Giraldus Cambrensis 

BORN A. D.  1146.——DIED A. D. 1220.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills  

AMONG the authorities for the history of the earlier part of this period, none can be named of the same pretension to fulness and minuteness as Giraldus Cambrensis. And as he had probably access to a large class of ancient documents, not now in existence, he is perhaps among the best sources of information on the earlier periods. He may, except where the church or the conquest is concerned, be relied upon as a safe authority for the transactions of his own time, and that immediately preceding. His errors and prejudices--his ignorance of the Irish language, and the credulity with which he received, and transmitted in his writings, all sorts of improbabilities--have drawn upon him much unmeasured severity; and we must admit that on these grounds, the deductions to be made are large enough. But as much or more is on some similar ground to be deduced from all history, the real authority of which is after all to be elaborately extracted by comparison, and the aid of a comprehensive theory of mankind, and the laws of social transition. Before Cambrensis, it cannot indeed in the full sense of the term be said that there were any Irish historians; the annalists, valuable as they unquestionably are, do not merit the name; it is indeed in a great measure from the fact, that they are but compilers--chroniclers of isolated facts--that their value is derived. Were it not that they copied such ancient dates and records as they found with conscientious accuracy, their ignorant prejudices and superstitious traditions must have rendered questionable every line they wrote: this is apparent from the few well-known remains of the literature of the middle ages. If however these are rendered trustworthy by the barrenness of their statements, and by the fact that they are simply the deliverers of an unbroken series of traditions; the Anglo-Irish historians who follow, have the advantage of standing within the daylight of historical comparison; and of being easily tested by the consent of modern tradition, and by the evidence of existing things.

Giraldus was descended from a noble Norman family, but his mother was a Welsh woman; his native place was Pembrokeshire, where he was born in 1146, at the castle of Manorbur. He was from his childhood destined for the ecclesiastical profession, for which he exhibited early dispositions. He soon mastered the learning of the age, and while yet very young was introduced to his intended profession, in which his learning, zeal, and practical ability, afforded the fairest expectations of advancement. An ambitious and ardent spirit was not wanting to prompt the active exertion of these capabilities, and Giraldus was soon employed to influence his Welsh countrymen to submit to the payment of their ecclesiastical dues to the archbishop of Canterbury, for whom he acted as legate in Wales: in this capacity he suspended the archdeacon of St David's, who refused to part with his mistress, and was himself appointed archdeacon in his room. In this situation the most remarkable incident is his dispute with the bishop of St Asaph, which is worthy of notice for the very strange and peculiar display it offers of the spirit of the age. This contest related to the dedication of a church, which was situated on the borders of the dioceses of the two belligerent ecclesiastics. The bishop with the experience of his maturer age, had planned to anticipate the movements of his youthful antagonist, and dedicate the church before he should become aware of the design. But he had not justly allowed for the vigilance and superior promptitude of Giraldus, who was not to be thus caught sleeping. Giraldus having received some intimation of the bishop's intent, prepared with discreet celerity to prevent him: sending for an aid of armed men to his friends, Clyd and Cadwallon, chiefs of the country, to whom he represented the important necessity of vindicating the rights of the diocese of St David's, and having been joined by their contingents of horse and foot, he hastened forward with his little army to the scene of action. On the next morning after his departure he arrived early at the scene of meditated conflict, and after some delay, entering the church which was to be dedicated, proceeded to the usual solemnities, and having ordered the bells to be rung in token of possession, he began mass. In the mean time, the bishop, with his host, drew nigh, and his messengers arrived to bespeak the due preparations. On this Giraldus, who had finished his mass, sent a deputation of the clergy of St David's to welcome the bishop if he was coming as a neighbour to witness the ceremony, if otherwise to prohibit his further approach. The bishop replied, "that he came in his professional capacity as a priest to perform his duty in the dedication of the church." With this the bishop came on, and was met by the archdeacon at the head of his party as he approached the entrance of the disputed church. Here these two antagonists, more resolute than wise, stood for a while like thunder clouds over the Adriatic, confronting each other with the fume and menace of controversy, the common presage of those more terrific, but not less futile bolts by which that ignorant age was held in awe. Neither party had the good fortune to shake the purpose of the other by argument, and they had proceeded no further after a considerable length of alternate contradiction and objurgation, than the several assertion of a right to the church of Keli; when the bishop, again thinking to play the old soldier, slipped from his horse and proceeded quietly to take possession. Giraldus was nothing dismayed-- at the head of the clergy of St David's, who came forward in good order, in their sacerdotal attire, with tapers burning, and crucifixes uplifted, he met his episcopal antagonist in the porch. The thunder of the church now burst forth, long and loud in all its terror, and the echoes of conflicting anathemas rung from the unblessed walls. Giraldus, promptly taking advantage of this position, secured the efficacy of his spiritual artillery by ringing the bells three times. The expedient was decisive, struck with dismay at this irresistible confirmation of his adversary's curse, the bishop mounted, and with his party fled discomfited from the field. What appears strangest still, the victory of Giraldus was crowned with universal gratulation, and even the bishop of St Asaph, not altogether annihilated by the mauling he had received, recovered breath to express his applause at the skill and vigour of his adversary. This reminds us of a surgeon, who having broken his leg, had the professional enthusiasm to congratulate himself on the happy incident by which he was led to witness the consummate expertness of Sir Philip Crampton in cutting it off.

 Giraldus, at this period of his life, maintained the same prompt and assiduous character manifested in this ready-witted exploit; and by his alacrity in performing the duties, or braving the hardships of his pastoral charge, merited and obtained the general approbation of the people and clergy : so that on the death of the aged bishop of St David's, he was warmly recommended to the king as the most fit and acceptable successor. But the learning and daring vigilance of Giraldus were by no means recommendations to a monarch who had already had in another eminent ecclesiastic an unfortunate experience of such qualifications. Henry also was made aware of Giraldus's family importance which gave him added influence in Pembrokeshire; and with these prepossessions turned a deaf ear to the application. He had nevertheless the sagacity to discern that the qualifications which he thus excluded from the hostile ranks of the Roman church might be usefully enlisted in his own; and Giraldus was retained in his establishment as tutor to prince John.

 It was in this latter capacity that he visited Ireland, in 1185. Henry having resolved to appoint his son John to the government of Ireland, sent over Giraldus with an expedition, commanded by Richard de Cogan, that he might form a judgment, and report on the state of affairs in that country. He came in the train of his brother, Philip de Barri; and was associated in his commission with the archbishop of Dublin, an Englishman, who resided in England, but who was on this occasion sent over to his Irish diocese. In common with his associate, Giraldus came over strongly prejudiced against Ireland and the Irish church--then in many important respects superior to the English. They made it their main concern, nevertheless, to inquire into all the particulars of its discipline and doctrine, and were soon scandalized by the discovery of numerous proofs of an independent spirit among the body of the Irish clergy and laity, while the more powerful and intelligent of the bishops were anxious asserters of the authority of the Roman see. These demerits roused the professional spirit of Giraldus; he saw every thing in consequence through a dense mist of prejudice, and gave frequent offence to the Irish bishops by his invidious and acrimonious observations. In the warmth of their simple zeal, the Irish informed the sarcastic scholar of the high claims of their church to veneration; they referred to its antiquity, and enumerated its saints. The taunting archdeacon replied, "You have your saints--but where are your martyrs? I cannot find one Irish martyr in your calendar." "Alas! it must be acknowledged," was the answer of the bishop of Cashel, "that as yet our people have not learned such enormous guilt as to murder God's servants; but now that Englishmen have settled in our island, and that Henry is our sovereign, we may soon expect enough of martyrs to take away this reproach from our church."[1] On another occasion, the abbot of Baltinglass preached a sermon in Dublin at one of the cathedrals, on the subject of clerical continence. Giraldus was present on the occasion, no tolerant listener to the Irish orator; but when from dwelling strongly on the obligations of this virtue, the abbot proceeded to an implied comparison between the English and Irish churches, and dwelt on the high and exemplary purity of his brethren before their morals had sustained contamination from the flagitious impurities of the English ecclesiastics who had recently been sent amongst them, the spleen of Giraldus could no longer be contained, but starting from his chair, he poured forth a fierce and recriminatory answer. He had the candour to admit the virtue claimed for the Irish church, and the admission was perhaps made with a scorn which depreciated the praise of a virtue then not held in high request; while he overwhelmed his adversary with charges of drunkenness, treachery, dissimulation, falsehood and barbarism, against the ecclesiastics of the Irish church. The bishoprics of Leighlin and Ferns were offered to Giraldus by prince John, during this residence, but he was probably not very ambitious to settle in a country so disturbed as Ireland, and of which the manners and literature were so little congenial to the tastes of a man of letters: he was also bent on literary projects, and then engaged in assiduous preparation for his work on Irish topography, of which he at this time collected the ample materials, and finished the work on his return to Wales.[2]

 In 1198, the bishop of St David's dying, Giraldus was nominated by the chapter, but rejected at Rome, where there arose a violent contention on the subject--which was however decided in favour of the other candidate, the prior of Llanthony abbey. The see of St David's was the favourite object of Giraldus' life--it was endeared to him by all those early and native associations, which have a first place among the best affections of the heart, and most of all with those whose habits imply the cultivation of the moral feelings. For this he had refused all other honours--Leighlin and Ferns, Bangor and Llandaff. The chapter of St David's zealously seconded this desire--and he was on three several occasions elected. But neither the king who looked for more subservient qualifications, nor the pope, whose views were inconsistent with the merit pleaded before him by Giraldus "presentarunt vobis allic libras, sed nos libras," a jest, the simplicity of which may at least have contended with its wit for the smiles of the conclave or the papal cabinet.[3]

 Giraldus died in his native province, in his 74th year, and was buried in the cathedral of St. David's. He is justly described by his biographer, as one of the brightest luminaries that adorned the annals of the twelfth century.[4] The works of Giraldus were numerous. Ware mentions a long list. Those which concern us chiefly are the works on the topography, and on the conquest of Ireland: which last has been the main authority for all English historians who have ever since written on the period included in his work. This concludes, however, with the first expedition of prince John. The statements of Giraldus are severely assailed by Lynch, the well-known antiquarian, who lived in the reigns of Charles 1. and Charles II.

 Having now discussed the principal incidents in the lives of the men who took a leading part in the invasion and in the conflicts and policy that followed, whose descendants, moreover, have remained in, and still form a portion of, the population of the island, we proceed to give an account of the families of the principal native chiefs by whom these invaders were confronted, and who were finally either subdued into the English allegiance or fell before their prowess or arts.


[1] Leland.

[2] Ware's Writers.

[3] Hoare's Cambrensis.

[4] Hoare.