Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Chronicle of Melrose

Melrose Abbey, on the Scottish border, mentioned in connection with St. Cuthbert, is historically significant for other reasons. Many Scottish kings are buried there, and a stone coffin found in 1812 under an aisle in the south of the abbey was speculated to be that of the "wizard" Michael Scot. And although Robert Bruce was said to have been buried in Dunfermline Abbey, his embalmed heart was supposedly buried on the grounds of Melrose, encased in lead.

The Abbey had a checkered history. Long after Cuthbert's time, it was damaged in 839. King David I of Scotland (1084-1153) wanted it rebuilt, but the Cistercians who would populate it picked a different site with more fertile land for farming. It was rebuilt and its church dedicated in 1146. In 1322, much of the Abbey was destroyed by Edward II of England (1284-1327). It was rebuilt by Robert the Bruce. In 1385 it was burned by the forces of Richard II of England (although he did grant them some money in 1389 in compensation). Rebuilding began again, but stalled. At the beginning of the 16th century, it still wasn't complete. That was probably just as well, since in 1544 the Abbey was again damaged by English forces attempting to force the marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and the son of Henry VIII. And of course, Oliver Cromwell felt the need to bombard it with cannon fire in the 1640s, even though it hadn't held a monk since 1590.

As well as majestic ruins and burial legends (and the ghostly monks said to walk the grounds), Melrose left us something else. Not directly though: it was found in the Cotton Library as Faustina B.x, and investigation traced its origin to Melrose.

Page for 1246, 1247, 1248
The Chronicle of Melrose has two sections. The first, covering from 735 until 1140 (the new founding), is a summary of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other works, including that of Roger of Hoveden. It adds nothing new to our knowledge. The second section, from 1140 until 1270, is unique. The handwriting changes over time, suggesting that it was added to contemporaneously by eyewitnesses, rather than compiled all at once like the first section.

As a singular Scottish viewpoint on events, it is invaluable. A 1263 battle between Norway and Scotland is part of a saga written by Icelandic historian Sturla Thordarson (1218-1284). The Chronicle of Melrose offers a second viewpoint from the Scottish side, confirming the fact of the conflict—if not precisely the same details. A series of mis-steps caused the Norwegian forces to cede valuable ground and, in deteriorating weather, they retreated. The monks' Chronicle puts it a little differently:
A.D.1263.  ... it was not man's power which drove him away, but the power of God which crushed his ships, and sent a pestilence among his troops. Such of them as mustered to engage on the third day after the feast of Michaelmas, God defeated and slew by means of the foot-men of the country. Thus they were compelled to carry off their wounded and slain to their ships, and to return home in more disgraceful plight than they had left it.
The Chronicle also gives us a list of deaths and promotions of abbots and lords and high-ranking laymen, radical weather and the appearance of comets, the ups and downs of political figures in Scotland and the northern English shires, and the earliest list extant of Scottish kings. It's another valuable tool in piecing together the complex history of the Middle Ages.

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