Dr Robert Anthony
Monday, 28 March 1188: it is not often in medieval history that an event can be dated with such precision, especially when concerning Wales, and we have Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), scholar, canon of St David’s and Archdeacon of Brecon, to thank for this. The event in question is described in his book: The Journey Through Wales (1191), an account, almost in diary form (although with lavish digressions), of the six week mission to south and north Wales by Baldwin Archbishop of Canterbury to preach the Cross in support of the Third Crusade.
Baldwin & Gerald
Archbishop Baldwin, of humble origins, was a scholarly ex-monk from Exeter. According to Gerald, he was an eloquent preacher but not an effective leader of the Church. Baldwin enjoyed the company of the tall, handsome, extrovert, self-confident Gerald – and recognised the advantage of being accompanied by a man who had been born in Manorbier Castle (1145/6) of Anglo-Norman William de Barri and Angharad, daughter of Nest and granddaughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of south Wales. In short, Gerald knew, or was related to, everyone – Anglo-Norman or Welsh – who might be of consequence in furthering Baldwin’s efforts to recruit soldiers for his holy mission. And Baldwin and Gerald were friends, despite their difference in age.
Baldwin, Gerald and entourage began their journey at Hereford on or about Friday, 4 March 1188 heading, initially, for St David’s via Hay-on-Wye, Brecon, Abergavenny, Caerleon, Newport (Mon), Cardiff, Swansea, Carmarthen and Haverfordwest, preaching at each of these towns and at places in between. They reached St David’s on the 24th March and may have stayed there for three days. Gerald records that, after saying Mass at the Cathedral in the early morning of the 28th March, Baldwin set out without him (leaving Gerald to preach) and travelled through Cemais to meet, at Aberteifi (Cardigan), Rhys ap Gruffudd (the Lord Rhys), Prince of south Wales (and Gerald’s cousin). The reason for the meeting is not stated.
After his meeting with the Lord Rhys, it is probable that, on Monday, 28 March, Baldwin spent the night at Nevern Castle, reuniting with Gerald on the following day at St Dogmael’s where they both spent the night at the Abbey. On the next day, both Baldwin and Gerald preached ‘to the multitude’, in the presence of the Lord Rhys and his sons, near the bridgehead at Cardigan where, wrote Gerald, ‘many were induced to take the Cross’.
Baldwin and Gerald preached either in Latin or French, the language of the educated, with their words translated into Welsh – although, it appears, not always: Gerald remarked that, at Haverfordwest, he had preached ‘with some eloquence’ only in Latin and French but those who could not understand a word, he wrote, were ’just as much moved to tears as the others’. Whilst Gerald was, no doubt, also competent in English, it is uncertain that ‘Gerallt Gymro’ spoke Welsh with any fluency (what language did he use when speaking to his royal Welsh kinsmen?) Interestingly, he mentions that, a few years later, he had to rebuke his nephew, Gerald FitzPhilip, for not making more effort to learn a ‘decent’ language (i.e. French or Latin) instead of speaking Welsh.
Gerald’s attitude towards Wales and the Welsh shifted as he grew older and was coloured by his lengthy, and ultimately futile, battles with the Anglo-Norman establishment to be appointed Archbishop of St David’s (1176 and 1199-03). In his Description of Wales (1194) (and in other works) he is equivocal about Wales and the Welsh, to say the least, but he undoubtedly grew in sympathy with the plight of the Welsh people and, through their struggles against the invader Normans, recognised, perhaps, an emerging Welsh nationhood.
An impressive approach
How might Nevern Castle have appeared to Baldwin when he laid down his head there on the night of 28th March 1188?
Baldwin would have travelled from Cardigan on horseback, with a few trusted servants. If they crossed the river bridge at the ancient religious settlement of Nanhyfer (Nevern), the small party would have seen, high above them (and unobscured by vegetation), an impressive array of stone buildings, including two square towers, constructed along the edge of a steep, almost vertical, incline which constituted the southern boundary of the Castle. These had been built by the Lord Rhys, in the 1160s, probably to serve as his llys (royal court), and were designed to impress and awe.
Climbing up the steep roadway to the main, south-western, entrance to the Castle, Baldwin would have been confronted by the two square towers of clay mortared slate, first glimpsed from below, flanking a more recent gate of squared gritstone constructed by William FitzMartin, who had held the Castle since 1172 following his marriage to the Lord Rhys’s daughter, Angharad. On passing through the gate, Baldwin would’ve noted, to his right, the two substantial halls at right angles to each other and, beyond, a smaller building, possibly a chapel.
To the north of these buildings lay the bailey – the hub of the Castle – alive with activity and commotion: blacksmithing, carpentry, wool-spinning, animal husbandry, military activity. Beyond, the steep-sided Castle motte (mound) designed for defence, supported a stone round tower of two or three stories. Across the bailey on the eastern boundary, and on the far side of a rock-cut ditch still being excavated, was an ‘inner castle’ with a recently-built square stone tower.
Baldwin was a visitor of high status so it is likely that the lord, William FitzMartin, was in residence, with his household. That night, Baldwin would have dined with William and his lady Angharad on the daïs (with canopy above) at one end of the Great Hall. William’s household ate below from trestle tables arranged around the central open hearth. The Great Hall, the centre of social life in the Castle, had recently been extended and was now an impressive 73 feet long and 20 feet wide. The Hall was open to the roof and smoke from the hearth escaped through it, blackening the roof timbers.
The following morning, before his journey to St Dogmael’s to reunite with Gerald, it is likely that Baldwin would have been asked to say Mass in the lord’s chapel.
Both Baldwin and Gerald took the Cross for the Third Crusade. Baldwin kept his oath and died of disease at the siege of Acre in 1190. Gerald was luckier for, after starting out for the Holy Land in 1189, he was, at the behest of the new king Richard I, sent back to England, and given absolution from his oath.
Christopher Caple, Nevern Castle – Castell Nanhyfer (Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, 2021)
Michael Richter, Giraldus Cambrensis (Aberystwyth, 1972)
Lewis Thorpe (ed), Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales (Harmondsworth, 1984)]
Top illustration: Part of Gerald Cambrensis and Archbishop Baldwin on their tour of Wales by Ivan Lapper, ©1988 CADW