Gerald de Barri, better known as Gerald of Wales or in Welsh as Gerallt Gymro, is one of early Medieval Wales’ most colourful characters, and the accounts he wrote of travels both in Wales and Ireland during this tumultuous period, along with other observations of the period, have become important sources for historians and folklorists alike.
Gerald was born at Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, c. 1146, and spent much of his early life there. He was Cambro-Norman, his grandfather Gerald de Windsor, had been castellan of Pembroke Castle and married to princess Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last king of Deheubarth (a kingdom that once stretched the length and breadth of the south-west corner of Wales). A daughter of their union, Angharad, married William FitzOdo de Barri, one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman Barons of Wales. Together they had a number of children, among them Gerald, one of at least four sons. So, Gerald could certainly boast an illustrious pedigree as far as Cambro-Norman society was concerned. Through his grandmother, Nest, he was descended of the most important royal bloodlines of Wales, through his grandfather and father connected to Norman nobility and military power. Furthermore, when he was only two years old his maternal uncle, David FitzGerald was elected bishop of St Davids, the principal Welsh see. This was to have a profound impact on Gerald’s ambitions and career.
Gerald was initially educated at the Benedictine house of Gloucester, followed by a period of study in Paris from
c. 1165–74. He was then employed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard of Dover, who dispatched him on various ecclesiastical missions across Wales. In this work, he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove supposed abuses flourishing in the Welsh church at the time. In 1174 he was appointed Archdeacon of Brecon, a position he obtained by reporting the existence of the previous archdeacon's mistress!
When his uncle died in 1176, Gerald hoped to gain the position of Bishop of St Davids. Indeed, he was one of four candidates proposed by the canons of the diocese. However, King Henry II in an aim to assert control over the church in Wales, promoted an English Benedictine monk to the role. His failure to secure the see of St Davids made a profound and lasting impact on Gerald, and he continued, throughout his life to pursue the position.
In 1184, Gerald entered the service of King Henry II of England. Two journeys during that period led to the compilation of his books on Ireland and Wales. He visited Ireland on a military expedition (1185–86) with Henry’s son, the future King John, and as a result wrote Topographia Hibernica (c. 1188; ‘Topography of Ireland’) and Expugnatio Hibernica
(c. 1189; ‘Conquest of Ireland’). Gerald’s Welsh tour in 1188 with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury, undertaken to raise soldiers for the Third Crusade, prompted his Itinerarium Cambriae (1191; ‘Itinerary of Wales’) and Cambriae Descriptio (1194; ‘Description of Wales’). These books provide an intriguing flavour - if not an altogether unbiased view - of life in Wales and Ireland during this period, as well as tantalising snippets of local folklore, customs and curiosities.
Gerald records a curious account of King Henry II visit to St Davids, on return from a campaign in Ireland in 1172, and what happened when he crossed Llech Lafar (Speaking Stone) a slab of marble across the river Alun, that was later replaced by Penyffos Bridge, linking the Cathedral and Palace.
According to Gerald, Henry II, was on his way to St Davids to pray, dressed as a pilgrim, on foot and leaning on a staff. He wrote that: “As he came to the white gate, he met a procession of church canons, who received him with due honour and reverence.
As the procession advanced, the clergy walking one by one with proper ceremony, a Welsh woman threw herself at the King’s feet and made a complaint about the Bishop of St David’s. This was explained to the King by an interpreter. Nothing could be done there and then about her petition, so she gestured violently with her hands and, with everyone listening, had the impudence to shout in a loud voice: “Revenge us today, Llech Lafar! Revenge the whole Welsh people on this man!”
She was held back and driven away by those who understood the Welsh language. As she went she shouted even more loudly and violently. She repeated the well-known fiction and prophecy of Merlin, so often heard, that a King of England, who had just conquered Ireland, would be wounded in that country by a man with a red hand, and then, on his return to St David’s would die as he walked over Llech Lafar. This was the name of the stone which served as a bridge over the River Alun, the stream which marks the boundary of the cemetery on the north side of the cathedral……..It so happened that the King knew of this prophecy. When he reached the stone, he stopped and eyed it closely. Then, without further hesitation, he walked boldly over it. As soon as he was across he turned, glared at the stone and with no small indignation made this trenchant remark about the soothsayer: “Merlin was a liar. Who will trust him now?’
Gerald left the king’s service in 1195, retiring to Lincoln to study theology. A few years later, Gerald’s life was again clouded by his frustrated ambition to become bishop of St. Davids - an ambition that had led him to reject four Irish and two Welsh bishoprics! In 1999, he was once again nominated for St. David’s, but the Archbishop of Canterbury promoted a rival candidate. Gerald’s dream was thwarted once more, probably because he was regarded by his English superiors as being too patriotically Welsh. Much of his adult life had been spent campaigning for the independence of the see of St Davids from Canterbury. It did not make him popular with the heads of the Norman Church. It took another seven centuries for the founding of the disestablished Church in Wales in 1920. Perhaps in this, Gerald was a man ahead of his time!
He spent the remainder of his life mostly in academic study, probably back in Lincoln, producing works of devotional instruction and politics. He made his fourth visit to Rome, purely as a pilgrimage, in 1206 in his 60th year. He died in 1223. Though he was never Bishop, Gerald did get his wish of being laid to rest at St Davids Cathedral.
- Ancient Connections, the shared stories of Pembrokeshire and Wexford by Dr Gwilym Morus-Baird, Tara Clarke, Dr. Conor Ryan, Angharad Wynne and Neil Jackman.
- Dictionary of Welsh Biography online (https://biography.wales)
- The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales, Penguin Classics.