King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are shrouded in myth. While stories of their deeds have been popular since the Middle Ages, there’s no hard evidence that they actually existed…
…except that the Round Table hangs in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle!
Well, not really. For centuries it was reputed to have been the genuine article, until archaeologists took it down in 1976 and using radiocarbon and tree ring dating found that it had been made in the 13th or early 14th century, long after King Arthur and his merry knights were supposed to have lived.
The dates vindicate historians’ long-held belief that the table was made by King Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) around the year 1290 to celebrate the betrothal of one of his daughters. Generally a tournament would be held on such an occasion, and since the chivalry of the day loved to hear stories of Arthurian romance and derring-do, a Round Table would be a fitting decoration. Places around the table are set with the names of Arthur and 24 of his famous knights such as Lancelot and Galahad. One wonders if Edward and his knights actually sat around the table for a feast, and which real-life knights were honored with which places.
While many people go to Amsterdam to get baked and stare at Van Gogh paintings, the area around the city has a lot to offer, including one of the most visited castles in The Netherlands.
A twenty-minute bus ride from Amstel station takes you to the little port of Muiden, and from there it’s a pleasant walk through a park and along the coast to Muiderslot, a picturesque little castle by the sea.
We talk about castles a fair amount here on Black Gate, which is hardly surprising. But the Middle Ages weren’t the only or even the most productive period for building fortifications. At the start of World War Two, countries all over Europe feverishly built defenses against possible invasion.
The United Kingdom was one of the leaders in this movement. Convinced that a German invasion was imminent, the government ordered the construction of a vast network of pillboxes. Many of these defended the beaches and ports. Others were set along important canals and roads. In all, more than 18,000 pillboxes were constructed during the war.
When we think of the Western Front during World War One, we tend to think of the static killing grounds of trench warfare. While this was true for many grueling years of war, during its first months in 1914, WWI was a war of movement.
The German offensive in August 1914 involved a sweep through Belgium in an attempt to take Paris and knock France out of the war before its ally, Russia, could mobilize. What the Germans didn’t expect was the fierce resistence put up by the Belgians. Its small but determined army slowed down the German advance, aided by a string of outdated but stubbornly defended forts.
Ha! I bet you were expecting another Spanish post, weren’t you? Well, I spend the summers in Oxford, so this week you’re getting something a little more northern. When I’m not researching my next book in the Bodleian Library, I set out to explore the city and surrounding countryside for sights of historical interest.
Oxford is a beautiful university town filled with fine architecture. It’s also an ancient city with roots back into prehistory. It first came into prominence in Anglo-Saxon times and a trace of this has survived. On busy Cornmarket Street, there’s a well-preserved example of a Anglo-Saxon tower. It’s part of St. Michael at the North Gate church and was built around the year 1040. This makes it Oxford’s oldest building and one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon structures anywhere.
York in northern England is justifiably famous for its well-preserved Viking city. The foundations of an entire Viking neighborhood are preserved under glass at the Jorvik Viking Center, a delightfully cheesy tourist trap that includes an animatronic Viking taking a dump in a Norse outhouse.
But let’s not dwell on that. For a different, yet equally one-of-a-kind sight, check out York Castle just a short stroll away. It was founded in 1068 by William the Conqueror as a typical motte and bailey castle. These fortifications included an artificial mound (the motte) with a wooden tower and wall on top, and another enclosed area (the bailey) in front of the base. The Normans slapped these forts together wherever they conquered because they were cheap and quick to build. It’s said they finished York Castle in just eight days!
When I visited the castle in Gorizia, Italy, the part that intrigued me most was the donjon. This cramped room is a grim little place with no window to the outside. It was used for several centuries and over the years bored prisoners decorated the walls and vaulted ceiling with drawings. Religious motifs, sailing ships, people, and a number of abstract shapes caught my attention.
In my previous Spanish castlemagic posts, I’ve talked about some of the classic castles of Spain. The country is filled with castles thanks to the Reconquista and all the fighting that happened before that period.
As we all know, however, these weren’t the last battles on Spanish soil. The most bitter fighting happened during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39. Some of Spain’s castles were actually used in the fighting. Strategic positions don’t tend to change, and when visiting Spanish castles, I’ve often seen evidence of more modern conflicts.
One such castle is the fifteenth-century Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, which guarded one of the main approaches to Madrid. Improved and fitted for artillery in the 16th century, the stone-lined moat and rectangular outline of walls with round towers at the corners are still well preserved. Right next to it, as you can see, is a bunker from the Spanish Civil War. There was fighting around here and the castle took a couple of hits. Luckily it’s in the process of being restored.
Living in Spain, I’ve had the good fortune to visit many of the country’s castles.
The most stunning, and most popular, is the Alcázar in Segovia, an easy day trip from Madrid. It’s in great condition, mainly because it was never caught up in the Reconquista or blasted apart during the Spanish Civil War. Built on the end of the rocky promontory atop which Segovia stands, it’s literally cut off from the rest of the town by a deep moat cut through the bedrock.
Baghdad celebrated its 1,250th birthday this year. It’s been through a lot since it was founded by the Caliph al-Mansour in 762 AD, seeing more than its fair share of invaders come and go. Nowadays, Baghdad shows little of its former glory. It’s a dusty place of crumbling concrete buildings, blast walls, and traffic jams. Look harder, though, and you’ll find some of Baghdad’s former glory still shining through.