Provincial press releases

Gerald of Wales was no great patriot – Archbishop

August 10 2012

Gerald of Wales was an ambitious spin doctor whose Facebook page, had it existed, would have been a “Who’s Who” of Europe’s kings, princes and popes, the Archbishop of Wales said today (Friday).

Delivering the University of Wales lecture at the National Eisteddfod, Dr Barry Morgan said the 12th Century cleric may be one of the best known historical figures in Wales but he saw himself as a European rather than a Welshman and gave the impression of not really being at home in Wales. His passionate campaign for Wales to have its own Archbishop was probably fuelled by personal ambition, rather than patriotism, and he died a failure in his own eyes.

Dr Morgan, who recently presented a television series for S4C following the footsteps of Gerald from Wales to Rome – a dangerous journey Gerald made a remarkable four times –  described him as a character full of contradictions.

He said, “One can never get away from the impression that everything Gerald did, and said, was ultimately for the greater glory of Gerald….

“Gerald was never short of an opinion on anything.  His Facebook page, had it existed, would have been a medieval “Who’s Who” of Europe’s kings, princes, archbishops and popes, because he mixed with all of them. 

He added, “Gerald died embittered and estranged from the people of Wales whom he regarded as ‘simple, uneducated and uncultured’.  He blamed everyone else for his tribulations, claiming to be misunderstood and maligned.  He totally failed to realise that, for the most part, he was the author of his own misfortunes.”

Gerald’s legacy, however, was his books. Dr Morgan said, “He has left us fascinating books, which although they have to be taken with great buckets of salt, tell us a great deal about 12th Century Wales and especially its Church.” 

Dr Morgan gave the lecture at the Literary Pavilion at the Eisteddod at Llandow, Vale of Glamorgan. The full text follows.


No matter how little they know about the general history of Wales, every school child will be able to reel off the names of two or three historical people, and invariably Gerald of Wales will be among them.  There is even a children’s cartoon film about him.  In a 2004 poll of Wales’ greatest heroes, Gerald came 85th.  [The top three were Aneurin Bevan, Owain Glyndwr and Tom Jones.] 

The fact that he is remembered as Gerald of Wales or Geraldus Cambrensis (to give him his Latin title), whilst no other historical person is remembered in this way, indicates his significance.  It was, of course, a name Gerald adopted for himself around 1190.  Having said that, as Archbishop of Wales, I sign myself +Barry Cambrensis, but that is just an ecclesiastical signature – ‘Cambrensis’ as you know is the Latin meaning of Wales.  It does not mean that I am related to Gerald!  But I did once get a letter from a Government Minister which began “Dear Mr. Cambrensis”.  But the fact that Gerald is known in this way illustrates what he wanted to be above all, namely Archbishop of Wales. 

It would have been a very different kind of archbishopric to the one I hold.  The 16th Century reformation had obviously not taken place, a reformation which cut off the Church of England and the Church of England in Wales, as it was called, from the rest of Catholic Christendom and so made it an independent church – Ecclesia Anglicana, no longer under the jurisdiction of the papacy but a self governing church in its own right.  Gerald wanted to become Archbishop of Wales under the jurisdiction of the Pope, but not the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He simply, if you like, wanted to cut out the middle-man, whilst still being part of medieval Christendom.

                There was a further development in Wales, of course, when the Church was disestablished in 1920, which also meant Wales became a province, totally separate from the Church of England and so gained its own archbishop for the first time, but that is another story.  And for the sake of completion, the Roman Catholic Church designated Cardiff an Archiepiscopal See in 1913.

Gerald was born in Manorbier Castle in 1146, the son of a Norman Baron William de Barri, at a time when the Norman grip on Wales was nothing as firm as its hold on England, since the Normans were under constant attack from Welsh princes.  The Norman Conquest of England took a mere five years, whilst it was to take 200 years to subdue Wales. 

Gerald’s grandfather, on his father’s side, had been Constable of Pembroke Castle whilst his maternal grandmother, Princess Nest, was one of the Welsh princesses and, therefore, he was related to Rhys ap Gruffudd, Prince of South West Wales.  One would have thought that such a background would have given Gerald all kinds of advantages and enabled him to be accepted by both the Welsh and the Normans.  In fact, the opposite proved to be the case. 

The Welsh were suspicious of his Norman background, especially since he spoke no Welsh and he often wrote disparagingly about them and even wrote about the ways in which the Normans could conquer the land, whilst the Normans never quite trusted him because of his Welsh ancestry and the Crown often had suspicions that he was in league with troublesome Welsh princes.  They had cause to be suspicious because he wrote fulsomely about Owain Gwynedd, the Prince of North Wales, praising his wisdom, nobility and courage.  He himself said “Both peoples regard me as a stranger and one not their own – one nation suspects me, the other hates me.”  His first language was probably French, then Latin and then English.

We learn mainly about Gerald, of course, from his own writings and they have to be treated with caution, for he is always very anxious to present himself in the most favourable light, especially in his autobiography.  As H. E. Butler says of him “he found himself no less interesting than he found the world at large”.  He writes about himself in great detail in De Rebus a Se Gestis.  [1]“It was a custom of the ancient Greeks to commend the deeds of famous men to the memory of after-generations in such a manner as might cause them to be the better and the more clearly remembered.  And this they did, firstly by portraits and secondly by writing, to the end that posterity might be inspired to the laudable imitation of the great virtues of days gone by.  For no man is kindled to imitation by hearing or reading fabulous records of deeds that are extravagant or impossible.  But when a man’s true virtue flashes forth, then the virtuous mind is uplifted to imitate manly deeds and to take them to heart.  Wherefore I have taken upon me to set forth in scholarly fashion, yet simply and without elaboration, the famous deeds of a man of our own time, which I either witnessed with my own eyes or took down from his own lips.”  He was, of course, talking about himself. 

When he lectured in Paris, he wrote that he attracted large crowds, including his teachers, filling the largest hall in the University, because his voice was so sweet.
                Gerald was indeed a complex character and full of contradictions.  He was an ambitious, self-regarding cleric but also an ardent ecclesiastical reformer, having been influenced by Peter the Chanter in Paris.  He tried to root out immorality amongst the clergy, suspending those who were married and had children and those who had gained their posts through their personal connections.  Yet he accepted the Archdeaconry of Brecon from his uncle,  then Bishop of St Davids who himself had fathered children, and Gerald handed it on to his own nephew in due course; he wrote books  on Ireland and Wales full of intelligent observations and perceptive insights – “A Journey through Wales” and “A Description of Wales” which are classics of travel literature, yet lacked emotional intelligence since he seemed to think that a mere present of these would be enough to persuade Pope Innocent III to support his claims to be Bishop and Archbishop over against the threats, bribes and influence of the English Crown and Archbishop of Canterbury; intelligent, erudite and scholarly, for his works are full of quotations from classical writers and the fathers he, at the same time, made snide and gossipy remarks about his fellow countrymen and fellow clerics failing to assess the impact these might have. 

His books may be priceless historical documents, with the landscape of Wales described in loving detail but alongside it are fanciful accounts of daily life, local miracles, folk lore and old wives tales, reflecting his medieval background which took them as historical truth.  On the one hand, he lauded the courage of the Welsh in battle, admired their musicality, wit and intelligence and yet accused them of perfidy and said that they stole anything that they could lay their hands on and so lived on plunder, theft and robbery; a diplomat and tutor to English princes, he failed to realise how his pressure on the Crown to make him Archbishop of Wales might impact on its powers; intent on becoming Bishop of St Davids, he turned down four other bishoprics, hoping to shame Crown and Church into submission and make him archbishop.  Yet he was happy to travel Wales with Archbishop Baldwin to enlist people for the Crusades and Baldwin celebrated the Eucharist in every Welsh cathedral to assert his authority over the church in Wales and at that stage, Gerald being very anti-Welsh was happy to do this. 

He wrote books on Ireland and Wales because these countries had not been widely written about – [2]“almost wholly overlooked by strangers but interesting to my kinsmen and countrymen” as he put it.  He intended writing a book on Scotland to complete his history of Celtic lands but did not manage it and he said he wrote deliberately simply for lay people.  And yet there are hints in his work that they were not widely read, for they were written in classical Latin.

                In addition to his works on Wales, Ireland and his autobiography, he wrote about the state of the Church and on the lives of St Hugh of Lincoln and Geoffrey of York, as well as a book on what makes an ideal prince.  Gerald was never short of an opinion on anything.  His Facebook page, had it existed, would have been a medieval “who’s who” of Europe’s kings, princes, archbishops and popes, because he mixed with all of them.  It is interesting, however, that although he visited Rome four times, the ruins of classical Rome are not mentioned by him.  He merely writes about the persecution of the early Christians.

                It is said that whilst his brothers built castles on the beaches of Pembrokeshire, he built churches in the sand.  He was ordained fairly young.  His father called him “my little bishop”. 

Gerald tried to prove that, whoever was chosen to be Bishop of
St Davids, had a claim to be the Archbishop of Wales since he regarded it as the most important diocese of the four in Wales, and since he was elected Bishop of St Davids by his fellow Canons at St Davids on two occasions, he took that argument to the Royal courts of Henry II, Richard I and John, to the Archbishop of Canterbury and indeed to the Pope himself.  Had he been content just to be Bishop of St Davids, he might have succeeded in persuading both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Crown in backing his election to that See. 

His claims that St Davids should be an Archiepiscopal See, separate from Canterbury, put paid to any hope of getting such support, since Canterbury’s influence on Wales would have been removed.  The Archbishop of Canterbury regarded himself as being in charge of all dioceses in England and Wales.  The Crown did not want to deal with an additional Archbishop in Wales, given the conflict there had already been between Henry II and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas A Beckett especially since Gerald regarded him as a national hero. 

Moreover, the Crown saw that one way of controlling Wales politically was by spiritual domination through Canterbury.  Gerald, of course, was blind to these sensitivities and continued to argue his case and turned down the bishoprics of both Llandaff and Bangor because he felt he could not make the same claims for those Sees that he could for St Davids.  He also turned down Irish bishoprics.

There is a comical anecdote recorded by him in De iure et statu Menevensis Ecclesiae VII 338 during his visit to Ireland, about the offer of an Irish See, “A certain clerk not in his perfect mind, who used to follow the Court of the Justiciar of Ireland, delighting the young men by his ribald jests, was wont often in public audience to address Master Giraldus and immediately answer on his behalf, as follows:  ‘Master Giraldus, do you desire the Bishopric of Waterford?’ ‘I do not.’  ‘Do you desire the Bishopric of Ossory?’  ‘I do not.’  ‘Do you desire the Bishopric of Leighlin?’  ‘I do not.’  ‘Do you desire the Archbishopric of Cashel?’  ‘I do not.’  And then he would add, ‘Do you desire the Bishopric of Mynyw?’  and forthwith make answer with a loud shout, ‘I do!’ thereafter bursting into a loud guffaw of laughter.” 

In the same book, he questions  why the Chapter of St Davids did not in the end accept such a good and great man as himself to be their bishop.  It is simply because its members were jealous and prejudiced he concludes.

                His burning ambition to become Bishop of St Davids dominated his life.  It is why he travelled to Rome, three times in four years from 1198 – 1202 to plead his case.  He went again between 1202 – 4 but this time as a pilgrim.  The journey of over 1300 miles, in those days, took six weeks on horseback and three months on foot.  He was driven by this ambition, partly because his uncle, David, had been Bishop and he had been elected bishop by the Cathedral Chapter for the first time on his uncle’s death in 1176.  The diocese of St Davids covered half of Wales.

                He believed that St Davids had been a Metropolitical See from the introduction of Christianity to Britain and that the 6th Century Dewi Sant had been the first Archbishop of Wales.  Historically, it was not a claim that could stand up to scrutiny, especially since the four dioceses of Wales were regarded as being equal.  His claim that Wales should not come under the Archbishop of Canterbury had some merit.  True, Canterbury had long claimed to be in charge of Wales, but it was not a claim that was really implemented before the coming of the Normans.  Its bishops had not usually been consecrated by Canterbury, and even Bernard, a Norman Lord appointed by the Crown to St Davids, had advanced some of the arguments later put forward by Gerald of Wales being different in language, laws, habits and customs from England and therefore needing its own archbishop.

Henry II, who six years previously had been implicated in the death of Beckett, sensed that he would have another troublesome priest on his hands if Gerald became Bishop and said “It is neither necessary or expedient for King or Archbishop that a man of great honesty or rigour should become Bishop of St David’s for fear that the Crown and Canterbury should suffer thereby.  Such an appointment would only give strength to the Welsh and increase their pride.”  (It is ironic that Gerald’s statue in St Davids Cathedral has a bishop’s mitre, not on his head but at his feet).  Henry II realised that Gerald’s independence of mind was likely to cause him huge problems if he became bishop of St Davids.

Hubert, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote “If the barbarity of that wild and unbridled nation of Wales had not been restrained by the censure of the Church, helped by the Archbishop of Canterbury, then this people would by continual or frequent rebellion, have broken from their allegiance to the King”. 

                There is no doubting Gerald’s bravery.  Many died on the hazardous journey on the Via Francigena to Rome from Canterbury.  Bandits were a constant threat, as well as treacherous weather over the Alps, passable only for four months of the year, with snow thirty foot deep and with all manner of obstacles and diseases en route, to say nothing of crossing the Channel in ferry boats at the mercy of storms.  He was attacked by wolves, had his horses stolen, was thrown into prison by the French King and pursued out of Rome by creditors.

Gerald also, at times, had to avoid agents of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who wanted to prevent him getting to Rome and once hid under a boat at St Omer all night.  He also once made a detour through Belgium to avoid conflict between two European Kings. 

In fact, if pilgrims had not returned to Canterbury within a year and a day, then they were presumed dead.  They were also encouraged to make a will before embarking, which shows how dangerous the journey was regarded.  The Via Francegina is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes in the world and some say it follows routes used by Julius Caesar.  It was a route described by Sigeric, a 10th Century archbishop of Canterbury, in a manuscript only discovered in the 1980’s.

None of this deterred Gerald.  He tried to persuade the Pope to consecrate him and make him metropolitan.  He had probably studied with Innocent III at Paris and regarded him as a friend, but the Pope was too shrewd a political operator to upset both the English Crown and the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Gerald was undeterred by the Pope’s prevarication, and told whoever would listen, that the Pope loved his books, kept them by his bed and quoted from them to his cardinals!  He told the Pope that others would give him libras (bribes) but he would give him his own books (libros) as if that was enough to make the Pope decide in his favour.

                The Via Francegina passes through Vercelli in Northern Italy and a group of people there have a great interest in Gerald and I went to talk to them about him earlier in the year.  The Cathedral Museum has the Vercelli Book, a 10th Century English manuscript which contains the famous poem “The Dream of the Road”, presumably left by a traveller who died on his way to Rome.  It also houses one of the most impressive medieval reliquaries in Northern Italy which brings us close to Gerald’s world for they are reputed to hold the remains and body parts of the saints. 

In the medieval world, these were believed to have miraculous powers, for saints were potent healing figures in days when falling ill was equated with divine punishment for wrong doing and medical care was primitive.  Gerald probably went there and stayed in the pilgrim hostel established by Cardinal Guala Bichieri.  The two men may have known one another since Bichieri was Papal Legate to England.  He once excommunicated the whole of Wales for siding with France against King John. 

                Since Gerald fought passionately for Wales to have its own Archbishop, the question has often been asked as to whether he was a patriotic Welshman who wanted to make sure, as he put it, “that of the three archbishoprics in Britain, that of our church is found in the text of our histories to be third in number but first in position”.  He certainly did not want Wales to be subject to Canterbury but was that because of his love of Wales or was it because of personal ambition? 

He was certainly prepared to go into debt in order to pursue his aims.  He argued his cause fiercely from 1198 to 1203 but, in the end, when he realised he was not going to achieve his goal, he gave up and also resigned as Archdeacon of Brecon.  Some of his biographers have hailed him as a patriotic Welshman.  Henry Owen in 1889 called him “Gerald the Welshman” and saw him as battling for the honour of Wales, as did John Edward Lloyd in 1911 when he wrote “Gerald never failed to emphasise his Welsh descent, he regarded Wales as his beloved fatherland and he posed as a patriotic Welsh leader”. 

Professor Thomas Jones of Aberystwyth went further in 1947 when he wrote “Welsh blood ran thickest in his veins.  He was born in Wales, spent the greater part of his life there, fought for the church of Wales.  The life of our people formed the subject of the majority of his books and it is in the soil of Wales that he found his last resting place.”  Gerald, in actual fact, died in Lincoln and it is not certain where he is buried.
There is no doubting his love of Wales and his belief that St Davids deserved an Archbishop was genuine, and to pursue that end, he was prepared to turn down bishoprics – unusual in an ambitious person.  Yet, one can never get away from the impression that everything Gerald did, and said, was ultimately for the greater glory of Gerald and,  there is no doubt, that he would have accepted an English bishopric had he been offered one when at the Royal Court, tutoring the royal princes Richard and John.  Nor does he come over as a particularly spiritual person. 

Nor must it be forgotten that he was an establishment figure since the lands held by his Norman ancestors had been taken from the Welsh.  One gets the impression of him not really being at home in Wales.  He was, as C H Williams puts it in his introduction to H E Butler’s Translation of Gerald’s Autobiography, [3]“an alien in the country that was so closely bound up with his ambitions”.  He was far more at home amongst scholars, having been educated at Gloucester and Paris, than he ever was at Brecon, where he spent little time and he certainly did not regard Welsh as a suitable language for a man of his standing.

                Gerald died embittered and estranged from the people of Wales whom he regarded as “simple, uneducated and uncultured”.  He blamed everyone else for his tribulations, claiming to be misunderstood and maligned.  He totally failed to realise that, for the most part, he was the author of his own misfortunes. 

                He died in Lincoln where he had retired in 1222, a failure in his own eyes, for he did not become Bishop of St Davids nor get it recognised as the metropolitical See of Wales, but he has left us fascinating books, which although they have to be taken with great buckets of salt, tell us a great deal about 12th Century Wales and especially its Church.  He was a European rather than a Welshman.  He was sharp witted, and sharp eyed, and was his own spin doctor long before the term was invented.