Picture of Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book I, Ch. 8: Swansea and Gower

Next Selection Previous Selection


Passage of the rivers Avon and Neth - and of Abertawe and Goer

Continuing our journey,82 not far from Margan, where the alternate vicissitudes of a sandy shore and the tide commence, we forded over the river Avon, having been considerably delayed by the ebbing of the sea; and under the guidance of Morgan, eldest son of Caradoc, proceeded along the sea-shore towards the river Neth, which, on account of its quicksands, is the most dangerous and inaccessible river in South Wales. A pack-horse belonging to the author, which had proceeded by the lower way near the sea, although in the midst of many others, was the only one which sunk down into the abyss, but he was at last, with great difficulty, extricated, and not without some damage done to the baggage and books. Yet, although we had Morgan, the prince of that country, as our conductor, we did not reach the river without great peril, and some severe falls; for the alarm occasioned by this unusual kind of road, made us hasten our steps over the quicksands, in opposition to the advice of our guide, and fear quickened our pace; whereas, through these difficult passages, as we there learned, the mode of proceeding should be with moderate speed. But as the fords of that river experience a change by every monthly tide, and cannot be found after violent rains and floods, we did not attempt the ford, but passed the river in a boat, leaving the monastery of Neth83 on our right hand, approaching again to the district of St. David's, and leaving the diocese of Landaf (which we had entered at Abergevenny) behind us.

It happened in our days that David II., bishop of St. David's, passing this way, and finding the ford agitated by a recent storm, a chaplain of those parts, named Rotherch Falcus, being conversant in the proper method of crossing these rivers, undertook, at the desire of the bishop, the dangerous task of trying the ford. Having mounted a large and powerful horse, which had been selected from the whole train for this purpose, he immediately crossed the ford, and fled with great rapidity to the neighbouring woods, nor could he be induced to return until the suspension which he had lately incurred was removed, and a full promise of security and indemnity obtained; the horse was then restored to one party, and his service to the other.

Entering the province called Goer,84 we spent the night at the castle of Sweynsei,85 which in Welsh is called Abertawe, or the fall of the river Tawe into the sea. The next morning, the people being assembled after mass, and many having been induced to take the cross, an aged man of that district, named Cador, thus addressed the archbishop: "My lord, if I now enjoyed my former strength, and the vigour of youth, no alms should ransom me, no desire of inactivity restrain me, from engaging in the laudable undertaking you preach; but since my weak age and the injuries of time deprive me of this desirable benefit (for approaching years bring with them many comforts, which those that are passed take away), if I cannot, owing to the infirmity of my body, attain a full merit, yet suffer me, by giving a tenth of all I possess, to attain a half." Then falling down at the feet of the archbishop, he deposited in his hands, for the service of the cross, the tenth of his estate, weeping bitterly, and intreating from him the remission of one half of the enjoined penance. After a short time he returned, and thus continued: "My lord, if the will directs the action, and is itself, for the most part, considered as the act, and as I have a full and firm inclination to undertake this journey, I request a remission of the remaining part of the penance, and in addition to my former gift, I will equal the sum from the residue of my tenths." The archbishop, smiling at his devout ingenuity, embraced him with admiration.

On the same night, two monks, who waited in the archbishop's chamber, conversing about the occurrences of their journey, and the dangers of the road, one of them said (alluding to the wildness of the country), "This is a hard province;" the other (alluding to the quicksands), wittily replied, "Yet yesterday it was found too soft."

A short time before our days, a circumstance worthy of note occurred in these parts, which Elidorus, a priest, most strenuously affirmed had befallen himself. When a youth of twelve years, and learning his letters, since, as Solomon says, "The root of learning is bitter, although the fruit is sweet," in order to avoid the discipline and frequent stripes inflicted on him by his preceptor, he ran away, and concealed himself under the hollow bank of a river. After fasting in that situation for two days, two little men of pigmy stature appeared to him, saying, "If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports." Assenting and rising up, he followed his guides through a path, at first subterraneous and dark, into a most beautiful country, adorned with rivers and meadows, woods and plains, but obscure, and not illuminated with the full light of the sun. All the days were cloudy, and the nights extremely dark, on account of the absence of the moon and stars. The boy was brought before the king, and introduced to him in the presence of the court; who, having examined him for a long time, delivered him to his son, who was then a boy. These men were of the smallest stature, but very well proportioned in their make; they were all of a fair complexion, with luxuriant hair falling over their shoulders like that of women. They had horses and greyhounds adapted to their size. They neither ate flesh nor fish, but lived on milk diet, made up into messes with saffron. They never took an oath, for they detested nothing so much as lies. As often as they returned from our upper hemisphere, they reprobated our ambition, infidelities, and inconstancies; they had no form of public worship, being strict lovers and reverers, as it seemed, of truth.

The boy frequently returned to our hemisphere, sometimes by the way he had first gone, sometimes by another: at first in company with other persons, and afterwards alone, and made himself known only to his mother, declaring to her the manners, nature, and state of that people. Being desired by her to bring a present of gold, with which that region abounded, he stole, while at play with the king's son, the golden ball with which he used to divert himself, and brought it to his mother in great haste; and when he reached the door of his father's house, but not unpursued, and was entering it in a great hurry, his foot stumbled on the threshold, and falling down into the room where his mother was sitting, the two pigmies seized the ball which had dropped from his hand, and departed, shewing the boy every mark of contempt and derision. On recovering from his fall, confounded with shame, and execrating the evil counsel of his mother, he returned by the usual track to the subterraneous road, but found no appearance of any passage, though he searched for it on the banks of the river for nearly the space of a year. But since those calamities are often alleviated by time, which reason cannot mitigate, and length of time alone blunts the edge of our afflictions, and puts an end to many evils, the youth having been brought back by his friends and mother, and restored to his right way of thinking, and to his learning, in process of time attained the rank of priesthood. Whenever David II., bishop of St. David's, talked to him in his advanced state of life concerning this event, he could never relate the particulars without shedding tears. He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for Ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called {Greek text which cannot be reproduced}; and Dur also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, bring salt: salt is called {Greek text} in Greek, and Halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, {Greek} in Greek, Halen in British, and Halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; Sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, "the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate," as {Greek} in Greek is called Sal in Latin, {Greek} - semi - {Greek} - septem - Sel in French - the A being changed into E - Salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; Sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, "that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed." Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; "You will find," says he, "many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature." These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.


82 In continuing their journey from Neath to Swansea, our travellers directed their course by the sea-coast to the river Avon, which they forded, and, continuing their road along the sands, were probably ferried over the river Neath, at a place now known by the name of Breton Ferry, leaving the monastery of Neath at some distance to the right: from thence traversing another tract of sands, and crossing the river Tawe, they arrived at the castle of Swansea, where they passed the night.

83 The monastery of Neath was situated on the banks of a river bearing the same name, about a mile to the westward of the town and castle. It was founded in 1112, by Richard de Grainville, or Greenefeld, and Constance, his wife, for the safety of the souls of Robert, earl of Gloucester, Maude, his wife, and William, his son. Richard de Grainville was one of the twelve Norman knights who accompanied Robert Fitz-Hamon, and assisted him in the conquest of Glamorganshire. In the time of Leland this abbey was in a high state of preservation, for he says, "Neth abbay of white monkes, a mile above Neth town, standing in the ripe of Neth, semid to me the fairest abbay of al Wales." - Leland, Itin. tom. v. p. 14. The remains of the abbey and of the adjoining priory-house are considerable; but this ancient retirement of the grey and white monks is now occupied by the inhabitants of the neighbouring copper- works.

84 Gower, the western district of Glamorganshire, appears to have been first conquered by Henry de Newburg, earl of Warwick, soon after Robert, duke of Gloucester, had made the conquest of the other part of Glamorganshire.

85 Sweynsei, Swansea, or Abertawe, situated at the confluence of the river Tawe with the Severn sea, is a town of considerable commerce, and much frequented during the summer months as a bathing- place. The old castle, now made use of as a prison, is so surrounded by houses in the middle of the town, that a stranger might visit Swansea without knowing that such a building existed. The Welsh Chronicle informs us, that it was built by Henry de Beaumont, earl of Warwick, and that in the year 1113 it was attacked by Gruffydd ap Rhys, but without success. This castle became afterwards a part of the possessions of the see of St. David's, and was rebuilt by bishop Gower. [The old castle is no longer used as a prison, but as the office of the "Cambria Daily Leader." It is significant that Swansea is still known to Welshmen, as in the days of Giraldus, as "Abertawe."]

Gerald of Wales, The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

Next Selection Previous Selection