Friday, 13 October 2017

Monmouthshire in the 14th century: prosperity and plague

Chepstow Castle, a crossing point
   Monmouthshire in the 14th century was relatively accessible from England and became quite affluent, particularly in the towns which grew up (some around castles) such as Chepstow, Abergavenny, Monmouth, Newport, Tryleg and Caerleon. The county had a higher ratio of castles per square mile than any other similar region of England or Wales, except Herefordshire and Northumberland. To get my tenses right - it still does and therefore has a record number of post-castle-visit CAKE opportunities. Even though some fortresses were starting to fall into disrepair, several were sufficiently comfortable and welcoming for leading English lords to spend time in them, Henry V being born in Monmouth.
   These lowlands of the south-east were also appealing because of their good hunting: a well-stocked park in Grosmont made it a favourite residence of the House of Lancaster and the towns offered specialised crafts and services, weekly markets and twice-yearly fairs. A suburb of Abergavenny was called Englishton and several spots were the homes of Benedictine priories, outposts of northern French monasteries.
The River Usk from the Flood Route or Noah's Ark Route
   Manors grew wheat and the River Usk provided salmon, prized as far away as East Anglia. Wood and charcoal also formed an important part of the economy. More distant parts of the region were still thoroughly Welsh in language, customs and culture: 87% of taxpayers in 1292 round Monmouth had English surnames but the proportions were reversed in the district around White Castle. The men of Gwent were particularly skilled in military techniques, especially the bow and arrow, and were sought after in English wars against France. One detail I like from this tapestry of prosperity is that of the journey of Lady Elizabeth de Burgh of Usk travelling to her East Anglian estates in 1350, escorted by 130 horses and 28 hackneys, the menage quaffing an impressive 80 gallons of ale per day en route. If that makes you feel thirsty you may have a cup of tea with your CAKE.

Usk Castle
The Plague
   I have scattered the story of affluence with photographs because it is hard to know how to illustrate this next part of the story. Towards the end of the century Monmouthshire (Gwent) was composed of 5 great lordships: Abergavenny; Monmouth and Three Castles; Striguil (Chepstow); Usk and Caerleon; and Gwynllwg (Newport) - the latter now having the least visited ruined castle in the area. (Don't try to boost its numbers: the local council makes no attempt to make the relic accessible.) Changes in lordships caused by natural demise were disruptive but the advent of the Black Death was cataclysmic.
   There are many facts here which are only probable but the outline is clear: in the winter of 1348-9 the pandemic arrived and was known as "Y Farwolaeth Fawr" which does sound more ominous than the English version, "The Great Death". It killed between a third and a quarter of the population. Recurrent further outbreaks meant that economic recovery seemed nearly impossible: particularly distressing was that of 1361-2 which carried off the younger generation who might otherwise have revived the economy. In 1362, 36 of the 40 tenants of Caldicot are recorded as dead and only 114 labour services remained out of a previous 2000, though these figures might be cumulative over more years. Areas spared so far were devastated by the 1369 spread of this virulent disease. The county was overturned by such losses.
Caldicot Castle
   Yet there was some recovery despite the demographic collapse although it was the lower classes of men and women who scraped together money to satisfy the well organised lords' demands. This was, in some ways, merely a delay of inevitable consequences: labour shortages made demesne farming less profitable and many lords became long-distance, rent-collecting owners. Serfdom as a system was eclipsed and workers could now make demands on their lords. The peasantry became rebellious (schoolroom titters at the back about revolting peasants will not be tolerated) and there were risings against the lords in Abergavenny and ominous threats to Monmouth in 1381 which prompted John of Gaunt to fortify his castle there.

Monmouth Castle
What next?
   I can pick 3 words from my unlocked word-hoard to answer that question: Owain Glyn Dwr.

I have written a brief biography of this enigmatic man followed by an attempt at assessment. Many of my posts are about castles in Monmouthshire: you might like to start by reading about Henry V's birthplace: Monmouth Castle. An account of Marcher lordships goes a little further in explaining this aspect and there is an article on Medieval markets in the area.
On the right of this blog there is a rather daunting list of books consulted with gratitude but I am particluarly indebted to The Gwent County History vol. 2 for this piece.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Wells: the Bishop's Palace and gardens

Wells Cathedral is magnificent and I was stunned by it, as I expected to be. For some silly reason I had not entertained such high hopes of the neighbouring Bishop's Palace but I was even more struck by it and, particularly, its gardens. There you find the wells which give the city its name: water gardens are always special and these are the most atmospheric I have visited. I entered the main part of them through a small opening in the wall - there is something especially magical about vistas that open out after confinement - and was overwhelmed. Unfortunately the light was fading and, when I returned to take better photos, it drizzled. Some kindly people have suggested I use images from Google but I just know that my loyal followers prefer my amateurish but personalised efforts.

A brief history
  The site may have been occupied since prehistoric times because of the abundant supply of fresh water but the first episcopal buildings were established by Jocelin who became bishop in 1206. Succeeding bishops until 1500 enlarged the palace, built formidable ramparts, harnessed the water to make a moat and supply the city and created an impressive new opening from the market place. All these improvements emphasised the power and grandeur of the bishopric and later incumbents added lesser improvements such as the long south wall (Bishop Ken composed his hymns whilst walking there and I love to imagine him strolling along humming gently and intoning proudly when he had nailed it), remodelling of the gardens and embellishing the palace interior. Water often has a symbolic significance to us all and the most active spring here, St. Andrew's Well, has the same dedication as the minster, with the bishops controlling the supply from the 1200's onwards.
  Jocelin was favoured by King John and Henry III, who needed his support and who allowed him to develop the estate. He constructed 2 new schools, a hospital and a chapel - it is worth walking past the left hand side of the cathedral as these smaller buildings are lovely. A deer park was also part of his endowment, stocked with animals from the king's own estates, whose sensitivity to noise was respected by the diversion of the lorries carrying stones.

The gardens

  Be bold and, Alice-like, pop through the hole to discover the extensive water gardens, developed by Ralph of Shrewsbury from the marshy ground which had flooded uncontrollably until the 1330's. He created a moat which acted as a reservoir, and thus limited the inundations and made the building of water mills possible. He added a rampart with round towers and a gatehouse which had, with the permission of King Edward III, crenellations. The site covers 14 acres and demands labour from the Head Gardener and team - it has reflected the charging tastes in garden design over the centuries.
  It was Bishop Beckynton who built the wellhouse with a cistern to collect the water from the wells and maintain enough pressure to send it through a conduit towards the market place where any overflow washed away rubbish. Wooden bungs could be used to shut off the flow. Amazing engineering prowess.

The swans on the moat are still trained to ring a bell beneath the window on the left at the gatehouse to ask for dinner. They pull on the chain and demand fast food from the caretaker who lives there: mother swans teach their cygnets how to do this with dignity and an imperious manner in morning classes (not really - just checking you are still concentrating) and their sleek plumpness shows how successful they are.

2 (or 3?) not-so-peaceful items
  The palace was used as a garrison by troops in both the Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion. Bishop Kidder and his wife were killed in the Great Storm of 1703 when 2 chimney stacks fell on them in the night whilst they slept. The Bishop of Bath and Wells has been recorded on Blackadder as a baby-eater but I am sceptical since they had fat swans for their delectation - though these probably belonged to the monarch.
  I lingered in the failing light as long as I could, wandering about and sitting on various seats including one of those swinging striped jobbies with a canopy that always seem to me the height of luxury and indolence. There is also an arboretum with a Dragon's Lair but I live in Wales where they are ubiquitous. If I lived in Wells I would come here daily to breathe in the atmosphere. Yet I was far from home, having journeyed through Bath from Newport by train and bus on the very well run local services. Anyway it was time for CAKE which I had in the cathedral café where they were asking people to donate crockery and glassware so that they could recreate the traditional afternoon tea - isn't that a soothing thought?

For my blog post on Wells Cathedral, click here. From there you can click on other links to cathedrals, castles and Roman remains and your afternoon will pass profitably until CAKE time.
For opening times of the Palace click here.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Wells Cathedral: fascinating and beautifully situated

One Exterior View of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew: Wells Cathedral
 As you stand on the green gazing at the west front, having entered via one of the 3 ancient gateways (Brown's Gatehouse, Penniless Porch or Chain Gate) recall that your feet are planted on a graveyard. Your eyes are fixed on a facade of unusually consistent architecture, being almost wholly Early English in style and not a medley as in many Medieval Cathedrals. The stone is Inferior Oolite from the Middle Jurassic period - I love that as I am not even sure if there is a Superior version!
  There are 3 horizontal layers, the bottom one being quite plain. The others showcase 300 sculpted figures - there were 400 originally - which would have been brightly painted in reds, blues and greens as has been deduced from some remaining flakes of colour adhering to them.  This is one of the largest collection of Medieval statues in Europe and the finest display of such carving in England. There are seated and standing people, half-length angels and narratives. The personalities include monarchs, Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, apostles, bishops and other holy individuals, many identifiable by their attributes. There are also the dead, joyful or despairing, emerging from their tombs on the Day of Judgement, some recognisable as royal by their crowns or episcopal by their mitres - although otherwise naked! The sizes reflect importance but the large statue at the very top of Christ in Majesty is a modern replacement of one badly damaged.


It is impossible in a blog post to describe all the attributes worth noting on the inside but these are the most striking in my opinion.
The scissor (strainer) arches: these are structural in an interesting way since they were inserted to sustain the weight of an extra storey added to the top of the central  tower which caused it to crack and lean. Between 1338 and 48 the master mason William Joy conceived this solution which proved stunning to look at and yet practical. The appearance is of an extra inverted arch on top of the more usual one.
The 'Golden Window' is so called because of the glowing yellow stain given to the 14th century glasswork depicting the Tree of Jesse which shows the lineage of Christ rising from Jesse, symbolising Israel, who lies on his side at the bottom with a tree or vine growing from his side. Wells has one of the most substantial collections of Medieval stained glass in England, despite damage by Parliamemtary troops in the Civil War.
Carvings: in particular, look out for the man with toothache as a capital in the South Transept. He is pointing to the place of pain with his index finger as if showing it to the dentist and is one of 11 such.
The misericords: these are little seats often with carvings underneath, so called because they gave the worshippers a merciful chance to semi-sit during a long service without appearing to do so. In Wells they are particularly fine and date from 1330-1340: 27 depict animals including rabbits, dogs, a puppy biting a cat, a ewe feeding a lamb, monkeys, lions and bats; 18 show mythological subjects such as mermaids, dragons, wyverns and the narrative of the Fox and the Geese. Such unchristian icons may have crept in unobserved, perhaps being the foible of the individual carver.
The Astronomical Clock: in the North Transept is a 24 hour, geocentric clock dating from around 1325, probably the work of a Glastonbury monk, Peter Lightfoot. The original mechanism is now in the Science Museum in London, still working. The Medieval face remains and shows the hours, the motions of sun and moon around a fixed Earth and the phases of the moon. The quarter hours are marked by Jack Blandifers (look upwards to the right) who hits 2 bells with hammers and 2 with his heels as jousting knights appear above the clock face. A second clock, working from the same mechanism, has 2 knights in armour as quarter jacks. In 2010 the official winder retired to be replaced by an electric motor - a pity say I.

Violence and peace:
   Dean Walter Raleigh (nephew of the more famous chap of the same name) was placed under house arrest here. His jailer was a shoe maker and city constable called David Barrett, who caught him writing a forbidden letter to his wife. When Raleigh refused to hand it over, Barrett ran him through with his sword and he died 6 weeks later on 10th October 1646.
   During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Puritan soldiers damaged the West front, tore lead from the roof for bullets, broke windows, smashed the organ and furnishings and stabled their horses in the nave.
Look for this in the town
   In 1703, during the Great Storm, Bishop Kidder was killed when 2 chimney stacks on the Palace fell on him and his wife as they lay asleep.
   In July 2009 the Cathedral held the funeral of Harry Patch, plumber and firefighter, British Army veteran of World War I, "the Last Fighting Tommy", who died aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day - at peace after great violence.

 A Very Very Brief History of the name
Fans of Blackadder with be asking about the Bishop of Bath and Wells: after many disputes, Pope Innocent IV established this title in 1245 after the seat had moved between Wells and the Abbeys of Bath and Glastonbury but - it is a bit like saying there is no Father Christmas - none of them ate babies!
There has been a church here since 705 and a shrine in Roman times or even earlier.

The town of Wells is very appealing with the Vicars' Close, (probably the oldest purely residential street  in Europe), some interesting shops as well as the usual suspects and a thriving Wednesday market - but even more enthralling is the Bishop's Palace and gardens which utterly entranced me and which I will write about after a second visit.

I went by public transport from Monmouthshire via Bath and, on the way back, Bristol Temple Meads, and it necessitated an overnight stay but I intend to go again on an organised day coach trip. I have also written about Hereford Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral and many castles and Roman remains - perhaps you could start with Raglan Castle and nearby Caerleon amphitheatre.
I am grateful to the Pitkin Guide and Wikipedia for information.
For opening times etc click here for the Cathedral website and you can also read my account of the Bishop's Palace and gardens.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Hereford Cathedral: imposing yet intimate

Hereford Cathedral makes a strong impression on the visitor and yet feels friendly with its warm stone and manageable size. The first building on this site some 1300 years ago may have been a modest thatched wooden construction, replaced later by a stone Saxon Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The second patron saint was King Ethelbert who was brutally murdered by Offa: once his innocence had been established, he was eventually canonised. A bishop named Thomas Cantilupe, became St. Thomas of Hereford in 1320 and had a shrine erected to him - this became a place of pilgrimage. His feast day, 2 October, is still celebrated and you can see a banner showing his history designed by Jean Mobbs commemorating the 700th anniversary of his death. He was believed to have performed 400 miracles but had been excommunicated. When the ban was lifted, his various bones were sent around the country and finally came back here. Then comes St. John the Baptist a statue of whom, wearing his camel-skin coat with its head, can be seen in the north transept.

Look for:
   The corona, a magnificent suspended zig-zag or chevron construct of gilded stainless steel by Simon Beer, which seemed to me a symbol of the Crown of Thorns as it hangs above the central altar.
   A beautiful modern stained glass window in blues, called Ascension, by John Maine which pays tribute to the Special Air Service and its many connections to this neighbourhood..

   Three tapestries designed by John Piper for the 1300th anniversary in 1976 representing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of the Crucifixion and the Tree of the Future (Book of Revelation.)
   These are the possessions which made the most impression on me but the Norman pillars in the nave, the misericords, (I always love those as it seems to me they gave the relief of sitting on your suitcase on a crowded train) The Quire, St. John's Walk, The Lady Chapel, The Crypt and the gardens are also of great interest.
  Having a weakness for the sensational, I was particularly enthralled by the fact that the west end and its tower collapsed on Easter Monday, 1786. I always ask myself how ancient architects and builders coped without modern methods and clearly they sometimes failed - perhaps because of earthquakes - although the date is striking. A new west front was designed by James Wyatt but the resulting facade was deemed too plain and was replaced in 1908. The brightness of his nave reflects a movement away from the idea that those churches are best for prayer that have least light.

Mappa Mundi
By kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral
and the Hereford Mappa Mundi Trust
   Mappa Mundi (you don't need to add 'the' because it is contained in the Latin term for Map of the World) is part of a separate exhibition along with the Chained Library. It is well worth the viewing but bear in mind it is not a travel map in the modern sense but a representation of the Christian world, centred on Jerusalem, on a single piece of parchment (prepared animal skin) dating from the late 1280's. East is at the top because of its religious significance and it was probably made in Lincoln by monks. (Incidentally, Hereford was never a monastic cathedral and is therefore termed secular).  There are pictures of Biblical and classical events, geographical features, peoples (some of them very strange) plants and animals. It is almost a chart of the Medieval outlook and is amazingly complex.
   You will benefit from a tour of this and the Chained Library which is, as the name suggests, a collection of ancient books with chains attached to their covers at the cut-page end with 2 hasps and a lock. Hand-written books were hugely expensive (remember that Chaucer's Wife of Bath became deaf in one ear by a blow after tearing a book). It is so atmospheric: 'modern' here means post 1801 and most of the books are in Latin though I was fascinated to know that the dictionary of my hero, Dr. Johnson, is on the shelves. These treasures make Hereford Cathedral outstanding.
    What is less well-known, perhaps, is that there is a also a truly modern working library with over 4000 titles available to borrow and a large reference collection. This contains theological works as well as biographies and books on the decorative arts, architecture and music. Visitors are welcome to use it and you can bring your own laptop. If I lived nearer I would inhabit it permanently! There are also unusual archives of Medieval manuscript books, early printed books, music, prints, drawings and photographs. Now that our local libraries are turning into jolly (?) community hubs, this is a rare find.

   I travelled to Hereford by bus from Monmouth and fortified myself with CAKE as usual in the café. Opening hours and other visitor details may be found on the website. You might also be interested in my account of Gloucester Cathedral or one of my castle articles such as that on Goodrich Castle. If you travel by car (tut! tut!) you could spend a lovely afternoon at Hampton Court Castle with its stunning gardens which is about 20 minutes away.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hampton Court Castle and gardens - Herefordshire

The Hampton Court in Herefordshire is 100 years older than its more famous namesake, dating back 600 years on parkland by the River Lugg near Leominster in the village of Hope under Dinmore. It is a castellated country house, a Grade 1 listed building of Gothic and Gothic revival architecture, which sits in 935 acres. The word "hampton" derives from Anglo-Saxon and means "home place" which explains why there are so many towns etc ending in this suffix.
  The main construction of a quadrangular courtyard house was started in 1427 by Sir Rowland Lenthall on land that was a wedding gift from King Henry IV on Lenthalls's marriage to the king's cousin, Margaret Fitzalan, a daughter of the Earl of Arundel. Building had been taking place earlier when the king was Henry Bolingbroke and Sir Rowland went on to fight at Agincourt - all very Shakespearean.

Later ownership
  The palace or castle, whichever you prefer, has changed hands several times with each owner altering and adding to it so that the oldest remaining part is to the north. Some tended to make it more domestic but others reversed the trend and made it more of a castle according to fashion or inclination. The powerful Coningsby family bought it in the 16th century and stayed for 300 years, their name accounting for the theme of white rabbits throughout ("coney" means "rabbit").  After that it was purchased for nearly a quarter of a million pounds by Richard Arkwright, offspring of the famous inventor, whose son John lavished more money on it over a period of 12 years, though making some economies such as scumbling the woodwork in the dining room instead of installing true walnut panelling. (Some oak panelling had been sold off in the 17th century).

  The chapel is Medieval and would have been much more colourful than at present: the stained glass was sold in the 1920's though a little remains high up.
  The house is great fun although not all is as old as it seems since a U.S. millionaire, Robert Van Kampen, furnished it in the 1990's (to the tune of £17 million) according to his ideas of an English country house, adding armour and stuffed animals. Some complain about the lack of authenticity but I raise a cheer to him for spending his money to recreate his ideal for us all to enjoy.  No-one lives here any more but it is the fabulous setting for weddings and events and it has served as a military hospital.

The gardens
  I went there on a perfect July day and was bowled over by the gardens, taking a couple of hours to explore and absorb. They are beautifully maintained without being manicured and signage is kept to a minimum: I was amused to be warned of uneven surfaces near the river due to mole activity and half expected to see Ratty, Badger and Toad as well. There is a river walk of 45 minutes but I contented myself with the shorter one.

  There are more formal gardens with a water pavilion, a maze, a secret passage, a wisteria tunnel 150 years old and a sunken pond with a waterfall that some children were persuading their grandfather to go behind. One of them called out:"I love this place - I am having so many adventures." (So was grandpa!) This is perhaps because there are hidden things to discover, several paths to take to different parts, and a hollow tree with a door to hide in.

I was very taken with the Dutch garden which is a contrast to the wilder areas, being symmetrical with a rectangular pond and colourful potted plants. I sat here for a while contemplating and reflecting on how heartening it is to visit a place so carefully and yet so unobtrusively managed. You can have lunch etc with home grown organic produce from the kitchen garden in the conservatory designed by Joseph Paxton or you can bring a picnic and lounge on the grass. There is a shop but nowhere is there any sense of pressure to buy - yet I went burrowing in the archives of the local paper and found an advert of 19th May 2014 with a price tag on the site of £12 million. My piggy bank just isn't fat enough!

   This house and gardens make a Grand Day Out for all ages and will keep juniors occupied and active. I couldn't think of any way it could be improved and went home quite uplifted. Opening hours and details of events can be found on their website. This time I went on an organised coach trip with Jenson and the Gwent National Trust Association - so that counts as a Monmouthshire bus microadventure. Afterwards we continued the short distance to Hereford Cathedral which I have now described.

   A few of the other castles in or near Monmouthshire that I have visited by bus and written about are Raglan Castle, Chepstow Castle, Ludlow Castle and Caerphilly Castle. Then there is my home fortification of Usk Castle. Many of these articles are linked to others about the people connected with each castle's history.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Tintern Abbey: a guided tour by "Brother Thomas"

If, like me, you have formed your image of a monk from Chaucer's satirical account, you imagine a jolly, rounded, shiny lover of the luxurious life, particularly fond of roast swan. The Cistercians had formed their order much earlier in order to distance themselves from such laxity and lived very simply, dressed in white (or off-white) garments of undyed sheep's wool with no trappings. In the 12th century they set up in remote, wild Tintern, far from the temptations of rich living and were intent on following strictly the Rule of St. Benedict.

"Brother Thomas" who led us round the Abbey with his helper, Sister Mary, was authentically clad as a White Monk and was pleased that the weather was cooler and dry as his habit becomes unduly warm in the heat and smells of Labrador in the rain. He was tall and appropriately ascetic-looking but had a good sense of humour which did not detract from his informative and evocative talk. We followed him as he explained the history in the various parts of the Abbey and the daily life of the monks, bringing it all to life with details. One such was the fact that a monk did a circuit with a candle at the 1:30 a.m. service, holding it near each face to check that the cold, sleepy worshipper had not nodded off.

His black scapular indicates a senior monk
The history was given in palatable portions and we learned that there had been an earlier church before the present ruined one, the first endowed by Walter de Clare and the second by the Earl of Norfolk, Lord of Chepstow, Roger Bigod, and we ended with the Dissolution and later Romantic interest in this picturesque site.
Daily life
  Brother Thomas was in his role as Cellerer who would have looked after the supplies of beer and wine (the water was not safe to drink) conducting his business in the large open square of the main cloister. Here, too, would have taken place other activities: any dentistry; attention to minor wounds by the barber-surgeon (the red and white striped pole signifies blood and bandages); tonsure shaving; regular bleeding to balance the 4 humours of the body; some study and reflection and the financial dealings connected with the wealth arising from the 3000 sheep and 3 granges. Money was collected in buckets and the monks served generally as accountants and writers of contracts because they were literate. There was a vegetable garden here also.
   Time was measured at mid-day and from then on by water or candle clocks. There was no warmth except in the Warming House (a huge fire was lit on 31st October and extinguished on Good Friday regardless of the weather) where monks could pass through but not linger, and in the Infirmary, Parlour and Abbot's house. This was a silent order to prevent gossip as a distraction but conversation was allowed in the Parlour and speech permitted if a monk were learning from a superior.

The 3rd service began the day and all would come to the Chapter House to be given daily duties and small punishments. They would study lessons from the Bible and might be required to do some writing or D.I.Y. repairs. The library contained very few books by modern standards as they were all hand-written on vellum or parchment and the monastery's wealth was assessed by its holdings. Brother Thomas had an example for us to handle carefully. Windows were glazed and Sister Mary showed us some high-up remnants which she had devoted much time to finding. (If you can spot them you can have extra CAKE!)
Every stone was brought by river, unloaded at Tintern Quay and cut by hand. The only coloured glass was over the High Altar and we were shown where it had been with the arms of Roger Bigod who hoped to smooth his way to heaven.
The flooring would have been tiled and the masons were probably the same as those who built Chepstow Castle. We paused to look at the arrow-head marks which indicated individual mason's work and putlog holes which were - you've guessed it - where they put logs as joists.

   Food was consumed in 2 main meals: a breakfast and large mid-day lunch consisting of fish, cheese, eggs, bread and vegetables, a healthy diet which enabled many monks to live into old age. (I wickedly wondered if they sometimes poached a tasty mutton chop from one of those sheep.)  A light supper was allowed in case of illness but meat was otherwise considered to inflame unwanted passions. Cats and dogs as pets were forbidden but this rule was broken because of the need to keep down rodents and also because such animals afforded much-needed comfort in austerity. They were hidden away in a room when the Abbey was inspected as there was always warning of such a visit. Imagine the moment when they were all let out again!
   It was believed that illness was transmitted by impure air and there was a medicinal herb garden in the rear cloister near the Infirmary. In the later stages of the Abbey's history paying guests were admitted to be cared for and cured and the monks would also pray for their souls.

   Henry VIII dissolved the monastery as part of his huge programme of destruction: the monks did receive a pension and the Abbot a large allowance. The many lay brothers who did the agricultural labour were evicted and the building fell into ruin - to be much admired by Victorian seekers of the picturesque.
   I can thoroughly recommend this tour, particularly for its sense of immediacy: it happens almost every month and details are on the Cadw website. For my earlier post on Tintern Abbey, click here. There is a brief discussion of the Victorian notion of the picturesque. I have also written an account of Chepstow Castle with internal links to aspects of its history. Tintern is easy to reach by the hourly 69 bus from Monmouth through beautiful scenery: some of these conveniently become the 63 at Chepstow and take you on to Usk, where there is another fascinating castle and the burial church of Adam of Usk. CAKE is available in the nearby café at Tintern

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Adam of Usk: an unsung local hero - or was he?

   Whenever my microadventures take me abroad into England, I always try to find a Welsh connection to famous sites. Even when overawed by the Tower of London I still looked out for this link and was thrilled to realise that Adam of Usk had been here on a historic mission: to visit the imprisoned King Richard II. He also met with other kings as well as popes but is little recognised in his home town although he maintained ties with Usk and the surrounding area throughout his life. At one time he was the incumbent of St. Cybi's Church, Langibby, in Monmouthshire near Usk.

His reputation
   He is probably buried in St. Mary's Church, Usk but, if you want to pay homage - and I hope to convince you that he is worthy of it - you have to go down the right-hand aisle, pass behind the choir screen to the eastern side, clamber over a lectern cunningly placed as an obstacle and peer at a small brass plaque in ancient Welsh. To be fair, there is a leaflet which translates this in the words of a Mr. T.R.N. Edwards: "Bring praise to the grave of one noble in learning. A celebrated London lawyer and a 'Judge of the World' privileged in wit, may heaven be thine, a scholar. A Solomon of wisdom, a wonder. Here sleeps Adam of Usk, eloquent, wise man of ten commotes. Behold, this place is full of learning." Even then the Welsh were not renowned for the succinctness - and neither was he.
   Who's Who in Late Medieval England, in an uncharitable summary, notes his tendency to self-aggrandisement: he "was once silenced by a bishop for an untimely display of learning. Vain and boastful, he probably exaggerated the eminence of his friends, the quality of his advice, and his influence on decisions and events, for he revealed himself to be a man without tact, sense of timing, discretion or judgement." You'd meet him in any Welsh pub any evening - and enjoy his company!

His life
Usk Castle
   What did he actually do then? Born probably in 1352 in the Gatehouse of  Usk Castle, he wrote a Chronicle in Latin, though apparently not in the purest form of that language, and not in strictly chronological order, starting with the coronation of Richard II and closing during the reign of Henry V. The value lies chiefly in the fact that he was present at many of the important events he describes. When he visited Richard II, he records: "I was present while he dined and I marked his mood and bearing." He went to Oxford under the patronage of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, and took the degree of Doctor of Laws and canon law. He pleaded in the court of the archbishop, Thomas Arundel for 7 years and writes of the trial of his brother, Richard giving the detail of how he was made to remove his belt and scarlet hood before being led off to his beheading on Tower Hill.
    His opinion on the downfall of Richard II is that one cause was the unruly behaviour of his 400 Cheshire guards "very evil; in all places they oppressed his subjects unpunished and beat and robbed them." An account of the famous encounter between the Dukes of Hereford and Norfolk has again the ring of an eye-witness version as he notes the wet ditch surrounding the appointed place as well as the fact that Hereford "appeared far more gloriously distinguished with diverse equipments of seven horses." We read also: "the matter of setting aside King Richard and of choosing Henry, Duke of Lancaster, in his stead and how it was to be done ... was commissioned to be debated on by certain doctors, bishops and others of whom, I, who am now noting down these things, was one." Momentous - as any reader of Shakespeare will agree.
The mundane side
   There are stories of a more domestic nature such as that of King Richard's greyhound which lay at his side "with grim and lion-like face" until that owner fled whereupon it found its way from Carmarthen to Shrewsbury to Henry IV where it crouched before this new master "with a submissive but bright and pleased aspect" and was allowed to sleep on his bed. The deposed Richard took it "sorely to heart" when the dog then refused to acknowledge him. This tale is mentioned also by Froissart.
   My favourite narrative is that surrounding the death of John of Usk, Abbot of Chertsey, who, with 13 brother monks, died of the plague. A brother, William Burton roused him from sleep, bidding him to be of good cheer for he would do well. The abbot replied: "Blessed be God! I shall fare well. Be silent and hearken!" The monk said: "Unto what shall I hearken?" I love his questioning mind as it is just what I would have asked. It seems he was supposed to hear angels singing but was unworthy and failed.
 His troubles
   Adam seems to have fallen from grace - probably for the theft of "A horse, colour black, saddle and bridle, value one hundred shillings, together with the sum of fourteen marks in cash, all the property of one Walter Jakes." In addition, he had unwisely been remonstrating with Henry IV on the faults of his government and vanished to Rome where he was well received by the Pope and given positions. He was deeply involved with the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr and writes about it - there are other elements of roughness in his life such as his presence in Oxford broils leading to loss of life between men of the South and Wales on the one hand and men of the North on the other. For this he was indicted "as the chief leader and abettor of the Welsh, and perhaps not unrighteously." There is much to like in this honest summary. On his return from Rome, he was again in trouble and had to go into hiding. He was prone to dreams and visions which were always notably apt and he seems to have been of a superstitious nature. The Chronicle ends on an anxious note concerning the rebellious attitude of the people over the taxation imposed by Henry V because of his French wars.
His Will
   He probably died in 1430 and had requested to be buried in Usk Church, though no-one knows exactly where.

Amongst other bequests, he left the Historia Policronica of Ralph Higden to his kinsman, Edward ap Adam and another book of theological wisdom to the church in Usk, the vicar receiving a legacy worth a few pounds in modern money. Some of the nuns of Usk Priory were related to him and they all received about half that: he had secured for them important concessions from the Pope in his lifetime. His main gift is the Chronicle of events from 1377 to 1421, with its vivid, if somewhat disorganised, sense of immediacy and personal involvement. It is available in a scanned edition plus translation by Edward Maunde Thompson which is admittedly quite hard to follow, originated by the Royal Society of Literature.

I fear I may have absorbed by osmosis some of his garrulousness and lack of cohesion here but I have become intrigued by him and will pursue my research further and let you know what I find. I'd like him to become better known although much what we believe of his life is speculation.

To read about the planting of Usk town by the Normans, click here. There are 3 posts about Owain Glyndwr, you could start with this one.  Usk Castle is also of great historic interest. My visit to the Tower of London led me to write about the menagerie that was once part of its identity. For more about Llangybi, click here.