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The Journey Through Wales Begins

Gerald of Wales and the journey through Wales 1188

As we have seen in our examination of the life of Gerald of Wales, almost everywhere he went he kept a record, and published many books. In 1188, men everywhere were being encouraged to take the cross and join the great Crusade. Archbishop Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, decided to visit the four corners of Wales, and he took Gerald with him. It is mainly through Gerald’s writings – The Journey Through Wales – that we know what went on. If you want to read the series from the beginning, go here.

In addition to documenting the journey, Gerald often digressed into long stories about the ‘noteworthy things’ (usually meaning the natural or supernatural wonders) of the regions he passed through. Some of these stories he heard as he rode along, or in the places where he lodged for the night. Some he added much later (he was still revising his work 25 years afterwards) until there were so many that they swamp the narrative of the mission altogether. Though they make the Journey Through Wales a poor travel guide, they also make it a much more readable book – which is just what Gerald would have wished.

They set off from Hereford during the first week of March 1188, the Archbishop, Gerald, the great statesman Ranulph de Glanville, Chief Justiciar of England, and Bishop Peter of St Davids. Since neither Gerald nor Baldwin could speak fluent Welsh, an interpreter also accompanied the party – Alexander Cuhelyn, Archdeacon of Bangor and a famous wit, who would translate the sermons they preached in Latin or Norman-French.

The party was completed by armed guards, personal servants, monks who waited on the Archbishop, and mounted grooms leading spare mounts and pack horses laden with chests containing the baggage. Since the travellers planned to stay in castles, towns or monasteries they didn’t need carts laden with beds and other furniture, and they may have had no carts at all since some places on their journey were not suitable for carts. Indeed later Gerald’s pack horse, carrying his vestments and books, almost drowned in the Neath quicksands.

Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury was a slight, swarthy figure with an honest, venerable face. Born of humble Devon parents, this modest man of few and kindly words looked and acted like a learned Cistercian monk, which is what he had been until he reluctantly became Archbishop. According to Gerald, his gentleness and ‘childlike simplicity’ made him a rather ineffectual Archbishop, yet he was certainly no fool. During the coming journey through Wales, for example, he would go out of his way to celebrate Mass in every cathedral in the land, thus formally confirming his disputed authority over the Welsh clergy. He also had considerable fervour and courage. Deeply shocked by Saladin’s capture of the Holy Cross (a relic to which he was personally devoted) he had been among the first to preach the Crusade in England, and he was destined for a hero’s death before the walls of Moslem-held Acre.

Despite the glaring contrast between them, the Archbishop was greatly attached to the forceful and flamboyant archdeacon of Brecon – his old friend Gerald de Barry, who now rode in his company, though not simply for companionship. As always, Gerald’s principal asset was his extensive network of relationships with the rulers of Wales, and his most important duty would be to smooth over any diplomatic upsets the recruiting to might provoke. He would also help with the preaching.

Ranulph de Glanville was so trusted a friend of Henry II that he was nicknamed ‘the King’s Eye’. His time with the mission would be short, but Bishop Peter of St Davids would stay longer, and with him Gerald was on less happy terms. Peter had been appointed to St Davids instead of Gerald in 1176, and since then they had quarrelled bitterly: yet under Baldwin’s eye they kept the peace, and Gerald even wrote kindly of his former rival.

[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