Gaye Mack’s Blog

WHOOOO ARE YOU?… MEDIEVAL MORTUARY CHESTS HOLD THE ANSWERS

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work Leave a comment

On my recent trip to the UK as noted in my last post, I spent the better part of a day in Winchester Cathedral.  Although I’ve visited this magnificent structure many times in the past, I’ve learned there’s always something new for me to discover and this visit was no exception.

 Back in Chicago in preparation for writing my next book, A Watch of Nightingales,’ I’d been grappling with making sense of historical reporting versus practicality surrounding the tomb of Henry II’s ‘fair Rosamund’ at Godstow Nunnery.  From past research and experience I was aware of and have seen the many elaborate tombs created for persons of prominence as the United Kingdom’s churches and family chapels are full of them.  For Arthurian enthusiasts, there even exists a detailed description of the massive black marble tomb created for the April 1279 reburial ceremony of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury during the state visit by King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

 However, in researching the ‘facts’ surrounding Rosamund’s placement in Godstow’s church and subsequent demand to have her remains moved by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln some 11 years later after her death, something wasn’t making any sense…until I discovered the mortuary chests at Winchester.   My timing couldn’t have been more perfect due to the preparations for an extensive research project underway for the purpose of matching preserved bones to the early monarchs and bishops of the kingdom of Wessex, i.e, early Winchester. 

 To backtrack briefly here, one of the curators with whom I met, explained that when significant people died, their bodies were often left ‘open’ to natural decomposition.  Once the process finished and the bones were the only remains, they were cleaned and then placed in ‘small mortuary chests’.  Considering the non-existence of mortuary science as we know it today, such an approach was a very efficient means of preserving and honoring those who had passed. As to Winchester, this was the custom until Oliver Cromwell and his troops arrived.  As we know from history, Cromwell and his men were ruthless when it came to destroying England’s history.  Priceless artifacts were smashed, destroyed and scattered everywhere…the sacred bones of Wessex’s early leaders were no exception.  In an effort to save what could be saved, the bones were gathered up and basically ‘dumped’ into various chests with frankly, no idea who belonged to what.

 The goal of the current research project is to identify which bones belonged to which monarch and bishop; a formidable task but with the technology available today, perhaps not impossible.  In any case this brings me back to the subject of mortuary chests; discovering their existence and how they were used solves my ‘technical’ dilemma regarding the conflict between Rosamund’s original tomb placement and the outrage of Lincoln’s very pious Hugh of Avalon.  Stay tuned.

                                       

Photography©Gaye f. Mack, inc.


THE MYSTERIES OF OXFORD’S MEDIEVAL GODSTOW NUNNERY-AN IDEAL SETTING FOR “A WATCH OF NIGHTINGALES”

Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 2 Comments

A little over two miles northwest of Oxford, the tiny hamlet of Godstow  lies alongside the River Thames.  Bucolic in its landscape, Godstow remains noteworthy for two of its area landmarks, a medieval nunnery and The Trout (Inn, Pub) which 850 years ago(give or take), served as the nunnery’s 12th century hospice.   Sadly the years have not been kind to what was once an extremely wealthy nunnery, as the ruins are now scant.  Nevertheless, Godstow has held a fascination for me since the first time I walked its grounds nearly 35 years ago and why I’ve chosen it for the setting of my next historical mystery which is in the works, “A Watch of Nightingales.”

 One of the better known reasons for the nunnery’s high profile is that Godstow is where Henry II’s famous mistress, the fair Rosamund Clifford was buried upon her death in 1175(1174 or 1176 depending on which ‘authority’ one reads).  While some sources claim the fair Rosamund died of natural causes, there are myths pointing to Henry’s artfully scheming queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as Rosamund’s murderess…a charge which Eleanor consistently denied…vehemently.

 Leaving Henry, Eleanor and Rosamund aside for the moment, the remaining stones of Godstow surely protect many other secrets, sending the imagination into the realms of ‘what if’?  Scholars cite the existence of ‘outrageous lascivious and licentious behavior’ between the nuns, clerks and scholars of Oxford.  Given that Godstow was built on a marsh island across the river from the Trout, how did they get into town, as it were?  And what sort of intrigues were behind these nocturnal assignations, not to mention that Godstow’s meadow and ditches were and still are, abundant with Birthwort, an herb used in childbirth and…as an abortive.

 In 2006, The Oxford Times ran an article reporting that in 1944, children playing by the Godstow river bank discovered a stone coffin lodged under the tow path, its lid resting about six inches above water level.  Further inspection revealed bones of an adult female.  This coffin was the first of several that have ‘appeared’ over the years, which then disappear into the riverbed, divers unable to locate further evidence of their existence.

Several years ago I discovered a fascinating symbol carved in the remaining stones of Godstow.    Eerily similar to symbolism used by ancient and modern Druids, research efforts to discover its meaning and source over the years remain elusive. Disappointingly, it could very well be the work of 21st century graffiti artists or ritualists.  Nevertheless, I prefer to remain mystified…it makes for good plotting in an historical mystery

Photography©2012 Gaye F. Mack, Inc.