The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
Please note:copyright exists on all texts.
Enquiries relating copyright should be addressed to the Gwent Local History Council.
Gwent Local History No. 32, 1971
Caerleon In Literature
by Mrs Eija Kennerley, Phil. Mag (Helsinki), BA (London)
Being of a literary cast of mind, I began to look for writers who had been either born here or who were for some reason inspired by the old Roman past of Caerleon. To me it seemed that the place was bound to have impressed many writers.
Alas, it was at first very difficult to find any. It is true that there were some poems by local poets which referred to Caerleon, but they did not exactly bring it to life. Most local historians know about the topographical books of Monmouthshire, mainly tours described by people who themselves lived outside the county. I tackled these next and went through the works of Donovan, Baker, Coxe, etc., and was getting rather tired because they kept repeating each other's tales and visiting the same places. Worse; their outlook was commonplace, even dreary, coloured by their striving for the 'scientific' truth in the true manner of 'enlightenment.' All these writers were actually mere reporters, and reporters without imagination.
Then, one summer I went to Cornwall on holiday. Before going, I picked up Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain'. I resolved to wade through it during my three weeks holiday in Fowey and, in order to make it possible, I did not take any other reading matter with me.
Geoffrey rewarded my efforts handsomely. He gave me a treat and a thrill. Here indeed was what I had been looking for: Caerleon in imaginative literature. In a couple of hundred words he gives a marvellous description of the 'City of the Legions':
"Situated as it is in Glamorganshire, on the River
Usk, not far from the Severn Sea, in a most pleasant position, and being
richer in material wealth than other townships, this city was eminently
suitable for such a ceremony (King Arthur's plenary court). The river
which I have named flowed by it on one side, and up this the kings and
princes who were to come from across the sea could be carried in a fleet
of ships. On the other side, which was flanked by meadows and wooded
groves, they had adorned the city with royal palaces, and by the goldpainted
gables of its roofs, it was a match for Rome. What is more, it was famous
for its two churches. One of these, built in honour of the martyr Julius,
was graced by a choir of most lovely virgins dedicated to God. The second,
founded in the name of the blessed Aaron, the companion of Julius, was
served by a monastery of canons, and counted as the third metropolitan
see of Britain. The city also contained a college of two hundred learned
men who were skilled in astronomy and the other arts, and who watched
with great attention the courses of the stars and so by their careful
computations prophesied for King Arthur any prodigies due at that time.
By these words Geoffrey introduced Caerleon to world literature. From his book it was transferred to the many continental romances, all concerned with some aspect of the tales of King Arthur and his knights. The story has continued until modern times, as far as Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the Victorian era.
As I read Geoffrey's tale, and, later, many writings about him, I became more and more fond of the man. He presents his 'History' as a serious piece of work and tells us that it is only a translation into Latin of an older 'British' work. (1) However, here and there he gives it the human touch as, for example, when he makes King Arthur laugh 'with relief' after the successful battle against the giant of Mont St. Michel, or in his Dedication that sounds sincere and humble - although one also suspects it being a sly way of making himself known as a faithful servant of the persons to whom it is dedicated, Robert of Gloucester and Waleran, Count of Mellent. I forgave him many tedious pages - and the 'History' certainly abounds in those - for the humanity, and I felt I knew Geoffrey personally.
This personal acquaintance was strange indeed, especially because hardly anything is known about him. He wrote the work about 1136. (2) At least, the earliest reference to it comes from January 1139, when Henry of Huntingdon, an English chronicler, was shown it during his visit at the Abbey of Bec in Normandy. He had never seen it before and called it "the big book of Geoffrey Artur." (3)
Geoffrey probably called himself Artur because the name was in the family perhaps it was his father's name. He was most probably of Breton origin, and the name was usual in Brittany, whereas it was rare in Wales. (4) He also called himself 'Monemutensis' ('of Monmouth,' a 'Monmouthian'). This is a riddle, because the records concerning him are all from Oxford, where he seems to have lived about thirty years (c. 1129 to 1155).
Geoffrey must have spent his childhood and youth in Monmouth, before going to Oxford. He mentions Caerleon thirteen times in his 'History'. It is possible that since early youth he had heard stories about 'the Roman city' only about twenty miles south, and as a young man he may have made journeys to Caerleon on horseback, following the Usk along the Roman road still in use. Perhaps he travelled from Wihenoc's monastery in Monmouth or from the Norman castle there to some monastic cell in South Wales, e.g., Bassaleg or Cardiff. (5) He says in the 'History': " the City of the Legions, the site of which by the river Usk in Glamorgan, is still shown by its ancient walls and buildings". He might have travelled in some official capacity, as a clerk, because in Oxford at least he was in some such position. In any case, his interest in history and local legends, his lively imagination and natural Celtic bent for story-telling must have been stimulated by the sight of the ruins, then already more than seven hundred years old.
My personal acquaintance with Geoffrey brought about some strange quirks of fancy. I began to see his ghost here and there and everywhere. He showed himself at some of the Caerleon Local History Society's meetings, when the speaker, usually a Welshman, became enthusiastic and started spinning a tale. Then I saw Geoffrey sitting there, his eyes glued to the speaker and a smile on his lips, as if recognising a kindred spirit. I saw him even in Newport, lingering at the corner of the Midland Bank and watching when I was talking to Fred Hando.
I soon found, however, that in spite of my liking for Geoffrey he was not to everybody's taste. Giraldus Cambrensis rather hated him although Geoffrey had been long dead by the time Giraldus himself wrote. The latter gives us the well-known description of Caerleon in his time:
"Many vestiges of its former splendour may yet be seen, mighty and huge palaces with gilded roofs in imitation of Roman magnificence a town of prodigious size, wonderful bathbuildings, the remains of temples and theatres, all enclosed within fine walls which are yet partly standing subterraneous buildings, water pipes, and underground passages and, more remarkable than all, stoves contrived with wonderful art to transmit the heat insensibly through narrow flues passing up the side of the walls".
We do not know how often Giraldus visited Caerleon but he certainly must have seen it when travelling from Usk to Newport with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188. The above description is from his 'Itinerarium'. He also tells a delicious tale about Melerius of Caerleon and the devils who had a liking for Geoffrey's 'History'. But Giraldus does not give any description of the Norman keep, nor of the Abbey of Caerleon (Llantarnam), which then was about ten years old.
Giraldus certainly had a different outlook from Geoffrey. He was a realist (only half Celtic) we could almost call him a scientist. He did not dream of the past he rather looked towards the future, as his strange prophecy shows when he, describing Goldcliff, talks about the possible riches of the earth which future generations may find and utilise. Geoffrey's type of fantasies only irritated him.
To keep to chronological order, the Welsh legends should be mentioned next as they are probably from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Some of them were translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest and published in the years 1838-1849, at the time which saw a revival of interest in folk-lore and folk-tale all over Europe. The oldest tales, not influenced by the Norman or Breton romances, have no other knowledge of Caerleon, except the mention that it was built as a stronghold for Elen, the maiden about whom Maxen Wledig was dreaming in Rome. In the introduction to the Everyman edition of the Mabinogion, Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones point out how this tale, 'The Dream of Maxen Wledig', "shows a strong and indeed nostalgic interest in the old Roman grandeur" - which, of course, must have been stimulated by the sight of the Roman remains in South Wales, e.g., at Caerleon.
There are more references to Caerleon in the tales which show Norman-French influences. At the beginning of 'The Lady of the Fountain' is a realistic description which moves us into the atmosphere of an old Norman hall:
"The emperor Arthur was at Caer Llion on Usk. He was sitting one day in his chamber, and with him Owein son of Urien and Cynon son of Clydno and Cei son of Cynyr, and Gwenhwyfar and her hand-maidens sewing at a window. And although it was said that there was a porter to Arthur's court, there was none. Glewlwyd Mighty-grasp was there, however, with the rank of porter, to receive guests and far-comers, and to begin to do them honour, and to make known to them the ways and usage of the court whoever had right to go to the hall or chamber, to make it known to him whoever had a right to a lodging, to make it known to him. And in the middle of the chamber floor the emperor Arthur was seated on a couch of fresh rushes, with a coverlet of yellow-red brocaded silk under him, and a cushion and its cover of red-brocaded silk under his elbow".
Peredur son of Efrawg also visits Caerleon in the tale so called. There is no detailed description of the town, however, although it is mentioned that Caer Llion on Usk was Arthur~'s 'main court'.
It is the tale of Gereint, son of Erbin, that gives us the best picture of the situation of Caerleon on the map:
"Caer Llion was the most accessible place in his (Arthur's) dominions, by sea and by land. And he gathered about him to that place nine crowned kings who were vassals of his, and along with them earls and barons for those would be his guests at every high festival unless sore straits prevented them. And when he would be at Caer Llion holding court, thirteen churches would be occupied with his Masses". Then follows the beginning of the plot: a forester from the Dean comes and tells Arthur of the white stag he has seen. The description of Arthur's ride from Caerleon towards the Forest of Dean is fascinating as one follows him across the valley and up the hills: "And through the Usk they came to the forest (was it Wentwood?) and they left the high road and travelled land high and lofty till they came to the forest (of Dean)."
R. S. Loomis in his collection of essays, 'Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages' says: "When it comes to the geography of the (two) romances the Welsh author, having adopted for his hero the historic Cornish figure, Gereint ab Erbin, made him the heir and later the king of Cornwall, and being unable to identify the place-names in his source, arbitrarily set Arthur's court at Caerleon, the stag-hunt in the Forest of Dean, and the sparrow-hawk contest at Cardiff - indications that he himself lived between the Severn and the Taff". (p. 194).
Layamon or Lageman or Laweman was probably of Saxon blood as his language seems to testify, but he was like Geoffrey on the side of the Britons and repeated Geoffrey's story in verse in his 'Brut'. He lived in Herefordshire at Ernley on the Severn and wrote some time before 1207. He does mention Caerleon but it is obvious that he has no special interest in the actual locality. It is natural that Caerleon appears in his work because by that time, the beginning of the thirteenth century, the name must have been established in the literature of the Arthurian cycle. He gives no reference to Geoffrey and perhaps did not know the 'History'. He might have known the Celtic traditions behind Geoffrey's work, however, as he himself was a man from the Welsh Marches. (6)
In his 'Le Morte d'Arthur' Thomas Malory mentions Caerleon many times but it seems fairly certain he did not know the place and it remains a name only.
John Leland was the most important antiquary since Giraldus's time. In his 'Itinerary' (c. 1587), he tells us that "the Bridges of Cairleon and Newport be booth of wood" and that "such part of Wenllugh as lyith up toward Cairleon is well pastured and woddi". He also tells as a fact that very great ships can come to Caerleon, and that ruins of the walls still were there, as well as the castle. He also refers to some archaeological finds with "certen paintinges on Stonis". Leland was not an imaginative writer but belongs to the reporters; we shall not dwell longer with him.
Thomas Churchyard (1520?-1604), who published 'The Worthiness of Wales', may perhaps be classified as imaginative. He refers to 'learned Geffrey' and praises Sir William Harbert (sic) of St. Gillyans. He gives a long description of Caerleon which he calls famous but "now of little worth". He evokes the gods to help his pen to describe this place where King Arthur's golden hall had been. He repeats again the well-known tale of King Arthur's and Guinevere's crowning. More interesting are the following lines:
"There are such vautes and hollow caves,
Such streates and pavements sondrie waies
As men may muse of to behold,
It stands upon a forced hill,
A seate for any king alive,
He then continues with slightly different verse forms to praise the landscape around Caerleon which all "showes that most pleasures under sunne Caerleon had alone". (7)
Churchyard has added some notes in the margins of his poem, the most interesting of which is the mention of the amphitheatre: "A deep and large round peece of ground shewes yet where Arthur sate".
It is clear from the above that Churchyard firmly believed Geoffrey's tale about King Arthur's court in Caerleon - as it was believed by almost everyone at his time.
It soon became apparent, after reading guide-books and other such sources of information, that there indeed was a great writer who had deigned to stay in Caerleon for a short time and had even written about it. This famous man was Alfred Lord Tennyson.
He stayed in the Hanbury Arms in the year 1856, and his room is still in almost the same condition as then, kept as a 'sacred' relic. This episode in Tennyson's literary life is not seen as anything important by his biographers, it seems, as most of them do not even mention it. In Caerleon, however, his memory lives and sometimes takes legendary forms. And it is true, of course, that Caerleon for its part lives in Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King'.
Tennyson published his first 'Idylls' in 1859. His model was Malory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur'. He follows some of Malory's plots quite closely, but the character of the stories and their very atmosphere has changed from a narrative with a medieval outlook to a lyrical, idealistic poem which is altogether symbolic.
In spite of this alteration of attitude, we can recognise the Caerleon of reality in Tennyson's 'Idylls'. He visited Caerleon for a particular purpose : to lend some local colour to his poem. He walked around and looked at the landscape carefully. His Caerleon is indeed more realistic than his poem as a whole would lead us to expect. He describes Queen Guinevere waiting for the return of the knights and Enid:
"Now thrice that morning Guinevere had climb'd
He places the field of the jousts on the banks of the
He tells how Pelleas lodges in "a priory not far off" and comes every day to sit by the walls of the castle, waiting for the Queen to let him in, and refers to Caerleon in an emotional scene:
and suffering thus he made
Although Tennyson dressed his Arthur and his company in medieval costume, the 'Idylls' are in fact quasi-medieval in content and attitudes of life. Even so, he made a great impression on his readers, and a special impression on those who lived in Caerleon and Monmouthshire. Local stories were since then influenced by the 'Idylls' and beliefs concerning Caerleon's great past were strengthened.
I once heard someone assert - in the usual Gwentian manner and in the true spirit of our friend Geoffrey - that the landscape of Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott' was the Caerleon and Christchurch area. That time I felt an approving glow in my mind, as I myself had pictured these fields and woods and hills when I first read the poem, and hoped that Tennyson indeed meant to describe them. I soon found, however, that the 'Lady' had been written about 1830 -'32, long before Tennyson had any knowledge of Caerleon.
But Caerleon has a writer who not only wrote about it but was also born here.
Arthur Machen was born in 1863 the son of John Edward Jones in the house which is now 33 High Street. The name of his grandfather, Daniel Jones, is in the first list of electors after the Reform Bill of 1832. He was the proud owner of the freehold premises in Bridge Street, as High Street was then called.
Machen spent his childhood away from Caerleon in Llanddewi Fach where his father was the incumbent but near enough to come to Caerleon often, walking across the fields and through the woods and then wandering in the streets of Caerleon, dreaming his dreams.
Whatever one's opinion of Machen as a writer, one must admit that he gives good descriptions of Caerleon, then a picturesque country town. It seems indeed that Caerleon gave him his inspiration and set him on his path as a follower of the Victorian imaginative, individualistic worshippers of dreams, horrors, far-away places and far-away times. During his years in London, he was reading works of Wilde, Stevenson, Moore and, of course, Tennyson. As a youth he already had become acquainted with De Quincey's 'Confessions of an Opium Eater', a book which could be classified as decadent. He says in his autobiography ('Far off Things'): "I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent".
Machen probably had a childhood or early boyhood experience that could be called 'freudian'. This must have happened in one of the fortresses of the neighbourhood. He does not make it clear what the experience was like exactly, but talks about it in his 'Hill of Dreams," (10) and in a slightly milder form in his autobiography. In the dream he saw Pan or a faun or some such creature from classical mythology and had some shattering and thrilling moments in the company of this being.
As often happens to writers, Machen began to write about his native area after he had left it. His home district appeared then as a kind of Paradise - and a lost one. He makes Caerleon an exotic city where many tongues were spoken and people of many races mingled. He saw the neighbouring hills clad with vine and other plants of the South. This is how he describes it all in 'Things Near and Far':
"The road from Newport to Caerleon-on-Usk winds, as it comes to the old Roman fabulous city, with the winding of the tawny river which I have always supposed must be somewhat of the colour of the Tiber On the one side, then, the steep dark ascent of St. Julian's Wood on the other, the swift fall of the bank to the yellow river where, likely enough, there would be a man in a coracle fishing for salmon. And then there came a certain turn, where suddenly one saw the long, great wall of the mountain in the west, and the high dome of Twyn Barlwm and down below, an island in the green meadows by the river, the little white Caerleon, shining in the sun".
In 'The Hill of Dreams' he calls Caerleon 'Caermaen'. He looks at it from the hill and "Thin and strange, mingled together, the voices came up to him on the hill; it was as if an outland race inhabited the ruined city and talked in a strange language of strange and terrible things. The sun had slid down the sky, and hung quivering over the huge dark dome of the mountain like a burnt sacrifice, and then suddenly vanished. In the afterglow the clouds began to writhe and turn scarlet, and shone so strangely reflected in the pools of the snakelike river There burst out from the stillness the clear and piercing music of the reveille For him it was the note of the Roman trumpet, tuba mirum spargens sonum In his imagination he saw the earthen gates of the tombs broken open and the serried legion swarming to the eagles. Century by century they passed up; they rose from the level, their armour shone in the quiet orchard "
This is clearly language of the romantic period, perhaps even of decadence. (8) Machen hankers after the awe-inspiring, "strange and terrible things", and his Caermaen is the Roman city not the city of King Arthur. He himself seems to realise the quality of his writing and its origin when he says : "there is in Celtdom a certain literary feeling which does not exist in Anglo-Saxondom. It is diffused, no doubt, and appreciative rather than creative, and lacking in the sterner, critical spirit which is so necessary to all creative work; still it is there, and it is delighted with the rolling sound of the noble phrase. It perceives the music of words and the relation of that music to the world". Looking at Machen's own work as a whole, it is indeed diffuse, repetitive and emotional to the extreme, lacking restraint that would give it form.
The picture Machen gives of Caermaen 'society' belongs to his more realistic writing. He becomes rather scathing as he describes the vicar's family and some of the locally honoured personages. They all look snobbish to him, commonplace 'petite bourgeois'. Their conversation bores him, and he on his part shocks them with his peculiar ways. He tries to begin a literary conversation with one of the young ladies - his subject is typically romantic : Tennyson's 'Lotus Eaters' - and the girl says : "Yes, it's very sweet. When did you say you were going to London, Mr. Taylor?"
Machen's inclination towards literature, history, the old forms of religion and mystical experience were indeed beyond the people of the tiny town, remote from the main stream of European culture. The people even thought it odd that he should so often walk the distance from his home in the country to Caerleon (i.e. Caermaen of the story). He says of Lucian, the main character of 'The Hill of Dreams, "All these journeys of his to Caermaen and its neighbourhood had a peculiar object; he was gradually levelling to the dust the squalid kraals of modern times, and rebuilding the splendid and golden city of Siluria". That was Machen's aim, indeed, and the citizens of this ancient place did not realise it.
Lucian, and through him Machen, awakes our sympathy. He, like so many other romantic natures, has a hankering towards the past which he imagines was better, finer, more beautiful than the present. This was of course in accordance with the general literary tendencies of Machen's time. In the 1870s and 1880s the Pre-Rafaelites were active, and all remote periods were seen in the light of romance.
Machen's only excursion into the Middle Ages was his early work, 'The Chronicles of Clomendy', where he tells some highly suspect local stories together with some conjured from his own imagination.
A writer who quite obviously did not himself know the place, G. K. Chesterton, wrote about the Caerleon of the Dark Ages in his 'Ballad of the White Horse.' (9) He gives it an air of gloom:
"For the man dwelt in a lost land
And the man was come like a shadow,
The ballad with its piled-up horrors and battles of King Alfred against the Danes became famous and was said to have been remembered by heart and recited by soldiers at the battle-fronts of the First World War. In the Ballad, Caerleon, as a place, has a vagueness about it, a shapelessness which is intended as the period in question is indeed only partially known.
One could say that the Caerleon of the real world has not much in common with the Caerleon of literature. In this respect it is no exception among other places which have been wrapped by poets in the haze of romance. But Caerleon does appeal to the instinct of romancing. It has its ruins of a military past which for a time was glorious. But so have many other places such as Verulamium (St. Albans) or York. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth whom we can thank for making Caerleon known all over the world.
The Roman amphitheatre is still known locally as 'King Arthur's Round Table'. The belief in this must have arisen on the basis of the tales of romance, not the other way round. The idea of the Round Table occurs for the first time in the writings of Geoffrey Gaimar, a Frenchman. (10) Geoffrey of Monmouth does not mention it, neither does any other British writer before Churchyard who in his turn must have accepted the thought from the continental romances.
Professor W. J. Gruffydd in his study of 'Math Vab Mathonwy' (11) says : "Archaeologists still hope to find Arthur's Round Table at Caerleon on Usk; they have not yet realised that the old caers of the Romans were to the Britons, in whose minds these legends grew, the symbols of a great past in which they had no part, and it was the wistful memory of ancient greatness which made them connect their Arthur, born in evil times of good old Roman blood, with the relics of greatness which they saw about them; so Caer Vyrddin, Caer Llion, Caer Seint and many another Caer were inevitably made the scenes of Arthur's splendour and great exploits".
If, for example, Churchyard would come to Caerleon today, he might think that it was not any longer "of little worth". He would admire the tight growth of new houses on Lodge Hill and perhaps he would even think the new telephone exchange in the centre of the town a magnificent building. He would certainly find everything very different - except one. He would still see the place "where King Arthur sate", the oval of the amphitheatre. Caerleon indeed still exists in spite of the march of the ages. But who would now think that it is a place of romance?
1. Most probably meaning Breton, although R. S. Loomis is of the opinion that tales of King Arthur existed in Wales before Geoffrey's time ('Wales and the Arthurian Legend', p. 213).
2. Some historians of literature think 1139, some 1147 or even 1150.
3. Parry and CaldweIl: 'Geoffrey of Monmouth in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages', ed. by R. S. Loomis, p. 80.
4. Lloyd, 'History of Wales', p. 524.
5. Williams, 'Introduction to the History of Wales', Vol. II, p. 27. Obs. Llantarnam Abbey was not yet founded, see Williams, Vol. II, p. 60.
6. 'Selections from Layamon's Brut', Introduction by C. S. Lewis, p. xi.
7. Churchyard - edition 1776.
8. In the 'Hill of Dreams', he tells how Lucian, the main character, bought the book of De Quincey at a station bookstall. In fact the story of the novel is autobiographical.
9. Published in 1911.
10. About the beginning of the thirteenth century.
11. W. J. Gruffydd "Math Vab Mathonwy" (Cardiff, 1928) referred to in 'Wales and the Arthurian Legend', by R. S. Loomis, p. 1.