Sunday, 7 January 2018

Davy Gam: hero or traitor?

If the name Davy Gam seems vaguely familiar to you, it may be because you actually concentrated during the part of Shakespeare's Henry V where the king reads out the names of those killed in the battle of Agincourt (more correctly Azincourt.) After a list of French noblemen with dashing Gallic titles, he turns to a second paper, handed to him by the herald, and notes the deaths of 4 men, the last of whom is Davy Gam, esquire. To the monarch, he is amongst those "of name", meaning that the rest were squaddies, a mere "five and twenty" of them. Perhaps this seems a little snobby for a king who, before the battle, when egging them on, claimed that they were all a "band of brothers" - but even then he was aware that this group included each of the men, "be he ne'er so vile." (Hal, as prince, frequented the ale houses but dropped his drinking mates as soon as he donned the crown). Yet he did go around, in disguise, chatting to the ordinary soldiers the night before. Davy Gam was clearly an aristocrat and, interestingly in this literary connection, some believe him to be the model for Fluellen, the slightly comic but knowledgeable military supporter of the king, who praises him and claims common kinship as a Welshman.  He has read all about the glorious battles of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, Henry's great-uncle.

Who was he - and why do we want to know?
In case you thought you were getting off lightly pronunciation-wise, part of his full name was Sir Dafydd ap Llewelyn ap Hywel and he lived from approximately 1380 to 25th October 1415. "Gam" is one of those merry Medieval nick-names which draws attention to some physical flaw such as short legs (Curt-hose) and probably means that he was lame. We still have the expression "gammy leg." Rather mysteriously the Dictionary of Welsh Biography thinks it means that he squinted or had only one eye but I find it difficult to fathom how he managed to be a successful warrior with that defect.

  He was a prominent opponent of Owain Glyn Dwr and a supporter of the English king, which made him a traitor from the Welsh point of view. Bearing in mind the destruction that Glyn Dwr's rebellion caused in Wales, it is easy to see why some men were hostile to him. Dafydd could add to the pedigree already mentioned "Fychan ap Hywel ap Einion Sais" but probably told people "just call me Gam." His background locates him round Llanover in Monmouthshire and Pen Pont near Brecon.  Some think he was previously in service to John of Gaunt and had to leave Wales after killing a rival in Brecon High Street. Rumour also places him in Hen Gwrt, near White Castle.

Hen Cwrt
Dafydd Gam was previously paid annually 40 marks (a large sum) by the royal estate and the family's loyalty to the king caused their lands near Brecon to be attacked by the rebels. Another local point of interest is that he was named, by the Scottish Chronicler Walter Bower, as the leader in the critical and crushing defeat of Glyn Dwr's men at the battle of Pwll Melyn near Usk. His local knowledge may have helped the English victory and attracted Welshman to his cause. When captured in 1412 he was quickly ransomed for somewhere between 200 to 700 marks, a large sum indicating the regard in which he was held. He had made a forced promise to Glyn Dwr never to oppose him but, on release, he told King Henry where the rebel was and attacked him, suffering reprisals such as the burning of his house. Another less likely story is that he attacked Glyn Dwr's parliament in Machynlleth in 1404.

  He probably fought with Henry V prior to the French battles but certainly served with three-foot archers (that disposes of the squint theory in my opinion) in the Agincourt campaign. Several chroniclers noted his death in that encounter but no-one agrees as to whether he was knighted then or posthumously. There is a legend that he saved the king's life during the counter-charge of the Duke of Alencon (whose name appears on Shakespeare's death roll of the French) when Henry was fighting hand-to- hand with him. The Frenchman lopped an ornament from Henry's crown with his sword and Dafydd led a group of Welsh knights to intervene. Some believe he killed the Duke before being killed himself.
  In the 19th century George Borrow wrote of him: "he achieved that glory which will for ever bloom, dying, covered in wounds, on the field of Agincourt after saving the life of the king, to whom in the dreadest and most critical moment of the fight, he stuck closer than a brother." Borrow also quotes descriptions of him, supposedly included in satirical englyn (you don't want to know, really you don't) written by Glyn Dwr: "he was small in stature and deformed in person. though possessed of great strength. He was very sensitive of injury, though quite as alive to kindness, a thorough-going enemy and a thorough-going friend." There is a stained glass window commemorating him in the church at Llantillio Crossenny, where the Latin inscription calls him a golden-haired knight. He is also a chief character in the novel Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys.

If you DO want to know about englyn (and you have only yourself to blame for asking), here is the Wikipedia definition: "... it uses quantative metres, involving the counting of syllables, and rigid patterns of rhyme and half rhyme. Each line contains a repeating pattern of consonants and accent known as cynghanedd." That clarifies that, then. Oh yes - and the plural is "englynion".

My thanks to Wikipedia for much of this information and two of the images.
Hen Gwrt is now a small moated ruin and very atmospheric, quite near the equally charismatic White Castle, one of the Three Castles in the area. Grrr  - you do need a car to get to both but there is excellent walking nearby to earn you your CAKE. You can, however, visit the site of the crucial battle of Pwll Melyn by travelling to Usk by bus and walking up past the castle which you can look at en route.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas Poem

I hoped you would like to read a poem about a modern but traditional Christmas that I wrote some years ago before starting my history blog.

But once a year ...

 ... it comes, with spiced breath, lugging golden bags
of secret foraging from High Street stores
with packaged cubes of gift wrap, glitzy tags;

tucks berried sprigs on pictures, over doors,
gilds cards with instant merriment, then makes
a forest emblem, shimmer-lit. It draws

snow scenes on windows, sprinkles icing flakes
of sugar on mince pies, shortbread and calls
a warning to the children still awake.

Throughout this night a frosted silence falls,
the shambling magic beast has done its trick
again. The waiting time is here and all

the sleepers are the same as minutes tick
toward the dawning of coincidence:
the morning walk in new scarves; kisses; quick

large slurps of sherry; crackers; grand entrance
of turkey to red faces, paper hats
and hopeful dogs. We join the the pretence

that goodwill in the pudding feeds us fat
enough to lose a careless bit each day
until December - when the pit-a-pat

of Christmas padding comes once more to play
The wind is cold, next year is far away ...
the creature's begging. Why not let it stay?

If you enjoyed this terza rima verse, you might like some of my other poems on my website Formal Poetry and other idiosyncrasies. The topics range from love, poems about gardens to science and gender relationships. They all rhyme and many are humorous. For my account of a Medieval Christmas (in prose!) click here. Have a good time, everyone, many thanks for reading my work - back to castles, CAKE and Roman remains in the New Year.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Medieval Christmas - would you have enjoyed it?

Food and drink
   As you look forward to a giant nosh on 25th December, you will recollect that at least 2 popular items were unavailable in the Middle Ages. Potatoes and turkeys were late-comers to these islands and the birds have been regretting their arrival ever since. What DID they eat in the great mansions and castles?
   On Christmas Day 1347 at Hunstanton in Norfolk, Sir Hamon le Strange and his household consumed bread, 2 gallons of wine (12d), 1 big pig for the larder (4s), 1 small pig (6d), a swan which was a gift from Lord Camoys, 2 hens given as rent and 8 rabbits of which 2 were gifts. If this does not seem much - read on.
   The bread for the lord in any important dwelling would probably have been made with white flour, so precious that it was sometimes stored in a locked chest and the lower orders consumed brown rye bread. All roasted poultry and animals demanded specific ways of carving: a mallard was "unbraced"; a heron "dismembered"; a coney "unlaced" and a hen "spoiled." This delicate work was done by rushlight. Other ingredients might be venison, fawn, kid, bustard, stork, crane, peacock, sparrow, baked quinces, damsons in wine, and a range of vegetables used in sauces rather than served independently. The wine could be Rhenish, Gascon or Spanish and Sir Hamon seems almost teetotal when we recall that Chaucer was allowed a gallon every normal day. No wonder The Canterbury Tales rip along and were never finished!

   William of Malmesbury relates how, on a Christmas night, 12 carollers (holding hands in a circle and skipping around the leader who sang) danced around a church and persuaded the priest's daughter to join them. He uttered a curse so that their hands became inseparably joined and, when the son ran out to save his sister, her arm broke off like a rotten stick. Better keep to Scrabble, say I.

   Yet there would have been music, dancing and performances of "disguising games" - in these plays, the emphasis was on roles exemplified by masks rather than words and scripts. Heroes were pitted against evils such as legendary giants. Edward III was so enthusiastic about these that, for Christmas 1338, he ordered 86 plain masks, 14 with long beards, 15 baboons' heads of linen, 12 ells of canvas to make a forest, a wooden pillory and a cucking [sic] stool. In 1347 he required similar but with some masks as women, angels, dragons' heads, pheasant heads and wings, swan's heads plus starry tunics, whilst, in 1348, he took part in such a mumming himself, dressed as a giant bird. We are going to try all this ourselves this year instead of charades - I have bagsied the role of huge avian.

Role reversal etc

  In the spirit of satire and merriment, household roles would be upturned so that a menial servant could become the lord and give orders to the higher ranks. This period of misrule lasted until January 6th, Twelfth Night. It is an entertaining idea and was no doubt hilarious in enactment, but it represents a serious belief in The Wheel of Fortune. All humans were attached to this wheel, spun by the blindfolded goddess and no-one could be sure of holding his or her position on it as it rotated: the fate of any one individual did not depend on virtue but on chance. The concept permeates King Lear although the play most representative of the traditions is, of course, Twelfth Night, which was first performed at the end of an elongated Christmas period on 2 February 1602 (Candlemas) and whose subtitle is What You Will, suggesting misrule. In it Sir Toby Belch and his cronies (mere guests) upset the order of Olivia's household - love and cross-dressing overturn everything else, including gender roles. The riotous habits of the aptly surnamed Sir Toby were stressed along with musical interludes whilst Malvolio, embodying austerity, is humiliated. Sir Toby's language probably contains obscene slang.
   It is likely that this period, from Christmas to Epiphany, seemed particularly dreary, rainy and frost-bound and so was transformed into a long holiday. Services required of villeins were suspended and manorial servants received their "perquisites", bonuses of food, clothing, drink and firewood, their traditional seasonal due. On Christmas Eve the Yule log, a massive section of tree trunk, was brought in and kept burning for 12 days. If the tenants were invited, they ate food mostly provided by themselves on their own dishes. (Does this explain how Sir Hamon managed to be relatively miserly?) A bean was hidden in a CAKE or loaf and the finder became king of the feast.
  If all this makes our dash to the supermarket seem a little soulless, remember that, in 1251, Matthew Paris complained that Henry III not only economised on Christmas expenses but demanded costly gifts from his subjects, staying in more lowly households which had to honour him with splendid entertainments and gold or silver cups or jewelled necklaces. I think I'll settle for the family crackers and quiz after all.

My personal memory of Christmas past
 After midday dinner all my relatives would arrive by taxi as no-one had cars and we settled down to gambling at unsophisticated card games and a well-worn horse-betting set-up called Backeroo. Tea consisted of cold chicken sandwiches and trifle: even during post-WWII rationing, my mother managed these (although obtaining lard was problematic). What I remember, apart from losing my pennies - this was not a child-centred epoch - is the horrid, sticky nature of the cards which developed little black greasy circles through over-use because of the paper shortage. Even now I marvel that you can buy lovely glossy playing cards so cheaply and actually enjoy handling them. (When she was plucking and dressing the fowl, my mother gave the infant me a claw to play with and I would pull the tendons to make it clench and relax. I have grown up to be quite unsqueamish and averse to gambling.)

You can read about entertainment provided by Roland le Pettour in the household of Henry II or search using the appropriate button on this blog for information on several great houses and castles in Monmouthshire and beyond. 2018 could be the time to follow me on Twitter (New Year resolution?) @BarbaraDaniels6. There is an intimidating list of books I have consulted on the right of each article but here I am especially indebted to Ian Mortimer and Joseph and Frances Gies.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan

Llewelyn ap Gruffyth Fychan (easy for you to say!) is not to be confused with anyone called merely Llewelyn ap Gruffydd or the man called Gruffyth ap Llewelyn. If that makes you feel like a cup of tea and slice of CAKE, please go and indulge before reading on but bear in mind that "ap" in Welsh is a patronymic and tells you the name of the father of the person. Over time is has become reduced to a "p" and appears at the beginning of surnames like "Probert", son of Robert, or "Pugh", son of Huw (clearly the speakers were too out of breath climbing mountains to pronounce their h's.)  As you eat your CAKE you will think of others: Powell etc. Yet do not practise the initial "ll" sound simultaneously with your chocolate sponge - save that till later (the CAKE or the practice). Then put the tip of your tongue up against the hard palate behind your two top front teeth and say "ff" and you will make that genuine clicky sound that the Welsh have used for years to terrorise the English. Shakespeare got away with Fluellen and that was probably a wise move to make the leek-wearing warrior a popular, likeable and pronounceable character.

  My regular and devoted readers (love you all) who are endowed with a sharp acumen and instinctive faff filter will, by now, have concluded that I am flannelling (pronounced normally) and they will be right. We do not know much about him. What we do know is derived from our local and under-exposed hero, the chronicler Adam of Usk, Adda o Frynbuga. The other very tricky thing about Welsh is that the consonants change at the beginning of a word according to obscure grammatical rules intended to keep the English good targets for mockery when they attempt to learn the language. Brynbuga is the Welsh for Usk and the "b" has here become "f" - this cunning dodge makes use of a dictionary a teasing challenge for foreigners.

   Llewelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan (Vaughan) of Cayo in Cardigan, lived from 1341 to 9 October 1401 and joined the revolt against Henry IV, led by Owain Glyn Dwr. Adam calls him a "man of gentle birth and bountiful, who yearly used sixteen tuns of wine in his household". Because he was "well disposed" towards the rebel cause, he was executed in Llandovery on the feast of St. Denis, October 9th, "in the presence of the king and his eldest son, and by his command, drawn, hanged, and beheaded, and quartered." It is not crystal clear whether the son was Hal, the future Henry V of Monmouth, or Llewelyn's.  (He probably had 2 sons fighting in the rebel forces.) By the standards of the period, he was quite elderly when tortured in this way. It must be noted that 16 tuns is a remarkable amount of wine and suggests that much generous tippling with guests went on annually on the rich household. Another story tells that Llewelyn deliberately led the English forces the wrong way whilst pretending to take them to Glyn Dwr but Adam merely states that he "willingly preferred death to treachery."

   In 1998 a campaign was started in Llandovery to construct a memorial to this rebel, sometimes called the "Welsh Braveheart". Money was raised locally and from the Arts Council of Wales and, after an exhibition of proposed designs in 2000, a public vote secured the commission for Toby and Gideon Peterson of St. Clears (pronounced "Clares"). I do not know what the others in the competition would have been like but this is the most impressive statue I have ever seen as it stands on the motte of the ruinous castle overlooking the car park. It is 16 ft tall and made of stainless steel which glows in the sun and glowers in cloud: on its base of Cayo stone, it is a figure with empty cloak, helmet and armour representing both the universal nature of Llewelyn's actions and the violence of the mutilation of his body. You will have noted that the drawing of the entrails was the first torture, during which he would have been alive. The artist described it as depicting a "brave nobody."
  Even I, tireless devotee of public transport, would not really suggest a pilgrimage from the east especially but, if you are going to Pembrokeshire on the A40, do stop in Llandovery car park and eat your sarnies gazing at the statue and climb up afterwards to admire it in detail. It is simply stunning.

I have written about Owain Gly Dwr and his rebellion (as has Shakespeare!) and about Adam of Usk who seems little recognised as an important Medieval chronicler, though I am delighted that my blog post has received hundreds of hits. Henry V and Monmouth Castle are the subjects of other articles here. "Llan" at the beginning of Welsh place names means "church" or parish usually of a particular saint (Llandeilo, just down the road and very pretty, means "parish of St. Teilo") but here refers to the meeting of 2 rivers. It is twinned with Pluguffan in Brittany (finish your CAKE before embarking on that one.)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Monmouthshire Warrior in the Middle Ages

 The medieval fighters of Gwent/Monmouthshire
  We know a certain amount from various sources but one seminal writer on the topic is Giraldus Cambrensis who toured Wales with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1188. He kept a kind of diary (I have no doubt that today he would have been an enthusiastic and diligent blogger) and, as one of his motives was to drum up support for the Third Crusade, his notings of military matters are crucial to our understanding.
  He commented that the men of Gwent "have much more experience of warfare, are more famous for their martial exploits and, in particular, are more skilled with the bow and arrow than those who come from other parts of Wales." He quotes events from the capture of Abergavenny castle where the arrows penetrated the oak doorway of the tower, almost as thick as a man's palm, and where the infamous William de Braose told a riveting (pun intended) tale. In this account a Welsh bowman shot an arrow through a rider's thigh despite protection by cuishes, then though his leather tunic, part of the saddle and deeply into the horse, killing it. Another fighter, similarly pierced, wheeled his mount round and was impaled on the other side, pinning him twice to the animal.
   Giraldus sums this up: "It is difficult to see what more you could do, even if you had a ballista". Quite so, Gerald of Wales. These bows were carved out of dwarf elm trees, not very large but sturdy, and left unpolished: in his view they were particularly useful at close quarters. In general, the archers were usually, as John Keegan states, "from remote and rustic areas ... with time on their hands." They were often not considered worth a ransom.

The longbow
   It is generally accepted that the English longbow was borrowed from Wales and evolved to become a formidable weapon, by the 13th century coming to measure around 6ft. It had a complex construction of different woods and required great strength and skill to manipulate. A shorter bow drawn back as far as the nearside of the chest had some force but the taller one taken further back as far as the ear was a winner - this change dates from the first decades of the 14th century. The yard-long arrows took 3 times as long to make as the bow, needed goose feathers from the same wing of the bird for even flight and were tipped with metal bodkins. This explains why they were frequently retrieved from the dead on the battle field.
  It was Edward I who was mainly responsible for recognising the potential of the longbow, ironically largely because of his encounters with it in the hands of his enemy, The rise of the English infantry to be a real power in Europe depended on the longbow drawn to the ear and he developed such trust in it that he had an archers-only corps of 800 men in 1277 from Gwent and Crickhowell who gained, as mercenaries, an unusual 3d per day. The arrows could penetrate chain mail and chroniclers report victims looking like hedgehogs with bristling spikes - bowmen were more often combined with other forms of infantry or even cavalry. A rain of arrows caused a "funk" sending a soldier into a kind of distraught madness even if he were not hit.

It could take 10 years to train an archer and they developed enlarged pulling arms and shoulders as has been seen on skeletons. Edward III issued a declaration in 1363 that "every man in the ... country, if he be able-bodied, shall, upon holidays, make use, in his games, of bows and arrows ... and so learn and practise archery." He recognised that this would give him a pool of skilled men for recruitment in war. By contrast, the French rulers discouraged such training for fear that the plebs would use their proficiency to rise up in revolt against them. They perhaps regretted this after their defeats in the great battles of the Hundred Years' War. It should be noted that archers were also used on ships and stood on the "castles" to fire.

England/Wales v France
  Crécy was perhaps the battle of the non-Hundred Years' War (I was baffled by the arithmetic when I was at school) most affected by the longbowmen. 2000 of them were taken from South Wales to a resounding victory over the French who were blinded by the sun: at least 10000 of the enemy died, many of them noblemen. We will skip over Poitiers where the bowmen committed atrocities and move on to Agincourt where the arrow-scarred Henry V (injured by a Welsh shot at the Battle of Shrewsbury and captured in his portrait in profile to hide this) won another round of the contest. Again French losses vastly outnumbered the English. In a conversation with Fluellen after the battle, the Welshman refers to Henry's great-uncle "Edward the Plack, Prince of Wales" fighting a "most prave pattle here in France" in which the Welshman did good service ... wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps" as the King does on "Saint Tavy's day" because he is, as he acknowledges, Welsh himself.
 On a sourer note, we can infer that some regarded as treachery, Welsh service to the English cause.

Henry V was born in Monmouth Castle and, if you are interested in the ballista, there is also a post on this blog about such Medieval weapons. I am indebted to Reginald Bosanquet for the detail about goose feathers which, at first, seemed rather like the tale I once believed that it was best to buy a left leg of Welsh lamb because they built up flesh on that side by circling the mountains clockwise.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Roman Bath: a natural phenomenon - a few facts!

A Famous Site/Sight
  Everyone is familiar with the spectacle of this ancient Roman bath in Bath with steam rising atmospherically from the hot water. Most people know that this falls as rain on the Mendip Hills, percolating down several thousand feet where geothermal energy raises its temperature to between 69 and 96 degrees C. It is then forced upwards through fissures in the limestone and 1,170,000 litres of it emerge here at 46 degrees C every day (117 F) from the aptly named Pennyquick fault. In old money that is about a quarter of a million gallons per diem. It contains 43 minerals including the iron which colours the stone, magnesium and calcium.  Put differently, 13 litres per second flow in, cool down a little and join the flow out to the river, thus constantly refreshing the pool every 8 hours.
   It was the energetic Victorians who uncovered the site and erected embellishments such as the statues. Before the Romans, the Celts had worshipped here, paying tribute to Sul (m) / Sulis (f) as they were not too particular as to the gender of their gods. They cultivated a layer of dirt on the skin as protection but the Romans were more picky about cleanliness and also disliked the swampy territory which they drained effectively.
  Nowadays there are 4 main features of the site: the Sacred Spring; the Roman Temple; the Roman Bath House and the Museum. The flintstones on view, found in the Spring, indicate prehistoric inhabitants.

The Sacred Spring overflow
Did You Know?
   The statues of Roman emperors and generals are mostly Victorian but that of Julius Caesar is more modern. He tried twice to conquer Britain but it was the unlikely Claudius who succeeded. It is therefore only proper that the statue of Caesar was pushed into the pool in the 20th century and that his absence was not noticed for several days as it lay in pieces at the bottom of the water. A third humiliation!
  The Romans knew that dirt was linked to disease and, because doctors were expensive, bathing and healing by the gods were favoured. This water was believed to treat many diseases including gout and leprosy, a term which was loosely interpreted to cover any skin disease. People came from France, Italy, North Africa and Belgium to be cured.
   There was a roof over the 5ft deep pool - which would have made the site quite dark - and the bath floor is lined with 45 sheets of Roman lead. In some of the alcoves the brickwork (which would have been brightly painted) and mortar are original and signs can be seen of secondary raised paving where the Health and Safety experts decreed its necessity.

   These spoil sports are still around today and bathing is forbidden, although I could not resist trying to cause alarm. Yet no-one has found a way of telling the pigeons about this and, every morning, when all is quiet, these birds come to disport themselves. I have had many a lively discussion with my elder daughter on the issue of pigeons receiving the Dickin medal for services rendered in WWII, her point being that they are too stupid to recognise danger and therefore demonstrate courage. Any creature that knows where to take a daily hot mineral-laden bath is clever by my reckoning and the 3 that helped to save stranded airmen deserved their recognition in Dec. 1943 for "conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty." Rats also like to exercise and swim lengths at dawn but have never been thus celebrated.
  Businesses grew around the baths to meet the needs and desires of visitors: massage, olive oil, towel rental, beauty treatments, snacks such as oysters, fish sauces, honey and mead all contributed to a Grand Day Out.
  The Romans, although doubtless cruel at times, did make attempts to integrate with the locals and here amalgamated one of their gods with corresponding features to that of the conquered, leading to the creation of Sulis Minerva, the female characteristics winning through.
   The baths were probably very noisy: Seneca describes the din caused by the grunting, hissing and gasping of dumb-bell swingers, smacking sounds made during a massage, a loud argument with a pickpocket, a yelp as someone has his armpits plucked and the calls of the sausage vendor.

The workings
   Soap was quite a late German invention and was avoided at first by the Romans because they thought it reddened the hair. Instead they used oil often mixed with fuller's earth or pumice, applied when the body was sweating and scraped off with a curved instrument called a strigil, perhaps by a slave who cleaned up afterwards. The slave, if the bather could afford one, might also watch over the master's clothes and possessions and, if any were stolen, curse tablets relieved the feelings of the victim with their strong words. Scribes sometimes were hired to write down the imprecations.
   I have used the pronoun "he" throughout (tut tut) although women also used the baths and it took the stern Hadrian to prohibit mixed bathing, fearing its immorality. Probably the women then used the east  and warmer end and the men the colder west.
  There are only 3 hot springs in Britain and they are all in Bath. I have been told several times that extremely fat fish breed near the warm outlet in the river but I have never managed to see them.

It is well worth taking the hourly free guided tour: I am indebted to Laure for some of this recondite information and, of course, tea afterwards in the Pump Room is obligatory - they do not seem to mind 3 people sharing the three-tier rack of dainty sandwiches and CAKE.

The other munchers are aghast at my sodden appearance.   
I went to Bath by train from Newport and braved unforecast heavy rain for your edification. Nearer to home, the baths at Caerleon are a favourite of mine, as is the huge amphitheatre, remains of barracks and interesting museum there. The Roman town of Caerwent is not far away with its magnificent stretch of ancient walls.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Monmouthshire in the 14th century: prosperity and plague

Chepstow Castle, a crossing point
   Monmouthshire in the 14th century was relatively accessible from England and became quite affluent, particularly in the towns which grew up (some around castles) such as Chepstow, Abergavenny, Monmouth, Newport, Tryleg and Caerleon. The county had a higher ratio of castles per square mile than any other similar region of England or Wales, except Herefordshire and Northumberland. To get my tenses right - it still does and therefore has a record number of post-castle-visit CAKE opportunities. Even though some fortresses were starting to fall into disrepair, several were sufficiently comfortable and welcoming for leading English lords to spend time in them, Henry V being born in Monmouth.
   These lowlands of the south-east were also appealing because of their good hunting: a well-stocked park in Grosmont made it a favourite residence of the House of Lancaster and the towns offered specialised crafts and services, weekly markets and twice-yearly fairs. A suburb of Abergavenny was called Englishton and several spots were the homes of Benedictine priories, outposts of northern French monasteries.
The River Usk from the Flood Route or Noah's Ark Route
   Manors grew wheat and the River Usk provided salmon, prized as far away as East Anglia. Wood and charcoal also formed an important part of the economy. More distant parts of the region were still thoroughly Welsh in language, customs and culture: 87% of taxpayers in 1292 round Monmouth had English surnames but the proportions were reversed in the district around White Castle. The men of Gwent were particularly skilled in military techniques, especially the bow and arrow, and were sought after in English wars against France. One detail I like from this tapestry of prosperity is that of the journey of Lady Elizabeth de Burgh of Usk travelling to her East Anglian estates in 1350, escorted by 130 horses and 28 hackneys, the menage quaffing an impressive 80 gallons of ale per day en route. If that makes you feel thirsty you may have a cup of tea with your CAKE.

Usk Castle
The Plague
   I have scattered the story of affluence with photographs because it is hard to know how to illustrate this next part of the story. Towards the end of the century Monmouthshire (Gwent) was composed of 5 great lordships: Abergavenny; Monmouth and Three Castles; Striguil (Chepstow); Usk and Caerleon; and Gwynllwg (Newport) - the latter now having the least visited ruined castle in the area. (Don't try to boost its numbers: the local council makes no attempt to make the relic accessible.) Changes in lordships caused by natural demise were disruptive but the advent of the Black Death was cataclysmic.
   There are many facts here which are only probable but the outline is clear: in the winter of 1348-9 the pandemic arrived and was known as "Y Farwolaeth Fawr" which does sound more ominous than the English version, "The Great Death". It killed between a third and a quarter of the population. Recurrent further outbreaks meant that economic recovery seemed nearly impossible: particularly distressing was that of 1361-2 which carried off the younger generation who might otherwise have revived the economy. In 1362, 36 of the 40 tenants of Caldicot are recorded as dead and only 114 labour services remained out of a previous 2000, though these figures might be cumulative over more years. Areas spared so far were devastated by the 1369 spread of this virulent disease. The county was overturned by such losses.
Caldicot Castle
   Yet there was some recovery despite the demographic collapse although it was the lower classes of men and women who scraped together money to satisfy the well organised lords' demands. This was, in some ways, merely a delay of inevitable consequences: labour shortages made demesne farming less profitable and many lords became long-distance, rent-collecting owners. Serfdom as a system was eclipsed and workers could now make demands on their lords. The peasantry became rebellious (schoolroom titters at the back about revolting peasants will not be tolerated) and there were risings against the lords in Abergavenny and ominous threats to Monmouth in 1381 which prompted John of Gaunt to fortify his castle there.

Monmouth Castle
What next?
   I can pick 3 words from my unlocked word-hoard to answer that question: Owain Glyn Dwr.

I have written a brief biography of this enigmatic man followed by an attempt at assessment. Many of my posts are about castles in Monmouthshire: you might like to start by reading about Henry V's birthplace: Monmouth Castle. An account of Marcher lordships goes a little further in explaining this aspect and there is an article on Medieval markets in the area.
On the right of this blog there is a rather daunting list of books consulted with gratitude but I am particluarly indebted to The Gwent County History vol. 2 for this piece.