Archive for August, 2017

Shalfleet: Church Tower or Castle Keep?

August 28th, 2017

The Tower of Shalfleet Church is the oldest on the Isle of Wight, and the most remarkable. Were there not a church attached to it, one would assume it was a defensive keep. The walls of this massive structure are over five feet thick, and there was originally no means of access from ground level: one had to climb an external ladder and scramble over the parapet. It is a structure that takes one’s breath away and has been described as ‘practically unique’. (Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, II, London 1891, pp.51-2.)

The Old Vicarage, Shalfleet: was it the site of the Saxon church? The Norman foundation is on the left.

The Tower was built in the later eleventh century, probably between 1070 and 1085, and may have been positioned at a distance from the Saxon church, the cemetery for which was in the garden of the Old Vicarage. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.)

William fitz Osbern, the Conqueror’s cousin and close friend, to whom he had granted the lordship of the Island, had presented the manor of Shalfleet to Gozelin fitz Azur, his own subordinate knight who had probably fought beside him at Hastings, while the church was part of his endowment to the Abbey of Lyre in Normandy. The Tower that they quickly raised would not have been free-standing for long, for it was soon connected to a new church on the present site, with an arch giving access to the Tower from the nave. Apart from the Tower, their North Door has survived the subsequent alterations to the building, with its ‘quaintly carved tympanum … an ordinary Romanesque enrichment’. The best guess is that the curious scene of a man with two lions represents Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

It has been suggested that a tower of such strength was intended as a refuge, for Shalfleet, with its flat shore, was particularly vulnerable to raiders from France (Stone, II, p.52; Brian Mead, The Church of St Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet, 2004). However, what Frenchman in the 1070s would have dared to invade the newly-annexed territory of William the Conqueror, given that he was the ‘strong man’ of northern France and notoriously swift in his retribution? Moreover, how would the frail and elderly have been expected to scramble up the Tower in times of danger? Although it undoubtedly served later as a defence against the French (and was equipped with its own three-pounder gun until 1779), it seems to me most unlikely that that was its original purpose.

Was it not, rather, an outpost of the lordly control that was now being exercised from Carisbrooke Castle? Conspicuously more solid and expensive than the usual motte and bailey, a commission worthy of the Island’s central authority and ideally placed to hold sway over the West Wight, might it have been intended not to shelter the local populace, but to cow them into submission?

The Tympanum, probably illustrating Daniel in the Lions' Den

The Shalfleet Skillet: A Story of Genocide on the Isle of Wight

August 27th, 2017

The Odinist Fellowship, a body representing 2,000 so-called ‘pagans’, has applied for reparation from the Church of England ‘for its former crimes against the Odinists’ (‘We want our stolen churches back, pagans tell Archbishop’, The Sunday Telegraph, 27 August 2017). It suggests a public apology and the symbolic handing over of two churches, one from the diocese of Canterbury, one from that of York. The Bishop of Chichester has sensibly responded by saying ‘As yet I am unconvinced as to the strength of Odinist faith in these parts’; and it is difficult to see how these cranks can in any way be considered the heirs to the dispossessed pagans of the past, or even to have any coherent grasp of their religion. There is no doubt, however, that the Christianisation of England was an often brutal process, as the following story reveals.

The copper-alloy saucepan or ‘skillet’ discovered in 2005 in a shallow ditch at Shalfleet on the Isle of Wight has been dated to the late seventh century A.D. and, its long handle decorated with a cross, is the earliest Christian object to have been found on the Island. It is in remarkably good condition, given its age, and is associated with a particularly dramatic episode in Island history.

In 686 A.D, the Jutish kingdom of the Isle of Wight, then a thinly-populated place of 1,200 families, had been invaded and captured by the Saxon Caedwalla, King of Wessex. Though an uncommitted Christian, Caedwalla had, according to Bede, pledged ‘the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the Island’, which ‘till then was given over entirely to idolatry’. Caedwalla was himself wounded in the fierce assault, his aim being ‘by merciless slaughter’ to destroy the entire population of the Island and to re-colonise it with his own people. His motives, clearly, were political rather than religious, but he was prepared to pay a high price for what was then the most impressive spiritual support on offer. (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of England, IV, xvi, trans. A.M. Sellar (London, 1907).)

When the two young brothers of the defeated King Arwald fell into his hands, they, too, were put to death, despite having been hurriedly baptised. The genocidal Caedwalla was nevertheless true to his word. The promised quarter of the spoils was duly handed over to St Wilfred, the exiled ‘Bishop of the Northumbrian peoples’, who is said to have landed at Bembridge and to have set up his first church at Brading. Thus was England’s last pagan enclave brought to Christ.

The skillet was no doubt used by the first generation of Christian colonists in Shalfleet (‘shallow stream’ to the Saxons), perhaps in their religious ceremonies. (They were only the latest wave of incomers, for Bronze-Age chiefs had been buried in mounds to the north and south of the village and the Romans had come in their turn to build houses there.) In 2005, excavations in the garden of the Old Vicarage revealed the remains of eight of these early Christians, their skeletons orientated east to west, as was proper for people of their religion. The bones, both of men and women, were in a poor condition, in death as in life. Arthritic spines are suggestive of, literally, back-breaking working conditions on the land; pitted eye-sockets indicate dietary deficiency; all had suffered injuries of some sort (though not obviously in battle) and had rotten teeth. Half had died in their twenties or early thirties and the other four may have made it to forty-five. One of the skeletons has been carbon-dated to the years between 660 and 734 A.D., which fixes it firmly in the period described by Bede. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.) The burials are evidence of the swift realisation of Caedwalla and Wilfred’s policy to pacify and Christianise the Island.

The site of the Saxon cemetery was subsequently developed for housing. In July 2008, the displaced skeletons were fittingly reinterred in the adjacent churchyard. A stone, with a touching inscription, marks the spot. The skillet, which had been discovered by a metal-detectorist, was bought by the Isle of Wight Heritage Service and can be viewed in the Museum of Island History in Newport’s former Guildhall, for the price of a mere £2.00.

The First Mrs Willoughby – or The Quest for my Inner Viking

August 10th, 2017

Wilby in Suffolk is flat, featureless and sparsely-populated, with a fine old church, a handful of cottages and a few scattered farmsteads

Most English families are lucky to trace their line back to the reign of Elizabeth I, and mine is no exception. John ‘Wilbie’ of Colchester was described as a yeoman and it was the emigration of his son Thomas to Cornwall, in 1647, that turned us into West Countrymen – Poldarkian characters who in the eighteenth century combined hard farming on the county’s bleak north coast with a little light wrecking. In default of other evidence, can the surname itself tell us about our earlier origins?

The names ‘Wilby’ and ‘Willoughby’ seem always to have been interchangeable, and to have been borne by a number of distinct and unrelated families to indicate their place of origin. There are villages called ‘Willoughby’ in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, and others called ‘Wilby’ in Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Suffolk.

Thus the remotest ancestor of the earls and dukes of Ancaster and the lords Willoughby de Eresby, Willoughby de Broke, Willoughby of Parham and Middleton was a certain William Willoughby of Willoughby-in-the-Marsh, Lincolnshire, in the time of Richard I. With their roots firmly in that county, they were entirely unconnected to Willoughbys originating in, say, Norfolk or Suffolk.

The various ‘Willoughbys’ and ‘Wilbys’ were etymologically distinct, too. The Lincolnshire Willoughby is called ‘Wilgebi’ in Domesday Book, a combination of the Old English wilig, for willow, with the Old Scandinavian byr, for a settlement or homestead. The name describes, picturesquely but prosaically, a ‘farmstead by the willows’.

The Wilbys, on the other hand, are called ‘Wilebi’ in Domesday, and are the byrs, or homesteads, of one or more men called Willa, who presumably were Viking marauders of the Danelaw period (A. D. Mills, A Dictionary of English Place-Names, (Oxford, 1991); P.H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames (1976), pp.383, 385.) As Wilby in Suffolk is the closest of the three villages to Colchester, I believe my ancestors to have originated there, and very probably to have included the eponymous Willa himself.

When might Willa, my putative ancestor, have arrived in England, and what sort of man was he?

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth, but charming enough for the first Mrs Willoughby

The Viking raids, the memory of which is seared on our national consciousness, had been sporadic at first. The coming of the Vikings in 793 had been announced, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by ‘immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed, and a little after that, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne.’ After 835, raids are regularly recorded in the south and west. The attacks soon escalated into a full-scale invasion, with a ‘great army’ landing in 865. It proceeded to conquer Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and – reinforced in 871 by a ‘great summer army’ – most of Mercia (874-7). Wessex itself barely escaped after a series of bloody battles in 871, but in 878 was occupied by the Danish king Guthrum, who had surprised Alfred, the new king of Wessex, at Chippenham.

Forced into hiding in the Somerset marshes, Alfred returned to win a decisive victory at Edington. The vanquished Guthrum now accepted baptism and agreed to withdraw, becoming ruler in 880 of the short-lived kingdom of East Anglia. In a subsequent treaty, Guthrum and Alfred, who had beaten off attacks by a third ‘great army’, fixed the boundary between the English and Danish spheres of influence on the line of Watling Street, between London and Chester. The old Saxon kingdoms to the north and east of this line, including East Anglia, disappeared for ever. This was to be the ‘Danelaw’, a wild, politically-fragmented area that was, for the time being, beyond the sphere of any English king.

The Gokstad Ship, now at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo

Ocean-going Viking longboats could accommodate about thirty men, or even fewer if horses, camp followers and enslaved captives were on board, so the number of settlers would not have been excessive. (A ninth-century example of such a ship, discovered in a royal burial mound at Gokstad in Sweden, is largely of oak and is 75 feet 5 inches long, with a keel of sixty feet. It has seating for 32 oarsmen.) The typical raiding fleet after 850 comprised 150 to 250 ships. Yet the impact of the Viking settlement of the Danelaw endures in aspects of our law and language, including much everyday vocabulary (anger, blunder, gift, leather etc.), and even personal pronouns like they, them and their. (James Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1982), pp.132-4, 147.) Moreover, the place-names of the former Danelaw are, to this day, predominantly Scandinavian, proof of the permanence and extent of the Viking settlement. It has been pointed out, for example, that to the north of Watling Street there are some six hundred place-names ending in -by – and scarcely one to the south of it. (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.38.)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers (e.g. under the years 876, 877 and 880) to the ‘sharing out of the land’ by the Viking army and their proceeding ‘to plough and support themselves’ (Michael Wood, Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England (London, 1987), p.129). New lords were thus imposed on the native peasantry, and new neighbours who spoke a foreign tongue. Many of them are identifiable, for ‘the former abodes of Grim, Biorn, Thor, Guddar, and Haco go by the names of Grimsby, Burnthwaite, Harroby, Thoresby, Guttersby, and Hacconby’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.52), to cite only a few examples.

As long as they were compliant, they may have interfered little with the indigenous population, cultivating virgin land in outlying areas rather than ousting them from existing farms. It is noticeable that many of the ‘-bys’, including that of our Willa, have no church attached to them in 1086, suggesting that they stood apart from the main settlements. In parts of East Anglia, the Vikings spread themselves rather thinly. In Suffolk there are only ‘a few scattered Danish names, chiefly near the coast – such as Orford, Thorpe, Barnby, and Lowestoft’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.42), and Willa was daring indeed to have penetrated so far into English territory.

Intent on turning their swords into ploughshares, the colonisers relied for their security on standing armies that were garrisoned in the main towns, and were generally unmolested by the disgruntled English. Their status, however, was privileged, their descendants, many still with Scandinavian names, standing out as free men (sokemen) among the enserfed peasantry of Domesday. Indeed, it is remarkable that the largest concentration of the sokemen in Domesday Book – who comprise only fifteen per cent of the entire population – is in those eastern counties. (Wood, Domesday, pp.129-30, 142, 149.)

Filed teeth on a Viking skeleton - an unimaginably painful process

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth. In battle, he would have worn a coat of mail and a plain, conical helmet, but his appearance may have been distinctive in other ways. There is evidence of the sea-rovers enjoying their reputation as louche outsiders, like modern-day punks or Hell’s Angels, whose demeanour alone is unsettling. They wore shoulder-length hair and beards. Some were tattooed from head to foot, others filed and decorated their teeth; some even wore dark eye make-up to make themselves look all the more outlandish and frightening (The Vikings: Life and Legend, ed. Gareth Williams et al. (London, 2014), p.80).

The annual Horn Dance is an immemorial custom at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. The horns are reindeer antlers and one has been carbon-dated to the eleventh century. They are evidence of Viking settlers' sending home for their herds

Willa was, quite possibly, a frenzied, homicidal maniac, like the berserkir of later tradition, crazily biting his shield while preparing for battle. The Vikings, moreover, were pitiless in their assaults on the English. When raids from Scandinavia were resumed in the late tenth century, marauding bands of sea-rovers preyed at will on the populace, setting fire to the houses of the English, feasting on their cattle, killing anyone who dared oppose them (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 991). Powerless even to defend their own homes, the English thegns were forced to witness the rape of their womenfolk, sometimes by a dozen Vikings in turn. People watched helplessly as gangs of their fellow Christians were driven to the ships by two or three seamen to be sold as slaves (Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, in English Historical Documents, I (1955), ed. David C. Douglas, pp.857-8). It is too much to hope that Willa would have handled his victims any less roughly. (I am neither proud nor ashamed of my Viking ancestry: are we not all descended from the rapists and murderers of the past?)

Willa may have been the younger son of a lordly family, fated, like so many Scandinavians, to be a wanderer, but with a significant following of his own. The imperative for all was seek out their kinsfolk and connections and to attach themselves to a community, with the great hall of a benevolent lord at its heart – a place for feasting, gambling, gift-giving and entertaining, and for the recitation of heroic poems. Willa must have re-created this for himself at Wilby, perhaps on the site of the present moated manor-house, Wilby Hall, but a key ingredient for his happiness was lacking:

The man has now

laid his sorrows, lacks no gladdeners;

he has a hoard and horses and hall-carousing

and would have everything within an earl’s having

had he my lady with him.

So we are not surprised to discover from a twelfth-century court poem, The Husband’s Message, that the settlers would often send home for their womenfolk, once they had established a safe homestead on which to raise a family (Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London, 1970), pp.19-20). So I imagine the first Mrs Willoughby as a Dane, rather than a local girl, who had crossed the North Sea on a ship loaded with her dowry and her lord’s reindeer herd, never once looking back to the land of her birth.

Appendix: The two Wilbys – relevant Domesday extracts (from Domesday Book (Penguin, 2003), pp.1219 and 1254):

Lands of Robert Malet in Suffolk: ‘In Horham 1 free man, Aelric, by commendation [a form of vassalage] holds 1 carucate of land … In Wilby Leornic holds 20 acres which the same Aelric held. 1 bordar [a cottager, a peasant of lower economic rank than a villein]. It is the same valuation. It is 12 furlongs long and 4 furlongs broad …’

The fief of the Bishop of Thetford in Norfolk: ‘In Wilby, 1 free man with 10 acres … In Wilby, 1 free man by commendation and soke [a specific right of jurisdiction enjoyed by a lord][held] 40 acres. Then as now 1 bordar.’

See also

The moat at Wilby Hall, which perhaps occupies the site of Willa's homestead

The Flight of La Vouivre from Dole to Vadans: Reflections on the House of Poitiers-Valentinois

August 1st, 2017

Continuing my quest for the serpent-fairies of France, whom I have traced from Lusignan in the Poitou (via the Starbucks logo) to Sassenage in the Dauphiné. Now I track down a monstrous specimen in the Franche-Comté …

The domed clock-tower of the Collégiale at Dole, completed in 1596, is one of the landmarks of the Jura, visible from miles around. When one squints at it from a distance, it often appears to be crooked. The folklore of the region offers a ready explanation: that La Vouivre, the serpent-woman of local legend, has carelessly knocked it with her wing. She prefers to train her single, luminous eye on the ground below, scouring it for evidence of buried treasure.

In mortal life, she was a lady of the house of Poitiers, lords of Vadans on the far side of the mighty Forêt de Chaux, whose name she had tainted with her avarice. The ‘Noblesse de Poitiers’ was proverbial in Franche-Comté, and indeed was the family’s adage, a sort of secondary motto. In those days, great people were expected to be generous with their hospitality. At the Château de Menthon, in neighbouring Savoy, passing pilgrims were regaled at a massive board (which still exists) in the so-called Salle des Pèlerins. At cheerless Vadans, alms were refused to the needy, and none was made welcome by Madame de Poitiers, for which she was condemned by the good fairies to take this terrible shape. Vouivre is a corruption of the Latin word, vipera, for a serpent.

Every Christmas, at midnight, she passes Dole on her flight from Mont Roland to the circular donjon of Vadans, pausing at the village of Falletans to drink and bathe in the stream. A true franc-comtoise, la Vouivre is a good housekeeper, careful to remove her monstrous eye and to conceal it in the undergrowth before dipping her head. If only one could catch her at this moment and take possession of the eye, it would be the key to great riches, yet she always manages to slip away, usually tipping her would-be abductor into the icy stream with a flick of her tail. (Livre d’Or de Falletans 1950.)

The Poitiers of Vadans were a cadet branch of the comtes de Valentinois in Provence, whose line stretches back to the twelfth century (Europaïsche Stammtafeln, III/4, t.740-43). They are thought to have taken their name from Peytieux, near Châteauneuf-de-Bordette, and in early Latin documents are called ‘Pictavinus’. Though the family was unconnected with the town of Poitiers in the Poitou, ‘Poitiers’ and ‘Peytieux’ are etymologically the same, both places formerly inhabited by branches of a wandering Celtic tribe known variously as the Pictavii or Pictones.

Vadans was the dowry (and favourite residence) of Marguerite de Vergy, wife of Comte Louis, who died in 1345, and was inherited by his nephew Philippe. Also lord of Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, Philippe de Poitiers was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, and is one of the 500 out of the 6,000 French casualties whose names are known to us. Among those 500 are representatives from all the northerly regions of France, though the Seigneur d’Andelot, from Pesmes, is the only other franc-comtois to be listed (

Diane de Poitiers - unabashed nudist (by François Clouet)

The line of Philippe’s grandson Charles, Baron de Vadans, was soon thoroughly assimilated into the noblesse of the Franche-Comté, intermarrying with local families like that of the Chancellor Jean Carondelet, who is commemorated by an impressive tomb in the Collégiale, and whose daughter married Charles’s son. The Poitiers of Vadans died out in 1717, but have left numerous female-line descendants. They include, for example, the seigneurs de Faletans, whose connection with the illustrious Poitiers was recited in the letters-patent on 1712 that elevated them to the rank of marquis. Their seat at Falletans was hard by the stream that la Vouivre is said to haunt annually on her Christmas migration.

An elder brother of the Philippe who died at Agincourt, Louis de Poitiers, succeeded their father as lord of Saint Vallier (on the River Rhône, 19 miles north of Valence). Louis’s son, Charles, was one of the companions-in-arms of Joan of Arc, and played a leading role in the assault of occupied Paris in 1429. The last of the Saint Vallier line was Charles’s great-granddaughter, Diane de Poitiers, the charming mistress of King Henry II, a woman schooled in Latin and Greek, a natural athlete and an unabashed nudist, as her several portraits suggest.

As for Vadans, the forty-metre-high keep alone attests to the former strength and importance of the castle, which overlooks the old Roman road from the site of a Roman encampment. A handsome residence of 1667 occupies the grounds.

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