The Dark Sky?
The sky is rather an inconsistent character. I have never been much of an artist, but I used to love playing with Paint on the computer in primary school. The sky was always the easiest thing to draw: either blue with a blazing sun, or black with twinkling stars. But at some point during the process of growing up, you come to realise that the sky is seldom just blue or just black. The sky shares its paint palette with the rainbow, but is more chaotic in spreading colours on the canvas.
The sky’s artistry was at its most impressive around the end of November last year. I was travelling to Brecon to meet up with ecologists to go on a field trip. I could hardly see through the fog – which was a slight worry since it was our intention to explore Waun Fignen Felen and Cribarth and discuss the ecosystems of the upland bogs under Fan Gyhirych’s gaze. But near Pen-y-Fan I had to stop to take a photo of what was in front of me. I was above the fog now. A sky of various shades of blue was framing the mountains, but the valley below the A470 was hidden under a thick grey covering. A magical lake of fog filled the gap between the mountains – home to otherworldly creatures perhaps.
The sky is inconsistent, but is consistently striking. That day I was mesmerized by the fog’s white-grey dance, but at other times the sky has used other colours to gain my admiration. I have stopped on my way home from work to try and catch a crimson orange masterpiece on camera. I have paused on the streets of Abergavenny to capture nothing but the moon. I have stopped on those same streets to catch the clouds embracing the moon. It is a process that lasts a matter of minutes. I notice, sometimes take a photo, before moving on with my day/evening – and forget all about it. The appreciation is short-lived.
But as I record the sky on my phone, I am participating in a noble tradition. During my day job as an historian of medieval Wales, I’ve noticed more and more the tendency of medieval chronicles to look to the sky. These chronicles are texts recording the ‘important’ events of each year – battles and deaths of kings usually. But sometimes, natural events also appear: earthquakes, floods … and what is happening in the sky. According to the Old English Chronicle, the stars fell from the sky in 1095. In 1110, the sky was remarkably clear all night and the stars appeared to shine particularly brightly. On Michaelmas Eve in 1098, the sky appeared to be on fire all night – we might imagine that the colours witnessed by the chronicler were similar to what I saw on my way home from work in 2023.
These medieval chroniclers were not indifferent stargazers either. The sky could predict fateful changes on earth; in its changing appearance were stories of the fall of empires and the deaths of kings. So, for the year 927 the Old English Chronicle notes ‘in that year fiery lights appeared in the northern sky’. 927 was quite a year! This is the year that England was formed and the political constitution of Britain changed for ever. The Chronicle goes on to note that Sihtric, the Viking king of northern England had died, and that Aethelstan, the English king, had taken his crown. Aethelstan was the first king of England, but he was also so much more than this. He was an emperor, and all the kings of Britain bowed before him. In 927 also, according to the Old English Chronicle, these kings travelled to Eamont in Northern England to pledge their allegiance to the powerful emperor. Who was among them but Hywel Dda.
In 927, change was in the air. Kings were dying, new ones were rising to replace them, kingdoms and empires were formed. For the medieval chroniclers, there was an obvious link between these developments and the fiery skies above.
It is so much easier to look at the stars these days. The chroniclers did not have a telescope. But the fiery lights were likely more visible in 927 than in 2023. In 927 there were no car headlights to interrupt a brilliant picture of the moon. No mobile phone screen light to disturb the darkness above. I hadn’t really thought about the practical implications of this darkness until I attended a conference on early medieval archaeology recently. Amongst the interesting discussions was the consideration of medieval assembly sites. Prior to the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, before the building of town halls, city halls and county halls, where did people meet to discuss and administer the law?
While assessing possible locations, an important consideration was the distance people could travel in the Middle Ages. Could they walk there and back safely in a day? They would have had to walk. Higher status individuals likely used horses – Hywel Dda probably rode on horseback to Eamont to meet with Aethelstan. But for the majority, journeys would have been slow. Even slower if you think of the landscape. A few weekends back I went for a walk from Trecastle to Mynydd Myddfai, following the Roman road more or less the whole way. But the Romans could do little about Brycheiniog’s mountainous landscape and even their straight roads would have been challenging to walk in the dark. There is another Roman road running along Allt yr Esgair – but I would certainly not recommend wandering there in the dark.
The Brecon Beacons National Park has enjoyed International Dark Sky Reserve Status since 2013. On the website advertising the ten-year anniversary celebrations, there is a photograph of someone observing the stars by Llyn Syfaddan. A stone’s throw away, there is a very famous island. It is covered by trees today, but more than a thousand years ago it would have been the court of the king of Brycheiniog. Perhaps as many as thirty people would have lived there at one time. Did they look up to the night sky? And what was there to be seen?