Monday, 29 July 2013

The Equites Singulares Augusti and the Roman X Catacombs.

I recently  wrote a small Facebook blog about the Roman monument, Trajans Column, which commemorates the Emperor Trajan's victory in the  Dacian Wars.

I have subsequently learnt that seven of the blocks that circle the column feature a group of elite soldiers known as the Equites singulares Augusti or Personal Cavalry of the Roman Emperor. These men were a group of young, handpicked, foreign soldiers from Spain, North Africa and Europe who knew that the rewards for the protection the Emperor of Rome, both at home and abroad, would be "a ticket to great wealth and high status". For over two hundred years, from the first to the third century, they did not fail in their duty.

Milvian Bridge in over the River Tiber

In 312 AD a civil war began between the forces of Emperor Maxentius who held Rome and Emperor Constantine causing the men of the Equites Singulares Augusti  to make a choice of whom to support....they chose Maxentius. The two opposing sides met when Constantine troops arrived at the Milvian bridge that crosses into Rome. During the battle Maxentius drowned in the Tiber and the victorious Constantine became emperor of Rome for thirty one years.  Constantine disbanded the Equites singulares Augusti  and the bodies of those who were killed at the Battle of Milvian Bridge were quickly buried and their story faded into time.

Roman Catacombs

The battle of Milvian Bridge is just one event that fits into Rome’s long history which covers over two and a half thousand years. The city is still referred to as the Eternal City with a population of over 2.8 million people, one of its many attractions is the ancient underground catacombs of which there are over thirty. In 2003, due to flooding, a totally new section, separated by a beautiful mural, was discovered. This new section, named the Roman X Catacombs, contained thousands of neatly buried bodies in over seven separate units over three levels. All of the bodies were buried on top of one another and new bodies were laid on top of the decomposing remains of the previous burial, some were found in groups and it is thought that they had died on mass suggesting that the cause of death was from an epidemic disease. What the archaeologists also found were what looked like a particular group of high status individuals, men and women of Spanish, African and European origins whose deaths may have been due to a pandemic. However these remains were wrapped in tight shrouds, some with expensive jewelry and other wearing clothing containing fine strands of gold and silver threads which lead them to consider a different scenario the answer to which is yet unknown.

What is known that men of the Equites singulares Augusti wore jackets with expensive gold and silver thread woven into the fabric and that they were buried with their wives and servants. Historian Dr Michael Scott of Warwick University, in his programme “The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb” puts forward a theory that one 'high status' group of remains found in 2003, bricked up with the others behind a mural are that of the Equites singular Augusti and it is their ancient cemetery that the later catacombs are built upon.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sir Ralph de Blancminster of Bien Amie

This ballad, by the Reverend Stephen Hawker, was published in 1867, and is the story of a crusading knight known as Ralph de Blanchminster of the manor Bien Amie in the county of Cornwall. Ralph, whose tale in the ballad, is not fictitious but based on the true story of Reginald Blanchminster a devoted husband and father, abandoned for another man by Isabel his adulterous wife.

I am adding, along with Hawkers ballad, a small excerpt from the first draft of my "Blanchminster of Binamy" the story of my medieval maternal ancestors who were prominent in England from 1086  to 1289. Ralph was in fact Reginald who was the Blanchminster heir and born around the middle of the thirteenth century. Reginald Blanchminster was the brother of my 20th great grandmother who both have a very very special place in my heart.

".........In Hawkers ballad we see the fictitious Bertha as a young woman who was already resolved of the fact that her husband will not return to Binamie with his life, she states “Time trieth troth” or“time tests faith”  She goes on to give Reginald a time frame and a ultimatum stating “three years let the severing seas divide” and  “a warrior must rest in Bertha's bed”. Satisfied with the words from a loving wife he cries a sad farewell to his turreted castle and riding into the distance shouts "Thou too farewell my chosen bride" Hawker then goes onto suggest  in the verse “The Treachery” that Bertha had not kept her side of the bargain.  In a wilful betrayal of fidelity Bertha becomes an adulterous wife fleeing Ralph’s manor of Binamie on the call of one Sir Rupert!  The Cornish messenger tells the dying Ralph of three dark omens in a kindly effort to break the new of Bertha's betrayal but the astute Ralph asks “Say on the woe thy looks betide” to which the poor page has to reply “Master, the Lady Bertha s fled the hall." 

Reginald’s wife in Hawkers ballad is named Bertha in fact she was Isabel, a woman who we know little about.  At this point Reginald had been married only a few years and between 1262 and 1265 Isabel had given Reginald a son who they named Ralph. During the next five years Reginald became increasingly unhappy and his family think that this was  due to the discontent he felt on having heard of the decision of the young prince Edward and Edmund of Cornwall leaving on a crusade to the Holy Land, but we now know is that this could not be further from the truth.  At prayer and his frequent times spent alone he struggled with his conscience, asking himself whether he should he remain at his Cornish manor or if he should  take up the cross himself. Ralph’s decision to journey to the Holy Land would have been seen by people around him as either his duty or religious sentiment. Of course both of these would have undoubtedly influenced him as it had done large masses of people who enthusiastically set out for the east to meet the Muslims in battle. Finally with his mind made up Reginald set forth in 1270 to join Prince Edward and the Earl of Cornwall on crusade. 

Islam had spread as far as France by 732 and by 1095 the Saracens had refused to allow the Christians to continue their pilgrimages to the Holy City. The Christian world  considered this as an act of aggression, so it was inevitable that warfare between the civilisation of Christianity and Islam followed. Having left Isabel and Ralph behind Reginald probably arrived in Palestine shortly after Prince Edward and joined others to relieve the Christian forces in Acre, but by the time they had arrived in Tunis he found the French king had signed a peace treaty just before his death and Edward's crusading army was forced to return to Sicily to wait the arrival of the forces of the French kings successor Phillip III.  Phillip never arrived and Edward and his troops continued to Acre alone finally landing at on the 9th May 1271. Jerusalem had fallen in 1244 and Acre was now the centre of the Christianity. Reginald and his fellow crusaders, although they were an important addition to the garrison at Acre,  stood little chance against the Muslim superior forces and they would have soon realised  that their position was increasingly desperate, by the middle of  1272 they had seen the Cypriot army join  forces against them. Reginald was either killed outright in one of the many battles with Muslim forces but as the aforementioned Hawker suggests he was fatally wounded. Before we go on to reveal the real reason of Sir Reginald Blanchminster’s sad death in Syria we must read the Reverend Hawker’s  ballad entitled Sir Ralph de Blancminster of Bien Amie......."

The Vow

Hush! Tis a tale of elder time

Caught from an old barbaric rhyme
How the fierce Sir Ralph, of the haughty hand
Harnessed him for our Savious land.
“Time trieth troth” the lady said
“And a warrior must rest in Berthas bed.
Three year let the severing seas divide,
And strike thou for Christ and they trusting bride”
So he buckled on the beamy blade
That Gaspar of Spanish Leon made
Whose hilted cross is the awful sigh
It must burn or the Lord and his tarnished shrine.

The Adieu

Now a long farewell tall Stratton Tower
Dark Bude, thy fatal sea
And God thee speed in hall and bower
My manor of Bien amie.
“Thou, too, farewell my chosen bride,
Thou Rose of Rou-tor land
Though all on earth were false beside
I trust thy plighted hand.
“Dark seas amy swlll, and temests lower,
And surging bellows foam,
The cresset of they bridal bower
Shall guide the wander home.
“On! For the cross in Jesu’s land,
When Syrian armies flee;
One thought hall thrill my lifted hand,
I strike for God and thee”

The Battle
Hark! How the brattling trumpets blare,
Lo! The red banner flaunt the air,
And see, his good sword girded on
The stern Sir Ralph to the wars has gone.
Hurrah! For the Syrian dastards flee
Charge! Charge! Ye Western chivalry
Sweet is the strife for God’s renown,
The Cross is up and the Crescent down.
The weary seeks his tent
For good Sir Ralph is pale and spent
Five wounds he reaped in the field of fame
Five in his blessed masters name.
The solemn Leech looks sad and grim
As he binds and sooths each gory limb
And the solemn Priest must chant and prey.
Lest the soul un-houseled pass away.

The Treachery

A sound of horse hoofs on the sand
And lo! A page from Cornish lands
“Tidings,” he said as he bent the knee
“Tidings, my lord, from Bien amie”
“The owl shrieked thrice from the warder’s tower
The crown-rose wither in her bower
Thy good grey foal, at event fed,
Lay in the sunrise stark and dead”
“Dark omens three!” the sick man cried
“Say on the woe thy looks betide”
“Master! At bold Sir Rupert’s call,
Thy lady Bertha fled the hall

The Scroll

Bring me,” he said “that scribe of fame,
Symeon el Siddekah his name
With parchment skin, and pen in hand
I would devise my Cornish land.

“Seven goodly manors, fair and wide,
Stretch from the sea to Tamar side,
And Bien amie, my hall and tower,
Nestles beneath tall Stratton Tower
“All these I render to my God,
By seal and signe, knife and sod
I give and grant to Church and poor
In franc-almoign for evermore
“Choose ye seven men among the just,
And bid them hold my lands in truse:
On Micheal’s morn, and Mary’s Day,
To deal the dole, and watch and pray.
“Then bear me coldly o’er the deep,
Mid my own people I would sleep
Their hearts shall melt, their prayers will breathe,
Where he who loved them rests beneath.
“Mould me in stone as here I lie,
My face upturned to Syria’s sky
Carve ye this good sword at my side
And write the legend, “True and tried”
“Let mass be said, and requiem sung;
And that sweet chime I loved be rung,
The sounds along the northern wall,
Shall thrill me like a trumpet call”
Thus said he, and the set of sun
The bold Crusader’s race was run.
Seek ye his ruined hall and tower
Then stand beneath tall Stratton Tower

The Mort Main

Now the Demon had watched for the warrior’s soul
Mid the din of war where blood streams roll
He had waited long on the dabbled sands,
Ere the Priest had cleansed the gory hand
Then as he heard the stately dole,
Wherewith Sir Ralph had soothed his soul
The unclean sprit turned away,
With a baffled glare of grim dismay.
But when he caught those words of trust,
That sevenfold choice among the just,
“Ho! Ho! Cried the fiend with a mock at heaven
“I have lost but one, I shall win my seven.”

Hawkers ballad is of the sentimental kind very popular in the late 19th century he has romanticised the tale of a hero knight and his young wife fleeing to the arms of her waiting lover, in fact Hawker was not too far from the truth. The Sir Rupert in the ballad was indeed one John Allet. 

According to an entry for him in the Cornish Fleet of Fines it is stated 

Ralph Blanchminster * She was the widow of Sir Reginald Blanchminster, and her marriage with John de Aleth had been secretly performed. ...

and in a manuscript dated 1284 it states 
John Allet in Kenwyn and Isabella his wife hold the Isle of Scilly and hold there all kinds of pleas of the Crown throughout their jurisdiction and make indictments of felonies.

The aforementioned  *  entry of Reginald’s fathers death in the Episcopal Register of Exeter we find the entry of the death of Reginald and along side it, probably written at the same time, is an entry regarding Isabel Blanchminster. The purpose of this entry regarding Reginald’s widow in this register is to record the sentence of excommunication pronounced against her for her adultery with Allett. We can assume that Isabel began an affair with Sir John Allet soon after the birth of Ralph and this was the real reason that induced Reginald to take up the cross. How poor Reginald came to know of this infidelity is not known, betrayed and rejected his journey to the Holy Land must have been a sorrowful one. Away on crusade and supposing him dead Isabel and Allet married in secret. The effect all this had on their son is not known but the news of this adulteress marriage and excommunication must have been a major scandal at the time. The Allets must have been keen to stay on good terms with Reginald’s sister Margery, We know that the two families were still in contact by 1290 as John Allet witnessed a gift of land on the 9th June. After this date both Isabel and Allett fade into obscurity.