Chapter 4


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Norman Wales

Almost immediately after his decisive victory over Harold and the Saxon army, William of Normandy set about establishing a strong, centralized kingdom in England. To help govern Wales, he set up powerful, semi-independent earldoms on the borders -- at Hereford, Shrewsbury, and Chester. From these heavily fortified bases, military zones we call the Marches, the Norman "Marcher Lords" made their influence felt not only in their own territories but also over the border, completely colonizing Gwent by 1087 and much of the rest of Southeast Wales by 1100.

Norman Castles soon dotted much of the Welsh countryside -- it is hardly possible to find a settlement of any size where they were not built. Even today, their massive piles dominate such centres of urban settlement as Cardigan, Pembroke, Brecon, Cardiff, Caerphilly and many others. In each lordship, the Norman earl reigned as a minor king, usurping the powers previously enjoyed by the native Welsh rulers.

In mountainous, forbidding Northwest Wales, however, Norman castles were scarce; under a few dynamic leaders, much of the area was gradually recovered from Norman rule. Thanks to the heroic efforts of such Welsh rulers as Owain Gwynedd and Madog ap Maredudd, Gwynedd and Powys became re-established as major political units enjoying Welsh law. Even the coming of the Normans to the rest of Wales did not spell all gloom and doom. Though the newcomers seem to have despised the Saxons whom they had so easily subdued, they had much more respect for the Welsh, whose Cymric language was probably much more intelligible to them than that of the barbaric English.

In many parts of Wales, especially along the borders, parts of Glamorgan and southern Pembrokeshire (where the Normans invited Flemish weavers to settle), relationships between the two people were quite amicable at times, and for generations Norman and Welshman of the same relative social status would meet as equals. Even intermarriage was not uncommon. At the same time, while the Saxon language was quickly abolished from law and government in England, to be replaced by Latin or Norman French, the Welsh language flourished west of Offa's Dyke as a medium of both institutions. It was in the Norman Lords' interests to develop close ties with the Welsh aristocracy, for their main interest seems to have been a relatively simple one: to keep the peace by establishing a secure frontier.

It was in south Wales that the Norman presence was most felt, as their many strongholds testify. Their presence there helped bring Wales out of its western-facing, introspective world and made it part of the Continent. It was to undergo an explosion of literature that made it the envy of Europe, covering a wide area, including writings on history, law, medicine and healing, geography and the lives of the saints and theology. The lives of St. Beuno and St. David, the "Book of the Anchorite," and some mystical works have all survived. So has the "Mabinogion," seen by many as perhaps Wales' greatest contribution to European literature (though some reserve this honor for the work of poet Dafydd ap Gwilym).

The title "Mabinogion" (Bendigeidfran character from Mabinogion, right) was unknown in the Norman period; the tales may have been composed by a single cleric sometime in the 11th century using material from a much earlier period involving figures from Celtic mythology. The title was first used by Lady Charlotte Guest in her remarkable translation published between 1838 and 1849; it seems to have developed from a word "Mabinogi," originally meaning "boyhood," through a tale of a hero's boyhood to a tale in general. The texts are preserved in the "White Book of Rhyderch" (written in mid-14th century) and the Red Book of Hergest (written later).

Gwyn Williams cites Matthew Arnold's use of a passage from the "Mabinogion" as an example of Celtic magic: "And they saw a tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in flames from the root to the top, and the other half was green and in full leaf." Such magic is the very stuff of the Mabinogion, unknown outside Wales until the translations of Lady Guest. It is part and parcel of that glorious tradition of Welsh poetry that is so little known outside the borders of Wales itself. The magic is continued in that other great contribution of Wales to the world -- the body of literature as Arthuriana.

While the "Mabinogion" may have been unknown outside Wales, the Arthurian tales certainly were not. As we have seen earlier, the name Arthur appears in early Welsh poems In "Y Gododdin" and "Marwnad Cynddylan," Arthur is praised as a ruler of valor and ferocity. Perhaps the most authentic of the early Arthurian references is the chronicle entry for the year 537 that briefly refers to the Battle of Camlan in which Arthur and Medrawd were killed.

In his "Historia Brittonum," in the early ninth century, Nennius described Arthur as "a leader of battles, who defeated the Saxons 12 times, the final battle being Mount Badon." In "Annales Cambriae" (written about 1100 but containing material from 445 to 954) the Battle of Mount Badon is recorded as having taken place in 516, and Arthur is praised as having defeated the Saxons "after bearing the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and nights."

It is to the Norman-Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1090- 1155), that the Arthuriana owes its greatest debt, for his most important work, the "Historia Regum Britanniae", became the basis for a whole new and impressive European literature of Arthurian romance. In Geoffrey's work, a wise, noble, and benevolent king is described as presiding over a chivalric court in a Golden Age of the British people that had existed before arrival of the Saxons.

Geoffrey was born around the year 1090 probably in the vicinity of the town of Monmouth. In 1152 he became Bishop of St. Asaph (Llan Elwy) in Clwyd, a village on the banks of the River Elwy, though he probably never went near there, spending most of his life at Oxford. If not entirely historically accurate, his tales were of vital importance to a sense of national identity. His writings not only gave the Welsh people an account of a classical origin from Brutus of Troy, but it also provided them with their long-lasting claim to the sovereignty of the whole island of Britain.

Other Welsh tales are found in the works of Geoffrey. One of these concerns "Magnus Maximus", (Macsen) Roman commander in Britain who was proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers in 383 and who took his army to Rome to dispossess the incumbent Gratian. He was eventually defeated and killed by Theodosius. More interesting, however, is the belief kept alive even today in folk tales and songs, including "Yma o Hyd" (We're Still Here) by Dafydd Iwan, that Macsen is responsible for the Welsh settling Brittany, earlier known as Armorica, for he is said to have granted lands there to Elen's brother Cynan.

Of the Welsh, medieval French writer Chretien de Troyes wrote: "they are all, by nature wilder than the beasts of the field" (Le Roman de Perceval), yet he was indebted to Welsh sources for his own stirring tales of chivalry and romance. It seems probable that he relied heavily upon the same earlier material as the three Welsh Arthurian romances: Owain, (or Iarlles y Ffynnon: the Lady of the Fountain), "Historia Peredur" and "Geraint ab Erbin". These correspond respectively to "Yvain", "The Perceval" and "The Erec tales of Chretien".

It is also entirely possible that many tales of Arthur accompanied the migrations of British people to Brittany during the time of the Saxon invasions of their homelands. This might account for their popularity in 12th century France where Chretien transformed them into something like the Arthurian legends with which we are familiar today. In any case, Chretien's stories or the tales upon which his verses were based spread throughout France, Germany and England. He gave polish and sophistication to a large body of works that certainly originated in the British Isles among the Welsh people. They were certainly Celtic in origin, and many of the French tales have retained Welsh names for some of the characters, which the Welsh tales have lost.

Chapter 4 Continued
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