Place & Past in Medieval England: Nicholas Orme Asks What Sense Medieval English People Had of the Land They Lived in, and What Ancient Sites and Natural Wonders Did They Visit
Orme, Nicholas, History Today
We live in a commemorating age. We remember our past with centenaries. We care for historic sites. We celebrate our landscape by climbing its highest points and exploring its deepest ones. We visit its extremities, Land's End and John o'Groats, or travel between the two. Did our medieval ancestors do the same? They had great regard for the past. They wrote hundreds of history books. They remembered the great and the rich with statues, tombs and prayers. But were they aware of places with geographical or historical significance?
The short answer is that they were. From early on, historians of Britain or England began their works with brief accounts of the land they were describing. By the ninth century these accounts included 'wonders'--mountains, caves and rivers with mysterious properties. The Welsh writer or writers now known as Nennius (fl.c.770-c.810) pioneered this kind of description, which was followed in the twelfth century by authors like Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1088-c. 1157), Geoffrey of Monmouth, (d. 1154/5) and Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1220). The first detailed maps of Britain date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they list a number of important geographical sites. Monks of St Albans produced a group of four maps in about 1250, and the unique Gough Map dates from about 1360. Finally there were antiquaries: William Worcester, who rode through southern England in 1478-80, and John Leland, who did the same on a larger scale around England and Wales between about 1533 and 1543. Both observed the landscape and buildings they passed on their travels.
The Romans worked out Britain's approximate shape and dimensions. They visualized it as a vertical island, 800 miles from north to south and 200 from east to west, with promontories. Later writers and map-makers accepted this model. In 997 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a name for Land's End--Penwithsteort, meaning the 'tail' of Penwith (the far west part of Cornwall), and in 1337 we first hear of Londeseynde which came to be the common word to use. By the twelfth century, Cornwall was regarded as one of Britain's key extremities. In fact, the isles of Scilly were further still, but they were small and rarely feature in medieval sources.
The other end was less familiar. The Romans knew that the Orkneys lay beyond the north end of Britain, and some medieval writers took greater interest in them than in the north end of Scotland. But by at least the thirteenth century there was knowledge of a northerly point of the Scottish mainland. One of the St Albans maps states that 'England is 800 miles in longitude from [Land's End] which place is beyond St Michael's Mount in Cornwall [to] Caithness'. It adds that 'the latitude is 300 miles from St Davids [to] Dover.' The St Albans cartographer, then, had a concept similar to ours of Lands End to John o'Groats and even gave the distance, although the traditional measurement is a little short of the 875 miles that are normally reckoned today.
If the ends of Britain were known about, did people visit them? John o'Groats was inaccessible because Scotland was independent and often hostile. Cornwall was different. The St Albans map maker knew that its furthest point lay beyond St Michael's Mount, and Worcester noted the distance, nine miles further. But we rarely hear of journeys to Land's End. One bishop of Exeter, John Grandisson, may have gone there because he was interested that Cornwall lay next to the boundless ocean, and he visited the nearest two churches to Land's End in 1336. Worcester visited the Mount in 1478 but did not bother to go on, although he knew the distance. Leland did better. He made two visits to Cornwall, in about 1533 and in 1542, and reached at least once what he calls 'the south-west point' of England, probably not Land's End itself but Treryn Dinas near Penberth. …