Recently, I finally got to visit Tynwald Hill (Cronk Keeill Eoin), St John’s, on the Isle of Man. Located at the north-westerly end of the central valley running across the island from Peel to Douglas, this is the only open-air assembly site still operable in northern Europe. Each year, it is the focus of the Manx parliament’s ceremonial gatherings on Tynwald Day – 5th July.
Historical evidence dates the use of the site back to the early 13th century, but the name – Thingvollr (parliament field) – suggests its origins stretch back to perhaps the 10th century if not earlier. Historically, the practices on the site relate to swearing allegiance, declaring new laws and administering justice.
There are 5 dimensions to the site, as discussed in a succinct and superbly executed archaeological review by Tim Darvill (2004):
- A 25m-diameter, 3.6m-high four-stepped grassed mound. It has a central post around which a tent is raised for Tynwald Day. The main steps up the mound rise from the east but there is a smaller set of steps cut from the south;
- The chapel of St John, a 19th-century building that replaces at least two earlier structures;
- A WNW-ESE dumb-bell shaped embanked and walled enclosure surrounding the mound to the west and the chapel of St John to the east;
- The fair field around this complex, now augmented with the Manx War Memorial and the Millennium Stone;
- The landscape situation of the plateau itself is a striking feature, framed by hills and overlooking the confluence of two branches of the River Neb.
No modern excavations of the site have taken place, although Darvill led a team to conduct geophysical, geochemical and topographical surveys plus an examination of old maps and images to help discern the character of this complex. He postulates 5 phases of activity, although 3 are speculative until further investigations are permitted:
- Darvill proposes Tynwald Hill was originally a late Neolithic passage grave. A Bronze Age round barrow is known just NNW of Tynwald Hill and perhaps both Tynwald Hill and the Bronze Age mound were within by a rectangular enclosure revealed by geophysical survey;
- A keeil was the focus of a burial ground to the east, under and around the site of St John’s chapel. There is a 10th-century cross from the site, now displayed within the porch of the chapel. Darvill cites links with the nearby 7th/8th-century site, potentially of high status, to the south-east at Purt y Candas, and off island with Yeavering, Navan and Tara.
- The third phase is the Norse, medieval and post-medieval one: dating from AD 900 to AD 1700 the site becomes as it apepars today in broad terms, separate from high-status occupation on the coast at Peel;
- The fourth phase Darvill regards as ‘tidying up’ from 1795, including the building of the dumb-bell enclosure.
- The final stage is the creation of the present-day arrangements from the mid-19th century remodelling, rebuilding of the church, adding a stone wall to the enclosure and the construction of the site linked to Manx nationalistic sentiments, symbols and practices.
Based on fragmentary evidence, Darvill postulates a biography for Tynwald which is reasonable and plausible, if crying out for further archaeological research in the future. Where I would query the argument is in seeing this as part of a Norse Irish Sea phenomenon and underplaying the pre-Viking associations that Darvill’s own Phase 2 might indicate. The possibility that British Manx assemblies were conducted at Tynwald and other assembly places, mirroring a pre-llys system in Wales focusing on the gorsedd, requires further consideration. Certainly the ‘stepped mound’ is a possible distinctive feature of an ‘Irish Sea province’, but it is perhaps unfortunate to over-emphasise the Norse connections without considering the predecessors that might find traces across areas later settled by Viking groups – British and Irish – as well as Anglo-Saxon. The intellectual stranglehold of the Viking watershed on Manx archaeological interpretations should always be queried, despite the desire to mark the parliament as an embodiment of Manx Viking national routes. In my next post I’ll focus on the contemporary memorial landscape of St John’s.
Darvill, T. 2004. Tynwald Hill and the ‘things’ of power, in A. Pantos and S. Semple (eds) Assembly Places and Practices in Medieval Europe, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 217-32.