Last week we looked at why the bishopric of St Davids in Pembrokeshire was such a hot potato.
In 1176 the bishop of St Davids, Gerald’s uncle, died. The local clergy nominated Gerald for the post even though he was only a young archdeacon. King Henry II got the wrong information and thought he had been elected, and was so enraged that he said he would never consider Gerald as a candidate, even when the mistake was corrected. Afraid of the ramifications of a Welsh bishop of St Davids, there was a lot of opposition. A man like Gerald, related to the Welsh princes and a vigorous champion of the rights of St Davids, was the very last bishop Henry wanted for the most controversial diocese in Wales. The Anglo-Norman Peter of Lee (Peter de Leia) became bishop, and Gerald swore the oath of allegiance.
In the years that followed, Gerald was offered two Welsh bishoprics (Llandaff and Bangor) but he rejected them ‘because of the poverty of the land and the wickedness of the people.’ He admitted that he really wanted an English bishopric, but he was never offered one. He also sabotaged himself by going with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury on his official tour of Wales in 1188, symbolically giving consent to English authority over the Welsh Church.
Bishop Peter died in 1198 and although he was aging, Gerald’s spirits revived, even though he knew the difficulties he must face. ‘Would that the bishopric had never existed’, he wrote, ‘or rather that I had never been born in Wales, to suffer the slanders of my rivals.’ His greatest opponent was Archbishop Hubert Walter, whom Gerald had bitterly offended and who returned his dislike with interest, swearing that neither he nor any other Welshman would be a bishop in Wales. But Gerald hoped he could appeal directly to the king, since his former master, Prince John, had recently come to the throne.
Soon after his coronation, John apparently gave permission for the appointment and on 22 June 1199 Gerald was unanimously elected bishop of St Davids. At this moment of apparent triumph, he ‘delivered himself up without hesitation to the task of re-establishing the former state of his Church, and with it the honour of his country’. In other words, he was determined to become archbishop of all Wales, and to defend the Welsh Church and people against all comers: henceforth he would no longer be Gerald the Marcher or Gerald the courtier, but Gerald the Welsh patriot.
But he was not yet Gerald the bishop. For all bishops must be ceremonially consecrated by their superiors, and if St Davids was to be independent it could not submit to a superior in Britain: besides, the furious Hubert Walter was soon threatening to consecrate a rival English candidate of his own. Yet Hubert himself had a superior, the Pope, and if Gerald could get papal consecration and papal support, the battle would be won. So to distant Rome he went, not once but three times during the next four years, braving bandits, warring armies, snowy Alpine passes and Hubert Walter’s pursuing agents.
At first things seemed to be going well, and Gerald clearly hit it off with Innocent III, one of the greatest and most powerful popes of the Middle Ages. Innocent was delighted by a gift of Gerald’s books (especially the Jewel of the Church which he kept by his bed) and always gave him more than a fair chance to counter Hubert Walter’s stream of anti-St Davids propaganda. According to his own account, indeed, Gerald made mincemeat of Hubert’s arguments. Was Gerald unfitted for the bishopric by his Welsh birth? - then surely there should likewise be no English-born bishops in England; were the Welsh so barbarous that they needed the restraining hand of Canterbury? - then why did Hubert send only the dregs of the English clergy to rule them? As for Hubert himself, revealed Gerald, he was a fornicator, an arsonist, and very probably a heretic, and a murderer; what was more, his Latin grammar was appalling.
While Gerald was scoring verbal points in Rome, however, his enemies were gaining ground in Wales. King John withdrew his support, and Hubert Walter’s agents were progressively turning the St Davids clergy against him by a combination of bribes (including counterfeit gold rings), and threats. The princes of Wales – not only his kinsmen in Dyfed, but also Gwenwynwyn of Powys and the great Llywelyn of Gwynedd – now declared their firm and unanimous backing for his cause. Yet even this proved double-edged, for it gave the English government the excuse to proclaim him a Welsh traitor and rebel, and on his second return from Rome Gerald found himself a hunted man, shunned by family and friends and denied lodging even in St Davids.
Entirely undaunted by his persecution, he resolved to appeal to Innocent once more, slipping across the channel concealed in the bilges of a galley. But in Rome only disappointment awaited him: much though the pope admired Gerald’s persistence, he could not offend England by supporting him, and his election was annulled pending further investigation. Still he did not despair, even when he was imprisoned by a French robber knight while returning home. One of Hubert’s agents had betrayed him, identifying him by his shaggy eyebrows, but when his captors discovered that he only had two pence in his purse, they released Gerald and imprisoned the agent instead.
By now, more than four years had passed since Gerald’s election, and he was nearing sixty; his protests had lost none of their passion, but he was at last growing weary. The end came quite suddenly. On 10 November 1203, when Hubert Walter’s nominee, Geoffrey of Henlawe, was elected bishop of St Davids, Gerald unexpectedly gave his consent. ‘I have struggled enough’, he announced to a thunderstruck audience, ‘I have toiled sufficiently, and not without advantage … for I have revived the claim of our Church, which lay buried so long.’ A few weeks later, moreover, he swore never to raise the issue again, and during the remaining twenty years of his life he never did.
Gerald had failed, but he had failed only in the face of overwhelming odds, and he was honoured for it. ‘As long as Wales shall last’, pronounced Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd, ‘this man’s noble deed shall be praised by poets and chroniclers. For he who does all he can and leaves nothing undone has deserved worthy praise, though perchance he fails in his desire’. Even now, Gerald’s fight to free the Welsh Church from English domination is not forgotten.
[Adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at http://eepurl.com/bbOsyz