St. Patrick’s Day, St Albans, Nicholas Fuentes, & Cats March 17th

Stained Glass window depicting St Patrick with a  crock and a castle
Stained Glass window depicting St Patrick (source of image, lost in the mists of time!)

St. Patrick has a very interesting autobiography (Confession).  He was captured by Irish pirates while living in a Romano-British Town.  He says his father was a Decurion and a Deacon which suggests elements of Roman political organisation continued.  No one knows the dates of St Patrick’s life but these titles suggested an early date perhaps just after the end of Roman rule.

The town he lived in was called Bannavem Taburniae.  Many places have been proposed for it.  The closest linguistically is Bannaventa in Northamptonshire but this seems a very unlikely place for Irish raiders to land, being about as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in Britain!

Scholars have suggested South Wales and the Scottish borders most commonly.  But my favourite suggestion is Battersea in London.  This was made in the pages of the London Archaeologist by editor Nicolas Fuentes. 

Fuentes was one of a pioneering group of archaeologists when Rescue Archaeology first began a campaign to record the archaeology, being destroyed by massive redevelopment of town centres in the 70s.

He changed his name from the anglicised Nicholas Farrant back to its original Fuentes and wrote a magnificent series of papers which located St. Patrick in Battersea; St Alban’s execution in London and all 12 battles of King Arthur around Greater London.

All were well argued, but as a set they do raise an eyebrow, being unsupported by any clear evidence, and, as far as I know, without scholarly support.  The one I really like is St Alban being martyred in London because it reminds everyone that the first reference to St Alban, which is by Gildas in the 6th Century, places the execution of the Saint firmly in London. It makes sense of the story that Alban, keen for martyrdom, gets God to part the River so he can get quickly to the execution spot. In Gildas’s case, the Amphitheatre is in Roman London, and the river needing parting – the mighty Thames. Anglo-Saxon historian, the Venerable Bede places St Alban’s death firmly in St Albans, but the river that God needs to part – the River Ver, is a piddle, and Alban could have crossed it easily, hardly requiring anything more than wellington boots.

To my, unscholarly mind, when we worship people we venerate them, chiefly, at their birthplace and death place. So to me, it makes sense that St Alban’s main shrine was at Verulamium where he was born (now known as St Albans) and London where he died. The hagiography of St Germanus of Auxerre tells us that Germanus came to an amphitheatre for a religious debate about 15 years after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, and then went to a nearby shrine dedicated to St Alban. Unfortunately, the writer of the memoir is not really interested in post-Roman Britain, so does not tell us whether it was in London or St Albans. But there is an early church dedicated to St Alban just by the Roman Amphitheatre in London, although archaeology does not reveal any evidence early enough to suggest the Church is that early. Fuentes, argued that London as the Capital was likely to have been the place where capital punishments were carried out, particularly in the case of a Roman Citizen like Alban. I must note that in placing any credibility to Fuentes theory, I am standing largely alone.

stained glass window from Gloucester Cathedral of St Patrick being taught by St Germanus

I’m not so convinced by the 12 Battles of King Arthur, for which there is just never going to be enough evidence to locate, and they are more likely to have been spread throughout Britannia.

So, to the point – St Patrick in Battersea?  The evidence, as I remember it, was really only the suggestion that Battersea was derived from Batrick’s Island or originally Patrick’s Island.  The word ‘sea’ being used in that sense along the River Thames as in Chelsea, Thorney, Putney derived from ey which is short for eyot (island).

St Patrick lived as a teenage slave for 6 years, then escaped from captivity in Ireland and returned home. Trained as a priest, in perhaps Auxerre (home to St. Germanus who is another crucial witness to post Roman Britain) and returned to Ireland to begin the conversion to Christianity. He is the Patron Saint of Ireland, with St. Brigitte and St. Colomba.

Another candidate for Bannavem Taburniae’ comes from Andrew Breeze FSA. I read about this in Salon IFA, the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries, and it is also discussed in this History First article. Breeze has revived a theory that the Saint comes from the West Country, and that the ‘Bannavem Taburniae’ is Banwell, near Weston-super-Mare in North Somerset. He suggests that ‘Bannaventa was a Latinisation of a Brittonic name that included banna, for a bend’, crook or peak. Venta is a well known word for an area of local administration or marketplace (for example, Venta Bulgarum, was the name for Winchester in the Roman period.) . He suggests that these ‘elements, as well as the Berniae element of ‘Taburniae’, can be found in the name Banwell, itself a compound name of the Brittonic ‘Banna’ and the Old English wylle, both meaning pool, or in the names of surrounding villages.’

mage credit: Looking south from Winthill, near Banwell, Somerset, Colin S Pearson; Banwell in Somerset, Google Street View
Image credit: Looking south from Winthill, near Banwell, Somerset, Colin S Pearson; Banwell in Somerset, Google Street View

What it has over the London theory is that it is more likely to have been subject to Irish Raiders than London. But, for me, it is just another theory based on placename evidence that might or might not be true.

And least we forget, today is also St Gertrude’s Day, patron saint of Cats.

comical post from facebook of St Gertrude Patron saint of cats
Facebook Post by a friend

St Gregory.  Punster Extraordinary March 12th

Gregorius I is known as Saint Gregory the Great. Pope from 3 September 590 to his death on 12th March 604. So 12th March is traditionally his feast day but this was changed to September 3rd, the date of his elevation to Pope, because 12th March was often in Lent.

He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers, because it is traditionally believed he instituted the form of plainsong known as Gregorian Chant. He was also a formidable organiser and reformer and made changes that helped the Catholic tradition survive Arian and Donatist challenges.

In the UK he is venerated with St Augustine for bringing Christianity to the largely pagan Anglo-Saxons. The caption to the illustration above tells the story of how he came to send a mission to the pagan Angles in Briton and tells the story of his two most famous puns, riffing on the similarity of the words Angles/Angels and Aella/Alleluia. But in between these two he also punned on the name of Aella’s kingdom – Deira in Northumberland, saying he would save them from the wroth of God which is ‘de ira’ in Latin.

After this incident he sent St Augustine to Canterbury to convert the Germanic peoples of the former Roman Province of Britannia. Canterbury was chosen because its King was the ‘Bretwalda’ of Britain – the most powerful King and he, Ethelbert, was married to Bertha, a French Princess already a Christian. This established a safe haven for St Augustine’s mission. And the King was baptised, shortly, after in Canterbury.

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

The mission came with a plan to recreate the ecclesiastical arrangements set up in the Roman period, with archbishops in the two main capitals at London and York. After Kent was converted, St Ethelbert’s nephew, Sæberht, King of Essex, received a mission from St Mellitus who established St Pauls Cathedral in London. St Paulinus was sent to convert Northumbria and established a Cathedral in York. Unfortunately, for the plan, when Sæberht died his sons returned to paganism and Mellitus was kicked out, returned to Canterbury, and ever since we have had an Archbishop of Canterbury and York and never had an Archbishop of London.

Photo of St Martin's Church - where the Church of England began. showing Roman tiles in the wall.
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury – where the Church of England began. Note the Roman tiles in the wall.

It is possible to argue that Gregory’s encounter is why we are called English, because St Augustine was sent to set up the Church of the Angles, not the Church of the Saxons. Saxon was the normal name used by the Romans for Germanic barbarians. As the name of the Church, the term Anglish/English became a relatively neutral term that the various shades of Germanic peoples in Britain could unite under in the face of the later Viking threat.

The mission was sent in AD 597 and Pope Gregory died in AD 604.

I am just returning to the UK after a visit to Amsterdam.  I’ve spent the last two days largely in the Rijksmuseum where I came across this painting which features Pope Gregory the Great on the left hand part of the Triptych. It shows Utrecht in the background.

Triptych of the Crucifixion.  Showing the vision of the Crucifixion that St Gregory had while celebrating Mass (left). Crucifixion centre.  St Christopher (right)

St Gregory is in green kneeling down. What is fascinating is all the paraphernalia of the Crucification above Gregory’s head.  You’ll see 30 pieces of silver, dice to decide who gets Jesus’  robes, flails and torture devices, sponge and spear etc.

Detail

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.

John Evelyn’s Death 27th February 1706

27th February, 1661. Ash Wednesday. Preached before the King the Bishop of London (Dr. Sheldon) on Matthew xviii. 25, concerning charity and forgiveness.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

John Evelyn is, with Pepys and Wren, one of the great figures of 17th Century London.  Unlike Pepys he was an avowed Royalist who hated Oliver Cromwell and all he stood for.  He went into exile with his King and gives a great description of Paris (see below).  Dr Sheldon, the Bishop of London mentioned above, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and being a friend of Wren’s Father, commissioned Wren to build the Sheldonian Theatre, in Oxford.

Like Pepys, he was a diarist and a writer. And they, like Wren, were alumni of the Royal Society, one of the great scientific societies. John Evelyn was a founding fellow. It was innovative in that it employed an experimenter, Robert Hooke – one of the great early Scientists and it encouraged scientists to write up, for peer review, their theories. This is the foundation of western Science, and a bedrock of the Enlightenment.

Frontispiece of ‘the History of the Royal-Society of London by Thomas Sprat

Evelyn was a prolific traveller and a polymath. He wrote on the need to improve London’s architecture and air in Fumifugium (or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated). And was an expert on trees writing: Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees (1664). He lived at Sayes Court in Depford near Greenwich, which he ill-advisedly rented to Peter the Great of Russia. Letting to Peter was a bit like inviting a 1960s Rock Band to trash your mansion.

Here is an extract from his Furmifugium. It has a place in my history because, in the 1980’s I worked on a project to create an interactive history of London, financed by Warner Brothers, and in cooperation with something called the ‘BBC Interactive TV Unit’. One part of it was a Literary Tour of London, and this is where I came across John Evelyn using several of the quotations on this page.

That this Glorious and Antient City, which from Wood might be rendred Brick, and (like another Rome) from Brick made Stone and Marble; which commands the Proud Ocean to the Indies, and reaches to the farthest Antipo­des, should wrap her stately head in Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Dark­nesse, I deplore with just Indignation.

That the Buildings should be compos’d of such a Congestion of mishapen and extravagant Houses; That the Streets should be so narrow and incommodious in the very Center, and busiest places of Intercourse: That there should be so ill and uneasie a form of Paving under foot, so troublesome and malicious a disposure of the Spouts and Gutters overhead, are particulars worthy of Reproof and Reforma­tion; because it is hereby rendred a Labyrinth in its principal passages, and a continual Wet-day after the Storm is over.

Here is a taste of Evelyn’s time as an Exile, this is a short extract from a long entry on the splendid Palaces in and around Paris.

27th February, 1644. Accompanied with some English gentlemen, we took horse to see St. Germains-en-Laye, a stately country house of the King, some five leagues from Paris. By the way, we alighted at St. Cloud, where, on an eminence near the river, the Archbishop of Paris has a garden, for the house is not very considerable, rarely watered and furnished with fountains, statues,[and groves; the walks are very fair; the fountain of Laocoon is in a large square pool, throwing the water near forty feet high, and having about it a multitude of statues and basins, and is a surprising object. But nothing is more esteemed than the cascade falling from the great steps into the lowest and longest walk from the Mount Parnassus, which consists of a grotto, or shell-house, on the summit of the hill, wherein are divers waterworks and contrivances to wet the spectators; this is covered with a fair cupola, the walls painted with the Muses, and statues placed thick about it, whereof some are antique and good. In the upper walks are two perspectives, seeming to enlarge the alleys, and in this garden are many other ingenious contrivances.

John Evelyn’s Diary from https://www.gutenberg.org/

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, this is Evelyn’s reaction:

May 29th 1660:

This day came in his Majestie Charles the 2d to London after a sad, and long exile… this was also his birthday, and with a Triumph of above 20,000 horse and foote, brandishing their swords and shouting with unexpressable joy; the wayes strawed with flowers, the bells ringing, the streets hung with Tapisry, fountains running with wine: ‘

‘The mayor, Aldermen, all the companies in their liveries, chaines of gold, banners, Lords and nobles, cloth of Silver, gold and velvet every body clad in, the windows and balconies all set with Ladys, Trumpetes, Musik, and myriads of people … All this without one drop of bloud …it was the Lords doing…

For Evelyn’s opinion of Cromwell have a look at this post of mine:

First Bank of England £1 Note 26th February 1797

 First £1 note,1797 Bank of England Museum source Joy_of_Museums Public Domain cc by sa 4.0
First £1 note of the Bank of England Museum 1797
Source Joy_of_Museums Public Domain (CC by sa 4.0)

On this day, the Bank of England issued its first ever one pound note (although some sources say March 1797). The Bank had been issuing paper notes since the late 17th Century, but this was the first £1 note. They still had to be signed by hand and allocated to a specific person. The hand signed white paper notes were withdrawn in 1820, and the pound note was, finally, withdrawn in 1988. The £1 in 1797 was worth the equivalent of £157.46 today, so quite a big note! (see here for the calculator.)

Interesting Archaeology discoveries.

The following discoveries were reported in Salon IFA the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London in Salon: Issue 526  7 February 2024, which you can see here:

Pliny the Elder’s Villa found near Vesuvius?

The 1st Century seafront villa, with views of the Bay of Naples and of Mount Vesuvius, has been excavated at the town of Bacoli, which was the port of Misenum. Pliny commanded the fleet as ‘Praefectus classis Misenensis’. Pliny tried to rescue his friends and family, ignoring warnings saying ‘Fortune favours the brave’, ‘Audentes Fortuna luvat’. It didn’t and he died, at Stabiae, by toxic fumes. Read more about the villa here:

Face Reconstructed for a Victim of Roman Crucifixion

A male skeleton found, 4 years ago, in a Roman cemetery in Fenstaton in Cambridgeshire was found with a 2-inch nail through his heel bone. BBC 4 has made a documentary about the recent reconstruction of the man’s face by, as Salon reports it:

‘US forensic artist Joe Mullins, of George Mason University, Virginia. He usually works with law enforcement agencies, reconstructing the faces of modern-day crime victims. ‘

To follow the details, read more here, or watch the BBC documentary, ‘The Cambridgeshire Crucifixion’, which can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.

Sketch of a Roman skull of a man who was crucified.
The Image is a sketch of the ‘Facial Reconstruction, Impossible Factual/BBC’

Coltsfoot & Smoking & Blossom & Cholera February 24th

Coltsfoot by Andreas Trepte Wikipedia

Coltsfoot is a daisy-like plant which is flowering about now, and Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 suggests that the ‘fumes of the dried leaves taken through a funnel’ is good for those with coughs and shortness of breath. He suggests that it is smoked like tobacco and it ‘mightly prevaileth.’

This idea, Mrs Grieves says in her herbal (1931), is endorsed by ‘Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, and Boyle’. And Coltsfoot is ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs’. (This is historic information re herbs and NOT current medical advice, as Coltsfoot can be very dangerous!).

engraving of a man smoking
Lobspruch deß edlen hochberühmten Krauts Petum oder Taback Nuremberg, 1658 New York Public Library Public Domain
Detail from Lobspruch deß edlen hochberühmten Krauts Petum oder Taback Nuremberg, 1658 New York Public Library Public Domain

My grandson and parents found a 19th Century pipe bowl, much like the one above, by the Thames where there were many fragments of clay pipe. For more on 17th Century smoking, have a look here.

Blossom is also coming out in London a little early. (2022 we had a false spring when Cherry Blossom came out, and I think we are now just getting used to it, so I don’t think it is being noted so much in 2024). Blackthorn (I think) is coming out in profusion in my local park. Photos below by the Author of Haggerston Park in East London. Left February 2022, Right Feb 23.

One thing I am trying to improve in my Almanac of the Past, is to include more specific London content. This can be difficult on a daily basis. But I think I have, by chance, found a solution. I was trying to glue the toe flap on a perfectly good pair of trainers so that it did not flap, and I needed a heavy weight to press the two edges together. I found a random couple of heavy books for the purpose. 24 hours later, I lifted the books to discover the failure of my project. But, as I returned the books to their place in the book case, I found the heaviest was called ‘A London Year. 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals, and Letters.’ Compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Bennison, published in 2013, and the price on it of £5.99 makes me feel I must have bought it second hand. Have I opened it before now? Indeed, I had forgotten its existence, but Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Book! What a timely rediscovery.

Cholera in London.
The news of the Cholera being in London has been received abroad. According to the feelings of the different nations towards England, France, who wish to court us has ordered a quarantine in her ports of three days; Holland, who feels aggrieved by our conduct at the conference, one of 40 days. The fog so thick in London that the illuminations for the Queen’s Birthday were not visible.

24th February 1832 Thomas Raikes, Diary 1832 (from ‘A London Year’ Compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Bennison, 2013,

I think the Conference mentioned above was the London Conference of May 1832, which aimed to establish a Kingdom of Greece with a King, It was set up by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston without discussion with the Greeks and ended up giving them a Bavarian King. King Otto. Otto was forced from the throne in a revolution in 1862, and replaced by a Danish King, from whom Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was descended.

Stanley Green, the Protein Man of Oxford Street February 22nd

Stanley Green, the Protein Man, in Oxford Street, London, 1977 CC by 4.0 Deed

I was failing to find anything of significance to post (an Ordinary Day as Ovid calls them), when I came across a London Walks post about Stanley Green. Green was born on 22nd February in 1915. Most people who lived in London, knew of him, as he was, always to be seen patrolling Oxford Street and other Central London Streets with his placard. He was a one-man campaign to warn people that protein was a factor in promoting Lust, and Lust was a bad thing. He campaigned, religiously, from 1969 to 1993, when he died.

Whether you agree with his views or not it doesn’t diminish the impact an ordinary person had on an entire City. For more about him, including a podcast, have a look at the London Walks page here:

Another one man campaigner, Mr Stop Brexit, Steve Bray, was to be seen outside Parliament, most days in 2018 and 2019 and continues to campaign. He perfected various photobombing techniques so that he would appear in the background in interviews of prominent Brexit campaigners, or was heard over his megaphone. He is from Splott in Wales, and said he lost all his friends because they supported Brexit.

Steve Bray, also known as Stop Brexit Man. (Wikipedia CC0)
Steve Bray, also known as Stop Brexit Man. (Wikipedia CC0)

Here, you can see him upstaging one of the people who ruined this country, the dreadful Jacob Rees-Mogg

I must admit, I briefly considered dedicating my life to attending events Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke at, and shouting ‘Brexit Opportunities! That went well didn’t it?’ and collapsing in ironic laughter.

Feralia – the Roman Festival of the Dead February 21st

To illustrate rainwear in the Roman period and to illustrate winter showing Philu from Cirencester
Tombstone of Philus from Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) showing his rain cloak

Feralia is the last day of Parentalia a 9-Day Festival for the spirits of the Dead described in some detail by the Roman Poet, Ovid, in his Almanac of the year called the ‘Fasti’. Here, he describes how to honour a parent:

And the grave must be honoured. Appease your father’s
Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built.
Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly
Offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths.
A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough,
A scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt,
And bread soaked in wine, and loose violets:
Set them on a brick left in the middle of the path.
Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades:
Add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires.

There is much more Ovid says about Feralia, and you can read it for free, in translation by A. S. Kline (which I used above, at www.poetryintranslation.com)

For more about Parentalia look at my earlier post about the February festivals of the Romans:

In London, archaeologists have found many cemeteries around the City of London. The Romans forbade burial inside the City limits, so the dead were buried alongside the main roads out of the City Gates: Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Holborn, along Fleet Street, outside Ludgate, and along the main road South from London Bridge in Southwark.

Map of Roman Cemetaries from Museum of London exhibition on the Roman Dead
Map of Roman Cemeteries from the Museum of London exhibition on the Roman Dead, showing the River Thames and River Fleet. Holborn is to the left, marked ‘Western Cemetery’.

Various rites have been observed. Both inhumation and cremation practised. I remember excavating a Roman mortaria with a hole in the bottom with the ashes of the dead in it. These large bowls were used as a mortar for grinding foodstuffs. The bottom was deliberated gritted, but they often wore through, and sometimes found reused to hold cremation ashes. I like to imagine, granny being buried in her favourite cooking vessel (or grandad).

Many bodies were covered in chalk, perhaps to help preserve the body. A surprising number of bodies are found with the head by the knees. The large number of cases helps speculation that this was a burial rite, of whom only a percentage were beheaded as a punishment. Some graves shown signs of a funeral pyre.

Author’s photograph of a skeleton displayed at the Roman Dead Exhibition, Museum of London, She was between 26 and 35 years old, who lived a hard life, and possibly had anaemia. Her head was severed either: before and causing death, or shortly after death, and placed between her legs as shown.

The rich and powerful were remembered with huge monuments, prominently sited along the main roads. Perhaps the most famous are the burial stones found at Tower Hill of the Procurator Classicianus. This is famous as he is mentioned in Roman accounts of the Boudiccan Revolt of AD 60-61. He suggested to Nero that the Province could only be saved if the revenge against the British was de-escalated. Nero wisely withdrew the vengeful Roman Governor Suetonius Paulinus and replaced him with someone ready to conciliate. We, clearly, have lessons to learn from the Romans.

Reconstruction drawing of two stones found while building Tower Hill Underground Station. They read, something like, ‘To the Spirits of the Dear Departed Fabius Alpini Classicianius, Procurator of the Province of Britannia.Julia, Indi (his wife) Daughter of Pacata of the Indiana voting tribe. Had This Set up.

A beautiful carved eagle which adorned a tombstone was found in the Cemetery in Tower Hamlets. But recently a very grand mausoleum was found in Southwark. To find out more, have a look at the BBC website here:

Finally, a week or two ago, an excavation ran by MOLA discovered a ‘funerary bed’ in an just outside Newgate in Holborn. It was on the banks of the River Fleet, a tributary to the River Thames, that gives its name to the street of shame: Fleet Street. The fluvial location meant that there were extraordinary levels of preservation, which included this bed. It was dismantled and buried in the grave and may have been either/or or both a bed used as a grave good, perhaps for use in the hereafter, or the bed upon which the deceased was carried to the funeral.

sketch of Roman 'Funerary' Bed found dismantled in Holborn, London
Reconstruction of a Roman ‘Funerary’ Bed found dismantled in Holborn, London (Sketch from a MOLA reconstruction drawing)

They found other grave goods, including an olive oil lamp decorated with an image of a gladiator; jet and amber beads and a glass phial.

Sketch of Roman burial goods from Holborn 2024
Sketch of Roman burial goods from Holborn, London

For more look at www.mola.org.uk/discoveries

Metamorphosis, Crocus and Saffron February 19th

Snowdrop, Crocus, violet and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. (Photo Kevin Flude, 2022)

Violets and crocuses are coming out. Apparently, in the UK 63% say crocuses and 37% use the correct Latin plural which is croci. And last year I used the incorrect crocii. Incidently, an earth shaking decision has been made at the Financial Times who have just updated their style guide to make the plural word data (datum is the singular form) take the singular form. So it is no longer ‘data are’ but ‘data is’. For example, it was ‘the data are showing us that most British speakers use crocuses as the plural’ but now ‘the data is showing us that 37% of British people prefer the correct Latin form of croci’. In 2018 they changed it to an option, but now it is mandatory to make data singular.

The crocus represents many things but because they often come out for St Valentine’s Day they are associated with Love ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ according to www.icysedgwick.com/, which gives a fairly comprehensive look at the Crocus.

Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metamorphoses. This poem is one of the most famous in the world, written in about 6 AD it influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Bernard Shaw and was translated anew by Seamus Hughes.

The mechanicals in ‘The Midsummers Night Dream’ perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Shaw wrote about Pygmalion, and we all know the story of Arachne, claiming to be better than Athene at weaving and then being turned into a spider.

The stories are all about metamorphosis, mostly changes happening because of love. But it is also an epic as it tells the classical story of the universe from creation to Julius Caesar. It is about love, beauty, change and is largely an arcadian/rural poem in contrast to Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ which I have long used for illustrations of life in a Roman town.

He tells us ‘Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers.’ But he chooses to pass by this and other stories. So we have to look elsewhere for more details. There are various version. In the first Crocus is a handsome mortal youth, beloved of the God Hermes. They are playing with a discus which hits Crocus on the head and kills him. Hermes, distraught, turns the youth into a beautiful flower, and three drops of his blood form the stigma of the flower.  In other versions, love hits Crocus and the nymph Smilax, and they are rewarded by immortality as a flower. In one version, Smilax is turned into the Bindweed, which perhaps suggests that she is either punished for spurning him, or that she smothered him with love.

Photo Mohammad Amiri from unsplash. Notice the crimson stigma and styles, called threads

The autumn-flowering perennial plant Crocus sativus, is the one whose stigma gives us saffron. This was spread across Europe by the Romans, and was used for medicine, as a dye, a perfume. It was much sought after as a protection against the plague. It was extensively grown in the UK and Saffron Walden was a particularly important production area in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It was grown in the Bishop of Ely’s beautiful Gardens in the area remembered by Saffron Hill (home to the fictional Scrooge). This area became the London Home of Christopher Hatton, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. It is on the west bank of the River Fleet, in London EC1, in the area now know as Hatton Garden. The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley.

But I did find out more about Saffron from listening to BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question time and James Wong.

The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley. a place where Saffron was grown. The Saffron crops in Britain failed eventually because of the cost of harvesting, and it became cheaper to import it. It is now grown in Spain, Iran and India amongst other places. But attempts over the last 5 years have been made to reintroduce it, This is happening in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex – the hot and dry counties. It likes a South facing aspect, and needs to be protected from squirrels and sparrows who love it.

Saffron Photo by Vera De on Unsplash
Morning Glory or Field Bindweed photo Leslie Saunders unsplash

Bindweed is from the Convolvulus family, and I have grown one very successfully in a pot for many years. But they have long roots and according to the RHS ‘Bindweed‘ refers to two similar trumpet-flowered weeds, both of which twine around other plant stems, smothering them in the process. They are not easy to remove.’ Medically, Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal says all the bindweeds have strong purgative virtues.

Viola odorata CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.

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