Thursday, October 13, 2011

Caerleon ~ Dark Age Capital of Wales? ~ David Nash Ford

The town of Caerleon is mentioned so often in King Arthur's story, that it has become synonymous with his very name. If it were his Capital City, surely it is the true Camelot.

The Tradition: Stories of King Arthur holding court at Caerleon stretch back to the time ofGeoffrey of Monmouth and further still to the oral traditions set down in the Mabinogion. Geoffrey says of Caerleon:

"Situated as it is in Morgannwg, on the River Usk, not far from the Severn Sea, in a most pleasant position, and being richer in material wealth than other townships, this city was eminently suitable...The river which I have named flowed by it on one side, and...On the other side, which was flanked by meadows and wooded groves, they had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the gold-painted gables of its roofs it was a match for Rome. What is more, it was famous for its two churches. One of these, built in honour of the martyr Julius, was graced by a choir of most lovely virgins dedicated to God. The second, founded in the name of the blessed St. Aaron, the companion of Julius, was served by a monastery of canons, and counted the third metropolitan see of Britain. The city also contained a college of two hundred learned men, who were skilled in astronomy and the other arts and so by their careful computations prophesied for King Arthur any prodigies due at that time."

Caerleon was especially noted for "Arthur's Table", a huge grass-covered raised oval hollow around which King Arthur and his knights often sat. At one meeting there, King Arthur appointed St. Dyfrig as Archbishop of St. Aaron's Cathedral in Caerleon. He was later succeeded by St. Dewi (David) who removed the archdiocese to Mynwyr (St. Davids). It was to St. Julius' that Queen Gwenhwyfar retired after the Battle of Camlann, and here she apparently died.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Offa's Dyke ~ Jeffrey L. Thomas

Forming the traditional boundary between England and Wales, this impressive earthwork runs, although not continuously, from the Dee estuary in the north to the river Wye in the south. Constructed by King Offa of Mercia (757-96), late in the eighth century, it is a tribute to the authority he commanded from the Humber to the Channel. Offa was the most powerful and successful of all the Mercian kings. He dominated England, and his power was acknowledged on the Continent by the great Charlemagne himself. Offa had led many expeditions into Wales, but in his later years he decided upon a policy of stabilizing or at least permanently marking the frontier.

Offa's Dyke is one of the most remarkable structures in Britain. Offa's intention was to provide Mercia with a well-defined boundary from Prestatyn to Chepstow, a distance of 240 kilometers. Natural barriers were utilized where that was practicable; where it was not, an earth embankment was built which in places still stands to a height of two and a half meters and which is, with its ditch, up to twenty meters wide. A total of 130 kilometers of dyke was constructed, assuming that all the sections of earthwork associated with the name Offa can be considered part of the same project.

The labour of thousands of men was needed to build the dyke, proof that the kingdom of Mercia possesses a high degree of cohesion; in places it is absolutely straight for kilometers, proof of the technical skills of its designers. It's twelve kilometers longer than Hadrian's Wall but, unlike Hadrian's barrier, that of Offa is an earth not a stone construction, and it was never garrisoned. Its purpose was to denote rather than defend the frontier. Where both lie side by side, Wat's Dyke is up to seven meters to the east of Offa's Dyke; the one gives Oswestry to Wales, the other to England. Wat's Dyke marked the boundary of the lowlands, but parts of Offa's Dyke are located as much as four hundred meters above sea level. The intention, no doubt, was to give Mercia command of the approaches to the lowlands. It is highly unlikely that the dyke marked the precise boundary between the two peoples; during the age of Offa, there were English communities to the west of it and Welsh communities to the east.
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