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On Tour with the Normans: Four Unmissable Sites in Sicily

Having finally submitted my thesis on Norman ethnic identity, I decided to celebrate by taking a holiday. And what better place for a young Norman historian to visit than Sicily?! It’s somewhere that combines exciting historical sites with the sun and warmth that seemed to bypass Devon this summer… Plus, as a newly-trained Norman expert, I was excited to follow in their footsteps and see some of the famous locations that I had read so much about. I confess that my itinerary (and thus this blog) was heavily biased towards Siculo-Norman history, though some of these sites may also whet the appetites of scholars interested in the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims and Swabians. In the interests of space, however, I will keep to what I consider the top four sites in Sicily for Norman historians and enthusiasts.

1. Palermo

Mosaic 1
Mosaic of Roger II being crowned by Christ in the Martorana

My first choice is the capital city Palermo, partly for its sites, but also for its archives. I spent a morning in the Biblioteca centrale della Regione siciliana looking at one of the few surviving manuscripts containing Geoffrey Malaterra’s history of the Normans. Admittedly, this qualified more as work than holiday – but it was too good a chance to miss. The fragmentary manuscript, containing only the first book of the text, is notably small, measuring approximately 7 inches tall and 5 inches across, and I was thankful to be lent a magnifying glass, an essential piece of kit I had foolishly forgotten. When the library closed at one o’clock, I was forced both to relinquish the manuscript and to see what else Palermo had to offer. One of the main sites is Palermo Cathedral, which houses the tombs of various kings and emperors, including the second Norman ruler, King Roger II. A short walk away one can find the Martorana, a co-cathedral dedicated to Saint Mary, founded and built by George of Antioch, who was an advisor to Roger II in the 1140s. The Martorana contains some of the most impressive Greek-style mosaics of the period, perhaps the most famous of which is a portrait of Roger II being crowned by Christ. However, these mosaics are rivalled by those in the Palazzo dei Normanni, the seat of power of the Norman kings and home of one of the oldest European parliaments. The Palatine Chapel and ‘Roger Hall’ of the palace boast mosaics from the 1130s, 1140s, and later, depicting biblical and secular hunting scenes, and are just as breathtaking. Both sites clearly reflect the multicultural society in Sicily during the years of Norman rule.

Mosaic 2
The mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in the Palazzo dei Normanni

2. Caccamo

Caccamo
Caccamo Castle

To the east of Palermo one can find the castle of Caccamo, a spectacular example of a Norman fortification, which was built by Matthew Bonnellus in the twelfth century. Although originally a Norman site, it has been extended over the centuries and I was particularly struck by some of its later early modern features, particularly a devious sixteenth-century addition to a private chapel. Unwanted guests praying in the chapel could fall victim to a secret trapdoor leading to a pit 35 metres deep. As if this were not enough, at the bottom upright swords were supposed to finish the victim off! This is something that might appeal to those family members or friends less enthralled by the Normans, especially those who enjoy the gory thrills of Game of Thrones.

3. Enna

Enna
The Norman Keep of the Castello di Lombardia in Enna

The ancient city of Enna rises 931 metres above sea level. Known as Castrogiovanni during the medieval period, it was renamed around 1927 on the orders of Mussolini to reflect its ancient name. My main point of interest here was the Castello di Lombardia, a fortification situated at the east of the city. Once an important Byzantine stronghold, its foundations are the oldest elements of the castle, some of which were repurposed for the thirteenth-century walls constructed under the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Sicily, Frederick II. The fortification was no doubt daunting even in the Byzantine period and Muslim forces are believed to have resorted to crawling through the sewers to gain entry when they captured the castle in 859. Centuries later Enna played a decisive role in the Norman conquest of Sicily under Roger and Robert Hauteville. According to Geoffrey Malaterra the Normans defeated a vastly superior Muslim force on the banks of the river Dittaino in the summer of 1061, forcing them to retreat to Enna. It was, however, to take over twenty years, the building of another fortification nearby at Calascibetta, and a cunning ambush before Roger wrested Enna from Muslim control, a testament, no doubt, to the strength of the castle. Nevertheless, the Normans left their mark in the form of the keep, which still dominates the landscape today.

4. Erice

My final recommendation is the the town of Erice, which overlooks the city of Trapani at 750 metres above sea level. Here I made straight for the Castle of Venus, a Norman fortification built upon an ancient temple to a goddess of fertility, which was later appropriated for Venus by the Romans. The surviving ruins date back to the twelfth century but archaeological excavations in the 1930s discovered traces of the ancient building – legend even attributes the oldest section of the wall to the mythical Daedalus. Roger Hauteville is also credited with founding the nearby Chiesa di San Giuliano in 1076, one of the first churches built in Erice, though the surviving building dates from the seventeenth-century.

Erice
The Castle of Venus in Erice

Sicily boasts a great wealth of incredible sites and monuments to history but during my visit I was struck by a notable disparity between certain sites. While the most popular destinations thrive on the tourism industry others are neglected, with crumbling walls and severely vandalised noticeboards pointing to a woeful lack of funds. Such issues have not gone unnoticed in Italy. Only this summer the Italian government announced their plans to give away over 100 historical sites, including medieval castles and monasteries, to those who could demonstrate a solid plan to renovate the properties into tourist hotspots. Unfortunately, none of these properties are located in Sicily. What may become of the less popular sites here is uncertain; while the cheap, or even free, admission to many of them is a welcome boon to financially concerned researchers and holidaymakers, it speaks volumes for their future. These fascinating sites are a testament to the remarkable impact of the Normans and other peoples on Sicilian history and culture – one can only hope that they will remain open (and intact) for a long time to come.

Tom Chadwick, PhD Student in History

Self-Defenestration, Squatting and Structural Stress: The History and Conservation of St Nicholas’ Priory, Exeter

For some years now St Nicholas’ Priory, in the area of Exeter off Fore Street known as ‘the Mint’, has been closed to the public. However, conservation work continues and plans to reopen at least parts of the priory are afoot. The building is managed by Exeter Historic Buildings Trust (EHBT) and I recently met with the Trust’s representative, Lesley Lake, to discuss the priory’s history and its future.

The priory’s history goes back to shortly after the Norman Conquest. Gytha, Harold Godwinson’s mother, owned numerous properties in Exeter including St Olave’s Church; after the newly crowned King William defeated a rebellion by the city of Exeter in 1068, he gifted the church to Battle Abbey. In 1087 the monks from Battle who had been sent to take over the abbey’s new property decided to establish a Benedictine priory nearby as a sister house of Battle and dedicated it to St Nicholas. Over the following centuries the priory expanded, with most of what remains today dating from the fifteenth century.

St Nicholas Priory
A reconstruction of the priory in the fifteenth century by Richard Parker

Along with many other similar sites, much of St Nicholas’ was torn down following the Dissolution in 1536, leaving only the northern and western ranges standing. An amusing account survives describing how several local Exeter women attacked the workmen who came to dismantle the rood screen within the church, chasing one up the tower and forcing him to leap out of a window to safety. In spite of (or, rather, because of) their religious fervour the women were arrested and the remaining buildings were sold off. Eventually the priory was purchased by Robert Mallet in 1562, whose family leased the property for the next two centuries and converted part of the buildings into a mansion. During the mid-seventeenth century it was divided into two separate dwellings and Mint Lane was created, though it was not until 1864 that the dwelling over the lane connecting the two ranges was pulled down to widen the lane to the size it is today. In 1820 the Wilcocks purchased the building known as the ‘Priory’ and converted it into five premises for rent – the property was eventually sold to Exeter Corporation in 1912 and opened as a museum in 1916. Meanwhile, in 1775 the Roman Catholic Mission moved into a tenancy in another part of the extant buildings, the ‘Refectory’. Eleven years later, Lord Hugh Clifford of Chudleigh purchased the buildings for their permanent use, leading to the construction of the Roman Catholic church in 1788 and the Roman Catholic school of St. Nicholas in 1855. By 1959 the church and school had left the premises and in 1991 the Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust put the buildings on the market. In 1995 Carol Griffiths came across the empty and decaying Refectory and set about its restoration, founding the EHBT in 1996 and securing the lease of the property in 1998.

Norman cellar
The Norman cellar

Today, the priory complex remains divided into these two sites: the ‘Priory’ or ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ to the west; and the ‘Refectory’ at 21 The Mint to the north. ‘St Nicholas’ Priory’ is a Grade 1 listed building and is owned by Exeter City Council. It includes the Prior’s chambers, guest chambers, kitchen, a Norman cellar, and retains an original plaster ceiling – most of these rooms have been restored to resemble a Tudor dwelling.

Roof timbers
The Refectory roof timbers

The Refectory is a Grade 2* listed building and is leased by the EHBT from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Plymouth. The eighteenth-century Catholic church and the nineteenth-century school buildings are still extant and stand on the site of the chapter house and priory church, with a walled garden replacing what was once the roofed cloister. During the mid-seventeenth century the Refectory was sub-divided into several storeys and now contains the Refectory on the top floor, a flat, and a three bedroom house. Both the flat and the house are currently occupied and are the only income stream the EHBT have for the property outside of donations. The medieval roof timbers in the Refectory are particularly impressive and come from trees that were felled between 1439 and 1453.

Oak screen
The infamous oak screen

The conservation of both sites has proved challenging. Squatters took over the Refectory in 1999 and stripped a Georgian cupboard of its panels for firewood. A little later, the refurbishment of roof was interrupted when the initial contractors went bankrupt – leaving the work unfinished and the medieval roof protected by only tarpaulins. The current closure of the Priory has been caused by significant structural problems, in part thanks to a large and heavy oak screen from the fifteenth century whose weight has been bearing down on the Norman cellar beneath. This problem is currently being solved by suspending the oak screen from a steel arch above, which is also designed to fortify the walls. In spite of these setbacks the EHBT and the Council have resolutely continued with their restorations. Of course, such hard work requires funds and, according to the EHBT, a total of £819,000 has been raised so far, much of which represents the award of Heritage Lottery Fund money for the project.

Although there is still plenty of work to be done and many organisational matters to resolve, enough should be completed for the Priory to open to the public for the Heritage Open Days festival in September. Parts of the site should also be open on 22 and 23 July, while on 21 July a special reception is planned for organisations who would potentially like to use this space for exhibitions, theatrical performance, or even ghost-hunting! If you have an event and would like to make use of this space, then you should contact EHBT via enquiries@ehbt.org.uk – Lesley and the members of the trust will be very happy to hear from you! Hopefully, there will soon be plenty of diverse events to attend within these two fascinating buildings.

Tom Chadwick, PhD student in History

“Feeling ready to kill some Saxons!”

On 14 October 1066 one of the most renowned battles in Britain was fought between William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, King of England, near the town of Hastings. This October, 950 years later, I and over 1000 re-enactors from all over the world, attended the anniversary event organized by English Heritage at Battle Abbey. I was present as part of The Household Anglo-Norman Living History Society, a nationwide group of re-enactors who specialize in the period 1066-1216.

Norman TomThroughout the three-day weekend event re-enactors inhabited two large eleventh-century camps, one Saxon and one Norman, displaying various aspects of ‘living history’. For example, included in The Household’s section of the Norman camp was an armoury, a fletcher’s workshop, a cooking and feasting tent, a carpenter’s workshop, a chapel, a scriptorium and several sleeping tents. The actual anniversary, Friday 14 October, had been set aside predominantly as a ‘media and dignitaries’ day and involved interviews, film crews and the culmination of the long march from York to Battle Abbey by re-enactors commemorating Harold’s hasty charge down to confront William. The Household’s camp also served as a staging ground for The One Show’s groan-worthy ‘Battle of Tastings’, hosted by Dan Snow. I also ended up on national news talking about killing Saxons – see this video: Ready to kill Saxons.

Tapestry HairOn Friday at 9am, myself and two other members of the Household went to a barbers in the village of Battle to get a Norman-style haircut, one that appears on many of the Normans within the Bayeux Tapestry. Rather than merely attempting to become fashion icons, we also used the event to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Thanks to donations given over the weekend we raised over our target of £800, for which we have promised to keep the style for a month (and the JustGiving page is still open should you wish to donate!). Thank goodness the hair-cut is so fetching…

Tom Haircut

The main event occurred on the 15 and 16 October and attracted at least 16,000 spectators over the two days. On each day there were various displays throughout the abbey grounds, including medieval music, have-a-go archery and the encampments. Of course, the main focus of the event was the battle itself and thankfully for those of us re-enacting the fight it lasted for an hour rather than, as is reported, the entire day. In keeping with accounts of the battle, the recreation saw the Normans sending archers, infantry, and cavalry against the Anglo-Saxon shield wall on the hill, with The Household occupying the centre-left of the infantry.

The Household marching up the hill
The Household marching up the hill.

The battle was scripted loosely around contemporary accounts, involving three attacks from each Norman contingent, two Anglo-Saxon charges down the hill on each flank, the famous, if true, piercing of Harold’s eye by an arrow and his subsequent death, and finally the slaughter of the remaining Anglo-Saxons. However, the combat itself was not scripted: although all re-enactors adhere to strict safety guidelines the combat is essentially a full-contact, competitive sport. In short, it is rather good fun!

Aside from entertaining the spectators present at the event, the anniversary also garnered a lot of media attention, with rogue camera crews and journalists roaming the site asking all sorts of questions. One of the challenges of being involved in events such as this is that the nuanced nature of academic research does not always gel particularly well with those outside of academia. The public and the media aim to understand historical events in the context of their own experiences of modern, often political, events. Matt cartoonAs such it was unsurprising that Brexit was a regular theme of the weekend and my work on Norman ethnicity, as well as the striking Norman haircut, marked me as a target for questions on this topic by journalists and the general public alike. While large words painted on the wall of the Battle Abbey visitor centre to the effect of ‘The Norman invasion was a good thing’ demonstrate a favourable, if blunt, perception of events, it is interesting to note how the event organizers, the public and some of the more passionate re-enactors focus on a perceived shared English identity between themselves and Harold and his troops. In keeping with the conquered Anglo-Saxons’ attitude to their new overlords, modern audiences see the Normans as foreign invaders; the comparisons made by some between the Normans, the EU and other groups are no doubt easy to imagine. It is unfortunate that the evident lessons concerning the continual movement of peoples and the nature of Britain as a cultural melting pot were less prevalent.

Putting politics aside, the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was a great success and immensely enjoyable. The vast majority of those involved do this sort of thing as a hobby due to their passion and interest in history, and their enthusiasm and hard work is extraordinary. For my part this tangible and experimental hobby provides a new way of engaging with the past, informing people interested in their heritage about medieval history and the opportunity to disseminate my research to a wider audience – even if, as the Hastings event proved, my message isn’t really what they want to hear!

 

Tom Chadwick, PhD student at Exeter working on Norman ethnic identity in 11th and 12th century Normandy, England, Southern Italy and Sicily.

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