Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Heritage and History of Wales - Part 1: North Wales

Within Worcester Cathedral Library is a captivating and highly intriguing tour of Wales. It can be found in volume VIII of Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales, published in 1789. This is a contemporary history of a multitude of fascinating sites within the counties of North and South Wales.

The author, Francis Grose was born in 1731 in London. He was the eldest child of Francis Joseph Grose, a Swiss immigrant and jeweller, and his wife Anne Benet. Earlier in his career, Grose had success in the armed forces, but in 1757, he was elected as a member of the Society of Antiquaries. As a result, he travelled to many parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in order to collect material for his volumes on antiquary. He died during his final expedition of this type to Ireland, and is buried in Dublin.

This blog focuses upon his discoveries in North Wales, which encompassed the grand castles of Anglesey, ancient druidical monuments of Denbighshire and enormous standing stones found in Montgomeryshire.

This is a map of Wales .By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Being one of the smallest counties in Wales at the time, Anglesey’s population numbered only 12,000 inhabitants and despite being “stony and mountainous”, produce from the island included wheat, cattle, sheep and fish, in addition to copper, mill stones and red, yellow and blue ochre. Anglesey’s most impressive site was Beaumaris castle, built in 1295 by Edward I, which, during the English Civil War, was held for the King until 1649, when it was surrendered to General Mitton. It is possible, however, that all the riches were buried in preference to being surrendered to the Roundhead leader, as there have long been suspicions that large amounts of treasure were concealed both within the vault and the vicinity of the castle.

On the Welsh mainland, to the South East of Anglesey was the striking county of Caernarvonshire, surrounded on three sides by the sea, with “fruitful valleys” and perpetual snow covered mountains. It contains a multitude of features from Snowdon Hills to Orme’s Head and Dolwyddelan Castle to Caernarvon Castle. Of particular interest to Grose is Dolwyddelan, built in the year 500, on an ancient road through the mountains called Helen’s Way (aka Sarn Helen). The birthplace of Llewellyn the Great and residence of Gryffydd ap Tudor, the castle was later purchased by Meredydd ap Jevan during the reign of Henry VII. Despite being resided in by outlaws, Meredydd favoured the castle over his former family residence, as it was said that relations with his family were so poor, that it was said to be a case of either “kill or be killed”. At the castle, however, he established a successful garrison, which included “seven score of the tallest and ablest bows men”.
An engraving of Dolwyddelan. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Of significant Roman and Druid heritage, the county of Denbighshire, to the East of Caernarvonshire, has a variety of Druidical monuments and stones, along with the remnants of a Roman fortification said to be the camp of Caractacus and a tomb stone with Roman inscriptions at the Hill of Graves. Additionally, Denbighshire has a Cistercian abbey dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary called the Abbey of Valle Cruis, founded in 1200, and is now said to be one of the best preserved in Wales.

Despite being the smallest counties in Wales at the time, Flintshire contained many sites of historical and religious significance. Most notable is St Winifred’s Well, which is thought to be the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Great Britain, visited since the 7th Century. James II and his wife Mary were among the many visitors, prompted by Mary’s inability to conceive, and shortly after their pilgrimage Mary became pregnant with a son. More ominous however, is the locally named “Stone of Lamentation”, a sandstone monolith, thought to mark the site of ancient treasure, but apparently with the power to conjure lightning and storms to deter possible treasure hunters.

A map of Denbighshire. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)
The county of Merionethshire, situated on the Irish Sea, to the South of Denbighshire and Caernarvonshire is described by Grose as “mountainous and unwholesome” and subject to a “livid fire or vapour”, which caused destruction to land and livestock, prominently in the years 1542 and 1584. Of particular interest is Harlech Castle, which was of great military significance for both England and Wales. It was Owain Glydwr’s home and military base from 1404 to 1409, and later was held by the Lancastrian forces for seven years during the Wars of the Roses, before its siege by the Yorkist troops in 1468. It is now classed as a world heritage site and regarded as one of the finest examples of 13th and 14th Century military architecture in Europe.

Grose states that at the time, Montgomeryshire was the home to a very impressive collection of standing stones such as those found at Stonehenge in Wiltshire. They were said to be so large that it would be “hardly possible to move them with 50 yoke of oxen”. A particularly interesting and unusually site is Dolforwyn Castle, due to the legendary origins of its name. Dolforwyn (Meadow of the Maiden) is thought to allude to Sabra of Sabrina, the illegitimate daughter of Locrine (a king of ancient Britain). She was drowned in the River Severn by Gwendolen, Locrine’s wife, following his death, and she is said to be the inspiration for a poem, reproduced in Grose’s book, a sample of which is below:
“She guiltless damsel, flying the mad pursuit,
 Of her enraged stepdame Gwendolen
 Commended her fair innocence to the flood”

            To discover the mysteries of some of South Wales heritage, read next month’s blog. 

Carys Aldous-Hughes

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