CHAPTER IX - OWEN GWYNEDD AND THE LORD REES
The men who opposed the Normans left able successors - Owen Gwynedd followed his father, Griffith ap Conan; the Lord Rees followed his father Griffith ap Rees; and in Powys the sons of Bleddyn were followed by the castle builder Howel, and by the poet Owen Cyveiliog.
Owen Gwynedd ruled from 1137 to 1169; the Lord Rees from 1137 to 1197. The age was, in many respects, a great one.
It was, of course, an age of war. Up to 1154, during the reign of Stephen, the English barons were fighting against each other, and the king had very little power over them. The most important Norman barons in Wales were the Earls of Chester in the valley of the Dee, the Mortimers on the upper Wye, the Braoses on the upper Usk, and the Clares in the south. Their castles were a continual menace to the country they had so far failed to conquer, and the Lord Rees was glad to get Kidwelly, and Owen Gwynedd to get Mold and Rhuddlan.
It was, on the whole, an age of unity. It was the chief aim of Owen Gwynedd to be the ally of the Lord Rees; and in this he succeeded, though his brother Cadwaladr, in his desire for Ceredigion, had killed Rees' brother, to Owen's infinite sorrow. The princes of Powys, Madoc and Owen Cyveiliog, were in the same alliance also, and they were helped in their struggle with the Normans. Unity was never more necessary. Henry II. brought great armies into Wales. Once he came along the north coast to Rhuddlan. At another time he tried to cross the Berwyn, but was beaten back by great storms. Had he reached the upper Dee, he would have found the united forces of the Lord Rees, Owen Cyveiliog, and Owen Gwynedd at Corwen. There are many stirring episodes in these wars: the fight at Consilt, when Henry II. nearly lost his life; the scattering of his tents on the Berwyn by a storm that seemed to be the fury of fiends; the reckless exposure of life in storming a wall or in the shock of battle. But the Norman brought new cruelty into war: Henry II. took out the eyes of young children because their fathers had revolted against him; and William de Braose invited a great number of Welsh chiefs to a feast in his castle at Abergavenny, and there murdered them all.
It is a relief to turn to another feature of the age: it was an age of great men. Owen Gwynedd was probably the greatest. He disliked war, but he was an able general; he made Henry II. retire without great loss of life to his own army. He was a thoughtful prince, of a loving nature and high ideals, and his court was the home of piety and culture. He is more like our own ideal of a prince than any of the other princes of the Middle Ages. The Lord Rees was not less wise, and his life is less sorrowful and more brilliant. He also was as great as a statesman as he was as a general; and he made his peace with the English king in order to make his country quiet and rich. Owen Cyveiliog was placed in a more difficult position than either of his allies; he was nearer to very ambitious Norman barons. He was great as a warrior; often had his white steed been seen leading the rush of battle. He was greater as a statesman: friend and foe said that Owen was wise; and he was greater still as a poet.
The age was an age of poetry. A generation of great Welsh poets found an equal welcome in the courts of Gwynedd, Powys, and Deheubarth; and even the Norman barons of Morgannwg began to feel the charm of Welsh legend and song; Robert of Gloucester was a great patron of learning. One of the chief events of the period was Lord Rees' great Eisteddvod at Cardigan in 1176.
It was an age of new ideals. The Crusades were preached in Wales; the grave of Christ was held by a cruel unbeliever, and it was the duty of a soldier to rescue it. It appealed to an inborn love of war, and many Welshmen were willing to go. It did good by teaching them that, in fighting, they were not to fight for themselves. It was in Powys that feuds were most bitter. A young warrior told a preacher, who was trying to persuade him to take the cross: "I will not go until, with this lance, I shall have avenged my lord's death." The lance immediately became shivered in his hand. The lance once used for blind feuds was gradually consecrated to the service of ideals - of patriotism or of religion.
The age of Owen Gwynedd and the Lord Rees and Owen Cyveiliog brought a higher ideal still. If the Crusader made war sacred, the monk made labour noble. The chief aim of the monk, it is true, was to save his soul. He thought the world was very bad, as indeed it was; and he thought he could best save his own soul by retiring to some remote spot, to live a life of prayer. But he also lived a life of labour; he became the best gardener, the best farmer, and the best shepherd of the Middle Ages. Great monasteries were built for him, and great tracts of land were given him, by those who were anxious that he should pray for their souls. The monk who came to Wales was the Cistercian. The monasteries of Tintern, Margam, and Neath were built by Norman barons; and Strata Florida, Valle Crucis, and Basingwerk showed that the Welsh princes also welcomed the monks.
Better, then, than the brilliant wars were the poets and the great Eisteddvod. Better still, perhaps, were the orchards and the flocks of the peaceful monks.