Sunday, 23 July 2017

Tintern Abbey: a guided tour by "Brother Thomas"

If, like me, you have formed your image of a monk from Chaucer's satirical account, you imagine a jolly, rounded, shiny lover of the luxurious life, particularly fond of roast swan. The Cistercians had formed their order much earlier in order to distance themselves from such laxity and lived very simply, dressed in white (or off-white) garments of undyed sheep's wool with no trappings. In the 12th century they set up in remote, wild Tintern, far from the temptations of rich living and were intent on following strictly the Rule of St. Benedict.

"Brother Thomas" who led us round the Abbey with his helper, Sister Mary, was authentically clad as a White Monk and was pleased that the weather was cooler and dry as his habit becomes unduly warm in the heat and smells of Labrador in the rain. He was tall and appropriately ascetic-looking but had a good sense of humour which did not detract from his informative and evocative talk. We followed him as he explained the history in the various parts of the Abbey and the daily life of the monks, bringing it all to life with details. One such was the fact that a monk did a circuit with a candle at the 1:30 a.m. service, holding it near each face to check that the cold, sleepy worshipper had not nodded off.

His black scapular indicates a senior monk
The history was given in palatable portions and we learned that there had been an earlier church before the present ruined one, the first endowed by Walter de Clare and the second by the Earl of Norfolk, Lord of Chepstow, Roger Bigod, and we ended with the Dissolution and later Romantic interest in this picturesque site.
Daily life
  Brother Thomas was in his role as Cellerer who would have looked after the supplies of beer and wine (the water was not safe to drink) conducting his business in the large open square of the main cloister. Here, too, would have taken place other activities: any dentistry; attention to minor wounds by the barber-surgeon (the red and white striped pole signifies blood and bandages); tonsure shaving; regular bleeding to balance the 4 humours of the body; some study and reflection and the financial dealings connected with the wealth arising from the 3000 sheep and 3 granges. Money was collected in buckets and the monks served generally as accountants and writers of contracts because they were literate. There was a vegetable garden here also.
   Time was measured at mid-day and from then on by water or candle clocks. There was no warmth except in the Warming House (a huge fire was lit on 31st October and extinguished on Good Friday regardless of the weather) where monks could pass through but not linger, and in the Infirmary, Parlour and Abbot's house. This was a silent order to prevent gossip as a distraction but conversation was allowed in the Parlour and speech permitted if a monk were learning from a superior.

The 3rd service began the day and all would come to the Chapter House to be given daily duties and small punishments. They would study lessons from the Bible and might be required to do some writing or D.I.Y. repairs. The library contained very few books by modern standards as they were all hand-written on vellum or parchment and the monastery's wealth was assessed by its holdings. Brother Thomas had an example for us to handle carefully. Windows were glazed and Sister Mary showed us some high-up remnants which she had devoted much time to finding. (If you can spot them you can have extra CAKE!)
Every stone was brought by river, unloaded at Tintern Quay and cut by hand. The only coloured glass was over the High Altar and we were shown where it had been with the arms of Roger Bigod who hoped to smooth his way to heaven.
The flooring would have been tiled and the masons were probably the same as those who built Chepstow Castle. We paused to look at the arrow-head marks which indicated individual mason's work and putlog holes which were - you've guessed it - where they put logs as joists.

   Food was consumed in 2 main meals: a breakfast and large mid-day lunch consisting of fish, cheese, eggs, bread and vegetables, a healthy diet which enabled many monks to live into old age. (I wickedly wondered if they sometimes poached a tasty mutton chop from one of those sheep.)  A light supper was allowed in case of illness but meat was otherwise considered to inflame unwanted passions. Cats and dogs as pets were forbidden but this rule was broken because of the need to keep down rodents and also because such animals afforded much-needed comfort in austerity. They were hidden away in a room when the Abbey was inspected as there was always warning of such a visit. Imagine the moment when they were all let out again!
   It was believed that illness was transmitted by impure air and there was a medicinal herb garden in the rear cloister near the Infirmary. In the later stages of the Abbey's history paying guests were admitted to be cared for and cured and the monks would also pray for their souls.

   Henry VIII dissolved the monastery as part of his huge programme of destruction: the monks did receive a pension and the Abbot a large allowance. The many lay brothers who did the agricultural labour were evicted and the building fell into ruin - to be much admired by Victorian seekers of the picturesque.
   I can thoroughly recommend this tour, particularly for its sense of immediacy: it happens almost every month and details are on the Cadw website. For my earlier post on Tintern Abbey, click here. There is a brief discussion of the Victorian notion of the picturesque. I have also written an account of Chepstow Castle with internal links to aspects of its history. Tintern is easy to reach by the hourly 69 bus from Monmouth through beautiful scenery: some of these conveniently become the 63 at Chepstow and take you on to Usk, where there is another fascinating castle and the burial church of Adam of Usk. CAKE is available in the nearby café at Tintern

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Adam of Usk: an unsung local hero - or was he?

   Whenever my microadventures take me abroad into England, I always try to find a Welsh connection to famous sites. Even when overawed by the Tower of London I still looked out for this link and was thrilled to realise that Adam of Usk had been here on a historic mission: to visit the imprisoned King Richard II. He also met with other kings as well as popes but is little recognised in his home town although he maintained ties with Usk and the surrounding area throughout his life. At one time he was the incumbent of St. Cybi's Church, Langibby, in Monmouthshire near Usk.

His reputation
   He is probably buried in St. Mary's Church, Usk but, if you want to pay homage - and I hope to convince you that he is worthy of it - you have to go down the right-hand aisle, pass behind the choir screen to the eastern side, clamber over a lectern cunningly placed as an obstacle and peer at a small brass plaque in ancient Welsh. To be fair, there is a leaflet which translates this in the words of a Mr. T.R.N. Edwards: "Bring praise to the grave of one noble in learning. A celebrated London lawyer and a 'Judge of the World' privileged in wit, may heaven be thine, a scholar. A Solomon of wisdom, a wonder. Here sleeps Adam of Usk, eloquent, wise man of ten commotes. Behold, this place is full of learning." Even then the Welsh were not renowned for the succinctness - and neither was he.
   Who's Who in Late Medieval England, in an uncharitable summary, notes his tendency to self-aggrandisement: he "was once silenced by a bishop for an untimely display of learning. Vain and boastful, he probably exaggerated the eminence of his friends, the quality of his advice, and his influence on decisions and events, for he revealed himself to be a man without tact, sense of timing, discretion or judgement." You'd meet him in any Welsh pub any evening - and enjoy his company!

His life
Usk Castle
   What did he actually do then? Born probably in 1352 in the Gatehouse of  Usk Castle, he wrote a Chronicle in Latin, though apparently not in the purest form of that language, and not in strictly chronological order, starting with the coronation of Richard II and closing during the reign of Henry V. The value lies chiefly in the fact that he was present at many of the important events he describes. When he visited Richard II, he records: "I was present while he dined and I marked his mood and bearing." He went to Oxford under the patronage of Edmund Mortimer, 3rd Earl of March, and took the degree of Doctor of Laws and canon law. He pleaded in the court of the archbishop, Thomas Arundel for 7 years and writes of the trial of his brother, Richard giving the detail of how he was made to remove his belt and scarlet hood before being led off to his beheading on Tower Hill.
    His opinion on the downfall of Richard II is that one cause was the unruly behaviour of his 400 Cheshire guards "very evil; in all places they oppressed his subjects unpunished and beat and robbed them." An account of the famous encounter between the Dukes of Hereford and Norfolk has again the ring of an eye-witness version as he notes the wet ditch surrounding the appointed place as well as the fact that Hereford "appeared far more gloriously distinguished with diverse equipments of seven horses." We read also: "the matter of setting aside King Richard and of choosing Henry, Duke of Lancaster, in his stead and how it was to be done ... was commissioned to be debated on by certain doctors, bishops and others of whom, I, who am now noting down these things, was one." Momentous - as any reader of Shakespeare will agree.
The mundane side
   There are stories of a more domestic nature such as that of King Richard's greyhound which lay at his side "with grim and lion-like face" until that owner fled whereupon it found its way from Carmarthen to Shrewsbury to Henry IV where it crouched before this new master "with a submissive but bright and pleased aspect" and was allowed to sleep on his bed. The deposed Richard took it "sorely to heart" when the dog then refused to acknowledge him. This tale is mentioned also by Froissart.
   My favourite narrative is that surrounding the death of John of Usk, Abbot of Chertsey, who, with 13 brother monks, died of the plague. A brother, William Burton roused him from sleep, bidding him to be of good cheer for he would do well. The abbot replied: "Blessed be God! I shall fare well. Be silent and hearken!" The monk said: "Unto what shall I hearken?" I love his questioning mind as it is just what I would have asked. It seems he was supposed to hear angels singing but was unworthy and failed.
 His troubles
   Adam seems to have fallen from grace - probably for the theft of "A horse, colour black, saddle and bridle, value one hundred shillings, together with the sum of fourteen marks in cash, all the property of one Walter Jakes." In addition, he had unwisely been remonstrating with Henry IV on the faults of his government and vanished to Rome where he was well received by the Pope and given positions. He was deeply involved with the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr and writes about it - there are other elements of roughness in his life such as his presence in Oxford broils leading to loss of life between men of the South and Wales on the one hand and men of the North on the other. For this he was indicted "as the chief leader and abettor of the Welsh, and perhaps not unrighteously." There is much to like in this honest summary. On his return from Rome, he was again in trouble and had to go into hiding. He was prone to dreams and visions which were always notably apt and he seems to have been of a superstitious nature. The Chronicle ends on an anxious note concerning the rebellious attitude of the people over the taxation imposed by Henry V because of his French wars.
His Will
   He probably died in 1430 and had requested to be buried in Usk Church, though no-one knows exactly where.

Amongst other bequests, he left the Historia Policronica of Ralph Higden to his kinsman, Edward ap Adam and another book of theological wisdom to the church in Usk, the vicar receiving a legacy worth a few pounds in modern money. Some of the nuns of Usk Priory were related to him and they all received about half that: he had secured for them important concessions from the Pope in his lifetime. His main gift is the Chronicle of events from 1377 to 1421, with its vivid, if somewhat disorganised, sense of immediacy and personal involvement. It is available in a scanned edition plus translation by Edward Maunde Thompson which is admittedly quite hard to follow, originated by the Royal Society of Literature.

I fear I may have absorbed by osmosis some of his garrulousness and lack of cohesion here but I have become intrigued by him and will pursue my research further and let you know what I find. I'd like him to become better known although much what we believe of his life is speculation.

To read about the planting of Usk town by the Normans, click here. There are 3 posts about Owain Glyndwr, you could start with this one.  Usk Castle is also of great historic interest. My visit to the Tower of London led me to write about the menagerie that was once part of its identity. For more about Llangybi, click here.


Monday, 19 June 2017

Kenilworth Castle: a huge stunning ruin

Kenilworth Castle is ruinous and stunning to visit: it challenges the imagination to recreate it as it was and overwhelms you with its grandeur. Firstly you have to see it in your mind's eye as encompassed by a massive 111 acre artificial sheet of water, exceeding that of Caerphilly and vastly bigger than that at Bodiam. Then you can envisage it when it was refashioned by John of Gaunt and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. You can add mentally - if you are sufficiently gifted - the masques and revelry that the latter, a side-kick of Queen Elizabeth I, (literally as they did many dangerously jaunty dances together) organised in her honour.
   Warwickshire is not rich in castles as is the Marches area of Wales but Kenilworth is a star. On a windy sunny day it is unforgettable. Plus, walking round it leaves you hungry for CAKE, always a good thing.

Early history
   Between 1122 and 1129, Geoffrey de Clinton built a castle here, probably a motte and bailey structure where the present inner ward is now. The mighty keep, called Clinton's tower, is later and its impressiveness as a Norman structure is affected by the enlarging of its windows by Dudley. The kings Henry II, John and Henry III (he was probably the one who added the lake) spent vast sums in making the castle a strong fortress with 5 mural towers: Mortimer's; the Water Tower; the Warden's Tower; the Swan Tower and Lunn's Tower. John of Gaunt's Great Hall was the architectural masterpiece of the castle and was the only part that Dudley left unaltered 200 years later, presumably because it suited the grand and powerful image he wished to project.

2 exciting stories
   When Henry III had finished making the castle virtually impregnable, he unwisely gave it to Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Eleanor in 1254. Ten years later, de Montfort headed the opposition of the barons even though he was a previously unpopular foreigner. He became almost the ruler and held the king's brother, Richard, captive in the castle. Prince Edward escaped, marched his forces back overnight and, because he had reliable intelligence, fell upon the younger Simon de Montfort and his superior troops as they were camping, exhausted and without posting sentinels or sending out scouts. Simon the younger swam the lake in his night shirt to enter the castle. In 1266 the royalists besieged the castle - it was extremely violent, using the latest technology - and finally succeeded in agreeing the Dictum of Kenilworth and the castle was once again royal.
   The Tudors are now a much worked-over family and we all know that Dudley was a "favourite" of Queen Elizabeth who gave him Kenilworth, one of her many indiscretions with this dashing, ostentatious beau. He lavished her bounty on the castle, demilitarising it and building Leicester's Gate-house, which is more of a house over a gate than the usual fortifying structure. He added Leicester's Building and entertained the queen on several occasions, the most noteworthy being a 19-day revelry in 1575 which cost Leicester £1000 a day in maintenance to say nothing of the incredible sum of £100,000 in entertainments which included masques, plays, tilting, sports, Morris Dancing, ceremonies and pageantry. Elizabeth was greeted by the Lady of the Lake, Mars, Apollo, Neptune and Bacchus and later enjoyed (we hope) fireworks, tumblers, Latin orations, bear-baiting and a laugh-a-minute drama about the massacre of the Danes. She never came back here.  You can read an imaginative recreation of all this in Sir Walter Scott's novel, Kenilworth. 

The present
   What you see and ramble round is a ruin which had begun to decline before it was slighted in the Civil War. The castle and manor were given to Colonel Hawkesworth and other officers who "pulled down and demolished the castle, cut down the king's woods, destroyed his park, and divided the land into farms for themselves." The lake was drained at this time by cutting the dam. Our pile is not a monument to democracy although it it represents one of the early stages in our slow progress towards that system.  You can also see John of Gaunt's hall and chamber block and have tea and CAKE in the lovely café in the stable block. There is a path to what was Henry V's Pleasaunce (private pavilion) and a Tudor garden.

I visited Kenilworth the day after Warwick Castle and much preferred the ruin. The staff are particularly friendly, it is not in any way commercialised and there were groups of well-behaved school children with clip-boards and learned faces. There is a bus connecting the 2 and so both come under my heading of History on the Buses - although Monmouthshire has many more castles. Tee hee!

I have written about Caerphilly Castle and its great lake as well as Bodiam set in its ravishing waters. There is also a post about nearby Warwick Castle. To read about medieval siege engines click here. For opening hours of Kenilworth, click here.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pembroke Castle - moody and magnificent

   Pembroke Castle stands proud on the tip of a rocky limestone headland at the end of a town between 2 arms of the Pembroke river. The castle has always been more heavily fortified on the landward side - for obvious reasons. The site has been occupied for the past 12,000 years, although not continuously. In a cavern underneath the castle, called The Wogan, have been found stone tools left by Palaeolithic inhabitants and Roman coins. It might also have been an Iron Age fort and there have been suggestions that, in pre-Norman times, there may have been a palace or llys of a Welsh nobleman since the Normans went straight to it as if it were an existing stronghold. My camera chose to turn to sepia as I photographed the castle from the river but this only underlines its foreboding and unyielding aura.

The Normans soon turned their attention to Wales after 1066 and created a system of Marcher lords who had unilateral powers to aid them in subduing the unruly natives. Roger de Montgomery, cousin of William I, provided 60 ships for the invasion and was rewarded with the earldom of Shrewsbury in 1071. He headed to Pembroke after the death of King Rhys ap Tewdwr and founded an earthwork and timber fortification which did not have a motte. The defeat of his son, Arnulf, caused the castle to fall to Henry I.
   He appointed Gerald de Windsor as sheriff and encouraged him to marry his own discarded mistress, Princess Nest: she was the beautiful and intelligent daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr and this marriage symbolised the attempt at unification. Nest was also quite a gal and went on to have numerous affairs and offspring.
   The county of Pembroke acquired Palatine status which gave it independence and the ability to make important decisions quickly. Of the de Clares who held the castle, the most famous is Richard "Strongbow" who also founded Usk town in his spare time. He successfully invaded Ireland from Pembroke and declared himself Lord of Leinster and Governor of Ireland. The castle's fortunes were greatly improved in 1189 when his daughter and heir, Isabella, married the renowned ideal knight, William Marshal, who, as soon as he had full control, started the rebuilding in stone, beginning with the huge cylindrical keep which may be the largest in Britain. This popular family was succeeded by the hated William de Valence who, though cruel, boastful and arrogant, continued the transformation of the castle into stone as did his son, Aymer.

Later the castle declined until a temporary reprieve by Jasper Tudor, whose nephew, the future King Henry VII was born here in 1457 to the young teenager Margaret Beaufort. Anne Boleyn was Marchioness for a brief period. The next excitement was the Civil War in which Pembroke was Parliamentarian, unlike the rest of Wales. Its mayor, John Poyer, strengthened the castle but changed sides along with disaffected soldiers who had not been paid and declared for the king. Oliver Cromwell arrived around 24th May, 1648 with 6000 troops and besieged the castle, also burning nearby houses, cutting off the water supply and offering safe conduct to the garrison. He commented: "The fire runs up the town still: it frights them." After 2 months the castle surrendered to the threat of heavy guns and Poyer was unlucky in the drawing of lots for execution, being shot in Covent Garden in 1649. The castle was then slighted as was the custom so that it could no longer act as a fortress. It had never fallen to the Welsh, not even to Owain Glyn Dwr.  Only restoration in the 19th and 20th centuries by J.R. Cobb and the family who still own it, the Philipps, makes it the attraction it is today.

Your Visit
  You enter via the restored barbican and are soon on the vast outer ward or enclosure over which loom the many towers and the massive keep which dominates the inner ward. A regular guided tour leads you throughout, up and down, but I am less than intrepid in my senior years and I stayed on the grass. There was a knight school for children who were dressed up and happily pretending to ride horses and give battle, accompanied by thrilling war-whoops, when I was there. There is every sense of trying to attract visitors, particularly the young, but it is done in a pleasantly uncommercialised fashion and, if they can enthuse modern kids with a love of castles, I am only too pleased.
  No-one would claim that the castle has charm: it is a bastion of past French imperialism and uncompromising in its severity. So too, unfortunately, was the choice of CAKE in the agreeably situated cafe but I settled for small Welsh cakes and my waistline is the better for it.

I travelled by bus and rail, changing to a small train at Swansea which stopped every few minutes at tiny stations. Pembrokeshire seems to belong to another calmer, slower era - and don't expect too much of the sandwiches either: my plumping for smoked salmon with Philly was gradually transmuted into chicken and cranberries but it was freshly and willingly made.
   For opening times click here. I have written about William Marshal as lord of Chepstow on this blog as well as Owain Glyn Dwr. There is an article about the founding of Usk Town and another on the creation and history of the Marcher Lords. Enjoy!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Gloucester Cathedral - ancient and magnificent

   Gloucester Cathedral soars magnificently into the heavens and is perfectly proportioned to my eyes. It is one of 5 cathedrals founded by Henry VIII from some of the monastic churches that he had disendowed. Before that rebirth in 1541, it had a long history dating from its ancestor, a religious house dedicated to St. Peter. This owed its inception in 678-9 to King Ethelred of Mercia who assigned to Osric, a prince in the province of Hwicce, an area of land for the purpose. Benedictine monks were installed there in the early 11th century by Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester but nothing remains of this Anglo-Saxon monastery, in which the men slept, worked, ate and died, being buried in the cemetery in the South East of the church. Pilgrims were admitted for devotions which included kneeling at the tomb of King Edward II.
   The Norman period.
   In 1072, when there were only 2 monks and 8 novices, William the Conqueror appointed a Norman monk as Abbot of Gloucester. His name was Serlo and I imagine him as sturdy, inspiring and not a little bossy as he was responsible for invigorating and expanding the community as well as organising the building of the eastern part starting in 1089 with the nave, the crypt, its apse, its encircling ambulatory, its chapels and the choir above it. This section was dedicated on 15th July, 1100. Then he organised the building for the monks before dying in 1104. There was a serious fire in 1122 but the work on the nave was completed in about 1160. Further additions were made but the body of the building is largely Norman and its plan is excellent for allowing circulation between its various parts.
    Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and this one was changed into a house of secular clergy who lived as ordinary priests, not as monks. The old Latin services were replaced with the English Prayer book which meant that worshippers could understand what was happening - and I sometimes wonder if the minor clergy were not similarly aided in comprehension.
   The nave has pillars 30 ft 7 inches high to the eye but are even taller since the present pavement was raised in 1740 by several inches. The glass is mostly modern. The South Transept is reputedly the birthplace of Perpendicular architecture as, in about 1330,  the Gloucester builders placed straight up-and-down tracery over the old Norman work. The tower rises above the choir to the height of 225 feet.
The East window, assembled during the 1350's, has the largest area of any cathedral window in Britain and was in essence a war memorial commemorating the deeds of barons at Crécy (1346) and Calais (1347). It is not flat but has bayed wings.

The Cloister is famous for the fan vaulting on its walls and this is where the monks worked, taught, walked and meditated. Unusually it lies to the North and so these men had a cold time of it. There is a lavatorium or washing place and there were 20 carrels or study closets along the walls. (I was interested to find this lovely word still in use in libraries in the U.S.A.) The chapels are fascinating also and the large bell, Great Peter, is the only Medieval Bourdon bell remaining in England and weighs in at a hefty 59 cwt plus, ringing out over the city marking the daylight hours.
The Effigies. I am always on the look-out for the Welsh connection when I go abroad and sought out the tomb of the eldest son of William the Conqueror, Robert Curthose, made from Irish bog oak a century after his death in Cardiff Castle in 1134, where he had been imprisoned by his younger brother, Henry I. More magnificent is the tomb of Edward II who was brutally murdered in Berkeley Castle in September 1327, but the reasons and the supposed method are not mentioned in any of the discreet guide-books I have read. The effigy is made of alabaster and rests on a tomb chest of oolitic limestone clad in Purbeck marble.

Of the many famous people and events connected with the cathedral, I warm to the story of the hasty coronation in 1216 of the boy King Henry III using, according to legend, his mother's bracelet.

After this I enjoyed my CAKE in the café garden and then I wandered outside, gazing again at the tower, realising that part of its stunning effect derives from the presence of smaller towers around it, imitating its proportions. The doorway is splendid.

With a couple of hours to spare before my train to Newport to take me home on a Monmouthshire bus, I had a look at the city and was underwhelmed to find it largely a chain-store shopping mall. Hoping that Gloucester Quays might be more atmospheric I took a bus down there to find another soulless mall dedicated to designer outlet retail therapy. I can be a keen devotee of purchase power and snapped up a bargain but it does seem a great pity that our cities and towns are now so much alike and lack any individuality or connection with their richly textured history. Sad.

I am indebted to 3 guides for my research: one written by the then Dean, Dr. Henry Gee who died in 1938; the Pitkin Guide and one by David Verey and David Welander. Opening hours and other information may be checked by clicking here and my articles on Cardiff Castle and Berkeley Castle might be of interest to you also. I do hope so. All readers are allowed a large piece of CAKE after a visit either to a historic site or to my blog!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Warwick Castle: imposing with a long history

Warwick Castle has a dominating position on a cliff which has been eroded by the Avon: Sir Walter Scott, who saw it before the fire of 1871, described it as the "fairest monument of ancient and chivalrous splendour which remains uninjured by time." In fact, during its long history it has been extensively remodelled, fallen into disrepair and been renovated again and again: time and man have injured it and so - metaphorically - have the present owners who allow a burger tent in the bailey and loud music to distract from the grandeur.
  When I first entered, I was struck by something odd in its proportions and attributed this to the delicate fairy-tale buildings on top of the motte but later discovered another reason during the excellent guided tour. Read on!

Motte, bailey and towers.
    The mound you see is called Ethelfleda's motte after the doughty daughter of Alfred the Great, who founded a burh here in 916 to help defend Mercia from the attacking Danes, but it is Norman, not Anglo-Saxon. She was aided by a legendary Saxon earl named Guy who resolutely fought dragons and rescued distressed maidens and then married the daughter of Rohand, the first true Earl of Warwick.
   In 1068 William the Conqueror made Henry de Newburgh an earl and he enlarged the mound and constructed a Norman motte and bailey fortification which was later rebuilt in stone to replace the timber. The open space is now dominated by Caesar's Tower (also called Poitiers Tower) and Guy's Tower (probably not after the monster-slayer, unfortunately), the work of the Beauchamps, father and son, both called Thomas.  Caesar's Tower has an oubliette (thrillingly horrible thought!), the walls of Guy's are 10 feet thick and they are masterpieces of 14th century military architecture. Both were probably inspired by French models and are machicolated. Other towers, Bear and Clarence, each with its own well and ovens, were instigated by Richard III and unfinished at his death in 1485.

The State Rooms
    Warwick Castle has several splendidly huge chambers including the The State Dining Room, The Great Hall, (62 x 45 ft and 40 feet high)  The Red Drawing Room, The Cedar Drawing Room, The Green Drawing Room and others. There are paintings in most of these by famous artists such as Raphael, Van Dyck, Rubens and the castle is worth visiting for these alone. The armour in The Great Hall is considered by some to be second only to that in the Tower of London and includes a touchingly small suit said to have been made for "the Noble Impe", the young son of Robert Dudley, who died in early childhood. Here you can also goggle at "Guy's Porage Pot", made in the 14th century as a garrison cooking utensil, apparently holding 136 gallons which is reputed to have been refilled 4 times with punch at a coming-of-age party. There is also a massive Beauvais tapestry showing Marlborough's army on the march and the famous picture of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes. In the Cedar Room is a fireplace made by the Adam brothers in Carrara marble with the symbols of life and death, the egg and the arrow, as well as an Aubusson carpet with the Warwick bear and staff in each corner and the Greville swan on the centre edge. I normally prefer the exterior of a castle to sumptuous domestic rooms but there is no burger tent in here and I found the waxworks, which might have been naff, quite appealing.

Other famous connections
   Piers Gaveston, as we all learned in school, was the "favourite" of King Edward II and my shy history teacher never explained what that might have meant - I am also of modest disposition and will not illuminate the matter further. He flaunted himself and grew in power, was exiled but returned, until his presence became unsupportable: he nicknamed Guy, Earl of Warwick "the Black Hound of Arden" but Guy retorted that "one day the hound will bite him." Gaveston was tried in The Great Hall for stealing royal treasure by a committee of the Barons, was sentenced to death and beheaded by 2 Welshmen on 19th June 1312 on nearby Blacklow Hill. 
   I also emerged from my "O" level (shows how old I am!) history course having heard of Warwick the Kingmaker (22 November 1428 - 14th April 1471) but was unsure why he was so-called. Shakespeare said that  Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, was "the proud setter up and puller down of kings" and he was a powerful leader in the Wars of the Roses, originally Yorkist but then switching to the Lancastrian side.  He was by far the richest nobleman of the 1460's with a splendid household, retinue, fleet of ships and train of artillery. Thwarting the Duke of York's usurpation in 1460, he engineered the accession of Edward IV the following year and, falling out of favour, later restored Henry VI to the throne. 
   "Capability" Brown was employed in 1753 to beautify the courtyard and may have also helped landscape the gardens. I now regard him as a castle vandal since he destroyed ancient walls and Medieval buildings in the bailey at Cardiff Castle and here he did something even odder, as our guide explained. Thinking that the walls and towers were unduly looming and forbidding (that is the purpose of such items in my opinion) he was told that the cost of remodelling them was prohibitive and so he had the ground level raised ten feet. This was an immense undertaking and is the reason why the courtyard looks slightly disproportionate and why some of the windows (to the left of the entrance to the State Rooms) are half basement. 

My Trip Advisor Hat
    Take the family and enjoy all the attractions but please do NOT patronise the burger tent and encourage further monstrosities. Listen to one of the excellent history team on a tour and engage with all the fun things outside such as the Horrible Histories Maze, the Birds of Prey Arena and Mews, the peacocks, the Mighty Trebuchet (largest working model in the world) and The Castle Dungeon. There is plenty to do and I quite see why the owners need to attract visitors to pay for the ongoing building works but wish they would keep any modernity outside the walls. That's all - and toot if you agree. Then visit nearby Kenilworth, ruined, wild and magnificent. I shall write about that soon. Yes - you are right in thinking I didn't do all this on Monmouthshire buses but I managed on public transport which is the main thing! Yet my New Year's resolution is never to go through huge Birmingham New Street Station again although I loved little old Moor Street Station.
For opening times etc click here. For my article on Cardiff Castle click here. Another early fort founded on instructions of William the Conqueror is Chepstow Castle which is possibly even more forbidding but then, it was built to deal with the Welsh!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Tower of London: the Menagerie

  This granddaddy of all keeps is instantly recognisable and the history of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London is comparatively well known and much repeated. As it is the first of the castles built by William after the Norman conquest and founded towards the end of 1066 (with the White Tower, which gives the site its name, being constructed in 1078) I could hardly ignore it in a blog largely about castles and Roman remains. I was wary of visiting, fearing the crowds, although I had joined them for the stunning and moving poppy creation in the moat to commemorate WWI - and dead and wounded soldiers of all times.
  However, I went early, as soon as it opened one July morning, and had the place virtually to myself for a while. I was suitably impressed.
The Menagerie
   I did all the enjoyable touristy things, goggling at Henry VIII's armour (just TOO much for first thing of the day!) and wondering why I do not particularly like gold and jewels (that's perhaps the reason I have never married a royal). Then I recalled afterwards that, near where one enters was perhaps the place where a variety of exotic animals was once kept. I thought a few stories about that would be less dog-eared (pun intended.) Nothing now remains of the Lion Tower, constructed by the Leopard Prince, when Edward I, but no CAKE prizes for guessing why it was so called, although we do not know exactly where the animals were housed. A small area here was excavated in 1999 but only domestic animal bones were found, some with (shiver) "gnaw damage". The wild creatures must have been buried elsewhere.

 Two famous animals
   We could guess that one of the earliest inhabitants, a pale or white bear, (probably a polar bear) was kept quite near the river because this gift from King Hakon IV of Norway to King Henry III in 1252 foraged for its own food. The cost of 4 sous a day (i.e. twopence) for feeding the animal for its first year had been felt by the Sheriffs of the City of London to be too great and so the people of the city were told by the king (safely in Windsor) to buy "one muzzle and one iron chain to hold that bear without [outside] the water, one long strong cord, to hold the same bear fishing or washing himself in the Thames." His keeper was also given a thick wrap to wear when he accompanied the fortunate creature to feast on the "far and sweet salmons" later recorded by Holinshed.
    Another later cost was for wine for the elephant which arrived in 1623 for King James as a gift from the Spanish king. Its keepers claimed that, between September and April, the animal would drink nothing but wine, a gallon a day, to protect it from the cold in a foreign land. When it keeled over and died there was speculation that it had not been given enough - but its maintenance would have cost over £275 a year apart from that amount of its regular and abundant tipple.

Stray facts
   During the more than 600 years of its existence, the Tower housed a huge variety of animals in a haphazard and unsystematic fashion, nothing like a modern scientific zoo. The list cannot be complete but there were also: leopards, tigers, panthers, hyenas, wolves, racoons, jackals, a lynx, camels, brown bears (used in baiting), a grizzly called Old Martin, eagles, a porcupine, owls, a rhino and an antelope. The monkey room is of special interest since, for a brief time, visitors were allowed in to wander about despite the damage they suffered from the inhabitants who could pull off their wigs or bite them. It is good to think that, in this case, humans amused animals. Some individual creatures were regarded with great public affection - as they are occasionally today.
   The popularity of the Menagerie as a tourist attraction waxed and waned but there were periods when it was on most people's bucket list: they could either pay the admission cost or offer the family pet. I will spare my sensitive readers the reason for this and prefer the story of the lion which, encountering a spaniel dog in a baiting session, "cherished it, and contracted such a fondness for it, that he would never suffer it to be taken out again, but fed it at his table till he died, which was not till several years after."
  Geoffrey Chaucer - yes, that one - was Clerk of the King's Works for a couple of years and would have had responsibility for the upkeep of buildings connected with the animals.
  The creatures were threatened and terrified by the approach of the Great Fire: Pepys who watched the flames with tears in his eyes had taken the Crewes children to see the lions in 1662: they were so entertained that he described them as being "as pretty and the best behaved that ever I saw of their age." Or did they wonder what would happen to them if they misbehaved?
   For nearly 75 years from 1698 an April Fool hoax was perpetrated: rumours and sometimes posh tickets were issued for the annual ceremony of Washing the Lions. People paid to be taken out in boats for a good view - and to be splashed by the merry oarsmen. That spaghetti harvest has a long tradition.

    The fascinating book from which I have taken most of this information, The Tower Menagerie by Daniel Hahn, documents changing attitudes towards animals over the centuries, from the untutored belief that ostriches could digest iron, to curiosity coupled with an extreme and nauseating cruelty, to a more knowledgeable and enlightened approach. I sometimes think we have swung too far and view them anthropomorphically or value them for their perceived cuteness but that is so much better than the horrors or neglect inflicted on them in earlier eras.

Do visit the Tower when you are in London: go early and afterwards walk along the bank of the Thames to see if you can glimpse the pale ghost of that salmon-eating polar bear idling in the sun or swimming in the water. Do NOT frighten those ravens! You can, of course, get to the capital by bus - I use National Express from Newport and travel in inexpensive luxury, saving my money for CAKE - as always! For opening times click here. To read about another early castle, founded at Chepstow by William FitzOsbern, close ally of the Conqueror, click here.