I am thrilled to have with us for the second time, historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy. The third book in her The Cross and The Crown series, The King’s Sisters, is out now. Today, she’s going to give us insight into what it was like to visit Wales while researching the trilogy. Take it away, Sarah!
The principality of Wales, to the west of England, has long been a site of contention, and many Tudor enthusiasts know of it through Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which feature the prince Owen Glendower, or through reading about the Welsh heritage of Henry VIII and his children. The history of struggle over Wales, though, goes back much further. The Normans occupied it, then the Anglo-Norman English, while the native princes of this beautiful and lush place tried valiantly to hold on to their power—and their homes. A friend and I recently took a short road trip from Cardiff to Aberystwyth, wending our way north and then circling down the coast, stopping to see some of the historical sites that remain to mark the efforts of Welsh leaders to keep Wales out of the hands of their neighbors. I’ve always been interested in the history of this small principality, and since a Welsh man plays an important role in my new and upcoming novels, The King’s Sisters and Queen of Blood, I was happy to see this beautiful place again.
The Tudor monarchs, during whose reigns my novels are set, were Welsh, but once they gained the throne of England, they, like monarchs before them, thought of Wales as part of England. I want, in my novels, to highlight the tensions that existed between these two cultures, even during the long Tudor century. Despite the fact that the red dragon of Wales appeared on naval emblems during Henry VIII’s reign, and Elizabeth I continued that tradition, Henry and his children are revered as English monarchs.
My friend and I were interested, of course, in the medieval Welsh castles that made up Edward I’s famous “ring of iron,” a series of fortifications erected by the king to subdue the Welsh and ward off invaders from the sea. These are Anglo-Norman castles, and the Welsh princes often fought for control of them. Among them is the great Caerphilly Castle, which was blown up from the inside during the English Civil War. One of the great corner towers leans at a precipitous angle from the explosion.
We also visited Harlech Castle, which sits on the coast of the sea and provides breathtaking views.
These Norman castles are grand tourist destinations—but they’re not Welsh. They were built by English kings to protect English interests. We also wanted to visit some of these “more Welsh” sites, and wandered through the countryside until we came to Dolforwyn—a castle, as the small interpretive plaque informs visitors, “designed in Wales.”
This castle, which is difficult to find without careful attention to tiny roadside signs, was erected during the late thirteenth century. The surrounding hills are now sheep fields, and visitors are asked to close the gates behind them as they walk up. It’s a grand site, with views across the fields to the east, and though ruinous, Dolforwyn still shows what a castle (rather cozy in its dimensions) built by the Welsh for a Welsh prince looked like. It has the typical D-shaped tower (called an aspidal), living quarters, cooking and storage facilities. A town grew up around its base, protected by (and providing support to) the castle. The builders, however, had neglected to sink a well inside the protective walls, and when attacked, the castle was easily taken by Edward I, who gave it to his ally Roger Mortimer (that’s my friend, Terry Southerington, peering over the edge!).
Many of these “designed in Wales” castles still exist in the Welsh interior. They are often open to the air and neglected—and few visitors ever see them. Most tourists prefer the great Edwardian castles.
Military fortifications were not the only great structures built in Wales during the Middle Ages, however. This country was also home to many abbeys, most of which now lie, like the later-built castles, in ruins. Tintern Abbey, made famous by William Wordsworth, is of course a popular tourist destination, but we made for the lesser-known, smaller sites, where monks lived and worked until the Reformation under Henry VIII.
Talley Abbey—or what’s left of it—lies at the end of a winding narrow road. This little abbey was the only place where Premonstratensians (or “White Canons”) lived in Wales. There’s not much left, but what is there testifies to a brief time of peace between the Welsh and the English, which allowed it to be built. Sadly, the Cisterians considered the Premonstratensians to be dangerous rivals, and a lawsuit broke out which prevented the abbey from ever being completed according to the original plan.
The Cisterians, of course, fared no better under Henry VIII than did the White Canons, and abbey of Cymer is almost as ruined as Talley. It sits behind a holiday park, part of a farm (visitors park at the farmhouse, which is just across the driveway from the abbey), but the remaining walls suggest a site once thriving, at least for the few monks who lived there. They were horse-breeders, providing stud-service for Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, and though they, like other abbeys, suffered economically during the thirteenth-century wars between the Welsh and the English, their downfall only occurred—yes, you guessed it—when Henry dissolved the order and confiscated the building and its contents.
By the time of the Tudor monarchs, the great castles were out-of-date as military fortifications, and Henry VIII centralized power when he seized the church’s property. Much of that property was in Wales. The small, prosperous abbeys were closed, as were the English ones, by Henry, left to be scavenged by locals for building materials. The Welsh Tudors have, in history, become more English than the English, and, perhaps ironically, many of the old castles’ occupants stood with the English monarchy during the later Civil War. And, yet, the complex and rich history of Wales that gave rise to their power remains—in its stunningly beautiful landscapes, its living language, and its many architectural ruins, both small and large, both Welsh and English, that still dot its hills and valleys and shores.
Do you have a question or comment for Sarah? If so, please leave it below. She’ll be checking them and answering as she can. Don’t forget, you can order The King’s Sisters at all major retailers.