Thursday 24 May 2018

14 crosses at St Teilo's Church

   As water is the natural environment for a fish, so I am at home on a bus but ... When a friend offered to take me for a fascinating visit in a zappy yet stylish yellow and black car named Toby Trekker how could I refuse? The invitation was backed by the irresistible promise of a large slice of CAKE afterwards. Although normally I write about sites at least 600 years old and St. Teilo's church dates from the 14th century, the objects that enthralled me were the 14 modern crosses in the churchyard.  These were the inspiration of one female parishioner and are most definitely call for a detour.
  They are grouped in a circular walkway and form a tour of the Old and New Testaments with relevant texts and references to the wildflowers growing in the beautifully kept borders between them. They are all made of oak except for the Cross of St. James which is hewn from yew. The whole churchyard is maintained so as to provide a rich and diverse habitat for plant and animal life: its own ecosystem has been supplemented by introducing flowering shrubs, plants and bulbs which provide food for insects. As part of the Living Churchyard project they have developed an upper and lower river path where you can view some of the 26 different species of tree found in the churchyard. There are 5 war graves, four from WWI and one from WWII.

   The crosses range from the very simple to the quite ornate but they are quietly harmonious in style. They are, in order: the Maltese cross; Orthodox; Cross of Nails; Syrian; Japanese; St. Andrew's; Ankh; San  Damiano; Ethiopian; St. James the Greater; Tau; Roman; Jerusalem and Celtic. To give just one example of the scholarly yet uplifting information offered, I will quote about the Celtic Cross from the free leaflet. The text given is Acts 17: 27-28, the story of Apostle Paul preaching to the people of Athens. He talked to them about creation and their own ideas of the gods and quoted local poetry This cross is associated with Celtic nations whose understanding of the gospel and creation includes a strong sense of nature. The flower connected with it is Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare - Genesis 3). The long protruding stamens make the flower resemble a snake's head. The story from Genesis reminds us of the glory of creation and nature but how in our desire to better ourselves we fall into temptation.
  The crosses were carved by Ant Beetlestone (

   The church itself is full of interest and it is worth attending the Open Day on September 8th 2018 to absorb it and be able to answer the quiz questions such as where you can find a pineapple and where the spelling of Katherine's name been corrected. If you answer them correctly, you too are allowed CAKE. The whole site in Llantilio Pertholey was an ancient centre of Christian worship: the yew on the south side of the churchyard has a girth of over 22 feet and is estimated to be 1200 years old. Parking is just opposite and the whole area is tranquil and green. Please check their website before visiting:

Monday 30 April 2018

Llangybi Castle: huge and ruinous

Photo courtesy of Joan Bennet
   Llangybi Castle had the largest inner courtyard of any castle in England and Wales - and possibly in Europe - measuring 150 by 80 metres (500 by 250 feet in old money.) At present it is a ruin and there are no plans to maintain it. It is privately owned and, although it lurks quite near a public footpath, it is essential to ask the proprietor's permission to visit.
   I was lucky enough to be taken on a guided tour by the forester of the estate, Les Taylor, who was a cornucopia of fascinating information, not only about the castle, but also about the trees we walked past. He explained that it was never a true fortification but more of a glorified hunting lodge.
   We started at the house and appealing stable block, the latter built in the French style and containing dove cotes. Nearby had been a motte and bailey and a fish pond. The present castle, built by the powerful de Clare family, possibly started by Bogo de Clare (at last a different forename!), was mentioned by the Bishop of Hereford in 1262. It was probably still incomplete when Gilbert de Clare V was killed at Bannockburn in 1314. Les handed out a sketch, an artist's impression of the original building, showing round crenellated towers, buildings within the vast courtyard, curtain walls and a drawbridge with genuine Medieval people crossing. The drawing is copyright and I am no Picasso and so you will have to use your imagination.

 During the tour we were invited to enter the garderobe chamber where a four-seater loo would have been flushed by water from sluice holes in the roof. Certain intrepid members of the group marched in and our leader was relieved when the head count was satisfactory afterwards. Les also pointed out putlog holes in the north wall and told us that they were where logs were put (get it?) for scaffolding. The wood was sawn off and the chunk remaining in the wall eventually rotted and left the holes. This solved endless arguments I have had about the purpose of these characteristic square gaps - not, it seems, for hiding your sweetmeats in.
   The family lived in the monumental twin-towered gatehouse and kept their important documents in a room with a highly decorated arch.

Photo courtesy of Joan Bennet
The castle, sometimes called Tregrug, was, like so many others, slighted by the Roundheads in 1648 during the Civil War, after having been fortified for defensive purposes. We were then taken around the surrounding woodlands where we learned about the capacity of redwoods to withstand fire and saw a hazel nut shell hollowed out by a dormouse which had left its characteristic serrated marks at the edge. Les is an enthusiastic proponent of managing woods to maintain the health and longevity of the trees.

Photo courtesy of Reg Darge
The old castle was the subject of an investigation by the Channel 4 Time Team in 2020. They concluded that the ditches surrounding the walls were Civil War defences and that the castle had been extensively remodelled in the 17th century to provide a new main entrance and to landscape the area inside the walls as a "pleasaunce" containing gardens and fountains.

Llangybi is on the bus route of the no 60 but, without the owner's permission, nothing is visible from the footpath. I have written about the lovely little eponymous village in another blog post. You are not far on the bus from Raglan Castle, also more of a residence than a fortification and also slighted in the Civil War. If you do visit Llangybi you will have to take your own CAKE or press on to the cafe near Raglan Castle.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Longtown Castle - a little known treasure

   My loyal readers (love you all!) know that I visit castles only by bus except when some kind person offers to drive me and buys me CAKE afterwards. That is how I found this little known gem in Herefordshire in glorious April sunshine. Because there is no pay desk and shop selling wooden swords you feel you have discovered it for yourself when arriving through the dramatically framing arch.
  The view of this motte with its keep on top is powerful - and very exciting when you realise you can climb the steps and have wonderful views of the countryside around and the Black Mountains. If your children and dog are reluctant castle goers and promises of CAKE have not won them over they will love the sense of discovery and freedom here.
  Of course that is not the reason it was built because the Marcher Lords had not invented afternoon tea and were averse to peace.

   Longtown Castle dates from around 1175, was built by Hugh de Lacy, a successful favourite of Henry II (of Roland de Pettour fame) and is characteristic of the Welsh borders, having a circular keep, rarer in England. It is set in the picturesque Olchon valley, background to a what-if historical novel by Owen Sheers called Resistance. As usual the first castle on the site was  a wooden structure (with some stone) which was probably thrown up extremely quickly on its man-made earthen mound. The Lacey's (spelling a matter of choice it seems as is typical of early English) then spent the prodigious sum of £37 improving it and the impressive stone structure you see dates from the 12th century. A circular keep was stronger than a square one as it is difficult even for a geometrician to find a corner to undermine - but this one has shallow foundations sloping slightly outwards for stability. The construction is shale rubble with ashlar detailing. It was known as Ewias Lacey castle and the site may have been important already as a defensive position on its spur of high ground. Outer earthworks suggest an Iron Age settlement and the Romans probably came here also on their nearby straight road. It may have been late Saxon but it is certainly recorded in the 1086 Domesday book as belonging to the Lacey's. They demanded honey and pigs from their tenants and so one may deduce they were clearly fond of sweetened roast pork. Yummy!

  The Lacey's were Medieval warlords and, like other Marcher Lords, independent of control from the crown.  By and large the Marcher Lords were given a free hand provided they kept the dastardly natives in check. When this lordship ended in the 1230's the castle had a succession of owners. In 1233 Henry III visited and ordered the garrison to be enlarged. Like many other castles, it was further fortified by Henry IV in 1403 to withstand the attacks of the Welsh rebel, Owain Glyn Dwr. 
  It fell into disuse perhaps because of the effect of the Black Death in the mid-14th century when Longtown (a planted Norman town like Usk) also shrank in importance and size. 

The most prominent feature is the stone keep on its 33 ft high motte with its 5-metre thick walls (16 feet in old money) which would have been a two-storey structure over an undercroft and providing accommodation on the second floor. There are windows, probably enlarged in the 14th century, a fireplace, corbels to support floor beams and a projecting 7-seat latrine which weakened the structure. Is imagining that enough to put you off your CAKE? In the gatehouse you can easily see the portcullis slot.  Outside were 3 semi-circular towers, one with a chimney flue and one with a spiral staircase, the collapse of which caused the deep breach. There would have been a curtain wall on the steep bank to the left of the steps and, unusually, 3 baileys and 2 large enclosures to protect the town. 

I particularly liked the fine stonework in the walls and the thrill that there was a gallows here until 1790. Less fascinating is the existence of a school in the 19th century. Typical of the Medieval desire to confuse us is the fact that there were 2 men called Walter de Lacy. Are you still interested? They did seem short of names in the Middle Ages - all those Llewelyns! 

For more information about the Marcher Lords click here. For Usk as a planted town click here. To laugh and rejoice at Roland le Pettour and other intriguing facts about farting in the Middle Ages click here. For more than anyone needs to know about Owain Glyn Dwr click here and on the other links given in the article.

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Sir John Oldcastle: fact and fiction

(I have a real problem with finding out the copyright of images and have no wish to be imprisoned without CAKE for illegally using one - so here is an OK photo which has little to do with the case. Anyway no-one cares what Sir John Oldcastle looked like and we all know what his fictional counterpart resembled.)

Sir John Oldcastle is believed to have been born at Oldcastle in Monmouthshire (sounds a good theory to me) and certainly he was a man of Hereford. He was an early friend of Henry V and a Lollard leader, escaping immediate punishment for his heresy because of this royal connection.
Lollardy was current in Herefordshire and followed the teachings of John Wycliffe in particular, being critical of the Roman Catholic Church and promoting a Bible in the vernacular. Oldcastle was imprisoned in the Tower of London but escaped, organised a rebellion against the king and was executed after 4 years hiding in the Welsh Marches.

An anonymous Elizabethan play entitled The Famous Victories of  Henry V starts with the period of Henry's youth, portraying it as riotous and leads to his transformation into a warrior king, victorious at Agincourt and a wooer of Princess Katherine. You will spot that this drama - believed to be Shakespeare's source material - covers the 3 plays in the Bard's Henriad, (Henry IV pt i, Henry IV pt.ii, Henry V.) Amongst the Prince's band of merry chums is one called Jockey (Sir John Old-Castle). C.A Greer has identified 15 plot elements that appear in the later trilogy, including the Gad's Hill robbery, the Eastcheap tavern and the new king's rejection of his former boozy companions.

This play seems to be a stepping stone in the creation of a character out of the historical religious zealot to become Shakespeare's fictional Falstaff who, in my opinion, assumes in our imaginations a more powerful reality than many actual people. As well as being one of the most comic characters ever imagined, he stands for Riot and insurrection against values such as honour. His decline from lovable rogue through unscrupulous impresser of ragged soldiers to shameless sponger is one of the great achievements in English literature. The scene where King Henry repudiates him is truly shocking and the description of his death - probably from a broken heart - deeply moving as he feels cold from the feet up, calls to God and is assured by the Hostess that he does not need to think of that. Ironic when his source is recalled.

More on Henry V may be found on this blog by using the search button. In particular, further Shakespearean echoes have an article to themselves. The preparations for the invasion have also been covered.
 I have written a complete (?) analysis of Henry IV pt i on my website Classics of English Literature. You need and deserve a huge slice of CAKE whilst reading. I'd be thrilled if some of you did go there.

Thursday 1 March 2018

Local Monmouthshire lad goes to France - what did Henry V take with him?

On 11th August 1415 Henry V and his army sailed for France and the rest - as they say - is history. In Shakespeare's play he nips over the Channel (after an interminable explanation of the justifying Salique law, the famous scene with the tennis balls and the execution of traitors) with a couple of almost photographic Choruses. These invoke the enthusiasm amongst his followers who leave their "silken dalliance" in the wardrobe, sell their pastures to buy a horse, give business to the armorers, think only of honour and then wing it with the speed of thought. Whilst the ship-boys climb the hempen tackle, the "huge bottoms" breast the "lofty surge." The Bard does not mar the dramatic effect with numbers or logistics but the preparations for this invasion were immense, not to be matched until Operation Overlord, more than 500 years later, and all the more amazing considering the period.

The king needed money in vast amounts to pay for men, ships, arms and food for a projected year-long campaign. Taxation income and loans from all possible sources were inadequate and he had to guarantee payment to soldiers beyond the first 3 months before indentures could be struck on 29th April. (These were papers of service divided into 2 by unique irregular tooth-like cuts, which could be pieced together when needed.) He gave the captains jewels as security for the second 3 months with a pledge for redemption by January 1417. Loans came in (earlier Dick Whittington had previously lent £2000) from individuals, towns and religious communities until our financial wizard monarch raised the equivalent of £70 million by, some would say, mortgaging the future of the country.
  The production of arms was well under way, the machine gun of the day being the dreaded longbow, formidable when in the hands of highly trained men, particularly those of Henry's home county, Monmouthshire/Gwent. All men had been obliged to practise after Mass on Sundays and holy days. Archers made up about three quarters of the army but swords, lances, cannon and the more traditional siege weapons such as the trebuchet and mangonel were included, all of which had to be manufactured and shipped. Armour, made in separate pieces (which Shakespeare invokes later with his mention of the sounds of hammers riveting), was not as heavy as is sometimes believed but had to be well-fitted and worn over a thick jacket. The Channel was cleared of enemy ships and home defences such as castles and other fortifications were strengthened and, of interest to us in Wales, Owain Glyn Dwr was sought for in an attempt to quell insurrection.

   Wages were set but the destination kept vague. Henry needed a long-term army of professional fighting men. 600 leather bags ordered to contain the indentures and related documents. A duke would receive 13s 4d a day, an earl half that, a baron 4 shillings, a knight 2 shillings and an archer sixpence. They were paid quarterly in advance. This was far above what the bowman would be paid in his unskilled trade and everyone could hope for more after a battle. Although Henry was strict about looting (we recall the scene in Shakespeare when he becomes enraged at the slaughter by the French of his boy guards for their "luggage") there were ransoms and the indentures stated how spoils would be divided out.
   There were probably about 600 ships as a basis and, in a requisition reminiscent of Dunkirk but enforced, all ships of 20 tons or more, whether foreign or English, from eastern ports were pressed into service. More than 1000 were impounded. These would carry, not only soldiers, but wagons, horses, grooms, farriers, wheelwrights, cooks, minstrels, men of religion and surgeons as well as cattle and the produce of bakeries. This was not to be a chevauchée where men lived off the land. There were around 12000 combatants and hundreds of ships were needed just for the horses.
   The muster took place on 1st July, the king made his will on the 24th and he gave orders for embarkation on the 29th. All was ready for August 1st but, the day before, 3 conspirators were found who had to be tried before execution: Cambridge, Grey and Scrope. Then, free from treachery and backed by the Salique law, our Monmouthshire lad set off in the flagship, the Trinity Royal, on his huge and minutely planned mission on August 11th 1415.

I am particularly indebted for the detail here to Henry V  by Teresa Cole. More information on the formidable longbow and other Medieval combat weapons may be found by clicking on those links and more on Monmouth Castle, birthplace of Henry V. More on Shakespeare's handling of Henry V can be found.

Monday 29 January 2018

Licence to Crenellate - Medieval planning permission

  If you have lain awake at night for weeks on end waiting for planning permission for a new extension to your house, you might be in the same tense frame of mind as a Medieval knight wishing to add some battlements to his stately home. From the 12th to the 16th century, anyone wanting to add castle-like fortifications to his pile was required to have permission, usually from the king. A normal enough longing, one might think since these features almost define our sense of what a castle is, but the matter was more complex than that, which is why Sir Edsomething de Whatever had to apply for a licence.
You might ask why someone would want these costly embellishments: crenellations, drawbridge, portcullis. murder holes etc. and, in some cases, it was probably for show and to astonish the neighbours. An Englishman's home was not his castle without battlements. True fortification may have been the reason in the earlier part of this period but later there is reason to believe that the motive was to keep ahead of society and make the interior as sumptuous as possible also.
  The king, however, had strong motives to be careful and choosy. No ruler, particularly one in times of trouble - and these were turbulent years in many areas - wants rich and influential men adding to their power and becoming capable of attacking him or defending themselves more efficiently. Such licences had to be carefully vetted and the nobleman had a better chance of approval if he could claim that his new fortifications would help him to support the king's interests against enemies of the crown.

Bodiam Castle, everyone's notion of a prototypic castle. is a good example of military additions as semi-ornaments. Its features would not have been invulnerable to attack: it was built 10 miles from the river Rother which was not particularly open to hostile forces; its moat could be drained quite easily; the windows are larger than usual for defensive purposes; the battlements are rather small in places; the gatehouse, though boasting machicolations, could have been avoided by forces who could nip round and enter at the back and - wait for it - there is no keep. The owner, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, received permission, however, from King Richard II, to "strengthen with a wall of stone and lime, crenellate and make into a castle his manor house at Bodiam, next to the sea, for the defence of the adjacent country and resistance to the king's enemies." Clearly Sir Edward had glossed over a few matters (such as a 10 mile march) in his application (which did not include a clause about that ghastly bunting.)

  Richard's secretaries were men of few words compared to those who wrote the licence from Edward IV in 1482 to Sir Edmund Bedingfield of Oxburgh in Norfolk which repeats the phrase "embattle, kernel and machecolate" like some magic charm throughout and is a precursor to modern official waffle. Yet, surprisingly, there was often no fee and, if one were demanded, it would be a mark at most. Usually it was knights who applied in order to enhance their status and move up the social ladder, but 11 women are mentioned in the surviving licences and 4 were granted directly to women. Although most applicants were individuals, 28 licences relate to town defences and 44 to churches, abbeys and cathedrals. Of the 1500 castles in England, the surviving licences refer to only 500 sites - did some aspiring noblemen sneak in their battlements, a few at a time, hoping no-one would notice?

I actually find this bureaucratic aspect of Medieval life fascinating and have written a poem about the knight dreaming of his newly endowed abode: I place a bet of a large slice of CAKE that no-one else has versified this topic.

He dreams of stones, of castles - not in air
But grounded, rooted sternly on his land,
Flaunting his prowess, trumpeting his flair.

He'll lord it over neighbours. He has planned
Apartments, chambers, warmed and richly hung
With tapestries, endowed by his strong hand.

His vision grew the windows, crystal lungs
Of this great body; now his rapid heart
Beats at its cords. They throb, too tightly strung.

This grand design, this mental work of art
Must pause or stop as he waits for his king.
A regal nod could crown his hopes: "Now start ...

... The statement of your power, the scaffolding
Of wealth, supremacy" - but everywhere
The villeins chafe. The tail. The hidden sting.

For more on Bodiam Castle click here. If you enjoyed this poem and would like to read more of my work - on less arcane topics such as love - click here for my Formal Poetry website.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Davy Gam: hero or traitor?

If the name Davy Gam seems vaguely familiar to you, it may be because you actually concentrated during the part of Shakespeare's Henry V where the king reads out the names of those killed in the battle of Agincourt (more correctly Azincourt.) After a list of French noblemen with dashing Gallic titles, he turns to a second paper, handed to him by the herald, and notes the deaths of 4 men, the last of whom is Davy Gam, esquire. To the monarch, he is amongst those "of name", meaning that the rest were squaddies, a mere "five and twenty" of them. Perhaps this seems a little snobby for a king who, before the battle, when egging them on, claimed that they were all a "band of brothers" - but even then he was aware that this group included each of the men, "be he ne'er so vile." (Hal, as prince, frequented the ale houses but dropped his drinking mates as soon as he donned the crown). Yet he did go around, in disguise, chatting to the ordinary soldiers the night before. Davy Gam was clearly an aristocrat and, interestingly in this literary connection, some believe him to be the model for Fluellen, the slightly comic but knowledgeable military supporter of the king, who praises him and claims common kinship as a Welshman.  He has read all about the glorious battles of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, Henry's great-uncle.

Who was he - and why do we want to know?
In case you thought you were getting off lightly pronunciation-wise, part of his full name was Sir Dafydd ap Llewelyn ap Hywel and he lived from approximately 1380 to 25th October 1415. "Gam" is one of those merry Medieval nick-names which draws attention to some physical flaw such as short legs (Curt-hose) and probably means that he was lame. We still have the expression "gammy leg." Rather mysteriously the Dictionary of Welsh Biography thinks it means that he squinted or had only one eye but I find it difficult to fathom how he managed to be a successful warrior with that defect.

  He was a prominent opponent of Owain Glyn Dwr and a supporter of the English king, which made him a traitor from the Welsh point of view. Bearing in mind the destruction that Glyn Dwr's rebellion caused in Wales, it is easy to see why some men were hostile to him. Dafydd could add to the pedigree already mentioned "Fychan ap Hywel ap Einion Sais" but probably told people "just call me Gam." His background locates him round Llanover in Monmouthshire and Pen Pont near Brecon.  Some think he was previously in service to John of Gaunt and had to leave Wales after killing a rival in Brecon High Street. Rumour also places him in Hen Gwrt, near White Castle.

Hen Cwrt
Dafydd Gam was previously paid annually 40 marks (a large sum) by the royal estate and the family's loyalty to the king caused their lands near Brecon to be attacked by the rebels. Another local point of interest is that he was named, by the Scottish Chronicler Walter Bower, as the leader in the critical and crushing defeat of Glyn Dwr's men at the battle of Pwll Melyn near Usk. His local knowledge may have helped the English victory and attracted Welshman to his cause. When captured in 1412 he was quickly ransomed for somewhere between 200 to 700 marks, a large sum indicating the regard in which he was held. He had made a forced promise to Glyn Dwr never to oppose him but, on release, he told King Henry where the rebel was and attacked him, suffering reprisals such as the burning of his house. Another less likely story is that he attacked Glyn Dwr's parliament in Machynlleth in 1404.

  He probably fought with Henry V prior to the French battles but certainly served with three-foot archers (that disposes of the squint theory in my opinion) in the Agincourt campaign. Several chroniclers noted his death in that encounter but no-one agrees as to whether he was knighted then or posthumously. There is a legend that he saved the king's life during the counter-charge of the Duke of Alencon (whose name appears on Shakespeare's death roll of the French) when Henry was fighting hand-to- hand with him. The Frenchman lopped an ornament from Henry's crown with his sword and Dafydd led a group of Welsh knights to intervene. Some believe he killed the Duke before being killed himself.
  In the 19th century George Borrow wrote of him: "he achieved that glory which will for ever bloom, dying, covered in wounds, on the field of Agincourt after saving the life of the king, to whom in the dreadest and most critical moment of the fight, he stuck closer than a brother." Borrow also quotes descriptions of him, supposedly included in satirical englyn (you don't want to know, really you don't) written by Glyn Dwr: "he was small in stature and deformed in person. though possessed of great strength. He was very sensitive of injury, though quite as alive to kindness, a thorough-going enemy and a thorough-going friend." There is a stained glass window commemorating him in the church at Llantillio Crossenny, where the Latin inscription calls him a golden-haired knight. He is also a chief character in the novel Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys.

If you DO want to know about englyn (and you have only yourself to blame for asking), here is the Wikipedia definition: "... it uses quantative metres, involving the counting of syllables, and rigid patterns of rhyme and half rhyme. Each line contains a repeating pattern of consonants and accent known as cynghanedd." That clarifies that, then. Oh yes - and the plural is "englynion".

My thanks to Wikipedia for much of this information and two of the images.
Hen Gwrt is now a small moated ruin and very atmospheric, quite near the equally charismatic White Castle, one of the Three Castles in the area. Grrr  - you do need a car to get to both but there is excellent walking nearby to earn you your CAKE. You can, however, visit the site of the crucial battle of Pwll Melyn by travelling to Usk by bus and walking up past the castle which you can look at en route.