Cardiff Castle today is a Victorian Gothic palace built by Lord Bute, but the original castle is still there within the boundary wall: a polygonal shell keep on a forty-foot-high moated mound, which Gerald and his companions would have seen, and maybe stayed in. The mound was raised by William the Conqueror in 1081 and Earl Robert of Gloucester built the keep about 50 years later. The group crossed the river Taff and are traditionally thought to have preached at the cross on Llandaff Cathedral green.
The hearers were English and Welsh so they separated the crowd and preached two sermons. Gerald recorded ‘many from both nations’ responded and made the vow to become crusaders. The following morning, as part of his plan to exert his authority over the Welsh Church, Archbishop Baldwin said Mass at the high altar of Llandaff Cathedral. Much of the cathedral has been damaged and replaced over the centuries, but the Norman arch behind the altar and two Norman doorways into the nave still remain.
A few miles south of Cardiff is Barry, the ancestral home of Gerald’s family (his name was Gerald de Barry), with the ivy-covered chapel of its patron saint St Baroc. A few miles west is Ewenny Priory, which today is one of the most remarkable complexes of medieval buildings in South Wales. It was founded by Maurice de Londres and looks more like a stronghold than a house of religion. It has towers and gatehouses and a fortified perimeter wall. Gerald doesn’t record whether the group crossed the Ewenny River near the priory or further west near Ogmore Castle, where there are still stepping stones today.
From there they made for the great Cistercian Abbey of Margam, renowned for its limitless charity to pilgrims and the local poor. Even Gerald, who had a very low opinion of monks, was impressed, and recorded several wonders that demonstrated God’s favour there.
A young man who set fire to a barn died raving about his insides burning up. Another man who struck someone inside the abbey, died on the exact same spot. Most miraculously, when a famine-stricken crowd came to the abbey gates, a cornfield suddenly ripened a month early.
The next day they headed for Swansea, but this meant crossing the Afan and Neath rivers, which were unusually high because of massive tides. Many people and animals had been swept. They managed to ford the Afan with some difficulty, but the Neath river was even worse. Gerald records that its reputation was bad
because of its dangerous quicksands, which suddenly suck down everything placed upon them. One of our packhorses [the only one possessed by the writer of these lines] was trotting along the lower road near the sea, and although it was in the middle of a group of others, it alone was nearly plunged into the abyss, Eventually it was pulled out, with great difficulty and after much hard and dangerous work by the horse-boys, though not without damage to my books and belongings. Although we had Morgan, the leading man of those parts, as our guide, we only reached the river after suffering many perils, and even more falls. Of course, fear of the unknown made us hurry through these quicksands, despite the warnings of our guide, for “Terror gave us wings”; but in this kind of dangerous situation, as we found out at the time, it is far better to go carefully and quite slowly.
They decided to cross the river by boat, probably at Briton Ferry, not trusting the ford after their scare, and at last reached Swansea. Many years later Gerald remembered a conversation between two of Baldwin’s attendant monks, discussing their dangerous journey.
’It’s a hard country this,’ said one.
‘Not at all,’ the other joked, thinking of the quicksands, ‘yesterday we found it much too soft.’
[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