Thursday, 29 March 2018
Brecon to Abergavenny (Gerald’s Journey Through Wales 1188)
There were three routes from Brecon to Abergavenny in Gerald’s time, and for some unknown reason, the party took the most difficult.
The easiest route ran east of the Black Mountains, down the Rhiangoll and Usk valleys and past Tretower. Tretower’s castle and manor house are the best surviving medieval monument in the region today. There was also a route down the Vale of Ewyas via Llanthony Priory. The route they took was the most difficult of the Black Mountain passes, though an established route in the twelfth century. The route climbs over two thousand feet above Talgarth and drops down to the heavily-wooded ravine of the Grwyne Fawr stream.
It was dangerous, not just because of the pathway, but because the ravine was an ideal place for ambushes. Gerald calls it ‘the narrow overgrown path called the evil pass of Coit Wroneu, or Wroneu Wood’. He tells the story of Lord Richard de Clare of Cardigan who was ambushed by the Welsh there fifty years before. Declaring he was not afraid, he dismissed his escort and took only his minstrel and fiddler. They were all unarmed, and when the Welsh attacked from the bushes, they were all cut to pieces. The place of the attack is still called Coed-Dias, ‘the wood of revenge’, and nearby is the remote and atmospheric church of Partrishow. Tradition says Baldwin and Gerald preached there.
The route from Brecon passed close to Bronllys Castle. Its tall cylindrical keep belongs to a slightly later date, but the enormous mound on which it stands existed in 1188, when the castle belonged to Walter de Clifford. Gerald relates how a wicked night named Mahel met his end there. As a divine punishment for persecuting the Bishop of St Davids (who happened to be Gerald’s uncle) he was struck down by a stone which fell from a tower during a fire: believing it to have been hurled by St David in person, he died begging the bishop’s forgiveness.
By taking this route, the party passed within two miles of Llanthony, out of sight behind hills, but Gerald spends a lot of time writing about it. The chapter is one of the most lyrical in his book and he clearly loved it. He was impressed by its healthy climate and beautiful natural setting, but he also admired its fine church, just then in the course of reconstruction. It combined traditionally Norman round arches with the pointed arches of the newly-fashionable Gothic style. The eastern and central portions of this church still remain much as he knew them, while its setting is no less magnificent over eight centuries later.
Gerald tells the unfortunate story of Llanthony. Founded by two isolation-seeking hermits early in the twelfth century, it had originally been a shining example of holy poverty and simplicity. Then an outbreak of border warfare forced its Augustinian ‘black canons’ to flee to Gloucester, and things began to go wrong: safe in their new Gloucester house (‘Llanthony the second’) the increasingly corrupt and Anglicised canons had stripped their Welsh mother church of its books and ornaments, and only now was it regaining its former glory.
Gerald’s grudge against the emigrant Gloucester canons, possibly dating from his early days at the rival Gloucester monastery of St Peters, launched him on a wholesale criticism of monks in general. The Cistercians, though hard-working and abstemious, were over-greedy for land. The proud Benedictines were far too rich. The Cluniacs were nothing but feckless, spendthrift gluttons. If only they would imitate the humble, pious, unambitious Augustinians of Llanthony, how much better they would be.
[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