Gerald of Wales - Sarah Woodbury

Gerald of Wales

We are talking about Gerald of Wales because, as a churchmen, he exemplifies the tensions and complicated nature of the relationship between the Welsh and Norman church in the Middle Ages.

Gerald was the grandson of Gerald of Windsor and Nest, a princess of Deheubarth, who established Carew Castle after the Norman Conquest of this region of Wales. Thus he was mixed Norman and Welsh descent, and as our daughter writes in her senior thesis, “His Welsh ancestry meant he could act Norman” and side with the Normans but never be accepted as fully Norman. He himself “decried” both Normans and Welsh for despising him, arguing that his uncertain identity left him accepted by neither culture. At the same time, he spoke French primarily, and Latin as a churchman, with only a little Welsh, and overtly participated in Norman efforts to conquer Wales.

In 1188, Gerald undertook a tour of Wales with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the purpose of which was to recruit men for the 3rd crusade. He fully supported the Archbishop’s aims at the time, and wrote the books for which he is most famous, “The Journey through Wales/Description of Wales” after it ended. On one hand, he claims at the beginning to be writing of his own country and describes it a:

“a clear mirror, reflecting the wild and trackless places we passed through. It likewise names each spring and rushing river, and records our witty sayings, the hazards of the road, and the various accidents that befell us. It describes the landscape, and the notable things that have happened there both recently and a long time ago, with occasional digressions about natural wonders: and it portrays the country itself, as well as the origins, customs and ways of the inhabitants.”

On the other hand, his descriptions of the country are fantastical and in no way aligned with reality. One of his most famous descriptions is of witnessing a beaver and then claiming it castrated itself to avoid danger. Not sure at all what that was about. His descriptions of Ireland, where he also traveled are even more strange, at one point describing deer with golden teeth and a wolf that talked with a priest. He also routinely rails against the supposed abuses of doctrine widespread in the Welsh church, just as the Normans had done when they conquered England and then Ireland.

The defining ambition of Gerald’s life was to become the Bishop of St. David’s Cathedral, but as the great-grandson of a Welsh prince and related to many Welsh lords, he had way to great a Welsh connection to be viewed as a ‘suitable’ candidate by the Anglo-Norman authorities. As with the rest of his life, Gerald used his different connections when it suited him, arguing for the independence of the Welsh church from Canterbury, for example, and soliciting to Welsh princes for their support to become bishop of St. David’s, but at the same time arguing to Canterbury and the English king that he was ‘French’ enough for them to appoint him.

Gerald of Wales was born in in Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire (Dyfed), South Wales in 1145 or 1146. His father was a Norman Knight, William de Barri. His mother was Angharad, granddaughter of Princess Nest, a princess of Deheubarth.  She was the half Welsh – granddaughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of South Wales (on her mother’s side) her father being a Norman Knight Gerald of Windsor.  Consequently Gerald was three quarters Norman, one quarter Welsh.


One of the primary reasons we remember Gerald of Wales is for his journey through Wales with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188 AD, during the reign of King Henry II of England. On one hand, in his numerous writings, he spoke of the Welsh as evil, sinful, incestuous, and dishonest (and definitely didn’t have good things to say about the continuance of a Welsh law, separate from English law), but at the same time, he supported their continued quest for freedom from England.  Over the centuries, the Welsh  have had very few supporters in that regard.

Gerald of Wales, Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald the Welshman, Gerallt Cymro, he is called: Master Gerald de Barry, Gerald the Marcher, Gerald the Archdeacon, Gerald Bishop-elect of St. Davids, he more often called himself. His many names reflect the long and multi-faceted career of one of the most fascinating figures of the Middle Ages. Descended from Norman Marcher barons, and Welsh princes, Gerald was by turns scholar, churchman and reformer, courtier, diplomat and would-be crusader; Marcher propagandist, agent of English kings, champion of the Welsh church, hunted outlaw and cathedral theologian. He was also a naturalist, gossip and indefatigable traveller, but above all a most prolific writer and a tireless self-publicist. From his seventeen surviving books, therefore, we know a great deal about this determined, irascible, self-righteous and utter fearless man; more, in fact, than about any other inhabitant of early medieval Wales.”

During the period in which Gerald wrote, Wales was recovering from the death of Prince Owain Gwynedd, one of the most powerful princes in Welsh history.  The Prince had been at odds with King Henry II of England since 1157, when Henry had invaded Wales.  The disputes continued until Owain’s death in 1170, at which point his lands were fought over by his children, of which he had at least 13.  By 1188, his lands were split between his sons, Dafydd and Rhodri, and it wasn’t until his grandson, Llywelyn ap Iowerth (child of Owain’s eldest, legitimate son) took the throne of Wales that the country was united under a single ruler again.

From the “Description of Wales“, Gerald has this to say about their perennial quest to throw off the English yoke:

“The English are striving for power, the Welsh for freedom; the English are fighting for material gain, the Welsh to avoid a disaster; the English soldiers are hired mercenaries, the Welsh are defending their homeland. The English, I say, want to drive the Welsh out of the island and to capture it all for themselves. The Welsh, who for so long ruled over the whole kingdom, want only to find refuge together in the least attractive corner of it, the woods, the mountains and the marshes. . . .

An old man living in Pencader . . . who had joined the King’s forces against his own people, because of their evil way of life, was asked what he thought of the royal army, whether it could withstand the rebel troops and what the outcome of the war would be. ‘My Lord King,’ he replied, ‘this nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery, as it has so often been by others in former times; but it will never be totally destroyed by the wrath of man, unless at the same time it is punished by the wrath of God. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst judgment any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.'” (p 274)

2 Replies to “Gerald of Wales”

  1. In case you’ve not seen this before, here’s a link to a discussion about Gerald:

    I haven’t read Gerald for a while. I can remember being assaulted by a proliferation of names and of trying to remember who was who and their relationship to each other. The other abiding memory were his concluding chapters on “How the Britons/Welsh could best defend themselves”, or words to that effect; I think his main thought was that they should “behave like other nations’ and have but one prince to lead them. I could see his point all too clearly, the bane of the nation was the continuous internecine warfare both between and within the various principalities. The only seeming advantage, was that the death of one prince didn’t result in the whole edifice falling like a stack of cards as it did in the 1280s.

    One of the great shames is that wiser counsels didn’t prevail in Gwynedd with regard to Powys in the 1200s. The latter being caught between a rock and a hard place with an expansionist Gwynedd on one side and avaricious opportunistic Marcher lords on the other. To counter balance this the only choice was an accomodation with the English king. Whereas that was beneficial in the short term, in the long term it was catastrophic not just for Gwynedd but Powys too.

    Geerald’s other latter chapter was on “How the Welsh could be defeated”. That one came as a bit of a surprise as I thought he was generally sympathetic to them, and even more so considering he had hopes of being Archbishop of St. David’s one day. I think he advocated an invasion in late February or March. One because foodstocks would be running low after the long winter and two because there would be no leaf growth on the trees, therefore affording no cover from which the Welsh could ambush and retreat as they did normally. I’m not sure, but I think one other suggestion was to prevent food supplies getting through by land and I suspect he advocated a naval blockade too, to prevent the same coming across the sea from Ireland. If you couldn’t defeat them by force of arms alone, then starvation would.

    1. Thanks for commenting! My daughter wrote her honor’s thesis about Gerald of Wales and his split personality. He was part Marcher but Welsh, and never really belonged to both.

      And you’re right about Powys. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *