Monday, 18 June 2018

Strata Florida and Llanddewi Brefi (Gerald’s Journey Through Wales 1188)

This is a series about the journey that Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales took in 1188 to preach the crusade throughout Wales. Gerald kept a detailed account of the journey and their surroundings, which he later published. The series began with some background posts about Gerald. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

The country north of Lampeter was much wilder than the party were used to, and made their journey hard going. After skirting the Red Bog of Tregaron they stopped for the night at the isolated Strata Florida Abbey. The monks here were Cistercians, known as ‘white monks’, and they kept sheep on vast tracts of mountain pasture. This was very much a Welsh monastery, patronised by Prince Rhys ap Gruffudd himself. He was keen to show the visitors the new church he was building there.
Strata Florida Abbey
Strata Florida was an important centre for Welsh culture. The Welsh national chronicles were compiled there, and Welsh princes were buried there. Indeed, rows of ancient tomb-slabs can still be seen and two of Prince Rhys’s sons are buried there.

Unfortunately Gerald would later feel betrayed by Strata Florida. When he began his campaign for St Davids he took all his treasures there for safe-keeping, especially his collection of books. But when the campaign started to fail the monks turned against him and treated him badly. When Gerald needed money to go to Rome they refused to accept his books as security for a loan and instead bought them from him for a very low price. Gerald said it left him ‘feeling as though his very bowels had been torn out.’

As the party left Strata Florida the next day, escorted by Prince Rhys and two of his sons, they came across Rhys’s third son in a wood. Cynwrig was wearing traditional Welsh dress, a long shirt and thin cloak and bare legs and feet, so he looked very different to his father and brothers. Gerald described him as ‘a man adorned by nature, not by art, having a natural, not an artificial dignity.’

Neither Rhys nor his sons has taken the cross, so having them all together was an opportunity not to be missed. A sermon was preached to them on the spot, but the response was not encouraging. None of them wanted to commit but after some argument the second son, Maelgwn, was persuaded to accompany the party to England, though he never actually took the cross.
Llanddewi Brefi St Davids Church
Gerald records that the party travelled from Strata Florida to Llanddewi Brefi, which is strange because Llanddewi Brefi is south-west of Strata Florida and they were headed to Llanbadarn near Aberystwyth, which is to the north-west. So if Gerald is right, they went twenty miles out of their way. This may have been because Llanddewi Brefi was an important shrine to St David. The saint had preached there centuries earlier to refute the Pelagian heresy, but the huge crowd couldn’t hear him. Miraculously the ground rose up beneath him and lifted him above the crowd. He was immediately hailed as archbishop of all Wales.

A church still stands on the hillock and, though it has been rebuilt many times, it still contains reminders of its former greatness. Beneath its massive central tower is an ancient monolith known as St David’s Staff, and there is a stone fragment embedded in the outside north-west wall which is claimed to be part of the David Stone which fell and killed a man who tried to rob the church.

[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 for monthly newsletters. 

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