Thursday, 21 June 2012

Brandon Hill – the hill formerly known as Mutton Tump

Evidence of Bristol's pre-Christian and Welsh speaking past?

Reading the news, via Bristol 24-7, that there are plans to conduct an archaeological study of College Green, prompted me once again to revisit the hodge podge of notes I have collected over the years regarding the history of the site and its surrounding area. 

The College Green site itself is obviously historic with St Augustine's Abbey, now Bristol Cathedral, having been founded there in the 1140's, followed in the 1220's by the building of the Hospital of St Mark's (better known as Gaunt's Hospital), on the opposite side of the Green. There are several reasons for supposing that its religious significance might go back much earlier, and this will be returned to on this site at a later date.

However, it is not the hillock or mound now known as College Green I want to talk about in this article. It is its much higher neighbour Brandon Hill, separated from College Green by what was once a gulley running roughly along the line of Frogmore Street.

Brandon Hill has considerable historical significance of its own. In 1174 the summit of Brandon Hill was given to St James' Priory. As a result, a chapel dedicated to St Brendan the navigator, the patron saint of seafarers and mariners, was established. William Worcestre in his detailed description of Bristol in 1480 called it  “the church of the hermitage upon the very high hill of St Brandon”.

It appears therefore that today's more commonly known name of Brandon Hill may be derived from the establishment of the 12th century chapel. Local tradition has an alternative name for the hill, which, for reasons explored below, probably pre-dates the chapel's construction: this name is Mutton Tump.

The usual explanation for the name of Mutton Tump is that it simply refers to the fact that sheep used to graze on the hill. “Sheep Hill” would seem to be a more obvious name, nevertheless the use of the word "mutton" to refer to the animal itself rather than just its meat can be traced back to the early 14th century. It is still used in this way in New Zealand today.

However, what we may have with Mutton Tump is a situation where an element of a name which was taken from a lost language, having lost its meaning, mutates into something that seems meaningful in the current language.

An example is the village name of Churchill in Somerset where the first element "Church" actually comes from the Celtic crug meaning “hill”.  Anglo-Saxon speakers not knowing the meaning mutated it into the similar sounding "church" and then added their own word for “hill” to create Churchill. 

Obviously the change from Celtic "crug" into English "church" coulld only happen if there was actually a church on the hill to prompt the change.

If something similar has happened with "Mutton Tump", we need to try and work out what the original was.

Brandon Hill is not the only “Mutton Tump” in the Bristol area. At one end of Dundry Hill is the iron age fort known as Maes Knoll.  At one  end of the fort is a massive mound which, in my childhood, older people referred to as “Mutton Tump”. 

The third “Mutton Tump” in the Bristol area is the Netham recreation ground in Barton Hill. This low hill is on the border of the two Domesday manors of Barton (belonging to the King) and Blackswarth, which later became a possession of the Abbey of St Augustine. It is just to the south of the old Roman road from Bath to the sea port at Sea Mills.

Outside of Bristol, the Mutton Tumps I can find are all in Wales. Cwmparc in the Rhondda, Pontycymer in Bridgend, Blaina in Monmouthshire, Senghenydd in Caerphilly, another in Pontypridd, and so on.

Given the number of Mutton Tumps in Wales, and the fact that two of the three Mutton Tumps in Bristol are close to pre-Anglo-Saxon constructions (an Iron Age fort and a Roman road), prompts the question whether there might be a Romano-British/Welsh element to the name.

"Tump” initially seemed to me to be an obviously English word, and a check of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explained its meaning as;
1, A hillock, mound, a mole-hill, or ant-hill; a barrow, tumulus
2, A clump of trees or shrubs; a clump of grass, esp. one forming a dry spot in a bog or fen.

The OED went on to say that the word was not found in English before the end of the 16th century. It also said that it was a local word, chiefly found in western England and the west midlands. It also decribed the word's origin as obscure.
However, the OED then went on to mention that there was an equivalent Welsh “twmp”, and also a related Welsh word “twmpath” - "a clump or tuft of rough grass, a barrow or tumulus".

OED also states that "twmpath"  is found in the Mabinogion – the collection of stories taken from medieval Welsh manuscripts and drawing on pre-Christian mythology.

The texts of the Mabinogion are, of course, considerably older than the 16th century, dating back as they do to the 11th and 12th centuries. Although the OED suggests that the Welsh “twmp” may have come from the English “tump”, this looks like a Romano-British/Welsh word travelling in the opposite direction – that rare thing, an Anglo-Saxon word borrowing from the Romano-British.

“Twmpath” also means much more than just a clump of grass, a barrow or tumulus.

Twmpath is the Welsh equivalent of the Irish ceili and is associated in particular with the celebrations of “Calan Haf or “Calan Mai” (May Day) when the village green (“twmpath chwarae”) was opened at the beginning of Beltane, the season of warmth and growth.

Through the summer months in some Welsh villages, the people would gather on the twmpath chwarae, (literally, tump for playing), the village green, in the evenings to dance and play various sports. The green was usually situated on the top of a hill and a mound was made where the fiddler or harpist sat. Sometimes branches of oak decorated the mound and the people would dance in a circle around it.”

So the impression given is that “tump” is likely derived from the Welsh “twmp” and is used of a mound (perhaps a barrow or tumulus of ancestral significance to the community) on top of a hill.  It is perhaps associated with a clump of trees, and is the location of summer dances and celebrations, associated with British or “Celtic” pre-Christian religious rituals.

A clump of trees associated with Celtic pre-Christian religious rituals in this way might also be described as a sacred grove, known as a Nemeton.

"A nemeton was a sacred space of ancient Celtic religion. Nemeta appear to have been primarily situated in natural areas, and, as they often utilised trees, they are often interpreted as sacred groves" 
Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia

The word is related to the Nemetes tribe living alongside the Rhine and their goddess Nemetona. However we can bring the goddess Nemetona much closer to home thanks to a Roman altar stone found in Bath which has the following inscription;

(Peregrinus, son of Secundus, a citizen of the Treveri, to Loucetius Mars and Nemetona willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow).

Peregrine's tribe, the Treveri, with their centre at Augusta Treverorum (modern day Trier in Germany), were the neighbouring tribe to the Nemetes. Tribal territories were often in a state of flux but the Nemetes lived alongside the Rhine with the Treveri to their immediate west. As neighbours, it might be expected that they would share and exchange cultural beliefs such as that of the goddess Nemetona.

However, in the third century AD, these and other tribes living in the Rhineland were about to experience a major disruption.

In the third century, the Roman Empire experienced a severe crisis, as large numbers of “barbarians” crossed the Rhine. Villa owners in the lands belonging to the Treveri suffered particular devastation. 

The effect of the onslaught appears to have so weakened the confidence of many of the Treveri and their neighbours that large numbers, especially the wealthy elite, emmigrated looking for land and opportunities elsewhere that seemed to offer a more secure future.

Meanwhile Roman Britain had been left relatively unscathed, but the Bristol area, in comparison to some other parts of Roman Britain, especially the territory around Cirencester in the Cotswolds, seemed to be lagging behind in terms of the number and quality of its villas and other signs of Roman cultural development. 

It has been suggested that part of the reason for this lag was that the Bristol area with its considerable mineral resources such as lead and iron ore and its military port and roads had been placed under direct imperial and military rule. As a result, unlike the Cirencester area in particular, there was limited opportunity for conspicuous displays of wealth and culture by private estate owners

However, in the last quarter of  the 3rd century and into the 4th century, there appears to have been significant new developments in villa architecture, mosaics, and other infrastructure. 

This has been linked to what might be called a period of “privatisation” probably related to a large scale migration of relatively wealthy refugees from the devastated Roman territories along the Rhine and the need for the empire to sell off imperial assets to raise funds to fight the "barbarians" at the gates of the Roman Empire. 

A number of villas in the Bristol area built during this boom period have features linked to a Rhineland influence including Kings Weston, Somerdale near Keynsham, Brislington and Chew Park.

It is to be expected that these  incomers would also bring their own religious practices along with them, including the practice of establishing sacred groves for the purposes of religious rituals, as well as their name for these sacred groves; Nemeton.

This brings us back to Mutton Tump. If Tump is indeed simply an Anglicisation of the Welsh “twmp”, what about the first element; Mutton? 

Is it too much to suggest that it derives from Nemeton, its original meaning forgotten as English replaced Welsh.  With Christianity becoming the dominant religion, pagan practices and sites were increasingly airbrushed out of history. 

This was as instructed by Pope Gregory in his 7th century letter to Abbot Melitus before the Abbot joined St Augustine in his mission to convert the pagan English;

"Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

In such a situation it is perhaps easy to imagine how “neh-MEH-tun” could initially lose its first syllable, and then, later still, in the same way that Celtic “crug” turned into English “church”, the remaining “MEH-tun” could mutate into “MUHT-tun”.  Thus Nemeton Twmp becomes Mutton Tump. 
Unfortunately, clumps of trees tend not to leave much of an archaeological presence, and, in any case, any trace is likely to have been destroyed, if not by the creation of St Brendan's chapel in the 12th century, then certainly by the building of the 17th century civil war defences on the same site. 

By the time Cabot Tower was built in 1897, it is unlikely that there will have been anything left to find, even if something had been there to find in the first place.

Therefore it seems that we may never know if Brandon Hill really was a Nemeton – unless of course, it is by inference from a discovery made at one of the other Mutton Tumps.

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