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The Llwyd Eagle – Week Fifteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Llwyd Mansion is one of Oswestry’s oldest buildings, and pretty difficult to miss as you walk through the centre of town. It stands on the corner at the bottom of Bailey Street, and is a fine seventeenth-century timber-framed building with some Victorian and later amendments. It’s had a hard life, I think – for a building to have survived that long in the centre of a market town means a lot of chopping and changing, not all of it sympathetic. One of the first things even a casual visitor to Oswestry will notice about the house is the large, double-headed eagle on the side of the building – with the words “Llwyd Mansion, 1604” around it. Why?

The story (as related by John Pryce-Jones, in his various histories of Oswestry – the original source I suspect being the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd) is that an ancestor of the Llwyd family – Meurig Llwyd – “distinguished himself” at the Siege of Acre in Jerusalem (1190), and was awarded the right to use the double-headed eagle by the Duke of Austria, Leopold V of the Babenburg dynasty (Given Leopold’s later enmity with King Richard, stemming from his humiliation by the English King at the end of the siege, Llwyd’s decision to use this on his coat-of-arms is an interestingly anti-English one – but that’s another story!). But why a double-headed eagle? The double-headed eagle is an old symbol of the Byzantine empire. It appears in Europe in the 10th century as a religious symbol and possibly as a heraldic insignia associated with the Byzantine title of basileus. The Greek historian N. Zapheiriou (The Greek Flag from Antiquity to present, 1947) has suggested that the symbol may have been the family arms of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059). Certainly the symbol can be found in the Byzantine empire and in Europe (on several carvings in Bulgaria and France, for example) as far back as the 10th century. Duke Leopold’s mother was the Byzantine princess Theodora, a daughter of Andronikos Komnenos, the second eldest son of the Byzantine Emperor John II Komnenos. So the double-headed eagle may have been part of the family or personal insignia of Leopold either through his relationship with the Komnenos family, or through various undocumented Babenburg heraldic relationships to the Holy Roman Empire possibly dating back into the previous century.

However, the only problem with this is that the eagle on Leopold V’s Ducal seal is not double-headed, but single-headed. And there is no reference in all of later Babenburg heraldry to double-headed eagles, only single-headed ones. The double-headed eagle does not become associated with Austria until it’s common adoption as the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, some three hundred years after the siege of Acre. It’s almost certain that the banner of Leopold V – in keeping with the shield displayed on his seal – had on it a single-headed eagle, not a double one; and that  Llwyd was granted the use of this single-headed eagle by the grateful Duke. If this is the case, how did the head of the eagle become doubled? It’s worth noting that the round plaque on the side of Llwyd Mansion is not original – that is, it does not date from 1604. In old photographs of Oswestry you can clearly see that it (or another double-headed eagle) used to be painted or mounted directly into the render of the wall itself. What we see today is almost certainly a late-Victorian plaque, put on at the time the building received its nineteenth-century additions (as noted in the building’s scheduling). By the 1870s at least, the double-headed eagle was firmly set as the coat of arms of Meurig Llwyd:  (Nicholas, Thomas, Annals and antiquities of the counties and county families of Wales; Section V (Old and Extinct Families of Merionethshire, published 1872). What might have happened is that nineteenth-century antiquarians, on hearing that Meurig Llwyd received grant of the emblem of an eagle during the Crusades, confused that with the double-headed eagle associated with the Byzantine Empire (and/or the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc.).

And so the double-headed eagle on the side of Llwyd Mansion has become part of Oswestry’s heritage – perhaps less as a reminder of Crusader heritage and more as a fragment of nineteenth-century antiquarian imagination?

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Panel from “Radiocarbon Dating” comic for CAIS

Thank you to everyone who organised this year’s “Carbon Meets Silicon” symposium at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham. It was a fascinating event, full of extraordinary ideas and some really interesting projects. The symposium was all about the intersection of art and science, and I gave a paper in the morning about the comics I’ve been doing on archaeological science for the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia. Pages from these comics are up on display in an exhibition at Oriel Sycharth at Glyndŵr University.

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Oswestry Castle Excavations – Week Fourteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

At the centre of Oswestry – literally and figuratively – stands Oswestry Castle. The lynchpin of the original Norman foundation of the town, the Bailey quickly became the hub around which the market and civic life of the town revolved. And still does revolve – the town’s guildhall, its Powys Market, library and town offices still all cluster at the foot of the castle. The original Norman castle and bailey were timber, quickly replaced with stone – but that stone keep was badly damaged during the Parliamentarian siege of the town during the Civil War, and the remains were torn down sometime in the 1650s. So most people only know the castle from the C.19th redesign of the mound as a public garden. A circuit of footpaths now wind around a pleasant arboretum of Victorian specimen trees – and the only sign of the ancient castle is a stump of masonry poking up at the summit of the mound (along with another lump which is actually a relocated bit of the old mediaeval town wall).

So it has been something of a surprise over the past few years to see how much of the castle’s original foundations, plan and detail the Oswestry Castle Research Project has managed to reveal. This year, once again, the project’s team of volunteer local archaeologists is back atop the mound, opening new trenches along the remaining lines of the keep’s foundations. The excavation is well worth a visit if you’re in town – the Director, Roger Cooper, is always keen to explain the site to visitors and show off the latest finds (which, this year, include munitions dating from the Civil War siege). And later in the year, Roger will be giving presentations about the excavations locally – so it’s worth checking the schedule of talks for the Corwen and Dee Valley Archaeology Society and the Oswestry and Border History and Archaeology Group.

Oswestry’s castle is something of an overlooked gem. Perhaps not as visually spectacular as Old Oswestry hillfort, it nevertheless is – literally – central to the town’s story, and the current excavation project is long overdue and very, very welcome indeed.

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Heritage Open Days – Week Thirteen of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Every year, the whole of England gets a chance to celebrate our shared history, archaeology and heritage in this weekend-long festival. This year, dozens of venues all around Oswestry are holding special events for visitors. There’s tons to see and do – if you’re interested in history or archaeology, like museums or excavations, are curious about re-enactment or living history, then this weekend is for you! All around the region, from Whitchurch to Chirk, historic houses and heritage sites are throwing open their doors and doing something special – showing off what makes heritage important and interesting. Places like Park Hall, Whittington Castle and Chirk Castle are hosting re-enactment events, there are steam trains running at the Cambrian Railway, and special exhibitions at the Oswestry Town Museum. It’s a weekend full of things to do for the whole family.

And around Oswestry, there are some particularly exciting special and one-off events taking place this year: a chance to get behind the scenes of some of Oswestry’s most iconic and important heritage places.

You can:

And much, much more. The Oswestry Heritage Roadshow will also be up and running, on the Bailey all weekend, right next to a display all about the Oswestry Heritage Comics – so drop in and say hello! For a complete listing of all Heritage Open Day events taking place around Oswestry – and beyond! – check out their website.

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Oswestry Heritage Roadshow – Week Twelve of the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

We are all connected to our local heritage through our personal and family histories. All of us have some kind of connection to the events which have shaped our world. And we all have something in our possession which remind us of those connections: a photo, some letters, a recording, a badge, a crumpled concert ticket. It’s surprising, though, how many of us fail to realise how interesting those kinds of connections and that sort of history is.

Well, here’s a chance to share them! During the Heritage Open Days weekend (Sept. 9th and 10th), on the Bailey in Oswestry, we’re going to be launching the Oswestry Heritage Roadshow. This is your chance to tell us about the things in your family history that are important or interesting. Bring along an item – a photo, some letters, a medal; something, anything – and tell us the story behind it. Tell us how this small object fits into local, county, national or even international history. We’ll have audio recorders there if you want to put your story down on tape – or you can just write it on one of our forms. We’ll be collecting together these stories over the next nine months, and we’d like to exhibit some of them at Qube at some point.

And I’ll be looking out for a couple of those stories to turn into Oswestry Heritage Comics – which will appear in the Advertizer!

So, stop by the Roadshow stall at the Bailey during Heritage Open Days weekend – or look out for us later in the year. There will be more information about the Roadshow, including special events and exhibitions, posted regularly on the Oswestry Heritage Comics Facebook page. If you can’t come to the Roadshow itself, but would still like to tell your heritage story, just fill in the form below:

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A Saint’s Name – Week Eleven of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

King – later Saint – Oswald gives his name to Oswestry. “Oswald’s Tree” is a reference to the legend that, following his defeat on the battlefield, the Northumbrian King was beheaded and dismembered, and his head and arm set up in an ancient ash tree. The legend also says that a Raven (or an Eagle) took up his uncorrupted arm and flew off with it, but dropped it in a nearby field – and that the well known as “Oswald’s Well” sprung up from that spot. Over a thousand years later, Oswestry’s connection with Oswald continues in the names of roads, schools, businesses and even pubs.

Oswald of Northumbria seems to have been an exceptional ruler during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is probably as much for his accomplishments as a King as for his piety or miraculous death that he was so revered. Our main source of information about Oswald is Bede, who clearly regarded Oswald not just as a King, but as a “saintly King”. At the battle of Heavenfield (AD633 or 634), Oswald united the two northern Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, reuniting the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bede tells us that as a consequence, Oswald then “brought under his dominion all the nations and provinces of Britain”; a later Christian chronicler, Adomnán or Adamnán of Iona, regarded Oswald not just as King of Northumbria, but “ordained by God as Emperor of all Britain”. Perhaps, following some minor conflicts with other Kings (as hinted at in the Annals of Tigernach) he may have been generally recognised as overlord to a number of minor Saxon chiefdoms. It seems, at the very least, that Oswald’s Kingship of Northumbria also carried with it influence over the kingdoms to the south: he was, for example, Godfather to Cynegils, King of Wessex – and married his daughter, Cyneburga. Oswald’s Christianity – which he adopted before the battle of Heavenfield – was quite possibly prompted by political rather than a purely religious motives: an attempt to gain control over growing Christian influence within Britain. Oswald certainly used Christianity to help strengthen the unification of Northumbria, inviting the Bishop Aidan to come from Ireland to help convert the Northumbrian peoples, and giving him the island of Lindisfarne as his see.

Oswald’s fateful battle at Oswestry was against the pagan King Penda. The battle may well have been precipitated by traditional Saxon intrigues over Mercian and Northumbrian succession (Penda’s brother Eowa may have fought alongside Oswald), English-Welsh cross-border rivalries (Oswestry may well have lain in Wales at that point), and even religion: Bede’s emphasis on Oswald as a “saintly King” may be partly to distinguish him from heathen, pagan Penda. Oswald was succeeded by his brother Oswiu, who struggled to keep Northumbria together. He eventually defeated and killed King Penda at the Battle of the Winwaed (AD654 or 655) becoming the most powerful Saxon King in all of Britain.

Oswald’s body was recovered by Oswiu, and then taken by his daughter Osthryth to Bardney Abbey. The monks there only agreed to the burial when a pillar of light enveloped the cart in which Oswald’s bones were being carried. A century later, when Barney Abbey was threatened by the Vikings, Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great brought the body of the saint to Gloucester Cathedral, and his head to Durham Cathedral, where they are still today.

Oswestry should be proud of its connection with this great British king. Although very much a man of his time, King Oswald was one of the first of the Saxon kings to look beyond his own, tiny dominion and imagine a country of diverse peoples, cultures and beliefs unified under one ruler.

And as a final note, has anyone seen a 2016 film called Whiteblade, apparently based on the life of Oswald?

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The Great Escape! – Week Ten of the Oswestry Heritage Comics.

Before the Napoleonic Wars, military prisoners – particularly officers – were held only temporarily, and often ransomed for significant amounts of money and allowed to return back home, where they would often re-enter their old regiments. But this changed during the wars against Napoleon. Between 1803 and 1815, over 100,000 French prisoners of war were held in Britain. And, as historian Gavin Daley points out, they were held not temporarily, but for the entire remaining duration of the war. This was a significant change in the way military prisoners were treated, and was a direct result of anxieties in Europe’s constitutional monarchies (Britain included) about the nature of their revolutionary, imperial enemy. This change in approach to military imprisonment meant a change in the nature of military incarceration. Prison hulks – decommissioned ships used as floating gaols – were first used for similarly revolutionary prisoners during the American War of Independence.

Parliament authorised their use during the Napoleonic Wars “for the more severe and effectual punishment of atrocious and daring offenders”. Conditions inside the hulks were appalling, and the prospect of imprisonment in them much feared by the French. Before the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was said to have raised the spectre of these prison ships before his troops, saying: “Soldiers, let those among you who have been prisoners of the English describe to you the hulks, and detail the most frightful miseries which they endured!” But, as the historian Carolyn Hughes has observed, both the French and the British imposed military imprisonment for the duration of the war. In doing so, the policy created – on both sides of the English Channel – what Hughes describes as “a new kind of prisoner of war—the prisoner of war as renegade captive, desperate to be free.”

All this sets the scene for this week’s Oswestry Heritage Comic. It tells the story of General Armand Philippon, former Napoleonic governor of Badajoz, in Spain – captured by British troops after the city fell in April, 1812 (an event written about by both historians and novelists). Philippon was sent first to Lisbon, and then paroled with other French officers to Oswestry – far away from the battlefields of Europe. Most officers sent to Britain honoured their parole, and remained prisoners until the final defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. But Philippon had other ideas. Philippon had risen through the ranks, from private in 1778 when he first joined up – to Major General (General de Division), Baron and Governor of Badajoz by 1811. He was a professional soldier, and a professional Napoleonist: he would not be content to sit out the remainder of the war in remote, sleepy little Oswestry!

And so, in July of 1812, he and a fellow officer (named Garnier – possibly a Colonel), bribed a local miller (quite probably part of a smuggling ring) and made their way to the Channel and crossed on a blockade runner back to France. Philippon rejoined Napoleon’s Grand Armee in August. A year later he was commanding troops in Germany, fighting with distinction at the Battle of Kulm. He was eventually captured again at Dresden, and imprisoned (successfully, this time) for the remainder of the war. He was made a Knight of Saint Louis, and honoured as a hero of the French nation – his name inscribed on the western pillar of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

While it’s strange enough to imagine Oswestry filled with Napoleonic prisoners of war, it’s possibly even stranger to imagine one of them successfully escaping back to France. If, on a summer’s afternoon in 1812, you or I were walking through the Bailey market, we might one have seen a dark-haired frenchman with the noticeable scar over his left eyebrow, sitting by himself outside one of the pubs, lost in his own thoughts. Would we have guessed that this distinguished French officer wasn’t just idly daydreaming, but was, in fact, secretly plotting his return to Napoleon’s army? War has a habit of connecting home and hearth with far-off places, and making episodes of world history part of local heritage. And it’s through the war stories of individuals – like Armand Philippon – that the stories of places like Badajoz, Paris, Dresden and Oswestry are all linked together.

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