Thursday, 13 October 2016

Is King Harold Buried Here? The Ruins at Waltham Abbey, 950 years after The Battle of Hastings

Marking King Harold's Grave. The inscription reads: 'This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066'.

'This was a fatal day for England, a melancholy havoc of our dear country brought about by its change of lords'
William of Malmesbury (1125) on the Battle of Hastings

This autumn, I've visited the ruins of Waltham Abbey, where the last Saxon king Harold Godwinson is supposed to be buried. Waltham Abbey and Church have long been on my list of places to visit and because - this week - it's exactly 950 years after the Battle of Hastings (it took place on 14 October 1066), now seems like the right time to do it.

The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey. 
There is a real mystery around the final resting place of King Harold. The familiar story is that after he was killed at Hastings (by an arrow in his eye? It's more likely he was killed by the swords of Norman knights), his body lay on the battlefield waiting to be identified. So Edith the Fair (also known as Edith Swan-neck) his mistress or second wife (Harold's martial situation is a bit unclear) was asked to do identify him - and she did - from 'marks known only to her'.

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey Church
After this, there are several accounts about the fate of Harold's body. Different historical sources from the 1100s refer to Harold's burial at Waltham Abbey. But other accounts have him buried at sea or buried under a cairn on a cliff top, while from the 1950s there has been a suggestion that he was buried at Bosham Church in West Sussex, where a Saxon grave has been found. It seems that Edith also had a demesne not far from Waltham Abbey and so it's also been said that she may have arranged for the body to have been taken there.

The Church seen over the ruins of the Abbey
But in the Vita Haroldi (1177), Harold is said to have left the battlefield alive and ended his days living quietly afterwards. Historians have suggested, though, that this was written to draw attention away from Harold's grave at Waltham Abbey. A century after Hastings, Harold was still a problem for the Norman rulers and a rallying figure for disaffected, rebellious Saxon folk.

14th Century Gateway and Bridge, Waltham Abbey. The bricks on the left are Essex bricks
and are an example of some of the earliest medieval bricks in the country.
The church at Waltham Abbey was important to Harold because many years before he became king he was miraculously 'cured' from a form of paralysis while visiting there. He then became a benefactor of the church. There have been several churches on the site since the 7th century, and the church was raised to a status of an abbey in 1184, many years after Harold's death.

Rose Window, Waltham Abbey Church, showing the story of Genesis.
It was designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones
So, although there's a stone commemorating Harold at Waltham Abbey, his bones could be anywhere. If he is somewhere within the abbey ruins, he's likely to have been moved several times during the different building work and religious turmoil in the following centuries.  But wherever he is, Harold has become strongly associated with Waltham Abbey. Each year, a group called the Friends of King Harold hold a King Harold Day there. This is a Saxon/Medieval festival that takes place on a weekend close to 14 October - this year, it took place on 8th October.

Scenes from King Harold Day (Medieval musicians and archers).
There has been plenty of interest in looking for the bones of King Harold and this might be the time for finding lost kings - after all, Richard III was recently found in a car park, so Harold Godwinson may well be discovered in a quiet corner of Waltham Abbey.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A Sky Empty of Swallows....and the Hornet's Revenge

Suddenly, the swallows have gone. They were here at the weekend, chattering on the wires and scooping up insects, but now they've all disappeared. The sky is empty of them.

These photos are of 'our' young birds earlier in the summer, when they'd just fledged. They'll now be on their journey south to Africa. Each year I silently wish them well and hope they come back safely. It'll be one of the best moments of next year when they do.

There's a sense here that most of the summer visiting birds have gone. I only wish the wasps and hornets had disappeared by now. They're still around, although maybe not for much longer, because the badgers have largely dug out the wasps' nest by our front gate. The badgers destroyed last year's nest, too - and I've started not to worry too much about the nests when I find them in the ground here. I know that the badgers will get rid of them for me.
Largely dug-out wasps' nest

I don't know if any of our native creatures would destroy an Asian hornets' nest. Fortunately, after the first UK sightings of the Asian hornet in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, a nest has been found and dealt with. That's the good news. The bad news is that today, there are reports that the Asian hornet is now in Somerset. Is it too much to hope that these are the only two locations?

Thankfully, the only hornets I've seen are the European hornets. Their nest is still active in the trunk of a nearby oak. I don't think they're doing very much damage to my bee hives, because I haven't seen them hanging around trying to attack my bees. And it hasn't really been a good year for wasps in my area, unlike last year, when many local beekeepers lost their bee hives to wasp attacks.  I wonder if - this year - the cold spring prevented the queens from establishing their nests.

But - just as I think the wasps and hornets are not bothering me here, they've given me a nasty surprise...

I discovered one in the airing cupboard at the weekend, as I was about to lift up a clean towel. How it found its way in there, when the door is almost always closed, I've no idea. Fortunately, I saw it straight away. I won't think about what might have happened if I hadn't!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

On Bats (Good), Dragonflies (Good and Bad) and Mosquitoes (Definitely Bad)

A rescued (and shy) Noctule Bat
Dragonflies and damselflies have been flying around the smallholding for weeks. From a distance, they're beautiful, like little jewels hanging in the air. I've been watching them in the meadow where the bee hives are kept where they dart around, hunting, their translucent wings glowing with light. But this is the problem - lovely though they are to look at, I think they're hunting my bees.

Female black tailed skimmer

I'm not an expert on the different dragonflies, but I'm having a go at the ID. I do know they are fierce little hunters that will use their large, bulging eyes to spot their prey. I think they're probably spotting my bees as they fly to and from the hives, so I really hope my bees are managing to outwit them.

Instead of my bees, I wish the dragonflies could have gone for the numerous mosquitoes we had here during the hot weather. We were under attack for about two or three weeks as they came buzzing in through the open windows at night - possibly from our moat. So I bought some citronella (known to repel mosquitoes) and scattered it everywhere, but I think its effect was limited. It has to be reapplied every few hours.  I got tired of the smell soon, too. I thought about a mosquito net, but I really didn't want such an cumbersome and ugly thing hanging up.

Common darter
It goes without saying that I'm very lucky I don't live in a malaria area. But a note on this; for a long time Essex (or rather the coastal marshes) was well known for malaria or, as it was known then, the 'ague'. There's one story that illustrates how bad it was - the 'Robinson Crusoe' author Daniel Defoe travelled through Essex in 1722 and he later wrote that when the men of the Essex marshes brought home wives who weren't local, the women would soon sicken of the ague (or they would 'decay' as he put it) and die. The men would then go and find another wife and it would all happen again. And again. According to Defoe, some men had married up to fifteen times (one farmer was on wife number twenty five). This sounds like a huge exaggeration, but there's probably some truth in it, so it's a wonder why these women kept taking the risk by marrying the marsh folk.

No one seems to be sure why the ague began to disappear in the late 19th century, but it may have been down to improvements in medicine. The last outbreak in this part of the world was recorded about a hundred years ago when soldiers from the First World War returned from the Mesopotamian campaign (where they had contracted the disease) to the Isle of Sheppey.

Anyway, there's no chance of the mosquitoes coming back now the nights are cooler.  But it has spurred me on to put up some bat boxes here. Bats hunt insects and they hunt mosquitoes. They're no threat to my bees because my bees won't be flying at night. I've hardly seem any bats around the house this summer and I don't know why, because soprano pipistrelle bats have been here in the past, and I do know they're roosting just over the fields. So I'm going to put up some boxes to encourage them back.  Will they control a future plague of mosquitoes? I don't know, but I really hope so.