Henry Owen (essay date 1889)
SOURCE: Owen, Henry. “The Irish Topography,” “The Conquest of Ireland,” “The Itinerary through Wales,” “The Jewel of the Church.” In Gerald the Welshman, pp. 32-67, 81-92. London: Whiting & Co., 1889.
[In the following excerpt, Owen summarizes four of Gerald's most important works: the Topographia Hibernica, the Expugnatio Hibernica, the Itinerarium Kambriae, and the Gemma Ecclesiastica.]
The Topographia Hibernica was the earliest of Gerald's works. It was the one which he read to the University of Oxford, and the praise of which by Archbishop Baldwin was so pleasing to the author. He seems to have frequently revised it; manuscripts of various editions are in existence in the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, and at the British Museum and Westminster Abbey. Gerald explains to us why he made this new departure, held to be unworthy of a man of letters, and descended to treat of the scenery and social condition of a wild and barbarous country. He remains the sole authority for the state of Ireland during the whole of the middle ages. The work is dedicated to the king (Henry II), and is divided into three books, or distinctions, as it was then the fashion to call them. The first deals with the physical features of the island and with its natural history, the second with its miracles, and the third with its inhabitants.
In the first book, after attributing the prevalence of rain to the hills and the frequent westerly breezes, and speaking of the rivers and lakes in a manner which shows that his knowledge of some of them was not derived from personal acquaintance, he proceeds to dilate, at some length, on the various birds and beasts, deducing from the habits of each some moral for our edification. Thus, from the statement that in the birds of prey the female is larger and stronger than the male, he shows the superior capability for mischief in female kind. He never misses an opportunity, in all his works, of proclaiming his opinion of the sex, and, as he feels that it may be objected that his views on the subject, as a celibate ecclesiastic, are merely those of a theorist, he generally fortifies them by citing the judgment of King Solomon, who may be said to have had a practical acquaintance with the subject. But it must be remembered, to his credit, that there was one woman of whom he spoke in praise, and that was his own mother.1
He describes the different kinds of hawks with the delight of an accomplished falconer, moralises over the hibernation of birds, and the clouds of larks singing praise to God. He states that no partridges, pheasants, jays, or nightingales were to be found in Ireland; but stags, wild boars, hares, and rabbits were in abundance. His accuracy of observation is shown by his distinguishing the species of the Irish from the English hare, a fact unknown to scientific naturalists until some fifty years ago. His remark on the neglect of mankind of the marvellous beauty of the rising and setting of the sun, because of its frequent occurrence, deserves to be recorded. He accounts for the absence of noxious vermin by physical causes, and, with a restraint meritorious in him, declines to believe in their coercion by St. Patrick.2 In his own time a frog was found near Waterford—probably brought over in some ship of the invaders—and was brought to King Donnell (a man of sense, for an Irishman), who tore his hair, saying, “This creature is the bearer of dire news to Ireland.”
In the second book, after dealing in a scientific manner with the tides and the moon's influence upon them, he discards all scientific method in a lengthy treatise on Irish miracles. It would seem as if the Irish, discovering their guest's keen appetite for the miraculous, had fed him with true Irish hospitality. There is St. Colman, who fed the teal (always thirteen in number, on the model of the prior and his twelve monks) during his life, and protects them still; St. Kevin, who grew apples, to feed the sick, off a willow-tree; St. Bridget, who takes her turn in watching the fire by night with her nineteen nuns; St. Kevin, again, in whose hand, outstretched in prayer, a blackbird settled and laid her eggs, and the holy man held his hand steady until the brood was reared; and St. Nannan, most beneficent of all, who cursed the fleas out of a village into a neighbouring meadow, where they covered the grass.
There are the sacred wells, scattered all over the country, relics of the well-worship the earlier settlers had brought with them from more arid climes. One of them overflowed the country because a woman forgot to shut down the lid. There are the two isles in a lake: the greater is fatal to any woman or female who enters it, the cock-birds settle on the bushes, but the hens fly by and leave their mates. In the lesser, where the celibate Coelicolae (the Culdees) devoutly worship God, no man can die until, wearied of the burden of life, he entreats to be ferried over to the main to breathe his last. And there is the island in the lake in Ulster haunted by good and evil spirits, the purgatory of St. Patrick, famous in mediæval legend. He tells us of the lake, of which Tom Moore sung in later days,3 where the fishermen can see the round ecclesiastical towers buried beneath its clear waters; of the Giant's Dance in Kildare, moved by Merlin to form Stonehenge; and digresses to Iceland to tell us of its geysers and its inhabitants who speak the truth.
He finds the Irish saints (like the Welsh) usually of an irascible and vindictive temper, which he attributes to the way in which their souls were vexed while here on earth. He enforces his favourite argument of the finiteness of man's understanding, and the necessity for admiration, and not discussion, of divine miracles; and he approves of the reply of St. Augustine to the scoffing inquiry, what the Deity was engaged in before the creation of the world—“He was preparing a hell for those who ask silly questions.”
In the third book Gerald gives an account, which, he says, he has compiled from more or less untrustworthy records, of the arrival of the various bands of settlers in Ireland, from Caesara, the grand-daughter of Noah, to the Norse and Danes, still a great power in the land in his time, who, he explains, were called in Ireland Ostmen, as to it they came from the East.4 He observes how the various new-comers speedily became infected with the indigenous vices of the soil—a phenomenon which has been observed in more recent times.
The progress of mankind, he says, is from the forest to the field and from the field to the town; the Irish were then in the forest stage. He attributes to the mildness of the climate and the natural fertility of the soil the invincible laziness of the people. They are too indolent to work the various metals beneath their feet, or to employ themselves in manufacture, or in any trade or mechanical art, and agriculture they despise. They dress in a barbarous fashion; instead of cloaks they wear woollen rugs, generally black, the colour of the sheep of the country, and beneath, breeches and hose of one piece, and generally dyed bright. They have no saddles, and guide their horses with a crooked stick. They at all times carry a battleaxe, which they have acquired from the Ostmen (and which, deprived of its head, is the modern shillalagh), and Gerald points out the danger of permitting such a people to have always in their hands a weapon ready for murder, for it is a treacherous race, inconstant and cunning. Nature has been bountiful to them, but for any work of their own hands they are absolutely worthless.
In one thing he praises them, their love of music. And this leads him to a digression in praise of music. It cheers the sorrowful, smooths the troubled brow, stimulates the valour of the brave and the devotions of the pious; it is a comfort to all, a medicine to many. To be ignorant of music is as disgraceful as not to have learned to read. The Irish excel in instrumental music all other nations with whom he was acquainted, although some held that Scotland was then the equal, and perhaps the superior, of Ireland, her teacher. The Irish (like the Spanish) wailing at funerals, although it may seem to add to the present grief, may tranquillise the mind, he thinks, when the outbreak has passed.
He finds much to praise in the Irish clergy, remarkable above all for their chastity. They are devoted to their religious duties, they fast, and are sparing in their diet; but he grieves that so many of them, after a day of prayer and fasting, will strike a balance by drinking the whole night through. But the bishops are dumb heralds, they do not preach, nor do they enforce discipline; but this is sufficiently accounted for in Gerald's eyes by the fact that they were chosen from the monasteries. The monk has the care of only one person—himself; the clerk is the guardian of his flock. Gerald upbraided the Archbishop of Cashel, because Ireland had furnished no martyr for Holy Church. “The Irish”, replied the archbishop, “may be uncivilised and cruel, but they have never raised their hands against God's saints. But there is now come among us a people who know how to make martyrs. Henceforth Ireland will have her martyrs like other nations.”
The book closes with the characters of Henry II and his sons, drawn by the court chaplain; they were afterwards drawn by the same hand in an entirely different manner.
The Expugnatio Hibernica is frequently called by its author the Vaticinalis Historia. The original intention was that it should consist of three books, and the third book, the Liber Vaticiniorum, was probably written but not published. The preface only is extant,5 and from this it appears that Gerald, aided by men skilled in the Welsh tongue, had translated the prophecies of Merlin Sylvester, an ancient copy of which he had found during the Itinerary.6 In the two books which remain he quotes some of these prophecies which relate to Ireland. The book was, like the Topography, revised by the author. The manuscripts are in the British Museum, at Lambeth, and at Oxford and Cambridge. There is an English translation of it, of early fifteenth century date, in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. Gerald's unfavourable comments on Ireland called forth much indignant remonstrance from that country, the principal of which was contained in the elaborate work published by the eminent Irish scholar, Dr. John Lynch, in 1662, and called by him Cambrensis Eversus. Dr. [John] Lingard,7 who may be held to be impartial in such a matter, states that he has attentively perused Dr. Lynch's book, and that on all important points the Irishman had “completely failed” to overturn the Welshman. The principal contemporary authorities for the period are, among the English chroniclers, Hovedon, and among the Irish, The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, a work compiled in the seventeenth century from the Irish annals from the earliest times to the year 1616. There is, besides, a contemporary Anglo-Norman poem, a chanson de geste, composed by an unknown rhymer from accounts furnished to him by Maurice Regan, the secretary (latinier or latimer) of King Dermot.
It must be borne in mind that one great object Gerald had always before him in writing this history was to extol the gallant deeds of his kinsmen. “Who are they who penetrated into the fastnesses of the enemy?—The Geraldines. Who are they who hold the country in submission?—The Geraldines. Who are they whom the foemen dread?—The Geraldines. Who are they whom envy would disparage?—The Geraldines. Yet fight on my gallant kinsmen,
“Felices facti si quid mea carmina possuit.”(8)
The work is dedicated to Richard I, then Earl of Poitou. In the dedication of the later edition to King John, Gerald ventures to suggest that it may be translated into Norman-French, that he might reap some reward for his labours, and he proceeds to quote his facetious friend, Walter Mapes—“on whose soul God have mercy” (his old friend was dead): “You have written a great deal, Master Gerald, and I have talked a great deal; your writing is of much more value than my talk. But I talk in the vulgar tongue, which everybody can understand, while you write in Latin, for learned and liberal princes, and there are not many of them about in these days.”
The history begins with the landing of Fitz Stephen near Wexford, in 1169, and ends with the visit of Earl John in 1185. It is of especial interest to Welshmen, as the first conquerors of Ireland under the Norman kings came from Wales. Gerald speaks of them as the “men of St. David's”. They included the kinsmen of Gerald, all descendants of Nesta—the Fitz Geralds, the De Barris, the Fitz Stephens, the Fitz Henrys, and the De Cogans (who have been identified with the old Pembrokeshire family of the Wogans). We hear, too, of Maurice de Prendergast9; that stout and brave soldier from Roose, David Welsh, who took his name from his family and his race; and Robert le Poer, whose descendant (the Marquis of Waterford) still bears among his titles that of Baron of Haverfordwest.
The original object of the expedition was to restore to his dominions Dermot MacMurchard, or MacMurrough, King of Leinster, who had fallen into trouble through what Gerald's historical lore had told him had been the origin of evil since the world began—a woman. He had run away with another man's wife. The MacMurroughs were one of the four ruling houses of Ireland, whose dominions corresponded roughly with the four provinces. Meath, sometimes considered a fifth kingdom, was the royal domain assigned to the ard-rìgh, or high king, an elective office (which may be compared with the Saxon Bretwulda), then held by Roderic O'Connor of Connaught. There were also several kinglets and chiefs, whose perpetual dissensions and wars were a source of great assistance to the invaders.
Dermot, a barbarian, whose brutality afterwards disgusted his allies, fled to England and obtained the favour of the king, and promise of help from the men of Bristol (then, after London and Norwich, the chief city in the kingdom), and from Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke and Strigul (near Chepstow).10
The expedition was also favoured by Rhys ap Griffith, Prince of South Wales, whose father and grandfather had been aided in their time by the Kings of Leinster. There are traces of frequent communication between the people of West Wales and their kin across the channel. The Goidelic division of the Celts, who had been driven before the advancing Kymry, had returned to Dyved and North Wales, in the fifth century, to bring Christianity and to leave their mark on the country.11
Dermot, who had been feasting his eyes with the sight of his native shores from St. David's, crossed first, and was soon followed by Robert Fitz Stephen, who had been released from prison by Prince Rhys for this purpose. The combined forces take Wexford and defeat the men of Ossory, a district of Leinster comprising the present county of Kilkenny. Roderic, the high king, summons all Ireland to his aid, and the invaders come to terms. But the truce was of short duration. Maurice Fitz Gerald, “a man of maiden modesty, true in word and deed”, arrives with more Welshmen, and the invaders march on Dublin, which sues for terms. Dermot now aspires to be high king, and sends a message to rouse the lagging Strongbow: “We have watched the storks and the swallows, the summer birds have come and gone, but no breeze has brought to us your long-expected aid.”
Then comes the earl from Milford; Waterford falls; the marriage of Strongbow with Eva, the daughter of Dermot, is duly solemnised, in accordance with the previous arrangement; and the army marches on Dublin. A desperate effort is made by Godred, the Norse king of Man, and the lords of the Southern Isles12 to relieve the Ostmen of Dublin, aided by King Roderic and the Archbishop Laurence; but the Norse and Irish hosts are beaten off, and Dublin remains thenceforth under English rule.13
The principal resistance to the invaders had come from the Ostmen—the Norse and Danes—who had been in Ireland as pirates, colonists, and traders since the eighth century, and who, although their power had been broken by the famous battle of Clontarf, fought on Good Friday, 1014, still held their detached strongholds, principally on the east coast. The Ostmen, after the invasion, became incorporated in the English pale.14 Gerald describes the earthen forts in Ireland of the earlier Norse settlers, who have left so many traces in his native county in their raths—the Scandinavian names of places—and in their descendants along the coast.
The author puts into the mouths of the leaders set orations, after the classical models, and the Irish chieftains are represented as animating their followers by citing examples from Roman history. We also have full-length portraits of the principal actors in the drama, and the colouring in some of them is laid on with no unsparing hand.
Meanwhile the king grew jealous; he feared that Strongbow might set up in Ireland an independent rule, to the danger of the English crown; he forbade further supplies to be sent, and Strongbow submitted to hold all his conquests of the king. In 1171 Henry landed at Waterford with an army and his title-deed.
This was the famous bull “Laudabiliter”, granted in 1155 (at which time Henry meditated an invasion of Ireland), by Adrian IV, the only English pope,15 and confirmed by his successor, Alexander III, the then reigning pontiff. Gerald gives us the document in full, which, he says, was deposited with the royal archives at Winchester. It sets forth that Adrian, the bishop, the servant of the servants of God, in recognition of the laudable desire of the king of the English to restore Ireland to the garden of the Lord, grants him that country, which, like all islands on which the sun of righteousness has shed its rays, is the dominion of the Holy Roman Church,16 reserving to the blessed Peter the annual tribute of one penny for every house.
Henry spent six months in Ireland, the longest stay ever made there by an English monarch. His return appears to have been delayed by the tempestuous winter of that year. He organised the civil government, and caused a synod of the Irish clergy to be held at Cashel, whose constitutions Gerald gives us at length; they relate to baptism, marriage, funerals, the making of wills, the payment of tithes, the exactions of the petty kings (reguli) and chiefs on Church property, and enact that all the sacred offices shall henceforth be performed in accordance with the usage of the Holy Catholic Church as observed in England. Gerald had previously told of the synod of Armagh, held two years before, when the Irish clergy ascribed the recent invasion to the sins of the people, especially to the slave trade, of which the headquarters were at Bristol.17
Henry kept the feast of the Nativity at Dublin in a palace constructed of wattled work, after the manner of the country, and received the submission of all the native chiefs, with the possible exception of those of Ulster. He granted to his men of Bristol the city of Dublin to dwell in (the charter is still preserved in the Dublin archives), and, as lord paramount, gave Meath, the domain of the ard-rìgh, to Hugh de Laci, the deputy, whom Gerald praises as a very Frenchman for temperance.
After the departure of the king we hear of the famous storming of Limerick, and various incursions into Ulster, Munster, and Connaught. But these had no permanent result, and the power of the English king was for centuries confined to the Pale—a succession of counties palatine along the east coast.
In 1185, Earl John, the king's son, came over. His father had created him Lord of Ireland—a title borne by the English kings until Henry VIII renounced the successor of Pope Adrian, and called himself King of Ireland—or, as the Irish Act phrased it, “King and Emperor of the realm of England and of the land of Ireland.” In John's train came Gerald, this being his second visit.
Gerald seems to have been disgusted with the conduct of John and his court, and leaves to other historians to narrate this part of the history; but he cannot refrain from declaring the causes of the failure of the prince, whom he afterwards denounced as the worst of a bad breed. He relates the arrival of John Comyn, a monk of Evesham, the future builder of St. Patrick's Cathedral, appointed, through the influence of the king, to the archbishopric of Dublin, and quotes the four prophets of Ireland, who declare that Ireland shall be subdued by the English from the centre to the sea—some time before the Day of Judgment.
He digresses, after his manner, on the Crusades, the death of Becket, the character of the king (still in the style of the court chaplain), and various events in contemporary history which occur to him. He attributes to the check of the first invaders by the jealousy of the king, the disastrous fact in Irish history that the country never became thoroughly subjugated to the English crown, and that the people remained for centuries divided into the three classes of the king's friends, the king's enemies, and the king's rebels.18
He divides the invaders at the time of John's visit into Normans, English, and “our people”, i.e., the Welsh. He forgets his own Norman blood in denouncing the first named as a grasping, boasting set, who despised everybody else. He gives his receipt for the conquest of Ireland, and, with characteristic gallantry, addresses himself to the insoluble problem how Ireland should be governed. He finds the ideal ruler of Ireland in the strong man armed.
There are three editions of the Itinerarium Kambriæ to be found among the manuscripts in the libraries of the British Museum and of the two Universities. The first two editions were dedicated to William de Longchamp, Bishop of Ely, Justiciary of the realm in the absence of Richard I, and to St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln. In the third there are two dedications to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the barons against King John, in one of which Gerald regrets his error in dedicating his Irish works to that graceless and thankless person, Henry II, and to his successor in vice, Richard of Poitou.
Henry II had been deaf to all entreaties to succour the failing kingdom of Jerusalem, but, in 1187, all Christendom was thrilled by the news that the Holy City was again in the hands of the infidels.19 The king then assumed the cross,20 and vast preparations were made for the third crusade, which was led to Palestine, after Henry's death, by his son Richard and by Philip Augustus of France.
Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury,21 was sent into Wales to preach the crusade, accompanied by the first minister of state, Ranulf de Glanville, the Justiciary, the most famous lawyer of the day.22 The expedition was not without its political reasons. The royal officials had an opportunity of surveying the country, not possible under any other circumstances; the religious conscription would send to Palestine many of the king's troublesome enemies; and the metropolitan of the English Church would have the opportunity of asserting his still not undisputed rights by celebrating Mass in each of the four cathedrals of Wales. It is to be noted that the canons of St. David's attempted to persuade Prince Rhys to prevent the archbishop having access to the metropolitan church of St. David's, but the prince's notions of hospitality forbade it, “lest he might wound the holy man's feelings.”
“The sages of the church and the law”, says Dean [Walter Farquhar] Hook,23 “were under the guidance of a young man, tall, slender in figure, with delicate features, and a fine complexion, over-shadowed by large, wide eyebrows; a man of learning and a wit, but self-sufficient, conceited, and an intolerable egotist.” It was not without reason that on the Archbishop's right hand was placed the leader of the clergy of St. David's—the scion of the blood-royal of Wales. The effect of that solemn and stately procession, with the successor of St. Thomas of Canterbury riding in full armour at its head, the white cross on his breast, it is easy to imagine. The champions of the captive Jerusalem were received with reverence alike by the Welsh princes and the Norman barons, and could traverse the remote country districts with equal safety as the towns.
The Welsh princes of the time were: in South Wales, Rhys ap Griffith (Gerald's Welsh uncle), called, by the English, the Lord Rhys, the last prince of Deheubarth. Rhys was a man of conspicuous ability. He was made by Henry II, in 1176, Chief Justice of South Wales, and on the death of that king, being cavalierly treated by his successor, he reconquered nearly the whole of his ancient Principality. He died of the yellow plague in 1197. In North Wales, on the death of the famous Owen Gwynedd in 1169, the Principality was usurped by his son David, who was ousted, in 1194, by his (Owen's) grandson, Llewelyn ap Iorwerth—Llewelyn the Great.24 Powys, from its situation had been more exposed to English attacks. On the death of Madoc ap Meredith, the last prince of Powys, in 1160, it was divided into Higher Powys, afterwards called Powys Gwenwynwyn,25 held at the date of the Itinerary by Madoc's nephew, Owen Cyveilioc, a bard, some of whose poems are still extant; and Lower Powys, or Powys Vadoc, held by the sons of Madoc. There were, also, still Welsh chieftains of importance in Merioneth, Glamorgan, and elsewhere.
Among the Norman barons settled in Wales we hear of William de Braose, a man of might in the neighbourhood of Gerald's house at Llanddew, a grasping soldier of most pious conversation; of Bernard de Newmarch, the Norman conqueror of Brecheiniog, who, like some of the other invaders, married a Welshwoman, and whose daughter brought the province as her dower to Milo, Earl of Hereford. It is of Milo that Gerald relates that, when riding near the lake of Brecheiniog26 with Griffith ap Rhys, he jestingly said to his companion, “It is an old Welsh tradition that the birds of this lake will sing at the bidding of their lawful prince.” Griffith bade Milo, as actual lord of the country, to try; he tried, and failed. Then Griffith, dismounting from his horse, prayed: “O Lord, who knowest all things, if I am the rightful prince, I command these birds, in Thy name, to declare it.” And immediately the birds, flapping the water with their wings, began to cry aloud. Milo tells the king (Henry I), who exclaims, “By the death of Christ (his usual oath), we do wrong and robbery to this people, for the land is theirs.”
We hear, too, of Maurice de Londres (lord of Kidwelly27) who, like the Conqueror, “loved the high deer as if he had been their father”. But his wife persuaded him that they killed her sheep, “for women are very apt in deceiving men”. There is also Robert de Belesme, Earl of Shrewsbury, who had a stud-farm of Spanish horses in Powys.
The expedition started on Ash Wednesday from Hereford. They visited Radnor, crossed the Wye at Hay to Llanddew28 (a mansion of the see of St. David's, near Brecon, where Gerald then lived), thence by Talgarth across the hills to Abergavenny, and so down the valley of the Usk by Caerleon to Newport and the noble castle of Cardiff. They pass through Llandaff and Ewenny to the noble Cistercian monastery of Margam. Thence along the coast, over dangerous quicksands and across rivers not yet bridged, to Neath and Swansea, and so by Kidwelly and across the Towy, in boats, to Caermarthen. From Caermarthen by Whitland (Alba Domus or Alba Landa)29 and Llawhaden, the castle of the Bishop of St. David's, to Haverfordwest, thence by Camrose and Newgale Sands30 to St. David's. From St. David's along the old pilgrims' way, by the northern coast of the county, where the cross, cut deep in some old stone in the road-side, still marks the route to the sacred city. They visit St. Dogmael's, and are handsomely entertained by Prince Rhys at his castle at Aberteivi (Cardigan). From Cardigan up the Tivy to Strata Florida—“the Westminster Abbey of Wales”31—and so to Llanbadarn Vawr, once, and perhaps again to be, a cathedral church.32 They cross the Dovey into North Wales and follow the coast line to Pwllheli;33 then strike across to Nevin on Carnarvon Bay, where Gerald is said to have found the works of Merlin Sylvester. Still keeping to the coast, they reach the little cell of Basingwerk (near Holywell), and go up the Dee to Chester, visiting on their way the island of Anglesey and the cathedrals of Bangor and St. Asaph (the latter Gerald always speaks of as “that poor little church of Llanelwy”). They had hurried to Chester to keep the Easter festival. After Easter they turn inland, and traversing with greater rapidity Powys and the borders, they pass through Album Monasterium (probably Whitchurch in Shropshire), Oswestry, Shrewsbury, and Ludlow, back to the starting point at Hereford. A like journey had never been made through Wales. After spending a month in South Wales, they passed through North Wales in eight days; Powys...
(The entire section is 12236 words.)