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Map of the world from the Polychronicon. Britain is the red blob at the bottom left (east is at the top).

The Polychronicon is a famous medieval book written by Chester monk Ranulf Higden. Higden (c. 1280 - c. 1363), was an English chronicler and a Benedictine of the monastery of St. Werburgh in Chester, wherein he lived, it is said, for sixty-four years, and died at "a good old age", probably around 1363. He is believed to have been born in the West of England, took the monastic vow, at Chester in 1299, and seems to have travelled over the north of England. The book is commonly styled "Polychronicon", although the original title is "Ranuiphi Castrensis, cognomine Higdon, Polychronicon (sive Historia Polycratica) ab initio mundi usque ad mortem regis Edwardi III in septem libros dispositum".

The work is divided into seven books, in imitation of the seven days of Genesis, and, with exception of the last book, is a summary of general history. Written in Latin, it was translated into English by John of Trevisa (1387), and printed by Caxton (1482), and by others. It is the last major "Chronicle" and follows in the tradition of the "Chester chronicle". During Mediaeval times it was the standard work on general history, and more than a hundred manuscripts of it are known to exist. The Christ Church (Oxford) manuscript states that Higdon wrote it down to the year 1342; the manuscript at Christ's College, Cambridge, states that Higden wrote to the year 1344.

The book is full of fascinating insights as to what was known at the time. For example, Higden mentions that the Earth is round, because it casts a round shadow on the moon during an eclipse. Sometimes his geographical knowledge is good at other times bad:

  • "India is terminated in the east with the rising of the sun, to the south with the ocean, to the west with the Indian Ocean and to the north with the hill called the Caucasus. In India live men of a spotted colour and there are found nightingales, elephants, pepper, precious stones, beryls, chalcedony, carbuncles, adamantine and hills of gold. Nevertheless it is impossible to go to them because of dragons and griffins."

Polychronicon and the English language

Higden (who was writing in latin) comments that "there are as many languages as there are different peoples in England", that school children were forced to speak/write French and non-nobles tried to learn/speak French to improve social standing. Higden goes so far as to express suprise that the York dialect cannot be understood by people of the South, and claims that the mixing with foreigners (Danes?) is responsible for that – also the distance from the royal court.

English was certainly under some pressure at the time: Henry IV (1399) was the first post-conquest King of England who was a native speaker of English and in 1401 – De heretico comburendo – was an act of parliament which forbade translation of the Bible into any vernacular, including English. However the Polychronicon was translated into English by John of Trevisa in 1387 and printed (with the addition of an eighth book) by Caxton in 1482. Trevisa made a few changes in his translation and added comments, for example that while French was the dominant language in teaching (grammar school), that changed after the Plague (1348) and that by 1385 all teaching in grammar schools is conducted in English. This led, acording to Trevisa, to the obvious result that English children would learn faster than before. Thus, it has been argued, that at a time when English readers were denied easy access to an English Bible, Trevisa's translation of the universal history given in the Polychronicon provided English readers with accessible biblical paraphrases. This contributed to religious and other debate among the laity.

A second translation was prepared by an anonymous writer, and written between 1432 and 1450. The Polychronicon, with the continuations and the English versions, was edited for the Rolls Series (No. 41) by Churchill Babington (vols. i. and ii.) and Joseph Rawson Lumby (1865–1886). This edition was adversely criticized by Mandell Creighton in the Eng. Hist. Rev. for October 1888.

The Text

Map of Britain from the Polychronicon. Chester is not shown but Bangor is.

Description of Chester

  • "The cyte of legyons that is Chestre in the marches of Englonde towarde Wales betwegne two armes of the see that bee named Dee and Mersey Thys cyte in tyme of Britons was hede and chyefe cyte of all Venedocia that is North Wales This cyte in brytyshe speche bete Carthleon Chestre in Englyshe and Cyte of Legyons also For there laye a wyn ter the legyons that Julius Cezar sent for to wyne Monde And after Claudius Cezar sent legyons out of the cyte for to wynn the islands that be called Orcades Thys cyte hath plente of lyveland of corn of fleshe and specyally of samon Thys cyte receyveth grate marchandyse and sendeth out also Northubres destroyed this cyte sometyne but Elfreda lady of Mercia bylded it agayn and made it mouch more In thys cyte ben ways under erth with vowtes and stone worke wonderfully iwrought three chamberd werkes grete stones igrave with old mennes names there in Thys is that cyte that Ethelfreda king of Northumberlonde destroyed and sloughe there fast by nygh two thousonde monkes of the myn ster of Bangor Thys is the cyte that Kyng Edgar cam to some tyme with seven kyngs that were subject to hym"
  • There be waies heere under the ground vaulted marvelously with stone worke, chambers having arched roofes over had, huge stones engraven with the names of ancient men. Heere also are sometimes digged up peeces of money coined by Julius Caesar and other famous persons, and stamped with their inscriptions


The Polychronicon contains one of the earliest sources for the legend surrounding Werburgh and her arrival in Chester. The relevant passages can be found in book V (Harl Mss 2261):

  • "King Ethelred, uncle to Werburgh made her govenor in diverse places as at Threekingsham, Weedon and Hanbury, [she] dying at at first place and [was] buried at the third, as she commanded in her life, where she lay incorrupte as by three hundred years unto the coming of the Danes. The Danes tarrying in winter at Repton, [with] Burgered king of the Mercians chased away, the citizens of Hanbury, dreading them, went to Chester with the body of that blessed virgin, which reduced at that time to powder. In which city from the time of king Athelstan unto the coming of the Normans into England, secular cannons getting diverse posessions served in that church to the lawe of that virgin, and after that monks."

Hidden Messages

The book contains at least two hidden messages. If the first letters of the chapters which make up book one are selected and arranged in sequence they spell out a phrase in latin:

  • "presentem cronicam compilavit Frater Ranulphus Cestrensis monachus" ("Brother Ranulf, monk of Chester, compiled the present chronicle")

Ranulf actually draws attention to this "acrostic" in his book where he writes: "There is another City of Legions of this name, where the present chronicle was finished, just as the head letters of this first book make clearly accessible". Another hidden message is found in chapter 34, where the first letters of successive words spell "Ranulphus".

  • "R(efert) A(ffirmatum) N(otat) V(ulgatum) L(ibri) P(ost) H(aec) V(t) S(unt)"

Perhaps there are yet more hidden messages in the book...

Elimer/Oliver the "Flying Monk"

Flying Monks

Higden refers to a story of a flying monk named Eilmer from Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, who launched himself from the Abbey's tower with a set of home-made wings. According to the story, he glided "more than a furlong" (a furlong is just over 200 meters), before panic set in and he crashed to the ground. Higden gets the name of the monk wrong, and calls him "Oliver", which means that his supposed landing spot is known as "Oliver's Lane" (and is precisely where modern calculations based on wind currents place his likely landing spot). The gliding flight would have lasted about 15 seconds. Eilmer/Oliver apparently survived the crash with two broken legs, gave up aeronautics and wrote several works on astronomy. William of Malmesbury recorded:

  • "He was a man learned for those times, of ripe old age, and in his early youth had hazarded a deed of remarkable boldness. He had by some means, I scarcely know what, fastened wings to his hands and feet so that, mistaking fable for truth, he might fly like Daedalus, and, collecting the breeze upon the summit of a tower, flew for more than a furlong [201 metres]. But agitated by the violence of the wind and the swirling of air, as well as by the awareness of his rash attempt, he fell, broke both his legs and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure: his forgetting to provide himself a tail."

Eilmer's works, apart from quotations are now sadly lost, as is the pub which once stood nearby - the "Flying Monk", although his astrological treatises apparently still circulated as late as the 16th century.

King Arthur

The page from the Polychonicon with a note about Robin Hood at the bottom.

Higden is quite disparaging about the existence of Arthur, pointing out in no uncertain terms that not only is Geoffrey of Monmouth full of inaccuracy (he is), but that there is no support from other sources. Ranulf writes:

  • "Many men wonder about this Arthur, whom Geoffrey extols so much singly, how the things that are said of him could be true, for, as Geoffrey repeats, he conquered thirty realms. If he subdued the king of France to him, and did slay Lucius the Procurator of Rome, Italy, then it is astonishing that the chronicles of Rome, of France, and of the Saxons should not have spoken of so noble a prince in their stories, which mentioned little things about men of low degree. Geoffrey says that Arthur overcame Frollo, King of France, but there is no record of such a name among men of France. Also, he says that Arthur slew Lucius Hiberius, Procurator of the city of Rome in the time of Leo the Emperor, yet according to all the stories of the Romans Lucius did not govern, in that time nor was Arthur born, nor did he live then, but in the time of Justinian, who was the fifth emperor after Leo. Geoffrey says that he has marveled that Gildas and Bede make no mention of Arthur in their writings; however, I suppose it is rather to be marveled why Geoffrey praises him so much, whom old authors, true and famous writers of stories, leave untouched. But perhaps it is the custom of every nation to extol some of their blood-relations excessively, as the Greeks great Alexander, the Romans Octavian, Englishmen King Richard, Frenchmen Charles; and so the Britons extolled Arthur. Which thing happens, as Josephus says, either for fairness of the story, or for the delectation of the readers, or for exaltation of their own blood."

This section of the book was the subject of considerable comment by the "translator" John Trevisa. Being Cornish, Trevisa disagrees with Higden over Arthur and occasionally, as elsewhere, changes the text to suit his own position.


In his description of the City of Chester, Ranulf makes passing mention of the supposed "retirement" of Harold to the Hermitage on the banks of the Dee.

  • "Þere is here riȝtene dwellynge. Of kyng Haralde"

Edward II

Given that Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, was written in c. 1342, Higden was one of the very first chroniclers who believed in the red-hot poker murder of Edward II (1327), which John Trevisa translated into English as:

  • "a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posteriale."

See the Earls of Chester for more on this.

Robin Hood

A recent find places Robin Hood in Edward I's reign, thus supporting the belief that his legend is of 13th Century origin. A translation of the short inscription, which contains only 23 words in Latin, reads:

  • "Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies."

Curiously, the inscription, which is believed to have been added in about 1460, was found as a marginal note in a copy of Higdon's "Polychronicon".

Higden's Tomb

Higden's tomb is said to have been located in the south aisle of the Choir of the Cathedral. However some of the stories associated with the finding of the tomb and the body within are difficult to believe.

Solving the mystery of the Identity of Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry?

Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry

There is a "mysterious lady" (Aelfgyva) in the Bayeux tapestry - who may be Aldgyth - (this has never been confirmed) and who may hint at some scandal well known at the time. Looking at the tapestry in detail, it can be seen that the woman is depicted as being with a tonsured cleric, who is either slapping her face or stroking her cheek (the woman appears to be smiling). The priest is in a peculiar pose and just below the two figures is an obviously naked man in a very similar pose. The image is labled "ubi unus clericus et Aelfgyva" ("where a cleric and Aelfgifu"). Looking at the family tree for the English players in this particular drama, it is clear that Aelfgifu (it means "elf-gift") was either an incredibly common name in the late Dark Ages, or that it was some form of title of rank.

Possible contenders are:

Encomium Emmae Reginae or Gesta Cnutonis Regis is an 11th-century Latin encomium in honour of Queen Emma of Normandy. It was written in 1041 or 1042 probably by a monk of St Omer. Compare the pillars in this illustration with those in the tapestry -the illustration shows Queen Emma of Normandy receiving the Encomium Emmae Reginae from the author (kneeling), with her sons Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor in the background. The illustration is found in the extant 11th-century copy of the Encomium.
  • Harold's wife Aldgyth of Chester (who might not actually have been a widow) and who was the daughter of Ælfgar;
  • Harold's mistress, Ealdgyth also known as "Edith Swanneschals" or "Edith the Fair";
  • Eadgyth daughter of Godwin and therefore Harold's sister - the only witness when her husband Edward the Confessor (allegedly) promises Harold the crown of England on his deathbed (January 5, 1066);
  • Cnut's first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton mother of Harold Harefoot;
  • Cnut's second wife, Emma of Normandy (who changed her name to Ælfgifu when she moved to England) and who previously had been the wife of Ethelred the Unready. Shw was later said to have invited Æþeling Ælfred to England and his death "at the hands of Godwin". Some evidence for her being invilved in a scandal with a priest is provided in Higden's Polychronicon.;
  • Ælfgifu of York, first wife of Ethelred the Unready;
  • The wife of Ælfgar, the Earl of Chester, Ælfgifu
  • William's wife Matilda or one of William's daughters (Adeliza, or Adela, (or posibly an Agatha) one of whom was suppoed to have been betrothed to Harold at some point.
  • Harold's mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir;
  • Harold's daughter "Gytha of Wessex";
  • Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominster, who was abducted by Harold's exiled brother Sweyn Godwinson;
  • Ælfgiva, the daughter of Earl Æthelwold who was called the "Abbess of Cologne".

Higdon writes about a scandal involing Emma of Normandy (c. 985 – 6 March 1052):

  • [Edward] called from Normandy diverse men of great familiarity with him, that he might reward them ; among whom a monk was called Robert, whom he made Bishop of London, and after Metropolitan of England, after whom the king was governed, in so much that he put to exile Godwin his father-in-law ; and his own mother, for suspicion with the Bishop of Winchester ; had, her goods taken from her, and put her to the monastery of Wherwell, and imprisoned Aelfwine the bishop. But Emma his mother being in liberal keeping did write to the bishops of England in whom she trust, saying that she was vexed more for the trouble of the bishop than for her own shame and pain, saying that she would prove that bishop to be defamed by the judgement of God and examination of hot iron. The bishops gathered had moved the king to mercy, but that Robert Archbishop of Canterbury caused him to do the contrary, saying to them "O the bishops my brethren, how dare ye defend that beast and no-woman, which defamed the king her own son. But though she would excuse the bishop, who shall excuse her, whom men say to have conspired the death of Alfred her son, and to have procured poison to Edward but without doubt she hath a pre-eminence above the kind of woman. Nevertheless and if she goes 4 paces on 4 culters of hot iron for herself, and 5 for the bishop, without any hurt, she shall be excused of this crime". Wherefore the day of examination was prefixed, but in the night afore, this Emma praying at the sepulchre of Saint Swithun was comforted much. The day coming, nine fiery, glowing ploughshares are placed in a straight row upon the swept pavement of the church, she covering her face, passed by full steps the 9 culters or shares without any hurt. Then the king sorrowing much, asking mercy and forgiveness, took discipline of either bishop, and also of his mother, restoring to her goods taken away. Then Emma the queen gave to Saint Swithun 9 manors, and to the bishop other 9 manors, for the 9 culters or shares that she passed ; and Robert Archbishop of Canterbury fled into Normandy. - book VI page 165
The real "Game of Thrones" this family tree of the Kings of England from Edgar the Pacific to Harold, shows how the Earls of Chester inter-married with the Welsh and English Kings. The chart also shows the possible candidates for the mysterious Ælfgyfa in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Higdon has his dates mixed up and interestingly the part shown italicised has been altered at a later date. Higdon sets his story in 1043, and it was not until 1051 that Robert of Jumièges became Archbishop of Canterbury and Earl Godwin was forced into exile. The priest involved in the scandal appears to be Ælfwine, the Bishop of Winchester from 1032 to 1047. According to an account in the twelfth century Quadripartitus Ælfwine was responsible together with Earl Godwin of Wessex, for inviting the future king Edward the Confessor to return to England in 1041, and in 1042 Ælfwine witnessed a charter of Harthacnut's together with Edward, Godwin, and Edward and Harthacnut's mother, Emma. Ælfwine died in 1047 and was formerly a royal priest in the court of Cnut before being made Bishop of Winchester in 1032. Emma, through her marriages to Æthelred the Unready (1002-1016) and Cnut the Great (1017-1035), became the Queen Consort of England, Denmark, and Norway. She was the mother of three sons, Edward the Confessor (King of England), Alfred, and Harthacnut (King of England), as well as two daughters, Goda of England, and Gunhilda of Denmark.

What actually happened on 16th November 1043, was that Edward the Confessor, accompanied by Leofric (of Chester), Godwin (of Wessex) and Siward (of Northumbria), travelling from Gloucester, made a surprise visit on his mother, Emma, in Winchester:

  • "... and they deprived her of all the treasures that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king, and also since: but they suffered her to remain there afterwards." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript D)
  • "... the king caused all the lands that his mother owned to be brought into his hands, and took from her all that she had in gold and in silver and in numberless things; because she formerly held it too fast against him." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C and E)
  • "Soon after this Stigand was deprived of his bishopric; and they took all that he had into their hands for the king, because he was nighest the counsel of his mother; and she acted as he advised, as men supposed." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript C)

The 'Translation of St.Mildrith' by Goscelin provides the answer as to why this happened:

  • "... his [Edward's] own mother was accused of inciting Magnus, king of Norway, to invade England, and it was said that she had given countless treasures to Magnus. Wherefore this traitor to the kingdom, this enemy of the country, this betrayer of her own son, was judged, and everything she possessed was forfeited to the king."

So there were at least two possible scandals "as men supposed", one with Stigand, Bishop of Winchester (1047-1070) and another with Ælfwine, Bishop of Winchester (1032-1047). There is still some confusion over dates as while Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C states that "Soon after this Stigand was deprived of his bishopric; and they took all that he had into their hands for the king", Stigand (born around 990 so perhaps just a little younger than Emma, who was born c985) was only deposed in 1070, and his estates and personal wealth were confiscated by William the Conqueror (Stigand was imprisoned at Winchester, where he died without regaining his liberty). The Bayeux Tapestry has not been dated with any certainty, but one likely date lies between 1070 and 1077, in time for the opening of Bayeux Cathederal.

The fictional detective Richard Dutton in one of the The Chester Mystery Novels ("Deadly Rosary") believes that he has "solved" the mystery of who the woman and the cleric, with his theory that around 1003 Emma and Stigand had a liason (whereas in fact Stigand would have been far too young at the time - Ælfwine would have been old enough).

  • "..William the Conqueror's great aunt Emma, who was knocked up by the Archbishop who crowned Harold, and gave birth to Edward the Confessor. I'll wager he wasn't too pleased when he found out about that. It was probably in November 1043 when she had a big row with him in front of Leofric of Chester and Harold'd father Godwin. On his deathbed, the only witnesses to Edward naming Harold as the next king were Harold and Leofric's grand-daughter, whom Harold had conveniently married after doing away with her previous husband. Sound's like a stich-up to me."

Moreover, while both the tapestry and Norman sources named Stigand, the (then excommunicated) Archbishop of Canterbury, as the man who crowned Harold, possibly to discredit Harold's kingship; English sources suggested that he was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York and favoured by the papacy, making Harold's position as legitimate king more secure.

Sources and Links