Tuesday, March 22

Gerald of Wales: Colourful Medieval Chronicler.

I think that most lovers of history would agree that very little beats a first-person account. There is something very special about reading the words of someone who was there, who witnessed momentous events or who was in the presence of individuals famous and infamous. And the further back in history one goes, the scarcer such accounts are. Yet in the world of the twelfth and early thirteenth century, we have the work of a prolific chronicler to bring much of it to life.

 Scribe writing the Gospels of Kildare.

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, was born around 1146 in his noble family’s castle at Manorbier. He could count leading Anglo-Norman families in south-west Wales as well as native Welsh princes among his kinsmen. Unlike his older brothers, Gerald had no desire to become a knight. From an early age, he was destined for the Church and was educated in Paris. In 1184, Gerald entered into the service of Henry II as a royal clerk and remained so for twelve years. Though he harboured a lifelong ambition to become bishop of the see of Saint David’s in Wales, he was ultimately to be thwarted which caused him much bitterness.

Saint Kevin and the blackbird.

Gerald’s written output was considerable. He wrote poems, the lives of saints, letters, opinion pieces- and histories. Arguably Gerald’s four most important books are those he wrote on Ireland and Wales. The two volumes on Ireland are the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). The images in this post are all from his Topographia Hibernica. His Welsh books are Itinerarium Cambriae  (Itinerary of Wales) and Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales). The books contain some controversial views, especially the Topographia Hibernica (I have written a previous post on it and you can find it here.)

 Bernard blowing the horn of Brendan.

Gerald has also been described as gossipy, opinionated, quarrelsome, prejudiced and critical and that he veers into anecdote. While one can see examples of all of the above, his works also contain a wealth of information about the world as he experienced it. So much of what we know about Ireland and Wales at the time comes from him. And that includes Welsh teeth. In the Description of Wales, Gerald informs us: ‘Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.’

Woman playing a harp.

That, for me, is the type of detail that makes a time and a place come alive. Gerald makes people come alive, too and that is one of the aspects of his writing that I enjoy the most. Here are some of my favourite examples.

Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) was the Irish King of Leinster. In 1166, Mac Murchada appealed to Henry II of England for help in the recovery of his kingdom, from which he had been exiled by his enemies. Because of this act, Mac Murchada is regarded as the instigator of English involvement in Ireland. Gerald describes him thus:‘Diarmait was tall and well built, a brave and warlike man among his people, whose voice was hoarse as a result of constantly having been in the din of battle. He preferred to be feared by all rather than loved. All men’s hands were raised against him and he was hostile to all men.’

A man killing another.

Of fellow Cambro-Norman, the second earl of Pembroke Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (familiar to many as Strongbow), Gerald has this to say:‘He had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes, a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other aspects he was of a tall build. He was a generous and easy-going man…In war he remained steadfast and reliable, in good fortune and bad alike. In adversity, no feelings of despair caused him to waver, while lack of self-restraint did not make him run amok when successful.’

A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver.

Gerald’s description of his king brings Henry vividly to life with its detail: ‘Henry II was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence, which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing.’

Men of Connacht in a boat.

Less favourable is Gerald’s assessment of Henry’s relationship with his young mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the Fair Rosamund of many mythical stories. ‘The King, who had long been a secret adulterer, now blatantly flaunted his paramour for all the world to see, not a rose of the world, as some vain and foolish people called her, but a rose of unchastity. And since the world copies a king, he offended not only by his behaviour but even more by his bad example.’ 

Gerald also provided an opinion of Henry’s sons. Of Richard I, the Lionheart, Gerald states the he ‘cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries.’

A priest and a wolf.

Geoffrey, Henry’s son who was Duke of Brittany fares very badly under Gerald’s pen. Geoffrey was ‘overflowing with words, soft as oil, possessed, by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, of the power of dissolving the seeming indissoluble, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue; of tireless endeavour, a hypocrite in everything, a deceiver and a dissembler.’ Ouch.

Gerald was of the view that Geoffrey and John (the future King John) looked alike physically: ‘one was corn in the ear, the other corn in the blade.’ As for Gerald’s opinion of John, describing him as a ‘tyrannous whelp’ gives us some idea.

A fox and a wolf.

It is of course easy to criticise Gerald. Much of his writing is his personal, embittered opinion and it can veer into the ludicrous and/or downright dangerous. Yet it can also be wonderful and shines a brilliant light on the medieval world. His words still have the power to surprise, inform and entertain, even after 800 years—and that’s pretty remarkable.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Bartlett, Robert‘Gerald of Wales', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Giraldus Cambrensis: The Description of Wales (Public Domain Books)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
Note: I first wrote this post or an edited version of it for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on February 22 2016.

Sunday, March 13

The First Normans in Ireland: Guest Post from Edward Ruadh Butler.

I always enjoy hosting guests on my blog, as do many historical fiction writers I know. But I wonder how many can claim that their guest has written the Origins story of their current novel? Yes, I’m delighted to be joined by Edward Ruadh Butler, author of the Invader series, the first of which is Swordland.

Swordland is the story of Cambro-Norman warrior, Robert FitzStephen. FitzStephen was the first warlord to land in Ireland in 1169, brought there at the behest of an Irish King. Ruadh’s novel shows that early conflict in all its bloody, brutal, compelling glory. Yet it is set just sixteen years before the start of my latest novel, The Lord of Ireland, in which King Henry II sends his youngest son, John, to bring order to an Ireland torn between the warring Norman barons and independent Gaelic kings. So why was Ireland in such a state of unrest and why did Henry feel he had to take the action he did? Luckily for me, Ruadh has the intriguing story, so I shall hand over to him.

Saint Bartholomew
British Library Public Domain

The chronicler Gerald of Wales tells us that almost 846 years ago, upon the eve of the Feast of St Bartholomew (or August 23 to you and me) in 1170, a Welsh-Norman army of some thousand warriors landed at Passage East on the south coast of Ireland.

Passage East, Co. Waterford
© Edward Ruadh Butler
At their head was a man whose name has become synonymous with the Norman invasion: Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, who also went by a name that may well be more familiar: Strongbow. The name conjures a picture of a gigantic warrior likely proficient with the war bow used by the men of Gwent during this period. However, Gerald describes him as a man of pleasing – almost feminine – appearance; modest in his bearing, delicate in features with a weak voice, tall with red hair, freckles, and grey eyes.
“In war Strongbow was more of a leader than a soldier … when he took-up his position in the midst of battle he stood firm as an immovable standard around which his men could re-group and take refuge. In war he remained steadfast and reliable in good fortune and bad alike …”

Strongbow had steadfastly supported King Stephen throughout the latter stages of the civil war known as the Anarchy (1135-1154).

Matilda & Henry I
British Library Public Domain
But upon the ascension of the Empress Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as King of England, Strongbow found himself very much out of favour. His declining fortunes saw him lose lands in England, Wales and Normandy, as well as his father’s earldom. As Gerald wrote, Strongbow had become a man “whose past was brighter than his prospects, whose blood was better than his brains, and whose claims of succession were larger than his lands in his possession”.

By early 1167 Strongbow had suffered thirteen years of rejection by the new royal court and was at his lowest ebb. He was suffering from financial hardship and severe debt, particularly to Aaron of Lincoln, the greatest Jewish moneylender in twelfth-century England.

However, Strongbow’s fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better when he was contacted by an exiled king from Ireland called Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough). Mac Murchada sought his help to reclaim the throne (of Leinster) from which the Irish king had been deposed the year before. In return for Strongbow’s military assistance, Diarmait promised his own daughter Aoife’s hand in marriage to the Norman baron and to name him as his successor. The chance of earning a kingdom was too good a deal to pass on and Strongbow immediately began to concoct a plan that would allow him to achieve this aim without arousing the suspicions of King Henry II. Both his plans to raise an army and to marry without his liege lord’s permission were grounds that could been used to declare Strongbow a rebel.

A Ship at Sea with Archers.
British Library Public Domain
Having avoided (or been denied access) to the royal court for over a decade, Strongbow now volunteered his services to his king and was given the unrewarding role of accompanying King Henry’s eldest daughter Matilda to Germany for her marriage to the Duke of Saxony in February 1168. Upon his return he floated the idea of serving Diarmait as a mercenary with King Henry II and, not receiving a definitive refusal, took this as permission to begin raising an army of invasion from amongst his remaining Welsh vassals.

Diarmait had quickly become impatient to return home to Leinster and, as seen in my first book, Swordland, he had hired another out of favour Cambro-Norman knight named Robert FitzStephen to accompany him back to Ireland. FitzStephen and his army of some four hundred had landed in Ireland on 1st May 1169 and their campaign was filled with intrigue, adventure and no little success.

It took almost three years from his meeting with Diarmait for Strongbow to at last feel ready for his invasion of 1170. However, in preparation he sent one of his junior officers, Raymond de Carew, together with an advance force of ten horsemen and seventy archers to make a bridgehead on a small headland on the southern Irish coast.

Baginbun Point Co. Wexford. Raymond de Carew landed here in 1170.
© Edward Ruadh Butler
That story – taking place between the end of spring and Strongbow’s arrival on August 23rd – is the subject of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle.

Strongbow's first target upon setting foot in Ireland was the city of Waterford. It was, in 1170, one of the biggest cities in Ireland, with trading links to the continent and England. Though nominally ruled by the O’Brien dynasty, it was in reality still independent and real power lay in the hands of the descendants of Viking invaders of the ninth and tenth centuries.

Model of Waterford in 1160
© E.M. Powell
It was upon their walls that Strongbow first launched his army and they quickly overran the city. In the streets still running with the blood of the dead, Strongbow married Princecess Aoife before his army travelled north to besiege the greatest Hiberno-Norse fortress of them all: Dublin. It was the greatest city on the Irish Sea but it soon fell to Strongbow’s warriors by the middle of September 1170 to make him amongst the most powerful men on the island.

Marriage of Strongbow & Aoife
© E.M. Powell
The death of King Diarmait in May 1171 led to a general uprising against the Normans of Dublin and Waterford. Though he survived two sieges in summer 1171, so hard pressed was Strongbow by this war that he had to send envoys back to King Henry II to surrender all his newly won lands in return for help against his Irish enemies. On 17 October 1171, King Henry II landed at Waterford at the head of a huge army to accept Strongbow’s submission (and that of several Irish kings). King Henry quickly took the three wealthy cities – Dublin, Waterford and Wexford – into his own domain while the rest of Leinster he granted to Strongbow and his heirs. His heirs would not have long to wait, for Strongbow died in 1176.

Strongbow's Monument (1837)
Public Domain
From Easter 1172 when King Henry departed Ireland, the trio of merchant towns were ruled by a series of royal governors who did not always act in a manner which favoured the crown or the new merchants who had taken up residence. In fact a lot of the time, including in the years leading up to 1185, the governors barely acknowledged the King’s authority and embezzled money and position meant for royal coffers. Surrounded on all sides by enemies (both Norman and Gaelic Irish), and a hounded by a hostile church still reeling from the turbulent takeover a decade before, King Henry poured fuel upon the fire by sending his youngest son, John Lackland, as Lord of Ireland to restore order to Ireland in April 1185.

John, Lord of Ireland
© E.M. Powell
So now you see why I asked Ruadh to tell the Origins story. And if that weren’t neat enough, Ruadh also has a personal connection to The Lord of Ireland. His paternal ancestor, Theobald Walter, first set foot in Ireland as part of John’s retinue. And guess what? Theobald Walter appears in my novel. I think, historical fiction fans, it doesn’t come any neater than that. Thanks, Ruadh!

Edward Ruadh Butler is a writer of historical fiction from Tyrone in Northern Ireland.

His debut, Swordland, based around the little known events of the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, was published by Accent Press in February 2015 and will be released as a paperback on April 7th.

The second in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle, will follow in 2017. Find out more at www.ruadhbutler.com.

His Facebook Page is at https://www.facebook.com/ruadhbutler/ and you can follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/ruadhbutler

His books are on sale at:

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