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Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book I, Ch. 4: Coed Grono and Abergevenni

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The journey by Coed Grono and Abergevenni

From thence59 we proceeded through the narrow, woody tract called the bad pass of Coed Grono, leaving the noble monastery of Lanthoni, inclosed by its mountains, on our left. The castle of Abergevenni is so called from its situation at the confluence of the river Gevenni with the Usk.

It happened a short time after the death of king Henry I., that Richard de Clare, a nobleman of high birth, and lord of Cardiganshire, passed this way on his journey from England into Wales, accompanied by Brian de Wallingford, lord of this province, and many men-at-arms. At the passage of Coed Grono,60 and at the entrance into the wood, he dismissed him and his attendants, though much against their will, and proceeded on his journey unarmed; from too great a presumption of security, preceded only by a minstrel and a singer, one accompanying the other on the fiddle. The Welsh awaiting his arrival, with Iorwerth, brother of Morgan of Caerleon, at their head, and others of his family, rushed upon him unawares from the thickets, and killed him and many of his followers. Thus it appears how incautious and neglectful of itself is too great presumption; for fear teaches foresight and caution in prosperity, but audacity is precipitate, and inconsiderate rashness will not await the advice of the leader.

A sermon having been delivered at Abergevenni,61 and many persons converted to the cross, a certain nobleman of those parts, named Arthenus, came to the archbishop, who was proceeding towards the castle of Usk, and humbly begged pardon for having neglected to meet him sooner. Being questioned whether he would take the cross, he replied, "That ought not be done without the advice of his friends." The archbishop then asked him, "Are you not going to consult your wife?" To which he modestly answered, with a downcast look, "When the work of a man is to be undertaken, the counsel of a woman ought not to be asked;" and instantly received the cross from the archbishop.

We leave to others the relation of those frequent and cruel excesses which in our times have arisen amongst the inhabitants of these parts, against the governors of castles, and the vindictive retaliations of the governors against the natives. But king Henry II. was the true author, and Ranulf Poer, sheriff of Hereford, the instrument, of the enormous cruelties and slaughter perpetrated here in our days, which I thought better to omit, lest bad men should be induced to follow the example; for although temporary advantage may seem to arise from a base cause, yet, by the balance of a righteous judge, the punishment of wickedness may be deferred, though not totally avoided, according to the words of the poet, -

"Non habet eventus sordida praeda bonos."

For after seven years of peace and tranquillity, the sons and grandsons of the deceased, having attained the age of manhood, took advantage of the absence of the lord of the castle (Abergevenni), and, burning with revenge, concealed themselves, with no inconsiderable force during the night, within the woody foss of the castle. One of them, name Sisillus (Sitsylt) son of Eudaf, on the preceding day said rather jocularly to the constable, "Here will we enter this night," pointing out to him a certain angle in the wall where it seemed the lowest; but since

" - Ridendo dicere verum
Quis vetat?"


" - fas est et ab hoste doceri,"

the constable and his household watched all night under arms, till at length, worn out by fatigue, they all retired to rest on the appearance of daylight, upon which the enemy attacked the walls with scaling-ladders, at the very place that had been pointed out. The constable and his wife were taken prisoners, with many others, a few persons only escaping, who had sheltered themselves in the principal tower. With the exception of this stronghold, the enemy violently seized and burned everything; and thus, by the righteous judgment of God, the crime was punished in the very place where it had been committed. A short time after the taking of this fortress, when the aforesaid sheriff was building a castle at Landinegat,62 near Monmouth, with the assistance of the army he had brought from Hereford, he was attacked at break of day, when

"Tythoni croceum linquens Aurora cubile"

was only beginning to divest herself of the shades of night, by the young men from Gwent and the adjacent parts, with the descendants of those who had been slain. Through aware of this premeditated attack, and prepared and drawn up in battle array, they were nevertheless repulsed within their intrenchments, and the sheriff, together with nine of the chief men of Hereford, and many others, were pierced to death with lances. It is remarkable that, although Ranulf, besides many other mortal wounds, had the veins and arteries of his neck and his windpipe separated with a sword, he made signs for a priest, and from the merit of his past life, and the honour and veneration he had shewn to those chosen into the sacred order of Christ, he was confessed, and received extreme unction before he died. And, indeed, many events concur to prove that, as those who respect the priesthood, in their latter days enjoy the satisfaction of friendly intercourse, so do their revilers and accusers often die without that consolation. William de Braose, who was not the author of the crime we have preferred passing over in silence, but the executioner, or, rather, not the preventer of its execution, while the murderous bands were fulfilling the orders they had received, was precipitated into a deep foss, and being taken by the enemy, was drawn forth, and only by a sudden effort of his own troops, and by divine mercy, escaped uninjured. Hence it is evident that he who offends in a less degree, and unwillingly permits a thing to be done, is more mildly punished than he who adds counsel and authority to his act. Thus, in the sufferings of Christ, Judas was punished with hanging, the Jews with destruction and banishment, and Pilate with exile. But the end of the king, who assented to and ordered this treachery, sufficiently manifested in what manner, on account of this and many other enormities he had committed (as in the book "De Instructione Principis," by God's guidance, we shall set forth), he began with accumulated ignominy, sorrow, and confusion, to suffer punishment in this world.63

It seems worthy of remark, that the people of what is called Venta64 are more accustomed to war, more famous for valour, and more expert in archery, than those of any other part of Wales. The following examples prove the truth of this assertion. In the last capture of the aforesaid castle, which happened in our days, two soldiers passing over a bridge to take refuge in a tower built on a mound of earth, the Welsh, taking them in the rear, penetrated with their arrows the oaken portal of the tower, which was four fingers thick; in memory of which circumstance, the arrows were preserved in the gate. William de Braose also testifies that one of his soldiers, in a conflict with the Welsh, was wounded by an arrow, which passed through his thigh and the armour with which it was cased on both sides, and, through that part of the saddle which is called the alva, mortally wounded the horse. Another soldier had his hip, equally sheathed in armour, penetrated by an arrow quite to the saddle, and on turning his horse round, received a similar wound on the opposite hip, which fixed him on both sides of his seat. What more could be expected from a balista? Yet the bows used by this people are not made of horn, ivory, or yew, but of wild elm; unpolished, rude, and uncouth, but stout; not calculated to shoot an arrow to a great distance, but to inflict very severe wounds in close fight.

But let us again return to our Itinerary.


59 The last chapter having been wholly digressive, we must now recur back to Brecknock, or rather, perhaps, to our author's residence at Landeu, where we left him, and from thence accompany him to Abergavenny. It appears that from Landeu he took the road to Talgarth, a small village a little to the south east of the road leading from Brecknock to Hay; from whence, climbing up a steep ascent, now called Rhiw Cwnstabl, or the Constable's ascent, he crossed the black mountains of Llaneliew to the source of the Gronwy-fawr river, which rises in that eminence, and pursues its rapid course into the Vale of Usk. From thence a rugged and uneven track descends suddenly into a narrow glen, formed by the torrent of the Gronwy, between steep, impending mountains; bleak and barren for the first four or five miles, but afterwards wooded to the very margin of the stream. A high ledge of grassy hills on the left hand, of which the principal is called the Bal, or Y Fal, divides this formidable pass (the "Malus passus" of Giraldus) from the vale of Ewyas, in which stands the noble monastery of Llanthoni, "montibus suis inclusum," encircled by its mountains. The road at length emerging from this deep recess of Coed Grono, or Cwm Gronwy, the vale of the river Gronwy, crosses the river at a place called Pont Escob, or the Bishop's bridge, probably so called from this very circumstance of its having been now passed by the archbishop and his suite, and is continued through the forest of Moel, till it joins the Hereford road, about two miles from Abergavenny. This formidable defile is at least nine miles in length.

60 In the vale of the Gronwy, about a mile above Pont Escob, there is a wood called Coed Dial, or the Wood of Revenge. Here again, by the modern name of the place, we are enabled to fix the very spot on which Richard de Clare was murdered. The Welsh Chronicle informs us, that "in 1135, Morgan ap Owen, a man of considerable quality and estate in Wales, remembering the wrong and injury he had received at the hands of Richard Fitz-Gilbert, slew him, together with his son Gilbert." The first of this great family, Richard de Clare, was the eldest son of Gislebert, surnamed Crispin, earl of Brion, in Normandy. This Richard Fitz-Gilbert came into England with William the Conqueror, and received from him great advancement in honour and possessions. On the death of the Conqueror, favouring the cause of Robert Curthose, he rebelled against William Rufus, but when that king appeared in arms before his castle at Tunbridge, he submitted; after which, adhering to Rufus against Robert, in 1091, he was taken prisoner, and shortly after the death of king Henry I., was assassinated, on his journey through Wales, in the manner already related.

61 Hamelin, son of Dru de Baladun, who came into England with William the Conqueror, was the first lord of Over-Went, and built a castle at Abergavenny, on the same spot where, according to ancient tradition, a giant called Agros had erected a fortress. He died in the reign of William Rufus, and was buried in the priory which he had founded at Abergavenny; having no issue, he gave the aforesaid castle and lands to Brian de Insula, or Brian de Wallingford, his nephew, by his sister Lucia. The enormous excesses mentioned by Giraldus, as having been perpetrated in this part of Wales during his time, seem to allude to a transaction that took place in the castle of Abergavenny, in the year 1176, which is thus related by two historians, Matthew Paris and Hollinshed. "A.D. 1176, The same yeare, William de Breause having got a great number of Welshmen into the castle of Abergavennie, under a colourable pretext of communication, proposed this ordinance to be received of them with a corporall oth, 'That no traveller by the waie amongst them should beare any bow, or other unlawful weapon,' which oth, when they refused to take, because they would not stand to that ordinance, he condemned them all to death. This deceit he used towards them, in revenge of the death of his uncle Henrie of Hereford, whom upon Easter-even before they had through treason murthered, and were now acquited was the like againe." - Hollinshed, tom. ii. p. 95.

62 Landinegat, or the church of St. Dingad, is now better known by the name of Dingatstow, or Dynastow, a village near Monmouth.

63 [For the end of William de Braose, see footnote 34.]

64 Leland divides this district into Low, Middle, and High Venteland, extending from Chepstow to Newport on one side, and to Abergavenny on the other; the latter of which, he says, "maketh the cumpace of Hye Venteland." He adds, "The soyle of al Venteland is of a darke reddische yerth ful of slaty stones, and other greater of the same color. The countrey is also sumwhat montayneus, and welle replenishid with woodes, also very fertyle of corne, but men there study more to pastures, the which be well inclosed." - Leland, Itin. tom. v. p. 6. Ancient Gwentland is now comprised within the county of Monmouth.

Gerald of Wales, The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

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