Tuesday, 7 November 2017
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.
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.
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
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|
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.
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.|
Friday, 13 October 2017
|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|
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.
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.
Wednesday, 4 October 2017
A brief history
The site may have been occupied since prehistoric times because of the abundant supply of fresh water but the first episcopal buildings were established by Jocelin who became bishop in 1206. Succeeding bishops until 1500 enlarged the palace, built formidable ramparts, harnessed the water to make a moat and supply the city and created an impressive new opening from the market place. All these improvements emphasised the power and grandeur of the bishopric and later incumbents added lesser improvements such as the long south wall (Bishop Ken composed his hymns whilst walking there and I love to imagine him strolling along humming gently and intoning proudly when he had nailed it), remodelling of the gardens and embellishing the palace interior. Water often has a symbolic significance to us all and the most active spring here, St. Andrew's Well, has the same dedication as the minster, with the bishops controlling the supply from the 1200's onwards.
Jocelin was favoured by King John and Henry III, who needed his support and who allowed him to develop the estate. He constructed 2 new schools, a hospital and a chapel - it is worth walking past the left hand side of the cathedral as these smaller buildings are lovely. A deer park was also part of his endowment, stocked with animals from the king's own estates, whose sensitivity to noise was respected by the diversion of the lorries carrying stones.
Be bold and, Alice-like, pop through the hole to discover the extensive water gardens, developed by Ralph of Shrewsbury from the marshy ground which had flooded uncontrollably until the 1330's. He created a moat which acted as a reservoir, and thus limited the inundations and made the building of water mills possible. He added a rampart with round towers and a gatehouse which had, with the permission of King Edward III, crenellations. The site covers 14 acres and demands labour from the Head Gardener and team - it has reflected the charging tastes in garden design over the centuries.
It was Bishop Beckynton who built the wellhouse with a cistern to collect the water from the wells and maintain enough pressure to send it through a conduit towards the market place where any overflow washed away rubbish. Wooden bungs could be used to shut off the flow. Amazing engineering prowess.
The swans on the moat are still trained to ring a bell beneath the window on the left at the gatehouse to ask for dinner. They pull on the chain and demand fast food from the caretaker who lives there: mother swans teach their cygnets how to do this with dignity and an imperious manner in morning classes (not really - just checking you are still concentrating) and their sleek plumpness shows how successful they are.
2 (or 3?) not-so-peaceful items
The palace was used as a garrison by troops in both the Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion. Bishop Kidder and his wife were killed in the Great Storm of 1703 when 2 chimney stacks fell on them in the night whilst they slept. The Bishop of Bath and Wells has been recorded on Blackadder as a baby-eater but I am sceptical since they had fat swans for their delectation - though these probably belonged to the monarch.
I lingered in the failing light as long as I could, wandering about and sitting on various seats including one of those swinging striped jobbies with a canopy that always seem to me the height of luxury and indolence. There is also an arboretum with a Dragon's Lair but I live in Wales where they are ubiquitous. If I lived in Wells I would come here daily to breathe in the atmosphere. Yet I was far from home, having journeyed through Bath from Newport by train and bus on the very well run local services. Anyway it was time for CAKE which I had in the cathedral café where they were asking people to donate crockery and glassware so that they could recreate the traditional afternoon tea - isn't that a soothing thought?
For my blog post on Wells Cathedral, click here. From there you can click on other links to cathedrals, castles and Roman remains and your afternoon will pass profitably until CAKE time.
For opening times of the Palace click here.
Friday, 25 August 2017
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 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 and you can also read my account of the Bishop's Palace and gardens.
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
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.
|By kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Hereford Cathedral|
and the Hereford Mappa Mundi Trust
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
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.
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.
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.