A Brief History of the Welsh
By: Erik Roth
The Britons, now Christian and deliberately softened under Roman rule to make them more manageable tax payers, had become cowardly, treacherous and prone to homosexuality. When the legions were called home to defend Rome against the barbarian tides, the Britons found themselves quite unable to cope with attacks by the wild Picts and Scots from the other side of Hadrian's wall.
In desperation King Vortigern of the Britons called on the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes across the channel for aid. They came gladly, longboats full of them, under the chiefs Hengist and Horsa. As such invitations so often turn out, the guests decided they liked the island and more of their tribesmen came to join them, carrying bows and the single-edged swords and daggers that gave the Saxons their name.
There is no record of use of bow and arrow by the Britons in the Roman chronicles nor is there any archaeological evidence of such use although numbers of spears, swords and daggers have been found. Ascham writes that Sir Thomas Elyot told him he had ‘perused many olde monuments of Englande' to learn of early archery and in an ancient chronicle without a name he had read that what time as the Saxons first came into this reàlme in King Vortiger's dayes when they.had bene here a while, and at last began to faull out with the Britons they troubled and. subdewed the Brittons wyth nothynge so much as with their bowe and shafte, which wepon beynge straunge, and not sene here before, was wonderful terrible unto them, and this beginninge I can thynke verie well to be true.
The Britons were now forced to fight, and made their last stand under a King named Arthur, at Deorham.
The pitiful remnants of the once proud Britons fled into the inhospitable marshlands and mountains of Cambria and Cornwall in the west, where they could find refuge. And in the course of nature as time passed, they became hillmen, stubbornly independent like hillmen everywhere. They became agile and fierce and proficient in the use of spear, sword, bow and arrows. They remained christian, and devoutly so, but homosexuality was abandoned in favor of incest and their numbers increased. And as the gilded palaces of Caerleon, the ‘City of the Legions' where Arthur had once held court, crumbled into ruins, the Britons, living in wattled huts in the forest, once again became Keltic warriors, prepared to fight to the death for their freedom and the last scraps of land left to them. And it came to pass that Offa, the Anglian King of Mercia, found it best to have a great dike made from the Severn to the Irish sea to mark the marches and contain the Britons that knew themselves as Cymry but who the Saxons called Welsh, from a Saxon word meaning ‘foreigners'.
Nyd hyder ond bwa.
[There is no dependence but on the bow]
- Ancient Welsh saying
On their side of Offa's dike, the feral Cymry went about their daily business always with weapons in their hands. Dark of complexion with closely cropped hair, they wore linen tunics and light woolen cloaks in all weather and even princes went barefoot. In northern Wales they carried the very long spears of their preference but in the forests of southern Wales, the favorite weapon was the crudely worked but powerful bow with a handful of arrows. These bows had been used against Saxon and Norman, always with telling effect. Saxons called these people ‘Welsh', though their forefathers had been in these islands before Normans, before Saxons, even before Romans. How that word rankled.
In the evenings no man's door was closed to a visitor. There were no beggars in Wales. When someone came to the house and turned his werapons over to someone in charge, a woman of the household offered to wash his feet. If he declined, it was assumed that he did not intend to stay the night, but only for the evening. After dinner, during which each three people shared one trencher in commemoration of the holy trinity, every one had a full cup of metheglin, the harp was uncovered, pipe and crwth were taken up and the dreaming songs began. All Welshmen could sing, and the very elaborate harmonies in the liquid Keltic tongue were of the days when their forefathers were lords over all these islands. And they spoke of the prophesies of Merlin that a man of the Cymry would again rule this island and that the land would again be called Britain after Brutus, their ancient ancestor from long-lost Troy. But for the moment these were only dreams and it would be long and long before they came to pass.
In the meantime, there was always the fighting, for Wales was an armed camp.
Unlike Englishmen at that time, all Welshmen, noble and peasant, knew the use of arms. The young men, quick witted and mercurial, were organized in groups and families under their chosen leader and spent their tinie in practicing with their spears and arrows, which they took care to keep in good order, and in making long marches through the forests and climbing mountains in order to accustom themselves to keep on the move day and night in preparation for war. They were well able to endure cold, and could easily do without food for a day or two.
In time of war they assembled in their secret forest strongholds. Some had helmets and round shields but often they fought without any armor, even against armored and mounted opponents. And they often prevailed, because of the ferocity of their onslaught. Though their leaders had horses, most fought on foot for greater mobility. Their tactics were confined to either to attack or retreat, and they preferred to fight in rough terrain. In war the Welsh are very ferocious when battle is first joined. They shout, glower fiercely at the enemy, and fill the air with fearsome clamour, making a high-pitched screech with their long trumpets. From their first fierce and headlong onslaught, and the shower of javelins which they hurl, they seem most formidable opponents. But if the enemy could hold or repel the first attack with determination, there would be no second attack. Thrown into confusion, the Welshmen would then turn and retreat at full speed up mountainsides and through narrow ravines, but the archers would turn to shoot behind them as they ran. And they were always ready to try again the next day.
In Wales, the combination of such traits as ferocity, treachery, vengefulness and family pride, led to frequent feuds. The Cymry did not forget old injuries or wrongs and insult to their kin and there was often bloodshed. Such as during the trouble at Abergavenny Castle in Gwent.
By the reign of Henry II, Norman-English castles dotted the landscape of Wales but the Welsh were recovering from the devastation wreaked by Harold Godwinson. Cardiff Castle, surrounded by very high walls was guarded by 120 men at arms and a great number of archers. Abergavenny was a castle of the old motte and bailey type, a ditched wall surrounding various buildings and a strongly built stone tower, the castle keep. The keep was a refuge of last resort where men could hold out as long as their food lasted. Access to the tower was a stout wooden door high enough above the ground that a battering ram could not be set against it. The door was reached by means of' a wooden ramp that could be destroyed once everyone was inside. Abergavenny represented a foothold of the Earl of Hereford who liked to consider upper Gwent as belonging to him.
William de Braose inherited the castle after both the Earl's sons had died. One, Henry of Hereford, had been killed by a local man, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal. William summoned Seisyll, his son and others to Abergavenny where they were murdered. A large number of Welshmen imprisoned there were required to promise, under oath, that none should bear any bow or unlawful weapon. Although Welshmen were considered all too ready to swear oaths and afterwards disregard them, they refused to do this and they too were killed. Meanwile, de Braose's retainers, under command of Ranulf Poer, Sheriff of Herefordshire, ravaged Seisyll's lands, killed his son, and captured his wife. Poer was considered responsible for these atrocities.
After this bloodbath had ceased, the entire district enjoyed peace and tranquility. Seven quiet years passed. Then one day when the castellan was absent, a number of young Welshmen appeared at Abergavenny Castle. They chanced to be the sons and grandsons of the victims of the bloody events of ‘75. Of course they carried bows, arrows and other weapons like everyone else.
Now they had grown up.
One of them, Seisyll ap Euclas, spoke with the constable. He pointed at the lowest corner of the wall. ‘That is where we shall climb in tonight' he said, and smiled, as when one makes a jest.
When night fell, Abergavenny Castle did not sleep. The Hereford men remained on guard in full armor, weapons at hand. As the eastern sky began to brighten with mornings first light, the weary garrison, satisfied that there would be no attack, went to bed.
So there were none to see the shadowy figures in the overgrown ditch, none to hear the rap of a scaling ladder against the lowest corner of the wall and the garrison awoke in the midst of the enemy. Taken by surprise, the constable and his wife were captured as were most of the men. As two men of the garrison ran across the ramp and reached the keep, arrows shot after them slammed into the door, penetrating solid oak of almost the thickness of a palm's breadth. Having captured the castle the Welsh put it to the torch.
Shortly after the capture of the castle, Ranulf Poer and his Hereford men were feverishly building a new fortification at Dingestow near Monmouth. They remained armed and in battle array for they were expecting another attack.
It came at dawn. In the furious onslaught, the Hereford men were soon forced to take refuge in the incomplete fortification, Nine of their leading captains died, run through by lances. Ranulf Poer, also run through and with other mortal wounds, his throat cut with a sword through veins and arteries, lived long enough to make signs for a priest to come to him. William de Braose, who had not instigated the atrocities of his retainers, was thrown into the moat at one of its deepest points. As he was being hauled out and : made captive by the Welshmen, his own men made a sally and rescued him.
De Braose later recalled that one of his men at arms was struck by a Welsh arrow in the upper thigh,the arrow penetrating the iron cuisses on both sides of his thigh, his leather tunic and the saddle, killing the horse.
Another soldier was similarly pinned to his saddle by an arrow through his thigh and the tassets of his leather tunic outside and inside the leg. As he wheeled his horse, another arrow shot by the same bowman nailed his other thigh to the saddle as well. The Hereford men preserved the arrowheads that had penetrated the oak door in memory of the hard shooting of the archers of the Venta tribe of Gwent.
It would take the English many generations to subdue Wales.
In 1181 Henry 11 issued the first Assize of Arms, an attempt to assure at least the weaponry for an effective army.. By terms of the Assize the richer men with property; worth more than sixteen marks, are bidden to appear with lances, hauberks of mail, and helms, those with less than sixteen and more than ten marks are to have lances, hauberks or gambesons, and steel caps, while the poorer classes come unarmored and with swords, knives and any sort of smaller arms. We see in illustrations of the period that these included bows, although they. are not specifically mentioned in the assize.
William Fitz Stephen, Thomas a Beckett's secretary, describe holiday sports in the nature of military practice engaged in by the people of London: on feast days throughout the summer the youths exercise themselves in leaping, archery and wrestling, putting the stone, and throwing the thonged javelin beyond a mark, and fighting with sword and buckler. He also wrote of the war-horses apt and schooled to wheel in circles round and some of the knights who owned these horses found martial activities inappropriate to the mercantile townsmen of London whom they held in contempt.. Knights and commoners alike would shortly have ample opportunity to display their respective merits, for christian Europe was rocked by news of events in the Holy Land. A second crusade preached oy Bernard of Clairvaux (St. Bernard) had failed to capture Damascus and the power of the Crusaders had been broken in a hail of arrows at the Horns of Hattin by a brilliant Saracen commander, a Kurd out of Egypt called Saladin.
But there was worse. City after city fell to the Saracen, and at last Jerusalem itself and the Holy Sepulchre were once again in Saracen hands, the Christian inhabitants, except for those who could ransom themselves, killed or sold as slaves.
Archdeacon Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, journeyed through his native Wales in company with Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury to preach a new crusade. His book, "Journey through Wales", is a journal of this trip, and tells much of Wales at that time.
The recruiting had success. Altogether three thousand men, all experienced fighters highly skilled in the use of spear and arrow, and eager to fight the Saracen, were signed with the cross. Most were Welsh, some were English, Normans or Flemish settlers. Not all were volunteers. Among the new crusaders were twelve archers from the castle of St.Clears. They had murdered a young Welshman who had been coming to meet the Archbishop, and were signed with the cross in penance for their crime. Many of these men, Archbishop Baldwin among them, would not return from the holy Land.
For in the third crusade that had been called, these men from Wales were to serve side by side with Englishmen under the banner of King Henry II of England.
- Cambrensis, Giraldus. Journey through Wales.
* Italics indicate quotes from original sources