Who was Gerald of Wales?

Tryfan, the Glyder Fach & Y Garn, Carneddau, Snowdonia, Wales

Gerald of Wales (1146-1223) was a secular clerk and prolific author of Latin texts ranging from saints’ lives to natural history. Ambitious with a prickly character, Gerald’s lineage, career, and travels imbued his writings with a unique perspective. His writings serve not only as historical records for the places, people, and events that he describes, but also as an insight into his personal motivations and ambitions.

Gerald the Welshman?

Gerald was born into a complicated and fragmented society, underpinned by conflict between Marcher lordships and native Welsh principalities.

The son of a Norman knight, William de Barri, Gerald could also trace his lineage back to the Welsh nobility through his maternal grandmother, Nest, the daughter of the Prince of South Wales. Gerald’s Welsh lineage was the source of his noble blood, yet it also created difficulties of identity and loyalty.

Identity 

Gerald’s feeling of ambivalence towards the native Welsh can be seen throughout his career and writings. Gerald often criticised native Welsh customs and pushed for moral reform in his position as archdeacon of Brecon. As an ambitious clerk, Gerald spent ten years in the service of the Angevin kings and travelled widely on church and crown business. However, his Welsh connections – although useful – resulted in the mistrust of royal government, and Gerald was never rewarded with the bishopric that he felt he deserved.

Yet Gerald’s attitude towards Wales was not completely hostile. He admired the freedom and boldness of the native Welsh and promoted the independence of the Welsh church from the authority of Canterbury. Gerald’s pursuit of an archbishopric for St David’s was, however, unsuccessful. After many years of frustrated ambitions, Gerald became increasingly disillusioned with both the Angevin kings and the native Welsh.

The journey through Wales

In 1188, Gerald accompanied Archbishop Baldwin to Wales on a mission to recruit fighters for the Third Crusade. Gerald recorded their travels in one of his most famous works, the Itinerarium Cambriae (The Journey Through Wales). His first-hand observations of the people and places that they encountered provide an unparalleled insight into medieval Wales.

Reliving Gerald’s journey

Many of the locations and geographical features visited by Gerald still survive, and his route can be traced onto a map. The modern visitor to Wales might recognise Gerald’s descriptions of the remote peninsula of St David’s, ‘exposed to the winds and to extremely inclement weather’, or of the mountains of Snowdonia that ‘seem to rear their lofty summits right up to the clouds'.

These unchanging landscapes offer a moment of shared experience that reaches across the centuries.

The view from Carn Llidi

St David's Peninsula  

The remote and exposed landscape of St David’s Peninsula is described by Gerald of Wales in the Itinerarium Cambriae. The See of St David’s also held great ecclesiastical importance for Gerald, who promoted its status as a metropolitan archbishopric.

Dolmelynllyn estate walk, South Snowdonia

South Snowdonia 

Gerald travelled through South Snowdonia on his journey through Wales in 1188, and described the lofty summits of its mountains.