When I first visited Brecon as a child it was a bustling market town and the trip was something of a treat - the place was almost exotic in comparison with grey, industrial Port Talbot where we lived. One of the few things I knew about Brecon was that there was an army garrison there and I knew this because every time we walked past St Mary's Church in Aberavon my mother would tut and shake her head and tell us - again - the story of Dic Penderyn, who was buried there. In case you don't know (I can just see my mother tutting and shaking her head at you...) Dic Penderyn was a young miner who was (falsely...tut...) accused of stabbing one of the soldiers who'd been sent from Brecon to quell riots in Merthyr Tydfil back in 1831. Obviously Dic was innocent (he was on Aberdare mountain at the time of the attack!) but it didn't make any difference (sad shake of the head...). He was hanged in Cardiff Jail and has been seen as something of a martyr ever since; forty years after his execution another man confessed to the crime on his death bed
Interestingly my mother was one of the least political individuals I've ever known and would walk a mile in bare feet to avoid controversy of any kind, but for some reason this tale of poor, innocent Dic would always wind her up.
Fast forward half a century and I now live in Breconshire, within the boundaries of the Brecon Beacons National Park. When we moved here two and a bit years ago one of the first trips we made was to Brecon to do some shopping. It was mid-March and the A40 took us past the snow covered peaks of the Beacons, along the route followed by Roman legions. It's a trip I now make once a week when I go to my Welsh class and I always enjoy it because it's just so, so pretty whatever the season and whatever the weather - even the fog or rain lend something to the views. The town itself is quiet and pleasant and not that much different from my childhood memory of it. We went there today to have a wander around the cathedral, which isn't the biggest, the most spectacular or the oldest in the country but is certainly worth a visit and has some interesting bits and pieces. Due to the particular obsession I have with all things medieval I concentrated mostly on these aspects, though I will say here that the Havard Chapel in the north transept is the Regimental Chapel of the South Wales Borderers (24th Regiment), a regiment first raised in 1689. The Regiment has earned honours in many campaigns and is probably best known for the part it played in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 when its soldiers won nine Victoria Crosses in a single day’s fighting.
The cathedral was founded in 1093 by Bernard de Neufmarché, son of the hilariously labelled Geoffrey the Incompetent, of Le Neuf-Marché en Lyons in Northern France. No disrespect intended to anyone but Bernard seems to me to be such a mild-mannered name that it's difficult to think of it as belonging to this ruthless man, one of a never-ending line of brutish Normans who moved on from England into Wales to satisfy their greed for land and power. Typically, once they had taken control of an area the Normans would build a wooden fort as protection and as a base from which to begin their overlordship. When circumstances allowed the timber would be replaced by stone to give them stronger and more permanent headquarters. Invariably their focus then turned to the Church, never too far from the medieval mindset; and after all, William the Bastard's appropriation of the English crown (and therefore the material rewards his followers had all gained as a result) had succeeded largely because of the support of Pope Alexander II. The Normans always paid their dues.
And thus it was in Brecon. It seems that Bernard had reached the area of the confluence of the Rivers Usk and Honddu by 1091, and decided that it was a good site for a castle. At Easter two years later he led his troops against the Welsh of the Kingdom of Deheubarth (into which the ancient Kingdom of Brycheiniog had been absorbed) and triumphed. The battle resulted in the death of the Welsh leader and is recorded in the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicles of the Princes): Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth was slain by the Frenchmen inhabiting Brycheiniog. It's always strange to consider that the only languages heard here in those years were Welsh and Norman French and that the English language had yet to arrive...
So, let's hear it for Bernard. His possession of these lands now confirmed by his victory over the native ruler, he could turn his attention from military matters to other concerns. A priory was built (probably on the site of an existing Celtic church, as often happened - the conquerors couldn't leave anything alone) and was dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Unfortunately there's nothing left of the Norman building because fashions change, in architecture as in everything else. By the 13th century Bernard's church had been rebuilt, the Romanesque form giving way to Early English Gothic.
But Joy of Joys, there is something older to be celebrated because the font is a survivor from the 12th century if not before. It shows definite Welsh influences, with dragons, serpents and a green man forming part of the carving. It's been dated to 1130-1150, though some experts think that it's earlier still. It is gorgeous, whatever its age.
The other ancient piece is a cresset stone, the only one in Wales. It's a large block of stone with thirty wells, each of which would have held tallow and wick so that the monks would have light during their night-time vigils...or, I think, any time of day at all in winter!
As with any church or cathedral there are connections with prominent families although sadly there are no illustrious Norman lords buried here - Bernard himself is at Gloucester Cathedral. There are however other medieval personalities and events associated with the site; the famous, brilliant and controversial Gerald of Wales became Archdeacon of Brecon in 1175. The story is that Gerald visited Brecon and found the elderly Archdeacon living with a mistress. Gerald saw his opportunity and kicked the other man out, displaying a righteous sense of offence on behalf of the Church. He then held the office himself until 1203 when he retired quietly to an academic life, having been denied what he really wanted and had fought for most of his adulthood - to be Bishop of St David's and Archbishop of Wales.
It's thanks to Gerald that we have some sublime descriptions of the Wales of that period. He's been criticized for his bias towards the Normans and for his sometimes disparaging view of his own countrymen, and he certainly wasn't the most objective or reliable witness. But his observations of the people and the landscape paint an indelible picture, some of them absolutely recognizable even today. And how can you not want to read chapters entitled Concerning the nature, manners and dress, the boldness, agility and courage of this nation and Of their hospitality and liberality? And my particular favourites: Concerning the cutting of their hair, their care of their teeth and shaving of their beard and Of their symphonies and songs? As he traipsed about the countryside in 1188 with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury to raise support for the Third Crusade, I'm fairly surely he'd have been able to entertain Baldwin and his other companions in the same way that he's been entertaining us for over eight hundred years.
Mention of the Crusades brings us back to matters of warfare and to this cathedral founded by a Norman warrior. The strong medieval military associations continued, notably with the Battle of Agincourt, whose 600th anniversary was marked last year. We know that 500 welsh archers and 23 men-at-arms enrolled to fight in France for Henry V in 1415. Of these, 159 foot archers and 10 men-at-arms from the Brecon area were called to arms and there's a list of their names on display in the cathedral. Although there was a requirement on them to sign up as part of the duty owed to their overlord, they must have been seized by a certain excitement as well as the prospect of riches untold - they were paid six pence a day!
We don't know the fate of these individual men but due to the scale of the English victory it's probable that they survived the battle - if they got that far, because many of Henry's troops had died from sickness on the abortive campaign before even reaching the village of Azincourt. We do know, however that two Welsh noblemen from Breconshire were killed on the battlefield - Dafydd Gam (immortalised in Shakespeare's Henry V, named on the list of the dead read aloud by Henry) and his son-in-law, Sir Roger Vaughan of Bredwardine. There's no memorial to Dafydd Gam himself in Brecon Cathedral but there is a surviving portion of a later family monument, dated from the mid-sixteenth century; the family name had by then become Games.
As for Dafydd's son-in-law, Sir Roger is commemorated in a stained glass window - I'm not sure why he was accorded this honour and Dafydd was ignored. It seems a little strange but apparently Dafydd was a controversial figure. Though the cynic in me says that money may have changed hands somewhere along the line...
Sir Roger's son (also called Roger) travelled to Agincourt, probably as a page, but he survived and returned to Breconshire. His widowed mother Gwladys, daughter of Dafydd Gam, remarried. Her second husband was William ap Thomas (owner of Raglan Castle and Tretower Castle) who had also fought at Agincourt. What a small, intimate social circle these people lived in! Gwladys and William had at least four (possibly as many as eight) children and are buried together in the Priory Church of St Mary in Abergavenny.
Tretower Castle had been founded at the end of the 11th century by one of Bernard's knights (Picard), though it remained an earth and timber construction for about two hundred years. It was fortified in the mid 12th century and strengthened with the addition of the tower in the middle of the 13th, probably as a response to the growing threat from Llywelyn ap Iorweth of Gwynedd. The Picard family line died out and the property passed to the Berkeley family of Gloucester, who sold it to William ap Thomas in 1429. As early as the beginning of the 14th century work had begun on a new manor house a few hundred yards from the castle, though it's likely that the castle itself was still an important part of the estate. Tretower had been the most likely muster point for the Brecknock contingent of men going to fight for Henry V in 1415.
I've a bit of a soft spot for Tretower - partly because I live within walking distance, which means I can visit pretty much whenever I want, and also because I'm a card-carrying member of CADW - which means I can visit pretty much whenever I want without having to hand over any cash at the gate. Tretower is unusual (if not unique) because of the mix of buildings which allow us to follow the timeline from early defensive fort to affluent early Tudor manor without so much as breaking a sweat. In common with most heritage sites it hosts plenty of events, ranging from open air productions of Shakespeare through Apple Day celebrations to medieval re-enactments. Last year as part of the Agincourt 600 celebrations, a staging of the 1415 muster was held in the grounds amid much merriment and with plenty of bawdy fun, just one of the commemorative gatherings held along the route from the west of Wales to Monmouth.
Back to the young Sir Roger, who was settled at Tretower whilst his mother and stepfather used Raglan Castle as their main residence. Roger married twice and had numerous children, both legitimate and illegitimate. Life appeared to be rosy - a little too rosy unfortunately, as 1455 saw the outbreak of hostilities between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The Vaughans were Yorkists so it possibly won't be too great a shock when I tell you that things ended badly - and suddenly - for Roger when he was beheaded by Jasper Tudor at Chepstow in 1471.
Despite the wretched outcome for the lusty Sir Roger, Tretower remained in the possession of the Vaughan family. It was here that the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan was born and lived, much of his work influenced by a profound love for his home and the countryside around him - a countryside at peace until it was shattered by the English Civil War.
At this point I feel slightly overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the history of this county that I now call home. It's impossible to walk through a town or village and not come across a reference to the medieval age, whether it be a street name such as Newmarch Street in Brecon or Standard Street in Crickhowell (where Sir Richard Evans raised his standard in 1485, calling local men to support Henry Tudor's cause at Bosworth Field) or a ruined castle lurking behind family run shops. In fact I need look no further than my own garden wall, which accounts for the lengthy periods I spend day dreaming.
Not for the first time in my life I wish that I had a time machine…I could travel back through the centuries and meet Roger, Davy Gam, Gerald and Bernard - most of all, Bernard...but I'd most definitely have to brush up on my French!
@MrsB_inthehills is a long time Cardiff resident who has now relocated to Powys with her husband. She regularly blogs about life in the Welsh marches and about learning Welsh. The following article was originally published on April 7, 2016. You can read more on her website here.
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