Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Heritage and History of Wales - Part 2: South Wales

In a continuation of last month’s blog about Grose’s book of Welsh antiquary, with a focus upon North Wales, this month’s blog delves into the history and myth of the counties of South Wales, which Grose discovered on his travels in the late 18th Century.

A map of Wales 1696. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

            The county of Glamorganshire, located in the far south of Wales, encompassing Swansea and Cardiff, was notable in 1789 due to it being “fruitful, pleasant and populous”, to the extent that it was often called the “Garden of Wales”. Additionally, being home to over 25 castles and a number of abbeys and priories, demonstrates this county’s historical, strategic and religious significance. Of the multitude of sites, Cardiff Castle Tower probably can lay claim to the most intriguing story associated with it, as it was the building in which Robert Duke of Normandy, brother of William Rufus and Henry I, was confined to for over 26 years.  Following his escape and recapture during this period, he was blinded when his optic nerve was destroyed by a hot brass baton close to his face. Following a further incident with his brother, the Duke of Normandy refused nourishment and starved himself to death.

            The largest county in Wales at the time, Brecknockshire, situated to the north of Glamorganshire, was noted for its mountainous landscape. In terms of Brecknockshire’s historical buildings, the most significant is undoubtedly Brecknock Castle, built during the reign of William Rufus, by Barnard de Newmarsh, who had immense lands due to his marriage to the grand-daughter of Gryffyth ap Llewellyn Prince of Wales. In an act of revenge against her son for reproaching her behaviour, she declared him illegitimate, causing him to be disinherited. This resulted in the castle and estate passing to his sister and then through her female descendents to the Mortimer family.

An engraving of Brecknock Castle. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)
            The county of Radnorshire, north of Brecknockshire, is described as “the most barren county of all Wales and its air is “cold and piercing”. Despite this, the mineral water at Llandrindod was very popular and also the Offa’s Dyke Path, now a popular walking route, originally the boundary running from the mouth of the Wye to the mouth of the Dee, made by Offa, King of Mercia.

            At the time that the book was written, Cardiganshire, modern day Ceredigionshire, had a population of 35,380 inhabitants, and only had four market towns: Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Llanbadernvaur and Tregaron. A site of historical and archaeological importance to this day, the Abbey of Strata Florida, was built in 1164 for Cistercian monks and is thought to be the burial place of many welsh princes. Unfortunately, now nothing more than ruins remain of the abbey.

An engraving of Strata Florida. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).
            The county of Carmarthenshire, described by Grose as “the most fruitful county in Wales”, was a big producer of wood, corn, cattle, game, sea and river fish, coal and lead. A particularly interesting statement made by the author is that near Carmarthen is a spring which ebbs and flows twice every 24 hours. Although this is now claimed to be myth, it is interesting to consider whether the author noted down a myth he had heard about the spring, or whether at the time he visited, it did in fact ebb and flow. Another interesting site within this county is Kidwelly Castle, built soon after the Norman conquest, and destroyed and rebuilt on a number of occasions, as it passed from the Normans to the Welsh and later from the Royalists to the Roundheads. Despite this, the present day castle still contains remains from 1200 and 1460.

A map of Carmarthenshire. By permission of the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

            Pembrokeshire was and is notable for its multitude of stunning headlands, such as Strumble Head and Cape Stuncuin. This beautiful county however, is also home to a large array of mysterious and unusual sites and artefacts. Firstly, in the vicinity of Newport, there were said to be seven barrows, one of which when opened, contained five urns full of “burnt bones and ashes”, and whose presence was unexplained. Additionally, near St David’s was a stone “one hundred oxen could not move”, called The Rocking Stone, which was apparently rendered immovable by Cromwell’s soldiers. Finally, Buck’s Pool, near Stackpool, was described as a “pit of water that cannot be fathomed”. This dubious comment was probably due to the fact that it was fed from a redundant spring never known to stop in summer or winter.

These two blog posts explored only a small sample of the sites mentioned in Grose’s fascinating book. However, the book and others in the series are available to view by appointment.

Carys Aldous-Hughes

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