Saturday, 28 May 2016

On the trail of the Princes of Powys

I had a pretty good afternoon out recently castle hunting. During this junket, a thought was raised for me, one that has been in the back of my mind for a while now: just who were the Princes of Powys?
I have, admittedly, not delved all that much into the history of early medieval Wales, but know smatterings that I’ve picked up over the years. For instance, I know about the Norman Conquest of Wales under Henry I that secured the south of the nation as the Welsh March, and I know stuff about Edward I’s Conquest, but that’s really where my expertise ends. I know little stuff about Deheubarth in the south-west, but barely anything about Powys in the south-east. And that’s what I’m hoping to try to put right! So get ready for some craziness, as I attempt to unravel the whole story…
Let’s start with a map. This will probably not be of much use as I go on, as the territories shifted so fluidly it’s almost insane, but you’ll hopefully get an idea, at least, of where everything is. Roughly. Anyway:

So, I recently went to Mathrafal Castle, which is not too far outside Welshpool. First of all, the medieval Kingdom of Powys did not always correspond with the modern county, as for a long period the kingdom stretched into the West Midlands. Immediately following the Roman collapse, however, the centre of power in the area was firmly at  Wroxeter. Whether this is where the Kingdom of Powys began, however, is a bit more hazy.
The royal family of Powys claimed descent from the almost-mythic figure of Vortigern and Princess Sevira, a daughter of Magnus Maximus (the Macsen Wledig of Welsh legend). All of that is recorded on the Pillar of Eliseg, outside Llangollen:

So yeah, an appropriately mythical start for the dynasty, though of course, in the years immediately post-Roman occupation, there are some pretty weird and wonderful tales to be heard! In the sixth century, the capital of Powys is known to be Pengwern, but the precise location of this place is also somewhat shrouded in legend – most people seem to agree that it’s likely to be Shrewsbury. However, in 642 the king of Powys, Cynddylan, joined forces with the king of neighbouring Mercia, Penda, to defeat the Northumbrian king, Oswald, at the Battle of Maserfield. Oswald was killed, and gave his name to the modern town of Oswestry. In retaliation, Oswald’s brother Oswiu attacked Pengwern and destroyed the llys (Welsh princes didn’t live in castles, but a ‘llys’, or court) and everyone within – everyone, that is, except the Princess Heledd, who fled into western Powys.
By 717, the llys of the Princes of Powys had been re-established at Mathrafal, and that is where I went!

Mathrafal is a large rectangular enclosure with a motte in the northern corner. The whole design is quite impressive, and I was fairly astounded at how well this thing has survived! There seems to be some debate over whether this is actually the site of the llys, but given the general layout and stuff, it seems suitably impressive that it could be, I suppose!
In 855, the kingdom was joined to that of Gwynedd by Rhodri the Great, who was one of the earliest men to be referred to (posthumously, of course) as King of all Wales – largely as his territories expanded into Seisyllwg (roughly modern Ceredigion) through marriage. Rhodri didn’t live long after the annexation of Seisyllwg, and his lands were split among his four sons as per Welsh custom. His son Merfyn received Powys while Cadell received Seisyllwg, though Cadell invaded around 900 and annexed Powys to himself.
Cadell’s son was Hywel Dda, the famous lawmaker, who succeeded his father in 911. Through marriage, Hywel annexed the kingdom of Dyfed (roughly modern Pembroke), and sometime after 920 created the kingdom of Deheubarth out of both Dyfed and Seisyllwg. Aside from his laws, Hywel is also (somewhat) famous for his voluntary submission to the Saxon kings of England, which he used to great advantage when he annexed Gwynedd in 942, following the unsuccessful rebellion of his cousin Idwal Foel (you may know him as Idwal the Bald..?) and Powys, through the forced marriage of Merfyn’s son Llywelyn to Hywel’s daughter, Angharad. It was in this manner that Hywel claimed lordship over virtually all of Wales (except the south-east), whereupon he introduced his famous Laws in 945.
Hywel died in 950 and was succeeded by his son Owain, who controlled most of Hywel’s land thanks to the early deaths of his brothers. Owain also controlled Powys, of course, and instead of trying to re-take Gwynedd, he looked east to Morgannwg (the modern Glamorgans) and Gwent, having already gained Brycheiniog (roughly modern Brecknock, southern Powys). He also apparently instigated the Annales Cambriæ, the native chronicle that was compiled from the 10th century at St Davids Cathedral. Owain’s son Maredudd, who succeeded him in 988, turned away from the south and again captured Gwynedd for Deheubarth. When Maredudd died in 999, Powys passed to Llywelyn ap Seisyll through his marriage to Maredudd’s daughter Angharad. Llywelyn’s reign was one of prosperity until his death in 1023, when he was succeeded by his son Gruffydd.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn is immensely important in eleventh-century Wales, as the man who managed to unite virtually the whole of Wales as none of his predecessors had. Following Llywelyn’s death, Gwynedd had reverted to the House of Aberffraw, but by 1039 Gruffydd had gained control of both Powys and Gwynedd. In 1041 he invaded Deheubarth and by 1058 also controlled Morgannwg and Gwent, and was thus recognised by the English as the King of all Wales. It wasn’t to last, though, as the Saxon earls Harold (of Battle of Hastings fame) and his brother Tostig led a combined attack on Wales in 1063, forcing Gruffydd to flee into Snowdonia, where he was killed by his own men.
Wales was once again split into Gwynedd and Powys, ruled by Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, Gruffydd’s half-brother, who founded the House of Mathrafal – see, there was a point to all of that narrative! Bleddyn was killed in 1075, and was succeeded in Powys by his three sons, Iorwerth (killed in 1111 when he was forced into a burning house), Cadwgan (also died 1111) and Maredudd. Cadwgan’s son Owain is famous for the abduction of Nest, wife of Gerald of Pembroke, which caused a minor scandal at the time, and the intervention of the Norman Earl of Shrewsbury. Owain joined forces with the King of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan, in resisting the Norman invasion of Wales in 1114, but somehow switched allegiances and became firm friends with Henry I, joining the king of England in his later invasion of Deheubarth where he was killed by Gerald of Pembroke in revenge.
The Welsh March was established across the south of Wales, and Powys reverted to Owain’s uncle Maredudd. During Maredudd’s time, the kings of Gwynedd began to make major territorial annexations in northern Powys, especially under Owain Gwynedd. Maredudd was succeeded by his son Madog, who was on surprisingly good terms with the new king of England, Henry II, assisting in the latter’s wars with Owain Gwynedd (who was in fact Madog’s brother in law). Madog regained a lot of land due to his relationship with the English king and the earl of Chester, including the land around Oswestry and Whittington. When he died in 1160, the kingdom of Powys was split in two, and was never again reunited.
Madog’s son Gruffydd Maelor inherited the north of the kingdom, Powys Fadog (roughly corresponding to modern-day Wrexham County), and his nephew Owain Cyfeiliog inherited the southern portion, Powys Wenwynwyn (roughly modern Montgomeryshire). Owain Cyfeiliog is perhaps most famous nowadays for refusing to meet Gerald of Wales and Archbishop Baldwin during their journey in 1188, for which he was excommunicated. He had, however, founded Strata Marcella Abbey (below) in 1170 as a daughter house of Whitland, and effectively abdicated in 1195 to live out his days there as a hermit.

He was succeeded by his son Gwenwynwyn, who lost virtually all of his lands to Llywelyn the Great in 1212. Gwenwynwyn moved the seat of the Princes of Powys from Mathrafal to Welshpool, though when he died in 1216, Llywelyn overran the entire area and claimed it for Gwynedd.

The ringwork castle at Welshpool (above), much like Strata Marcella, isn’t all that impressive anymore, sadly!
In the north, Gruffydd Maelor was succeeded by his son Madog in 1191, who gave his name to the northern kingdom. Madog was a cousin of Llywelyn the Great, as Gruffydd Maelor’s sister Marared had married Iorwerth Drwyndwn, the eldest son of Owain Gwynedd (who was the brother-in-law of Marared and Gruffydd’s father Madog, remember – ah, inter-marriage!). Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor was on better terms with Llywelyn than either Owain Cyfeiliog or Gwenwynwyn, however, so largely escaped Llywelyn’s attempt to unite all of Wales under him. Madog founded Valle Crucis Abbey in Llangollen in 1201 as a daughter house of Strata Marcella.

The lands of Powys Fadog was split between Madog’s five children, with his eldest son Gruffydd II assuming the title of Prince, building the castle at Dinas Bran in Llangollen and establishing it as the centre of the northern kingdom.

When Gruffydd died in 1269, his son Madog II succeeded him, but was killed in the first English campaign into Wales under Edward I in 1277, when he was attempting to defend his lands. His younger brother Gruffydd Fychan succeeded him, but lost his lands in the final Edwardian Conquest, living out his days as a tenant.
But what of Powys Wenwynwyn? Well, Gwenwynwyn’s son, Gruffydd, kept changing sides from Llywelyn the Last’s brother Dafydd, to Edward I, to Llywelyn himself, eventually dying around 1286 with control of his lands firmly in the hands of his son, who had Anglicized himself as Owen de la Pole (“of the Pool” – that is, Welshpool) and renounced his princedom, for which Edward I granted him the title Earl of Powis, and he retired to live the life of a Marcher Lord at Powis Castle.

In the north, following the death of Gruffydd Fychan in 1289, a procession of young and weak princes followed, with the lands of Powys Fadog given to Reginald de Grey following the Conquest. de Grey built Ruthin Castle, but allowed the hereditary heirs to the kingdom to remain as landowners in the area. Gruffydd Fychan’s son Madog III was in turn succeeded by Gruffydd of Rhuddallt, whose son Gruffydd Fychan II succeeded him. Whoa!
Gruffydd Fychan II was the Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, and the father of Owain Glyndŵr. I feel that everybody knows him, at least, but I am not a fan. Yes, I’m Welsh and I dislike Owain Glyndŵr, I said it! The reasons for this are manifold, but I shall, nevertheless, try to explain!

Owain Glyndŵr was born at Sycharth (above) in 1349 or thereabouts. His father died when Owain was still in his teens, and he was fostered by a local lawyer, David Hanmer, who was later to serve as a legal adviser to Richard II. Owain also studied law, serving as an apprentice in London before returning to Wales in 1383 and his father’s hereditary lordship of Glyndyfrdwy, near Corwen (below). As a landowner, Owain was required to provide military service to the king, which he did, even possibly serving as squire to the Duke of Lancaster (later Henry IV).

So, what have I got against him? Well. You may remember that the lords of Glyndyfrdwy held their lands of the de Grey family, ensconced at Ruthin? In the 1390s, de Grey was accused by Glyndŵr of seizing lands that belonged to him, but the Welshman’s plea was ignored by the court in London. There is also the story that de Grey purposefully informed Glyndŵr too late of a royal command to levy troops for a military action that led to the Welshman being called a traitor. Well, anyway, in September 1400, following the deposition of Richard II by the Duke of Lancaster, Glyndŵr assumed the title of Prince of Wales and led a revolt aimed largely at reclaiming the lands he had lost to de Grey.
Therefore, the entire Glyndŵr Uprising that lasted 15 years and caused untold death and destruction, as well as bringing about a series of anti-Welsh legislation from Westminster, was all because of a land dispute. I cannot begin to describe the vitriolic sentiment that I feel whenever someone refers to Glyndŵr as a national hero. He was a firebrand who caused a massive backlash that he then used to justify his actions. Much like my thoughts on Llywelyn the Last, I feel Glyndŵr has been misunderstood as being a better person than he in fact was. He is certainly not deserving of the reputation as a Welsh Arthur. His motivation was entirely selfish, not as the altruistic national martyr that he is now thought of. And thus do I dismount my soapbox!

Either way, he disappeared after 1412, and it is now widely believed that he died in 1416, with local legends suggesting his burial site to be at Monnington on Wye, near the home of one of his daughters. The only thing that is certain, of course, is that with Owain Glyndŵr, the line of the Princes of Powys finally ended. Later in the fifteenth century, with the accession of the Tudor dynasty, anti-Welsh sentiment noticeably lessened and the need for independence movements and the like effectively died out.
So there you have it! As time goes on, I hope to add to this blog as I visit more places associated with the Princes of Powys.
Until next time!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Shakespeare and Stratford

Check out today's Google doodle! 

23 April 2016 marks the 400th anniversary since the death of William Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest playwright the world has ever seen, and certainly one of the UK's greatest exports. There isn't a lot to be said about the man that you can't readily find elsewhere than my little corner of the internet, so rather than merely clog it up with more of the same, I thought I'd mark the occasion with a little celebration of my own trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Warwickshire town of both Shakespeare's birth and death. 

Shakespeare was born in April 1564, baptised on 26th but the actual date of his birth is unknown. The house in which he was born, now the Birthplace museum, was also his father John's glove shop/workshop. It's undergone quite a few modifications over the years, even during William's own lifetime it had been converted into an inn (the Swan and Maidenhead) with a cottage annex. It remained within the Shakespeare family until the early 19th century, and was almost sold to an American businessman, who had proposed to dismantle the house and ship it across the Atlantic, but was saved for the nation and remains in Stratford. 

While I love half-timbered houses like these, I find it faintly silly that so many tourists flock to Stratford and bypass so many interesting-looking houses and other buildings, but gravitate to this house like iron to a magnet. Such is the fame of the immortal bard, I suppose, though it does make me chuckle sometimes! 

The Birthplace is located on Henley Street, at what I've come to think of as the "top end" of town, usually parking nearer the river whenever I visit. There are plenty of other wonderful buildings from the Tudor era to look at as you wander the streets of the town, including whole streets further from the centre.

The town does have a number of properties that have some connection to Shakespeare, though they are usually quite tenuous. Being a part of the Shakespeare Houses, however, ensures they are always being visited by tourists, though I sometimes find it quite sad that people tend to only give these places a cursory glance before heading off to the next stop on their pilgrimage. 

We have, in no particular order, Nash's House, which belonged to the first husband of Shakespeare's granddaughter, and happens to have in its garden the foundations of New Place, the house Shakespeare bought and lived in after his career in London.

Hall's Croft, the house of Shakespeare's daughter Susanna's husband, Dr John Hall. Another wonderful Tudor/Jacobean building, it has some interesting information about medical practices of the time. 

Anne Hathaway's Cottage is the family home of Shakespeare's wife, and is actually an extensive farmhouse not too far outside of the town itself. 

I love Stratford so much. It's one of those central England towns that has managed to retain a lot of its medieval character, and I never pass up an opportunity to visit, especially when the weather is good! The Shakespeare connection has of course led to a lot of cash-ins, some of which might be a little too much, but it still has a lot to recommend, even without such a famous son.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Mount Grace Priory

It's certainly been a while since I made my last post here! Never fear, this blog is by no means forgotten. Today I thought I'd make a little post following an amazing trip up to Durham once more. 

On my way up north, I stopped off at Mount Grace Priory, just off the A19 near Thirsk. It's a place that was somewhat on my radar, though mainly because of the fact it was a monastery in Britain. I love a good monastery, so was looking forward to it, but had no real idea as to what I would encounter here. 

Well, I was in for an extremely pleasant surprise! 

Mount Grace was a Carthusian monastery, one of only ten such 'Charter Houses' to be founded in Britain. I've talked a lot about monasticism in Britain in previous blogs, primarily the Cistercians of course, along with my exhaustive look at the Dissolution. Here, however, we've got something completely different. 

The Carthusian Order did not follow the Rule of St Benedict, as per most medieval monastic orders, but rather harkened back to the desert fathers by emphasising a solitary, eremitical life. The order began in 1084, when St Bruno withdrew from the religious life of Reims to a secluded valley in the Chartreuse near Grenoble. He and his followers led a life of solitary devotion, coming together only to celebrate Matins in the morning and Vespers in the evening, and Mass only on feast days or at burials. 

Otherwise, the monks led an isolated life in a private cell within the monastic complex. These cells were strung out around the cloister, which provide the most striking remains at Mount Grace today. Rather than the usual, communal rooms surrounding the cloister such as the chapter house and the refectory, there are a series of small rooms within larger areas, and when I first arrived at this part of the complex, I was at a bit of a loss as to what these things could be. Moving through the complex, I became intrigued by all of this - the idea of a group of monks living alone together became utterly fascinating.

A monk would live within his cell, which was a two-storey affair, the ground floor being given over to the living space, small rooms where the monk would celebrate mass as well as sleep. On the first floor, a general-purpose work room. The cell had a walled garden, including a covered walkway that led to a latrine. While the monk could grow food in the garden, and had access to drinking water within the cell-complex, a hatch in the wall allowed food to be passed through without contact with other monks. 

It all seems very strange, and yet also makes perfect sense within the wider history of monasticism. After all, the original ideas of the desert fathers were to get away from the world entirely, and devote their life to spiritual devotion alone. To segregate themselves from fellow monks within an already-segregated complex seems a little like overkill, but certainly recalls the earlier tradition. 

Mount Grace is a really intriguing place, and certainly worth visiting if you enjoy monastic ruins. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Happy St David's Day!

Happy St David's Day, everyone! 

To help mark the occasion, I thought I'd write a blog on the patron saint of Wales, using some pictures taken during my jaunt to Pembrokeshire back last summer (yes, believe it or not, these pictures were taken in early July 2014. It just looks so miserable though!)

^ the shrine of St David was restored in 2012

St David lived during the sixth century, the fabled age of saints, and spent a large amount of time founding monasteries around Wales and Brittany. The famous miracle of the creation of a hillock is attributed to him, where the ground raised up in order for him to address those who had flocked to hear him. He died on 1 March, possibly in 589AD, with an exhortation to his followers to "do the little things you have seen me do", which has become something of a motto in Wales. 

St Davids, on the western tip of Pembrokeshire, had long been renowned as a place of learning, and a great pilgrimage centre. William the Conqueror arrived here in 1081, reinforcing its significance as a holy place. In 1120, Pope Callixtus II beatified David, which really cemented its place in the religious life of the country - two pilgrimages to St Davids, it was said, were equal to one to Rome. 

The present cathedral was begun in 1181, after much had been done to improve the religious community here. In the early thirteenth century, Gerald of Wales became famous for his continual efforts to become Bishop of St Davids, largely due to the nationalist feeling being whipped up by Llywelyn the Great. King John, in his efforts to gain control over Wales, blocked Gerald's election whenever he could. Today, there is a statue of Gerald in the cathedral, the bishop's mitre sadly by his feet...

In the fourteenth century, Bishop Henry de Gower began an ambitious building programme in St Davids, bringing the city in line with the great cathedral-cities of England. Among his work is the construction of the Bishop's Palace opposite the west end. 

I love these sorts of buildings. Castles are great, and cathedrals and abbeys are stupendous, but palaces were purely domestic buildings, and have so much of interest when you look at how medieval life was really lived. Yes, they are more indicative of the lives of the ruling elite than the ordinary people, but they're pretty much all we have from a time when most houses were timber at best. And you know what? So much scholarship has been done in the last few decades over lives of the common people, I think it's about time we celebrated those lives of the upper crust once again!

The Bishop's Palace was really the product of the fourteenth century building programme of Henry de Gower, although a lot of work had been undertaken in the late thirteenth century by Thomas Bek, largely following a grant from Edward I. Bek had been the keeper of the king's wardrobe before being endowed with the bishopric, forming a close relationship with the king.

I absolutely loved exploring this building! The domesticity was an abiding factor, as I have already said; seeing where people entertained, where the food was cooked or stored, where people slept... it's a much more fascinating insight into the period than we can get from castles and the like today...

So yeah! Following the Reformation, St Davids was one of the new Protestant cathedrals of the realm. In the sixteenth century, an effort was made to remove the episcopal seat from St Davids to Carmarthen, for a more central location of the See, though this came to nothing. However, the Bishop's Palace suffered as a result by being stripped of much of its adornments. 

For a long time, however, the Bishops of St Davids had been staying here less frequently. St Davids is, after all, at the end of a very long road from the centre of the royal court, and bishops were important functionaries therein. The fifteenth century had seen a steady decline in favour of nearby Lamphey, when the bishop came to the See at all. 

Lamphey is much closer to the Norman castle at Pembroke, and so would perhaps make for a more convenient residence when the bishop was in the area. A manor is known to have been here in Gerald's time, but the present palace owes much to the building of Thomas Bek, with Henry de Gower seeming only to have renovated and updated. 

I really enjoyed Lamphey, too. It was a really miserable day when I visited, and I got soaked through by the time I'd finished exploring, but there's that irresistible allure of domesticity that I so enjoyed at St Davids. The palace here is set over a large area that would have been bustling with life as the bishop took up residence, with provisions laid out in the outer court ready for the feasting and entertainment of the halls of the inner court. 

One such hall was indeed built by de Gower, and bears his name still. The arcaded parapet is almost like his calling card, seen also in the palace at St Davids. It is also believed to have influenced the renovation work at Swansea Castle, Henry having close ties with the city.

The palace was sold into private hands following the Reformation, entering the Devereux family (later earls of Essex). Decline followed the Civil War, when it was converted into farm buildings. After a period as a curiosity for the nearby Lamphey Hall, the ruins we see today were eventually given to the state. It's quite sad to think of how it has fallen from such a position of power! 

Not far from Lamphey is Llawhaden Castle, which also formed part of the bishop's estates, though with perhaps a more colourful history.

The castle was originally a frontier post on the landsker, the border between Norman Wales and native Wales. For a time, it was held by Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, who is incidentally buried in St Davids, before it was taken by the Normans and, in 1281, became something of a special project for Thomas Bek. Bek made the town the richest within the See, though it wasn't until Adam de Houghton in the late fourteenth century that the castle itself was renovated.

The castle was very much dependent on the favour of the bishop of the time, as most of the fifteenth century saw it let to commoners. Bishop Hugh Pavy, over a century after Adam de Houghton, once again used it as his regular base in the See, where it is mentioned as fulfilling the role of episcopal prison among other things. 

Following the Reformation, the castle was stripped alongside the Bishop's Palace, and its decline continued the following century when it was partly demolished. 

So there you have it, a cathedral, two palaces and a castle, mostly in appalling weather! I was really unlucky with my holiday, and definitely want to go back and explore more of the area, hopefully with some sunshine! As befits the premier diocese of Wales, there are a lot of remnants of the monastic life of St David there, and it is definitely worth the visit! 

Happy St Davids Day everyone!