Today we bring you a blog about coracles, the small, rounded, lightweight boat of the sort traditionally used in Wales, and also in parts of the West Country, Ireland and Scotland. The word "coracle" is an English spelling of the original Welsh cwrwgl, cognate with Irish and Scottish Gaelic currach, and is recorded in English text as early as the sixteenth century.
Designed for use in swiftly flowing streams, the coracle has been in use in the British Isles for millennia, having been noted by Julius Caesar in his invasion of Britain in the mid first century BC, and used in his military campaigns in Spain. Remains interpreted as a possible coracle have also been found in an Early Bronze Age grave at Barns Farm near Dalgety Bay, and others have been described at Corbridge and near North Ferriby.
The coracle's structure, which has essentially remained unchanged for centuries, is made of a framework of split and interwoven willow rods, tied with willow bark. The outer layer was originally an animal skin such as horse or bullock hide (corium), with a thin layer of tar to waterproof it – today replaced by tarred calico, canvas, or fibreglass. Oval in shape and very similar to half a walnut shell, the coracle has a keel-less flat bottom to evenly spread the load across the structure and to reduce the required depth of water – often to only a few inches. This makes it ideal for use on rivers.
They are an effective fishing vessel because, when powered by a skilled person, they hardly disturb the water or the fish, and they can be easily manoeuvred with one arm, while the other arm tends to the net; two coracles to a net.
Today, coracles are now only seen regularly in tourist areas of West Wales, with the Rivers Teifi and Tywi being the most common places to find them. On the Teifi they are most frequently seen around Cenarth, Cilgerran and Llechryd.
In 1974 a Welsh coracle piloted by Bernard Thomas of Llechryd even crossed the English Channel to France, clocking a time of just thirteen and a half hours. This journey was apparently undertaken to demonstrate how the Bull Boats of the Mandan Indians of North Dakota could have been copied from coracles introduced by Prince Madog in the 12th century. We're not sure how this feat is supposed to prove anything of the sort, but the whole Prince Madog thing is a strange and interesting story that we'll have to tell another day.
These coracles were built by James Pegrum and if you would like to see more models like this follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Never, before this,
were more men in this island slain
by the sword's edge--as books and aged sages
confirm--since Angles and Saxons sailed here
from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,
since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,
and earls, eager for glory, overran the land
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
If asked what the most important battles in British History are, it is likely that most people will mention Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo or the Battle of Britain. There are loads of other candidates too, so there’s no need to write in. The point we are making is that few will mention, or perhaps even have heard of, The Battle of Brunanburh, which was fought sometime in 937 between the Kingdom of England and the combined might of the Kingdoms of Scotland, Strathclyde and Dublin. Yet Brunanburh would set the course for the political and cultural development Britain, and in particular that of England, which would see its unity preserved and its identity realised.
By 927 King Æthelstan had consolidated his position in England, making him the most powerful ruler in the British Isles. His realm may have even extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, but wherever the border lay, he seems to have faced opposition from Constantine II of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde. John of Worcester's chronicle suggests that Æthelstan fought a short war against Scotland and Strathclyde, perhaps due to the latter kingdoms’ support of Æthelstan’s Viking enemies. In July of 927 however, this appears to have drawn to a conclusion because on the 12th of that month Constantine and Owain agreed with Æthelstan not to make further allegiances with Vikings. Apparently, Æthelstan stood godfather to a son of Constantine, probably Indulf, during the conference.
In 934, for reasons unknown, conflict between Æthelstan and Constantine seems to have broken out once again, with the former marching north with an English and Welsh army. It is said that the army reached as far north as present day Aberdeenshire and was accompanied by a fleet of ships that harried Caithness. No significant battle appears to have been fought and a settlement appears to have been negotiated, with a son of Constantine given as a hostage to Æthelstan and Constantine himself accompanying the English king on his return south. On September 13th 934, Constantine acknowledged Æthelstan's overlordship.
Following this invasion of Scotland, it became apparent to Constantine and his allies that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies; so in around 937, one was formed. The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined by Constantine and Owain, King of Strathclyde. Though they had all been enemies in living memory, historian Michael Livingston points out that "they had agreed to set aside whatever political, cultural, historical, and even religious differences they might have had in order to achieve one common purpose: to destroy Æthelstan".
In August 937, Olaf sailed from Dublin with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owain and so it is suggested that the Battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year.
The main source of information about the battle itself can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After travelling north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia met the invading armies and attacked them. The location is unknown and a matter of contention, though somewhere on the Wirral is currently the favoured theory. The battle was exceptionally hard fought, with prolonged fighting taking place throughout the day. According to the poem, the Saxons "split the shield-wall" and "hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers... [t]here lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated".
Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops. The Chronicle states that "they pursued the hostile people... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding". Broken, Olaf and the remnants of his army fled back to Dublin while Constantine retreated to Scotland; Owain's fate is not mentioned. Æthelstan and Edmund returned to Wessex as victors, with the Chronical stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."
The battle was a crushing defeat for the allies. According to the Chronicle, "countless of the army" died in the battle and there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea". The Annals of Ulster describe the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that "several thousands of Norsemen ... fell". Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army, while Constantine is said to have lost several friends and family members, including one of his sons. A large number of Saxons also died, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine.
Æthelstan's victory prevented the dissolution of England, though he failed to completely defeat Scotland and Strathclyde, who remained independent. However, the battle cemented the idea of the English as a unified people, and while Æthelstan's kingdom may have fallen apart following his death, future English kings and the people they ruled had an ideal to strive for. Indeed, if the battle had gone the other way, the England we see today may never have existed at all. According to Livingston, the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age" and "one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England but of the whole of the British isles".
At 2am on February 22nd 1797 troops of Revolutionary France, under the command of Irish American Colonel William Tate, landed at Carreg Wastad near Fishguard, Wales, marking the beginning of the last invasion of mainland Britain. They had originally been part of a much larger invasion force, however, owing to atrocious weather, outbreaks of mutiny and indiscipline, only Tate’s force made landfall, and he did so in the wrong place. The original plan was to land near Bristol, some 100 miles further east.
Tate and his well armed force of 600 Regular Troops, plus another 800 Republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners, made their way inland and established a base near Trehowel Farm, about a mile from their landing site. Unfortunately, it appears deserters, convicts and prisoner do not make reliable soldiers, and within a few hours, most had decided to part with the invasion force and engage in a bit of looting. Discipline broke down even further when those who remained discovered the local wine supply (salvaged from a Portuguese wreck a few weeks earlier), and with some enthusiasm, set about the task of devouring it.
Originally the French had hoped that they would be seen as liberators and that the Welsh would join them and rebel against the English, making the task of invasion a whole lot easier. However, by looting, shooting and perhaps worst of all, drinking all the booze, the French failed to impress their local hosts, and by the evening of the 23rd a ragtag force of around 700 reservists, militia and sailors, plus an unknown number of angry locals, had assembled in Fishguard to face them. Demoralised and by now outnumbered the French considered surrender and approached the commanding British officer, Lord Cawdor, to discuss terms. Cawdor demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender and issued an ultimatum to Colonel Tate.
At 8am the following morning, the British forces lined up in battle-order on Goodwick Sands, and up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of Fishguard came out to watch and await Tate's response. Tate tried to delay but eventually accepted the terms of surrender and at 2pm the remaining French force lay down its arms, thus ending the last invasion of Britain.
Legend has it that Tate, mistaking the traditional red costumes of the spectating women on the cliff tops for the red uniforms of British soldiers, thought his opposing force was much larger than it actually was, persuading him to surrender without a fight.
This scene was created by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1472 Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland after they were pawned by Norway in lieu of a dowry for Margaret of Denmark.
Margaret was the daughter of Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and Dorothea of Brandenburg. In 1468 she was betrothed to James III of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland were pledged as security against the payment of the dowry. However the money was never paid, and so the islands was absorbed by the Kingdom of Scotland in 1472.
While James may have finally gained the Northern Isles for Scotland, his marriage was not a happy one with Margaret rarely tolerating her husband's company. Margaret died at Stirling Castle on July 14th 1486 after falling ill, and was buried in Cambuskenneth Abbey. James died two years later at the Battle of Sauchieburn. Unfortunately the pair would be interred together and have to spend the rest of their existence decomposing side by side.
This map was made by Dan Harris as part of a map of the whole of Scotland. You can find out more about this project over on Ordnance Survey’s website:
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Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
From Horatius at the Bridge by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)
In around 506 BC a large Etruscan army lead by Lars Poresna, King of Clusium, marched on Rome. Among their number was Rome’s recently deposed King, Tarquinius Superbus, who hoped that following a successful campaign, he would be returned to the city’s throne.
Having recently engaged an army of Tarquin’s in an indecisive battle at Aricia, the Romans were expecting an invasion and hastily attempted to construct a fort on the Janiculum, a hill on the western side of the Tiber. However, owing to inadequate scouting, the troops stationed at the fort were surprised and overcome by the Eutruscan force, which proceeded to occupy the hill.
From the Janiculum, Porsena’s army launched an attack and advanced on Pons Sublicius. The Roman forces were now in disarray and the future of the newly formed republic looked bleak. However, just as all seemed lost a soldier named Horatius Cocles, accompanied by two others, namely Titus Herminius Aquilinus and Spurius Lartius (which, intriguingly, are Etruscan names) stepped forward to defend the bridge, using its narrow width to reduce the effectiveness of the large enemy force that bore down upon them. There they fought while to their rear the citizens of Rome gathered and, using but hand axes, began to chop down the bridge. Herminius and Spurius retreated as the bridge was almost destroyed, but Horatius fought on until the bridge had fallen, leaping into the river in full armour and swimming its width while coming under enemy fire. The attack was thus repulsed and Porsena forced into an unsuccessful siege of the city.
You may notice that we’ve avoided using the familiar LEGO Roman Minifigure helmets and armour. This is because during this period the Roman Army was still fighting in the Greco-Etruscan style, where the phalanx was the master of the battlefield. This is over a hundred years before Rome comes into conflict with the Samnites and subsequently adopts the maniple system and around 400 years before Marius implements his reforms. The army was therefore vastly different in appearance and style to the one most people are familiar with. This is why we’ve gone for the Corinthian helmets, Hoplon shields and bronze and Linothorax type armour.
That, at least, is how the story goes according to Rome’s poets and historians. There have however always been questions about the story’s veracity and even Livy, whose history was as much about promoting Augustus Caesar’s legitimacy as it was about recording past events, casts doubt over some of its claims. It’s likely that Porsena succeeded in capturing Rome, for a short period at least (though there is no evidence to suggest that Tarquin’s throne was ever restored), and that Horatius’ exploits were later invented as a means of masking past defeats and promoting the idea of Rome’s inherent superiority. The Romans were, after all, skilled in the art of propaganda, a modern Latin word with ancient roots.
The Battle of Lugdunum was fought on February 19th 197 AD at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France), between the armies of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and of the Roman usurper Clodius Albinus. Severus' victory finally established him as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. The battle is said to be the largest, most hard-fought, and bloodiest of all clashes between Roman forces, with the historian Cassius Dio describing 150,000 soldiers on each side. This figure may be an exaggeration as it would account for about three-quarters of the total number of soldiers present throughout the Roman Empire at that time, however there is no doubt that the numbers were significant and likely in excess of 100,000.
Severus had emerged as emperor through violence as the chaos of the Year of the Five Emperors in 193 and its aftermath played out. Initially, Severus and Albinus had been allies, with the latter supporting the former in his bid for Emperor. In return, Severus elevated Albinus, who was already the powerful commander of the legions in Britannia, to the position of Caesar. In 195 however, with all his enemies defeated, Severus tried to legitimize his power, connecting himself with Marcus Aurelius, and raising his own son to the rank of Caesar. This last act broke Severus' alliance with Albinus, who was declared a public enemy by the Senate.
In 196, after being hailed as emperor by his troops, Albinus took 40,000 men in three legions from Britannia to Gaul, where he established his headquarters at Lugdunum. He was joined there by Lucius Novius Rufus, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, who had the Legio VII Gemina under his command.
But Severus maintained a powerful position, notably having the Danubian and German legions on his side. To try to minimise this advantage and possibly win their support, Albinus struck first against the German forces under Virius Lupus. He defeated them, but not decisively enough to challenge their allegiance to Severus. Albinus then considered invading Italy, but Severus had prepared for this by reinforcing the garrisons of the Alpine passes. Not wishing to risk the losses or the delay that forcing the passes would cause, Albinus was deterred.
In the winter of 196/197, Severus gathered his forces along the Danube and marched into Gaul, where, much to his surprise, he found that Albinus' forces were about the same strength as his own. The two armies first clashed at Tinurtium (Tournus), where Severus had the better day but was unable to obtain the decisive victory he needed.
Following the events and Tinurtium, Albinus' army fell back to Lugdunum with Severus in pursuit. The armies met on February 19th and a massive and ultimately decisive battle ensued over two days. The armies. Both lead by their respective leaders, were roughly the same size and it seems the tide shifted many times over the course of the battle. Cassius Dio describes how at one point Severus, seeing his army take heavy losses, attempted to come to their aid with the Pretorian Guard and in doing so very nearly lost them too. Losing his own horse and on foot he attempted to rally his wavering men, helping them hold out long enough for his cavalry to arrive and turn the battle. Exhausted and bloodied, Albinus' army was crushed.
According to Dio:
"Many even of the victors deplored the disaster, for the entire plain was seen to be covered with the bodies of men and horses; some of them lay there mutilated by many wounds, as if hacked in pieces, and others, though unwounded, were piled up in heaps, weapons were scattered about, and blood flowed in streams, even pouring into the rivers."
Albinus fled to Lugdunum where, according to Dio, he took his own life. Severus had Albinus' body stripped and beheaded and rode over the headless corpse with his horse in front of his victorious troops. The head he sent back to Rome as a warning along with the heads of Albinus' family. Dio was critical of this, writing that "this action showed clearly that he [Severus] possessed none of the qualities of a good ruler, he alarmed both us [the Senate] and the populace more than ever by the commands that he sent; for now that he had overcome all armed opposition, he was venting upon the unarmed all the wrath that he had stored up against them in the past".
At some point after this battle, the powerful Roman province of Britain was broken up into Upper and Lower halves (Latin: Britannia Superior & Inferior). Roman forces in Britannia were also severely weakened, which would lead to incursions, uprisings, and a withdrawal of Rome from the Antonine Wall south to Hadrian's Wall. It was while quelling one of these uprisings that Severus himself would die near Eboracum on February 4th 211, only weeks short of the 14th anniversary of his victory at Lugdunum.
This little model was built by Dan Harris as part of a series on important events in Roman history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Located in The Fens of Cambridgshire are the remains of a Bronze Age settlement known as Must Farm, named after the quarry in which they were found. Discovered in 1999 when a local archaeologist noticed a series of wooden posts sticking out of the quarry’s edge, the site has since been subject to a programme of excavations, which have revealed many incredibly well preserved artefacts that give us a real glimpse into life during the Bronze Age.
The excavations paint a very different environment at Must Farm to the one that exists today. Sometime around 1,000-800BC a series of piles, or stilts, were sunk into a river channel on top of which houses were built. Around the edge of the settlement a palisade, consisting of large ash posts, was constructed in situ, leaving the debris at the bottom of the slow-moving river.
What is remarkable is that at some point, perhaps as little as six months, after the settlement was built a fire tore through it, causing the homes and to collapse and drop into the river below. In the water the flames were immediately quenched as the homes dropped to the riverbed, where they were then covered with layers of non-porous silt, preserving everything from wooden utensils to textiles. It is this degree of preservation which makes the site so special and gives us an unprecedented insight into life during the Bronze Age.
Other objects found included a large wooden wheel (reported to be the most complete and earliest of its type in Britain), eight Bronze Age log boats, glass beads from main land Europe, and a bronze sickle. Must Farm also has the largest, and finest, collection of textiles from the British Bronze Age. The fibres and fabrics are incredibly useful to study as they reflect different aspects of the production of textiles, from the initial stages through to the finished objects. The finds indicate that the occupants were not isolated but had a good connection with those living in Britain and beyond.
Analysis of the materials recovered from Must Farm are still underway and you can follow progress over at the project’s website:
Recently, Must Farm was subject to a BBC documentary, which can still be found on iPlayer and is well worth a watch:
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Sweyn Forkbeard was king of Denmark from 986 to 1014 and in 1013, shortly before his death, he became the first Danish king of England. He was the father of King Harald II of Denmark, King Cnut the Great and Queen Estrid Svendsdatter.
Sweyn gained his Danish crown when he overthrew his father, Harald Bluetooth, sometime in the mid 980s. After establishing himself in Denmark, he led a large Viking fleet to England with the intention of capturing London. He would be unsuccessful and while away Eric Sersel, King of Sweden took advantage of his absence and occupied Denmark. Sweyn recovered Denmark on the death of Eric in in 994.
Sweyn’s relationship with the Swedes would improve following Eric’s death and he would build an alliance with Swedish king Olof Skötkonung and Eirik Hákonarson, Jarl of Lade, against Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason. At the battle of Svolder in 999 or 1000, Sweyn and his allies defeated and killed King Olaf I Trygvessön of Norway and divided his kingdom between them.
Sweyn’s attentions now returned to England, but rather than invading he instead resorted to extracting payment by blackmail. However, in November 1002 King Æthelred the Unready ordered the St. Brice’s Day Massacre resulting in the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Danes in England. Among the dead was Gunhilde, who may have been the sister of Sweyn. The Massacre would instigate a change in policy from the Danish king, who turned to raiding the English coast in revenge. Sweyn campaigned in Wessex and East Anglia in 1003–1004, but a famine forced him to return to Denmark in 1005. Further raids took place in 1006–1007, and in 1009–1012 Thorkell the Tall led a Viking invasion into England. Sweyn acquired massive sums of Danegeld through the raids and in 1013, he led his forces in a full-scale invasion.
The contemporary Peterborough Chronicle (part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) states:
“...before the month of August came king Sweyn with his fleet to Sandwich. He went very quickly about East Anglia into the Humber's mouth, and so upward along the Trent till he came to Gainsborough. Earl Uchtred and all Northumbria quickly bowed to him, as did all the people of the Kingdom of Lindsey, then the people of the Five Boroughs. He was given hostages from each shire. When he understood that all the people had submitted to him, he bade that his force should be provisioned and horsed; he went south with the main part of the invasion force, while some of the invasion force, as well as the hostages, were with his son Cnut. After he came over Watling Street, they went to Oxford, and the town-dwellers soon bowed to him, and gave hostages. From there they went to Winchester, and the people did the same, then eastward to London.”
By this time however, Thorkell the Tall had defected to the English and lead them in their defence of London. Sweyn therefore turned towards Bath where the western thanes submitted to him and gave hostages. The Londoners then followed suit, fearing Sweyn's revenge if they resisted any longer. King Æthelred sent his sons Edward and Alfred to Normandy, and himself retreated to the Isle of Wight, and then followed them into exile. On Christmas Day 1013 Sweyn was declared King of England.
Based in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, Sweyn began to organise his vast new kingdom, but he died there on 3 February 1014, having ruled England for only five weeks. His embalmed body was returned to Denmark for burial. Sweyn's elder son, Harald II, succeeded him as King of Denmark, while his younger son, Cnut, was proclaimed King of England by the people of the Danelaw. However, the English nobility sent for Æthelred, who upon his return from exile in Normandy in the spring of 1014 managed to drive Cnut out of England. Cnut soon returned and became king of all England in 1016, following the deaths of Æthelred and his son Edmund Ironside; he succeeded his brother as King of Denmark in 1019 and eventually also ruled Norway, parts of Sweden, Pomerania, and Schleswig.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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