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Giraldus Cambrensis

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Giraldus Cambrensis

Gerald of Wales
Born Gerald de Barri
c. 1146
Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Died c. 1223
probably Hereford, England
Occupation Clergyman
Nationality Welsh
Ethnicity Cambro-Norman

Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223), also known as Gerallt Gymro in Welsh or Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin, archdeacon of Brecon, was a medieval clergyman and chronicler of his times. Born ca. 1146 at Manorbier Castle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh descent; he is also known as Gerald de Barri.

Early life

Gerald was son of William FitzOdo de Barry (or Barri), the common ancestor of the Barry family in Ireland and one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman barons in Wales at that time.[1] He was a maternal nephew of David fitzGerald, the Bishop of St David's and a grandson of Gerald de Windsor (alias FitzWalter),[2] Constable of Pembroke Castle, and Nest the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr. Through their mother, Angharad, Gerald and his siblings were closely related to Angharad's first cousin, Rhys ap Gruffydd, the Lord Rhys (Yr Arglwydd Rhys), and his family.

Gerald received his initial education at the Benedictine house of Gloucester, followed by a period of study in Paris from ca 1165-74, where he studied the trivium. He was employed by Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, wherein he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove supposed abuses of consanguinity and tax laws flourishing in the Welsh church at the time. He was appointed archdeacon of Brecon, to which was attached a residence at Llanddew. He obtained this position by reporting the existence of the previous archdeacon's mistress; the man was promptly fired. While administrating this post, Gerald collected tithes of wool and cheese from the populace; the income from the archdeaconry supported him for many years. Upon the death of his uncle, the Bishop of St David's, in 1176, the chapter nominated Gerald as his successor. St David's had long-term aims of becoming independent of Canterbury, and the chapter may have thought that Gerald was the man to take up the cause. Henry II of England, fresh from his struggle with Thomas Becket, promptly rejected Gerald, possibly because his Welsh blood and ties to the ruling family of Deheubarth made him seem like a troublesome prospect, in favour of one of his Norman retainers Peter de Leia. According to Gerald, the king said at the time: "It is neither necessary or expedient for king or archbishop that a man of great honesty or vigour 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".[3] The chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Gerald, disappointed with the result, withdrew to the University of Paris. From ca 1179-8, he studied and taught canon law and theology. He returned to England and spent an additional five years studying theology. In 1180, he received a minor appointment from the Bishop of St. David's, which he soon resigned because of corruption he saw in the administration.

Travels in Wales and Ireland

Gerald became a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England in 1184, first acting mediator between the crown and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd. He was chosen to accompany one of the king's sons, John, in 1185 on John's first expedition to Ireland. This was the catalyst for his literary career; his work Topographia Hibernica (first published 1188, and revised at least four more times) is an account of his journey to Ireland; Gerald always referred to it as his Topography, though "History" is the more accurate term.[4] He followed it up, shortly afterwards, with an account of Henry's conquest of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hibernica. Both works were revised and added to several times before his death, and display a notable degree of Latin learning, as well as a great deal of prejudice against a foreign people. Gerald was proud to be related to some of the Norman invaders of Ireland, such as his maternal uncle Robert Fitz-Stephen and Raymond FitzGerald, and his influential account, which portrays the Irish as barbaric savages, gives important insight into Anglo-Norman views of Ireland and the history of the invasion.

Having thus demonstrated his usefulness, Gerald was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, on a tour of Wales in 1188, the object being a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade. His account of that journey, the Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) was followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194. His two works on Wales remain incredibly valuable historical documents, significant for their descriptions — however untrustworthy and inflected by ideology, whimsy, and his unique style — of Welsh and Norman culture. As a royal clerk, Gerald observed significant political events at first hand, and was offered appointments as bishoprics of Wexford and Leighlin, and apparently at a little later time the bishopric of Ossory and the archbishopric of Cashel, and later the Welsh Bishopric of Bangor and, in 1191, that of Llandaff. He turned them all down, possibly in the hopes of landing a more prominent bishopric in the future. He was acquainted with Walter Map whose career shares some similarities with Gerald. Retiring from royal service, he lived in Lincoln from ca 1196 to 1198 where his friend William de Montibus was now chancellor of the Cathedral. It was in this period that De instructione principis was probably first written, a useful historical source on contemporary events. It was an influential work at the time, spreading, for example, the legend of MacAlpin's treason. Here Gerald is frequently critical of the rule of the Angevin kings, a shift from his earlier praise of Henry II in the Topographia. He also wrote a life of St Hugh of Lincoln.

Battle to become Archbishop of St David's

On the death of Peter de Leia in 1198, the chapter of St. David's again nominated Gerald for the bishopric; but Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused confirmation. Representatives of the canons followed Richard I to France, but before they could interview him he died; his successor, King John, received them kindly, and granted them permission to hold an election. They were unanimous in their selection of Gerald, and Gerald acted as Bishop-elect for much of the next four years; and, as Hubert still refused to confirm the election, Gerald started for Rome to have his election confirmed, where he had an interview with Pope Innocent III. He visited Rome on three occasions (1199–1200; 1201; 1202–3) in support of his claims. In 1198 the archbishop, however, had anticipated him and his agents in Rome undermined Gerald's case, and, as the pope was not convinced that St. David's was independent of Canterbury, the mission of Gerald proved a failure. Gerald had pleaded not only his own cause, but that of St David's as an Metropolitan archbishopric (and thus of the same status as Canterbury) reviving the earlier claims of Rhygyfarch and Bernard, Bishop of St David's. It was in connexion with this cause that he wrote his books "De jure Menevensis Ecclesiâ" and "De Rebus a Se Gestis". Gerald returned, and his cause was now supported by the Princes of Wales, most notably Llywelyn the Great, and Gruffydd ap Rhys II, while King John, frequently in conflict with the Welsh, warmly espoused the cause of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1202, Gerald was accused of stirring up the Welsh to rebellion and was put on trial, but the trial came to nothing in consequence of the absence of the principal judges. After this long struggle, the chapter of St. David's deserted Gerald, and having been obliged to leave Wales, he fled to Rome. The ports had been closed against him so he travelled in secret. In April 1203 Pope Innocent III annulled both elections, and Geoffrey of Henlaw was appointed to the See of St. David's, despite the strenuous exertions of Gerald. Travelling back to France, he was briefly imprisoned in France for these actions. He afterwards reconciled with the king, and was forced to make a vow never to support the primacy of St David's over Canterbury ever again. The expenses of his unsuccessful election were paid by the crown. Gerald maintained that fear of the effect that his appointment would have on the national politics in Wales had prevented his appointment. He famously complained in a letter to Innocent III "Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it".[3] At this point he resigned his position as archdeacon of Brecon.

Later life and death

Gerald spent the remainder of his life in academic study, most likely in Lincoln, producing works of devotional instruction and politics, and revising the works on Ireland and Wales he had written earlier in his life. He spent two years (1204–6) in Ireland with his relatives and made a fourth visit to Rome, purely as a pilgrimage, in 1206. The controversy over St David's soured his relationship with the crown. In 1216 a baronial plan to put Louis VIII of France on the throne of England in the First Barons' War was warmly welcomed by him. He died in about 1223 in his 77th year, probably in Hereford and he is according to some accounts buried at St David's Cathedral.[5]

There is a statue, by Henry Poole of Gerald in City Hall, Cardiff, and he was included in the vote on 100 Welsh Heroes for his Descriptio Kambriae and Itinerarium Kambriae. His reputation in Ireland, due to his negative portrayal of the Irish, is much less friendly.


Gerald's writings in good quality Latin, based on a thorough knowledge of Classical authors, reflect experiences gained on his travels as well as his great knowledge of the standard authorities. He was respected as a scholar in his time and afterwards. The noted scholar Edward Augustus Freeman said he was "the father of comparative philology," and in the preface to the last volume of Gerald's works in the Rolls Series, he calls him "one of the most learned men of a learned age," "the universal scholar."[6] His writings were prolific, running to about ten volumes in modern printed editions. Gerald was a man of strong opinions whose works are frequently polemical, including bitter attacks on his enemies, but he also had an intense curiosity, recording much valuable detail of everyday life in his ethnographic works.

It is generally agreed today that his most distinguished works are those dealing with Wales and Ireland, with his two books on his beloved Wales the most important: Itinerarium Kambriae and Descriptio Kambriae which tell us much about Welsh history and geography and reflect on the Cultural relationship between the Welsh and the English. Gerald, despite his desire for an independent Welsh Church and admiration for parts of Welsh life, was very loyal to Norman Marcher rule, regarding the Normans as more civilised than the Welsh, a feeling reflected in his writings. Professor Davies tells us that Gerald, whom he calls "an admirable story-teller", is the only source for some of the most famous of the Welsh folk tales including the declaration of the old man of Pencader to Henry II which concludes Descriptio Cambriae: "This nation, O King, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will also prevail by its laudable exertions, but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth."

It was Gerald who also wrote (of the Welsh) that "If they would be inseparable, they would be insuperable", and that, unlike the English hirelings, who fight for power or to procure gain or wealth, the Welsh patriots fight for their country. He had pleasant things to say about the poetic talents of his people, too:

Gerald could not have predicted the later perfection of cynghanedd, the complex system of sound correspondence that has characterized the strict-meter poetry of the Welsh for so many centuries and that is still practised today, especially in competitions for the eisteddfod chair. Cynghanedd did not become a formal system with strict rules until the fourteenth century, but its uniquely Welsh forms had been honed for centuries before that.

Finally, in Descriptio Cambriae, Gerald penned the following words that give so much pride to Welsh singers of today, especially those who participate in the immensely popular Cymanfaoedd Canu (hymn-singing festivals) held throughout Wales and North America:

Another part of the above work,[7] however is less positive. As Cambrensis puts it, "an attention to order now requires that, in this second part, we should employ our pen in pointing out those particulars in which it seems to transgress the line of virtue and commendation". David Powel published an abridged version of Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae in 1585 omitting Gerald's negative comments about the Welsh. Due to translations into English, the first being done by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart., and other translations such as in Everyman's Library and Penguin Classics Gerald's works on Wales are well known today.

In his writing on Ireland his love of music is very evident too. " Chapter Xi of Distinction III (Topographia Hibernica) (Of the incomparable skill of the Irish in playing upon musical instruments)

The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments; in which they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their modulation on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the harmony is both sweet and gay. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved........ it must be remarked however, that both Scotland and Wales strive to rival Ireland in the art of music......[8]

His works on Ireland although invaluable for their detail are obviously biased, and have been attacked by Irish writers such as Stephen White. The following passage from his Topographia Hibernica shows why the Irish might not always be too enamoured with Gerald's views:

  • Distinction III *Chapter XXXV (Of the number of persons in this nation who have bodily defects)
  • "Moreover, I have never seen in any other nation so many individuals who were born blind, so many lame, maimed or having some natural defect. The persons of those who are well-formed are indeed remarkably fine, nowhere better; but as those who are favoured with the gifts of nature grow up exceedingly handsome, those from whom she withholds them are frightfully ugly. No wonder if among an adulterous and incestuous people, in which both births and marriages are illegitimate, a nation out of the pale of the laws, nature herself should be foully corrupted by perverse habits. It should seem that by the just judgements of God, nature sometimes produces such objects, contrary to her own laws, in order that those who will not regard Him duly by the light of their own consciences, should often have to lament their privations of the exterior and bodily gift of sight."[9]

Natural history

Gerald was a keen and observant student of natural history, but the value of his observations is lessened by credulity and inability to distinguish fact from legend. He gives a vivid and accurate description of the last colony of the European Beaver in Wales on the River Teifi, but spoils it by repeating the legend that beavers castrate themselves to avoid danger. Likewise he gives a good description of an Osprey fishing, but adds the mythical detail that the bird has one webbed foot. His description of Irish wildlife was harshly called "worthless"; the better view perhaps is that despite its faults it gives an important glimpse of Irish fauna in the 1180s. Certainly there are valuable details: while the European Kingfisher is now common in Ireland, Gerald states clearly that it was not found in Ireland in his time: on the other hand the European Dipper, which he had evidently not seen before, was very common.

List of works

  • Topographia Hibernica ("Topography of Ireland", 1187)[10]
  • Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland", 1189)[11]
  • Itinerarium Cambriae ("Journey through Wales", 1191)
  • Liber de Principis instructione c. 1193
  • Descriptio Cambriae ("Description of Wales", 1194)
  • De instructione principis ("Education of a prince")
  • De rebus a se gestis ("Autobiography")
  • De iure et statu Menevensis ecclesiae ("Rights and privileges of the Church of St David's")
  • Gemma ecclesiastica ("Jewel of the church")
  • Speculum ecclesiae ("Mirror of the church")
  • Symbolum electorum
  • Invectiones
  • Retractationes
  • Speculum duorum
  • Life of St Hugh of Lincoln
  • Life of Geoffrey, Archbishop of York
  • Life of St Ethelbert[12]
  • Life of St Remigius
  • Life of St David
Lost works
  • Vita sancti Karadoci ("Life of St Caradoc")
  • De fidei fructu fideique defectu
  • Totius Kambriae mappa ("Map of all Wales", c. 1205)
Online editions
  • Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 1905

In popular culture

  • Gerald's tour of Wales in 1188 was detailed in a 1988 cartoon voiced by comedian Max Boyce.
  • Gerald of Wales was 4th in the series of 8 by Nicholas Crane in Great British Journeys

James Goldman's novel Myself As Witness is written from Gerald of Wales' point of view, though in the novel he is referred to as Giraldus Cambrensis.

See also



  • The autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis tr. H. E. Butler. London: Cape, 1937.
  • Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales tr. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  • Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland tr. John J. O'Meara. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.ISBN 978-0-14-044423-0
  • Gerald of Wales, Speculum Duorum ed. Yves Lefevre and R. C. Huygens, tr. Brian Dawson. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1974.

External links

  • Four Works of Giraldus Cambrensis at the Internet Archive
  • Project Gutenberg
  • .
  • The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Volume I, 1907–21.
  • Gerald of Wales at
  • Full text of on A Vision of Britain through Time, with links to the places named.
  • Full text of on A Vision of Britain through Time, with links to the places named.
  • , Everyman's Library, Edited by Ernest Rhys, with an Introduction by W. Llewelyn Williams, January 1908

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