyer, Edward Coke (1552 – 1634), refers to the two days of February 24th, but the two day 24th was completely replaced by February 29th in the 16th Century.

One slight complication to the story of February 29th was that February 29th did exist before the Julian reforms. When February was not interrupted by the intercalary month, as described above, it was 29 days long. Julius Caesar made the months alternate 30 and 31 except for February which was 29 days long. When the Senate gave Julius the honour of having the 7th Month named after him, things were OK, but then Augustus wanted the same thing. The Senate duly gave him the next month, which became known as August, but it only had 30 days. This could not be allowed! So they made it up to 31 and stole the 29th from February and made February only 28 days long. This change also meant that there were now three 31 days months in a row, so they reduced September from 31 to 30, boosted October to 31, reduced November to 30 and boosted December to 31,

Hence, we can no longer remember Caesar rational allotment of days in the month, and we need to hum to ourselves:

Thirty days have September
April, June, and November
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one.
Excepting leap year – that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

But Caesar had not solved the problem of the shifting year, he had just minimised it. By the Council of Nicea in the early 4th Century (and not yet called AD!) the small error had changed the date of the Spring Equinox, from March 25th to March 21st. So, when Constantine convened the Council to bang the heads together of the Church leaders to unify their religion, particularly in regard to the date of Easter, and whether Jesus was equal to God. They fudged the complex issue of the date of Christ’s death, and used March 21st as the foundation of their calculation on the moon-based festival of Easter (more of which at Easter!)

It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Pope Gregory, solved the problem of the inaccuracy of Caesar’s solution. They resynced the days to the seasons by removing days from the Calendar. And they stopped the drift by fine-tuning the leap year system, by not having a leap year in those centurial years which were not divisible by 400. So 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 is not. This allowed the systems to align correctly to this day. (although there is of course a little more to it than this). But for that level of detail, you will love ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan, or just look it up on Wikipedia or wait for me to compile various references to the Gregorian Calendar into a unified post on the subject.

Of course, Britain refused to join a Catholic innovation for nearly 200 years but, religious prejudice at last gave way to reason, when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. In the process we lost 11 days, much to the horror of the London mob, who rioted against their loss.

See the following posts for the Roman Year:

Romulus’s 10 month year here

Roman Months here and more on the Ides of March here

Walk of Socialists 28th February 1887

Victorian lampoon on Socialist Values 'Yes Gentlemen, these is my principles, no King, no Lords, No Parsons, No Police, No Taxes, No Transportation,  no No'thing.'
Victorian lampoon on Socialist Values ‘Yes Gentlemen, these is my principles, no King, no Lords, No Parsons, No Police, No Taxes, No Transportation, no No’thing.’

Socialists at St. Paul’s 28th February 1887

My French friend went yesterday to St. Paul’s and saw a large procession of socialists. It is a strange move of the socialists to visit all the Churches. The Archdeacon of London preached to them from: “the rich and poor meet together, and the Lord is the maker of them all.” A noble sermon, they behaved fairly well.

Helen G. McKenney, Diary, 1887 (source: A London Year. Compiled by Travis Eldborough and Nick Bennison)

The quotation is from the Bible, Proverbs 22, where it sits with a number of other wise sayings. Perhaps, number 16 ‘One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty‘ is most likely to stir a Socialist, but generally, I imagine the Archdeacon was also making a point that the Lord made the Rich and the Poor, so there is nothing wrong with being Rich, as long as you are generous to the Poor, and equally, nothing wrong with being Poor.

It’s rather lovely to imagine the Socialists walking around Wren’s masterpieces in the City of London. However, later in 1887, things turned much worse, when the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League organised a march against Unemployment and the Irish Coercion Acts. The Police had been trying to prevent the ever-increasing use of Trafalgar Square as a protest venue. So, on November 13th, Bloody Sunday, the Police Commissioner, Charles Warren, ordered a massive police presence backed up with 400 Soldiers. His aim was to prevent the entry to Hyde Park. Among the 10 to 30 thousand citizens presence were William Morris, Annie Besant , George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx.

By the end of the day there were 2 people dead, 100 seriously injured, 45 arrests, 75 accusations of police brutality and many Police Casualties. Warren had already resigned following criticism of the failure to find Jack the Ripper, but was acting as a caretaker until the new Commissioner was in place.

Engraving from The Graphic (published 19 November 1887). Wikipedia describes it as ‘depicting a policeman being clubbed by a demonstrator as he wrests a banner from “a Socialist woman leader, one Mrs. Taylor”, while other people are covering their heads to protect themselves from raised police batons.’ Pubic Domain

Before the Foundation of the Labour Party, progressive politics were in the lukewarm hands of the Liberal Party, which developed from the Restoration period Whig Party. The Liberal Party had a radical wing, but it had a reluctance to put forward working-class candidates. In the early 19th Century, much of the agitation was led by the Chartists, but as their goals became adopted by the main two parties, progressive politics was led by various reform, radical, socialist, marxist and anarchic groups.

I have not been able to find out who led the 1887 City Churches Socialist walk, but because of William Morris’ membership, I am wondering whether it was the Socialist League? In 1885, the Socialist League was an offshoot of the Social Democratic Federation. But it was not a harmonious group. Its most famous members were William Morris, and Eleanor Marx. It included Fabians, Christian Socialists and Anarchists. By 1887 it was split ideologically into three main factions, Anarchists, parliamentary orientated Socialists, and anti-parliamentary Socialists. William Morris was the editor of their newspaper, ‘the Commonweal’ but he was sacked and replaced by Frank Kitz as the Anarchists took over the organisation.

So, without going into a long history of Socialism in London, what happened was that the Socialist groups made very little impact until the Independent Labour Party was set up in Bradford 1893. And in 1900, Keir Hardie, who was already an independent MP in Parliament, set up the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, which was soon renamed the Labour Party. The Independent Labour Party joined and Labour began to take over control of the working-class vote. It fought the Liberal Party for the progressive vote, but it was not until after World War 1, with the decline of the Liberal Vote that it was able to secure minority Governments and not until after World War 2 that it replaced the Liberals as one of the two Political Parties which could win a majority in Parliament.

London was one of the places where the Party experimented with policies that led to the National Health Service, particularly in the East End areas of Poplar, Limehouse and Bermondsey.

My Grandma who was born in Petticoat Lane in 1902, voted for Labour all her life. I’m pretty sure it was out of class loyalty because I always thought her opinions were not typical of Labour voters.

St. Walburga and St. Ethelbert of Kent’s Day February 25th

engraving of St Walburga
St Walburga
(public domain)

Yesterday, was the Feast day of two very important Saints. Walpurga was the Abbess of Heidenheim in Germany. She was a nun at Wimborne in Dorset who, with her brothers St Willibald and St Winebald accompanied St Boniface of Crediton (in Devon) on his mission to convert the Germans to Christianity. They all became leading figures in the new German Church. Willibald set up the Monastery at Heidenheim, which was a duel monastery housing both Monks and Nuns, and his sister became Abbess of the Monastery in 761.

In 870, St. Walpurga remains were ‘translated’ to Eichstätt, which St Willibald had set up as the Diocesan centre of this part of Bavaria. This was done on the night of April 30th/May 1st and is now notorious as Walpurgis Night. This is the night of May Eve when witches are abroad up to all sorts of mischief, May Day being one of the main pagan festival days.

Walpurgis is the Saint for battling pest, rabies, whooping cough, and witchcraft. She was moved again in 1035 when she was enshrined at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga which was named after her and which ‘which continues to this day.[4][5]’ Terrible things happen on Walpurgis Night in Dracula by Bram Stoker and the night has now become a trope for Heavy Metal Bands, doyens of horror stories and the Satanic. More about this on April 30th perhaps?

Stained glass window showing Baptist of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury
Stained glass window showing Baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by St Augustine watched by Queen Bertha. In St Martins Church, Canterbury

St Ethelbert is responsible for welcoming the Augustinian Mission to the Angles sent by the Pope, St Gregory. This re-established Christianity in Easter Britain, and set up the Anglican Church or the Church of England as it became known.

I tell this story in this post:

Terminalia God of the Boundary February 23rd

Hans Holbein the Younger Design for a Stained Glass Window with Terminus. Pen and ink and brush, grey wash, watercolour, over preliminary chalk drawing, 31.5 × 25 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel.
‘Terminus is often pictured as a bust on a boundary stone,

Today is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. Ovid says that when King Tarquinus swept away the old Gods on the Capital Hill and Jupiter became the Great God, all the old temples were taken down except for that of Terminus. Jupiter’s Temple was built around it. It had a hole in the roof because Terminus had to be worshipped in the open air.

Terminus’s motto was “concedo nulli” which means “I yield to no one”. This was adopted by Erasmus as his personal motto in 1509.

The Terminalia was celebrated on the last day of the old Roman year. February was the last month of the year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year..

The intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons. It fixed the problem with a leap day every four years, based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. It was another 1500 years before that inaccuracy was corrected with the introduction of the Gregorian Year, by which time the year was another 11 days out of kilter.

The festival of Terminus was a pastoral outdoor festival marking the boundaries of towns and villages. It resembles the Beating of the Bounds tradition that we have in Britain, which is recorded from anglo-saxon times, and still continues in some parishes. I will talk about this on Ascension Day in May!

Here is what Ovid, in ‘Fasti’ says about Terminalis

Book II: February 23: The Terminalia
When night has passed, let the god be celebrated
With customary honour, who separates the fields with his
sign.
Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,
You have been a god since ancient times.
You are crowned from either side by two landowners,
Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.
An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself
Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.
The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,
And works at setting branches in the solid earth.
Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,
While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.
When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire
The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.
Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:
The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.
Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,
And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.
Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed.
You curry no favour: you aren’t bribed with gold,
Guarding the land entrusted to you in good faith.
If you’d once marked the bounds of Thyrean lands,
Three hundred men would not have died,
Nor Othryadesí name be seen on the pile of weapons.
O how he made his fatherland bleed!
What happened when the new Capitol was built?
The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made
room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great
Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers,
Lest you seem to set men above Jupiter:
And whether they beat you with rakes, or ploughshares,
Call out: This is your field, and that is his!
There’s a track that takes people to the Laurentine fields,
The kingdom once sought by Aeneas, the Trojan leader:
The sixth milestone from the City, there, bears witness
To the sacrifice of a sheep’s entrails to you, Terminus.
The lands of other races have fixed boundaries:
The extent of the City of Rome and the world is one

Translated by A. S. Kline copyright 2004

London Stone as a Palladium February 20th

OLD ENGRAVING OF London stone
Old Engraving of London Stone, Cannon Street

On February 18th, I revised a post about Ravens, King Bran’s Head and other Palladiums that protected Britain (or London) from invasion. If you missed it, look here. A possible Palladiun I missed out is London Stone. To remind you, London Stone is an eponymous stone found in Cannon Street, in the heart of the City of London, It is first mentioned in the 12th Century, and no one knows why it was famous.

In 1862, an ‘ancient proverb’ surfaced:

“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”

It was made anonymously in the journal Notes and Queries. In Welsh, it was “Tra maen Prydain, Tra lled Llyndain’ This verse, if genuine, would link the Stone to Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder of London. (To be precise: by genuine, I don’t mean it would prove the stone was linked to King Brutus, I mean, if genuine, it would prove that in the medieval period the stone was linked to Brutus.)

However, the writer has been identified as Richard Williams Morgan, who was a passionate Welsh Nationalist and prolific author, who was not very scrupulous with his analysis of sources. As no earlier source can be found, it is thought Morgan made it up.

He lived in London in the 1850s and was very struck by the London Stone. Archaeologists prefer the idea that London Stone it is, likely, a milestone from which the Romans measured distance. For Shakespeare, it was the stone on which rebel Jack Cade claimed lordship of London. For the romantic, it was a coronation stone; a stone of power; the sword in the stone stone; or an ancient megalith. The truth is, we have no idea. It has been called the London Stone since the 12th Century, but why was it so named and what was it ‘for’ or symbolic of, we still don’t know.

picture of london stone from the inside
Pic by Graham Hussey pic shows the LONDON STONE which is in Canon Street, London .pic taken inside the Tech Sports shop

Morgan came to the conclusion it was the stone plinth on which the original Trojan Palladium had stood. This was a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, that protected Troy from invasion and which was stolen by Odysseus and Diomedes shortly before the successful Trojan Horse plot. It was then taken to Italy.

Morgan’s idea was that King Brutus brought it from Rome when he sailed into Exile in Britain. Brutus, was a descendent of Aeneas. Aeneas was the only Trojan leader to escape from the destruction of Troy, who found his way to Rome, after leaving Dido in Carthage. He was the ancestor of Romulus who founded Rome, but also the ancestor of King Brutus. Brutus gathered all the Trojan slaves and exiles and sailed to found a new Troy in our green and pleasant lands. His new capital he called Troia Nova, which became Trinovantum, then Lud’s Dun, and finally London.

Morgan’s theory held that the Stone was used as the altar stone of the Temple of Diana (supposedly on the site of St Pauls Cathedral) and set up by Brutus.

Morgan was the first person to link London Stone with Brutus, or so people thought and still think (see Wikipedia, until 2018.

Picture of the plinth in which London stone is rehoused recently
London Stone as recently rehoused.(Photo K Flude)

John Clark, Emeritus Curator at the Museum of London, in 2018, found a reference to a narrative poem of the 14th Century, that links London Stone to Brutus and to the future prosperity of London. Just as Morgan did. So, it makes it possible, at least, that Morgan did not just make the link-up but draw on this medieval ‘tradition.’

Brutus set up London Stone
And these words he said anon:
‘If each king that comes after me
Makes this city wide and roomy  
As I have in my day,
Still hereafter men may say 
That Troy was never so fair a city  
As this city shall be.’

From Burnley & Wiggins 2003b, lines 457–64(John Clark’s modern English version)

For the full story, see John Clark’s article.

Recent archaeological discoveries that London was the site of Late Neolithic feasting on a possibly large scale (discussed here🙂 makes the chances that the stone is a ‘ritual’ stone from prehistory slightly more likely than previously thought. At least that is my opinion.  But, of course, there is still no evidence that London Stone is prehistoric, nor that Brutus actually existed.

Written in 2023 and revised in February 2024.

The Raven, the Palladium and the White Hill of London February 18th

Shows a photo of a missing Raven at the Tower of London
The Independent January 2021

The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the west and north by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they, again, cover most of the UK except the eastern areas.

Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. Here is a very famous quotation from Y Gododdin, a medieval poem but thought to derive from a poem by the great poet Aneirin from the 7th Century

He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur.’

Aneirin-he-glutted-black-ravens

This is one of the much argued-about references to Arthur in the ‘Was he a real person’ argument.

The Raven was also the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was one of the legendary Kings of Britain and his sister, Branwen, was married to the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I hope to tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled by her Irish husband to the scullery. She trained a starling to smuggle a message to her brother.

Bran took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.

Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed, having previously given away his cauldron of immortality to the Irish King in recompense for the insults given to the Irish by his brother.

So, the dying Bran, told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years.

At last they got to London where he told his men to bury his head on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain would be safe from foreign invasion.

This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’

A raven landing with a brown background
By Sonny Mauricio from Unsplash

But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.

The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill with its summit at Trinity Gardens, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation for the story, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales.

A Palladium is something that keeps a city or country safe, and was named after a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, which protected Troy. Perceiving this Odysseus and Diomedes stole the Palladium from Troy shortly before the Trojan Horse episode. The palladium then went to Italy (I’m guessing with Diomedes who is said to have founded several cities in Italy), and ended up in Rome.

The Romans claimed to be descendents of Trojan exiles led by Aeneas so it was back with its rightful owners. It protected Rome until it was transferred to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, and then disappeared, presumably allowing the Ottoman Turks to conquer the City of Caesar.

So what was Arthur doing destroying the palladium that kept Britain safe? Vanity is the answer the story gives. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.

The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is still said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiz when one goes missing.

Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell,who is a friend of mine told me that while working at the Tower of London he searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the tale before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.

The Welsh Triads give a total of three palladiums for Britain.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain;

The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which llud son of Beli concealed;
And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

All good but then came the three unfortunate disclosures:

And there were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed form the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman;
And it was he who disclosed the Dragons;
And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.

Gwrtheyrn is Vortigen, the leader of the Britons after the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, one or two leaders before Arthur.

The Dragons were making a terrible noise, causing miscarriages and other misfortunes, and King Ludd, whom legends says gave his name to London (Ludd’s Dun or Ludd’s walled City), had them buried in a cavern in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The Dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern in trying to build a castle in Snowdonia at Dinas Emrys disturbed the Dragons and their disclosure caused the Saxon conquest.

Gwerthefyr is Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, who was keeping the Saxons out, but his father betrayed his own people for the lust of Rowena the daughter of Hengist, the Saxon.

After Vortimer’s death his bones were buried at the chief ports and they kept the country safe.  But they were moved to Billingsgate which allowed the Saxons to land safely on the Kent coast and consolidate their increasing hold over Britain and turning it into Englandw

Written in February 21 revised in February 23 and 24

Ash Wednesday February 14th

Ash Wednesday Forehead Ash Cross.  Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

This is the First Day of Lent, the solemn time which runs up to Easter, and is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

February means the ‘Month of Purification’ in Latin, and in Anglo Saxon the name for Spring was ‘lencthen’ thought to derive from the idea of lengthening days. So strictly Lent means Spring. In the Romance languages the term used derives from the Latin ‘Quadragesima’ which means the 40 days of Fast. Spanish (Cuaresma), French (Carême), and Italian Quaresima). In German it is the fasting time: fastenzeit. In England, Lent became a specialised word for the fast period, and Spring took over as the name of the season.

A time of fasting, or at least, a time when we are supposed to give something up – a bit like Dry January? Ash Wednesday gets its name as ashes used to be smeared on the heads of worshippers to remind them that we are dust. My footballing friend Andrew, is a Vicar and missed this week’s game as he was in Church marking people’s foreheads with ash crosses. The ashes were traditionally made from palms from Palm Sunday which is indeed what Andrew did.

In the midst of life we are in death, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Thomas Cranmer

On the subject we go to dust on death Joni Mitchell reminds us that:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

Seynt Valentyne’s Day & Magpies February 14th

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey Chaucer

This is my ‘translation’

For this was St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird came there to chose their mate.
Of every type, that men think may
And that so huge a noise did they make
That earth and sea and tree and every lake
So full was, that hardly was there space
For to stand so full was the place.

This is the first reference to St Valentine’s as a romantic day. St Valentine, is supposed to have been martyred in the 3rd Century (290AD) and for refusing to stop marrying people in the Christian rites. He is the patron Saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers. But until Chaucer, there was no particular link with romance. In fact, there are at least three Saint Valentines who were martyred in the Roman period and their relics are scattered around Europe (have a look at this National Geographic article for the full S.P.), including bones in Glasgow and his heart in Dublin.

Chaucer’s poem suggests one possible route to the link with romance. This is about the time when birds pair off—if they want to have their chicks at optimal time, then they need to get going before spring has really sprung.

When I think of love, I don’t think of birds. Maybe, this is because I live on the Regent’s Canal, and outside my garden I frequently see and hear a Coot chasing his pair across the water before violently mounting her. But then they are fiercely monogamous and defend their nest, fearlessly, against much bigger birds. And swans glide in beautiful family groups. But Magpies are my favourite lovebird because you see one, and then look around, and you very often see the partner. I have adopted an old tradition that you are supposed to say:

‘Hello, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife’?

And it is good luck if you see her and bad luck if you don’t. (Please feel free to assign your own favourite gender!)

‘One for Sorrow’ is a well-known nursery rhyme found in many variations, and is an example of ‘ornithomancy superstition’ whereby the number of Magpies you see determines some aspect of your future. As to the likelihood of seeing thirteen magpies together – they always appear to be in pairs to me, or singletons, and occasionally threes. Magpies normally mate for life, and are not gregarious during the nesting season, but thereafter, they ‘join together in large wintering flocks of more than 20 or so birds.‘. So, perhaps we need another seven lines for the rhyme?

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

Here is another version.

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

For details of the history of versions of this poem, click here:

Magpies don’t have a good reputation, traditionally being regarded as thieves and scavengers with untidy nests and eating habits. They are supposed to be attracted to shiny things, but Exeter University did some research and found that they have the normal Corvid’s curiosity for objects, but they are as happy to snatch a dull object as a shiny one. So, we can see they are very intelligent and faithful lovers and, for me, a good-omened bird (as long as I see the two of them).

First Published in February 2023, revised and updated in February 2024

Shrove Tuesday – Pancake Day – Mardi Gras – End of the Carnival February 13th

Les_Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail)  The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail) The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, this day is the end of the Carnival.

Carnival

1540s, “time of merrymaking before Lent,” from French carnaval, from Italian carnevale “Shrove Tuesday,” from older Italian forms such as Milanese *carnelevale, Old Pisan carnelevare “to remove meat,” literally “raising flesh,” from Latin caro “flesh” (originally “a piece of flesh,” from PIE root *sker- (1) “to cut”) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (from PIE root *legwh- “not heavy, having little weight”).

Folk etymology has it from Medieval Latin carne vale ” ‘flesh, farewell!’ ” Attested from 1590s in the figurative sense of “feasting or revelry in general.” The meaning “a circus or amusement fair” is attested by 1926 in American English.Related entries & more 

www.etymonline.com

Pancake Day is the day we eat up all our surplus food so that we can begin our lenten fast and turn out mind to repentance. Traditionally, in Britain it is a simple pancake with lemon and sugar (here is a recipe from the BBC) but it can also be a day of excess before the 40 days of restraint. As we saw before on ‘Lardy Thursday’ the Carnival period might be up to a week. Shrovetide was normally three days from the Sunday before Lent to Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent.

In France, it’s called Mardi Gras which means Fatty Tuesday, in Italy Martedi Grasso. In New Orleans it stretches from Twelfth Night to Shrove Tuesday, in most other places it is a week or three days. In Anglo-Saxon times there was ‘Cheese Week’, ‘Butter Week’, ‘Cheesefare Sunday’ and ‘Collop Monday’.

Shrove Tuesday is the day we should be ‘shriven’ which means to make confession. The point is that the Church has been leading up to Easter since Advent – before Christmas. Easter is the date of the conception and, also, the date of the execution and apotheosis of Jesus Christ. So the pious should confess their sins, then undertake their lenten fast before entering the Holy Week purged and sin-free.

In the Anglo-Saxon Church, there was a custom called ‘locking the Alleluia.’ The Church stopped using the word Alleluia from 70 days before Easter. Alleluia represented the return from exile in Babylon, and with the approach of the death of Christ it was not felt appropriate to be celebratory.

The sombre nature of this block of time was highlighted by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010)

Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and make amends according to the guidance of his teachers; and let everyone encourage each other to do good by good example.

Ælfric, Catholic Homilies Text Ed. Peter Clemoes quoted in ‘Winters in the World’ Eleanor Parker

Shrove Tuesday was traditional for football games in the days before football had any rules to speak of. It was a wild game in which teams tried to get a bladder from one end of town to the other, or one side of a field to the other. In Chester, the traditional football game on the Roodee island which was held on Shrove Tuesday was so rowdy that the Mayor created the Chester Races specifically to provide a more sedate alterative to the violence of the ‘beautiful game.’

Here is a youtube video of Shrovetide Football.

Royal Asbourne Shrovetide Football

In London, John Stowe quotes Henry Fitzstephen who was a contemporary of Thomas Becket and is writing about London in the late 12th Century:

‘Every year also at Shrove Tuesday, that we may begin with children’s sport, seeing we all have been children, the school boys do bring cocks of the game to their master, and all the forenoon they delight themselves in cockfighting. After dinner all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball. The scholars of every school have their ball, or baston in their hands. The ancient and wealthy men of the City come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility.’

I have just found a video of the pancake race at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London. It is an inter-livery company pancake race competition. The competitors, representing the medieval Guilds, have to run across the Guildhall while holding a frying pan and pancake. There is a zone where they have to toss the pancake. There is also a novelty costume race. Here is a youtube video of the 2023 race.

First published on February 21st, 2023 republished on February 13th 2024

St Apollonia’s Day. A Day to Cure the Toothache February 9th

Saint Apollonia. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. She is shown with forceps and extracted tooth and the martyr’s palm.

The 9th of February is St Apollonia’s Day. She was martyred at Alexandria in 249 AD during the persecution of Emperor Decius. She was attacked during an anti-Christian riot and struck around the face knocking her teeth out. Then, she was taken to a bonfire and told they would throw her in if she did not renounce her faith. So, without waiting, she spoke a prayer and walked into the fire. This information is recorded in a near-contemporary letter from St Dionysius of Alexandria and so is a rare well documented martyrdom. Because her teeth were knocked out she is, therefore, Saint of Toothache.

I can remember my Grandmother prescribing cloves for me when I had toothache. And this was, and is, a common remedy. In my case, we would keep a clove or two in the mouth close to the site of the pain. According to Natural Ways to Sooth an Toothache cloves contain

‘Eugenol, a natural form of anaesthetic and antiseptic that helps get rid of germs. Eugenol is still used in dental materials today’

Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, tended to use a pill to soothe sore gums, but also a oil from a wood called ‘Ol. Lig. Heraclei’ which may be oil from the Bay Tree. (‘John Hall and his Patients’ by Joan Lane). Most of his tooth cases seem to be sore gums, which suggests to me Dr John Hall did not generally do dental work.

To get a tooth drawn you could go to a Barber Surgeon, a Blacksmiths or specialist Tooth Drawer. This would be terrifyingly painful and probably only done when the pain was unbearable, but just think what a premium could be demanded by a really competent drawer. The drawers would probably not have any formal training, but the skills would be passed on by the drawer to his apprentice or assistant. So, they were a very important part of the health care system.

A bill of mortality for London 1665, showing 11 deaths caused by 'teeth' (as opposed to 353 for 'feaver'
List of causes of death, London during the plague of 1665. Teeth killed 11 people

‘Teeth’ was a common cause of death – most likely being from infection or an abscess. It is interesting that someone as erudite and educated as the 17th Century writer, John Aubrey tells us in a chapter on Magick of less formal ways of tooth care. He tells us, in places, that the person who told him the story is worthy of belief. So he seems to give some credence to the efficacy of these magickal ‘cures’. But, judge for yourself; this is what he wrote:

To Cure the Tooth-ach.

Take a new Nail, and make the Gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an Oak. This did Cure William Neal, Sir William Neal’s Son, a very stout Gentleman, when he was almost Mad with the Pain, and had a mind to have Pistoll’d himself.

To Cure the Tooth-ach, out of Mr. Ashmole’s Manuscript Writ with his own Hand.

Mars, hur, abursa, aburse.
Iesu Christ for Marys sake,
Take away this Tooth-ach.

Write the words, Three times; and as you say the Words, let the Party burn one Paper, then another, and then the last.

He says, he saw it experimented, and the Party immediately Cured

John Aubrey’s Miscellanies 1695

May, Williams and Bishop at the Old Bailey accused of murder in pursuit of bodysnatching

In 1832, in London Bishop, Williams and May were accused of bodysnatching. After killing the Italian Boy ( wonderful book by Sarah Wise ‘The Italian Boy‘) they jemmied out the teeth and took them to a South London Dentist. They ‘cheapened’ (I cheap, you cheap, we are cheapening: meaning to barter) with the Dentist to get a decent price for the teeth. The dentist wanted to use them for false teeth for his patients. If I remember correctly, he paid £1 for them.

The teeth were evidence in the trial of the murderers, and once two of them had been hanged (the third turned King’s Evidence), the dentist asked for the teeth back! They were released back to the Dentist who promptly put them in the window of his surgery as an advert for his professional skills!

Earlier, one of the Borough Boys Resurrectionist gang (based in Southwark, London) toured the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars and came back with hundreds of teeth extracted from dead soldiers to sell to dentists as false teeth – they became known as Waterloo Teeth.

When I first wrote this in I added ‘How things have changed!’, but recent news that people in parts of Britain, without effective access to Dental care, have begun resorted to doing their own dental work. This often means extracting their own rotten teeth. Effectively, it seems this Conservative Government is allowing dentistry to slip out of the NHS just like it did with eye health. For a study in what has happened to Dentistry in the UK in recent years, please look at this report here.

First writen February 2023, revised February 2024.