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The legend of ‘The Golden Mile’

Norman soldiers

Glamorgan folklore is awash with countless stories about the Norman invasion of Morgannwg (which at that time was the south Wales kingdom spanning between the Severn and Neath estuaries). Many of these tales are no doubt based on some real history, but the narrative inevitably drifts off at some point to allow the bards who retold them to entertain their audience more fully. We are lucky that many were captured in the sixteenth century by Sir Edward Stradling in his book ‘the Winning of the Lordship of Glamorgan out of Welsh- mens’ Hands’.

One of my favourites concerns how Iestyn Ap Cwrgan, King of Morgannwg enlisted the help of the Normans to settle a dispute. But at what cost?

There was nothing the ancient kings and princes of Wales loved more than a good fight amongst themselves, and Iestyn ap Cwrgan and Rhys ap Tewdwr of Dehaubarth (west Wales) had been at it for years.

The legend has it that Iestyn was getting frustrated at how long the feud had been running. Both sides were equally matched on the battlefield, neither side willing to back down, and there had been much bloodshed for very little gain.

So, after consulting his closest and wisest councillors, he agreed to send one of them, Einon Ap Collwyn, to meet with Robert Fitzhamon, the Norman earl of Gloucester, to ask for his help in defeating his troublesome neighbour. Einon was a natural choice for the job, as he was not only a knight who had proven his loyalty to Iestyn many times on the battlefield, but he was also himself of royal descent. He was the brother of Cadifor, the former prince of Dyfed who had been deposed by Rhys. Their family were well known to the English nobility, and there are even suggestions that Einon served William II when he was in France. Iestyn promised Einon that, if his mission was successful, he would grant him his daughter’s hand in marriage, thus aligning their two royal households for eternity.

Einon met Fitzhamon and negotiated a deal whereby the earl would lend Iestyn the hired muscle of his twelve most trusted knights and their cohorts of soldiers in return for ‘a mile of gold’. The two men shook hands on the deal and Einon returned to Morgannwg with his mercenary force in tow.

Buoyed by this vast tactical advantage, Iestyn threw down the challenge to Rhys to meet him in battle at Brecon. With Iestyn’s own forces bolstered by the mighty armies of the twelve knights, he won easily, and Rhys’ army was decimated.

Rhys took flight, and Iestyn’s troops pursued him all the way to Hirwaun, where they finally caught, trapped, and killed him. It had been a great victory.

During the ensuing victory celebrations, the Norman troops marched to a mile-long section of the old Roman road (the Via Julia Maritima which was built in the Antonine period to link the forts between Gloucester and Neath – these days mostly followed by the A48). They lined up in one long rank and gold coins were placed side by side along the line of soldiers so that Fitzhamon would get his promised ‘mile of gold’. Each soldier would bend down, pick up the coins nearest them, then march back to Gloucester with their treasure. The stretch of road in question has ever since been known locally as ‘the Golden Mile’.

For Einon, the joy of victory in battle was short lived. He turned to Iestyn to remind him of his promise of his daughter’s hand, but Iestyn denied having ever made such a commitment and refused him.

Outraged that he had been duped, the broker of this victory, and the only one not to have profited from it, he returned to Gloucester and asked Fitzhamon if he would join forces with him and turn against their former ally.

Fitzhamon needed little persuasion. He saw a chance to gain wealth and land for himself. So Einon, Fitzhamon and the twelve knights returned to Wales and destroyed Iestyn’s army in a fierce and bloody battle. They sacked his castle and court and, in the legend, killed Iestyn in the battle, although other records suggest he lived until 1093.

Thus began the Norman occupation of South Wales.

There is some arguement about where the ‘Golden Mile’ actually is. According to local historian, Alun Morgan, the stretch of road in question is now part of the A48 between the top of Crack Hill and Pentre Myrig in the Vale of Glamorgan, not, as some believe, from the bottom of Crack Hill (by Brocastle) to roughly where ‘Bridgend Ford’ is. His arguement against the Brocastle stretch was that this was never part of the Roman road (which is true). But as we are discussing folklore here, rather than verifiable history, it’s probably not a detail worth getting too hung-up about. Each is as likely as the other in that regard.

Graham Loveluck-Edwards is an historian and author of ‘Legends & Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’ and ‘Historic pubs of Wales’. View his videos on local history by visiting his new YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/GrahamLoveluck .

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The mysteries of Ewenny Priory

Ewenny Priory is recognised by countless textbooks as the finest example of unmodernised, Norman ecclesiastical work in Britain. But despite its renown, it still holds many secrets. Not least of which, why a place supposedly built to house just 12 monks and a prior is quite so big? And given that the principal pursuit of those monks was study, scribing and worship, why was it built like a mighty fortress?

To get to the bottom of all that, we need to know something about its benefactor; Maurice De Londres and what he is likely to have had in mind when he commissioned it.

Even by the standards of other Norman, warrior knights, De Londres was a brute. He had a fearsome reputation which was dramatically encapsulated when he decapitated Princess Gwenllyan of Dehaubarth in Kidwelly. He was certainly not known to be a godly man.

He had always intended to build a mighty castle in Ewenny to provide the local Norman lordships with what scholars have ever since described as a “quadrilateral defence” of the main crossing points of the Ewenny and Ogmore rivers. With Coity and Newcastle to the North, and Ogmore and Ewenny to South. But if that was his plan, what persuaded him to instead build what we still describe today as “a priory”, a place fundamentally intended to be “a house of God”?

There is a commonly held belief that at some point, De Londres built the priory as a way of atoning for his former sins (just as Richard De Glanville did when he financed the Abbey in Neath). Call me cynical, but I am not altogether convinced by that theory. I believe that instead, his true motivation was a decree issued by Pope Honorius II himself, dated 12th April 1128 (six years after work had begun on the site). It threatened De Londres that if he did not “restore and make good whatever lands, tithes, obligations, or other valuables he had appropriated from his mother church…” – that he would be ex-communicated. In other words, De Londres had clearly plundered a pre-existing monastic building on the site and had already begun building a castle on it. But the Pope wanted it back.

There are records of this older site. The 12th Century “Book of Llandaff” lists a Celtic cell dedicated to the early Welsh saint, St Eguenni in the area. The fact that the pope had threatened De Londres with ex-communication, a fate of social disgrace from which a nobleman could not recover meant he had made De Londres an offer he could not refuse.

To say that De Londres was reluctant would be an understatement, so he built what was fundamentally the fortress he was going to build anyway but to appease the Vatican, annexed it to a priory cell and turned over its custody to the Benedictine order of St Peter at Gloucester Abbey. Hence its size. It needed to be big enough to house 13 monks to keep the pope happy, plus a detachment of men-at-arms to help De Londres subdue the troublesome Welsh.

It seems that beyond the Vatican, there was little pretence of what he had done. King Edward I stationed troops at the priory to assist with his invasion of West Wales, so he clearly knew of its intended purpose. And nearly 200 years later, when Owain Glyndwr laid siege to Coity Castle in 1405, King Henry IV stayed and launched his counterattack from Ewenny Priory. So even he knew that this priory was a castle really and only a priory in name. There is evidence to suggest that the King was also compliant in the deception as he went on to nominate Hugh Morton, the Prior at Ewenny at the time, to be appointed the next Abbot of St Peter’s Gloucester. A huge promotion for him and doubtless a reward for maintaining the pretence of what Ewenny Priory really was if the Pope ever asked.

Graham Loveluck-Edwards (published in the Glamorgan Star newspaper 18 November 2021)

If you are interested in the history of the Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan area, why not give my book a go? It’s all about the history, the many legends and the abundance of folklore of the area and is called ‘Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’. Available from all good independent book shops, Amazon, or direct from the author at http//grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk