Archbishop Baldwin’s party turned west at Caerleon onto the costal plain, following the Roman road called the Portway. Here the Norman lords had much stronger control over their estates, and there were many castles. In the borderlands the party had to cope with mountain passes, but along the coast they had to negotiate many streams, rivers and estuaries, often without bridges and with quicksands and difficult crossing places.
Modern day Newport does not at first appear to have any building that would have existed in Gerald’s day, but the church of St Woolos stands on the hill above the ruins of the later Usk castle. It is believed that Baldwin preached his successful crusading sermon there. ‘Woolos’ is the Anglicized form of Gwynllyw. He was the patron saint of the region of Gwynllwg, Anglicised to Wentloog. Inside the church, now a cathedral, is a Norman nave accessed via a wonderful carved Norman archway supported on free-standing Classical columns said to have been brought from Roman Caerleon and remodelled.
Heading for Cardiff, the party navigated the Gwynllwg marshes and crossed the difficult ford of the winding Nant Pencarn stream. Gerald records the story of Henry II making the same crossing twenty five years before. Merlin had prophesied that if a strong man with freckles crossed the stream by the ancient ford of Rhyd Pencarn, the Welsh would be beaten.
The local people watched with trepidation as Henry, a strong man with freckles, approached the stream. The ancient ford was long disused, so they thought the prophecy was safe, but Henry’s horse shied at the usual crossing when a fanfare of trumpets sounded to welcome him. Henry angrily turned aside and used the old ford to cross. To the despair of the local people, Henry’s opponent Rhys ap Gruffudd surrendered soon afterwards.
Gerald tells another story about Henry II, which happened nine years after the story above. Henry was leaving St Piran’s chapel in Cardiff when he met a gaunt white-robed English priest who commanded him to forbid all Sunday trading throughout his kingdom. Henry’s English wasn’t very good, so he got an interpreter to ask the figure if he was dreaming. The man angrily replied that if he ignored the warning and didn’t mend his behaviour he would soon hear bad news that would haunt him all his life. The figure disappeared and within a year Henry heard his sons had revolted against him.
[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