Friday, 25 August 2017

Wells Cathedral: fascinating and beautifully situated

One Exterior View of the Cathedral Church of St Andrew: Wells Cathedral
 As you stand on the green gazing at the west front, having entered via one of the 3 ancient gateways (Brown's Gatehouse, Penniless Porch or Chain Gate) recall that your feet are planted on a graveyard. Your eyes are fixed on a facade of unusually consistent architecture, being almost wholly Early English in style and not a medley as in many Medieval Cathedrals. The stone is Inferior Oolite from the Middle Jurassic period - I love that as I am not even sure if there is a Superior version!
  There are 3 horizontal layers, the bottom one being quite plain. The others showcase 300 sculpted figures - there were 400 originally - which would have been brightly painted in reds, blues and greens as has been deduced from some remaining flakes of colour adhering to them.  This is one of the largest collection of Medieval statues in Europe and the finest display of such carving in England. There are seated and standing people, half-length angels and narratives. The personalities include monarchs, Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, apostles, bishops and other holy individuals, many identifiable by their attributes. There are also the dead, joyful or despairing, emerging from their tombs on the Day of Judgement, some recognisable as royal by their crowns or episcopal by their mitres - although otherwise naked! The sizes reflect importance but the large statue at the very top of Christ in Majesty is a modern replacement of one badly damaged.


It is impossible in a blog post to describe all the attributes worth noting on the inside but these are the most striking in my opinion.
The scissor (strainer) arches: these are structural in an interesting way since they were inserted to sustain the weight of an extra storey added to the top of the central  tower which caused it to crack and lean. Between 1338 and 48 the master mason William Joy conceived this solution which proved stunning to look at and yet practical. The appearance is of an extra inverted arch on top of the more usual one.
The 'Golden Window' is so called because of the glowing yellow stain given to the 14th century glasswork depicting the Tree of Jesse which shows the lineage of Christ rising from Jesse, symbolising Israel, who lies on his side at the bottom with a tree or vine growing from his side. Wells has one of the most substantial collections of Medieval stained glass in England, despite damage by Parliamemtary troops in the Civil War.
Carvings: in particular, look out for the man with toothache as a capital in the South Transept. He is pointing to the place of pain with his index finger as if showing it to the dentist and is one of 11 such.
The misericords: these are little seats often with carvings underneath, so called because they gave the worshippers a merciful chance to semi-sit during a long service without appearing to do so. In Wells they are particularly fine and date from 1330-1340: 27 depict animals including rabbits, dogs, a puppy biting a cat, a ewe feeding a lamb, monkeys, lions and bats; 18 show mythological subjects such as mermaids, dragons, wyverns and the narrative of the Fox and the Geese. Such unchristian icons may have crept in unobserved, perhaps being the foible of the individual carver.
The Astronomical Clock: in the North Transept is a 24 hour, geocentric clock dating from around 1325, probably the work of a Glastonbury monk, Peter Lightfoot. The original mechanism is now in the Science Museum in London, still working. The Medieval face remains and shows the hours, the motions of sun and moon around a fixed Earth and the phases of the moon. The quarter hours are marked by Jack Blandifers (look upwards to the right) who hits 2 bells with hammers and 2 with his heels as jousting knights appear above the clock face. A second clock, working from the same mechanism, has 2 knights in armour as quarter jacks. In 2010 the official winder retired to be replaced by an electric motor - a pity say I.

Violence and peace:
   Dean Walter Raleigh (nephew of the more famous chap of the same name) was placed under house arrest here. His jailer was a shoe maker and city constable called David Barrett, who caught him writing a forbidden letter to his wife. When Raleigh refused to hand it over, Barrett ran him through with his sword and he died 6 weeks later on 10th October 1646.
   During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Puritan soldiers damaged the West front, tore lead from the roof for bullets, broke windows, smashed the organ and furnishings and stabled their horses in the nave.
Look for this in the town
   In 1703, during the Great Storm, Bishop Kidder was killed when 2 chimney stacks on the Palace fell on him and his wife as they lay asleep.
   In July 2009 the Cathedral held the funeral of Harry Patch, plumber and firefighter, British Army veteran of World War I, "the Last Fighting Tommy", who died aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day - at peace after great violence.

 A Very Very Brief History of the name
Fans of Blackadder with be asking about the Bishop of Bath and Wells: after many disputes, Pope Innocent IV established this title in 1245 after the seat had moved between Wells and the Abbeys of Bath and Glastonbury but - it is a bit like saying there is no Father Christmas - none of them ate babies!
There has been a church here since 705 and a shrine in Roman times or even earlier.

The town of Wells is very appealing with the Vicars' Close, (probably the oldest purely residential street  in Europe), some interesting shops as well as the usual suspects and a thriving Wednesday market - but even more enthralling is the Bishop's Palace and gardens which utterly entranced me and which I will write about after a second visit.

I went by public transport from Monmouthshire via Bath and, on the way back, Bristol Temple Meads, and it necessitated an overnight stay but I intend to go again on an organised day coach trip. I have also written about Hereford Cathedral and Gloucester Cathedral and many castles and Roman remains - perhaps you could start with Raglan Castle and nearby Caerleon amphitheatre.
I am grateful to the Pitkin Guide and Wikipedia for information.
For opening times etc click here for the Cathedral website.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Hereford Cathedral: imposing yet intimate

Hereford Cathedral makes a strong impression on the visitor and yet feels friendly with its warm stone and manageable size. The first building on this site some 1300 years ago may have been a modest thatched wooden construction, replaced later by a stone Saxon Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The second patron saint was King Ethelbert who was brutally murdered by Offa: once his innocence had been established, he was eventually canonised. A bishop named Thomas Cantilupe, became St. Thomas of Hereford in 1320 and had a shrine erected to him - this became a place of pilgrimage. His feast day, 2 October, is still celebrated and you can see a banner showing his history designed by Jean Mobbs commemorating the 700th anniversary of his death. He was believed to have performed 400 miracles but had been excommunicated. When the ban was lifted, his various bones were sent around the country and finally came back here. Then comes St. John the Baptist a statue of whom, wearing his camel-skin coat with its head, can be seen in the north transept.

Look for:
   The corona, a magnificent suspended zig-zag or chevron construct of gilded stainless steel by Simon Beer, which seemed to me a symbol of the Crown of Thorns as it hangs above the central altar.
   A beautiful modern stained glass window in blues, called Ascension, by John Maine which pays tribute to the Special Air Service and its many connections to this neighbourhood..

   Three tapestries designed by John Piper for the 1300th anniversary in 1976 representing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of the Crucifixion and the Tree of the Future (Book of Revelation.)
   These are the possessions which made the most impression on me but the Norman pillars in the nave, the misericords, (I always love those as it seems to me they gave the relief of sitting on your suitcase on a crowded train) The Quire, St. John's Walk, The Lady Chapel, The Crypt and the gardens are also of great interest.
  Having a weakness for the sensational, I was particularly enthralled by the fact that the west end and its tower collapsed on Easter Monday, 1786. I always ask myself how ancient architects and builders coped without modern methods and clearly they sometimes failed - perhaps because of earthquakes - although the date is striking. A new west front was designed by James Wyatt but the resulting facade was deemed too plain and was replaced in 1908. The brightness of his nave reflects a movement away from the idea that those churches are best for prayer that have least light.

Mappa Mundi
By kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral
and the Hereford Mappa Mundi Trust
   Mappa Mundi (you don't need to add 'the' because it is contained in the Latin term for Map of the World) is part of a separate exhibition along with the Chained Library. It is well worth the viewing but bear in mind it is not a travel map in the modern sense but a representation of the Christian world, centred on Jerusalem, on a single piece of parchment (prepared animal skin) dating from the late 1280's. East is at the top because of its religious significance and it was probably made in Lincoln by monks. (Incidentally, Hereford was never a monastic cathedral and is therefore termed secular).  There are pictures of Biblical and classical events, geographical features, peoples (some of them very strange) plants and animals. It is almost a chart of the Medieval outlook and is amazingly complex.
   You will benefit from a tour of this and the Chained Library which is, as the name suggests, a collection of ancient books with chains attached to their covers at the cut-page end with 2 hasps and a lock. Hand-written books were hugely expensive (remember that Chaucer's Wife of Bath became deaf in one ear by a blow after tearing a book). It is so atmospheric: 'modern' here means post 1801 and most of the books are in Latin though I was fascinated to know that the dictionary of my hero, Dr. Johnson, is on the shelves. These treasures make Hereford Cathedral outstanding.
    What is less well-known, perhaps, is that there is a also a truly modern working library with over 4000 titles available to borrow and a large reference collection. This contains theological works as well as biographies and books on the decorative arts, architecture and music. Visitors are welcome to use it and you can bring your own laptop. If I lived nearer I would inhabit it permanently! There are also unusual archives of Medieval manuscript books, early printed books, music, prints, drawings and photographs. Now that our local libraries are turning into jolly (?) community hubs, this is a rare find.

   I travelled to Hereford by bus from Monmouth and fortified myself with CAKE as usual in the café. Opening hours and other visitor details may be found on the website. You might also be interested in my account of Gloucester Cathedral or one of my castle articles such as that on Goodrich Castle. If you travel by car (tut! tut!) you could spend a lovely afternoon at Hampton Court Castle with its stunning gardens which is about 20 minutes away.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hampton Court Castle and gardens - Herefordshire

The Hampton Court in Herefordshire is 100 years older than its more famous namesake, dating back 600 years on parkland by the River Lugg near Leominster in the village of Hope under Dinmore. It is a castellated country house, a Grade 1 listed building of Gothic and Gothic revival architecture, which sits in 935 acres. The word "hampton" derives from Anglo-Saxon and means "home place" which explains why there are so many towns etc ending in this suffix.
  The main construction of a quadrangular courtyard house was started in 1427 by Sir Rowland Lenthall on land that was a wedding gift from King Henry IV on Lenthalls's marriage to the king's cousin, Margaret Fitzalan, a daughter of the Earl of Arundel. Building had been taking place earlier when the king was Henry Bolingbroke and Sir Rowland went on to fight at Agincourt - all very Shakespearean.

Later ownership
  The palace or castle, whichever you prefer, has changed hands several times with each owner altering and adding to it so that the oldest remaining part is to the north. Some tended to make it more domestic but others reversed the trend and made it more of a castle according to fashion or inclination. The powerful Coningsby family bought it in the 16th century and stayed for 300 years, their name accounting for the theme of white rabbits throughout ("coney" means "rabbit").  After that it was purchased for nearly a quarter of a million pounds by Richard Arkwright, offspring of the famous inventor, whose son John lavished more money on it over a period of 12 years, though making some economies such as scumbling the woodwork in the dining room instead of installing true walnut panelling. (Some oak panelling had been sold off in the 17th century).

  The chapel is Medieval and would have been much more colourful than at present: the stained glass was sold in the 1920's though a little remains high up.
  The house is great fun although not all is as old as it seems since a U.S. millionaire, Robert Van Kampen, furnished it in the 1990's (to the tune of £17 million) according to his ideas of an English country house, adding armour and stuffed animals. Some complain about the lack of authenticity but I raise a cheer to him for spending his money to recreate his ideal for us all to enjoy.  No-one lives here any more but it is the fabulous setting for weddings and events and it has served as a military hospital.

The gardens
  I went there on a perfect July day and was bowled over by the gardens, taking a couple of hours to explore and absorb. They are beautifully maintained without being manicured and signage is kept to a minimum: I was amused to be warned of uneven surfaces near the river due to mole activity and half expected to see Ratty, Badger and Toad as well. There is a river walk of 45 minutes but I contented myself with the shorter one.

  There are more formal gardens with a water pavilion, a maze, a secret passage, a wisteria tunnel 150 years old and a sunken pond with a waterfall that some children were persuading their grandfather to go behind. One of them called out:"I love this place - I am having so many adventures." (So was grandpa!) This is perhaps because there are hidden things to discover, several paths to take to different parts, and a hollow tree with a door to hide in.

I was very taken with the Dutch garden which is a contrast to the wilder areas, being symmetrical with a rectangular pond and colourful potted plants. I sat here for a while contemplating and reflecting on how heartening it is to visit a place so carefully and yet so unobtrusively managed. You can have lunch etc with home grown organic produce from the kitchen garden in the conservatory designed by Joseph Paxton or you can bring a picnic and lounge on the grass. There is a shop but nowhere is there any sense of pressure to buy - yet I went burrowing in the archives of the local paper and found an advert of 19th May 2014 with a price tag on the site of £12 million. My piggy bank just isn't fat enough!

   This house and gardens make a Grand Day Out for all ages and will keep juniors occupied and active. I couldn't think of any way it could be improved and went home quite uplifted. Opening hours and details of events can be found on their website. This time I went on an organised coach trip with Jenson and the Gwent National Trust Association - so that counts as a Monmouthshire bus microadventure. Afterwards we continued the short distance to Hereford Cathedral which I have now described.

   A few of the other castles in or near Monmouthshire that I have visited by bus and written about are Raglan Castle, Chepstow Castle, Ludlow Castle and Caerphilly Castle. Then there is my home fortification of Usk Castle. Many of these articles are linked to others about the people connected with each castle's history.

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!