Wednesday 13 April 2011, 15:30
.Most of us could probably be excused for failing to note 14 April 1188 as an important date. It's hardly one that springs to mind when you consider great moments in the calendar of Welsh history. But this was the day when Giraldus Cambrensis finally finished his mammoth 600 mile trek around Wales, a trek that led to him writing Descriptio Cambriae, one of the earliest of all travel books.
Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin, Gerallt Cymro in Welsh, Gerald of Wales in English - the man had as many names as he had careers.
Born in Manorbier Castle on the south coast of Pembrokeshire in approximately 1146, Giraldus came from a mixed Norman-Welsh background. His father, William de Barri, was one of the leading Anglo-Norman barons while his uncle, David Fitzgerald, was bishop of St Davids.
Giraldus was the grandson of Gerald de Windsor, constable of Pembroke Castle during the early years of its existence, and of Princess Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdr. So his pedigree as a well-to-do nobleman left nothing to be desired. However, with an uncle as bishop of St Davids it was, perhaps, inevitable that his education should have a religious bias.
He went, first, to school in Gloucester, then to Paris to finish his education. He returned to Britain somewhere around 1172 and was immediately employed by the archbishop of Canterbury on a number of ecclesiastical missions in his native Wales.
St Davids Cathedral
When his uncle, the bishop, died, Giraldus was proposed by the chapter of St Davids Cathedral as by far the most suitable man to succeed him. The king and the archbishop of Canterbury refused the nomination, however. The king, Henry II certainly did not want a dynamic and energetic man in charge at St Davids - such a man could only give extra importance to the people of Wales. In effect he was not appointed simply because he was Welsh!
As it happened, Giraldus was again nominated for the bishopric of St Davids in 1198. The king, by then, was John, the son of Henry. Although he allowed an election among members of the chapter, an election that Giraldus won and then went on to serve four years as bishop elect, in the end it was a position that went to someone else. Giraldus was bitterly disappointed and even left the country, fleeing because the ports were being watched and patrolled, to try to present his case to the Pope - all to no avail.
Failing to gain the bishopric at St Davids did not mean Giraldus was totally out of favour with the monarchy. As early as 1184, for example, he had been appointed Royal Clerk and chaplain to Henry II and the same year he accompanied Prince John on his military conquests in Ireland. This led to his first book, Topographia Hibernia (1188), an account of the campaign and one that stressed the barbaric nature of the native Irish.
As something of a reward for his services, in 1188 Giraldus was nominated to accompany the archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Exeter, as he rode through Wales on a recruiting drive. The purpose of the journey was to enlist men for The Third Crusade but as far as Giraldus was concerned the trip gave him the ideal opportunity to study his fellow countrymen and to develop his literary skills.
The books that Giraldus produced after the journey, Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae, still stand as valuable historical documents but their real importance lies in the fact that they set the tone for all travel writing ever since.
The books do not just record places visited and sights seen but are full of Giraldus's unique take on Welsh life, prejudiced and vain as they are - a style that so many travel writers had emulated over the years. "This is what I saw but this is what I think," Giraldus seemed to be saying.
The personal opinion, something so vital in good travel writing, was shown to its best advantage in these two books. If the best advice of travel writer Jan Morris is "Never divorce the I" then it is something that Giraldus Cambrensis understood and used long, long before:
"Merioneth - - - is the rudest and least cultivated region and the least accessible. The natives of that part of Wales excel in the use of long lances, as those of Monmouth are distinguished for their management of the bow."
As a chronicler of his times and as a travel writer Giraldus Cambrensis was unsurpassed. He went on to become archdeacon of Brecon and visited Rome three times - no easy task in the 12th and 13th centuries. He was offered the bishoprics of places such as Wexford and Bangor but refused them. St Davids was what he wanted but was never offered.
Critical, prejudiced and self opinionated, Giraldus still managed to retain an open mind about many Welsh customs:
"No one in this region ever begs for the houses are common to all. And they consider liberality and hospitality amongst the first of virtues."
Giraldus Cambrensis died about 1223, disappointed in his main ambition but the provider of one of the earliest pieces of travel writing - and for that we should be grateful.
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Wednesday 13 April 2011, 14:14
Wednesday 13 April 2011, 15:20