Gerald was now in country he knew very well, and his book changes its character. Instead of confining himself to describing the mission, from here on he wanders off into long digressions of the stories he heard about the regions he passed through.
The first set of stories probably sprang from a yarn spinning session (perhaps at Cruker Castle) about the horrible calamities awaiting anyone who offended the local saints. The castellan of Radnor, for instance, had irreverently used the church of Llanafan Fawr (not far from Builth Wells) as a temporary kennel for his hounds – which promptly went mad, while he himself was struck blind. Those who denied their pennies to the miraculous boil-curing relic at St Harmon’s (near Rhayader) found their boils breaking out again, while the huntsman who shot a freakish dear – a doe with stag’s antlers – lost the sight of the eye he aimed with. Quite how he had offended heaven is not clear, but that tale had the authority of the newly recruited crusader Einion o’r Porth, so it must have been true.
Engrossed in these wonders, Gerald fails to mention the travelers’ route from Crug Eryr to their next destination, Hay on Wye. There is no obvious road through the intricate hills and valleys of southern Radnorshire, but they may well have journeyed via Glascwm, then the most important church of the region and one said to have been founded by St David himself. Certainly Gerald tells the tale of the saint’s magic ‘bangu’ or handbell, taken from Glascwm and impiously seized by the garrison of Rhayader. Needless to say, Rhayader was forthwith burnt to the ground, saving only the wall where the ‘bangu’ hung. Today, curiously enough, Glascwm’s fine late-medieval church displays another locally renowned bell, cracked from top to bottom after being hauled clean out of the belfry by over-enthusiastic wedding ringers.
Eventually they crossed the River Wye and entered Hay, where the crusading sermon provoked an extraordinary scene. Many of the townsmen were intent on taking the cross, but their equally obdurate wives and friends held them back by their clothes: not to be deterred, the recruits simply slipped off the hindering garments, running in what was left to seek refuge with Baldwin in the castle. Whichever of Hay’s two Norman fortresses this was – the mound by the church or the stronger and later stone castle above the marketplace – the party stayed there overnight, before travelling south westwards up the Wye Valley towards Brecon. Passing the River Llynfi (which warned of invasions by turning bright green) at Glasbury, towards evening they rode into Llanddew for another night’s rest.
Now Gerald was really at home. For Llanddew, a mile or so north-east of Brecon, was his official residence as archdeacon, and there he had:
‘… a little house and dwelling… well fitted for my studies and labours. It always gives me great pleasure, and brings thoughts of Paradise. I much prefer it to all the riches of Croesus, and value it above all the transitory things of this world.’As we know from his letters, it was not as modest as all that (it had a courtyard garden, a good set of stables, and a productive home farm) but by Tudor times it had already ‘fallen doune for the more part’, and now it has vanished completely. Still to be seen however, are the remains of the neighbouring bishops palace – a pretty arched gateway, a well and the shattered shell of a hall – where the travellers probably stayed in 1188, and the high gabled, severely attractive church (much altered since Gerald’s time) outside which Baldwin doubtless preached his sermon. This done, Gerald took the opportunity to present the Archbishop with some light reading, his own ‘not undistinguished’ Topography of Ireland. So delighted was Baldwin, reported the proud author, that he read or heard a passage from it on every succeeding day of the journey.
[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