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Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223), also known as Gerallt Gymro in Welsh or Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin, archdeacon of Brecon, was a medieval clergyman and chronicler of his times. Born around 1146 at Manorbier Castlemarker in Pembrokeshiremarker, Walesmarker, he was of mixed Norman and Welsh blood, his name being Gerald de Barri.


Early life

Gerald was son of Guillaume de Barry (or Barri), one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman barons in Wales at the time. He was a maternal nephew of David FitzGerald, the Bishop of St David's and a grandson of Gerald de Windsor (alias FitzWalter), Constable of Pembroke Castlemarker, and Nest the daughter of Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr. The family also claimed a relationship with the family of Rhys ap Gruffydd.

Gerald of Wales had a church education at Gloucestermarker, followed by a period of study in Parismarker. He returned to Britain about 1172, and was employed by Richard of Dover, the Archbishop of Canterbury on various ecclesiastical missions in Wales, where he distinguished himself for his efforts to remove the abuses then flourishing in the Welsh Church. He was appointed archdeacon of Breconmarker to which was attached a residence at Llanddewmarker. On the death of his uncle in 1176, the chapter fixed upon Giraldus as the man most likely to withstand the aggressions of the Archbishop of Canterbury and submitted his name to Henry II of England. The king promptly rejected Gerald possibly because of his Welsh blood, in favour of one of his Norman retainers Peter de Leia; the chapter acquiesced in the decision; and Giraldus, disappointed with the result, withdrew to the University of Parismarker, earning the title of magister and here continued his studies and gave lectures. According to Gerald the King said at the time: "It is neither necessary or expedient for king or archbishop that a man of great honesty or vigour should become Bishop of St. David's, for fear that the Crown and Canterbury should suffer thereby. Such an appointment would only give strength to the Welsh and increase their pride". In 1180 he returned to Wales and received an appointment from the Bishop of St. David's, which he soon resigned because of corruption he saw in the administration.

Royal servant - travels in Wales and Ireland

He became a royal clerk and chaplain to King Henry II of England in 1184, first acting mediator between the crown and Prince Rhys ap Gruffydd. He was chosen to accompany one of the king's sons, John, in 1185 on an expedition to Irelandmarker. This was the catalyst for his literary career, his account of his findings being published as Topographia Hibernica (1188). He followed it up, shortly afterwards, with an account of Henry's conquest of Ireland, the Expugnatio Hibernica. Geoffrey was proud to be related to some of the Norman invaders of Ireland such as his maternal uncle Robert Fitz-Stephen and Raymond FitzGerald and his influential accounts which portray the Irish as barbaric give an important insight into the Norman view of Ireland and the history of the invasion.

Having thus demonstrated his usefulness, Gerald was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Exeter, on a tour of Wales in 1188, the object being a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade. His account of that journey, the Itinerarium Cambriae (1191) was followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194. His two works on Wales remain incredibly valuable historical documents, significant for their descriptions — however untrustworthy and inflected by ideology, whimsy, and his unique style — of Welsh and Norman culture. As a royal clerk Gerald observed significant political events at first hand and was offered appointments as an bishoprics of Wexfordmarker and Leighlin, and apparently at a little later time the bishopric of Ossory and the archbishopric of Cashel, and later the Welsh Bishopric of Bangormarker and, in 1191, that of Llandaffmarker, but turned them all down. He also made friends like Walter Map whose career shares some similarities with Gerald. Retiring from royal service, he lived in Lincoln from around 1196 to 1198 where his friend William de Montibus was now chancellor of the Cathedral. It was in this period De instructione principis was probably first written which is a useful historical source on contemporary events and was very influential, spreading for example the legend of MacAlpin's treason for example. Here Gerald is frequently critical of the rule of the Angevin kings.

The battle to become Archbishop of St David's

On the death of Peter de Leia in 1198, the chapter of St. David's again nominated Giraldus for the bishopric; but Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused confirmation. Representatives of the canons followed Richard I to France, but before they could interview him he died; his successor, King John, received them kindly, and granted them permission to hold an election. They were unanimous in their selection of Giraldus and Gerald acted as Bishop-elect for much of the next four years; and, as Hubert still refused to confirm the election, Giraldus started for Rome to have his election confirmed, where he had an interview with Pope Innocent III. He visited Romemarker on three occasions (1199–1200; 1201; 1202–3) in support of his claims. In 1198 the archbishop, however, had anticipated him and his agents in Rome undermined Gerald's case, and, as the pope was not convinced that St. David's was independent of Canterbury, the mission of Giraldus proved a failure. Gerald had pleaded not only his own cause, but that of St David's as an Metropolitan archbishopric (and thus of the same status as Canterbury) reviving the earlier claims of Rhygyfarch and Bernard, Bishop of St David's. It was in connexion with this cause that he wrote his books "De jure Menevensis Ecclesiâ" and "De Rebus a Se Gestis". Giraldus returned, and his cause was now supported by the Princes of Wales most notably Llywelyn the Great and Gruffydd ap Rhys II, while King John, frequently in conflict with the Welsh, warmly espoused the cause of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1202 Gerald was accused of stirring up the Welsh to rebellion and was put on trial, but the trial came to nothing in consequence of the absence of the principal judges. After a long struggle the chapter of St. David's deserted Giraldus, and having been obliged to leave Wales he fled to Rome. The ports had been closed against him so he travelled in secret. In April 1203 Pope Innocent III annulled both elections, and Geoffrey of Henlaw was appointed to the See of St. David's, despite the strenuous exertions of Giraldus. Gerald afterwards reconciled with the king, even the expenses of his unsuccessful election were paid by the crown, and received from him a small pension. Failing to be appointed to St David's, Gerald maintained that it was the fear of the effect that it would have on the national politics in Wales that prevented his appointment. He famously complained in a letter to Innocent "Because I am a Welshman am I to be debarred from all preferments in Wales? On the same reasoning so would an Englishman in England, a Frenchman in France, and Italian in Italy. But I am sprung from the Princes of Wales and the Barons of the Marches, and when I see injustice in either race I hate it". At this point he resigned his position as archdeacon of Brecon.

Final years

He spent the remainder of his life in academic study, producing works of devotional instruction and politics. He spent two years (1204–6) in Ireland with his relatives and made a fourth visit to Rome, purely as a pilgrimage, in 1206 and may have returned in Lincoln. The controversy over St David's soured his relationship with the crown. In 1216 a baronial plan to put Louis VIII of France on the throne of England in the First Barons' War was warmly welcomed by him. He died in about 1223 in his 77th year, probably in Herefordmarker and he is according to some accounts buried at St David's Cathedralmarker.

There is a statue, by Henry Poole of Gerald in City Hall, Cardiffmarker and he was included in the vote on 100 Welsh Heroes.


Gerald's writings in good quality Latin, based on a thorough knowledge of Classical authors, reflect experiences gained on his travels as well as his great knowledge of the standard authorities and he was highly respected as a scholar in his time and afterwards. The noted scholar Edward Augustus Freeman said he was "the father of comparative philology," and in the preface to the last volume of Gerald's works in the Rolls Series, he calls him "one of the most learned men of a learned age," "the universal scholar." His writings were prolific, running to about ten volumes in modern printed editions. Gerald was a man of strong opinions whose works are frequently polemical, including bitter attacks on his enemies, but also had an intense curiosity recording much valuable detail of everyday life in his ethnographic works.

It is generally agreed today that his most distinguished works are those dealing with Wales and Ireland, with his two books on his beloved Wales the most important: Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae which tell us much about Welsh history and geography and reflect on the Cultural relationship between the Welsh and the English. Gerald, despite his desire for an independent Welsh Church and admiration for parts of Welsh life, was very loyal to Norman Marcher rule regarding the Normans as more civilised than the Welsh, a feeling reflected in his writings. Professor Davies tells us that Giraldus, whom he calls "an admirable story-teller", is the only source for some of the most famous of the Welsh folk tales including the declaration of the old man of Pencadermarker to Henry II which concludes Descriptio Cambriae: "This nation, O King, may now, as in former times, be harassed, and in a great measure weakened and destroyed by your and other powers, and it will also prevail by its laudable exertions, but it can never be totally subdued through the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God shall concur. Nor do I think that any other nation than this of Wales, nor any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of severe examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth."

It was Giraldus who also wrote (of the Welsh) that "If they would be inseparable, they would be insuperable", and that, unlike the English hirelings, who fight for power or to procure gain or wealth, the Welsh patriots fight for their country. He had pleasant things to say about the poetic talents of his people, too:

Giraldus could not have predicted the later perfection of cynghanedd, the complex system of sound correspondence that has characterized the strict-meter poetry of the Welsh for so many centuries and that is still practised today, especially in competitions for the eisteddfod chair. Cynghanedd did not become a formal system with strict rules until the fourteenth century, but its uniquely Welsh forms had been honed for centuries before that.

Finally, in Descriptio Cambriae, Giraldus penned the following words that give so much pride to Welsh singers of today, especially those who participate in the immensely popular Cymanfaoedd Canu (hymn-singing festivals) held throughout Wales and North America:

Another part of the above work , however is less positive. As Cambrensis puts it, "an attention to order now requires that, in this second part, we should employ our pen in pointing out those particulars in which it seems to transgress the line of virtue and commendation". David Powel published an abridged version of Itinerarium Cambriae and Descriptio Cambriae in 1585 omitting Gerald's negative comments about the Welsh. Due to translations into English, the first being done by Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart., and other translations such as in Everyman's Library and Penguin Classics Gerald's works on Wales are well known today.

His works on Ireland although invaluable for their detail are obviously biased, and have been attacked by Irish writers such as Stephen White.

List of works

  • Topographia Hiberniae ("Topography of Ireland", 1188)
  • Expugnatio Hibernica ("Conquest of Ireland")
  • Itinerarium Cambriae ("Journey through Wales", 1191)
  • Liber de Principis instructione c.1193
  • Descriptio Cambriae ("Description of Wales", 1194)
  • De instructione principis ("Education of a prince")
  • De rebus a se gestis ("Autobiography")
  • De iure et statu Menevensis ecclesiae ("Rights and privileges of the Church of St David's")
  • Gemma ecclesiastica ("Jewel of the church")
  • Speculum ecclesiae ("Mirror of the church")
  • Symbolum electorum
  • Invectiones
  • Retractationes
  • Speculum duorum
  • Life of St Hugh of Lincoln
  • Life of Geoffrey, Archbishop of York
  • Life of St Ethelbert
  • Life of St Remigius
  • Life of St David

Lost works
  • Vita sancti Karadoci ("Life of St Caradoc")
  • De fidei fructu fideique defectu
  • Totius Kambriae mappa c.1205

In Popular Culture

Gerald's tour of Walesmarker in 1188 was detailed in a 1988 cartoon voiced by comedian Max Boyce.


  1. Encyclopedia: Giraldus Cambrensis
  2. Peerage:Gerald fitz Walter
  3. Biography - Gerald of Wales
  4. Robert Bartlett, ‘Gerald of Wales (c.1146–1220x23)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004
  5. INTRODUCTION "The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales"
  6. Gutenberg Etext of Description of Wales by G. Cambrensis
  7. M.R. James (ed.), “Two Lives of St. Ethelbert. King and Martyr.” The English Historical Review 32 (1917). 214-44: 222-36

See also


Myself as Witness by James Goldman

A novel set in England during the time of King John ca. 1199-1216. It is the fictional chronicle of John's reign rendered in first-person by "Giraldus Cambrensis".

NY: Random House, 1979. ISBN 0394419235

External links


  • The autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis tr. H. E. Butler. London: Cape, 1937.
  • Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales tr. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.
  • Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland tr. John J. O'Meara. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.ISBN 9780140444230
  • Gerald of Wales, Speculum Duorum ed. Yves Lefevre and R. C. Huygens, tr. Brian Dawson. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1974.

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