I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never made a confession in my life – well, not in a church at least, and that’s because I’m not a religious person; but I do have to confess that some time ago I converted from a devout atheist to an agnostic, and by that I mean that I can understand why other people are religious even if I’m not.
One of my passions in life is to try and piece together how life on our planet has evolved. Notice that I didn’t say how life began. I’ll leave that to scientists and theologians to fight over: I would rather concentrate on what we know to have happened in the past, rather than what we think may have happened: I have enough trouble finding out where the pieces fit into this jigsaw as it is without delving any further.
The good news though is that I don’t need a degree in theology or quantum physics to be able to admire buildings like Canterbury Cathedral: It’s not just the magnificent architecture that grabs my attention, it’s the history behind it too, and the reason why I’ve chosen to start my blogs on Canterbury with St. Augustine – the ‘Apostle to the English’.
The Steen is all that remains of a much bigger castle that was built over the site of a 6th c fortress in Oude Werf, the oldest part of Antwerp.
The castle was built around 1200 and was the first building to be built of stone (steen in Dutch) and was the home of the Burgrave of Antwerp. The complex included a church, courthouse and several other buildings, all of which were protected by a defensive wall surrounding it.
Around 1520 the castle was thoroughly renovated by Charles V and you don’t need to have gone to Specsavers to see where the old and newer stone joins up.
Up unto the 1820s it was used as a prison, but later that century a decision was made to demolish most of the castle and Oude Werf district to prevent the Scheldt silting up. The port was vital to Antwerp, and so the river was widened and new quays built. It must have been a difficult decision to make as it involved knocking down over five hundred historic buildings, and even the Steen was only saved from the chop by a single vote.
After the Royal Palace and the Honours of Scotland, the next must-see part of the castle is the Great Hall which is located next to the Palace in Crown Square.
This grand ceremonial hall was completed in 1512 for James IV and used for entertaining dignitaries with great banquets, but all this fine dining and drinking came to an abrupt end when Oliver Cromwell took over at the helm in 1650 and converted it into barracks.
When the New Barracks were opened in 1799 the hall was converted into a military hospital, and then in 1886 it was restored to something like its former glory.
The one thing that isn’t Victorian though is the hammerbeam roof which has been here from the beginning and one of the most important in Britain. Another original feature is the Laird’s Lug (Lord’s Ear) which is a grilled opening above the right-hand side of the fireplace. It was used for eavesdropping and when Mikhail Gorbachev came to the castle in 1984 his security team insisted that it was bricked up.
Around the perimeter is an impressive collection of weapons and armour on loan from the Royal Armouries.
Edinburgh Castle Pt 3 - The Royal Palace and Scottish Crown Jewels
If there’s one part of the castle that shouldn’t be missed it has to be the Royal Palace and the Scottish Crown Jewels.
The Palace was at the heart of the royal castle from the 11th to the early 17th centuries and probably an extension to David’s Tower.
On the ground floor, the most important event to take place at the Palace occurred on 19th June 1566 when Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a son who became King James VI of Scotland after her abdication thirteen months later.
Mary and her husband Lord Darnley were living at Holyrood when rumours circulated that the father of her unborn child was David Rizzio, her Private Secretary. Shortly afterwards Rizzio was murdered at Holyrood and Darnley was the chief suspect. To make matters worse Mary was catholic and the country was now protestant and so she came to the safe haven of the castle to give birth to the future King James VI and I of England. The birth took place in a small room next to her own chamber.
James became King of England in 1603 and left Edinburgh for London. The Palace became neglected, but for a solitary return in 1617 to celebrate 50 years on the Scottish throne, the place had a facelift. The birth chamber was re-decorated (which still shows the same decorations today) and new rooms were added including the Laich Hall.
On entering the castle you’ll be given a map which follows the easiest route up to the top, which is not only wheelchair and pushchair friendly, but also follows a numerical sequence.
Passing through the Castle Gates will bring you to the Argyle Battery where everyone stops for a view out across he city. It’s a natural thing to do, but there are even better views higher up, so it’s not essential to stop here if there are too many people milling around, and you can always stop here on the way back.
Next to it is the One ‘o clock gun and the Redcoat Café which is a convenient place to have a quick coffee and make some plans on what you want to try and see while you’re here, because as I said in my Introduction you may not have time to see everything.
The One ‘o clock gun is fired everyday at one ‘o clock except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. The spectacle is similar to what happens at Greenwich, but with a twist.
Over on Calton Hill, at the top of Nelson’s Monument, is a time-ball, which just like its London counterpart, was introduced to help ships (in the Firth of Forth) to calibrate the time with the sun in order to aid navigation. This, of course, was when timekeeping wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. The ball was dropped at precisely 1 o’clock and as long as the weather was clear enough then everything was ok – but the weather in Edinburgh isn’t always clear enough – and so a gun was used to compliment the visual aid.
Apparently, due to the speed of sound, it takes 10 seconds for the signal to reach Leith, and the ships took this into account when setting their timepieces. You may want to do the same because for the gun to be heard out in the Firth of Forth it means that you may not want to stand right next to it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Edinburgh Castle is the most visited paid for tourist destination in Scotland, and like any major attraction, some forward planning will help make your visit a more pleasant experience.
The official website gives all the latest practical information and advice (https://www.edinburghcastle.scot/), but I would particularly draw your attention to the fact that a timed ticketing system is now in operation, and to be sure of being able to visit at a time that suits you best it’s going to be worth considering booking online in advance – and it’s cheaper.
The admission prices may appear to be a bit steep but bear in mind that there are no extra charges once inside the castle and you can spend a fair amount of time here. We spent 4 hours wandering around and ran out of steam before we ran out of things to do, so I’ve decided to break my article on Edinburgh Castle up into different sections so that people can have an idea on what to expect.
Accessibility, even though it’s on a volcanic crag, is relatively easy around the grounds, although there is a slope up to the top. However, some of the indoor highlights are not suitable for wheelchairs and the website lists which ones they are.
Lindisfarne - Saxon Treasures, Viking Raids and Norman Houses of God
Following on from my previous post, The Saints of Lindisfarne, I want to expand on the impact that these saints, particularly St. Cuthbert, had.
St. Cuthbert had been laid to rest in Lindisfarne priory in March 687 AD, but eleven years later to the day, the monks exhumed his body to ‘elevate’ his remains in order for pilgrims to be as close as possible to the saint and his special powers.
Expecting to find just bones and dust in a small casket, the monks discovered a completely undecayed body, and so quickly made a wooden reliquary coffin which they placed on the floor of the church above the spot where he had been buried: Another miracle it would seem.
The enshrinement of St. Cuthbert appears to be the reason for the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably the most cherished illuminated book in the Anglo-Saxon world.
A 10th century inscription at the end of the original text states that the manuscript was made ‘in honour of God and St. Cuthbert’ by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne.
When the Romans left Britain, Christianity went with them and Anglo Saxon England reverted back to its pagan roots, or at least it did up here in Northumbria.
The Kingdom of Northumbria didn’t even exist until around 604 AD when Æthelfrith combined the two existing kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, and although these ‘Dark Ages’ are not always easy to follow, we do know that when Æthelfrith was killed in battle his four children were sent to the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland.
Iona was in the Kingdom of Dalriada, which covered an area equivalent to parts of today’s Western Scotland and North-Eastern Ireland, and it was to Iona that the Celtic monk Columba came when he was exiled from his native Ireland.
Columba founded a monastery on the island around 563 AD and was made a saint for his work in evangelizing Scotland, and before I go any further, I have to mention the fact that Iona is another extremely spiritual place to come, in much the same way that Lindisfarne is.
Bamburgh - Historic Castle in a Wonderful Location
Bamburgh Castle can be seen for miles, and as you get closer to it you can see that it sits on top of an outcrop of igneous rock which forms part of the Great Whin Sill – a geological formation that for anyone who has been along Hadrian’s Wall will probably recognise.
The site was occupied by Ancient Britons even before the Romans arrived, and when the Romans left in the early 5th century the Celts were back in control – but not for long.
The Dark Ages brought an influx of invaders from the continent which resulted in the land the Romans called Britannia being carved up into various kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon Northumbria being one of them.
The first Anglo-Saxon King to rule from Bamburgh was King Ida who took control from the Din Guarie tribe in 547, and even though there must have been a fortress here before, it was from this time that we have the first written record of one.
The castle was of wooden construction and, according to that great early historian the Venerable Bede, it didn’t get its name of ‘Bebbanburgh’ until King Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, passed it on to his wife Bebba.
The original wooden fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993, but William the Conqueror could see that he would have the same trouble as the Romans if he didn’t build another one to keep the Scots at bay and the northerners in check, but this time it was built in stone.
This blog is not intended to be an in-depth historical account of the most important Roman monument in Britain, but if, like me, you have an interest, but not a degree in Roman history, and want to explore some of the more fascinating parts of this remarkable feat of engineering, then perhaps this tour will be a good starting point.
To put things in perspective, Hadrian’s Wall marks the extent of the Roman Empire in North-Western Europe, but unlike most of the other Roman borders, which used natural features, a man-made structure was needed to protect Roman Britannia from the ‘barbarians of Caledonia’.
Work started on building the wall in 122 AD and finished 10 years later. It ran for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) between Wallsend-on-Tyne and Bowness-on-Solway and did what it was meant to do for nigh on the next 300 years.
The wall also consisted of protected gates every mile (known as milecastles) with two observation towers in between (turrets), and at least 13 forts (the exact number depends on different factors).
Those people who walk the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path will get to know it intimately, but for those who can’t or don’t want to, then it has to be worth knowing where to start.
I think even the experts would agree that the Northumberland section of the wall offers the most interest, and for this post this will be the area I’m going to cover.
Lying about half-way between the centre of Newcastle and the mouth of the River Tyne, Wallsend is an easy and worthwhile metro ride out of the city.
As soon as you get off the train you know that you’re somewhere a bit different because the station goes by its Roman name of Segedunum, but the English name of Wallsend is perhaps just as appropriate because Segedunum was the fort at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The wall was built during the 120s AD and was originally planned to end at Pons Aelius (Newcastle), the lowest bridging point of the River Tyne. It was then decided to extend it out here, where the river then became the natural frontier between the Roman world and the Barbarians to the north. The fort was probably built around 127 AD.
If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you’ll want to see in Newcastle is the building that gives the city its name – so what can you expect?
Well firstly, don’t expect a Bamburgh or Alnwick Castle because all that’s left is The Keep and Black Gate.
Northumberland has any number of castles due to its proximity with the Scottish border, and although that border is someway north of Newcastle it has to be remembered that Hadrian’s Wall came right through where the city stands today in order to “separate the Romans from the barbarians”.
In fact, the very spot where the castle is located was the site of Pons Aelius, the original fort on Hadrian’s Wall that overlooked the Roman bridge below.
What I like about Winchester Cathedral is not just its wonderful architecture, but also the human stories that have accompanied it throughout the centuries.
Architecturally, as soon as you set foot inside the West Door the magnificent perpendicular Nave stretches out in front of you right down to George Gilbert Scott’s ornate choir screen.
It didn’t always look like this though because the original Romanesque Norman church suffered badly from subsidence, and it took alterations from the 14th century onwards, firstly by Bishop Edington and then William of Wykeham, to produce what is my favourite style of church architecture.
If you can avoid the temptation to continue on down the Nave but walk down the North Aisle instead, you’ll soon come to the grave of Jane Austen, the author famous for writing such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.
It’s not surprising that many people want to see where Jane Austen’s final resting place is, but they would miss a gem if they went straight past the nearby 12th century black Tournai marble Font. It’s not just old, but unusual and interesting as well.
Winchester Cathedral - From the Saxons to the Normans
People who read my pages can be forgiven for thinking that I’m a religious person as I often seem to be writing about cathedrals, abbeys, and churches in general. The truth is that I’m not at all religious, but I am interested in the historical significance and architecture of these fantastic buildings and Winchester Cathedral is a perfect example.
In this article I’m delving into the background of the cathedral from a time when England became Christianized under the Anglo-Saxons to when William the Conqueror needed Winchester to consolidate his hold over the rest of the country.
The Romans initially brought Christianity to these shores, but after their departure in 410 AD the country reverted back to paganism.
In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to re-introduce the Roman version of Christianity, but he wasn’t able to convert the whole country on his own of course and it was St Birinus who came to Wessex in 635 and converted Cynegils, King of the West Saxons.
King Cynegils established a cathedral church at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, but soon after his death in 643 his son, Cenwalh, built a minster church in Wintanceaster near the centre of his kingdom.
In the 670s Bishop Haeddi transferred his Cathedra (Bishop’s Throne) from Dorchester-on-Thames making Wintanceaster both the Royal and ecclesiastical centre of Wessex.
The Tower of London Pt 3 - The Medieval Palace and the Bloody Tower
When King Stephen died in 1154, King Henry II became the first of the Plantagenet Kings that were to reign until 1485.
During this medieval period, moats, curtain walls and towers were added to bolster up the defences – not to keep out invading foreign armies – but to thwart any attack from the King’s subjects. King John, Henry III and Edward II all had trouble with their Barons and in 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt tested the young Richard II.
Although the Tower was never meant to be used as a palace, there were occasions when the King of the realm found it useful to hole up here for a while.
It was King Henry III and his son Edward I who built what is now called the Medieval Palace. In fact, it’s a combination of three towers – St Thomas’s, Wakefield and Lanthorn – that make up the royal apartments.
The Keep, known as the White Tower, is the oldest part of the Tower of London and therefore seems as good a starting point as any, both for this review, and for a tour of the Tower.
After William the Conqueror’s successful invasion of England in 1066 he needed to secure its most powerful city, and by building an intimidating fortress in a strategic position next to the River Thames, there was going to be no doubt as to who was the man now in charge.
Work started on the Keep around 1078 and wasn’t completed until 1100, 13 years after William’s death.
It would have been the most formidable stronghold in the land when it was built, and was never intended to be used as a palace.
The White Tower – given its nickname after Henry III had it whitewashed – became more of a place to store arms and munitions than anything else and this is reflected in what there is to see inside.
The City of London is run totally differently from any other part of London and I never really understood why, so to try and make some sense of it I’ve decided to unravel some of its history and workings and find out more.
It’s not my intentions for this article to appeal mainly to those who suffer from insomnia, and so I’ll gloss over much of it and just concentrate on the main reasons why the City has become what it has today.
There’s no official date as to when the City of London came under municipal control, but there’s proof that it was before the Norman Conquest, and that probably makes it the world’s oldest continuously elected local government authority.
In Saxon and medieval times, the authority was principally administered by Aldermen (Elder men), and they still hold important positions today. One Alderman is elected from each one of the 25 wards that make up the City of London.
If you catch the Tube to Bank and walk down Walbrook towards Bloomberg’s Mithraeum it might be worth casting your mind back almost 2,000 years to when the Romans arrived.
Under your feet is the River Walbrook, which was the limit of the first Roman settlement, but as the swampy land around it was reclaimed, then so it expanded. A map of Roman London shows that the brook eventually dissected Londinium into two and played an important part in Roman life. It brought fresh water downstream and discharged waste into the Thames. It was also navigable up to a point near to where the Mansion House now stands.
Around 200 years after the Romans arrived, the Temple to Mithras was built on the east bank of the brook, possibly by an army veteran called Ulpius Silvanus. The question has to be asked who was Mithras, and why build a temple to him here? The answers can be found in a visit to the London Mithraeum.
As I explained in my introduction to the City of London, it was the Romans who first laid the foundation stones for the metropolis that we call London today.
After the failed attempts by Julius Caesar to conquer Britain in 55 and 54 BC, Emperor Claudius brought a larger army and made a successful invasion in 43 AD. He landed on the Kent coast near Richborough and headed towards the River Thames, where, after another successful battle, he was able to cross the river somewhere near Westminster.
It wouldn’t have taken him long to realise the strategic location of a place just downstream at where the river narrowed. Not only could the river be bridged, but it was also navigable up to this point, and so near to where London Bridge stands today, he set up camp on the north side of the river.
The location was also suitable for expanding a road system that could spread out across the country, and it wasn’t long before Londinium became an important trading post, both by road and by river. As the town grew though, so did the opposition to the conquerors and a revolt led by Boudicca left Londinium practically in ruins. However, there were very few casualties and the town was soon re-built.