We left our travellers last week at Llanddew, Gerald’s home. The next part of the journey took them to Brecon, a large town, where they presumably recruited more men for the coming crusade. Gerald, however, had a fascinating story to tell about William de Braose, the lord not only of Brecon but also of Radnor, Hay and Abergavenny. He was the most powerful, ruthless and hated of all the Marcher barons of this time.
William de Braose fascinated me too, and his story appears in my book Broken Reed: The Lords of Gower and King John. He was known as ‘The Ogre of Abergavenny’ because he slaughtered unarmed Welsh chieftains at a Christmas feast, and that story is told in my collection Medieval Gower Stories. This William de Braose (there were several in the family line) was a violent and ruthless man.
Either because he feared or genuinely liked his mighty neighbour, Gerald very quickly skated over de Braose’s notorious misdeeds, concentrating instead on his piety. Whenever he spoke, he always mentioned God first, (‘please God’, ‘if God wills it’, ‘in God’s name let it be done’) he never so much as glimpsed a church without saying a prayer and he deliberately sought blessings from passing children. His wife Matilda, Gerald added, was an excellent woman prudent, chaste, and a marvellous housekeeper – an astoundingly flattering estimate of that formidable lady, whose fearsome reputation as a baby-eating, demon-conjuring witch persisted in Breconshire seven centuries after she starved to death in King John’s dungeons.
Evidence of de Braose’s piety and military power can still be seen in Brecon, for it was he who began the beautiful east end of the cathedral, with its slender early Gothic lancet windows, and to build the ‘Ely Tower’ – a fragmentary shell keep – on the steep castle mound guarding the Honddu Bridge.
Possibly the travellers stayed somewhere in the locality, but at this point Gerald became so immersed in the manifold wonders of the region that he lost the thread of his narrative altogether. Instead he poured out a torrent of tales of vengeful saints and of mysterious Llangorse Lake, of the frenzied dancing in St Eluned’s churchyard, and of King Arthur’s throne between the twin peaks of the Brecon Beacons. Still more remarkably he assures us, a crowd of onlookers had witnessed a local knight giving birth to a calf, after three years of painful labour.
[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