Many writers, medieval and modern, have described the landscape and towns of the March of Wales, from both sides of the border. Some examples are given here.

Gerald of Wales

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, grew up in a Norman family in the castle of Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, and took a lively, if critical, interest in Wales and its culture though his career as a royal servant kept him close to the court of Henry II. In 1188 he accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin, on a tour of Wales to preach the cross in support of the crusade declared by Henry II the year before. Gerald’s account of this tour, described in his much-revised work, The Journey Through Wales, gives us one of our most important surviving accounts of life in the Welsh Marches, both in the south and the east of the country.

Gerald’s style is anecdotal, and in this reference to a violent drama in Cardiff he demonstrates very clearly the tensions between Norman lords and Welsh inhabitants in the early days of Marcher settlement:

In our own days [1158] an extraordinary event occurred in Cardiff Castle. William, Earl of Gloucester, son of Earl Robert, held the castle and with it the whole of Glamorgan, that is Morgan’s Land, which he had inherited. For some reason or other he had quarrelled with one of his feudal dependants, who was called Ivor Bach…At that time Cardiff Castle was fortified by a circle of very high walls, and these walls were guarded by a huge squad of sentinels, at least one hundred and twenty men-at-arms and a great number of archers….One night, in complete disregard of all these sentinels and security-forces, Ivor carried some ladders to the walls, clambered over them without being seen, seized hold of the Earl and his Countess, with their small son, who was their only child, made off with them all three, and carried them into the woods. He refused to release them until he had recovered everything that had been taken from him unjustly, and a little more.

(From The Journey Through Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 122–3.)

Dafydd ap Gwilym

Many of the Welsh poets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries refer to towns and places on the March where they visited as itinerant poets or sought patronage from Welsh lords. Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the most famous court poets of the fourteenth century, grew up near Aberystwyth in west Wales but travelled extensively throughout the country and was familiar with the March. In one of his poems, addressed, perhaps not literally, to a nun at the convent of Llanllugan in Montgomeryshire (modern Powys), Dafydd uses the word mars, ‘March’, to describe the journey taken by his love-messenger, a bird, to seek the nun:

Dadlitia’r diwyd latai,
Hwnt o’r mars dwg hynt i’r mai.
Gedaist, ciliaist, myn Celi,
Arnaf y mae d’eisiau di.
Dof holion, difai helynt,
Da fuost lle gywddost gynt.
Peraist ym fun ar ungair,
Pâr ym weled merched Mair.

Be calm, loyal love-messenger, over there in the March take a journey in May. You left, you flew off, by heaven, and now I need you. With obedient pleas and a faultless pursuit, you did well once before in a place you know. You arranged a girl for me with a single word, arrange now for me to see the girls of Mary.

(My translation; the Welsh text is from ‘Cyrchu Lleian’, ‘Seeking a Nun’, edited by Dafydd Johnston, Cerddi Dafydd ap Gwilym, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010, no. 43.)

John Leland, Itinerary in Wales (1536-39)

John Leland (c. 1506–1552) was a cleric and antiquarian who was in service to Henry VIII. During the dissolution of the monasteries, Leland was given the task of finding and retrieving historical manuscripts from cathedral and monastic libraries. Most of these were collected by Leland himself or deposited in the royal library.

From about 1536 to 1543, Leland toured England and Wales in search of manuscripts, and he recorded his journeys in a series of itineraries. The ‘Itinerary in Wales’ was written during the years 1536 to 1539 and includes detailed information about the March, its towns, rivers, religious houses, and political history. This itinerary includes the English counties of the March as well as those on the Welsh side, providing a unified description of the geographical regions under the control of the Council of the Marches of Wales.

Here, for example, is Leland’s description of the town of Denbigh:

The new toune of Denbigh was clere defacid with fier by hostilitie, A.D. 1468. Sum say that this was doone by the Erle of Penbroke [William Herbert, d. 1469].
The castelle is a very large thing, and hath many toures yn it. But the body of the worke was never finishid.

The gate house is a mervelus strong and great peace of work, but the fastigia of it were never finischid. If they had beene, it might have beene countid emong the most memorable peaces of workys yn England. It hath diverse wardes and dyverse portcolicis. On the front of the gate is set the image of Hen[ry] Lacy Erle of Lincoln [Henry de Lacy, d. 1311] in his stately long robes.

There is a nother very high towre and larg in the castelle caullid the Redde Towre.
Sum say that the Erle of Lincoln’s sunne felle into the castelle welle, and ther dyed: wherapon he never passid to finisch the castelle.

King Edward the 4 was besegid in Denbigh Castelle: and ther it was pactid bytwene King Henry’s men and hym that he should with life departe the reaulme never to returne.

(From: The Itinerary in Wales of Johh Leland, ed. by Lucy Toulmin Smith, London, 1906, pp. 97–8.)

Thomas Churchyard, The Worthines of Wales (1587)

This long descriptive poem is part travelogue and part chorography, mapping the new border counties created from the old Marcher lordships by the Acts of Union. Churchyard’s route along the March, from north to south, took him through the new counties of Denbigh, Montgomery, Radnor, Brecknock, and Monmouth. Passing through Monmouthshire, Churchyard picked out the historic city of Caerleon, a Roman frontier town associated with King Arthur, for a lament on past glories:

Carleon now, step in with stately style,
No feeble phrase, may serve to set thee forth:
Thy famous towne, was spoke of many a myle,
Thou hast bene great, though now but little worth.
Thy noble bounds, hath reacht beyond them all,
In thee hath bene, King Arthurs golden hall:
In thee the wise, and worthies did repose,
And through thy towne, the water ebs and flowes….
…Both Athens, Theabes, and Carthage too
We hold of great renowne:
What then I pray you shall we doo,
To poore Carleon towne.

(From: Thomas Churchyard, The Worthines of Wales, London: Thomas Evans, 1776, reprinted from edition of 1587, pp. 21–22)

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