Monday, 2 July 2018

Gerald and the Princes of Wales (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.

It may have sounded like boasting when Gerald claimed he was ‘related by blood to almost all the princes and great men of Wales’ but it was true. He knew most of them personally and was happy to take advantage of these links. He joined Lord Rhys at dinner in the Bishop of Hereford’s house and visited him as an envoy at Llandovery. He enjoyed the hospitality of the princes of Gwynedd at Rhuddlan and Aberconwy and persuaded one of the mid-Wales princes to help him win a quarrel with the Bishop of St Asaph. He even borrowed money from the prince of Glamorgan when he was short of cash in France.

By Gerald’s time the Norman advance into Wales had stalled and there was an uneasy balance of power between the Normans and the Welsh dynasties. The blood of both ran in Gerald’s veins, which was why he was such an asset to the English kings and to Archbishop Baldwin’s mission. He was well-placed to write about them all with sympathy and insight.

Here is some of his family tree:
Gerald and the Princes of Wales
The Lord Rhys of Deheubarth was the most powerful man in Wales in his day, and Gerald was his first cousin. We met him a few weeks ago. Below is a map of some of the kingdoms of Wales, but borders varied as they fought amongst themselves and sometimes with the Normans.
Wales(Marchia Wallie and Pura Wallia).svg
Gerald was particularly struck by the Welsh delight in arms and war. Military glory and a heroic death were counted as the greatest virtues. This, and their skill in guerrilla warfare, is what enabled them to halt the Norman incursion into Wales. Gerald wrote many accounts of battles, including the dare-devil attacks on Abergavenny and Cardiff Castles. He obviously admired their resilience in defeat and their capacity to make a comeback, even when the recovery was at the expense of his own family.

Lord Rhys typified these Welsh virtues. He had started with a tiny foothold in the uplands beyond the Tywi valley and, through military skill and the force of his personality, had rebuilt the Welsh principality of Deheubarth. His success, and that of the Welsh in general, was partly due to his capacity to learn lessons from the Normans, especially in the art of cavalry warfare and castle building. The Welsh princes rebuilt and extended captured Norman castles (such as Cardigan and Llandovery) and built castles of their own (such as Dinefwr and Castell y Bere).
Dinefwr Castle model
The biggest hindrance to Welsh success was their obstinate refusal to submit to one ruler. Occasionally one powerful prince would manage to secure supremacy over the other families, but this rarely outlasted the prince’s lifetime and was little more than chairmanship of a federation of principalities. In Gerald’s time this was achieved by Lord Rhys of Deheubarth (who died in 1197) and later by Llywellyn the Great of Gwynedd (who died in 1240).

These short-lived ‘kingdoms’ were further spoiled by the Welsh custom on inheritance. Whereas in England the estate was inherited by the eldest son, in Wales the estate was divided between all the sons, illegitimate sons included. No sooner had a strong man built up a principality than it was split into several pieces on his death. Sons were rarely happy to band together, each one believing he should rule. Feuds ensued, leading to bloodbaths, and this allowed the English king to intervene in Welsh politics and further destabilise things.

Following the death of Llewellyn the Great in 1240 his sons Dafydd and Gruffudd were soon at war. Gruffudd was the older son, but he was illegitimate. Eventually the English king recognised Dafydd as the legitimate heir (according to English law, not Welsh) and had Gruffudd held in the Tower of London. Desperate to escape, in an attempt in 1244 Gruffudd fell to his death.

In Gerald’s lifetime he witnessed the dismemberment of Gwynedd after the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170 and Deheubarth after Lord Rhys’s death in 1197. No wonder he believed the only hope for Wales was to unite behind ‘one prince and he a good one’.

[Adapted from Gerald and the Princes of Wales by R R Davies, in 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

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