A DARK Age palace has been discovered, strengthening the likelihood that the legend of King Arthur may be based on a grain of truth.
A DARK Age palace has been uncovered on Cornwall’s windswept coast, strengthening the likelihood that the legend of King Arthur may be based on a grain of truth.
Myth has it that King Arthur will return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need. It could certainly do with some help right now.
Whether or not a new archaeological dig at his supposed birthplace of Tintagel Castle will prompt such a second coming is another matter.
But it may already be adding to the evidence that the myth surrounding the warrior king who, with the knights of his roundtable, struggled to hold back a “Dark Age” from enveloping Britain.
The Dark Age has long since proven to have been not so dark. But the scant records from the time have made pinning down one historical character that best fits the outline of the tale near impossible.
Now, archaeologists have returned to Arthur’s traditional birthplace of Tintagel for the first time since the 1990s. They’ve just completed their first dig in a new five-year excavation.
Last month they sank four trenches into previously unexcavated areas of the ancient island settlement.
What they found may be the remains of a 1500-year-old palace.
BIRTHPLACE OF A LEGEND
Like many prominent British landmarks, Tintagel has long been associated with Arthurian legend.
Like all the others, the evidence has been largely limited to hearsay.
The ruined castle that dominates the Tintagel landscape is believed to be from the Medieval 13th century. This would make it some 700 years younger than the Arthurian tales.
But it’s long been thought that the castle may have itself been built upon the ruins of an older structure.
But it was the discovery of a stone engraved with a name linked to Arthur’s in 1998 that reinvigorated interest in the windswept ruins on Cornwall’s coast.
Archaeologists believe it to have been a foundation/dedication stone dating from the 6th century. It is engraved with the name Artognou.
It’s these ruins that may have been linked to the Arthur of legend.
The tales tell of the seduction — some say by magical means — of the beautiful wife of a local lord by the then King of Britain. The illicit act conceived Arthur.
Mythology goes on to say the young boy was raised as a squire — a knight’s assistant — until fate took its hand and placed the rightful king on his throne.
The first written record of the mystic king comes from a monk named Gildas in the sixth century.
But it was a time where books were scarce and the most common form of transmitting history — and telling tales — was through memorised songs and poetry.
It took two several more centuries before a more detailed account of King Arthur and his actions would be recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1138AD.
Unwinding his tangle of myth, legend and history has been a challenge for authors and historians ever since.
At the time of Monmouth’s writing, historians believe Tintagel would likely have been little more than a windswept pile of rubble.
So the notion of it being a powerful palace would have had to have been handed down verbally through the generations.
Just like the tale of Arthur himself.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
The archaeologists were guided in their efforts by geophysical surveys of the rocky outcrop’s terraces earlier this year.
Among the ultrasound and radar echoes were outlines of what could be up to a dozen buried buildings, one-metre thick walls and winding paths.
The strategically positioned trenches, two on an upper east terrace and two to the south, have all provided a glimpse of the stonework foundations of long-lost buildings.
From the scattering of potsherds and glass, this places the site smack between 400 and 600AD — precisely the time Arthur is supposed to have led his war band against the invading hordes.
None of this proves Arthur existed.
But the new finds add substance to the idea that the site could have produced cultured but strong warriors as well as influential political figures.
It would have been a beacon of lost civilisation in a world of economic chaos and roving, marauding tribes.
Much of the 150 fragments of glass and pottery recovered had been imported from the far reaches of the then collapsing Roman Empire — indicating a place of both great wealth and trade importance.
One piece was the lip of a Turkish-Phocaean red-slip plate or bowl. It was a particularly fine and highly prized ceramic that would likely have held pride of place on the table of nobility.
Original excavation work in the 1930s led archaeologists to believe the cliffside landmark may have once been an Early Christian monastery.
Later work has steadily strengthened the idea that it may have been an important Dark Age fortress, held by the king of Dumnonia who filled the void in Cornwall left when the Romans abandoned Britain in 410AD.
Jacques DeMolay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, cursed a king and a pope as he burned at the stake — launching an undying myth
SEVEN hundred years ago, a dying knight uttered a curse as the flames of the pyre he was tied to lapped at his feet. Those words continue to haunt us even now.
That knight was Jacques de Molay.
He was the Grand Master of the Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon, generally known as the Knights Templar.
A fraction more than two centuries after the Knights of Order of the Temple of Solomon had been founded amid the rubble of Jerusalem to defend the Holy Land, it would now be ended by flame in the heart of Paris.
Betrayed by a king he trusted and a pope he was sworn to obey, in his final hours DeMolay fought fervently against the false charges which had destroyed his international network of Christian warriors.
His dying curse was powerful. And effective.
S’en vendra en brief temps meschie / Let evil swiftly befall
Sus celz qui nous dampnent a tort; / Those who have wrongly condemned us;
Diex en vengera nostre mort. / God will avenge our death.
Pope Clement V, complicit by design or cowardice, was dead 33 days later — from a severe bout of dysentery brought about by advanced bowel cancer.
King Philip IV of France, who had been happy to kill and defame Christendom’s defenders for their wealth and land, died within eight months. This time it was a hunting accident.
It was the final act in a power play that makes the schemes of Game of Thrones seem like mere schoolyard squabbles.
De Molay, oddly, lives on.
A contemporary source tells of a group of monks secretly swimming to his funeral pyre on an island in Paris’ River Seine to gather up the old man’s bones as holy relics. His name has echoed through history ever since.
The idea of the Order of the Temple itself refused to die.
Though formally disbanded and its assets nominally handed over to their arch rivals — the Knights Hospitaller — there were few untouched enclaves of Templars who changed their name to escape retribution.
But the black-and-white banner of the Poor Knights would rise time and again throughout history by the oppressed and those seeking association with secrets, occult and mystery.
And, as the likes of The DaVinci Code, Game of Thrones and Ivanhoe attest, it’s an idea that resonates even now.
SIGNED, SEALED — AND DELIVERED?
De Molay’s last stand was something of a surprise.
The supreme commander of more than 2000 knights, sergeants and attendants had put up a pitiful performance after the sudden arrest of his brethren on Friday, October 13, 1307. It was a date that would go down in infamy for its ill fortune.
It had been an extraordinary operation: King Philip’s sheriffs all through France had been secretly notified to conduct the coordinated arrests that same night. Once hauled forward to face trumped up charges of heresy, sodomy and sedition, the stunned church seemed powerless to defend its own. Torture did the rest, quickly extracting confessions for the most heinous of crimes — heresy.
But by 1314 the scandal had died down. The arrest and accusations against the Templars was old news. The fate of its members — and its wealth — seemed little more than a formality.
A papal commission of inquiry was appointed to pass final judgment on four of the Templar’s most senior commanders. Two of the inquisitors were considered “royal” men — being close associates of King Philip “the Fair”. The third cardinal was one of Pope Clement’s closest friends.
Naturally, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
It was to be a public show trial, carefully scripted and conducted under the watchful eye of King Philip’s city guard and most loyal followers and performed on scaffolding erected in front of the famous Notre Dame cathedral.
But something inside de Molay had changed.
The seven years of torture and imprisonment had not weakened his spirit. It had reinforced it.
In fact, the Grand Master had been held in solitary confinement the dungeon of his own Paris fortress for the previous four years. Now in his 70s, de Molay’s body must have been wracked by injury, malnutrition and lack of sunlight.
Stepping out into the warm light and seeing his brothers-in-arms again after so long must have ignited his spirit in a way it had never been before.
He and his colleagues — Geoffroi de Charney, Hughes de Pairaud and Goeffroi de Gonneville — were dressed in their Order’s iconic white robes emblazoned with the blood-red cross and paraded in front of the crowd.
It was intended to be their final humiliation.
LAST ACT OF DEFIANCE
The people of Paris were expecting a show. A performance. A tragedy.
They got what they wanted — but not the anticipated script.
The day, March 18, 1314, started well. The full list of charges was read out to the crowd: Heresy. Homosexuality. Corruption.
All were reminded that the Templar commanders — including de Molay — had long since confessed to these most awful of crimes.
It was time to pass sentence. As the senior cardinal began to read from a decree announcing that the three Templar leaders would face perpetual imprisonment, he was unexpectedly interrupted.
By de Molay.
The Grand Master who had seemingly confessed so easily to such serious sin seven years earlier — and who had refused to speak out during the show trials which followed — finally found his voice.
He demanded to be heard.
He asserted his innocence, and that of his colleagues. He accused the king and pope of false accusations and of rigging the trials.
The crowd was shocked.
They knew what this meant.
An unexpected spectacle: A burning at the stake.
Such was the fate of all confessed heretics who renounced their crimes.
But the performance was not yet over.
De Molay’s old colleague under the searing sun of the Holy Land, Geoffroi de Charney, suddenly took up the battle cry.
Both launched into a forceful defence of their innocence and a blistering attack on those who sought to steal their land, their power, and their honour.
They harangued the esteemed cardinals for their complicity. They emphatically denied the allegations and pointedly revoked every aspect of their prior confessions.
De Molay and de Charney knew the consequences.
So did the remaining two Templar officials — de Pairaud and de Gonneville. Both cowered into the background, abandoning their superiors to their last stand.
The cardinals were stunned. They quickly fled the uproarious scene.
The king’s men knew what to do. Such a revocation of guilt meant the Grand Master and the Preceptor of Normandy had voided the protection of the Church and were now under royal jurisdiction.
They dragged the two Templars away.
King Philip heard of the outburst within minutes. His extravagant new palace was just a few hundred meters up the road.
It was too much for the troubled king to tolerate. His family was torn by scandal — the wives of his three sons all having been found guilty of adultery only months earlier. Any other such challenge to his flagging authority and reputation needed to be stamped upon, and quickly.
He summoned an immediate session of his royal council.
Nominally it was to discuss and pass judgment upon the two relapsed heretics. In reality it was most likely a shouting session.
The verdict was arbitrary anyway.
King Philip gave the two Templars what they wanted.
He immediately issued his decree: Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney were to be burnt at the stake that very evening, at the hour of Vespers.
The place of execution was ordered to be a small sandbank at the foot of the island in the middle of medieval Paris which formed the seat of royal and religious power.
It sat in full view of the island’s royal gardens and palace, and of the Monastery of St Augustine on the opposite bank of the River Seine.
Meanwhile, the Templars Hughes de Pairaud and Goeffroi de Gonneville had been whisked away by church officials to serve their sentences of life imprisonment. Both would die prolonged, miserable deaths.
De Molay and De Charney were bundled through the seething crowds filling Paris’ streets. Word of their fate had spread. Nobody wanted to miss the show.
It was the end of an era. All knew this.
All wanted to see how this suddenly courageous Grand Master faced his death.
Chroniclers from the time tell of how de Molay willingly cast off his clothes and walked up to the pyre dressed only in his undershirt. Some say he asked to be tied to the stake with his hands free so he could pray.
All paint a picture of a calm and determined man, content with his fate.
As the flames took hold, they seem to have only ignited anger within the old knight.
The Chronicler of Paris wrote:
Seignors, dis il, sachiez, sans tere, / Sirs, he said, know, without any doubt
Que touz celz qui nous sont contrere / That all those who are against us
Por nous en arront a souffrir. / For us will have to suffer.
It was an age of superstition. While the sparks of the Renaissance were beginning to fly — particularly among the new universities of Paris — there was still a pervasive belief in the power of curses, prayer and prophecy.
The chroniclers tell of “how gently” de Molay met his execution.
To the silent crowd, this would have only added to the power of his final words.
De Charney, seeing the extraordinary manner in which his commander had died, declared he was proud to burn in the colours of his Order, and desired to do so with the same grace as his Grand Master.
The righteous piety in which the two knights were immolated was in stark contrast to the stories of cowardice, corruption and heresy the Paris crowd had been sold over so many years.
Their deaths invoked so much admiration among the crowd that it inspired centuries of doubt as to their guilt.
It also inspired the myths that seemingly will not die.
THE TEMPLAR CODE
It’s a story with stark relevance to the modern world.
The Templars were, in essence, an international corporation. A network of farms, estates, banks and markets which fed a bureaucracy full of infighting, divergent purposes and ambition under the helm of a single chief executive officer — in this case Jacques de Molay.
King Philip’s government was bankrupt. He’d squandered his wealth on a series of failed wars and expensive monuments to his ego. He needed cash. He needed income. He lusted for power.
The manner in which the hearts and minds of Europe’s pious public were played, how the legal system was manipulated and how the cowed Catholic Church capitulated still triggers fears of grand-scale, high-level conspiracy and corruption.
But the Templars themselves — as pious knights, as warrior-monks sworn to fight for their beliefs — reflect our fear for modern religious-inspired terrorism and the righteous claims of those who fight against it.
Add to the mix the charges of heresy, magic and conspiracy and you have a rich recipe few authors — and charlatans — can resist.
They’ve been linked to the Turin Shroud, the Holy Grail and the ‘hidden bloodline’ of Jesus Christ.
From Ivanhoe to Indiana Jones, Hellbound to Assassin’s Creed, Kingdom of Heaven to The DaVinci Code — the myth of the Templars all play a part.
And the name of the Order has been invoked by secret societies for centuries, seeking to draw upon the mystical might of the knights’ name.
It’s a power still present today: One of Mexico’s most powerful drug gangs has twisted the image, and the name — The Knights Templar Cartel — to suit their own anti-authoritarian needs.
But put aside the myth and the mayhem and you will find the real history of the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ of the Temple of Jerusalem to be fully fascinating in itself.
As the final hours of Jacques de Molay show: There is no need for embellishment.
La casa del Temple, la que podría ser la casa más antigua de Toledo mejor conservada (data de los siglos XI-XII), podrá visitarse este sábado 18 de marzo de forma gratuita, tras la última restauración realizada en los alfarjes de su planta primera, compuestos por vigas «de las más antiguas de España».
La jornada gratuita de puertas abiertas forma parte del programa «Patrimonio desconocido», impulsada por el Consorcio dentro de las actividades organizadas con motivo del 30 Aniversario de Toledo Ciudad Patrimonio de la Humanidad, según ha informado el Ayuntamiento una en nota de prensa. Cada mes se visita y se da a conocer un espacio histórico rehabilitado que normalmente está cerrado al público. El último fue la fuente de Cristina Iglesias en el Convento de Santa Clara.
Rosana Rodríguez, concejala de Turismo, asegura que uno de los objetivos del 30 aniversario es abrir espacios desconocidos para «el disfrute» de los toledanos y también de los turistas y que, gracias a ello, se puede conocer una representación de la arquitectura civil de los siglos XI y XII salvada después de «tantos» siglos de historia. En este caso, la jornada de puertas abiertas se celebrará el sábado 18 de marzo, de 10:00 a 14:00 y de 16:00 a 18:00 horas, en la calle Soledad, número 2.
El Consorcio ha intervenido para llevar a cabo la restauración de los alfarjes de la planta primera que «no se habían terminado de limpiar y proteger» en la rehabilitación de 1997, en la que parte del artesonado de la Casa del Temple, según ha avanzado el presidente del Consorcio de Toledo, Manuel Santolaya, está compuesto por «vigas de las más antiguas de España».
Santolaya ha explicado que se trata de un «sitio excepcional» que tiene relación con el palacio de la Aljafería de Zaragoza y la iglesia de San Millán de Segovia y que incluso alguna de sus piezas, en concreto una alacena mudéjar, se encuentra en el museo británico.
El propietario de este antiguo palacio islámico, declarado Bien de Interés Cultural, Amador Valdés, ha asegurado que «seguramente es la casa más antigua de Toledo mejor conservada», en la que destacan sus zócalos de pinturas bícromas y sus estructuras de madera, «las mejores conservadas in situ del país», en las que han aparecido policromías que estaban ocultas tras la última restauración.
El propietario ha indicado que hay muchas leyendas que relacionan la Casa del Temple con la Orden de los Templarios pero ninguna oficial y ha dicho que en el siglo XIX, el historiador Amador de los Ríos ya denominó este espacio como Casa del Temple, al igual que Benito Pérez Galdós en su novela «Ángel Guerra».
Durante el siglo XIX, se conservaba además de la Casa del Temple, que ocupaba «toda la manzana», la Casa de la Parra, hoy desaparecida, que era donde se ubicaba «supuestamente la alacena del Temple», exportada a Londres tiempo después.
A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede.
On the shimmering Sea of Galilee, where the Christian gospels say Jesus walked on water, 150 Nigerian pilgrims aboard a river boat sing and dance to an African beat. Their pastor, Reverend Samuel Tunde Ogunmodede, said he and his congregation had come to the biblical lake to see what they had, until now, only read about in the scriptures. “We came here to seek the face of God, pray to God as he did in the time of the disciples. We will pray here so that he will do the same in our lives,” he said on board the boat. About one million tourists from abroad visit the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or Kinneret, each year, according to the Israeli tourism ministry.
Stretching about 65 sq miles (170 square km) from the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee (actually a fresh-water lake) spills into the Jordan River, where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. On a crisp winter day, worshippers from Singapore, Nigeria and Germany perform their own baptism ceremonies in the waters. The gospels tell of Jesus walking on the lake to comfort and save disciples as their ship was foundering in a storm and miraculously producing huge catches of fish for their nets. But the Sea of Galilee may need a few more miracles these days. A sharp drop in annual rainfall in the northern Galilee region over the past three years has caused the lake’s waters to recede, according to Israel’s Water Authority. It is now at its lowest in five years.
Receding water levels means higher salt levels, which harm the eco-balance and could render the water unusable. In an effort to control the damage, only a 10th of the annual average quantity of water supply has been drawn from the lake this year, a water authority spokesman said. In a complex operation, salt water springs are found and their flow is diverted out of the lake. To better keep the eco-balance and maintain water quality, the lake is stocked with millions of fish every year. The Sea of Galilee has, in the past, provided up to a third of Israel’s water. Israel now relies on the more expensive methods of desalination and recycling for more than half its water supply.
The charred lump of scroll sat in an archaeologist’s office, impossible to read without destroying it – until now.
Scientists have finally been able to read the oldest biblical text ever found.
The 2,000-year-old scroll has been in the hands of archaeologists for decades. But it hasn’t been possible to read it, since it was too dangerous to open the charred and brittle scroll.
Scientists have now been able to read it, using special imaging technology that can look into what’s inside. And it has found what was in there: the earliest evidence of a biblical text in its standardised form.
The passages, which come from the Book of Leviticus, show the first physical evidence of a long-held belief that the Hebrew Bible that’s in use today has is more than 2,000 years old.
The discovery was announced in an article in Science Advances written by researchers from Kentucky and Jerusalem. It described how the researchers used a tool called “virtual unwrapping”, which provides a 3D digital analysis of an X-ray scan.
By using that, it was the first time that researchers have been able to read an ancient scroll without actually opening it.
“You can’t imagine the joy in the lab,” said Pnina Shor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who participated in the study.
The digital technology, funded by Google and the U.S. National Science Foundation, is slated to be released to the public as open source software by the end of next year.
Researchers hope to use the technology to peek inside other ancient documents too fragile to unwrap, like some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and papyrus scrolls carbonized in the Mt. Vesuvius volcano eruption in 79 CE. Researchers believe the technology could also be applied to the fields of forensics, intelligence, and antiquities conservation.
The biblical scroll examined in the study was first discovered by archaeologists in 1970 at Ein Gedi, the site of an ancient Jewish community near the Dead Sea. Inside the ancient synagogue’s ark, archaeologists found lumps of scroll fragments.
The synagogue was destroyed in an ancient fire, charring the scrolls. The dry climate of the area kept them preserved, but when archaeologists touched them, the scrolls would begin to disintegrate. So the charred logs were shelved for nearly half a century, with no one knowing what was written inside.
Last year, Yosef Porath, the archaeologist who excavated at Ein Gedi in 1970, walked into the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls preservation lab in Jerusalem with boxes of the charcoal chunks. The lab has been creating hi-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest copies of biblical texts ever discovered, and he asked researchers to scan the burned scrolls.
“I looked at him and said, ‘you must be joking,”‘ said Shor, who heads the lab.
She agreed, and a number of burned scrolls were scanned using X-ray-based micro-computed tomography, a 3D version of the CT scans hospitals use to create images of internal body parts. The images were then sent to William Brent Seales, a researcher in the computer science department of the University of Kentucky. Only one of the scrolls could be deciphered.
Using the “virtual unwrapping” technology, he and his team painstakingly captured the three-dimensional shape of the scroll’s layers, using a digital triangulated surface mesh to make a virtual rendering of the parts they suspected contained text. They then searched for pixels that could signify ink made with a dense material like iron or lead. The researchers then used computer modeling to virtually flatten the scroll, to be able to read a few columns of text inside.
“Not only were you seeing writing, but it was readable,” said Seales. “At that point we were absolutely jubilant.”
The researchers say it is the first time a biblical scroll has been discovered in an ancient synagogue’s holy ark, where it would have been stored for prayers, and not in desert caves like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discovery holds great significance for scholars’ understanding of the development of the Hebrew Bible, researchers say.
In ancient times, many versions of the Hebrew Bible circulated. The Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to as early as the 3rd century B.C., featured versions of the text that are radically different than today’s Hebrew Bible.
Scholars have believed the Hebrew Bible in its standard form first came about some 2,000 years ago, but never had physical proof, until now, according to the study. Previously the oldest known fragments of the modern biblical text dated back to the 8th century.
The text discovered in the charred Ein Gedi scroll is “100 percent identical” to the version of the Book of Leviticus that has been in use for centuries, said Dead Sea Scroll scholar Emmanuel Tov from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who participated in the study.
“This is quite amazing for us,” he said. “In 2,000 years, this text has not changed.”
Noam Mizrahi, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert at Tel Aviv University who did not participate in the study, called it a “very, very nice find.” He said the imaging technology holds great potential for more readings of unopened Dead Sea Scrolls.
“It’s not only what was found, but the promise of what else it can uncover, which is what will turn this into an exciting discovery,” Mizrahi said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press
MODERN authors don’t have to look far for inspiration. Often, it’s right there on their shelves in learned tomes of history.
Some of the stories are truly fantastic. Others are simply amazing examples of human behaviour.
Dr Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University school of History and Politics says she finds the use of history in popular modern fiction fascinating.
“These are clearly engaged with much of the historic literature, particularly for the medieval period,” she said. “And, as a historian, you watch it, and you’re constantly thinking ‘yeah that’s good’, and ‘no, that wouldn’t happen’, except it’s fantasy so you can’t get annoyed!”
Dr Barclay points out that history and fantasy have had a long and close relationship: The first novels were called “histories” and purported to be based on real events.
“They often were,” Dr Barclay said, “at least to the level that they featured real historical characters if re-imagined to suit the sensibilities of the era”.
And such “re-imagining” is central to the history-fantasy link. The same story is often retold in different ways over hundreds of years, with each incarnation pitched at the tastes and expectations of a new generation, she said.
“But the most inspirational tales for modern writers and audiences are not necessarily those based on the most outlandish stories or supernatural events, but those that relate to unexpected human relationships.”
Here’s just a sample of some of the most eye-catching historical sources you may recognise in popular books, films and television shows.
CAUTION: There are some Game of Thrones spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
SCOTLAND’S ‘RED WEDDINGS’
The “Red Wedding” episode from Game of Thrones had fans in shock, with several characters cut down. However there is a precedent — clan-based slaughter in the north of Britain.
“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” Dr Barclay said.
The brutal slayings, while not weddings, were regarded as particularly heinous as they breached strict moral codes of hospitality.
In 1691 a terrible betrayal saw most of the key members of clan MacDonald massacred.
The Scottish clans had been summoned to produce a signed document swearing allegiance to King William of Orange. The MacDonald clan, delayed through a series of misfortunes, delivered their oath several days “too late”.
Several months later, a troop of 120 men under the king’s Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonald’s estates in Glencoe and claimed shelter from the harsh weather.
Hospitality was duly offered, but, after a fortnight of enjoying the MacDonalds’ food, drink and card-games, the soldiers slew about 40 of the clan as they slept in their beds in what would become known as the Glencoe Massacre. The 40 or so women and children that escaped died of exposure.
An earlier, similar, massacre has gone down in history as “The Black Dinner”.
In 1440 the young Earl of Douglas (traditionally called the Black Douglas), 16, and his younger brother David were invited to dine at Edinburgh Castle with 10-year-old king James II.
The story goes that the young nobles were getting along like a house on fire, enjoying food, entertainment and each other’s company until deep into the evening. Suddenly, legend has it, the severed head of a black bull was dropped on the dining table.
The two Black Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, and beheaded.
The young king was not likely to have been to blame. The Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, had issued the invitations as he felt the Black Douglas clan had grown too powerful.
THE REAL DRAGON SLAYER
If “Smaug” the dragon from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gets your blood racing, imagine what impact the real thing would have had on medieval Europe.
The only encounter with a “dragon” recorded in history happened on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes in the 1340s. The question is, what was the beast really — a crocodile? A giant lizard?
According to the Order of St John’s archives, the beast had established a lair to the south of the fortified city of Rhodes. There, it had begun preying on the local livestock and maidens.
Several Knights Hospitaller are said to have set out to prove their valour by tackling the dragon. After they failed to return, the Order’s Grand Master firmly ordered a stop to such expeditions.
One, however, ignored the order. The French knight Dieudonne de Gozon decided to take on the beast personally. He gathered as many descriptions as he could of the animal from the country folk who had seen it and built a scale model.
He then trained his dogs to attack the creature and practised angles from which he could attack it with his sword and lance.
Once confident, he sallied forth into the countryside and slew the dragon. He was then summarily expelled from the Order for disobedience.
But the public outcry from the peasants about how poorly their hero had been treated soon saw “the Dragon Slayer” restored to the Order and he ended up becoming Grand Master himself in 1346.
“The Rhodes story is not the only crocodile as dragon story going around,” Dr Barclay said. “There is one for St George too — only the crocodile got to Essex! We don’t really know if it was a crocodile, that’s just what a 19th Century scientist thought when he saw a skull in Rhodes that they claimed belonged to the dragon. Given that selling relics was big business during the medieval period and there was 600 years for a ‘dragon skull’ to go missing, decompose (or never exist in the first place) and be replaced with that of a crocodile by an entrepreneurial relic salesman, we don’t really know the truth here. Maybe there really was a dragon!”
HISTORY’S HORRIBLE FAMILIES
There is a reason why the likes of the Tudors keep appearing in books and on our screens. Many were truly awful people from absolutely horrible families.
“Games of Thrones is fascinating,” Dr Barclay said, “not just because of the gruesome deaths and sex, but because these are families defending lineages, committing incest, being wiped out in a single generation.
“We get behind the families because of their relationships to each other, not just because they have dragons.
“Wendy Moore’s Wedlock (a tale described by The Independent as a “misery memoir” of how Georgian Britain’s worst husband met his match; it is “crammed with corrupt surgeons, questionable chaplains, fallen women and gossips”) is also fascinating because of the manipulative and abusive relationship between husband and wife. Then there was Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire — which became the movie The Duchess — a story about a dodgy threesome.”
There is also the true story of James Annesley, the heir to the estate of Anglesea. He was abducted as a child in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. He managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Britain to discover his uncle had inherited his estates. He won the first trial, but died during a drawn-out 10-year appeals process. This inspired stories such as Memoirs of an Unfortunate Nobleman, Peregrine Pickle and The Wandering Heir.
The magic of a glittering, all-dominating sword is a powerful icon of hope and victory. In the case of magic swords, it may be an idea burnt onto our cultural heritage by history.
Some say the legend of Excalibur could have been born from the impact a high-quality Roman sword would have had if it had survived into the Dark Ages of Britain. Such a refined, well-made and strong weapon could indeed win almost magical status among its enemies.
This is likely what happened some centuries earlier, as the Bronze Age collapsed before the onrushing Iron Age. The new grey metal swords cut through bronze as if it was butter. Whole armies could fall in the face of a smaller band of iron-equipped men.
Iron’s impact was not just felt on the battlefield. The entire economy and social structure of Europe was turned on its head as it shifted away from bronze to the tougher, easier, more common metal.
Even the story of pulling Excalibur from the stone may be a cast-back to a long-forgotten time. Bronze blades were cast in moulds of stone before being pulled out and polished.
Iron was to experience a similar revolution when the refinement of steel emerged. It’s an arms race that has never ended. And each age would most likely have had its own “Excalibur”.
But such magic-history links are rare, Dr Barclay said.
“The ‘magical’ element of fantasy allows us to set aside our practical concerns (’that wouldn’t happen’) and go with the story (‘it isn’t real, so that’s fine’), despite the fact that what drives the story could often happen without the magical elements,” Dr Barclay said.
THE BLACK WATCH
The romantic notion of a band of outcast warriors living on the fringes of civilisation who have taken a binding oath to protect the ignorant and ungrateful people they left behind is a common one.
It was no less popular when it was a reality.
The Knights Templar are well known for their supposed mystical secrets and the staged trial that accused them of such. But their real purpose also has passed into legend.
In the early 1100s, a small band of knights resolved to police the roads of the newly captured Holy Land for pilgrims making the dangerous journey from Europe.
To save their souls and prove their devotion the knights adopted the rigid rules and lifestyle of monks, with the added responsibility of protecting Christendom from all its enemies.
The idea spread like wildfire: Soon every second son in Europe was clambering for permission to win glory (and a secure lifestyle) within a rapidly expanding network of farms, forts and fleets all designed to feed equipment, knights and soldiers to a distant chain of castles protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
Many other Orders sprung up, imitating the idea: The Hospitallers and the Teutonic Knights were among the largest.
However, the trials and tribulations of the hot and volatile Holy Land soon caused the chivalric dream to lose much of its gloss. As such, many in the later ranks of the Templars were drafted from “grey knights” who had committed crimes or lost the support of their lords. In return for their service, these warriors were promised the limited freedom the Order offered — as well as a chance to fight, pursue a career and save their souls.
WINTER IS COMING
In fact, it’s already been. Several times.
We’re talking weird seasons that last for years — not the typical annual event.
In 536AD a 10-year winter kicked off in the Northern Hemisphere. Scribes in Europe and Asia reported bitterly cold conditions that seemed to never end. The sun was darkened, they said, and remained “small” even into the depths of summer.
Famine, war and plague quickly followed as crops failed and hungry hordes started streaming south.
Tree rings and ice core samples have since confirmed these events and tied the decade-long winter to the eruption of a supervolcano in El Salvador. But many academics consider that is in itself not enough to explain the duration of this winter. Some say Earth may have also passed through Halley’s Comet’s dusty tail.
Another unusual winter struck Europe in 1816. Known as “The Year without Summer”, hunger once again quickly swept across Europe as crops shrivelled up.
This event has been tied to the 1815 super eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. The dust in the upper atmosphere from this eruption produced an average 1C drop in temperatures worldwide.
From Game of Thrones to The Narnia Chronicles, myth continues the reality.