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Nefyn to Bangor (Gerald’s Journey Through Wales 1188)

Via Caernarfon


This is a series about the journey that Archbishop Baldwin and Gerald of Wales took in 1188 to preach the crusade throughout Wales. Gerald kept a detailed account of the journey and their surroundings, which he later published. The series began with some background posts about Gerald. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

Towyn to Rhuddlan

The reason Archbishop Baldwin and his party came to Nefyn was not so Gerald could find Merlin’s prophecies, it was to preach the crusade. This they did on Palm Sunday, and had a good response. But the Archbishop was keen to push on, and the next stage of their journey was a long one. So they set off immediately for Bangor. It was exhausting.

They first worked their way through the northern Lleyn mountains and then along the coastal plain of Arfon (‘the country opposite Mon’, ‘the land facing Anglesey’), until they reached Caernarfon (‘Y Gaer yn Arfon’, ‘the stronghold in Arfon’). The stronghold in question was the Roman fortress of Segontium, whose remains can still be seen today. In Gerald’s time it had been superseded by a Norman castle on the Menai Strait, the waterway between the island of Anglesey (‘Ynys Mon’) and the mainland. Almost a century later, Edward I built his own Caernarfon Castle as part of the ring of castles he built to keep down the Welsh.


They didn’t stop in Caernarfon but headed on for Bangor. They had already travelled twenty miles that day and were extremely tired. Gerald records a view of the exhausted party, whose spirits were lifted by the archbishop:

Our route led us to a valley, whose downward slope was just as steep and rugged as the climb out of it… So we all dismounted from our horses and trudged on afoot, agreeing that we were already experiencing, or at least rehearsing, some of the hardships of our future pilgrimage to Jerusalem. By the time we had crossed the ravine and toiled up the far side, everyone was tired out, and the archbishop was glad to sit down on an oak tree uprooted by the wind, for he needed to rest and get his breath back. Then, relaxing into a jollity very praiseworthy in a man of his great dignity, he said to those standing by, ‘Now, which of you in all this company can delight our weary ears by whistling a tune’ – this, of course, being very difficult for people exhausted by their travels. He himself, he insisted, could do so if he really wanted to.

At that moment a little bird was heard to whistle very sweetly in a neighbouring wood. Some said it was a woodpecker, others, more correctly, said it was an ‘aureolus’ … this bird is very conspicuous for its golden-yellow colour, and sometimes it whistles sweetly instead of singing.

[It was probably a golden oriole, which does indeed whistle, and can easily be mistaken for a green woodpecker, which does not.]

Someone then remarked that the nightingale was never seen in these parts, and the archbishop, smiling quietly but meaningfully, quipped, ‘The nightingale is a well-advised bird, if it never comes to Wales. We, on the other hand, must be fools, for we have not only come into Wales, but also travelled right round it!’

Bangor Cathedral

The travellers reached Bangor that night, which is still the cathedral city of Gwynedd. The present cathedral is a later one, the one from Gerald’s time having been destroyed by King John’s mercenaries just twenty years later. Its Welsh Bishop Gwion looked after the travellers well. As Gwion stood by the high altar, Archbishop Baldwin said Mass in the cathedral, to symbolically assert his precedence over the Welsh church as he had done everywhere. The archbishop and others tried to persuade Gwion to take the cross, but he refused and eventually had to be coerced into it. His congregation immediately started wailing, moaning, and loud lamentations, which was very disconcerting for the archbishop and his party.

[Adapted from A Mirror of Medieval Wales by Charles Kightly]

Ann Marie Thomas head shot (80x90) (300dpi) Web GravatarAnn Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at