Gerald of Wales

By Terry John St Davids Cathedral

Gerald of Wales, or Geraldus Cambrensis as he was also known, was one of the most remarkable figures of the 12th century - and he was born in Pembrokeshire! He was a scholar, churchman, Bishop-elect of St Davids, reformer, courtier, diplomat, writer, would-be crusader, an agent of English kings, champion of the Welsh church, outlaw, theologian, naturalist, recorder of gossip and legend and a traveller. Somehow he also found the time to write at least 17 books.

He was three-quarters Norman and a quarter Welsh. Most of his ancestors were barons of the March of Wales. He was proud to be descended from Welsh kings and of his Norman ancestry, though he had some very pithy remarks to make about both nations. He made clear distinctions between the Saxon inhabitants of England, whom he called the English, and their Norman conquerors, for the two races had not at that point melded together. He compared spoken English to the hissing of geese and described the English as the most worthless race under heavenin their own country they are the slaves of the Normans, and in Wales they serve only as cowherdsand cleaner of sewers.

He could be equally critical of the Welsh, remarking that ‘You may never find anyone worse than a bad Welshman, but you will certainly never find anyone better than a good one’.

He regarded himself as one of a group of pioneers who inherit our courage from the Welsh and our skill in warfare from the Normans. He spoke of Wales as his country and as our Wales. He was particularly proud of his Fitzgerald ancestry, being the grandson of Gerald de Windsor, constable of Pembroke Castle and the Princess Nest. Who penetrates the enemys stronghold? The Fitzgeralds!. Who protects their native lands? The Fitzgeralds! Who do the foemen fear? The Fitzgeralds! Who are assailed by envy? The Fitzgeralds!

Gerald was born in about 1146. His childhood was spent at Manorbier in Pembrokeshire. He remembered it fondly, writing of it: ‘Of all the different parts of Wales, Dyved, with its seven cantrefs, is at once the most beautiful and the most productive. Of all Dyved, the province of Pembroke is the most attractive’. It follows that… ‘In all the broad land of Wales, Manorbier is the most pleasant place by far. You will not be surprised to hear me lavish such praise upon it when I tell you…this is where I myself was born. I can only ask you to forgive me’.

Manorbier beach and castle
Gerald was the youngest of four brothers and his ambition to enter the church was apparent even as a child. Whilst playing with his brothers on the sands at Manorbier he would build churches and monasteries, whilst they built castles. His father called him my bishop.  Gerald’s maternal uncle was David Fitzgerald, Bishop of St Davids and it was to him that Gerald’s education was entrusted. He was taught Latin but made slow progress until his brothers began to tease him, chanting ‘Thick, thicker, thickest! Silly, sillier, silliest!’ He made rapid progress after that.

At the age of 9 or 10, he was sent to the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter’s at Gloucester, now Gloucester Cathedral. By his middle teens Gerald was ready to go on to a higher education. As there were no universities in Britain at this time, he was sent to Paris, where he spent the next ten years. He was, by his own account, a model student.

He returned to England in about 1172 and sought employment at Canterbury. He was given several benefices; he became the rector of a number of parishes in England and in Pembrokeshire, including Tenby, Angle, Llanwnda and the prebend of Mathry.

Gerald was a reformer and champion of the church, but he stood for no nonsense from those who opposed him. When the inhabitants of Pembrokeshire refused to hand over the tithes or tenths of wool and cheese due to the church, he arrived armed with a mandate from the Archbishop of Canterbury. He rode around Pembrokeshire to enforce the custom. He excommunicated William Carquit, the sheriff of Pembrokeshire, who had removed eight yoke of oxen from Monkton Priory.

In 1175, Gerald turned out Jordan, the Archbishop of Brecon, who was living with a mistress whom he refused to give up. Gerald made himself Archdeacon. This brought him an official residence and he set about reforming the morals of the local clergy. They retaliated by spreading threats and rumours, then fired arrows at Gerald’s servants. They besieged him in Llanbadarn Fawr church. Gerald called for help from his cousin, Cadwallon ap Madog, a local ruler. The besiegers surrendered when they learned of this.

Not long after, Bishop Adam of St Asaph set off for the new church at Kerry near Newtown, which lay in the diocese of St Davids. If he succeeded in consecrating it, St Davids might lose the territory. Gerald gathered an armed force and occupied the church before Bishop Adam arrived. The two men argued at the churchyard gate and threatened to excommunicate each other. They both began to pronounce the words of excommunication, but Gerald shouted louder and faster. Bishop Adam lost his nerve and fled.

In 1176, when he was still an archdeacon, the local clergy nominated him as a candidate to succeed his uncle David as bishop of St Davids. He could not be elected as no bishop could be appointed without the prior permission of the king and the archbishop of  Canterbury. When King Henry II heard what had happened he flew into a rage and  refused to consider Gerald as a candidate.

Henry did not wish to have as a bishop a man with Welsh blood in his veins, especially one who championed the rights of St Davids. Gerald was convinced that in the past St Davids had been an archbishopric and the king knew that to appoint him might destroy the authority of the Archbishops of Canterbury over Wales. Peter de Leia was installed as Bishop of St Davids and it was 22 years before the bishopric fell vacant again. During that time Gerald was offered two other Welsh bishoprics, Bangor and Llandaff, and two in Ireland, Ferns and Leighlin, but refused them because, he said, of the poverty of the land and the wickedness of the people.

In 1184 he began service as a royal courtier. He went on frequent diplomatic missions to the Welsh princes. In 1185, Prince John was sent by the king to Ireland to reinforce royal authority and Gerald accompanied him, sailing from Milford Haven. When they landed in Ireland, John’s courtiers mocked the Irish chiefs by pulling them about by their beards. Gerald upset many of the Irish clergy by attacking the customs of the Irish church and sneering at the fact that it had not produced a martyr. Now that you Normans have arrived, it very soon will, remarked an Irish cleric.

John was sent home in disgrace, but Gerald remained behind and later wrote two books about the country, The Conquest of Ireland and Topography of Ireland. This last one he was immensely proud of and publicised it by reading it aloud at Oxford over a period of three days and guaranteeing an audience by feeding all the poor on the first day, the clergy and scholars on the second day and the gentry and citizens on the third.

In 1188, Gerald accompanied Archbishop Baldwin on a preaching tour of Wales which was intended to raise support for a crusade to the Holy Land. Their travels began soon after 2 March until Easter 1188 and Gerald described it in detail in another book, The Journey through Wales. He recorded not only their day-to-day journey, but the people they encountered, the legends and histories they were told, and described the places through which they passed. He also says that over 3,000 men took the cross as a result of this journey and he claims some of the credit for himself. Though he clearly had some knowledge of Welsh he was unable to preach in the language, yet some people felt that had he been able to do so, there would have been many more willing to join the crusade, so eloquent was he in his speech.

In about 1194 Gerald retired from court, disillusioned with what he experienced there. He said that he gained nothing from his time at court, but empty promises devoid of truth. He had also come to realise that his Welsh birth and his relationship to the Welsh princes were obstacles to his advancemen.

When Bishop Peter de Leia died in 1198, there was another possibility of election to St David’s. This was opposed by Archbishop Hubert Walter, whom Gerald had offended and who had sworn that no Welshman would ever be a bishop in Wales. Gerald appealed to King John, who had recently succeeded to the throne. John seems to have given his permission, because on 22 June 1199 Gerald was unanimously elected Bishop of St David’s. He made it clear that he would do all he could to establish St David’s as an archbishopric.

Archbishop Walter refused to consecrate him and threatened to support a rival. Gerald decided to appeal directly to the Pope and during the next four years he visited Rome three times. He got on well with Pope Innocent III, who was delighted by a gift of Gerald’s books. Gerald was able to counter all Walter’s propaganda about him and even accused the archbishop of fornication, arson and murder. He also said that Walter’s Latin grammar was terrible.

Meanwhile his enemies were turning the clergy of St Davids against him through a combination of threats and bribes. His money was running out and the monks of Strata Florida cheated him of his books. The Welsh princes helped his cause by declaring their unanimous support. This had an unexpected result, for the Normans declared him to be a traitor and rebel. Gerald was shunned by his Anglo-Norman relatives and when he went to St Davids he could not even find a lodging. He returned to Rome for a last attempt to secure the bishopric, hiding from any pursuit in the bilges of a galley. The Pope dared not offend England and declared the lection null and void pending a further investigation.

As he returned home, Gerald was captured by a French robber knight and imprisoned. He had been betrayed by an agent of Archbishop Walter, but when his captors found that he had only two pence in his purse, they released him and imprisoned the agent instead.

Gerald was now nearly 60 and was tired of the conflict and gave up his claim to St Davids. He was honoured for his action by many of his contemporaries, especially the Welsh. Prince Llewellyn the Great said, This mans noble deed shall be praised by poets and chroniclers. For he who does all he can and leaves nothing undone has deserved worthy praise, though perchance he fails in his desire.

During the last 20 years of his life, Gerald spent much of his time at Lincoln. He continued to write and to travel and returned to Wales at least three times. He also visited his Irish relatives and went once more to Rome. Gerald died in 1223 at the age of about 77. He was probably buried in Lincoln, though no one is sure where he lies.

At the time of the journey through Wales, Archbishop Baldwin said of Gerald; For his books could not pass away or perish, but the longer they lasted and the greater their antiquity, so to all future ages they would become more beloved and more precious.

This proved to be no more than the truth, for some of his works are still in print to this day.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire


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