Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Norman Frontiersman in Wales

by Tracey Warr

Old style histories merely recounting one king after another do not deliver the full freight of human emotions and actions through time. Charting experiences of lesser people can give more sense of the daily complexity of lived history. Gerald FitzWalter of Windsor, for instance, was a minor Norman knight, a pioneer in Wales at the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th. A clever and resourceful man, he survived and thrived amidst the vagaries of life under two Norman kings: William II, and then his brother, Henry I – the sons of the Conqueror.

It took the Normans more than 200 years to conquer Wales rather than the fortuitous (for them) one day in which they conquered England at Hastings. The challenges of Wales included its mountainous and often sodden terrain, tenacious resistance by the Welsh, the lack of a single Welsh king to overthrow. Wales was initially peripheral to Norman ambitions and William the Conqueror left its subjugation to his marcher lords: Roger Montgommery, Earl of Shrewsbury; Hugh, Earl of Chester; William fitz Osbern, Earl of Hereford. Welsh conquest proceeded erratically with the Normans taking territory and establishing castles which were often soon lost back to the Welsh.

Montgommery Castle, Wales, near the English border, was the seat of the Norman
 marcher baron, the Earl of Shrewsbury and the Montgommery family. By John Speed, 1552?-1629.

It was never a simple case of Welsh pitted against Normans. Sometimes a Welsh king allied with Normans to contest against another Welsh ruler. Welsh leaders exploited disturbances in the Norman state to their own advantage and vice versa. The initial Norman settlement in south-west Wales, where Gerald FitzWalter was active, was precarious. It clustered around the coastline where escape and supply could be effected by sea. ‘Periodic Welsh offensives from 1094 onwards made this province no place for the faint-hearted’, wrote Ifor Rowlands. Gerald FitzWalter proved himself to be a full-hearted frontiersman.

We see glimpses of Gerald in the primary sources including the Annales Cambriae and the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes of Wales). He was the second son of a minor Norman lord, Walter FitzOther, the Forester of Windsor. When Gerald first appears he is in service to the powerful Montgommery family. Possibly he was sent to the household of Roger Montgommery, Earl of Shrewsbury, at the age of seven, to train as a squire, as was usual. Perhaps being of similar age with Arnulf, the youngest of the five Montgommery sons, he became a member of Arnulf’s conroi – his circle of close friends and bodyguards.

Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes of Wales), a translation of a lost
 Latin work based on the annals kept by churches and monasteries. National Library of Wales

In 1093 Rhys ap Tewdwr, the Welsh king in southern Wales, was killed and the Earl of Shrewsbury made a rapid, opportunistic march through Wales to establish Pembroke Castle on the southern-most tip, as a stronghold for his youngest son. Arnulf also possessed lands in England and he left Gerald as his steward to hold Pembroke for him. And that is exactly what Gerald did. At times - when repeated Welsh resurgences took back territory - he was the only Norman left clinging onto a toehold in south-west Wales. In 1094 Pembroke Castle and Rhy-y-Gors (near Carmarthen) were the only Norman castles to survive Welsh attacks. The commander of Rhyd-y-Gors, William FitzBaldwin, died soon after and the garrison was forced to withdraw. Gerald, however, hung on.

At this time Pembroke Castle was a mere stockade of wooden stakes and turfs with a small garrison. During a desperate, prolonged siege in 1096, fifteen knights deserted by boat, very likely from The Wogan, a cavern deep in the rock beneath the castle, that lets out into the millstream. Gerald transferred the lands of the deserters to fifteen men-at-arms and made them knights. He ordered the last four hogs jointed and the meat thrown over the fortifications, suggesting to Welsh besiegers that supplies were plentiful. He then put together a fake letter to Arnulf with his personal seal attached, saying he would not need reinforcements for at least four more months.

Henry G. Gastineau, 1791-1876 H.W. Bond, fl. 1827-1849
This letter was left outside the Bishop’s Palace at Lamphey, as if it had been accidentally dropped, where it was duly found by the Welsh attackers who called off their siege. The letter was presumably also planted by someone – perhaps Gerald – slipping in and out of the castle under the besiegers’ noses via The Wogan. Gerald’s grandson, the colourful writer, Gerald of Wales, was the source of this story, and perhaps it is embellished, nevertheless a picture emerges of Gerald as a wily and stubborn opponent.

The Wogan cavern beneath Pembroke Castle which shows evidence of prehistoric
 occupation. ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

The Norman kings and nobility were as prone as the Welsh to familial dissension. William the Conqueror had to quell a rebellion led by his brother and members of the Montgommery family. William Rufus and Henry dealt with rebellions from Normans who viewed their older brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, as the rightful King of the English. Henry, William the Conqueror’s third son, was a man of tremendous energy. He became king in 1100 after the unexpected death of his brother William Rufus (but that is another story). Henry immediately began a strategy of getting the Norman nobility thoroughly under control. The powerful and arrogant Montgommery family had been implicated several times over in rebellion and Henry decided it was time to dig them out of their strong, entrenched position.

Pembroke Castle, south-west Wales. In Gerald’s day the castle was a moated,
wood and earthwork fortification. Chris Downer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

In 1102 Henry accused the Montgommery brothers of treason. The overwhelming evidence against Robert de Bellême, now the Earl of Shrewsbury, was provided by Henry’s spies. Robert at first denied the charges, then escaped from the court in Winchester, and fought a series of sieges against Henry throughout the summer, before finally losing his English earldom and fleeing to his lands in Normandy. His brother Roger chose not to risk King Henry’s ire, taking self-exile on his wife’s lands in France, and losing his vast holdings in England. Arnulf initially fled to Wales and sent Gerald to Ireland to negotiate with  Muirchertach ua Briain, King of Munster, for men and ships. Arnulf then fled to Ireland, where Gerald’s negotiations had included Arnulf’s marriage to Muirchertach ua Briain’s daughter, Lafracoth. Arnulf lost all his lands in Wales and England. Gerald was obliged to hand over Pembroke, which he had defended so well for ten years, to King Henry’s loyal representative, a knight named Saer.

For the next few years Henry sought to control south Wales through Welsh allies (Iorwerth ap Bleddyn and Hywel ap Goronwy). Then he began recolonising Wales with new Norman lords, firmly loyal to the crown, as the marcher earls had never been. These new lords included Richard of Beaumaris, Bishop of London, governing Shrewsbury and the former Montgommery lands; Henry, Earl of Warwick in the Gower; and Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, at Kidwelly.

Gerald might easily have been attainted a traitor along with the Montgommerys, but he managed instead to survive the disaster. He was rehabilitated into King Henry’s good graces (no easy task) and by 1105 Henry was sufficiently reassured of Gerald’s loyalty to reconfirm him as steward of Pembroke. Gerald, after all, knew the lay of the land there as no other Norman did. It is possible he learnt to speak Welsh and had made himself familiar with Welsh laws and customs. Henry strengthened Gerald’s position further by giving him Nest ferch Rhys as his wife. Nest was the daughter of the former king of Deheubarth, of south Wales, and Henry’s own former mistress. (Henry had an exceptional number of mistresses and illegitimate children - at least twenty-two – but that’s also another story.) Nest, as a member of the southern Welsh royal family, lent an air of validity to Gerald’s authority in the area. Gerald was also granted Moulsford in Berkshire and lands in Pembrokeshire, including Carew, which may have been his wife’s dowry. After the plummet of 1102, a few short years later, he was very much on the up again.

Cilgerran Castle, the possible site of Nest's abduction - William M. Connolley
[CC BY-SA 3.0,]

Between 1104 and 1109 Henry was preoccupied in Normandy where he finally succeeding in ousting his older brother Robert to become Duke of Normandy as well as King of the English. Despite his absence, he did not neglect matters in Wales. Around 1108 Henry settled a community of loyal and pugnacious Flemings in the Rhos district, the hinterland of Pembroke Castle, and Gerald built the castle of Cenarth Bychan (probably modern day Cilgerran) close to the border with Powys. Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, King of Powys, had dominated mid-Wales and been the leading light in Welsh resistance for thirty years. Both the Flemish community and Cenarth Bychan Castle may have been intended as a provocation to Cadwgan, or as a forward-thinking defensive strategy against him. Either way, it is possible that Gerald (as the man on the ground) suggested this strategy to Henry. If so, his strategy backfired spectacularly.

Soon after Christmas 1109, Cadwgan’s son Owain attacked Cenarth Bychan, setting it on fire and kidnapping Gerald’s wife, Nest, and their four small children: (probably) Henry (the illegitimate son of King Henry), William, Maurice and Angharad. Gerald escaped – according to the Chronicle of the Princes – down the latrine chute. The chronicler writes that this escape route was his wife’s suggestion. The image of Gerald wriggling down the privy in the dead of winter as his castle burned and his wife was stolen, might undermine him, make him look ridiculous, but it also seems in tune with his unusual method of defending Pembroke in 1096. The chronicle records that Owain was infatuated with Nest, however stealing her was undoubtedly a political act to undermine Gerald. The children were returned soon afterwards, whilst Nest remained with Owain for a further two years. She may have been an innocent victim in the kidnap, or she may have colluded in the attack. She was Welsh and a cousin of the rebels, making her suspect in Norman eyes.

Garderobe, Peveril Castle, Derbyshire. By Dave.Dunford 

King Henry sent the Bishop of London to negotiate Nest’s return and she was eventually reunited with Gerald. The Bishop astutely exploited rivalry amongst Cadwgan and Owain’s kin and both Cadwgan and his brother Iorwerth died as a consequence in 1111.

In 1113 Nest’s brother, Gruffudd ap Rhys, rightful Welsh king of south-west Wales, returned from Ireland where he had grown up. He spent time with Gerald and Nest at Pembroke; perhaps another wily move by Gerald: keeping the pretender under his eye.

In 1114 Henry led a determined expedition into Wales. Owain, by now King of Powys, was the last to submit but eventually reached agreement with Henry and accompanied him on an expedition to Normandy. On his return Owain may have acted as Henry’s agent against Nest’s rebellious brother Gruffudd ap Rhys, or he may have been in cahoots with Gruffudd, continuing to contest Norman rule. Gradually, however, a Cambro-Norman culture was emerging in Wales.

In 1115 Gruffudd was accused of rebellion against Henry. He fled to the court of the Welsh king of Gwynedd in the north who betrayed him to the Normans. He escaped, taking the King of Gwynedd’s daughter, Gwenllian, with him (yet another fascinating story I can’t tell here). In 1115 another of Nest’s surviving brothers, Hywel, escaped from prison in Carmarthen.

In 1116 Gerald finally got his revenge on Owain for Nest’s kidnap, when they accidentally met, near Carmarthen. Both men were accompanied by soldiers. Gerald’s party included Flemings who had reason to hate Owain for his brutal raids. Owain was killed in the skirmish. Gerald may himself have taken a mortal injury in that fight. He died sometime between 1116, when he disappears from the record, and 1130, when the Fleming Sheriff Hait is recorded accounting for Pembroke. Given Nest’s subsequent two marriages to Hait and Stephen de Marais, Constable of Cardigan, and her further children from these marriages, it seems likely Gerald died sooner rather than later.

Gerald and Nest’s children continued Cambro-Norman lives in Wales and Ireland. William FitzGerald inherited Carew Castle; Maurice FitzGerald became a lord in Ireland; David became Bishop of St David’s; Angharad married William de Barry of Manorbier. (They were the parents of the writer, Gerald of Wales).
If Gerald had not clung so fast to his moated rock at the tip of Wales, the picture might have been very different. In the early 12th century Gruffudd ap Cynan regained most of northern Wales from the Normans and Cadwgan ap Bleddyn had a solid hold in mid-Wales. The Welsh might have taken Wales back from the Normans altogether.

[all above images are in the public domain - unless otherwise attributed, and all via Wikipedia commons]


Tracey Warr was born in London, lived in Pembrokeshire, Wales and studied MA Creative Writing at University of Wales in Carmarthen. She currently divides her time between the UK and France. Her writing has been shortlisted for the Impress Prize and the Rome Film Festival Book Initiative, won a Santander Research Award, a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary and an Author’s Foundation Award. She is a tutor for residential writing courses in France with A Chapter Away. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Literature. She has published three historical novels with Impress Books, all set in the early medieval period: Almodis (2011), The Viking Hostage (2014) and her latest book, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), is the first in a trilogy about Nest ferch Rhys.

Conquest - Daughter of the Last King

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