Caerleon Net
Giraldus Cambrensis
Gerald of Wales


                Description of Caerleon
                The Churches in Caerleon
                The Strange Powers of The Local Inhabitant Meilyr (a dig at Geoffrey of Monmouth)
                Evil Blind Lust For Conquest


Gerald of Wales was born in Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire (Dyfed), South Wales in 1145 or 1146. His father was a Norman Knight, William de Barri. His mother was half Welsh - granddaughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, Prince of South Wales (on her mother's side) her father being a Norman Knight Gerald of Windsor. Consequently Gerald was three quarters Norman, one quarter Welsh.

His uncle, on his mother's side, David FitzGerald, became Bishop of St David's in 1148. Gerald strove all his life for the same office. By 1176, when his uncle died, Gerald was canon of Saint David's and Archdeacon of Brecon; however, it seems he was not yet old enough to be considered for the office of bishop. He never did realise this ambition.

In 1188 he accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin, on a tour around Wales, the purpose being to preach the Cross – to raise support for the Third Crusade. They left Hereford at the beginning of March, crossed into Wales and travelled in a clockwise direction around the country. The journey South from the North East of Wales was made on the English side of the border. They arrived back in Hereford towards the end of April.

Luckily for us, Gerald recorded almost in diary form the sights and local customs and folklore of the areas they travelled through in his book "The Journey Through Wales". Here is the full text of Chapter 5, which covers the journey through Caerleon, about one week into their mission.

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'Itinerarium Cambriae'
The Journey Through Wales

Our journey takes us past Usk Castle and through Caerleon.

In Usk Castle a large group of men was signed with the Cross. This was the result of the Archbishop’s sermon and of an address by that good and honest man, William, Bishop of Llandaff, who remained constantly at our side as long as we were in his diocese. Alexander, Archdeacon of Bangor, acted as interpreter for the Welsh. To the great astonishment of everyone present, and it was, indeed, an extraordinary circumstance, some of the most notorious criminals of those parts were among those converted, robbers, highwaymen and murderers.

We went through Caerleon, passing far away on our left Monmouth Castle and the great Forest of Dean, which is across the Wye, but still on this side of the Severn, and which supplies Gloucester with venison and iron ore. We spent the night in Newport. We had to cross the River Usk three times. Caerleon is the modern name of the City of the Legions. In Welsh ‘caer’ means a city or encampment. The legions sent to this island by the Romans had the habit of wintering in this spot, and so it came to be called the City of the Legions. Caerleon is of unquestioned antiquity. It was constructed with great care by the Romans, the walls being built of brick. You can still see many vestiges of its one-time splendour. There are immense palaces, which, with the gilded gables of their roofs, once rivalled the magnificence of ancient Rome. They were set up in the first place by some of the most eminent men of the Roman state, and they were therefore embellished with every architectural conceit. There is a lofty tower, and beside it remarkable hot baths, the remains of temples and an amphitheatre. All this is enclosed within impressive walls, parts of which still remain standing. Wherever you look, both within and without the circuit of these walls, you can see constructions dug deep into the earth, conduits for water, underground passages and air-vents. Most remarkable of all to my mind are the stoves, which once transmitted heat through narrow pipes inserted in the side-walls and which are built with extraordinary skill.

Two men of noble birth, Julius and Aaron, suffered martyrdom there and were buried in the city. Each had a church named after him. Next to Albanus and Amphibalus, they were the most famous protomartyrs of Great Britain. In former times there were three fine churches in Caerleon. The first was named after Julius the martyr: this was graced by a choir of nuns dedicated to the service of God. The second was founded in the name of Saint Aaron, his comrade: this was noted for its distinguished chapter of canons. The third was famed far and wide as the metropolitan church for the whole of Wales. Amphibalus, who taught Saint Albanus and instructed him in the true faith, was born in this place.

Caerleon is beautifully situated on the bank of the River Usk. When the tide comes in, ships sail right up to the city. It is surrounded by woods and meadows. It was here that the Roman legates came to seek audience at the great Arthur’s famous court. Here, too, Archbishop Dyfrig handed over his supreme function to David of Menevia, for the metropolitan see was moved from Caerleon in accordance with the prophecy of Merlin Ambrosius: ‘Menevia shall be dressed in the pall of the City of the Legions,’ and so on.

High above the water, and not far from Caerleon, there stands a rocky eminence which dominates the River Severn. In the English language it is called Goldcliff, the Golden Rock. When the sun’s rays strike it, the stone shines very bright and takes on a golden sheen.

"I could not ever think that quite without intent
Dame Nature had such splendour to the high rocks lent,
Or that so fair a flower could be without its fruit."  

If someone who was skilled in such work would only dig down into the mineral deposits and penetrate the very entrails of the earth, he might extract sweet honey from the stone and oil from the rock. Indeed, many of nature’s riches still lie hidden from us, undiscovered as yet because we have given no attention to them, but the diligence and careful enquiry of later generations will no doubt reveal them. Sheer urgent necessity set our ancestors on the way of inventing certain of the amenities of human existence. In the same way zeal and industry have brought advantages to those who have come after, while their superior intellectual powers have made many things available to our contemporaries. That is what the poet meant, when he said that there were two reasons for discoveries of this sort:  

"Hard work finds its reward,
Unwelcome though it be, and need when times are hard."

It is worth relating that in our days there lived in the neighbourhood of this City of the Legions a certain Welshman called Meilyr who could explain the occult and foretell the future. He acquired his skill in the following way. One evening, and, to be precise, it was Palm Sunday, he happened to meet a girl whom he had loved for a long time. She was very beautiful, the spot was an attractive one, and it seemed too good an opportunity to be missed. He was enjoying himself in her arms and tasting her delights, when suddenly, instead of the beautiful girl, he found in his embrace a hairy creature, rough and shaggy, and, indeed, repulsive beyond words. As he stared at the monster his wits deserted him and he became quite mad. He remained in this condition for many years. Eventually he recovered his health in the church of St David’s, thanks to the virtues of the saintly men of that place. All the same, he retained a very close and most remarkable familiarity with unclean spirits, being able to see them, recognizing them, talking to them and calling them each by his own name, so that with their help he could often prophesy the future. Just as they are, too, he was often mistaken about events in the distant future, or happenings far away in space; but he was less often wrong about matters nearer home or likely to occur within the coming year. He nearly always saw these spirits standing close beside him and near at hand. They would appear in the form of huntsmen, with horns hanging round their necks, but it was human souls which they were pursuing, not animals or wild beasts. He saw them most often and in greatest numbers outside monasteries and houses of religion. Wherever man is in revolt, there they deploy their full battalions, there they need their greatest strength. Whenever anyone told a lie in his presence, Meilyr was immediately aware of it, for he saw a demon dancing and exulting on the liar’s tongue. Although he was completely illiterate, if he looked at a book which was incorrect, which contained some false statement, or which aimed at deceiving the reader, he immediately put his finger on the offending passage. If you asked him how he knew this, he said that a devil first pointed out the place with its finger. In the same way, and again with a demon to help him, whenever he went into the dormitory of a monastery, he would point to the bed of any false monk whose religion was a pretext and did not come from the heart. He maintained that the vice of gluttony and greed was sordid beyond words; the vice of lust and libidinousness was perhaps more pleasing to the eye, but it was really even more foul. When he was harassed beyond endurance by these unclean spirits, Saint John’s Gospel was placed on his lap, and then they all vanished immediately, flying away like so many birds. If the Gospel were afterwards removed and the "History of the Kings of Britain" by Geoffrey of Monmouth put there in its place, just to see what would happen, the demons would alight all over his body, and on the book, too, staying there longer than usual and being even more demanding. Barnabas, one remembers, or so we read in the stories told about him, used to place Saint Matthew’s Gospel on people who were ill, and they were cured immediately. It is clear from this, and so it is, indeed, from the account which I have just given to you, how much respect and reverence we owe to each of the books of the Gospel. It is equally clear that anyone who knowingly perjures himself on one of the Gospels deviates from the path of truth with great danger to himself and with the risk of eternal damnation.

To what has gone before I add the story of the downfall of Enoch, Abbot of Strata Marcella, which disaster is quite notorious and, indeed, well known to everyone in Wales. Meilyr announced it to a great number of people on the very day following the night on which it happened. The date on which he made this announcement was noted carefully, and many who heard what he said remembered having done so: yet it was only eight days or so later that definite information arrived and that the affair became common knowledge. When they came to ask Meilyr how he learned of it, he said that the very next morning a demon visited him in the guise of a huntsman. This spirit told Meilyr the whole story, saying that the Abbot would be ruined, for he himself had persuaded him to run away from his monastery and take a nun with him. The demon was very pleased with his success and exulted over Enoch’s downfall. Maybe this was allowed to happen so that the Abbot might be humiliated and reprimanded. It certainly seemed so from what happened subsequently, for Enoch soon came back, a much humbler man and so much chastened that he could hardly be said to have sinned at all. As Seneca wrote: 'Anyone who rises to his feet even stronger after a fall can hardly be said to have fallen at all.' After he had denied Christ, Peter was stronger than ever. Paul was stronger after he had been persecuted and stoned: 'for where sin abounds, grace will much more abound'. After her fall from grace, Mary Magdalene was stronger than before.

Meilyr revealed in confidence to Cynan, the good and saintly Abbot of Whitland, his opinion of a certain woman whom he had been observing closely. Thereupon the holy man wept and confessed that he had lusted after her. He let himself be whipped by three of his monks, this being the punishment for incontinence. From his long experience of things and by natural intuition, drawing his conclusions from certain conjectural signs and from his knowledge of what has happened in the past, the Old Enemy can foretell the future with great skill. In the same way, and by taking note of the same revealing signs, he can insinuate himself into men’s hearts, and sometimes discover the workings of their minds from exterior appearances.

About this same time an incubus frequented Nether Gwent. There he was in the habit of making love to a certain young woman. He often visited the place where she lived, and in his conversations with the local inhabitants he revealed many secret matters and events which had not yet occurred. Meilyr was questioned about this and he said that he knew the incubus well. He even said what his name was. He maintained that whenever war was imminent, or some great upset in a country, these incubuses were in the habit of visiting human beings. This was soon proved to be true: for shortly afterwards Hywel, the son of Iorwerth of Caerleon, attacked the neighbourhood and destroyed the whole area. A little later Henry II, King of the English, captured the King of Scotland and so restored peace to his own realm. As a result Hywel had good reason to fear that Henry would be free to take vengeance on him for the war which he had waged. He was relieved of his anxiety by this statement made to him by Meilyr. 'Hywel,' said he, 'you need not fear the King’s anger. In a short time he will have to turn his attention elsewhere. One of his cities, the noblest which he possesses across the Channel, is being besieged by the King of the French. He will be forced to put aside all other preoccupations and to cross the sea without losing a moment.' Three days later Hywel received the news that this had indeed come about, for the city of Rouen was being besieged. Meilyr also prophesied long before the event the investment of Usk Castle, which Hywel had held for some time. He forewarned Hywel, who occupied the castle, in the following way, saying that he himself would be wounded in the engagement, but not killed, for he would escape from the town alive. Only in this detail was he wrong, for Meilyr died soon afterwards from the wound which he had received. The Enemy knows how to favour his friends, but this is how he rewards them in the end.

It seems most odd to me, among all these other remarkable circumstances, that Meilyr was able to see these demons clearly with the eyes in his head. Spirits cannot be seen with our physical eyes, unless they themselves assume corporal substance. Given that they had assumed such corporal substance, and thus made themselves visible, how was it that they could not be seen by other individuals who were assuredly present and were standing quite near? Possibly they could be seen only by some supernatural sort of physical vision, rather like that in the Book of Daniel, when King Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall: 'Mene, Tekel, Peres', which means 'numbered, weighed, divided'. That same night Belshazzar lost both his kingdom and his life.

Wales knows only too well how, in this same neighbourhood and in our own times, through a blind lust for conquest and through a rupture of all the ties of common blood and family connection, evil example has spread far and wide throughout the land, and good faith has disappeared, to be replaced by shameful perfidy.

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