Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) was born c.1146 in Manorbier Castle, a Norman stronghold situated at the head of a cove above what is now the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Descended from Norman Marcher lords and Welsh royalty, Gerald was a royal clerk to King Henry II of England and chaplain and tutor to his two sons, the princes who were to become King Richard I and King John. In 1188, Gerald was appointed by Henry to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop Baldwin, on an extensive tour of Wales1.

Gerald’s personal account of their expedition, The Journey Through Wales (Itinerarium Cambriae), written in 1191, was described by Gerald as:

‘…like a highly polished mirror. In it I have portrayed the pathless places in which we trod, named each mountain torrent and each purling spring, recorded the witty things we said, set down the hazards of our journey and our various travails, included an account of such noteworthy events as occurred in those parts, some in our own times, others long ago, with much natural description and remarkable excursions into natural history…’ Second preface.

Detail from the Route of Gerald’s Five-Hundred-Mile Tour around Wales Giraldus Cambrensis, 1804. Itinerarium cambriae seu laboriosae Baldvini Cantuariensis archiepiscopi per Walliam Legationis accurata descriptio auctore Silv. Geraldo Cambrense/cum annotationibus Davidis Poweli
Detail from the Route of Gerald’s Five-Hundred-Mile Tour around Wales. Giraldus Cambrensis, 1804. 
Itinerarium cambriae seulaboriosae Baldvini Cantuariensis archiepiscopi per Walliam Legationis accurata descriptio auctore Silv. Geraldo Cambrense/cum annotationibus Davidis Poweli. London: Typis Gulielmi Bulmer et Socci. (PHI 01429) Presented to St. David’s College by Thomas Phillips in 1837


Having crossed the English border at Hereford, Gerald and Archbishop Baldwin, who was by this time no longer a young man, covered over five hundred miles in six weeks, travelling throughout North and South Wales, tackling Wales’ ‘high mountains, deep valleys and extensive forests, not to mention its rivers and marches’. 
Book II Chapter 1.

In the course of this extensive proselytizing expedition, Archbishop Baldwin celebrated Mass in front of mixed assemblies of both native Welsh people and Anglo-Norman soldiers in each of the four Welsh Cathedrals situated at Bangor and St. Asaph’s to the far north, and Llandaff and St. David’s to the south of the country1.


However, Baldwin and Gerald were not solely engaged in missionary activities; though they certainly preached the Cross, their purpose in doing so was to recruit soldiers to fight for Henry II in the Third Crusade against the armies of Saladin, who were then occupying the Holy Land1. In this aim they met with some success and by the end of ‘this rather exhausting journey through Wales’, Gerald reported that:

‘about three thousand men were signed with the cross, all of them highly skilled in the use of the spear and the arrow, most experienced in military affairs and only too keen to attack the enemies of our faith at the first opportunity’. Book II Chapter 13. Both Baldwin and Gerald also preached to a crowd in Lampeter where ‘many persons were induced to take the Cross’. Book II Chapter 4.

The Journey Through Wales is not only the first book ever to be wholly devoted to Wales, but is widely regarded as being the most vivid and engaging portrait of a British Medieval journey ever written.

Notes: 1. Giraldus Cambrensis, 1978. The Journey through Wales; and, The description of Wales translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin.

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