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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Welsh beat woman. Mayhem in Newport. 918 AD

Athelflaed once came to Newport, but it wasn’t a happy experience. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and married to the King of Mercia who was facing some problems. Lucky he had Athelflaed as his wife!

The Vikings were attacking his kingdom from the North, and the Welsh, taking advantage of this, decided to attack his southern possessions. The Welsh leader, Owain of Brecon, was soundly trounced by the Saxons, who unfortunately didn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and marched deep into South Wales.

On their way home they were ambushed in the marshlands of what is now Clarence Place. The Welsh attacked as the Saxons were crossing the ford where Newport Bridge now stands. The battle was savage but ultimately the Welsh prince, Morgan (he of Glamorgan) won, and the remaining Saxons were taken prisoner. To their surprise the Welsh discovered the Saxons had been led by a woman, Athelflaed. Chivalrous or embarrassed, the Welsh released her along with the surviving Saxons, some of whom were allowed to settle on the western bank of the Usk ford.

Athelflaed was less lucky. She died in Tamworth that same year, showing that some places are even less lucky than Newport.

Newport Bridge heading into Clarence Place

Those Saxons who stayed built a mill at the present junction of Mill St. and Shaftsbury St - which operated for the next thousand years. A little higher up, where Mill St. meets Queen’s Hill, the Saxons built their geldenhall. The area between there and today’s Civic Centre is still known as Goldtops from the time when gild or geld was names given to settlements that paid tax to a manorial lord.

The area connecting Goldtops to Mill St. is presently known as Pentonville. A thousand years ago or more it might well have been known as Pyndanvil, coming from the Saxon word Pyndan for a dam on a mill stream, and vil, meaning a small collection of houses.

Well, it took an army led by a woman and a sneaky Welsh ambush, but Newport had at last the germ of a settlement in its swamp…and it was…err…Saxon, not Welsh.

Mill Street is just to the left of the river above Queensway

A less sexy Athelflaed

Thursday, 18 June 2009

A surfeit of saints

Just down the road from Monmouth is the small village of Dingestow, reputedly named after the obscure Celtic Saint, Dingat, who was the son of another celtic saint, King Brychan.

Some people breed dogs, King Brychan bred saints – twenty four sons and twenty four daughters, all of them saints. Presumably St. Augustine was sent over from Rome (in 595) to regularize the system before the celestial court began speaking Welsh.

And we are not talking about Mother Teresa here. King Brychan, overcome by lust took his first wife by force. He may have been gentler with the two that followed. When not procreating or contemplating God, Brychan pursued his enemies with a vengeance, as the King of Dyfed found out to his cost. In retaliation for a raid on his kingdom, Brychan led his men in a ferocious counter-attack, after which the dismembered limbs of the slaughtered were collected as trophies.

One can only imagine what happened when his daughter Gwladys was abducted by king Gwynllyw of Gwynllwg. He may have appreciated the alliteration, may perhaps have remembered how he acquired his own first wife. He may even have wondered how a saint should respond before launching his armies on what is now Newport.

St. Gwynllyw or, to give him his proper title, St. Gwynllyw Farfog (the bearded or possibly warrior) was in trouble. His capital, probably a small hill fort on top of Stow Hill, was about to face the full wrath of St Brychan. Fortunately King Arthur, not a saint, but High King of Britain, intervened and the two kings were reconciled, though it is reputed that Arthur himself was so struck by Gwladys, he considered taking her himself.

St. Gwynllyw was a bit of a lad. Some people on the birth of a son crack open the champagne. Gwynllyw went on a wild celebratory raid across Gwent and brought back… a cow from St. Tathyw of Caerwent.

He got more than he bargained for. St Tathyw came a calling, demanding his cow back. ‘Not unless you baptize my son a Christian,’ retorted Gwynllyw, a strange bargaining position though his wife was probably moving his lips. By this time the king was going soft, which is to be expected when you marry the daughter of a saint. It was probably a forgone conclusion that he would be converted to Christianity by his own son – St. Cadoc. And just to settle the matter, when St. Gwladys died he married her sister, St Ceingar, and would you know it, they had a son – St Cynidr of Glasbury.

The king died on the 29th of March 523 AD and was buried in the church which still bears his name, the anglicized St. Woolos on the top of Stow Hill.

Since then, saint-hood in the Newport vicinity seems to have dried up.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Pagans don't have martyrs

The Roman empire embraced Christianity in 323 AD but before then Christians had been persecuted and tortured. In 303 AD a large group of Christians were worshipping quietly in Caerleon. Roman soldiers arrested them but when they found the local prison was too small to hold them they decided to kill them instead. The terrified Christians were chased halfway to Newport all the time being hacked to pieces and drenching the road with their blood. Two of these Christians were St. Julius and St. Aaron, early victims of inadequate prisons.
Clearly an excitable bunch, the Silurians, and they haven’t changed much. Mind you the church got its own back a few decades later when Britain enjoyed ‘enforced’ Christianity under later emperors. Trouble is pagans don’t have martyrs.

But getting back to Newport.

Gwynllliw was both king and pirate. He kept a fast ship in narrow pill near the mouth of the River Usk. With his gang of cut-throats he would attack any defenceless ship that sailed too close. This "Pill of Gwynlliw " eventually became known as Pillgwenlly. It's believed Gwynlliw lived on the top of Stow hill. From there he could see from a distance rich cargo ships sailing towards the Usk. He would then race down what is now Bellevue lane, across the marshy Mendalgief to his pirate ship in Pill.

He was married to a saint and surrounded by marsh

Which ever way he looked.

Enough to make you crazy.

One day he saw an angel a little like this one. (Then again may be not)

Who told him to walk to the top of a nearby hill where he would find a white ox with a black spot between its horns. There he was to build a church and live a holy life.

Maybe he wasn't crazy. Maybe angels like a laugh

For lo and behold he found that white ox with a black spot between its horns
and built a church on the spot.

The next post may well be titled a Mafia of Saints, or perhaps, less controversially, a surfeit of saints.
All the marsh photos are by courtesy of Andy Southwales.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Nobody wanted to live in Newport

I once stood in a garden of a modern house in St Brides. It was part of a small housing estate built upon what were once 'wetlands'. A heavy lorry passed and the ground quivered. It was like standing on blancmange, grass covered jelly. It set me thinking about how Newport 'began'.

As early as 6000 BC Mesolithic tribes hunted throughout the marsh, but permanent settlements were made on higher ground. The hill fort on the Gaer for example once overlooked dense forest and a salmon rich River Ebbw. Now it sniffs over a housing estate, a motorway, and a small polluted trickle. But in the marsh itself there was no settlement. The future Newport was a grim, diseased-ridden swamp in a dangerous and whimsical flood plain.

The Silurians ruled an area that stretched from West Glamorgan to Gwent. Other than the hill fort of Gaer overlooking the swamp, they avoided ‘Newport’, their major settlement in the area being Lodge Hill in Caerleon. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth it was founded in 406BC by a Silurian king called Belinus.(see Catherine Fisher)

Then the Romans came. They’d drained the Pontine Marshes but clearly didn’t think ‘Newport’ worth the effort, settling in Caerleon instead. After 25 years of hard fighting the Silurians were subjugated, their hill fort replaced by a huge military base, one of the largest in Britain. The only apparent value of what is now Newport was the river that ran through it - the Usk - which carried trade inland.

For a short but vivid history of Newport go here

Many thanks go to Andy South Wales for his photos of the Wetlands. He has a superb collection and his contact is atomicandy@atomicandy.f9.co.uk