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Medieval Anglesey: A Playpen for Poets

"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 it?

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 Public domain. Spencer Collection at the New York Public Libraryfor 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

A medieval Welsh king; © National Library of WalesWhat 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.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenseThe 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 land.

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!)

An image of the poet outside the pub at Gwalchmai, © Sara Elin RobertsMeilyr 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!

Llywellyn Fawr; © Visit WalesThe 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.

Dafydd ap GwilymProbably 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 the master.

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