Thursday, 20 April 2017

Berkeley Castle: beautiful and so rich in history

Berkeley Castle stands on a low hill in sight of the Severn estuary and is an appealing blend of Norman fortress and later Medieval mansion. The Domesday Book records that it was founded by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford, who was a powerful ally of William the Conqueror and who makes regular guest appearances in this blog. Since he died in 1071, the castle must pre-date that. His sub-tenant adopted the name de Berkeley and the first 3 generation were all called Roger (just to confuse later historians).  The last was dispossessed in 1152 for withholding allegiance to the House of Plantagenet during the Anarchy.
  The feudal barony was granted to Robert FitzHardinge, a supporter of the Plantagenets, and he, amazingly, was the founder of the Berkeley family which still holds the castle today. Complex? It gets worse: his father, Maurice, had married Alice de Berkeley and from then on most were called Maurice. He received a royal charter from Henry II giving permission to rebuild a stone castle defending the Bristol/Gloucester road and the Welsh border. All this makes Berkeley Castle the 3rd oldest continuously occupied castle in England after the royal fortresses of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family.

   The original was a motte castle and, unusually, the keep was not strengthened in stone on top, but the sides of the mound were cut away to form a cylinder, revetted, and the keep constructed around it. Much of the rest is 14th century, built for Thomas de Berkeley (they had thought up another Christian name by then) and visitors can gaze at the battlements dropping 60 feet down to the lawn (all the surrounding area could be flooded in defence), trip steps to cause the enemy to fall over one another (this belies the idea that the door at the top was just large enough for a horseman), murder holes, portcullis slots and huge barred doors.
  Inside, there are grand rooms: the dining room with its 18th century silver service on display was converted from a billiard room as can be detected from the lights and the Great Hall boasts a fine 14th century ceiling. The picture gallery, drawing rooms, buttery (nothing to do with butter of course) and kitchen are all of interest and it is well worth taking the guided tour to learn all the details about their history. I found particular interest in the tale of the bosomy Mary Cole, portrayed here, who could have altered the course of history.

Famous connections
  The best known is the murder of Edward II in 1327, which took place here, committed by his gaolers, Sir John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, although Berkeley himself was probably absent, being, as Marlowe says, "so pitiful". The alleged method was considered appropriate for what was perceived as his sexual deviancy and also unlikely to leave incriminating marks on the outside of his body - I will say no more. Recently there has been a revisionist alternative to this gruesome bit of history, in which Edward successfully escaped, was not recaptured, and died much later elsewhere. A less well-known and pathetic incident is related in Sir Richard Baker's Chronicle: this concerns the means of making the king less recognisable by the shaving en route to the castle of Edward's head and beard "in a most beastly manner" with cold puddle water. The King said he must have warm water and so "shed forth a shower of tears. Never was King turned out of a kingdom in such a manner." What is generally accepted is that Edward was kept in insanitary conditions above a stinking pile of dead or diseased animals in the expectation that this would undermine his constitution and lead to his death.
  Other royal visitors were: King John (the barons of the west convened here before Runnymede); Henry III; Margaret, wife of Henry VI; Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth I; George IV when Prince of Wales and William IV when Duke of Clarence. Horace Walpole came and was unimpressed! There is much ancient furniture including Sir Francis Drakes's cabin chest and Elizabeth I's bedspread.
  It is said the A Midsummer Night's Dream was written for a Berkeley wedding.

Other points of interest
   As you walk around you might notice a small breach in the wall, a customary bit of slighting during the Civil War: the family were allowed to remain provided they did not repair this damage and, to this day, all they have done is make the wall safe, since they are still under orders from the original Act of Parliament.

In the nearby church, St. Mary's, bullet holes can be seen in the doors, dating from the Civil War and, in the churchyard, you can look at the tomb of Dickie Pearce, the last court jester, who died falling from the minstrel's gallery in 1728. Gertrude Jekyll had a hand in planting the terraces - the gardens specialise in scented flowers and sell some of them. The story goes that Elizabeth I, apart from playing bowls on the green, hunted and shot so many deer that the rest were moved to a park some miles away where she failed to find them. (So did we and settled for reasonably priced CAKE in the tea rooms in the attractive little town, which also dates from Medieval times.) There is a Butterfly House with interesting specimens and a café yurt (selling delicious velvet CAKE!) The house of Edward Jenner, whose invention of the small pox vaccine eventually completely eradicated this terrible disease, is close by and can be visited: it contains the horns of Blossom, the bovine heroine of his original experiment.
   Gertrude Jekyll described the atmosphere of the castle: "The giant walls and mighty buttresses look as if they have been carved by wind and weather out of some solid rock-mass, rather than wrought by human handiwork". In some evening light "it cheats the eye into something ethereal, without substance, built up for the moment into towering masses of pearly vapour."

My readers have sharp powers of forensic analysis and always note when I go off the route of a Monmouthshire bus but I assure you that Berkeley Castle can be reached by public transport. (I was taken by car though on this occasion - cheat!) Do check opening times, however, as it shuts in the winter and hosts weddings towards the end of each week. Click here to find out. William FitzOsbern has already interested us as the founder of Chepstow Castle, which is not far away, and as a powerful Marcher Lord.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Charterhouse: 4 Chapters of English History

  The Charterhouse, in the centre of London near St. Paul's, has a history dating back 650 years but is still alive today with 40 residents or Brothers, for whom it is home. These are elderly men in financial and social need but women will soon be allowed to apply: because it is partly domestic casual visitors are welcome to certain parts of the ancient building but those on the guided tour can see much more. We went on this hour-long pre-booked walk, accompanied by a charismatic and knowledgeable speaker and found the experience uplifting and memorable. Touchingly, the dining table was neatly laid ready for the Brothers' afternoon tea.
   She explained how there were 4 previous main chapters in the history of the site: a Black Death burial ground with a chapel; a Carthusian monastery; a Tudor courtyard house and then a school, hospital and almshouse

   The Black Death in London in the mid-fourteenth century killed around 40% of its population of about 70,000 people, leaving one third of the land within the walls uninhabited for a decade. It was in 2014 that evidence of a large emergency burial pit here, outside the city walls, was discovered by workers on the Crossrail project: DNA and isotopes revealed that they were 25 victims of plague outbreaks in 1348-9: some sources add 1361 and the early 15th century. It had been believed that prayer would help the souls of these dead to enter heaven and the wealthy courtier and soldier, Sir Walter Manny, built a small chapel for this purpose - he was fittingly buried before the high altar in 1372 as requested in his Will.

  The monastery was the largest Carthusian establishment in England and one of the best endowed: its 26 monks were greatly revered as this order was severe in its way of life, requiring poverty and solitude - although the range of cells testifies to personal space. They attracted large amounts in gifts. With its additional 40 priests and lay brothers, it was a significant presence in London for more than 160 years after 1371. Thomas More, later Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, came here around 1500 to find his vocation, eventually deciding to become a lawyer. In 1537 the monastery was seized by the crown and dissolved. The Prior who led the resistance, John Houghton, was executed in 1535 for treason and his body was chopped into pieces. In all, 16 men from here died for their faith.

 The site for the Tudor Mansion was bought in 1545 by Sir Edward North who remodelled the ruined buildings as a courtyard house typical of that era in the metropolis. Queen Elizabeth stayed here for 4 days in 1558 prior to her formal entry into the city of London for coronation. In 1565, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, bought the house, renaming it Howard House and making it his principal urban residence, grand enough with tapestries, paintings and upholstered furniture. to accommodate royal ceremonies in the Great Chamber.
The most splendid chamber is The Great Hall, built by North but much embellished by Norfolk. The ceiling was largely damaged in the bombing and resultant fire of 1941. It has been beautifully restored as can be seen by comparing the modern with a small portion at the side. Here, intriguingly, Norfolk had placed a decorative thistle, emblem of Scotland and evidence of his treasonable support for Mary, Queen of Scots (and intention of marriage to her) for which he was executed in 1572: this was therefore a notably reckless piece of interior design, as our guide pointed out. It suggests a certain political naiveté on his part.

  In the early 17th century, Thomas Sutton, a self-made man of huge fortune and a philanthropist, set up his charitable foundation here:  an almshouse/hospital and a school. (The speculation as to who would inherit his wealth probably inspired Ben Jonson's play, Volpone). Football was important in the school and the fact that it was played in the cloisters may have led to the off-side rule and throwing in from the touchlines. In 1872 the school moved to Godalming: W. M. Thackeray was a pupil here so disliking it that he satirised his experience at "Slaughter House" in his fiction - a somewhat crude mocking name which might reflect real misery and the smashing of his nose by another pupil which left him permanently disfigured. He later softened his attitude.

  The complex building is beautiful, calm and inspiring, having been sensitively restored (after the destruction in 1941 by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz) in the 50's under the direction of John Seely and Paul Paget. The tour is one of those valuable experiences that lives with you long afterwards. Access for the public is recent and demand for the tour is high - book ahead and enjoy it and the CAKE in the cafe!
   The loyal followers of my blog will perceive with their sharp intellects that this trip cannot be taken entirely on Monmouthshire buses but the excellent National Express service from Cardiff or Newport will take you cheaply and efficiently to Victoria - I did warn you we would be going abroad in 2017! I intend to post more in the future about the plague and the historic characters connected with this fascinating building.
For opening times and details click here.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Richard Strongbow de Clare - and family

Chepstow Castle (Striguil)
   The de Clare family was rich, powerful and extremely prominent in the Welsh Marches of Medieval times and one of the most interesting of them was Richard Strongbow. Confusingly (and I sometimes feel it was done deliberately in order to muddle me!) they called alternate eldest sons Richard or Gilbert.
   The Richard who interests us at this moment was nicknamed Strongbow - but so was his father! Despite the tendency at this period to accord a cognomen that commented on some physical peculiarity (Rufus, Wryneck or Curthose - short arse  - springs to mind) neither of these men seems to have had oddly shaped legs.
The nickname was probably a mistranscription in a Latin entry in the Domesday Exchequer annals of the early 14th century which appended the word "Stranghose" to his given name. The chronicler thought this meant "foreign leggings" but it probably referred to Striguil (Chepstow) which could also be spelled Strangboge, Stranboue or Stranbohe. Clear? No, neither am I, but this nickname stuck from then on.

  He was born in 1130 in Tonbridge, Kent, and died on 20th April 1176, aged 45/6, in Dublin, having been master of Chepstow, planner of Usk town and Governor of Ireland. Gilbert I (they are often given Roman numerals because of the problem we have noted) and his brother Roger had been part of the hunting party when William Rufus was killed - or murdered - and were brothers-in-law of the man who did the shooting, Walter Tirel. Whether or not they were part of a plot, they were rewarded by Henry I (who claimed the throne in indecent haste) with extensive grants of lands throughout England and Wales. Male members of the family made judicious marriages until they were amongst the most powerful magnates of the kingdom.
   Our Richard succeeded to the lordship of Striguil, aged only 18, and supported King Stephen against Matilda for the last 5 years of his reign. The next Henry, Matilda's son, his new liege-lord, regarded him with suspicion and failed to confirm him in the important title of Earl of Pembroke. At that time, he was, as Orpen said "a man who, having been brought up to greatness, had fallen on evil days and who therefore was all the more ready to endeavour to repair his fortunes by a bold adventure in another country." This was the Norman occupation of Ireland.

  In August 1166, Dermot Mac Murrough, King of Leinster, was banished and later landed in Bristol with his followers to seek support from Henry II to recover his position.The King, who had designs on Ireland, gave him letters patent but Richard Strongbow was alone in offering military support - in return for promises to marry Dermot's daughter, Eva, and inherit Leinster after his death. (I will not trouble our heads with the variant spellings of all these names!) However, he did not go immediately and then Henry forbade the mission. Yet, since Strongbow was on the point of departure, he set off despite this prohibition and Henry seized Striguil. Richard landed in Waterford with 200 knights and 1000 light troops, some recruited in Gwent. They took Waterford and Dublin but Henry saw his own ambitions threatened by this success and did a deal with Richard who ceded some gains but kept Leinster. By August 1173, Henry trusted him enough to make him Governor of Ireland. At about this time the stone keep of Usk castle was built and the charter for its Priory was granted.

Usk Castle

   In 1189 his daughter, Isabella, married one of the most powerful and renowned men of the age, William, Earl Marshall of England, who strengthened both Striguil and Usk castles adding to the latter the dominating curtain walls. Strongbow's tomb is not local to Gwent despite such claims. He was described by Geraldus Cambrensis: "His complexion was somewhat ruddy and his skin freckled; he had grey eyes, feminine features, a weak voice and short neck. For the rest, he was tall in stature and a man of great generosity and of a courteous nature."
    He was also an ancestor of the American Bush political family.

To read more about his influence in Monmouthshire you can click on Chepstow Castle, Usk Castle or the planting of Usk Town. There is also a post about the illustrious William Marshal.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Your Welsh ancestors: how they lived in the 12th century

How do we know?
   Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, toured Wales in 1188 as companion to Baldwin of Forde, Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote of his journey in what must have been one of the earliest travel books and also gave an account of the character and habits of the people he met in Descriptio Cambriae (Description of Wales) in 1194. The trip was a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade.
  He attempted to give the good and bad points as he saw them and - it must be said - the less flattering picture is somewhat longer than the admiration. I will reverse these proportions as I want to keep my readers! Perhaps his observations cannot be regarded as the entire truth as he made several errors in his account of the natural world, such as his assertion that beavers on the River Teifi castrated themselves to avoid danger.
    Born in Manorbier Castle around 1146, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh descent, the youngest son of William FitzOdo de Barri and Angharad Fitzgerald. He was well educated and wrote in excellent Latin, becoming royal clerk and chaplain to Henry II, although he never attained the post of bishop of St. David's which he coveted.

Praise for the Welsh
   "The Welsh people are light and agile. They are fierce rather than strong, and totally dedicated to the practice of arms. Not only the leaders but the entire nation are trained for war." Substitute rugby for war and one tends to believe him here. Normally, he found they ate plenty of meat but little bread and were neither gluttonous nor drunk.  They were preoccupied with the defence of their country and the care of their horses, consuming no food all day and managing patiently without nourishment in the evening if there were none.
   He found them generous and hospitable: "When you travel there is no question of your asking for accommodation or their offering it: you just march into a house and hand over your weapons to the person in charge. They give you water so that you may wash your feet and that means that you are a guest." Entertainment would be a harp and the dinner was simple with no tables, tablecloths or napkins. The hosts waited to eat until everyone else had finished and then a communal bed was rolled out.
    Hair was cut short and both sexes took great care of their teeth, rubbing them until they shone and avoiding hot food which might damage them. He found the Welsh sharp and intelligent and highly musical, playing 3 instruments: the harp, pipe and a stringed crwth. As singers they were adept at parts, as poets they loved alliteration and they were clever at puns and word play, even if those were cruel in intent. Bold and confident in speech in general, there were also "awenydion", soothsayers who behaved as if possessed and answered questions by going into a trance and talking gibberish.
  A great respect for family and ancestry led them into ferocity over insults to their relations when they became "vindictive, bloodthirsty and violent" ready to avenge even old injuries. Yet they lived isolated lives on the edge of woods and were deeply religious: "The Welsh go to extremes in all matters."

The flip side
    Giraldus stated that the Welsh rarely kept their promises since their minds were agile and frequently changed opinion - the only constant was sticking fast when something was reprehensible. They lived on plunder and, when battle was joined, they appeared ferocious, shouting and glowering but were thrown into confusion if the enemy resisted strongly (rugby again?)
   Greedy for property, they had the custom of dividing land between brothers which led to violent disputes, arson and fratricide. Cheating over territory was common with boundary ditches being dug up and marking stones moved. Arriving at an affluent house, they "lose all control of themselves, and insist on being served with vast quantities of food and more especially with intoxicating drink." This seems inconsistent with much that he has described earlier but circumstances may have been different.
   Incest was common and not seen as dishonourable, keeping matters within the family! They had given up homosexuality but still indulged in perjury, theft, robbery, rapine, murder and adultery, "a deep abyss of every vice." One wonders how they had time for warfare - and I have no images for this section.
   He goes on to give advice on how the nation may be conquered but I will leave that to another post. Meanwhile you can read about the Norman Marcher Lords who attempted to control these people and their territory.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Usk Town - planted by the Normans

Usk Town
   This is a familiar view of Usk's Twyn Square, proudly flower-filled in the summer months, with the Norman castle visible in the background behind the trees. Monmouthshire is rich in castles of this period and round them grew settlements which drew a living from supplying the Marcher Lords and their followers with necessary goods and help for defence. Trade was brisk between towns which held markets on different days of the week with merchants travelling from one to the next, replenishing their supplies at ports on Saturdays.

Planting a town
   There is evidence that Usk was different in that it was deliberately planned and developed by the Normans (much as new towns have been in our day) rather than rising organically and spontaneously. The layout of this settlement did not follow the line of the Roman fort of the 1st century AD but was laid out from scratch by Richard Strongbow de Clare between December 1154 and May 1170. It is possible that the famous knight William Marshall extended it but it certainly reached its fullest extent within its defences between 1280 and 1295. The de Clares had a custom (intended to confuse later historians!) of naming alternate elder sons Richard or Gilbert and this has made it difficult to trace ownership of particular pieces of land.
    William I, after his conquest in 1066, appointed three close allies as lords over a portion of the Welsh Marches, the southern area being under the control of William fitzOsbern, builder of Chepstow Castle, who probably visited Caerleon. (Were ALL Norman men called William?) Their remit was to keep the unruly locals in check by whatever means they felt appropriate and they had a great deal of autonomy. Probably in 1149, aged 18, Richard succeeded him as Earl of Pembroke and, later and less prestigiously, as Lord of Striguil (Chepstow).  He devoted much energy to "a bold adventure in another country [Ireland]" but, in his spare time, he created the town of Usk.

   The date of the plantation of the town is probably close to that of the issuing of a charter setting up the Benedictine Priory in the mid 12th century as detailed above. The large block of Priory land fitted into the street plan of the town. The map attached to the excellent book Norman Usk by A. G. Mein shows burgage plots on both sides of Bridge Street and surrounding the old Market place in Twyn Square, the whole leading into Priory land between the church and Pook lane. These plots were standard-sized, with narrow frontages but with long extensions behind them and had a fixed annual rent of one shilling. They had a tendency to creep forwards encroaching on the street as temporary sales pitches on their fronts became permanent - the law seems to have failed to prevent this. A example is the western side of Twyn Square where the placing of the market forced travellers through it to spend their money at the illegal stalls. The temptation to inch forwards into prominence must have been overwhelming.

   A Medieval ditch was discovered by Professor Manning during his 1975 excavations of the cattle market and is still referred to as Clawdd Ddu (black ditch) and a pavement marker may be seen in Maryport Street at the far end. It ran up behind Mill Street and New Market Street, behind Bridge Street, beyond Four Ash and back behind the prison. It extended for a distance of 2200 yards enclosing an area of about 95 acres and was probably defensive although rather weakly fortified as there was only an earthen rampart with, perhaps, a wooden palisade.

Earlier and later
    In AD 75 most of the Second Augustan Roman Legion left Usk (Burrium) for Caerleon (Isca) largely because of flooding which, in particular, threatened their granaries, but their presence means that Usk has a long history of settlement. Even the centurion's knees must have suffered in our climate!
Tracks through Time tour by Jeremy Bosanquet
Other towns in later centuries had imposing Town Criers in scarlet robes and black tricorne hats resonantly and clearly intoning the latest news but Usk had Billo Wisham. He was small and shabbily dressed in an overlong, erstwhile black, coat and tweed check cap. His USP was indistinct pronunciation so that no-one was sure whether to attend a jumble sale, a concert, a carnival or merely to take precautions because the water was about to be turned off. He always ended with a prayer for the King.

This blog usually ends each post by encouraging the consumption of a large piece of CAKE after a visit to a site of historic interest and Usk offers many opportunities for wholesome calorific consumption - such as the delicious items in the Green Flute cafe, handily situated in the main car park (oops! but I know some of you travel in private motors) and open even when the Rural Life Museum is closed. When you have re-energised yourself you could visit Usk Castle, the memorial to Alfred Russel Wallace or the battle site of Pwll Melin where Owain Glyn Dwr's forces suffered a momentous defeat. Chepstow Castle can be reached by the 63 bus on a lovely scenic route. For details of buses, click here or use the link to timetables on the footer.
For more on Usk's founder, Richard Strongbow de Clare, click here.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Markets in the Middle Ages in South Wales: Medieval retail therapy

  Markets have been held in the Welsh Marches since Medieval times: this one, in Abergavenny has been on Tuesdays for nearly 800 years. We have a reference to it between 1256 and 1267 when Lord Edward was in possession of the lordships of Abergavenny, Monmouth and the Three Castles.          Recently some official (officious?) pronouncement advised the elderly that, when walking on icy pavements, they should imitate the gait of the penguin and toddle slowly, beak down and body bent forward. That is exactly how I proceed in a market so that I am sure of spotting any bargains whilst honing my bartering skills.
   Before the advent of markets, trade was more in the form of barter and we know that a good horse was worth 12 cows as was a quality hawk or a sword: the earliest mention of money in this area was towards the end of the 11th century when payment was in gold or silver or even in coins from Saxon England. An interesting cashless sale by 2 brothers in 740 was 500 acres of land between the Rivers Monnow and Wye in exchange for 24 cows, a good horse, a precious sword and a Saxon woman but we do not know who received what.

The growth and organisation of markets
   Towns grew up around the great castles imposed by the Norman conquerors in the Welsh Marches and provided defence as well as supplying goods. A chain of markets in these settlements evolved according to 2 different systems: the "trader" model and the "consumer" type. It is likely that the Marches combined both. In the trader model, local markets were held on consecutive weekdays within a day's journey of one another so that a merchant could visit them all in turn and stock up on Saturday at ports such as Gloucester.
   There were 2 circuits in Monmouthshire although they were probably not discrete: Grosmont held a market on Mondays; Abergavenny on Tuesdays; Monmouth on Wednesdays; Ross on Thursdays and Newent on Fridays. There was another market at Grosmont on Fridays, a Monday and Thursday one at Crickhowell and one established later on Wednesdays at Tretower. On a different route, Usk's day was Monday, Tryleg's Wednesday, Caerleon's Thursday and Newport's on Saturday, leaving Tuesday again free for Abergavenny. Where there was sufficient trade, markets could be held in nearby places on the same day (consumer model) and there were others I have not mentioned.

   Records for a comparable town (Newark in 1328) show that goods traded included: corn, salted meat and bacon, furs, sheep, goats, pigs, fresh meat, fleeces, tanned hides, cloth, iron, steel, tin, woad, wine, wool, fruit, nuts, timber, horses, hay, rushes glass, garlic, salt, firewood, coal, nails and horseshoes. To maximise trade, markets were placed so that travellers had to pass through them to go on their way and shops may have grown around them. The trade they engendered in the 13th and 14th centuries did not reach such intensity again until the agrarian and industrial revolutions. Records reveal exports, too, into England from Chepstow, Caerleon and Usk of salmon, oxen, pigs, lampreys, partridges, malt and vinegar.

Their place in the political structure
    Permission for markets and fairs in South East Wales was in the hands of the Marcher Lords (not in the control of the king as in England) and these happenings became part of a calculated political strategy for their emerging aspirations. Such commercial dealings led to great social change as surplus consumers and traders were brought together in a recognised place from which a ruling elite could draw revenue. This facilitated the funding of armies so that territorial ambitions could be fulfilled. It was therefore in the best interest of the lords to encourage an efficient system in their area and the process of establishing a market went along with the growth of a new town and borough. A lord would then have to co-operate or at least take into account the patterns of trade in a neighbouring lordship of which there were several in this area in that period. No point in disrupting a working economy!

   We still love a market and the bustle and excitement that a good one creates. Added to this we can enjoy a sense of partaking in a way of life that is hundreds of years old - and, as always in this blog, savour a large slice of CAKE after our retail therapy.

In the Tithe Barn cafe, Abergavenny
As these towns mostly grew up around castles, you might like to fit in a visit whilst you are there. I have written about Abergavenny Castle, Usk Castle and Monmouth Castle and there are also the Roman remains at Caerleon and fascinating things to see at Trellech (Tryleg.) Of the Three Castles, Skenfrith, Grosmont and White Castles, I have, so far, covered the last.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Owain Glyn Dwr: an assessment

Owain Glyn Dwr: the mystery
   Why Owain Glyn Dwr led a revolt against the crown when he was advanced in age for such a risk and was happily married, father of several children in a beautiful home, is a question I have addressed in a previous post (link below). Bards who had the status of prophets spoke of the coming of a new leader after the deaths of the two great Princes who might have succeeded in forming a united Wales to endure for generations: Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great) and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last.)
    Dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with fierce national pride produced an impetus towards rebellion in a country where - it must be admitted - various factions had warred against one another and failed to accept a single leader to maintain a strong and independent state.
   Histories have given the details of his guerrilla campaigns and fixed battles at first seeming to lead to triumph but then failing, leading to his defeat near Usk in May 1405, the turning point.
The downside.
   There seems little doubt that his rebellion caused widespread devastation in the country he hoped to make powerful. His invasion of Gwent in 1402 caused dislocation of economic life and the structures of society. No courts were held in 1402 and 1403 in Monmouth, White Castle, Grosmont and Dingestow nor could revenue be collected at Monmouth in 1405. Tenants protested that they could not sow crops for 3 years and rents were uncollected as late as 1411. Tenements were burned and destroyed and the value of properties fell continuously until, in 1410, the manor of Caerleon was worth as little as 16s 8d. In August 1403 Newport was laid waste by his followers, one of many towns to be attacked and ruined. Abergavenny was burned in that same year. Life in Gwent was on a war footing and civilian governance was replaced by a series of ad hoc military commands.
   The plague had earlier caused a massive decline in population which exacerbated the background situation. Works on sea defences had ceased and storm and winds increased pressure on them until 350 - 600 metres were lost. Grain prices rose and production decreased. These factors caused simmering amongst the population and law and order were breaking down. In August 1403 William Beauchamp reported himself all but ruined (his villeins had risen against him releasing 3 criminals) and claimed that his soldiers could not travel safely between Abergavenny and Hereford without being killed or captured.
   By 1410 the revolt was over but the effects were persistent and deep. Boroughs were in arrears and the Assize roll in Monmouth in 1413 recorded over 60 tenants fined for non-appearance. The lordships had been shaken but castles had had a new lease of life, having been repaired and fortified at vast expense although many suffered in the war. The countryside was hugely impoverished, the troops having burned, looted, ravaged crops, damaged mills and rustled cattle all as acts of reprisal against lordships by depriving them of income. It sounds like the infamous "Harrying of the North" by William I except that this was done, ironically, by would-be leaders to their own. In Usk "all the tenants had fled, certain of them had been killed" and the priories of Abergavenny and Usk pleaded poverty. Some towns were ghostly and the equilibrium of a frontier society was overturned.

The vision
   It may seem hard to balance this devastation with anything positive but hindsight casts a shadow. The rebellion might be viewed differently had Owain Glyn Dwr's forces won and his ideas been put into practice. We have some insight into his vision from the Pennal Letter of 31st March 1406, written in Latin on goatskin parchment after a "Senedd" or meeting of lords near Machynlleth in which the leading churchmen decided to switch allegiance to the Pope at Avignon.
   There would have been an alliance with the recipient, Charles VI of France, severance of the Welsh church from Canterbury, the creation of an archbishopric at St. David's and the foundation of 2 universities in Wales, one in the north and one in the south so that Wales could be spiritually and intellectually empowered to work out her own destiny. This is truly a prophetic mission, not a desire for personal aggrandisement.

    Perhaps Shakespeare hit the spot in Henry IV pt i. Although there is no historical evidence that the real Glyn Dwr boasted of strange events at his nativity and magical powers, such an aura surrounded him and added to his charismatic appeal. Mortimer puts the other view that he is a "worthy gentleman, exceedingly well read" whilst the lower orders complain of the rise in the price of oats and Falstaff, in a moment of seriousness, points out that "you may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel."  The great ones quarrel and the ordinary man and woman suffer.

 For my earlier post on Owain Glyn Dwr and an account of the battles, click here. I have also written about Usk Castle, White Castle and Monmouth Castle.