"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
That's a tricky question today, when there are so many choices.
But back in the Middle Ages, people had far fewer options --
especially girls, who were limited to mother, farmwife, nun, or in
rare cases, hermit saint (see the page on Anglesey's St.
Dwynwen). Boys had a few more choices: farmer (backbreaking
labour, perilous risks), priest (secure meals and lodging but
requires constant piety), or poet. I know which one I'd choose.
Why would anybody want to be a poet?
Well, in the Middle Ages, poets were the most important men in
the kingdom, after the royal family - and their lawyers.
How do we know this? The laws of Wales, attributed to Hywel Dda
in the tenth century, give a list of all of the officers of the
royal court. It says what each of them do, what they are entitled
to - their annual bonus, if you like - and their status in society.
Since the lawyers wrote the list, "lawyers" appear at the top of
it, with the priests, but "poets" are in the top five.
More than just poetry
Poets just sit around writing long poems. Can you even live off
Well, in the middle ages, the answer was yes. The medieval poets
in Wales were professional men, highly trained and skilled - fancy
writing a hundred lines in perfect cynghanedd
(strict metre)? - and they were very important because the best
poets worked for the princes. All of
the princes of Gwynedd had their own personal poet, and the poets
in Gwynedd were the best. Their training would take up to seven
years, and if they were any good, they would find themselves
working directly with the prince, sitting at the table next to him
in the feast, and being paid for everything they composed. And if
they were really good, they would get big rewards. Huge!
Poets also did other things - it wasn't all verse. Their
position, right next to the king in the feast, meant that they
would be able to have regular contact with the king -- private
chats - and so they could even offer advice or influence policy.
Some of the poets acted as ambassadors and advisors, and they knew
a lot about administration and running a kingdom. There are always
perks in that.
Medieval spin doctor
What was in it for the
king? Quite simple - the poet's job was to be the king's number one
supporter, his personal propaganda machine, his medieval spin
doctor. The poet would compose and perform poetry in praise of the
king, and the king would have his own personal cheerleader in
everything he did. Who wouldn't want that?
The poet also had to entertain the court, and it was a great way
to make a living. If you were any good as a king, you would have a
poet to tell everyone about it, and his written record would
live on for ever. And it has; there are plenty of poems praising
medieval Welsh kings that we can read today.
So how can I get the job?
Sadly, not everybody could be a poet. You had to be born to a
decent family - it was almost impossible for an ordinary boy to set
his sights on being a poet. It was more likely that an existing
poet would train up his own sons to be poets as well. So there were
families of poets, all linked to the king and his family.
The House of Cunedda
dynasty ruled Gwynedd and Anglesey for more than 800 years (see "Kingdom of Gwynedd"), so there
was an ancient poetic tradition rooted in North Wales, and the best
training was to be had there. In South Wales, the tradition was
more splintered, then the Normans took over large parts of the
A strong Anglesey tradition
So who were these poets of the kings of Gwynedd? Well, it seems
they were usually Anglesey men. The very first of the poets of the
princes that we know about was a man called Meilyr Brydydd, the
personal poet of King Gruffudd ap Cynan. We don't know much about
Meilyr's early life or family, but at a guess, he was from a family
of poets (though none of their work survived). We don't know where
Meilyr was from either, but he seems to have been given land as a
present for his services to the king, and that land is likely to be
Trefeilyr on Anglesey. (There's a good reason to be a poet!)
Meilyr had a son called
Gwalchmai, who was also a poet. He was the court poet of King Owain
Gwynedd - and he was given - take a guess! - the village of
Gwalchmai, again on Anglesey (and quite near to the dynasty's
historic seat of Aberffraw). Gwalchmai had three sons, and each of
them became poets. Meilyr ap Gwalchmai wrote religious poetry, and
the Extent of Anglesey in 1352 refers to a parcel of land called
Gwely Meilyr ap Gwalchmai which was no doubt given to him.
His brother Einion ap Gwalchmai was Llywelyn ap Iorwerth's poet,
and he also had a parcel of land on Anglesey. The third son,
Einion, is probably the same man as the poet Einion Sais - the
nickname 'Sais' (Englishman) was usually given to someone who could
speak English or had visited England, maybe in the service of the
princes of Gwynedd.
So being a poet was a privilege, it paid, and you could get land
- what's not to like?
So who's running the show, then?
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth had an Anglesey poet as his court poet; his
grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, also had an Anglesey poet -
Anglesey was clearly the place to get court poets in the thirteenth
century. Mind you, since you usually only became a poet through
family connections, then there wasn't a huge choice.
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd's poet is most famous for writing the
masterpiece on the death of his king. He was called Gruffudd ab yr
Ynad Coch, and was from a different family of poets, originally
from Arfon, but his father, a lawyer called Madog Goch Ynad, had
moved to Llanddyfnan near Talwrn (on Anglesey), and his descendants
held land there. So the family had the all-important poetry
connection, but the other important connection to the court: they
had lawyers as well. It seems that these men were sweeping up all
of the best jobs!
The family of Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch included
several notable lawyers: Madog Goch Ynad, who was the father of a
poet; but Madog's cousin was the father of an important lawyer
called Iorwerth ap Madog (there wasn't a large choice of names...)
who set one of the most important lawbooks in Wales in order - it's
even named after him now, 'Llyfr Iorwerth'.
In another branch of the family tree, there was a father-and-son
team of lawyers, Morgenau and Cyfnerth his son (Cyfnerth was a
cousin of Madog Goch Ynad), who also have a text of law named after
them - Llyfr Cyfnerth. Whilst Iorwerth ap Madog was in Arfon,
Morgenau, Cyfnerth and his cousin Madog Goch all moved to Anglesey
to fill judicial posts, and held land in Llanddyfnan. The area was
obviously a cradle of Welsh culture, with law and poetry.
Who pays the poet?
The poets and the lawyers worked closely with the princes, and
were given land on Anglesey by them; it is significant that both
Trefeilyr and the town of Gwalchmai are within walking distance of
the dynasty's ancient court at Aberffraw. The heavy academic work
on the laws seems to have been done outside of the royal courts,
but the poets had to stay close to their princes.
So what happened to all of these poets once the princes were
gone? In his lengthy elegy on the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd,
Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch claimed that the world was about to end -
and his world was certainly about to be changed for ever.
Although there were no more princes after 1282 (see "English
Conquest"), the poets continued - and the best poets were still
in north Wales well into the fourteenth century.
Probably the finest poet after the conquest, if not
ever, was Dafydd ap Gwilym. He was originally from Ceredigion, from
the parish of Llanbadarn Fawr, but there is plenty of evidence that
he visited Anglesey (although no evidence that he visited anywhere
else in North Wales).
Dafydd stayed in Newborough at least once, visiting the shrine
at Llanddwyn (appropriate for a poet of love), and exchanged
debating poetry with Gruffudd Gryg, a fine Anglesey poet and friend
of Dafydd's. Though there was a court at Rhosyr (Newborough) during
the age of the princes (see "Llys Rhosyr"), everything changed
there after the conquest.
Dafydd ap Gwilym spent his time on the island drinking and
womanising in the lively town of Newborough - he had a whale of a
time, but this is not the formal courtly atmosphere of old. In his
poetry (in the bardic debate) he names local characters: drinkers,
ruffians, and talks of seeing a girl in an inn and taking a fancy
to her (See his "In
Praise of Newborough" here.)
So Welsh poetry didn't end with 1282. The golden age of the
court poetry and Anglesey's pre-eminence therein might now only be
a memory, but Dafydd ap Gwilym clearly had some reason to visit
Anglesey, and that reason may have been that it was a good place
for a poet to draw inspiration. He enjoyed himself, he wrote a long
poem fondly praising Newborough, and to him, Anglesey was
buarth baban beirdd, a playpen for poets. High praise from