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Friday, 31 July 2009

Owain Glyndwr - even worse than the plague

It was the black rat that spread the plague, but this rat, I think you'll agree, has attitude.

The best accounts of how the Black Death affected Gwent come from manorial rolls. These show that the Manors of Abergavenny, Monmouth, Usk and Caldicot suffered particularly badly with rent receipts less than a third of a normal year. There is no written evidence of how the Plague affected the small marsh settlement of Newport, then about 30 houses. What is of interest is that despite all the excavations and rebuilding of Newport, no plague pits have ever been discovered. This is either because so few people lived in Newport and/or we simply threw the dead bodies into the strong tidal waters of the Usk.

If there were only thirty or so houses in 1348 it was a different story in 1386 when Newport boasted between 200 – 300 burgages. Having said that, the whole town was only worth about £21 (32 dollars) in rent, and that included the mill and fisheries as well as the two hundred burgages, so rents must have been low.

But there were still further heights to climb. By 1400 Newport enjoyed a rental value of £57 (80 dollars).

A year or two later, the rental value of the town was assessed as nil.

The reason: Owain Glyndwr.

Owain's strategy was to burn and destroy anything owned by, or of use to, the English, and to leave nothing on the land to help a pursuing army. As a result ordinary people suffered badly, both from the violence and the local famine that always followed.

In the Summer of 1402 the Glyndwr hordes entered Gwent from the North and scorched the earth through out the Usk valley. After laying waste to Crickhowell and Abergavenny they arrived at Newport. Within the day they destroyed the castle, the mill, and the bridge.

They badly damaged St, Woolos cathedral and the Austin Friary, drove off all the livestock and burned acres of standing crops. Every church in the moors of Caldicot and the Wentloog levels were similarly destroyed. The townspeople who had hidden in the forests returned to find the town a blackened ruin. Owain was the torch of freedom for many in Wales. He was just a torch for Newport – a curse worse far worse than plague.

When in 1403 King Henry IV's army was billeted in Newport the king found conditions so dreadful that he sent messengers to Bristol ordering ships to be loaded with flour, ale, wine, and salt fish for the starving people of Newport.

for Newport, Duerer's The Apocalpyse might apply more to Glyndwr than the plague it is more usually associated with.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Choose your friends carefully Part 2

After realising who his real friends were, i.e. those who held power, Gilbert de Clare achieved great things. In 1290 and in his forties, he married a twelve year old girl. She was Joan of Acre and the daughter of Edward I. Unfortunately Gilbert died five years later leaving behind a four year old son also called…Gilbert de Clare, along with an unresolved war with Morgan ap Meredydd of Machen and a devastated Newport.

Worse, the boy’s mother went on to scandalise both king and court.

Having delivered four children, and still an attractive teenager, Joan of Acre fell in love with a squire and secretly married him. Things turned out reasonably well. In 1307 both Joan and her father, the king of England died, and Gilbert de Clare junior, now sixteen years old, inherited the earldom of Gloucester and the Newport estates.

Gilbert de Clare junior was also rubbish in choosing his friends but unlike his father he was never given the chance to learn from his mistakes. The new king of England, Edward II, was Gilbert’s uncle but was only a few years older than Gilbert and the two men had grown up as boys together in the Royal Household. They became close friends and as Gilbert developed into a brave and daring warrior it is not surprising that the king found him useful.

The problem was, the new king was basically stupid. Just before the battle of Bannockburn Gilbert told the king that his men needed rest. The Scots were comfortable and well dug in. The English however were desperately tired from days of heavy marching. The king would have none of it. He accused his old friend of cowardice, and the furious Gilbert led his men into a suicidal charge that ended in his death. Probably the two men were as stupid as each other.

It took three years for the king to work out what to do with the Gloucester estates. They were divided out between Gilbert’s three sisters. Eleanor, who was married to the king’s favourite, Hugh Despenser, was given Glamorgan. Margaret, married to Hugh de Audley received Lower Gwent together with Newport, whilst Elizabeth and her husband Roger Damory gained the Lordship of Usk.

The king may have been stupid but Hugh Despenser was consumed by greed and used his power over a sexually ambiguous king. As friends go he was the most dangerous of all, persuading Edward to take the Newport lands from his brother-in-law and give them to him. Then he started ‘stealing’ other baronial estates so causing a major rebellion.

Hugh Despenser, who looks kind of sweet rather than powerful or sexy; but note how he's filched the de Clare coat of arms bottom right corner.

A huge force of over 11,000 men attacked Newport on the 4th of May 1321. They took the castle in 4 days causing immense damage in the area. The repair bill for the damaged castle was £600, a considerable sum in 1326. The corn crop was again destroyed, and the fact that 300 oak trees from Caerleon forest were needed for local repairs suggests that Newport bridge had also to be repaired.
Under pressure, the king banished Hugh Despenser but the following year, the love-sick king reinstated him, defeating the rebellious Barons in North Yorkshire at the battle of Boroughbridge.

Roger Damory, lord of Usk was sentenced to death but was spared because he was married to the King's niece. Another leading rebel, Roger Mortimer, was imprisoned whilst the king decided what to do with him. Such a mistake.

Isabella coming back from France

Roger Mortimer was the queen’s lover. (If Braveheart is to be believed, William Wallace preceded him.) Isabella, passionate, strong, and known as the ‘She-Wolf of France’ with good reason, loathed her husband along with the men he preferred to her. Escaping from prison Roger joined Isabella in France, along with her son, the future Edward III. Returning to England with 700 men they sparked off an even more serious rebellion. The king, along with the Despenser family fled west into Wales.
Hugh Despenser’s 90 year old father was ordered to defend his castle in Bristol but his soldiers rebelled against him. They handed him over to the rebels and the aged man was executed, whilst standing in full armour.

Knowing the game was up, Hugh Despenser and the king crossed the river Wye in an attempt to reach Chepstow where they hoped to sail for Ireland or France. Unfortunately strong winds blew them back and they landed at Neath where they were captured. Despenser was hung drawn and quartered on a fifty foot high gibbet – one of the highest ever built for an execution.

There's a wonderfully quiet quality to this picture, almost as though a small crowd is gathering to watch a wall painting rather than a man being disembowelled.

Edward suffered a more painful but less public fate. In Berkeley Castle he was pushed face down on to a table and his breeches ripped off. A hollowed bone was rammed up his back-side followed by a red hot poker. The guide at Berkeley recounts how his screams could be heard from over five miles away, which I believe because she looks old enough to have witnessed it.

Edward learnt the painful way the necessity of choosing your friends carefully, but I’m sure the ghost of Gilbert de Clare laughed merrily that night.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Choose your friends wisely, Part One.

The Red Baron

Gilbert de Clare inherited Newport and surrounding lands in a roundabout fashion. They initially belonged to the Countess Isabel, Grand-daughter of William, Earl of Gloucester. She can be excused for marrying King John; choice didn’t really come into it. King John however, despite his unexpected sagacity in granting Liverpool its first Town Charter, was not a woman’s man. He divorced Isabel but kept Newport. (wise choice)

When King John died, Newport along with other land around Gloucester was returned to Isabel, who bequeathed them to a close relative – Richard and, in turn, his son Gilbert de Clare.

Gilbert de Clare had a great way with names, beating Manfred von Richthofen to the title of the ‘Red Baron’. He showed less judgement in his choice of friends, but at least had the sense to change sides when the need arose.

The friend in question was Simon de Montfort who led a serious rebellion against John’s son, Henry III. For a time Simon de Montfort became one of the most powerful men in the realm, beating Henry in battle and imprisoning his son in Hereford castle. It was then he began making plans to take over Gilbert de Clare’s Welsh lands.

Simon was greedy and Gilbert was miffed. He changed sides, joining with Roger Mortimer to rescue the King’s son, the young Prince Edward. From Ludlow they raised forces loyal to the king and drove Simon de Montfort into Gwent where he captured Newport castle. By this time de Montfort was so desperate he was reduced to seeking help from the Welsh.

Llywelyn ap Gruffyd was happy to oblige, taking advantage of English troubles to increase Welsh power. Both men were disappointed. Simon de Montford was forced to retreat across the River Severn. Unfortunately his ships, crossing from Bristol to Usk, were ambushed by the Royal fleet, and de Montford, waiting to be picked up from Goldcliffe beach saw his rescue ships sunk.

Simon de Montford’s tired, demoralised army were forced to retreat up the river Usk, wade through treacherous marshland, all the time pursued by Prince Edward’s army.

In one final pique of revenge, de Montfort re-captured Newport, burnt its small wooden bridge, seized all of its livestock and destroyed its crops. He left behind fire and starvation in the lands of his old friend Gilbert de Clare, but revenge is sweet. In the battle of Evesham that followed (1265) de Montfort was killed. His body was cut up and different parts sent to the Lords who had accomplished the most. We don’t know who got the testicles, but his head was sent to Roger de Mortimer who gave it as a gift to his wife, Maud. She held a great feast that very night to celebrate and. De Montfort's head was raised in the Great Hall, still attached to the point of the lance.

Meanwhile, Newport, too, got something from de Montfort’s defeat. It may have lost it’s bridge and suffered hardship and starvation, but St. Woolos got its first little stumpy tower from a grateful king.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Build on high ground

If the story of Gwynlliw and the little church he built on Stow hill is true then St. Woolos is one of the oldest churches in Britain. The original wooden building was burnt and rebuilt many times after Irish, Saxon and even Welsh attacks. In 1402 for example Owain Glyndwr completely destroyed it. This was bloody inconvenient.

Newport was still largely a tidal swamp, the sea coming right up to Stow hill during high tides. It was then the church acted as a lighthouse, aiding ships at night making their way through the treacherous waters near the Wentloog levels.

Other than a small area between Baneswell and Mill Street, which was farmed by Welsh and Saxon peasants, the entire area was either forest or swamp. The only means of travel was via the Ridge ways, which Celts, Romans, and later Normans used. This high route saved a traveller from enormous tidal surges as well as from the inconvenience of wading through marsh.

I used to live in Malpas, just on the edge of Newport. Many the nights we’d spend in the Three Horse-shoes earnestly discussing the origin of the name…err…not really. But names have meaning. It’s just nice when there’s agreement, and when a pub sells nice beer.

Some say Malpas got its name from the Roman words Malus Passus – loosely translated as ‘bloody hell that was hard’; probably an understatement. Malpas then was a very dangerous marsh.

"The marshes within the confines of the Crindau Pill were nothing better than a swamp and formed almost an island near the mill; the marshes from Town Pill to Pillqwenlly were a water-soaked and swampy fen, a veritable quagmire; the Town Pill ran up to the present day Bryngwyn Road, making Stow Hill a peninsula; and the sea came up nearly to Bassaleg Church. The land within the embankments of the Caldicot and Wentloog levels extending from Goldcliff to Cardiff and the land whereon stands almost the whole of Newport is reclaimed."
An extract from Historic Newport by James Matthews 1910. Describing Newport as it was in the C18th. What was like in the Middle-Ages, and what might it revert to as sea levels rise?

But away from these flights of fancy and back to the prosaic.

Archbishop Cox, writing in 1797, believed that Malpas got its name from the Welsh, Malp Aes meaning 'a plain within hills'. What the rest of the world call a swamp, the Welsh call a plain. Tough little buggers. Time for another pint.
(Marsh pictures by courtesy of Andy Southwales)

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Beware 'the dreams of snoring monks'

A nineteenth century lithograph. As a child I loved pictures like these, would spend hours staring at what I couldn't see.

Confession and the fair graces of repentance fell into disesteem, holiness and chastity utterly sickened away, sin stalked in the streets with open and undaunted front, and facing the law with haughty eye, daily triumphed, exulting in her abominable success.

No, not Newport on a Saturday night

But let’s not interrupt the man. It gets better:

Wherefore, the heavens did abominate the land, and, fighting against sinners, the sun and the moon stood still in their abode, and spurning the earth with the greatest noise and fury, caused all nations to be amazed at their numerous portents. For there were thunders terrifying the earth, lightnings and thunderbolts most frequent, deluging showers without number, winds of the most astonishing violence, and whirlwinds that shook the towers of churches and levelled them with the ground. On the earth there were fountains flowing with blood, and mighty earthquakes, while the sea, overflowing its shores, wrought infinite calamities to the maritime places. There were murders and dreadful seditions; the Devil himself was seen bodily appearing in many woods…

This could be advertising the ultimate disaster movie and demands to be read in the sombre rumble of a cinema voice-over. Peter of Blois (1070 – 1117?) may have had such a voice but he’s dead, and so is the man he is writing about: William II of England, better known as William Rufus, or the Red King.

It’s a puzzle as to what the Church disliked most about William Rufus, the fact that he may have been gay, his friendship with Jews or the fact that he regarded Church property as pretty much his own. But in 1093 something dramatic happened.

The king fell ill in Gloucester.

And that illness affected the Church, Scottish history, and Newport!

Convinced he was dying, the terrified monarch was desperate to make peace with the Church. He agreed to appoint Anselm as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. The See had been vacant for four years and the king had been enjoying its revenues. Anselm wasn’t fooled. He smelled trouble if the king ever recovered, and had to be dragged to the royal sickbed to receive his staff of office.

Malcolm III of Scotland was more unfortunate. He’d come all the way to Gloucester to seek audience with the king only to be turned away. Unconvinced by the illness and enraged by the insult he attacked Northumbria where he was killed along with his son. His wife died three days later.

Newport however acquired some monks. The king was so grateful to the monks of St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester that he gave them St. Woolos Church in Newport, along with 15 hides of land (A hide was the amount of land needed to keep a free peasant farmer and his family. It varied between 60 -120 acres)

But then the king got better and boy was he mad. He felt he’d been suckered and expressed contempt for the Almighty who had treated him in this way. No way was he going to carry out promises to a God who could put him through such discomfort.
Of Anselm he said: Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred . So he knew where he stood.

But God or the devil had the last laugh. In 1100 a monk in St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester received a vision in the night that the king was about to suffer for the bloodshed and adulteries of which he was guilty. (not particularly graceful language to a king who had given them 15 hides of land in Newport).

Also at Gloucester, Fulchred, the visiting abbot of Shrewsbury, preached a sermon on the theme that ‘the bow of Divine anger is bent against the wicked, and the arrow swift to wound is taken from the quiver. It will strike suddenly. Let every wise man avoid the blow by mending his ways’

A warning letter was sent from the Abbot of Gloucester, which the king read just prior to the Hunt. Rufus burst out laughing, refusing to believe in what he called ‘the dreams of snoring monks’. He asked those around him whether he looked the kind of man who would take notice of the dreams of ‘little old women’ and embarked on his final hunt.

The Royal forests then enjoyed gold plated conservation laws. Eyes could be torn out and limbs mutilated for the slightest infraction of woodland law. Dogs were crippled by the amputation of three claws of the forefeet so they couldn’t chase deer.

The English, impotent against their Norman conquerors, found comfort in tales of the devil haunting these woods. The New Forest, in particular, was especially fatal. Richard, the Conqueror’s eldest son was gored to death by a stag in the New Forest. The son of Duke Robert, (Rufus’s nephew) lost his life in the same forest - smashed against a tree by an unruly horse. Knowing all this, having had the warning letter from the monks of Gloucester who had already saved him once, and having himself had a prophetic dream only the night before – what possessed the man? Stubbornness, maybe. There are all kind of theories. All we can say is that William was shot by an arrow – by accident or with malice, and that his younger brother left him there, galloping off to be crowned Henry I.

No doubt the monks of St Woolos prayed for both their souls.