Gerald of Wales

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Gerald of Wales tried (and failed) to warn the world about Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Gerald of Wales, is variously known as Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald the Welshman, and Gerallt Cymro. He was also known as Master Gerald de Barry, Gerald the Marcher, Gerald the Archdeacon, or Gerald Bishop-elect of St. Davids (which he more often called himself). His many names reflect the long and multi-faceted career of one of the most fascinating figures of the Middle Ages. He was descended from Norman Marcher barons, and Welsh princes and by turns scholar, churchman and reformer, courtier, diplomat and would-be crusader; Marcher propagandist, agent of English kings, champion of the Welsh church, hunted outlaw and cathedral theologian. He was also a naturalist, gossip and indefatigable traveller, but above all a most prolific writer and a tireless self-publicist. Some might try to write him off as a self-opinionated buffoon, but he was well-versed in languages, a master of rhetoric, and keen observer of the many tempestuous events, intrigues and controversies of the second half of the twelfth century. From his seventeen surviving books, we know a great deal about this determined, irascible, self-righteous and utter fearless (some would say foolhardy) man; more, in fact, than about any other inhabitant of early medieval Wales. If he is to be believed, he felt that his destity was to be the Archbishop of an independent Welsh church, owing allegiance directly to the Pope rather than to Canterbury. Three times, under three different kings he almost achieved his aim.

Through him we also learn a good deal about the people and places of his time, even though it at times seems that he would believe, and write down, just about any story he was told no-matter how unlikely. However, even Gerald did not believe Geoffrey of Monmouth: in a brilliant put-down Gerald recounts the experience of a man possessed by demons:

  • "If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when the book was removed, and the History of the Britons by 'Geoffrey Arthur' [as Geoffrey of Monmouth named himself] was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book."

Chester in the time of Gerald

Gerald was born in around 1146 in the latter days of the much-troubled reign of King Stephen. At this time Chester was ruled by the Norman Earl Ranulph De Gernon who is noted for changing sides several times during the period of civil war known as "The Anarchy", although there seems to have been no actual fighting at Chester. In 1147 Ranulph had hosted a gathering of leading Angevin supporters in Chester, including some Welsh allies, notably Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd. New religious institutions were arriving in Chester: the earliest known charter connected with the House of Benedictine nuns of St Mary dates from about the year 1150, though it is known the nuns were in Chester before that date. Other foundations included St John's Hospital without the Northgate and St. Giles, Boughton. The former being established by Ranulph III in the 1190s to care for the poor.

Ranulph II permitted stalls and a market to be set up before the abbey gate, and prohibited trading elsewhere in Chester while the fair lasted. Ranulph II later pledged his peace to all attending the fair and extended responsibility for its policing to the barons of Cheshire. North Wales was in an almost constant state of conflict during Gerald's lifetime. In 1157, during the minority of Hugh de Kevelioc, Henry II received the homage of Malcolm IV, king of Scots, in Chester before invading north Wales. In 1165 Henry used Shrewsbury as his base but after the campaign visited Chester to meet the ships which he had ordered to harry Gwynedd. Shortly afterwards Chester appears to have been involved in a further attack, for in 1170 Hugh de Kevelioc was said to have built a mound at "Boughton" (almost certainly meant to be "Broughton") out of the heads of Welshmen killed at the 'bridge of Baldert', possibly Balderton (in Dodleston), south of Chester. In 1211 King John also attacked the Welsh from Chester.

The Angevin Empire of Henry II. Within Ranulf de Blondeville's lifetime (1172-1232) almost all the land in France would be lost.

Gerald's lifetime saw the peak of the Angevin Empire. Henry II controlled more of France than any ruler since the Carolingians; these lands, combined with his possessions in England, Wales, Scotland and much of Ireland, produced a vast domain. However this empire lacked a coherent structure or central control; instead, it consisted of a loose, flexible network of family connections and lands.

In the 12th century, Chester was clearly regarded as a prosperous town, there are hints that it was very dependent on external trade. William of Malmesbury noted that while its hinterland abounded in beasts and fish, especially salmon, it was unproductive of cereals, which had to be imported from Ireland. Somewhat later Lucian the Monk also praised the woods, pastures, beasts, and fisheries of the Cestrians, but also remarked that they were well placed to obtain supplies not only locally but from Wales and Ireland. Despite the troubled relations between the Norman earls and the princes of Gwynedd, the Cestrians' need was such that the Welsh were encouraged to trade in the city's market, supplying especially cattle and meat. They were not, however, accorded equal status with the English and French. The less generous treatment which they received when their goods were stolen shows their inferior status at the end of the 12th century. Cestrian monk Lucian writes:

  • "The native [Cestrian] knows how savagely our neighbour often approaches, and stimulated by hunger and cold haunts the place, and then cannot help but compare the difference in supplies. Yet he returns, but with hostile glance and evil thoughts envies the citizen within the walls."

Trade with Ireland was perhaps crucial to Chester's economy. Besides food, the city imported animal pelts, especially marten. Ireland was not Chester's only international link. In the late 12th century, for example, ships from Aquitaine, Spain, and Germany brought cargoes of wine into the harbour on the south side of the city.

In 1094 there had been a general Welsh revolt against Norman rule in Wales, and gradually territories were won back. Gruffudd ap Cynan was eventually able to build a strong kingdom in Gwynedd. His son, Owain Gwynedd, allied with Gruffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth won a crushing victory over the Normans at the Battle of Crug Mawr in 1136 and annexed Ceredigion. Owain followed his father on the throne of Gwynedd the following year and ruled until his death in 1170. He was able to profit from disunity in England to extend the borders of Gwynedd further east than ever before. Powys also had a strong ruler at this time in Madog ap Maredudd, but when his death in 1160 was quickly followed by the death of his heir, Llywelyn ap Madog, Powys was split into two parts and never subsequently reunited. In the south, Gruffydd ap Rhys was killed in 1137, but his four sons, who all ruled Deheubarth in turn, were eventually able to win back most of their grandfather's kingdom from the Normans. The youngest of the four, Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys) ruled from 1155 to 1197. In 1171 Rhys met King Henry II and came to an agreement with him whereby Rhys had to pay a tribute but was confirmed in all his conquests. Owain Gwynedd's death led to the splitting of Gwynedd between his sons, while Rhys made Deheubarth dominant in Wales for a time. Out of the power struggle in Gwynedd eventually arose one of the greatest of Welsh leaders, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn Fawr (the Great), who was sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200 and by his death in 1240 was effectively ruler of much of Wales.

In summary, Chester in the time of Gerald (c1146-1223) was a major trading center and its Palatinate Earls were maintaining a precarious balance between the Norman/Angevin rulers of England and the semi-independent Welsh. For two relatively long periods 1153–62 and 1181-1187 the earl was a minor and at times (1173-1177) in direct conflict with the king. In the later part of Gerald's life, after his visit in 1188, Ranulf de Blondeville provided a relatively stable local government.


The de Barry family is a noble family of Cambro-Norman origins which held extensive land holdings in Wales and Ireland. The founder of the family was a Norman Knight, Odo, who assisted in the Norman Conquest of England during the 11th century. As reward for his military services, Odo was granted estates in Pembrokeshire and around Barry, Wales, including Barry Island just off the coast. The name of the town of Buttevant in County Cork is believed to derive from the family's battle cry – Boutez-en-Avant, roughly translating as "Kick your way through".

Gerald of Wales was born at the castle of Manorbier in Pembrokshire in around 1146 he was later to describe it as "in all the broad lands of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far". Gerald's father was a Norman knight, Sir William de Barri; his mother Angharad; the daughter of Norman lord Gerald de Windsor and a Welsh princess. Princess Nest ferch Rhys, his grandmother, was known as the "Welsh Helen of Troy" due to her eventful love life - at one point she was abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan and had to urge her husband to escape down a latrine. As a result of her marriages and amours Gerald was related to many of the Welsh princes as well as to the powerful Norman Geraldines. Yet from an early age Gerald wanted to be a priest. In his autobiography he says that while his brothers made sand-castles on the beach he built sand-cathedrals.

Since education was the path to ecclesiastical advancement, young Gerald soon left Manorbier, first for the Benedictine house in Gloucester, where he perfected his Latin, and then he went off to the then intellectual center of Europe, Paris. There (c. 1165–74) Gerald studied the liberal arts and theology; he later returned there to study canon law. In Paris he fell under the influence of Petrus Cantor, a church reformer, and it is probably through Petrus' teachings that Gerald gained the sense of zeal with which he approached his later administration of church properties.

Henry II

The Kings of England are in green and the Earls of Chester in yellow. A succession crisis arose in 1120 with the loss of the "white ship" in 1120 and the death by drowning of both earl Richard of Avranches and William, the heir to the English throne. Leaving (on Henry I's death from a "surfeit of lampreys") a contested succession between Henry I's daughter Matilda and William I's maternal grandson Stephen (brother-in-law to Richard of Avranches). Matters stabilised to some extent during the time of Henry II, but fell apart again during the rule of Henry II's squabbling sons.

In 1174 Gerald was appointed Archdeacon of Brecon, to which was attached a residence at Llanddew. He obtained this position by reporting the existence of the previous archdeacon's concubine; the man was promptly sacked. In 1176, upon the death of his uncle, David FitzGerald, the Bishop of St Davids, the chapter nominated Gerald as his successor. St David's had the long-term aim of becoming independent of Canterbury, and the chapter may have thought that Gerald was the man to take up its cause. The early ecclesiastical organisation of the Welsh church is unclear but scanty references reveal that some form of Archbishopric definitely existed, with multiple bishops under the jurisdiction of a senior see. One of the earliest mentions of the religious community at St Davids Cathedral comes in the work of Asser who was trained there. In his Life of King Alfred c. 893 Asser clearly describes his kinsman, Nobis, also of St Davids, as Archbishop. In the Annales Cambriae, Elfodd is termed "archbishop of the land of Gwynedd" in his obit, under the year 809. It is unclear when St Davids came definitely under the metropolitan jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but about 1115 King Henry I intruded a Norman into the see, Bernard, Bishop of St Davids, who prior to his ordination was confirmed by Canterbury, much to the disgust of the Brut y Tywysogyon which noted that Henry I "made him bishop in Menevia in contempt of the clerics of the Britons". Once in place Bernard became convinced that St Davids was a Metropolitan archbishopric (and thus of the same status as Canterbury). Bernard in the 1120s claimed metropolitan jurisdiction over Wales and presented his suit unsuccessfully before six successive popes. Pope Eugenius III was giving the case serious consideration, the issue was to be put to the synod summoned to meet at Rheims in March 1148, but the death of Bernard meant the case lapsed.

King Henry II of England, fresh from his struggle with Archbishop Thomas Becket, promptly rejected Gerald, possibly because his Welsh blood and ties to the ruling family of Deheubarth made him seem like a troublesome prospect, in favour of one of his Norman retainers, Peter de Leia. The chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Gerald, disappointed with the result, withdrew to the University of Paris. From c. 1179-8, he studied and taught canon law and theology. He returned to England and spent an additional five years studying theology. In 1180, he received a minor appointment from the Bishop of St. David's, which he soon resigned.

Gerald became a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England in 1184, first acting mediator between the crown and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd. His primary value for the Crown seems to have been his familial and social connections to prominent marcher lords in Wales and to native Welsh princes. He also had significant links to Ireland; his relatives played key roles in the invasion of that island in 1169. At court, Gerald also acted as chaplain and tutor to the princes who were to become King Richard I and King John. He was chosen to accompany one of the king's sons, John, in 1185 on John's first expedition to Ireland. John is known to have travelled to Ireland via Chester as possibly noted by Lucian the Monk. This trip was the catalyst for his literary career; his work Topographia Hibernica (first circulated in manuscript in 1188, and revised at least four more times) is an account of his journey to Ireland. Having thus demonstrated his usefulness, Gerald was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, on a tour of Wales in 1188, the object being a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade.

Gerald’s description of his king brings Henry vividly to life with its detail:

  • "Henry II was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence, which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing."

Richard I

Although Gerald himself had pledged to take up the Cross and join the Crusade, his plans were disrupted by the unexpected death of King Henry II in 1189. Getting his vows commuted by papal dispensation, he was quickly dispatched to Wales by the new king, Richard the Lion-Heart, who hoped Gerald would keep his Welsh cousins in line. After Richard left for the Crusade, Gerald remained in England in the royal service. As a royal clerk, Gerald observed significant political events at first hand, and was offered appointments as bishoprics of Wexford and Leighlin, and apparently at a little later time the bishopric of Ossory and the archbishopric of Cashel, and later the Welsh Bishopric of Bangor and, in 1191, that of Llandaff. He turned them all down. His trips to Wales on Crown matters allowed him to discuss long-held grievances with his Welsh relatives and to persuade the princes to support him if he was nominated as Bishop of St. David's again. It is possible that he was closely involved with John's machinations to take the throne. When Richard returned, Gerald quickly left the court and for the next few years, Gerald spent most of his time with friends in Lincoln, composing saints' lives and other ecclesiastical texts.

Of Richard I, the Lionheart, Gerald states the he:

  • "cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries."

King John

On the death of Peter de Leia in 1198, the chapter of St. David's again nominated Gerald for the bishopric; but Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused confirmation. The Archbishop of Canterbury had become Gerald's enemy. Gerald had accused him of stockpiling arms and then selling them at a vast profit to Crusaders. Canterbury nominated two candidates, but the canons of St. David's refused them. Representatives of the canons followed Richard I to France, but before they could interview him he died; his successor, King John, received them kindly and granted them permission to hold an election. They were unanimous in their selection of Gerald, and Gerald acted as bishop-elect for much of the next four years; and, as Hubert still refused to confirm the election, Gerald started for Rome to have his election confirmed, where he had an interview with Pope Innocent III. On meeting Innocent III Gerald declared "Others will offer you bribes, but I bring only books". He then presented the pontiff with copies of his six books. The war delayed news from England and Gerald settled down to a long stay at the Vatican. The Pope kept the books as bedside reading and quoted pithy passages to his Cardinals.

An illustration from Gerald's work on Ireland. Gerald wrote that: "From an ancient and wicked custom, they always carry an axe in their hands instead of a staff, that they may be ready promptly to execute whatever iniquity their minds suggest". Gerald claimed that the Irish preferred axes to swords or bows because they could inflict a lethal wound more quickly.

He visited Rome on three occasions (1199–1200; 1201; 1202–3) in support of his claims. He devoted considerable energy to researching the history of the see and to amassing evidence and arguments for its metropolitan status. In 1198 the archbishop, however, had anticipated him and his agents in Rome undermined Gerald's case, and, as the pope was not convinced that St. David's was independent of Canterbury, the mission of Gerald proved a failure. Gerald returned, and his cause was now supported by the Princes of Wales, most notably Llywelyn the Great, and Gruffydd ap Rhys II, while King John, frequently in conflict with the Welsh, warmly espoused the cause of the Archbishop of Canterbury. John had other worries, Arthur of Brittany had been caputred but still lived and formally had a better claim to the throne than John. As for Gerald’s opinion of John, he describes him as a "tyrannous whelp".

In 1202, Gerald was accused of stirring up the Welsh to rebellion and was put on trial, but the trial came to nothing in consequence of the absence of the principal judges. After this long struggle, the chapter of St. David's deserted Gerald, and having been obliged to leave Wales, he fled to Rome. He hid from his enemies on the English coast for days until he found a boat to take him across the channel. He was robbed on the continent and had to cross the Alps in winter. When he finally arrived in Rome emissaries from Canterbury were waiting for him. The debate raged before the Pope, another commission was ordered, and Gerald left Rome heavily in debt. To cap it all he was captured and imprisoned in France for being a subject of King John! He convinced the French he was not a spy, but by the time he got back to St. David's the matter was already decided against him. Once a tall, handsome and dashing figure, a friend described him on his second return from Rome as resembling "a scarecrow with bushy eyebrows".

Three times a potential Bishop to the see of his beloved St David’s, Gerald was never to achieve his lifelong ambition to have the see raised to metropolitan status - its ancient position as he passionately believed - and to gain the see for himself. Not to have been Bishop of St David’s was the greatest failure of his life; he could have had at least four other bishoprics, two in Ireland and two others in Wales; but, as he put it:

  • "all these offers he trod underfoot as a hindrance to his studies, which he assiduously pursued."

Gerald spent the remainder of his life in academic study, most probably in Lincoln, producing works of devotional instruction and politics, and revising the works on Ireland and Wales he had written earlier in his life. Among his voluminous writings he has left us an autobiography (De Rebus a Se Gestis -- "On the Deeds Done by Oneself"), one of the few such texts composed in the High Middle Ages. He spent two years (1204–6) in Ireland with his relatives and made a fourth visit to Rome, purely as a pilgrimage, in 1206. He had left his books which he collected since his youth, as a guarantee at Strata Florida, safe from English hands when he went to Rome in 1199, but on his return the monks blandly informed him that their Book of Uses permitted them only to buy books, not to hold them in pawn, and thus:

  • "since necessity knows no law, he left his books to their greed as if his entrails and been torn from his belly, seeing such priceless treasure gathered for so long with such loving care commuted to cheap cash."

He went on his way in unbelievable grief and anguish. So he wrote in his last book Speculum Ecclesiaie about 1220, as yet another example of monkish cupidity and deceit. The controversy over St David's soured his relationship with the crown. Llyweleyn failed to gain independence in 1211, and if he had Gerald may have had one last opportunity to become Archbishop, but it was not to happen. He claims that he was nominated again when the see next became vacant, in 1215, but turned it down immediately. The shadow of his failure in the St. David's controversy and the bitterness he felt over that episode is very evident in Gerald's later works. Works such as Invectiones (The invectives), De jure et statu Menevensis ecclesie (The rights and status of the Church of St. David's) and his autobiography, De rebus a se gestis (On his own deeds), show a man eager to prove the post‐hoc justice of his cause and the rightness of his actions in the controversy.

In 1216 a baronial plan to put Louis VIII of France on the throne of England in the First Barons' War was warmly welcomed by him. The barons offered the throne to Prince Louis, who landed unopposed on the Isle of Thanet in eastern Kent, England, at the head of an army on 21 May 1216. There was little resistance when the prince entered London, and he was proclaimed King Louis I of England at Old St Paul's Cathedral with great pomp and celebration in the presence of all of London. Even though he was not crowned, many nobles, as well as King Alexander II of Scotland on behalf of his English possessions, gathered to give homage. On 14 June 1216, Louis captured Winchester and soon controlled over half of the English kingdom, but John still had the crown, although he was soon to lose it in the swamps of the Wash. Then, just when it seemed that England was Louis', King John died.

Henry III

Louis VIII of France was not to become King of England, as the death of King John caused many of the rebellious barons to desert Louis and the throne was thrust upon the young Henry III. Gerald lived on in relative obscurity and died in about 1223 in his 77th year, probably in Hereford but he is, according to some accounts, buried at St David's Cathedral (although no-one knows quite where). Given the enemies he made, it was remarkable that he managed to live to an old age and die in bed.

Selected Works

All Gerald's surviving works are written in Latin, primarily in prose, though he also composed some poetry. His style is lively and digressive, frequently polemical, rich in classical and patristic allusion, and often exhibiting a taste for the sensational and the grotesque. The breadth of topics covered in his writings bear witness to a voracious curiosity and keen powers of observation. Gerald's own voice and complex personality are inescapable, and his writing is rarely free of the influence of his own biases and personal animosities.

Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church (already built in stone) in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia. The date of foundation is attributed to a document written by Gerald, which appears to have been lost.

It appears that there may be at least one lost work by Gerald which mentions Chester. Tradition ascribes the foundation of St Johns to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. The direct authority for this statement quoted by John Leland is the Itinerary of Giraldus Cambrensisc. However no such information is found in the surviving texts of the Itinerary. Two authorities of a subsequent date quote the early date in such a mannner as to imply their acceptance of it, and the source as being Giraldus: the MS Chronicle of St. Werburgh and by Henry Bradshaw (a native of Chester and monk of St Werburgh's Abbey). In his "Life of St Werburgh" (1513), Bradshaw writes:

  • "The year of grace six hundred fourescore and nyen As sheweth myne auctour a Bryton Giraldus Kynge Ethelred myndynge moost the blysse of Heven Edyfyed a Collage Churche notable and famous In the suburbs of Chester pleasaunt and beauteous In the honor of God and the Baptyst Saynt Johan With helpe of bysshop Wulfrice and good exortacion"

This rhyming legend has been copied and is still extant on a tablet which is suspended at the south west angle of the nave near the font. Although the copyist misread the word "exortacion" and spelled it "Excillion". In "The Medieval Architecture of Chester", John Henry Parker, writes that this was "a mistake into which others have subsequently fallen under the idea that the abbreviated word was the name of a person".

A problen with this source is that Bradshaw gives his source as "Giraldus" (Gerald of Wales), whereas the surviving Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) of Gerald's travels does not mention the founding of St John's at all. Leyland also refers to Gerald as his source, but whether this is a "cumulative error" or parts of Gerald's works have been lost is impossible to say. Hemingway sheds a little more light on the matter as he refers to the source of the quote as the Polychronicon of Higden (c. 1280 - c. 1363). However, while the Polychronicon contains one of the earliest sources for the legend surrounding Werburgh and her arrival in Chester, the wording is quite different. The relevant passages can be found in book V (Harl Mss 2261):

  • "King Ethelred, uncle to Werburgh made her govenor in diverse places as at Threekingsham, Weedon and Hanbury, [she] dying at at first place and [was] buried at the third, as she commanded in her life, where she lay incorrupte as by three hundred years unto the coming of the Danes. The Danes tarrying in winter at Repton, [with] Burgered king of the Mercians chased away, the citizens of Hanbury, dreading them, went to Chester with the body of that blessed virgin, which reduced at that time to powder. In which city from the time of king Athelstan unto the coming of the Normans into England, secular cannons getting diverse posessions served in that church to the lawe of that virgin, and after that monks."

Topographia Hibernica

Gerald accompanied Prince John on an expedition to Ireland in 1185. Based on the evidence of the Topographia, it would appear that Gerald's travels within Ireland were not extensive. He spent most of this first visit in Waterford and Cork. During his second visit, he visited Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, Kildare and, possibly, Athlone and Lough Derg. Whether or not he visited some of the places he mentioned or he simply related tales he heard from others is debatable. He wrote, for example, about the island of Inishglora (he gets the name wrong), off the coast of the Mullet Peninsula, Erris, that corpses on that island do not putrefy and that generations of people all in a state of perpetual 'freshness' were to be seen on that island. He also seems to have been consulted on a case involving werewolves. His interest in werewolves and other hybrids seems in part to arise from introspection, especially as regards his potential internal conflicts over his Norman and Welsh loyalties. He was however quite clear about the English: he compared spoken English to the hissing of geese and described the English as the:

  • "most worthless race under heaven .. in their own country they are the slaves of the Normans, and in Wales they serve only as cowherds…and cleaner of sewers"

Gerald's Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and his Expugnatio Hibernica (Conquest of Ireland) were published in the years following his visit. The Topographia describes the geography, flora and fauna of Ireland, and also sensationalistically (and, to many, quite offensively) the manners and mores of the Irish people. The Expugnatio narrates the conquest of the island in the years following 1169 by the Norman adventurer Strongbow and his allies, including especially the writer's belicose Fitzgerald cousins. Gerald records that he gave public readings of the Topographia in Oxford. Later recensions followed and by the time Gerald died the work had swelled to twice its original length.

The Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade (1189-1192), an attempt by the leaders of the three most powerful states of Western Christianity (Angevin England, France and the Holy Roman Empire) to reconquer the Holy Land following the capture of Jerusalem by the Ayyubid sultan Saladin in 1187. Gregory VIII, in the bull Audita tremendi, had proclaimed that the capture of Jerusalem was punishment for the sins of Christians across Europe: Gregory died in Pisa on 17 December 1187 of a fever after holding the papacy for only 57 days. Various motivations have been put forward for the ruinously expensive crusades. These have included a love of slaughter, fear of damnation, an urge to plunder and a way of venting aggression abroad rather than having destructive wars at home.

Itinerarium Kambriae

In 1188 King Henry II of England called for a tax to support the Third Crusade, following the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. It was collected at the rate of a tenth of all the property and income of any person not vowing to go on crusade. It was popularly known as the "Saladin tithe" and was the most extensive tax ever collected in England up to that point. Being a tithe and not a secular tax, it was collected by dioceses rather than by shires. Baldwin of Forde, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was especially blamed for its harshness. As well as avoiding the tax, going on crusade was an opportunity for travel, wanton violence and plunder, remission for past sins that might otherwise might lead to damnation, and the gain of freedom for serfs. Not going on crusade could be viewed as cowardice.

Gerald was appointed to the entourage of Baldwin on a mission to travel through Wales in order to raise money and recruit troops for the Crusade. Gerald praised Baldwin as "distinguished for his learning and religion", but also claimed that he was gloomy and nervous. Baldwin had a long-standing row with some of his clerics which caused the chronicler Gervase of Canterbury to characterise him as "a greater enemy to Christianity than Saladin". Though the Archbishop was to celebrate Mass in the four cathedrals in Wales, he was assisted by the worthy Gerald who could summon up a sermon with a fluency of speech in both Latin and French; though how much of these tongues was familiar to the local knights and common folk is not in evidence. The jester at the court of Rhys ap Gruffudd was of the opinion that if Gerald had preached in Welsh there would not have been a man left who would not have joined the cause. A number promised to go, but when the time came, almost all those who had agreed to join the crusade found some excuse not to go. No one made more fuss about this than Gerald.

Gerald recounts his six-week journey step-by-step in his delightful Itinerarium Kambriae (The Journey Through Wales). It is estimated that the journey would have covered over 760 miles. The text records the journey itself, but is primarily composed of historical, topographical, and anecdotal material relating to the areas through which the two men passed. The route tended to follow the coast and the Marcher borders with very little travel in the interior. This engagement on the ground in Wales also seems to have inspired his Descriptio Kambriae (The Description of Wales), a text valuable for being, among other things, one of the finest pieces of ethnography written in the Middle Ages. During his travels in Wales Gerald collected many strange tales of mysterious afflictions and miraculous cures, fortune-telling fish and weird hybrids.

Gerald on Chester

Gerald was in Chester at Easter 1188, an event which featured in the Chester Pageant of 1910. This was a complicated period in the history of the abbey and Balwin was involved in the various schemes and plots, which are discussed in more detail on the page relating to Lucian the Monk. Gerald is silent on these matters in his description of the visit:

  • Having crossed the river Dee below Chester, (which the Welsh call Doverdwy), on the third day before Easter, on the day of absolution (holy Thursday), we reached Chester. As the river Wye towards the south separates Wales from England, so the Dee near Chester forms the northern boundary. The inhabitants of these parts assert, that the waters of this river change their fords every month, and, as it inclines more towards England or Wales, they can, with certainty, prognosticate which nation will be successful or unfortunate during the year. This river derives its origin from the lake Penmelesmere, and, although it abounds with salmon, yet none are found in the lake. It is also remarkable, that this river is never swollen by rains, but often rises by the violence of the winds.

Gerald crossed the Dee across the estuary which was a usual route at the time but needed care as the "Sands of Dee" were prone to shifting as famously commented on by Cielia Fiennes. Gerald is actually also correct about the River Dee being affected by high winds. Bala's lake (which does contain salmon) fills the floor of a valley which is aligned with the prevailing wind direction and strong winds can significantly increase the flow from the lake into the Dee.

  • Chester boasts of being the burial-place of Henry, a Roman emperor, who, after having imprisoned his carnal and spiritual father, pope Paschal, gave himself up to penitence; and, becoming a voluntary exile in this country, ended his days in solitary retirement. It is also asserted, that the remains of Harold are here deposited. He was the last of the Saxon kings in England, and as a punishment for his perjury, was defeated in the battle of Hastings, fought against the Normans. Having received many wounds, and lost his left eye by an arrow in that engagement, he is said to have escaped to these parts, where, in holy conversation, leading the life of an anchorite, and being a constant attendant at one of the churches of this city, he is believed to have terminated his days happily. The truth of these two circumstances was declared (and not before known) by the dying confession of each party. We saw here, what appeared novel to us, cheese made of deer's milk; for the countess and her mother keeping tame deer, presented to the archbishop three small cheeses made from their milk.
Gerald of Wales reported a cross between a deer and a cow following a visit to Chester, although he did not actually see it, an illustration appeared in his book.

The legend of Henry V is discussed on the page relating to Godstall Lane. A possible reason for this story to be made up lies with Henry V's wife, none other than the Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I on England and one of the protagonists in the Civil War during the time of Earl of Chester Ranulph De Gernon. After the death of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (in 1125), Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou and, on the 5th March 1133, gave birth to the future Henry II of England. Obviously, if Emperor Henry was still alive and a hermit in Chester when Henry II was born, then Henry II was illegitimate and some doubt would be cast on the rightfulness of the Angevin succession. In fact Hugh de Kevelioc, the next Earl of Chester, would have a reasonable claim via Henry I's eldest illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester. The possible truth behind the Harold legend is discussed on the page relating to the Hermitage. Again this could be Hugh de Kevelioc trying to spread rumours that Henry II and the rest of the Angevins did not have a legitimate claim to the throne, so that he could set up an independent principality.

The identity of the countess and her mother is not without problems. Maud of Gloucester was the widow of the poisoned Ranulph De Gernon, hence once Countess of Chester and died 29 July 1189. Her son Hugh de Kevelioc married Bertrade de Montfort of Evreux (1155-1227), daughter of Simon III de Montfort who was also Countess of Chester. Bertrade's mother was Mathilde (Amicia) d'Evreux, Countess of Evreaux, who died c.1169. Hugh died in 1181, leaving a son Ranulf de Blondeville born in 1172. He did not marry until January 1189, when a political marriage was arranged with Constance of Brittany, the widow of Henry II’s son Geoffrey, and the mother of Arthur of Brittany. Constance's mother was Margaret of Huntingdon, Duchess of Brittany, who died in 1201. Margaret was the sister of Scottish kings Malcolm IV and William I, wife of Conan IV, Duke of Brittany. Margaret married three times to Conan IV who died in 1171, Humphrey III de Bohun who died in 1181 and Sir William FitzPatrick Hertburn.

In 1188 the dowager countess Bertrade was still aged only 32. However her mother had died at Leicester in 1169 (aged 39) and so could not have been keeping tame does with her daughter in 1188. The only possible contender for the "mother" is therfore Maud of Gloucester, who according to some had poisoned her husband Ranulph with the assistance of William Peverel of Nottingham, but there is no real evidence that she was involved in the poisoning. Maud would have been old and frail at the time as she was to die the following year. Far from being one of Gerald's more fanciful stories, he added the detail that the doe cheese were made in small wicker or wooden contaners, very much like those still used for Norman cheeses. The young Ranulf de Blondeville would most likely have not been present as he spent most of his youth at court with an ailing Herry II.

  • In this same country was produced, in our time, a cow partaking of the nature of a stag, resembling its mother in the fore parts and the stag in its hips, legs, and feet, and having the skin and colour of the stag; but, partaking more of the nature of the domestic than of the wild animal, it remained with the herd of cattle. A bitch also was pregnant by a monkey, and produced a litter of whelps resembling a monkey before, and the dog behind; which the rustic keeper of the military hall seeing with astonishment and abhorrence, immediately killed with the stick he carried in his hand; thereby incurring the severe resentment and anger of his lord, when the latter became acquainted with the circumstance. In our time, also, a woman was born in Chester without hands, to whom nature had supplied a remedy for that defect by the flexibility and delicacy of the joints of her feet, with which she could sew, or perform any work with thread or scissors, as well as other women.

Reports of Deer/Cow hybrids are surpringly common, and even have the name "dows", if not backed up by hard evidence. The monkey/dog hybrid is known as a Shug Monkey in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Genetically, these hybrids are impossible and even if they could occur would not have the "front-half/back-half" division.

When Archbishop Baldwin's party left Chester for Shrewsbury, they diverted from the most direct route in order to stay outside the border of Powys, going south-east to Whitchurch in Shropshire and then south-west to Oswestry. Prince Owain Cyfeiliog of southern Powys did not want Baldwin to come, and Gruffudd ap Madog of the north was out of favour with the church having married his cousin. When Baldwin arrived in Shrewsbury Owain Cyfeiliog was still a no-show, so Baldwin promptly excommunicated him. This apparently did not stop Owain later retiring to the abbey of Strata Marcella, which he had helped to found in 1170, some time before his death. Strata Marcella was one of a number of Cistercian abbeys founded by Welsh princes which were independent of the Norman-founded abbeys in England and it would appear that excommunication by Canterbury was no bar to becoming a monk there.

A side effect of Baldwin's tour of Wales was the implied assertion of royal authority in a section of Henry's domains that had always been somewhat fractious. Baldwin was also asserting his ecclesiastical authority over the Welsh bishops, especially when he made a point of celebrating mass at every Welsh cathedral; he was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to celebrate mass at St Asaph's Cathedral. Baldwin was with King Henry II shortly before the latter's death, Baldwin crowned Richard at Westminster Abbey on 13 September 1189. In April 1190 Baldwin left England with Richard on the Third Crusade. Arriving in the near east, he became embroiled in a succession crisis following an epidemic and died soon after in the midst of another mass excommunication.

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