Wednesday 12 July 2017

(Almost) Touching the Past - Medieval Welsh Documents

I spend an inordinate amount of time studying Anglo-Saxon charters, law codes, letters and chronicles. There is something about reading - albeit in translation - the original words; even if these primary sources are not completely contemporary, they are an echo of a voice from years, centuries ago, and it never fails to thrill me when I read them. 

They provide the connection between what we are told when we are being taught history at school, or elsewhere, and what we can discover for ourselves. Somehow, it makes the people from the past become 'real'. And I don't restrict this interest to Anglo-Saxon materials.

In 2012 I visited Strata Florida Abbey, or to give it its Welsh name, Ystrad Fflur. It's a ruin, as you can see. But 'round the back' are a line of grave markers. It is known that many members of the Royal house of Deheubarth were buried here. Was I looking at their grave stones?

It's not known, for sure. Standing in the grounds of the ruined abbey I certainly felt the past, but I edged much closer to it when I read a translation of a Deheubarth royal charter, dated 1198. 
Rhys ap Rhys confirms to Strata Florida Abbey all the lands which it received from his brother Maelgwn, together with his body for burial. [Dated at Strata Florida, original text in Latin.]
I don't know if I was looking at the grave, or marker, of Maelgwn, but it closed the gap between a weathered old piece of stone and a real person.

On that same trip, I visited the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and I saw an exhibit that made me shiver. In a good way...

Years ago, I had read Sharon K Penman's Welsh Trilogy, and swiftly followed that with Edith Pargeter's The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet. The historical detail in both these series is reliable and impeccably researched. I then read a lot of non-fiction books about the Princes of Gwynedd, and holidayed in the area many times. I'd seen what is thought to be the sarcophagus of Llywelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great), and that of his wife, Joan, and visited a lot of sites associated with them, including their Royal Llys (house) at Rhosyr. To stand among the foundation stones of what was their dwelling added another dimension to my discovery of Welsh history.

But the moment I felt closest to this man was when I saw the exhibit that day in the National Library in Aberystwyth - his great seal.

The stories, told fictionally or factually, give a real sense of the man. To see his great seal attached to a document brought him nearer, and gave him real identity. Those who know his story, or who have read the novels, will understand how much more potent it is to read the translations of letters and other acts, which tell us that:
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of north Wales, agrees to indemnify King Henry III and the latter's men for injuries inflicted by Llywelyn and his men in the troubles surrounding the seizure of Kinnerley. Dated 7th October 1223.
Llewelyn was determined to bring the in-fighting in Wales to a halt, to strengthen it against England, and to establish once and for all its independent status. The above example shows how this was no easy, peaceful task.

If you do know the stories, you will know that Llewelyn and Joan had only one son together. How much more 'real' these characters become when you learn of the existence of a letter, "soon after May 1230", from:
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of Aberffraw and lord of Snowden, to Eva de Braose, concerning the marriage of her daughter Isabel to his son Dafydd.
Family squabbles amongst the Welsh princes continued, but Llewelyn's eventual successor was equally determined to champion the Welsh as an independent nation. How it must have pained Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (spoiler alert - he was known at Llywelyn the Last) to agree, on 9th November 1277,
to pay 500 marks annually to his lord, King Edward I, for Anglesey and the land of his brother Dafydd. Dated at Aberconwy.
Poignantly, Aberconwy was the traditional burial place of the princes of Gwynedd. It no longer exists, a victim not of the ravages of time, but of Edward's order for the destruction of the abbey and to use the stones to build Conwy Castle and the surrounding walled town.

A letter from Eleanor, princess of Wales and lady of Snowden (Llywelyn's wife, and daughter of Simon de Montford) was written to Edward, sometime between 1279 and 1281,
asking him not to heed those who say damaging things to him about her and her husband. 
Eleanor died in childbirth, and by all accounts Llywelyn was devastated. He himself came to an end at Cilmeri, not far from Buellt Wells.

A letter from Roger le Strange to Edward I:
informs the king that the troops under Roger’s command fought with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the land of Built on Friday next after the feast of St. Nicholas (December 11th, 1282], that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is dead, his army defeated, and all the flower of his army dead, as the bearer of the letter will tell. [French]
I visited Cilmeri on a damp and drizzly day and stood for a while at the spot where reportedly Llywelyn's head was washed,

and then I stood for a moment by his memorial.

It was a sombre moment, but for a glimpse of the man who was not known as 'the last' while he ruled, how about this prosaic letter, from 
Llywelyn, prince of Wales and lord of Snowdon, to Guncelin de Badlesmere, justice of Chester, asking him to defer the business of the corn in Anglesey until Llywelyn has received clarification from the king regarding a certain obscure word in the king's charter on this matter.
No blood, no guts, no tragedy, but a glimpse into the everyday medieval world, and a sense of the tension between proud Welsh Princes and their would-be overlords. This is when history comes to life for me.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Further reading:
English Historical Documents Vol II Ed. D Douglas
Handlist of the Acts of Native Welsh Rulers - KL Maund
The Taming of the Dragon - Bartlett
The Welsh Kings - KL Maund
The Welsh Princes - Turvey
Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, The Reckoning - SK Penman
The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet - Edith Pargeter


  1. We are all just a whisper in time. This was an awesome article and your experiences are true treasures. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much - I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)