Wales has always been a country steeped in history. As the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas said ‘There is no present in Wales…there is only the past…’.
But what a past it is! Wales is home to innumerable dramatic castles, churches that have stood still in time and awe-inspiring abbeys planted in the most dramatic and sacred landscapes. A lot of these places are medieval, and by studying the history of medieval Wales we can learn a lot about why Wales is the country it is today.
These are five items that I find particularly informative.
1. Tree of Jesse
Picture credit, Claire Miles
The Priory Church of St Mary in Abergavenny is home to a unique treasure that survived Henry VIII’s reformation. What is this treasure? It’s a ten foot long, 15th Century Jesse figure – the last sole survivor of the giant oak icons, which would originally have formed the base of a full Tree of Jesse. It is unique in Britain – and probably the world – and described by Tate Britain as one of the finest medieval sculptures in existence.
2. The Great Seal of Glyndwr
Picture credit, Claire Miles
You cannot talk about medieval Wales without mentioning Owain Glyndwr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales. He successfully revolted against English rule in the early 15th Century, and established a parliament in Machynlleth, Mid Wales. The seal - which can be found on display at St Fagan’s National Museum of History, near Cardiff – was used between 1404 and 1406, the height of Glyndwr’s power.
3. Wall painting at St Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan
Picture credit, Google Images uncredited
The rural nature of many parts of Wales means there are isolated medieval churches complete with many original features, including several excellent examples of wall paintings. The most well-known of them are to be found in Saint Cadoc’s Church in the Vale of Glamorgan. In 2013 St George and his dragon was found underneath several layers of lime wash, alongside a depiction of the seven deadly sins. The paintings are thought to date from the second half of the 15th Century.
4. The Black Book of Carmarthen
Picture credit, The National Library of Wales
The Black Book of Carmarthen - so called because of the colour of its binding and its connection with a priory near the town - is probably the most important artefact in the history of the Welsh language. It is the earliest surviving manuscript written solely in Welsh, and can now be found on permanent display at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The mid-13th century book contains tales of Arthur and Merlin, amongst many other things.
5. Carved medieval stone head, reputedly of Llywelyn Fawr
Picture credit, National Museums Wales
Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn the Great) was the principal ruler of Wales for the first half of the 13th Century. Very few princes in Welsh history have succeeded in unifying the Welsh nation – but Llywelyn did just that. There is a stone corbel said to be a likeness of this great prince in the National Museum of Wales. The crowned head was found in a pile of rubble during excavations at Deganwy Castle in 1965 – a castle that was rebuilt by Llywelyn himself.
Claire Miles is a history blogger and TV historian who runs the popular history blog www.hisdoryan.co.uk. She is passionate about helping people live in the past. She is also the founder of the online History Girls community, and the online history book club The History Bookshelf.