“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Winchester Round Table

The building pictured below is “the Great Hall” in Winchester, which is all that remains today of Winchester Castle. The castle was originally built in 1067 for William the Conqueror, and it was improved over the years with the Great Hall that stands today being built in the early 1200's to replace the castle’s previous hall.

The castle’s downfall occurred during the English Civil War in 1646, when Parliamentarians captured the castle from Royalist forces. Following this victory Oliver Cromwell had the castle demolished. The Great Hall was given a stay of execution and the building was preserved as a venue for assemblies and the County Assizes.

Over its lifetime the Great Hall has been the venue of some important events. In 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh stood trial at the Great Hall for his suspected part in the plot to remove King James I from the throne. In 1685 Judge Jeffreys condemned supporters of the Duke of Monmouth to death as part of the Bloody Assizes. And more recently in 1954 Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Major Michael Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers and Peter Wildeblood were tried and convicted in the Great Hall on charges of “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons” , or buggery for short!

The most striking feature of the Great Hall is the Arthurian Round Table which hangs at one end of the hall. The table is believed to have been constructed around 1250 to 1290, during the reign of Edward I. The current paintwork on the table was commissioned by Henry VIII for the visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522. The artwork shows the names of 24 knights of King Arthur’s court and shows Henry VIII sitting in King Arthur's seat at the 12 o’clock position. At 18 feet in diameter, the round table would have been an imposing piece of furniture.

Across Europe during the Middle Ages Arthurian legend was popular and jousting festivals, called “Round Tables”, were occasionally held. Sometimes at these events competing knights would assume the identities of characters from Arthurian Legend and presumably also replica round tables were made for these events. Edward I was himself believed to be an Arthurian enthusiast and to have attended a number of Round Tables and to have even hosted one himself in 1299. So it is possible that the Winchester Round Table was created for this event, however, there is also evidence that it was created for a tournament in 1290 to mark the betrothal of one of his daughters.

The Winchester Round Table is clearly not the original table at which Arthur and his court are said to have convened, some theories even suggest that the round table of legend was not a table at all. However, the Winchester Round Table is perhaps one of the earliest surviving replicas still in existence.

If anyone knows of any other round tables in existence from the Middle Ages that are on display in Europe, let me know via the comments section.

The Great Hall in Winchester.
The Winchester Round Table.
Henry VIII presiding over the table.
Looking towards the east wall of the Great Hall, where the table hung from 1348 to 1873.
The east wall is decorated with the names of Hampshire's Knights and MPs.

Pictures: Hampshire (January 2015).

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Grisly Place to Hang Out

On the Test Way footpath near the villages of Coombe and Inkpen in Berkshire, a gibbet can be seen sitting high on the hillside overlooking the surrounding countryside. The gibbet is known locally as Coombe Gibbet and it sits atop Inkpen hill - to be pedantic it actually sits upon a Bronze Age long barrow on the summit of the hill. The original gibbet was apparently erected in this very prominent location in 1676 to display the bodies of two convicted murderers, in an attempt to dissuade other people from committing such crimes.

The murderers in question were a pair of lovers known as George Broomham and Dorothy Newman. It is said that Broomham was married with a son and that Newman was a widow when the pair commenced an illicit relationship. Accounts vary, but it seems that as this illicit relationship progressed Broomham and Newman had cause to murder Broomham’s wife and son. This was probably because divorce in the 17th century was practically impossible, as it required a private Act of Parliament, so bumping off your unwanted wife was by far the more practical option. They committed this crime near the location of the gibbet, and unluckily for them, they were witnessed in the act.

During a trial at Winchester Assizes in February 1676, both Broomham and Newman were convicted of these murders and were sentenced to be publicly hanged. This execution took place in Winchester on 3rd March 1676. Following this hanging, the pair’s bodies were transported to the purpose built gibbet for public display, and their bodies were hung on the 6th March 1676.

The gibbet that stands today is not the original gibbet, but is believed to be the 7th gibbet to stand in this location and was erected in 1992. Previous gibbets erected in 1676, 1850, 1949, 1950, 1970 & 1979 seemed to have fallen prey to either the elements or persons of a vandalous nature.

The gibbet is not the only place of interest in the area, slightly further east along the Test Way footpath is Walbury Hill, which at 297 metres above sea level, is the highest point in South East England. Walbury Hill was once home to the Iron Age hill fort known as Walbury Camp, which was initially constructed circa 600 BC. At its peak the defensive earthworks of Walbury Camp would have protected an area of 80 acres, and the camp would have remained in use until the Roman era.

So if you ever walk the Test Way, be sure to look out for these two interesting features.

Coombe Gibbet visible in the distance.
The gibbet, sited on the long barrow at the summit of Inkpen Hill.
The gibbet.
Looking north from the gibbet into Berkshire.
Looking east from the gibbet towards Walbury Hill.

Pictures: Berkshire (January 2015).

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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Battle of Alton & Ball Lightning

For those who know where to look, the Church of St Lawrence in Alton, Hampshire, still shows the scars of its involvement in an English Civil War battle. The Battle of Alton occurred on the 13th December 1643 when Parliamentarian forces, commanded by Sir William Waller, undertook a surprise attack on Royalist forces stationed in Alton, which were commanded by the Earl of Crawford. The Royalist forces defending Alton comprised of both infantry and cavalry units.

At dawn on the 13th December Waller's Parliamentarian forces commenced their attack on Alton. As the Parliamentarian forces approached, the Royalist commander (Lord Crawford), decided to flee Alton for Winchester, ostensibly to seek reinforcements. In his withdrawal  Lord Crawford took the Royalist cavalry with him, and they were pursued for some distance by the Parliamentarian cavalry. Lord Crawford’s withdrawal left Colonel Boles to mount a defence of Alton with just the Royalist infantry at his disposal.

Outnumbered and under artillery fire,  the Royalist infantry led by Colonel Boles were harried from one defensive position to the next, until they were finally corralled inside the Church of St Lawrence, which would become the location of their last stand. Using horse carcasses as cover and also firing from the church windows, the Royalists mounted a defence of the church, whilst the Parliamentarian forces fired back and lobbed hand grenades in through the church windows. The Royalist's defence of the church was short lived and the Parliamentarian forces soon forced entry into the church. The remaining Royalist forces only surrendered upon the death of Colonel Boles. Legend states that Colonel Boles fought fiercely from his position in the church's wooden pulpit and it was in the pulpit that he was finally overcome and killed.

The damaged caused to the church during the battle is still evident today for those with a keen eye. Musket holes from the fighting can been seen in the church door, as well as in other locations inside the church.

The Battle of Alton is not St Lawrence’s only interesting piece of history. Forty three years later on Sunday the 19th December 1686 it is said that a massive thunderstorm broke over Alton and caused a bit of a stir for the congregation present in the church at the time. A contemporary account of the storm states:

All of a sudden it grew so exceeding dark that the people could hardly discern one another, and immediately after it happened such flashes of lightning that the whole Church seemed to be in a bright flame, the surprise of the Congregation was exceeding great, especially when two Balls of Fire that made their entry at the eastern wall, passed through the body of the Church, leaving behind them so great a smoke, and smell of brimstone was scarcely able to be expressed.

Could these two “balls of fire” be an early report of ball lightning? It certainly sounds like it!

The Church of St Lawrence in Alton, Hampshire.

The church door.
Musket holes in the church door from the Battle of Alton in 1643.
The pulpit where Colonel Boles met his end.
Inscription on the pulpit. 

Pictures: Hampshire (September 2014).

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