I recently visited St Matthew’s Church in the company of the mighty Wychwood Warriors, all praise to them. We saw a number of interesting ancient sites in the Cotswolds to the west of Oxford but this was the stand-out from an Anglo-Saxon viewpoint. The most obvious feature of interest is the socking great stone tower dating from the 11th century, built by Anglo-Saxon masons even though they may post-date the Norman Conquest.
The porch includes two Anglo-Saxon stone rood reliefs, but they are repositioned and their original sites are not known. The one on the east wall of the porch is 8th century and has lost its head. The one on the south gable of the porch is 10th century and has been assembled with Christ’s left and right arms swapped over and the figures of Saint Mary and Saint John the Evangelist also transposed. (source: Wikipedia article linked above).
There is further speculation that the carvings were re-used, perhaps from an earlier church on this site, and that ignorant masons got various bits the wrong way round.
We also found two delightful sets of paintings of saints depicted against Oxford scenery. My favourite was of course St Frideswide herself. Sadly I have found no information about these paintings, but they look Arts and Craftsy to me?
The mantle is one of the most characteristic and yet mysterious of early mediaeval garments, one that seems to be a woman’s garment. You can read the beginning of my adventures with the mantle in earlier posts:
We have no archaeological evidence for the mantle, only literary references and manuscript illustrations such as the picture below showing Saint Æthelthryth.
I’ve now completed two versions of the mantle – one for every day, and one for high days and holidays.
The plain mantle
My plain mantle is a semicircle of grey wool, hemmed around the curved edge, and using the selvedge of the fabric along the straight edge. This is the same shape as an ecclesiastical cope.
The wool is a little scratchy and I very naughtily sewed a strip of nice smooth linen along the inside of the cloak where it touches my neck. A real nun would leave the wool plain and accept the discomfort. Honest.
The mantle in illustrations shows no opening, and for this version I sewed the front closed up to about my breastbone, so you put it on over your head. It’s a warm and comfortable garment, very cosy if you are working from home and it’s a bit chilly; it keeps one’s body and legs warm, and you can easily put your hands up under the front hem and I think this gives an appearance in keeping with the manuscript illustrations. The straight edge can be folded over to make a collar and it keeps the back of my neck warm.
Would an artist have drawn the seam down the front? Or would they have just drawn the overall shape, as we see it in illuminations?
For any serious labour, you would want more freedom of movement and I think that’s where the scapular (a tabard-shaped apron) would come into its own both for warmth and to protect your main garments from dirt.
The fancy mantle
I wove a decorative band to go round the neck of my fancy blue wool mantle which Abbess Cyneswithe will wear when there are posh visitors to Rumwoldstow, such as Bishop Godfrid (whether or not he is having an ascetic moment). The design for the tablet weaving is inspired by brocaded tablet-woven edges to the vestments of St Cuthbert (Durham textiles) and embroideries on the Llangorse Fragment, woven in a technique known from Laceby, Lincs and also one of the Durham textiles. Birds, clumsy lions and plants seem to have been familiar high-status motifs.
The band is woven in find wool, which I moistened and ironed to help ease it around the curve.
My blue mantle is a full circle and is open-fronted. I found that a light, ansate brooch is entirely adequate to close it – there is less weight on the pin than there would be with a heavy rectangular cloak. The front edges naturally overlap and are really very stable. And again, the opening is not, I think, very obvious.
This garment is even more snuggly than the plain mantle, being a soft, lightweight wool.
Both the plain and fancy mantles are high status garments as they are made by cutting away fabric and discarding it, to create a half or full circle.
The mantle is often reconstructed as a poncho with rounded corners, but the poncho design (a flat fabric with a hole cut in the middle) doesn’t seem to relate to cloaks from around this time, whereas the semi-circular cloak is known from finds such as Leksand and lived on in the ecclesiastical cope. The poncho could be regarded as a wider scapula with curved edges – it’s a totally valid interpretation – but I went with the half- and full-circles to see what they’d be like.
The circle has the advantage that you don’t have to put it on over your head. The half circle uses less fabric and keeps your neck warmer, also you don’t need a clasp. Both are good, warm, practical garments and I think fit the iconography well enough.
OMG it’s the end of the first quarter of 923, the equinox is past and here I am writing just after the Feast Day of that most learned and well-travelled princess Saint Hildelith, abbess of Barking. The black hellebore or “Christmas rose” is flowering in fine style. This is a plant of complex character, a winter flower bringing hope of spring, a medicine and a poison. I read that:
Treating intestinal worms lasted into the 18th century. The only drawback was that the patient might end up being killed together with the worms.
This comes as a surprise to me; I deliberately avoided planting what I knew to be toxic plants such as foxglove and aconite in the Rumwoldstow garden, but hellebore passed me by, partly because the hellebore is such a garden staple. So, erm, whoops! It is out of place in the food-and-flowers garden, and belongs in a medicinal garden with health warnings. It reinforces the message that you should be awfully cautious of eating random plants from the garden…
Moving swiftly on, here are some snaps of the light snowfall we had earlier in March, as viewed on a walk through Rumwoldstow to the end of the orchard and back.
An orchard in February doesn’t look like much, but there are promises of spring appearing – snowdrops, catkins, and swelling buds on the trees. High time to prune those apple and pear trees!
Our first task was to prune the older tree, which we’ve been gradually reshaping to a proper ‘tree’ shape (it had grown very siiiiiiideways due to the light from the south being blocked). We went at it somewhat cautiously, pruning a bit at the ends, and removing branches that crossed each other, or went too much straight up.
The variety is unknown but it produces nice eating apples.
The Hambledon Deux Ans got a bit of a trim, as did the Wyken Pippin. This latter is such a sturdy tree now, and has kind of gone sideways, so Al removed the protective frame around it. We’ve kind of decided to keep livestock out of the orchard now, as it’s clear that the fruit will always be low enough to be munched even by sheep. And the frame was very rickety. But it may be reused later.
Candlemas has been and gone, marking the beginning of the end of winter, and the first signs of spring as the days lengthen. Indeed the name of the coming Christian period of fasting, Lent, derives from the Old English ‘lencten’ meaning ‘lengthen’.1 Although rats ate most of the good eating apples in the apple store – and this would be a disaster in a farming community, and we’ll have to rat-proof the store for next year – the Bramley apples proved less tempting and although there were some depredations, most were left for our use. Their keeping properties were mixed, with some surviving well and others decaying. By January they were mostly showing their age with brown fibres appearing in the flesh. On the 29th January 2023 we brought the remaining apples in to the kitchen.
Over the last week I’ve worked through them, and about one in three has eatable flesh now. If I’d been more organised I could have stewed and bottled or frozen vast amounts of good apple, but I just didn’t have the time and energy. I started eating the Bramley apples in August of 2022, as they were sharp but OK cooked, and they made excellent jelly then as they contain more pectin while unripe. So the tree has kept me in apples for about six months.
The trees now need pruning, and I have of course no idea what kind of harvest we will get this year, but I hope for a few more of the new apples, and that I’ll manage to look after the fruits better.
January of 923 included a week or so of really cold weather – almost unknown in these later years – following on from some weeks of flooding. Thus a layer of ice formed on Lake Meadow, and as the water level fell it was left lying on the meadow.
You can see that the cold weather was protracted by the row of ice circles removed from the bird bath, one per day!
The ice was several centimetres thick and you could walk on it; it was like walking on a glass surface suspended over the grass. Sadly not safe for skating, I think, because in so many places the ice had broken and refrozen leaving holes and jagged edges.
Now, a week later, the ice is gone and there are catkins on the hazel trees.
On the 13th January, the nuns of Rumwoldstow celebrate the Feast of St Eadwald of Rumwoldstow, that local priest who received St Rumwold after his baptism. And on this day in 923, the local silversmith presented Abbess Cyneswithe with a fine silver pendant cross in commemoration. Its style is notably old fashioned, but then we are an unreformed house, honouring that early saint, Rumwold, and seeking to refound a house based on those early Christian principles.
The Rumwoldstow Cross is essentially a Cuthbert cross, in a plain style inspired by a silvered bronze cross held found at St Hild’s abbey in Whitby, and now held by the British Museum.
Photos of the Whitby cross copyright Alister Perrott.
The Whitby cross is entirely plain, and forms almost a complete circle.
The Winfarthing cross, found in 2015, is gobsmackingly fancy but is a complete circle. It dates to around 660 C.E. and forms part of a collection of jewellery buried with a woman thought to be one of the very earliest Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity – and fortunately for us, buried with grave goods, as soon ceased to be the custom in England.
The picture above shows the cross after conservation. From earlier photographs you can see that the base is a plain shape very similar to that of the Rumwoldstow cross, but it has been embellished with indented gold wire and a gold boss.
So our silver cross at Rumwoldstow derives from two early Anglo-Saxon finds, both Cuthbert crosses, one plain, and one a complete circle. And we thank Alf Silversmith for his gift with all joy.
Last year for the first time we got a couple of apples from the young Hambledon Deux-ans apple tree, planted nearly five years ago now. It was the tree that was most munched by enthusiastic young cows in its first year and I’m honestly chuffed that it’s alive at all. I put the apples in the dining room and kept meaning to move them somewhere cooler but never got round to it, and finally decided to just eat them!
All things considered, I think the apple didn’t do too badly; more than half of it was eatable, though very tart. I can see why it’s described as a cooker. Fingers crossed the tree will do better this year, though with the hazards of drought and late frost, it’s an absolute unknown quantity.
Our good friend the Bogwitch made a reappearance over the midwinter festival and despite her incomprehensible ramblings in some strange language, she bore a gift! A yew tree, without which indeed no chapel or church is complete, and it has absolutely no pagan significance whatsoever. It’s on the small side and it’ll probably continue to live in a pot, as we don’t want it to be out in the orchard where livestock might nibble it. Yew is toxic, leaf berry and wood, so don’t mess with it.
Ah, I haven’t introduced you to the Bogwitch. Well, that’s something to look forward to! She’s….a bit of a character.
Anyway, yes, here’s a lovely tree. It needs a bit more soil in the pot, if it only stops raining for long enough I’ll get out there and fix it up.
I awoke before dawn (not so hard in early January) and was lured outside by the shimmer of moonlight on water…Lake Meadow is flooded good and proper, and looked very pretty.
As it was about 6am the moon, though full, wasn’t very high in the sky. But still, you get the idea, and it was well worth getting out of bed for. And I’m impressed that the camera on my phone managed to make any sense of the scene!