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  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > Guest Articles > Keith Nurse

Guest Author:
Keith NurseKeith Conrad Nurse

Keith Nurse was for many years the Daily Telegraph’s Arts Correspondent in Fleet Street, covering a range of subjects, including archaeology, theatre and heritage issues. He became a freelance in 1986 and later worked for Thames TV and Carlton Television. He is the author of Torments Ancient and Modern, which is an account of working-class life in Wales in the '40s and 50s, and of Footsteps to the Past, a family Footsteps to the Past, a book by Keith Nurse
history account set against the uniquely rich social and historical landscape of north-east Wales. Keith Nurse has also written articles about
Late Roman Coin Hoards and Wansdyke, 'A Famous thing..that reacheth farre in Lenght' and Wat's in a Name?

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Deeds most Ancient

Keith Nurse

Vortigern Studies

As a monument from the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, the early 9th century Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen, North Wales, is a rare survival. It is so because of its remarkable Latin inscription recording the names of key fifth century figures from early English and Welsh history. But the principal focus of the commemorative inscription is obscure and seemingly peripheral: the successes of a mid-8th century ruler (Eliseg/Elise) of the remote border Welsh kingdom of Powys in regaining territory from the English.

It is possible that the now weathered and indecipherable parts of the text originally included some form of self-glorification on the part of the monument’s royal dedicator and patron, Concenn (or Cyngen). He was the last native king of Powys. and died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 854. But whatever form the monument took, it looks as if it was essentially a public proclamation - an assertion of territorial and/or political control. And the inclusion of the name of Vortigern -Guarthi(girn] on the pillar must have been part of a broader ‘inheritance’ claim designed to consolidate, in the most public manner of the times, legitimacy of rule and land ownership; in other words, the ‘inheritance’ of a realm. But why was Vortigern – so maligned and demonised elsewhere - brought into the frame? This and other issues focusing on the descent claims are examined in exhaustive detail elsewhere on the Vortigern Studies site.[1]

Eliseg's Pillar - a monument that still dominates the land of a long inheritance. The position on top of a Bronze Age burial mound can clearly be seen in this side-view of the monument. Keith Nurse, May 2003.The Background

Eliseg’s Pillar, set up by Concenn in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg, records the ancestry of the royal house of Powys, though in a form that continues to be a subject of a challenging debate. The early history of Powys, and how this kingdom, adjoining the borderland with England, came into being is obscure. Eliseg’s Pillar, originally a bearing a Christian cross, was erected circa AD 800-825 on a distinctive prehistoric mound or barrow, originally covering a cist burial. Significantly, the site lies in an area rich in Bronze Age burials and finds, and graves of the sixth and seventh centuries AD, cut into earlier Bronze Age burials sites, are testified elsewhere in Wales. In this case, however, we are not looking at an intrusive grave, but a commemorative monument, and one that went beyond the normal recording of kinship.[2]

(Image, top:
Eliseg's Pillar - a monument that still dominates the land of a long inheritance. The position on top of a Bronze Age burial mound can clearly be seen in this side-view of the monument. Keith Nurse, May 2003)

The Pillar is arguably the most informative of all stone inscriptions of the period in Wales. There is an added bonus: it stands where it was initially set, centrally placed in a small steep sided river valley of outstanding natural beauty. And it is only when you leave the modern road and enter the field long occupied by the pillar that you can fully appreciate the scale of the monument. It was designed to dominate and command respect – it still does both.

Eliseg's Pillar - The Latin inscription recording the re-erection of the lower part of the shaft in 1779 can be seen in this side-view of the monument. Keith Nurse, May 2003.Beacon in the Dark

The term ‘the Dark Ages’ is generally frowned upon by modern scholars. This monument of course dates from the middle of the AD 400 – 1150 period. In this region, this is an era that has every reason to be called a Dark Age, such is the paucity of extant literary and other corroborative evidence for what was going on. Eliseg’s pillar is a beacon in the dark; at once a national treasure and a powerful symbol of early Welsh identity.

(Image, right:
Eliseg's Pillar - The Latin inscription recording the re-erection of the lower part of the shaft in 1779 can be seen in this side-view of the monument. Keith Nurse, May 2003)

It was clearly not the headstone of a grave, and is unlikely to have been the burial site of the man commemorated. It was probably something rather more than a memorial to a forbear; a demonstration, rather, of the great depth of the (perceived) rights of the royal house of Powys to this, the ‘land of their fathers’ – hence the attenuated claims in the lineage. Not surprising, this, for a kingdom, by then confined to moor and mountain – in effect, ‘boxed in’ by powerful neighbours, Welsh Gwynedd to the west and Mercian frontiersmen to the English east, whose king Offa (d. AD 792) constructed the great border marking dyke. If the Powysian elite had not felt so threatened it is unlikely they would been compelled to make such a bold statement of their ‘birthright’ claims. The presence of the famous Offan earthwork and its earlier dated near-neighbour, Wat’s Dyke, some six miles to the south of the Pillar and adjoining early 13th century founded Cistercian abbey, Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross, so named after the Pillar) are enduring reminders in the present landscape of the strength of the threatening land pressures that emanated from the east.

According to the inscription on the pillar, Eliseg, the king commemorated on the cross shaft, united the inheritance of Powys (hereditatem pouoist] from the English - (surprisingly for this time, referred to here as Anglo, rather than the more commonly known Welsh term of the time, Saeson - Saxon). It was, then, also about the possession, or rather, re-possession of land – the entitlement to a specific extent of territory.

Eliseg's Pillar - view to the North. Keith Nurse, May 2003.A Charter Set in Stone?

The question that now arises: was the 20ft high cross - as it stood in its original valley dominating form before its part destruction in the 17th century - a kind of early charter of rights one, quite literally, set in stone? Dr Nancy Edwards of Bangor University believes this may be so.[3]

(Image, right:
Eliseg's Pillar - view to the North. Keith Nurse, May 2003)

The end of the inscription records the role of the sculptural ‘scribe’ - here, one, Conmarch - PINXIT HOC CHIROGRAFIUM. Dr Edwards translates this as Conmarch ‘inscribed (lit. painted) this charter/deed (lit writing) at the command of Concenn). Finally, there is the powerful Christian plea for a blessing on ‘Cyngen, his family and land of Powys until the Day of Judgment.’

The key word is Chirografium/chirographium, translated by separate scholars, as a ‘copy’ or ‘artefact written by hand.’ Dr Edwards considers it was used in the sense of a ‘deed’ or ‘charter’. The term, she says, was widely used in early medieval Europe and that it may be arguable, in this context, a reference to land holding, though in a political rather than a proprietary sense.

Dr Edwards adds: ‘Therefore the pillar seems to have been set up as a record of continuing political ownership on the land regained. Its likely prominent location on a barrow [image, top] may simply have been to emphasise this, but it might also be seen as a symbolical link further back into the prehistoric past’.

Given these latest arguments about the ‘charter’ nature of the inscription, could it be that the references to Vortigern, the Imperial usurper Magnus Maximus, who made himself emperor of Spain, Gaul and Britain between AD 383-388 (and who is known as Macsen Wledig in Welsh legend) and the latter’s daughter Sevira (the Pillar is the only source that mentions her and depicts her as Vortigern’s original wife) were part of the same broader purpose: the seeking of legitimacy of rule to consolidate claims of territorial control – ‘reaching back’ claims that, in this case, went back much further than the 4th/5th centuries.

Christian Blessing

So it is possible that it was also a proclamation seeking a higher authority by the invoking of a Christian blessing; more than that, perhaps, a dual-purpose blessing designed to neutralise the pagan influences inspired by the ancient barrow, set as it was in a location that must have been considered to be a sacred area. It would have been a means, too, whereby the Powysian ruling elite sought, through a piece of high profile symbolism, to incorporate the past into their present, with all the legitimacy of rights that went with that passed down, or assumed authority.

It is interesting to note here that the inscription of the Pillar invites the reader to read the text aloud – [QUIC] OU UMOVEQ RECIT(A)VERT MANESCRIPT.[4]

Broader and similar patterns relating to the charter/deed argument may be dimly observed. The inscriptions on some of the Welsh cross-slab stones are considered to recall phrases used in charters and manuscript books. Instances cited by the Museum of Wales scholar, Mark Redknap include those incorporated on stones from Merthyr Mawr and Ogmore, Glamorgan, South Wales. Other cross slabs in territory to the North East, at Dyserth and Whitford, Flintshire, are believed to have been boundary markers, signifying land in church ownership.

Eliseg's Pillar - view of the shaft face that bore the original 9th century Latin inscription. Keith Nurse, May 2003.Mercian shaft-pillar - Roman origin?

Another issue arises here, one that almost confuses the central thrust of the argument. The style and ‘round shaft’ form of Eliseg’s Pillar is almost certainly of English (Mercian – the early medieval kingdom of the Midlands) inspiration if not the product of a Mercian sculptural ‘workshop’ located somewhere in present-day Cheshire or Staffordshire. Round-shaft pillars of similar form, with a roll moulding looping across each face but uninscribed, are to be found elsewhere in what was northern Mercian territory - at Macclesfield, east Cheshire, where they were originally in a forest setting, possibly as boundary markers.[5]

(Image, right:
Eliseg's Pillar - view of the shaft face that bore the original 9th century Latin inscription. Keith Nurse, May 2003)

Many such round–shaft pillars may have been re-used Roman columns and this, Dr Nancy Edwards believes, is a likely explanation for the origin of Eliseg’s Pillar. The nearest source of crafted Roman stonework would have been the former Roman 20th Legion base at Chester (Deva) or to the south east, the Roman town of Wroxeter. Speculation has been centred on whether or not Wroxeter (Viroconium) in its remarkable post-Roman phase could conceivably have been a base for Vortigern. This argument has been well aired but has never been considered anything more than speculation.[6]

Both centres possessed an abundance of columns and other remains of major ‘pubic works’ and focal points of post-Roman activity – and both locations seem to have been incorporated in some way within the early territorial control of Powys, in its earlier, emergent days. This was disputed borderland that was ultimately seceded to, or seized, by burgeoning and expansionist (pre-Offan) Mercia, in the mid-seventh century.

But the pillar also offers key linguistic evidence reflecting the development of Welsh from its original British/Brittonic roots at a time when the often fantastical saga involving Vortigern was circulating widely in the Celtic world. The distinguished scholar, the late Sir Ifor Williams, considered that (apart from those in Latin) the names of all the rulers on the monument are all in their Welsh form. One of these is one Brohcmail, ‘son of Eliseg’ - the name set out in the same form as that recorded by the great English historian, the Venerable Bede. But it seems as if we are looking at two separate individuals – one named after a celebrated forebear – connected with the same royal lineage; either that, or the line has become garbled in some way.

Bede’s Brohcmail reference occurs in his highly charged account of the Battle of Chester of AD 613/616 (Historia Ecclesiastica, [11.2], when the Northumbrians inflicted a major defeat on the Welsh warriors, most of whom were from Powys. But As Bede recorded with un-Christian relish, the Northumbrians of the pagan king Aethelfrith (r. AD 592-616) also massacred some 1,200 monks from the British monastery at nearby Bangor-on-Dee, who were under the protection of Brochmail. Whatever his wider anti-British Church motives, Bede must have been drawing on contemporary or near-contemporary Welsh documents for such accurately transcribed name references.[7]

The political context in which the Eliseg monument was erected is significant, and it also fits in with the linguistic evidence. In the wake of the land re-possession successes of his great-grandfather, Concenn (Cyngen) and patron of the pillar, probably ruled territory to the east of the great dyke erected by the all powerful Offa, when Mercian power had declined in the 9th century. What we are perhaps seeing here is something of a microcosm of the to-and-fro nature of highlands and lowlands borderland friction, tension that found its expression in border raids, sometimes in open warfare and, importantly in this context, land seizure. Land and its possession would have always been at the heart of it, and the presence of the two earthworks, that of Offa and Wat’s Dyke – both designed to protect the productive pastures that lie just below the foothills of Wales – offer powerful evidence of that fact.

Yet, whether enemies or uneasy allies, Powys and Mercia were for some generations locked in an ambiguous relationship of rivalry and co-partnership based of mutual, cross-boundary need. The presence in Powys of a Mercian style or style cross, as in the case of Eliseg’s Pillar, in Powys should thus come as no surprise. And what is not always appreciated is that early western Mercia would have had a large British and/or proto-Welsh) speaking population, paying food renders and homage to a largely English-speaking elite.

One of its powerful early leaders was one Penda (d. AD 655) – a formidable pagan warrior probably of mixed race (Pen - Welsh for head). Penda entered into military alliances with the Welsh to his West against the Anglian Northumbrian intruders from north-east England – where, two generations or so later, the Venerable Bede flourished.

But the most relevant argument in this context is the re-use of a Bronze Age burial mound as a boundary or territory marker – and the broader pattern, if it can be so determined, that it represents. Eliseg’s Pillar lies in the shadow of craggy, limestone rock uplands dotted with Bronze Age remains. They include burial mounds and settlement sites and isolated finds. To the south of Eliseg Pillar, stands the hilltop fortress ruin of Dinas Bran crowning a dominant conical hill, and this site, which towers 750 feet above the Vale of Llangollen, was occupied in the Bronze Age and has yielded axe heads from the period.

Dinas Bran was later an Iron Age hill fort and then the site of a 13th century medieval castle power base for the Welsh princes of northern Powys (Powys Fadog). It was one of the latter, who founded the Cistercian monastic settlement of Valle Crucis Abbey, a few hundred yards to the east of the Eliseg monument. So in every sense, Eliseg’s Pillar and its prehistoric barrow base, the medieval abbey and the Dinas Bran hilltop fortress represent a form of continuity, as remarkable as any that might be encountered in the British Isles.

Eliseg's Pillar - view to the South - part of territory re-claimed? Keith Nurse, May 2003.As for the pillar itself, we are perhaps looking at a symbol of a deep sense of belonging and possession, offering links - whether real, assumed or contrived - with such figures as Vortigern, the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and, we might legitimately assume, the much more distant and anonymous figures from prehistory. The famed Welsh passion for genealogical lore, whereby the traditional lineage of their rulers in post-Roman times has been preserved for posterity, is a phenomenon seen elsewhere in the Principality. But here it has a broader meaning and a practical intent. That such genealogical connections and territorial claims could be made in this way – and were made – adds another dimension to our understanding of this deeply complicated past.

(Image, right:
Eliseg's Pillar - view to the South - part of territory re-claimed?. Keith Nurse, May 2003)


[1] Vermaat, Robert, 2002: Vortigern Studies – The Pillar of Eliseg and The text of the Pillar of Eliseg, at: http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/pillar.htm and http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/pillartex.htm
[2] Knight, Jeremy K. (revised 1995): The Pillar of Eliseg in Valle Crucis Abbey, CADW, Welsh Historic Monuments, pp. 50-52.
[3] Edwards, Dr Nancy, (2002): Eliseg’s Pillar and Other Stone Crosses in Wales – address to Friends of Valle Crucis, Llangollen, October 2002. The Llangollen-based Friends organisation is a volunteer body set up in May 2000 to undertake further research and help protect the abbey, which is in the care of CADW.
[4] Redknap, Mark (1991): The Christian Celts, Treasures of Late Celtic Wales, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, p. 60
[5] Bu’lock, J.D. (1972): Pre-Conquest Cheshire 383-1066, Cheshire Community Council, Watergate House, Watergate Street, Chester. P 84.
[6] Gelling, Margaret (1992): The West Midlands in the Early Middle Ages, p.25, Leicester University Press.
[7] Williams, Sir Ifor (1980): ‘When Did British Become Welsh? – in: The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry, studies by Sir Ifor Williams, edited by Rachel Bromwich, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, p 11. Sir Ifor argued that ‘Welsh had ‘arrived pretty definitely by 800…. Corroboration is provided by the Welsh extracts and glosses in an Oxford manuscript in the Bodleian written in A.D. 820 as well as by the Welsh form of all the royal names on the Pillar of Eliseddd, near Llangollen, set up probably about 810-820…we may say that that the British inflexions had been shed a century earlier, to say the least.’ For discussion of the use of Welsh names by Bede, including Brohcmail, p. 15.

Deeds most Ancient is Copyright 2003, Keith Nurse. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Comments to: Keith Nurse

VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2008. All rights reserved