Monday, 7 May 2018

Kidwelly to St Clears (Gerald’s Journey Through Wales 1188)

Llanstephan Castle

At Kidwelly the party transferred to a ship and sailed up the Tywi estuary towards Carmarthen. They would have passed the castles of Llanstephan and Laugharne, set on rocky crags above the sea. The earth and timber fortresses of Gerald’s day was subsequently rebuilt in stone and are well worth a visit. Then they hurried on to Carmarthen, perhaps taking the road from the usual landing place at ‘Green Castle’ near Llangain.

Gerald believed that Carmarthen was Caer Myrddin, ‘Merlin’s town’, and that the profit had been found there as a child, the offspring of a demon and a mortal woman. In fact, its namespace (‘Caer Moridun)’derives from its origin as the Roman town of Moridunum whose walls were still partly visible when Gerald passed.

Dinefwr Castle model

Again, Gerald tells us nothing about what the mission did there, for he was thinking about Dinefwr Castle, twenty miles further up river. Dinefwr was a magnificent fortress which still stands today, but its importance lay in ancient tradition, as the capital of Deheubarth, the Kingdom of South Wales. In Gerald’s time it belonged to Prince Rhys ap Gruffudd, who had submitted to Henry II in 1163 and been taken into captivity.

The king sent a trusted Breton knight to report on the castle and its surroundings, and gave him a Welsh guide who was instructed to show him the easiest and most pleasant route. Instead, the cunning Welshman deliberately led him by the hardest, most roundabout tracks, stopping from time to time to munch handfuls of grass, which he declared was the usual food of the locals in times of shortage. When the exhausted envoy returned, therefore, he proclaimed in disgust that the Dinefwr area was totally inaccessible and uninhabitable, fit only for people who lived like wild animals. It was simply not worth conquering. So Rhys was released from captivity, and Dinefwr remained Welsh.

Unfortunately, Gerald’s party had no time to visit Dinefwr, but hurried on westwards. On their way through the St Clears district, they came across the body of a young Welshman. He was hurrying to meet them to take the cross when he was murdered. Archbishop Baldwin ordered the corpse to be reverently covered with a cloak and said a prayer for the young man’s soul before carrying on to Whitland Abbey.

Whitland Abbey

Whitland Abbey was famous as ‘the old White House on the Taf’, the mother of all Welsh Cistercian monasteries. The next morning, twelve archers from St Clears Castle confessed to the murder of the young man. The penalty for killing a crusader was execution, but since the young man had not yet taken the cross, they were allowed to take the cross in his place. It was not unusual for criminals to be sentenced to go on crusade.

[adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn 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

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