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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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Prees Heath Common – Week Nine of the Oswestry Heritage Comics

Over the past month, I have been fortunate enough to get to know the site of Prees Heath Common, just on the outskirts of Whitchurch. It’s a piece of common land whose history and archaeology goes back through its use as a World War II airfield, a World War I internment camp, a Civil War and mediaeval muster ground, all the way back to the Bronze Age. It’s also now a butterfly reserve, and provides some of the last remaining habitat for the Silver Studded Blue butterfly in Shropshire. But, even more importantly, it’s valued by the commoners and the local community as an important part of their local heritage.

But lots of people don’t know the story of Prees Heath Common – a lot of people outside of Whitchurch have never heard of the place. So I was asked to come along and demonstrate in a workshop how comics could be used to help raise awareness of the archaeology, history and ecology of the common. So I came along to see the archaeological test-pits being dug on a new portion of the site by the Prees Heath volunteers, and then a week or so later, ran the workshop.

What was really interesting about the workshop was that, yes, people wanted to talk about the archaeology, history and ecology of the site – but they also wanted to talk about things that weren’t part of the “official” narrative of the site: the social history of the common, the archaeology and the butterfly reserve, as told through individual recollections and biographies. I had not anticipated these oral histories to be quite so rich, quite so detailed, nor quite so diverse.

I did also not anticipate these histories to be quite so “alternative” to the official, mainstream narrative of the common, the reserve or the archaeology. It seemed as if there was a slightly different local perspective on almost every important or significant element of the common’s story – not contradictory, but complementary; not conflicting, but certainly competing. These oral histories definitely brought an extra layer to the site’s narrative, making it more detailed, richer, more diverse – and, as far as the Prees Heath volunteers were concerned – more meaningful.

The volunteers are now using the experience of the workshop to design their own comics about the common – comics which tell the story of their interactions with the land and those who have used and occupied it over the years; comics which tell the story of families, individuals and communities who have called the common “home” for over sixty years; comics which link their present with the archaeology, history and ecology of the site and make them part and parcel of their community heritage. We’ll also be using comics to raise awareness of the site in a more general sense, and these comics will be featured during this year’s Shropshire Wildlife Trust/Meres & Mosses Merefest celebrations this September.

It would be nice to see this model of comics-focused community engagement repeated with other groups during the course of the Oswestry Heritage Comics project – I’ve already done similar workshops with the Corwen and Dee Valley Archaeology Group (CADVAS). I feel like these workshops open the door to a what could be really interesting ways of connecting different kinds of place-based heritage narratives.

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Week Eight: Oswestry’s Other Border

Wat’s Dyke plays second fiddle to it’s better known cousin, Offa’s Dyke. But I think Wat’s Dyke may be more interesting. The Wansdyke Project produced a great deal of the most current research about Wat’s Dyke, examining in particular the assumptions made about what it was for, when it was made, and who – or what (pun intended?) – “Wat” was. Keith Matthews ably sums up the evidence in a paper on the Wansdyke Project site, and it’s this research that I’ve referenced in the comic.

Matthews’ suggestion that the Mercian King Coenwulf was responsible for the dyke is certainly open to challenge, depending on how one reads the evidence. But regardless, the interpretation of the dyke as being both a customs/trade border and a military one would certainly fit with the general relationship between Mercia and Powys through most of the Early Welsh/Anglo Saxon period. When people ask “What is Wat’s Dyke for?”, I have a feeling we should look at other borders that are both physical as well as symbolic for a clue as to how people in the past regarded it. The red line at Passport Control, behind which you have to stand before being called forward to the desk, for example. It’s not a defensive wall, but it is certainly a border in both legal and psychological terms. Step over that line, behave badly, run across it – and you may well be tackled to the ground, arrested, charged and even denied entry. Both Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke fall into this kind of category – borders that people respected because of the consequences: both in terms of trade and tax, and in terms of military retribution.

And what of “Wat”? Matthews’ suggestion that the name references the old English hero Wade (also written Wadda or Wat) is new to me. But it makes sense: Coenwulf was certainly not as well-known as Offa, so it’s possible that his legacy was a bit more transient. Myth, legend and folklore are often more solid and lasting that history! Wade was a hero connected with water, so perhaps the fact that Wat’s Dyke starts right at the water’s edge in Holywell has something to do with this identification. And Wade himself would make a great hero to identify with such a curious construction as the Dyke, snaking its way down the Welsh border. Who but a hero with his magic boat, descended from Wayland the Smith, would make such a thing? I think of Wade – with his semi-divine ancestry, his Germanic origins, and his magic travelling machine – as sort of halfway between Thor and Doctor Who. Now there’s a comic just waiting to be made!

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Week Seven: Bringing Heritage to Life

I really enjoyed my visit to the re-enactment day at Whittington Castle put on by the 5th/60th Regiment and other Napoleonic War era groups. Huw invited me along to meet his group and have a look at the research that had gone into their uniforms and equipment. I don’t know a great deal about the Napoleonic Wars. So it was a great opportunity to really get immersed in all the history, and see the connection between the facts and the dates of who fought what battle when, where and how – and what that all meant for the men and women caught up in the actual, day-to-day experience of the war.

Historians and archaeologists often study these violent and world-changing periods through somewhat abstract evidence: musket balls, earthworks, maps, regimental records, etc. It’s all too easy to forget that all of these things had a real and lasting impact on the lives of real people, essentially not much different to ourselves. Each musket ball we see in a museum could be a life lived blinded and disabled, or even a life cut short; every campaign map speaks of days of marching and hardship for troops in all sorts of conditions. Every cooking pot, every button-shining kit, every writing desk or pair of shoes contains stories of the people who used them. Sometimes we concentrate on the object and forget about the people behind them.

We shouldn’t overlook these human stories – and re-enactment groups do a fantastic job of reminding us that’s what history and heritage is really all about. Getting a close look at the way ordinary people lived and survived in extraordinary circumstances can be a unique window into our past.

We’re lucky around Oswestry to have so many visit Whittington Castle. So next time Huw and the 5th/60th are at Whittington Castle, I definitely recommend you visit!

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Week Six: Oswestry’s Missing Hospital

Many of the jobs we do today were being done hundreds of years ago, but in different ways and in different places. Hospitals in the middle ages were usually connected to churches or abbeys, run by monks, nuns or priests. It was often considered very prestigious to have a hospital in a mediaeval town. Historical records that us Oswestry’s hospital was founded by the Archbishop of St. Asaph, and generously endowed. There was a priest in charge of the daily running of the hospital, including conducting services and providing accommodation for visiting priests from Haughmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury. William FitzAlan (who featured in a previous comic), gave the hospital permission to use a field near Cynynion (along the racecourse road towards Rhydycroesau), and instructed that the burgesses of Oswestry give “a handful of corn, flour, and salt from every horseload sold in the market, a gallon of ale from every brewing, and a loaf from every baking” to the hospital. Just like today, communities would help support their local hospital.

After Archbishop Renier’s death, the supervision of the hospital passed to the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller or Hospitallers. This was an order of knights founded during the crusades to help sick, injured and poor pilgrims in Jerusalem. They maintained a famous hospital in Jerusalem itself, and often ran hospitals elsewhere in Europe. They were an important knightly order until the late 1600s – they even founded colonies in North America and the Caribbean. Because of the association with the Hospitallers – whose patron saint was St. John the Baptist – the hospital is often referred to as St. John’s Hospital.

But where is Oswestry’s hospital now? Historians have debated the actual location, but most agree that it was somewhere just south of Oswestry’s old mediaeval town wall (which used to be about where Gilhams and Booka are), either near the Church, or a bit further out towards Roft Street and Black Gate. Finding it archaeologically might be a bit difficult, since most open areas around there are paved. But some geophys in back gardens might be a way to start. Anyone fancy doing an Oswestry “Time Team”?

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Week Four: What’s in a Name?

Not much of Norman Oswestry survives as bricks and mortar – but you can still find traces of it in unexpected places around the town. The FitzAlans were Oswestry’s “First Family” – generations of ambitious, clever survivors, determined at first to make the most of their post-Conquest manorial holdings; determined as the decades passed to hang on to that power. Even choosing the wrong side during the Anarchy of the twelfth century, and backing the Empress Matilda over her rival Stephen, didn’t dent their ambition.

Like all powerful families, however, their power did eventually fade – lack of male rivals ended the Fitzalan line in favour of the Howard, and more profitable estates elsewhere removed the family from Oswestry to Shrawardine, Holt, Clun and (eventually) Arundel – much to the benefit of the town. As local Oswestry historian, John Pryce-Jones puts it: “… reduced levels of manorial supervision provided the leading citizens of Oswestry to extend their own influence over the running of the town, and to develop the independent spirit which has characterised local civic affairs down the centuries…”. In other words, although they built the original Oswestry Castle, and gave it it’s original charters, perhaps the best things the FitzAlans ever did for Oswestry was leave it alone!

However, the FitzAlan name survives in the name of FitzAlan Road – a tiny reminder of the determined, canny (and quite possibly, ruthless) family that gave Oswestry its head start. There are lots of roads in Oswestry with historical stories behind them – you could do a whole series of heritage comics just on road names!

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