Upon arriving here in Bangor, two of the first books I had to study for my course was ‘The Itinerary Through Wales‘ and ‘A Description of Wales‘ by Gerald of Wales. Gerald remains prehaps the most recognisable and influential contemporary historian in Welsh history. His books, which were first published back in the 1190s, offer a recounting of a Gerald’s tour of Wales in 1188. Not only do the books give an interesting description of medieval life in Wales but they also offer unparalleled insight into cultural relationship between the Normans and Welsh.
Gerald was born in Manorbier Castle, in 1146, and was one of the first members of the growing Anglo-Welsh ethnicity that was taking root in South Wales. His father was a Norman baron called William FitzOdo de Barri and his mother was Angharad FitzGerald, daughter of Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, Constable of Pembroke Castle and the most powerful lord in South Wales. Gerald’s grandmother, Nest ferch Rhys, was also a person of great interest as she had been a prominent Welsh Princess. In 1102 Nest, who was then a hostage, caught the eye of the newly crowned Henry I, the two began an affair and in 1103 Nest bore Henry a bastard son, Henry FitzHenry. She was then married to Gearld FitzWalter and bore him 5 children. However in 1109 Nest was abducted by her second cousin Owain, son of the Prince Cadwgan of Powys. The Normans, led by Nest’s husband Gerald and her former lover King Henry, were infuriated by this breach of the peace and bribed Cadwgan’s enemies to attack Powys. Cadwgan desperately tried to persuade his son to surrender Nest and eventually father and son fled to Ireland while Nest was safely returned to her husband, however this series of events earn Nest the title ‘Helen of Wales’ in reference to the infamous Helen of Troy. As for Owain, he was murdered by soldiers loyal to Gerald FitzWalter when he attempted to return to Wales a few years later. After Gerald’s death Nest would go on to have relationships with other men, before finally marrying Stephen of Caridgan, and she bore at least 2 more children. Today’s ancestors of Nest include both the British Royal Family, Princess Diana and the Kennedy’s.
Back to the main point, Gerald of Wales, while proud of his mixed heritage, also saw it as a source of discontent in his life as he felt that he was never truly accepted by either the Normans or the Welsh. As traditional for the youngest son, Gerald entered into the church and in 1174 he became Archdecon of Brecon. However in 1176 he was refused the position of Bishop of St David as Henry II feared putting a Welshman in charge of the most important church in Wales would only serve to encourage rebellion. Disheartened Gerald fled to the University of Paris for two years
However in 1183 he joined Prince John on an expedition to Ireland and wrote about his travels. In these writings he portrayed the invading Norman’s as a civilizing force while the Irish were violent savages of the worst sort. Afterwards he join the Archbishop of Canturbury, Baldwin on a tour of Wales. Baldwin’s mission was a religious one, he hoped to gather up and inspire potential recruits for the Third Crusade and the recapturing of Jerusalem. Gerald, who took great interest in his Welsh heritage, wrote almost zealously, describing both the country of Wales and its people.
Below are some passages taken from his books, translated from Latin
‘I must not pass over in silence the mountains called by the Welsh Eryri, but by the English Snowdon, or Moun- tains of Snow, which gradually increasing from the land of the sons of Conan, and extending themselves north- wards near Deganwy, seem to rear their lofty summits even to the clouds, when viewed from the opposite coast of Anglesey. As Mona (Anglesey) could supply corn for all the inhabitants of Wales, so could the Eryri mountains afford sufficient pasture for all the herds, if collected together.’
‘On the highest parts of these mountains are two lakes worthy of admiration. The one has a floating island in it, which is often driven from one side to the other by the force of the winds; and the shepherds behold with astonishment their cattle, whilst feeding, carried to the distant parts of the lake. A part of the bank naturally bound together by the roots of willows and other shrubs may have been broken off, and increased by the alluvion of the earth from the shore; and being continually’.
‘Beyond Lleyn (The Llyn Penisula), there is a small island inhabited by very religious monks, called Calibes, or Colidei. This island, either from the wholesomeness of its climate, owing to its vicinity to Ireland, or rather from some miracle obtained by the merits of the saints, has this wonderful peculiarity, that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age. Its name is Enlli in the Welsh, and Berdesey , in the Saxon language ; and very many bodies of saints are said to be buried there, and amongst them that of Daniel, bishop of Bangor.’
‘We remained that night at Banchor (Bangor). the metropolitan see of North Wales, and were well entertained by the bishop of the diocese.’
‘The island of Mona is an arid and stony land, rough and unpleasant in its appearance, similar in its exterior qualities to the land of Pebidion, near St. David’s, but very different as to its interior value. For this island is incomparably more fertile in corn than any other part of Wales, from whence arose the British proverb, ” Mon mam Cymbry, Mona mother of Wales; ” and when the crops have been defective in all other parts of the country, this island, from the richness of its soil and abundant produce, has been able to supply all Wales.’
‘There is a small island, almost adjoining to Anglesey, which is inhabited by hermits, living by manual labour, and serving God. It is remarkable that when, by the influence of human passions, any discord arises among them, all their provisions are devoured and infected by a species of small mice, with which the island abounds; but when the discord ceases, they are no longer molested.’
‘On our return to Banchor from Mona, we were shown the tombs of prince Owen and his younger brother Cadwalader, 1 who were buried in a double vault before the high altar, although Owen, on account of his public incest with his cousin-german, had died excommunicated by the blessed martyr St. Thomas, the bishop of that see having been enjoined to seize a proper opportunity of removing his body from the church. We continued our journey on the sea coast, confined on one side by steep rocks/and by the sea on the other, towards the river Conwy, which preserves its waters unadulterated by the sea. Not far from the source of the river Conwy, at the head of the Eryri mountain, which on this side extends itself towards the north, stands Dinas Emrys, that is, the promontory of Ambrosius, where Merlin uttered his prophecies, whilst Vortigern was seated upon the bank.’
‘Owen, son of Gruff, prince of North Wales, had many sons, but only one legitimate, namely, Iorwerth Drwyn- dwn, which in Welsh means flat-nosed, who had a son named Llewelyn. This young man, being only twelve years of age, began, during the period of our journey, to molest his uncles David and Roderic, the sons of Owen by Christiana, his cousin; and although they had divided amongst themselves all North Wales, except the land of Conan, and although David, having married the sister of king Henry II., by whom he had one son, was; powerfully supported by the English, yet within a few years the legitimate son, destitute of lands or money, bravely expelled from North Wales those who were born in public incest.’
In addition to these incredible descriptions of Wales almost one thousand years ago, Gerald had a zeal for everything concerning the Welsh people, to the extant that he recorded his opinions of the people as a whole; opinions which were integrated with racial ideals. He wrote about how the Welsh showed great kindness to strangers, were generally sober and kept good care of their teeth. In battle, Gerald states that the Welsh were extremely agile, possessed a general eagerness for battle and that they ferociously defended their liberty. However Gerald, ever a product of his time, also projected less pleasant stereotypes of the Welsh, he stated the Welsh were compulsory liars, cowards and prone to betrayal, he despaired at their ambivalence to fighting among themselves and their traditional marrying between cousins. He concluded that the Welsh needed the Normans to control them and gave instructions on how the Normans could best conquer Wales. But at least he stopped short of calling them barbarians, as he had the Irish.
In conclusion, after the tour Gerald didn’t go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but rather stayed in Wales and fought for a more independent Welsh Church. He also made several attempts to obtain the position of Archbishop of St Davids, though to no success. In 1203 he wrote to Pope Innocent III, stating “Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferment’s in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it”, after this he retired from the position of Archdeacon of Brecon and lived quietly in Lincoln until his death in 1223.
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