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Ancient Taplow

Eric Fitch

During the hot summer of 1995 an exciting discovery was made when the parched grass revealed the plan of a now-demolished church which once sat in close proximity to a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow, Buckingham-shire (175:SU906823). The observation was was made by David Went, of English Heritage, and with the help of an English Heritage inspector, David Stocker, they measured the parch marks. These revealed details that were not compatible with illustrations of the medieval church. What had showed up was indicative of an early Anglo-Saxon church, with small side chapels, or porticos) and a possible apse at the end of the chancel. These foundations could date from around 700, making it one of the earliest churches in the country. Taeppa’s mound.

Taplow derives its name from the Old English Taeppa, a personal name, and hlaw, denoting a mound, which refers to the the great Anglo-Saxon burial mound still to be seen in the grounds of Taplow Court Estate. Taplow Court house and the surrounding estate stand at the top of Berry Hill which overlooks the River Thames. The name ‘Berry’ originates from ‘bury’, meaning a fortified place, which no doubt refers to the iron age earthworks enclosing the area in which the mound is situated, but which are barely visible nowadays.

Taplow burial mound (29k)

Photograph by Bob Trubshaw

Taeppa’s burial mound is 15 feet high, 80 feet in diameter, 240 feet in circumference and stands in the grounds of the churchyard which contained the original Taplow church, which was demolished in the last century. The churchyard survives within the grounds of Taplow Court Estate and is still owned by the Church of England. In 1883 James Rutland, a local antiquary, decided to excavate the mound, which proved to be the richest Anglo-Saxon burial discovered, only to be surpassed by Sutton Hoo many years later. The initial cuttings into the mound produced merely earth and gravel together with various flints, worked bone, animal bones and pieces of pottery. Eventually the excavators dug to a depth of five feet below the mound’s base where they found the grave of Taeppa himself.

Of his body all that remained were fragments of a thigh bone and vertebrae. The grave area was 12 feet by 8 feet with a floor of fine gravel and the chamber had been constructed of wood. The grave goods were the highlights of the excavation and included:

- a gold buckle, four inches long and four ounces in weight
- a pair of gilt bronze clasps
- remains of six drinking horns with gilt silver mounts and terminals
- four glass ‘claw’ beakers
- bone gaming pieces
- a gold fringe, originally attached to a garment
- an iron sword, three spear heads, two shield bosses and a knife
- a bronze Coptic bowl
- a large bronze-lined cauldron
- two wooden buckets with decorated bronze rim bands
- two crescent-shaped bronze ornaments, thought to be part of a harp.

The wealth discovered indicates that the person buried beneath the mound was a man of considerable status. The grave’s contents point to a date of around AD 620, roughly contemporary with Sutton Hoo. We can surmise that Taeppa was a local chieftain and it has been suggested that he was a relative of King Raedwald of East Anglia (who was possibly buried at Sutton Hoo) and that the king installed him in south Buckinghamshire to hold off the West Saxons.

At the time Taeppa was interred, the Anglo-Saxons practised both inhumation and cremation, cemeteries being the norm for the ordinary person and barrows reserved for the nobility. There is scant literary evidence for pagan burial practices, Anglo-Saxon literature not coming in to its own until the Christian era. The rites which were enacted at the time of Taeppa’s burial are difficult to ascertain but some idea can be gleaned from the funeral ceremonies that took place after the death of Beowulf, the hero of the great Old English poem.

Although Beowulf himself was cremated on a grand funeral pyre adorned with shields and helmets, his ashes were afterwards placed in a tumulus erected in a high position, as at Taplow, which was visible from a great distance. In the barrow was placed a great treasure of gold along with the ashes, and the whole was enclosed in a fine vault. This completed, twelve chieftains rode around the barrow, reciting an elegy and speaking of their heroic king. Perhaps Beowulf’s soul then entered the abode of Woden - Valhalla - where warriors feasted in a great hall and indulged in ever-lasting battle. This may well be the scenario which surrounded Taeppa’s death and burial - which was soon to disappear for good with the arrival of St Birinus at Taplow. However, even after the arrival of Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons were superstitious people, revering trees and wells, using charms and incantations and believing in supernatural beings such as elves and dragons - both of whom were thought to inhabit mounds. There is a village in Derbyshire called Drakelow, meaning ‘dragon’s mound’ and the dragon was a favourite motif in Anglo-Saxon artwork, the Sutton Hoo shield having one featured as decoration. Beowulf contains the tale of a dragon who guarded buried treasure within an ancient tumulus. This is an example of the awe in which burial mounds were held and the mysteries and legends attaching to them. It is also indicative of treasure lying hidden inside such mounds and the idea that they should not be disturbed.

An iron sword was found in the grave, confirming the exalted status of Taeppa, since the sword was mainly the weapon of the nobility. The standard of workmanship for such weapons and their scabbards was invariably extremely high, the importance of the smith being shown by the reverence shown to the mythological figure of Wayland the Smith. Swords were regarded as being imbued with magical power and their possession indicated wealth and position. Some even had names, such as Beowulf’s, which was called Naegling. Such was the importance of these weapons that the narrative of Beowulf’s terrible fight with the dragon was interrupted by a description of Naegling’s history. Sometimes magic inscriptions were written on the sword in runes. One excavated in Kent was inscribed with the runic letter ‘tir’ and this probably indicates the first letter of the war-god Tiw and represents an invocation to the god. Unfortunately, Taeppa’s sword was too rusted for any detail to be discerned.

Taeppa’s mound has provided us with a fascinating story and a wealth of objects to study. The barrow itself is well worth visiting and has probably been attracting attention ever since it was constructed. Such an edifice was often a meeting place and it is known that the Anglo-Saxons used barrows for their moots. They were often built some distance away from habitation sites, and that they were held in awe as places of sanctity is shown by the story of St Guthlac. This holy man wished to live a life of solitude and he discovered a remote island in the fens of East Anglia. There he found a large tumulus which had a hole in one side following earlier tomb robbing, and here he built a dwelling. However, legend has it that he had to fend off terrible spirits and this story offers another example of supernatural beings inhabiting burial mounds.

Seemingly the tradition among the Anglo-Saxons for building barrows was restricted to the seventh century. Taeppa’s mound, dating as it does to about 620, fits this well and is probably a relic of one of the last official pagan rites to have taken place in this locality, for about twenty years later St Birinus was on the scene, preaching about a different god.

Bapsey Pond

Another feature of the Taplow Court Estate is a once-sacred pool, called Bapsey Pond. Legend has it that about 642 St Birinus converted to local pagan Anglo-Saxons by baptising them in the waters of Bapsey Pond. The name ‘Bapsey’ appears on the oldest maps of the area and is a contraction of the word ‘baptism’ but it is likely that the pond itself has been revered since the earliest of times.

Today Bapsey Pond lies a couple of hundred yards down Berry Hill from Taeppa’s mound and is a pond, not very large, surrounded by small trees and foliage (896823). It is set in a layer of clay and the depression which forms the shape of the pond is continually filled from a spring situated in the gravel layer above. Originally the spring would have been seen to flow out of the ground near the site of the old church at the top of the hill, but it was culverted in the early nineteenth century and now runs underground.

St Augustine is attributed as the first missionary to England in 597 but his mission did not have the hoped-for far-reaching effects and when Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, defeated and slew the recently-converted King Edwin of Northumbria in 633, Pope Honorius decided that another mission was called for. Birinus was the man chosen for the job and he was sent as a free agent. So we find him crossing the English Channel but, before he reached our shores, a remarkable event occurred. He was accustomed to carry the holy sacrament wrapped in a linen cloth and hanging from his neck. On this occasion he accidentally left it at the port and, descending from the ship to the sea, he walked upon the water back to the port, picked up the sacrament and re-embarked without a drop of water upon his person. Not surprisingly, after this miraculous feat, he made a number of converts on board!

Birinus died in 649-50 and was buried at Dorchester upon Thames. There is an interesting story concerning his death. It is said that he died as a result of an adder’s bite while he was in the Chiltern woods and that thereafter no adder could live within the sound of Dorchester’s church bells.

In the missionary days of St Augustine and St Birinus the aim was to eradicate paganism. Early in St Augustine’s ministry, in 601, a letter from Pope Gregory to the Bishop of London, Mellitus, exhorted him not to destroy the heathen temples and idols butt o adapt them, sprinkling them with holy water and installing altars and holy relics. In the case of springs and wells, their water was adapted for baptismal purposes. This scenario matches the Taplow situation well, as here we have a church (although no longer extant) standing next to a pagan burial mound and near a sacred pool.

It is easy to imagine this early missionary standing on the great pagan mound of Taeppa, preaching to the forgathered local inhabitants. The site will already have been holy to them, although without Christian connotations, and perhaps this familiarity made it easier for St Birinus to lead them down to Bapsey Pond and to baptise those willing to be converted to the Faith. This must have seemed strange to some, since the interment of Taeppa was still within living memory.

The witches’ revenge

This is not the end of Bapsey Pond’s story, however. In the early nineteenth century Taplow Court was purchased by the Grenfell family, at which time the adjacent church had become little more than a ruin. The Grenfells decided to enlarge their estate to take in the old churchyard and so had the remains of the church demolished and a new one built in the village centre. At this time the spring rising from near the church which fed Bapsey Pool was culverted and the pond itself lined with brick.

Local tradition has it that the local witches were not at all pleased with these alterations and cursed the Grenfell family, decreeing that the ownership of the estate would never descend from father to son. Not only was the family generally considered by the locals to be ill-omened, but history has borne out the notion in that the three sons of William Henry Grenfell, Lord Desborough, were all killed before their time. Julian and Billy, both scholars, poets and sportsmen, who would doubtless have risen to eminent positions had they lived, both died at Ypres during the First World War. The third son was killed in a car accident in 1926.

The witches’ concern with the Grenfells’ activities was probably instigated by the fate of the spring rather than that of the church. It would have been considered a desecration to culvert the spring with its sacred waters, and such an act would have to be paid for by the family who perpetrated the deed. Possibly the spring was dedicated by the witches to Anu, since wells and springs were often dedicated to her. Their names were later Christianised to the more acceptable St Anne. There is a Queen Anne’s House opposite the entrance to Taplow Court. A final link with the local witches may be through the sacred yew tree. In common with most churchyards, where yew trees were planted as a protection against storms raised by witches, yews grew at Taplow Court. Indeed, a large yew tree stood on Taeppa’s mound itself until it was blown down in a storm just before the mound was excavated in 1883.

Notes

Taplow Court Estate is privately owned by the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, but there is a public right of way through the drive to the old churchyard where the mound is situated. The churchyard is an atmospheric spot, the mound being surrounded by ancient tombs and gravestones, including that of James Rutland.

The path leading past Bapsey Pond, however, is on private property and permission must be obtained to visit the pond. Taplow Court house and grounds are open of selected days during the summer, when Bapsey Pond can be visited. The house contains a mural showing the history of Taplow, including St Birinus, as well as a full-size model reconstruction of Taeppa in his mound surrounded by his grave goods.

The treasures of Taeppa’s mound are on display in the British Museum, London (Early Medieval Room) in two cabinets adjacent to the Sutton Hoo displays.

This article has been adapted from the author’s book Unknown Taplow (Windsor Publications 1988).

Thanks to Michael Farley, Buckinghamshire County Archaeologist, for information on the recent parch marks.

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.


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