There aren’t many material traces of the Anglo-Saxons visible in London, at least within the bounds of the old medieval city. I can think of an arch in the church of All Hallows by the Tower, an altar stone at St Pancras Old Church, and, though this was made barely a decade before the Normans took power, a wooden door at Westminster Abbey. The Romans left more of a mark than the later Anglo-Saxons. But of course Londinium was the Roman’s provincial capital for most of its existence. The various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that came after the Roman collapse didn’t have capital cities in the modern (or Roman) sense.
Anglo-Saxon London, called Lundenwic, was concentrated in the area of what is now Covent Garden and the Strand. Unlike in Roman times, this London was no administrative centre or military garrison. Lundenwic was a port and trading centre, a purely commercial settlement. For unknown reasons, the walled city the Romano-Britons built seems to have been virtually shunned the ninth century, when Alfred the Great initiated a rebuilding and resettlement scheme. Those early Anglo-Saxons are such a mysterious lot in comparison with the Romans who preceded them.
I said there weren’t many material traces visible, at least within the boundaries of medieval London. But further down the river at Greenwich, if you walk up to the top of the park, you can see a cluster of smallish mounds, like blisters on the surface of the greensward. These are the visible remains of a sizeable Anglo-Saxon cemetery.
There were about forty barrows here, dating to some time between the sixth and eighth centuries AD. It’s a pagan burial ground, from a time when Christianity was still trying to re-establish footholds in the island of Britain. The first recorded excavations of the barrows were carried out by Reverend James Douglas, in 1784, though there seems to have been an earlier excavation, in 1714, the results of which are not known. Douglas published his findings and the artefacts he unearthed included an iron spearhead, knife, shield boss, woollen textiles and glass beads.
Those eighteenth century antiquarians wouldn’t have been the first to disturb the graves and if there were items of greater significance and value, they had long since been plundered. According to the Royal Parks website, ‘any surviving finds from that dig [by Douglas] should be in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford’. ‘Should’ is an interesting choice of word, but I’m planning a trip to the Ashmolean soon, so I’ll see if there’s anything there.
A nineteenth-century reservoir scheme levelled about a dozen of the barrows and would have obliterated the lot, but fortunately a public outcry brought the work to a halt. So the site, albeit far from pristine, has survived to the present day. The recent heatwave has brought the mounds into shaper relief, as you can see from the photos I took this month.
The title of this post sounds like it might belong to a story by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers. But in this case, we know whodunnit from the start. It begins with a letter penned by John Fulljames, a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at University College, Oxford, around midday on 17 May 1940. He’d been invited to dinner that evening by another undergraduate, David Pope. In the letter Fulljames wrote:
Dear David Thank you for your invitation. I am sorry if you have ordered my dinner, but I am afraid I shall not be able to come to Oriel to-night. Probably an unforeseen engagement will detain me during this time in durance vile. Still. Iron bars, &c, or is it stone walls? All the best.
Shortly after writing the letter Fulljames picked up a Lee Enfield .303 rifle he’d borrowed from another student, leaned out of the second-floor window of his rooms overlooking the college’s front quadrangle, and opened fire on some students emerging from the college hall after lunch.
His first two shots hit Charles Moffat in the neck and body, killing him instantly. Moffat’s friend, Denis Melrose, saw his friend fall, thinking at first he was playacting. When he went to help he was hit in the chest, saved only by the bullet ricocheting off the fountain pen in his breast pocket. Another student, a South African Rhodes Scholar named de Kock, was hit by a ricochet, as was a college servant.
The University College chaplain, John Wild, heard the commotion and ran out from the Senior Common Room to see at what was going. Britain was officially at war with Germany and the Battle of Britain would begin in earnest just a couple of months later. Could it be that German paratroopers had landed in Oxford? But this was not the first skirmish in an invasion.
Demonstrating considerable bravery, Wild approached Fulljames and persuaded him to lay down the rifle. Fulljames was taken into police custody and the investigation revealed that he’d had several disputes with his fellow undergraduates. He was convinced that one of them (it’s not clear if this was Moffat or Melrose) was been playing loud music and entertaining women in his room, with the sole purpose of annoying him. But the real spark seems to have been an argument over breakfast that morning, in which Fulljames defended conscientious objectors when Melrose and his friends were disparaging them.
While awaiting trial, Fulljames was examined by a psychiatrist and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He was tried at the Stafford Assizes and found ‘Guilty but Insane’. Escaping the death penalty, he was sent to Broadmoor, the high-security psychiatric hospital in Berkshire.
But his stay at Broadmoor was a relatively short one. Fulljames was released in 1945 and seems to have passed the rest of his life in obscurity. He died in Cardiff in 2013 at the age of 90. The murder on the quad remains a strange and tragic footnote to Oxford’s wartime history.
[The factual information in this post is gleaned from Robin Darwall-Smith’s A History of University College, Oxford, and from the Times archive. The photograph of the University College front quadrangle is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]
In 1874 John Ruskin, art critic, Fellow of Christ Church, and Slade Professor of Fine Art, was riding out in the countryside around Oxford when he noticed the terrible state of the road that ran through the village of North Hinksey. Reflecting on this, Ruskin had the notion that a spot of road-paving would be just the thing for Oxford undergraduates. Not only would the exercise improve the village amenities but it would also teach the young men of the University something about ‘the pleasures of useful muscular work’.
Ruskin recruited about a dozen young men, mostly from Balliol College, and set to them to work under his supervision. In a letter to his friend Henry Acland, Ruskin characterized the project in terms of beauty as well as utility:
Now that country road under the slope of the hill, with its irregular line of trees sheltering it not darkening it, is capable of being made one of the loveliest things in this English world by only a little tenderness and patience, in may labour. We can get all stagnant water carried away of course, and we can make the cottages more healthy; and the walk, within little time and slight strength from Oxford, far more beautiful than any college garden can be.
In addition to paving the road, the Diggers, as they became known, were instructed by Ruskin to plant flowers along the banks and lay a village green, Ruskin also sought to encourage the villagers to tidy the moss and weeds from their cottage doorsteps.
The project attracted much mockery at the time and some University wags would stroll out to North Hinksey on an afternoon to amuse themselves by watching and teasing the amateur navvies. The mockery only increased when the scholars proved unable to lay the paving stones correctly. Even Ruskin had to admit that the only level parts of the new road were due to the efforts of his gardener, summoned from the Ruskin country house.
One of the gang, LR Farnell, writing fifty years later, recalled
As I heard that those who obeyed [Ruskin’s] call had a good chance of being invited to breakfast by him, and I was most anxious to meet the great man, I went forth and for a long afternoon shovelled away the mud under the prophet’s eye. I found the toil more tiring and less attractive than rowing and equally unproductive; for he never asked me to breakfast; and as Troy’s wall was taken at the place where a mortal had built it, so — as I heard afterwards — a farmer’s cart lost a wheel on our road at the place where my hands had laboured.
(An Oxonian Looks Back – LR Farnell)
Not all the scholar navvies were as dryly cynical about the exercise as Farnell. Some were genuinely inspired by Ruskin’s fusion of aesthetic and social concerns. Among them were Arnold Toynbee, the historian and social reformer, and Hardwicke Rawnsley, priest and founder of the National Trust. A more improbable member of the gang was Oscar Wilde. Recalling the undertaking five years later, Wilde wrote:
So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.
(‘Art and the Handicraftsman’ – Oscar Wilde)
Twenty years later, Wilde had to take up a pick and shovel again, when he was sentenced to two years’ penal servitude with hard labour following his prosecution for gross indecency
The poor workmanship meant that the efforts of the Diggers were soon erased. The final verdict of the district surveyor was that ‘the young men have done no mischief to speak of’. The only trace of Ruskin’s efforts in North Hinksey now is the cottage known as Ruskin’s Cottage, named so not because he ever stayed there but because he admired its simple, rustic beauty.
On a recent trip to Glastonbury, I noticed a couple of reports in the local newspaper about the sabotage of water management infrastructure on the Somerset Levels. One of the stations that pumps out the water from the network of drainage channels, known in Somerset as rhynes, was blown up with an IED, causing flooding of the surrounding land. In another incident, a stolen digger was used to breach one of the embankment walls of the River Parrett, again leading to extensive flooding. The press coverage was brief and all it added to the barest facts was that the Avon and Somerset Constabulary was ‘keeping an open mind’.
The enterprise of reclaiming the Somerset Levels from the element of water and then protecting them from inundation has gone on for centuries. Long ago, this area of the West Country was virtually an inland sea, and the Isle of Avalon, with Glastonbury Tor at its heights, was its dominant feature. Water and its management has a social and historical significance in this part of the world unmatched anywhere in Britain except for the Fens.
While the newspapers and the police may have been low-key in their responses, in the town I found a more unsettled reaction. There were dark mutterings in the shops and the pubs about an underground organization known by the initials of MGAA, standing for Make Glastonbury Avalon Again. As an outsider, I had no idea what that meant or how the group was linked to those acts of sabotage.
I tried making some discreet enquiries but was met with incomprehension, silence and, in some cases, hostility. And whoever and whatever the group was, it had no digital presence: no social media accounts, no email addresses, no search results. It was a chance meeting in a café on Glastonbury High Street that eventually brought me into contact with them. I was reading, or should I say re-reading, my battered copy of Geoffrey Ashe’s King Arthur’s Avalon, when I heard a low voice say, ‘He will return’.
I looked up and saw a bearded young man looking at me from a nearby table. ‘Geoffrey Ashe?’ I said, knowing that Ashe had died earlier this year and wondering if he hadn’t heard the news. He shook his head. ‘No, the king. Restore Avalon and the king will return.’ ‘Ah, you mean King Arthur.’ I said. He smiled the smile of the initiate and rose from his chair, pausing by my table only to pass me a small card. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said, but he only laughed and left the café.
I sprang up from my chair, about to follow him, but then remembered I hadn’t paid for my coffee. By the time I’d done so he’d have been out of sight. I sat down again and looked at what he’d given me. It was the size of a business card, matt black, and on one side were the letters MGAA in silver. On the other, in smaller type, the following: ‘All written communications to be left in the copy of Dion Fortune’s Avalon of the Heart in the quiet room of the Magdalene Almshouses.’ At last I had an entry point.
The Royal Magdalene Almshouses are attached to St Margaret’s Chapel on Magdalene Street in Glastonbury. It took me only a few minutes to walk there. I found the room and the book, and left a note there, asking for a meeting with the MGAA leadership. I told them that I had to leave the town in a couple of days, that I would like to learn more about their campaign, and assured them that I would keep their identities secret. I gave them my mobile number and my hotel address.
There were no other notes left in the book, which I took as a sign that it was checked regularly. As I left I couldn’t help scrutinizing the gardener working on a flowerbed. Was he an agent of MGAA? Was it his job to check the book? He looked up from his plants, apparently aware that I was examining him, coughed, and spat into the soil. I decided not to approach him but left the almshouses and waited impatiently for a response.
It came the following morning. When I went downstairs to breakfast, the receptionist called out to me. ‘A grubby-looking gentleman left this for you early this morning,’ she said frostily, holding out an envelope between her thumb and forefinger, as if she thought she might catch something from it. It was clear at that moment that my reputation among the hotel staff had taken a tumble. I was now known as an associate of ‘grubby-looking gentlemen’. The envelope too was grubby and creased, as if it had been carried by hand across fields and along tracks. I thanked her and sat down at my breakfast table to read the letter it contained.
The message was short and to the point. I was invited to meet two representatives of MGAA at noon in a room above an esoteric bookshop on Glastonbury High Street. They were aware of my blog (this blog) and appeared to assume that while I mightn’t be wholly sympathetic, I wouldn’t be hostile. It was impossible to know if that was true or not because I still knew nothing of their purposes.
I arrived at the bookshop at the appointed time and, after showing the letter of invitation to the woman at the counter, was taken to an upstairs room. The curtains were drawn and the only light came from a single candle. There was a sweet scent of incense and something more earthy beneath it. A man and a woman, both young, perhaps in their twenties, I guessed, sat on a sofa covered with a red and green throw. I say, ‘guessed’, because they were both wearing ski masks. And both were dressed as if for action, clad in black sweaters, cargo pants, and boots.
I was invited to sit in a chair opposite the pair. ‘So you want to know more about us?’ the woman said. ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘So you can attack us?’ ‘No.’ ‘So you can shop us to the police?’ ‘Certainly not!’ ‘Then why? Do you want to join us?’ ‘Well, if I knew what you’re trying to do…’ ‘And then what? When you know what we’re trying to do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ This wasn’t going how I’d planned or expected. I was the one being questioned. The woman looked at the man. ‘Why are we here? What’s the point?’ ‘We need to start communicating our aims,’ he said. ‘The mainstream media won’t take us seriously at the moment so we have to start somewhere.’ ‘Yes, somewhere,’ she said, looking at me. I could imagine the withering look concealed under her ski-mask. The man took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. ‘We’ve prepared a statement. I’ll read it first and then you can ask questions.’ He cleared his throat.
‘The world is in crisis. Nature is in crisis. Our island is in crisis. Humanity has been diverted from its true path and lost touch with its true nature. In ancient times, St Collen was invited by Gwynn ap Nudd, king of the fairy folk, to visit his castle on Glastonbury Tor. This Christian fanatic betrayed the king’s hospitality by scattering so-called holy water throughout the castle, causing it and its inhabitants to vanish. The human race and the fairy race were split asunder, and Gwynn ap Nudd and his court left Glastonbury. ‘Then, in later times, the waters that surrounded the Isle of Avalon were drained, banishing the water fairies, including Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. Avalon was desacralized, its borders erased. But it endured as a myth and a spiritual locus. Even the Christians had to recognize that eventually. Now, at this moment of existential crisis, it is time to restore the physical Avalon, to bind it once again to the Avalon of the heart, ushering in a new era. Make Glastonbury Avalon Again!’
We were all silent for a moment. I felt the onus to say something was on me. ‘One of your supporters said to me yesterday, “Restore Avalon and the king will return”. I thought he was talking about King Arthur but I suppose he meant Gwynn ap Nudd.’ ‘Both kings will return,’ the man said. ‘The human king and the fairy king. Two races of beings, two kings, you see.’ ‘But when Arthur does return he’ll have to change his ways,’ the woman said. ‘All that toxic masculinity, that controlling relationship with Guinevere, that phallic sword-waving — that’s over. He’ll have to understand that the Earth goddess reigns over all kings, be they human or fairy. Both Gwynn ap Nudd and Arthur must acknowledge her primacy.’ ‘And so,’ I said, ‘your group blew up the pumping station and breached the dyke with the aim of restoring Avalon by turning Glastonbury into an island again?’ ‘Yes,’ they said in unison. ‘And once that’s achieved, everything else will follow?’ ‘Yes,’ the woman said. ‘The cosmic balance will have been restored, the sacred waters will surround the island, the kings and their courts will return.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘We must go.’ ‘How many of you are there?’ ‘Enough,’ the man said. ‘And we have to be careful who we admit. There are police spies, NFU spies, and Natural England spies all trying to infiltrate us. At first, we wanted to build a mass movement. We set up a website and social media accounts. We had t-shirts and caps printed with the MGAA initials. But we soon realized we’d all be rounded up and arrested if we were open about it. This sacred work must be the work of a vanguard, a few totally dedicated people.’ ‘What’s next for you?’ I said. ‘Those incidents were just practice runs. The real campaign starts this year.’ ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll get arrested — or lynched by farmers whose land you’ve submerged?’ He shook his head. ’We’re on the right side of history.’ ‘And we have the goddess and the fairies on our side,’ the woman added.
I had to wait in the room when they left so that I couldn’t follow them. I heard them lock the door behind them. It was twenty minutes before the bookshop owner let me out. Feeling quite light-headed, I walked through the town and up to the summit of the Tor. I stared out across the Somerset Levels. All that flat land waiting to be inundated. I tried to imagine what it looked like back in the days of Avalon. And I wondered if the two kings, Arthur and Gwynn ap Nudd, were waiting and watching too.
I’ve had no more contact with the MGAA people since that meeting. But I’m checking the Somerset news sites every week for more reports of water management sabotage. Can they really make it happen?