Where can you find an intersection between rural Wales and Central London? Through a ruined castle, a busy street in the City and a disgraced king, of course. Where else?
Llandeilo sits on a hill to the west of the Black Mountain. She takes the form of one main street and is bounded at one end by a grey supermarket and at the other by a row of colourful cottages and the Bridge of Sighs, which took five years and thousands of pounds to build. Between the cottages and the bridge, where the River Towy splits the landscape in two, it is possible to venture further west, past the house of the old estate manager, a Jacobean manor in its own right. The road turns from concrete to gravel and mud before we reach the red lodge house, its position dug into the stone of the hillside, so no light can enter the house from the back. Beyond this house is a gate announcing the entrance to Parc a Chastell Dinefwr and through it lies a track running along the edge of ancient woodland. To the right, the land rises and threatens and to the left it falls away to the river and fields.
The track’s resolution finds an overgrown churchyard, with graves spilling outside of the fallen stone wall. Hunched in the centre of the yard is Llandyfeisant Church, dedicated to Saint Tyfei, who may have been a nephew of Saint Teilo. The church itself is no longer open, but has existed on this site since at least 1291. It is difficult, here, to stop this damp, green history, which reaches out from between consecrated stones, from infecting my very bones. It is difficult, too, to know at this stage whether I stand upon mere sacred ground or upon a grave and upon bones, covered by layers of earth, greenery and a forgotten past.
Beside the churchyard is a structure more ruinous than any cracked headstone. The gamekeeper’s cottage is nothing more than four walls filled with rotten timbers and broken roof slates, stories lost far deeper in the wood than the faded names on covered graves.
But I’m distracted from the phantasmagoria of lost lives by something real and something present. Beyond the graveyard’s wall is a gentle slope and upon this gentle slope are sheep and beneath these sheep are lambs. These lambs are as young as the spring, but already move with an infectious curiosity towards the alien presence on this slope; towards us. Smiling faces peer around the roots of a fallen tree and venture ever closer until nervous ewes bark their warning and the lambs bound off up the slope to their mothers’ woollen safety.
This slope leads to another patch of ancient woodland. The trees here are older and the moss is thicker. The ground is under a blanket of tall, verdant leaves, preparing themselves for May, when their buds will burst into a thousand chiming bluebells. The green breaks only for a stark, grey monolith: Dinefwr Castle. Legend dictates that the castle was built originally by Rhodri the Great, King of the Britons, but the great stones which stand today were placed on the orders of the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, king of Deheubarth in South Wales, who made Dinefwr his seat of power.
From Dinefwr, I can see a number of other ruinous stone structures on surrounding hilltops, which attest to the martial history of medieval Wales. Lord Rhys’ early reign was plagued by disputes with the Angevin King Henry II. King Henry spent a great deal of his reign in his French territories, giving outlying lords, such as Lord Rhys, opportunities to revolt and win back lands lost to the Norman Marcher Lords.
Lord Rhys’ fortunes differ from that of other similar lords, however, in that he made peace with the King and entered his favour, becoming his representative as Justiciar of South Wales. The rampant lion of Dinefwr was calmed for almost twenty years until the death of Henry II in 1189. The Lord Rhys’ loyalties lay with Henry, so with his death, so too died Deheubarth’s loyalty to the English throne and Dinefwr’s lion rose once more to meet the challenge of the English Lionheart.
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Back in London, I come across another figure whose fortunes were dictated by the favour of Henry II. St Paul’s dedication dwarfs Llandeilo Fawr, jutting aggressively into the sky like a targe whose boss carries a deadly spike. The corner of Paternoster Row brings me to Cheapside, a world away from Llandyfeisant and Dinefwr. The saintly nomenclature remains, however, moving away from Wren’s masterpiece and passing by Foster Lane, an anglicisation of the Frankish St Vedast, whose church lies on Foster Lane in both guises as St Vedast-alias-Foster, also reconstructed by Wren and later by Hawksmoor.
Cheapside today is largely steel, concrete and glass and looks nothing like it would have in Henry’s day. Excepting appearance, though, Cheapside has changed very little. The street is a centre of urban commerce descended directly from the old City market, whose very name derives from the Old English ceapan, ‘to buy’. Remnants of that market remain today, as history in the city often does, through road names and my feet take me left, up Gutter Lane, in hopes of discovering more.
Concrete and glass continue up this side street, but the fact overwhelming my senses is the fish-haunting, as if the gutters still ply their trade here. Emerging from the cloud of rancid air seeping from the bottom of the lane is a beacon of visible history – Saddlers’ Hall. Another window to the past, indicated through profession, the building carries a crest reading ‘Hold Fast, Sit Sure’. The livery company still exists, although has little power to regulate the trade of saddle-makers within the City now, not least due to the lack of saddlers in the City. It is likely that the company originated as a saddlers’ guild and was present on this site during the reign of Henry II.
Opposite Saddlers’ Hall is another profession-imprint – Goldsmith Street. Today, just a glazed linking street, but feeling somehow rich and maintaining a dazzling nature. Wood Street takes me back to the familiarity of Cheapside, between old City of London bollards; the white cap and the red stars. The street is quaintly cobbled and reaches once more into history as it meets Cheapside. A space emerges where a concrete building should be, behind wrought iron fencing. Within the space is a tree, dwarfed by glazed surroundings, but strong and primal. Beside is a building, no more than a few metres thick, now containing a card shop, but still a remnant of a Victorian London.
Another cobbled lane leading into history, but flanked by glass, appears on the right in the form of Bread Street. No bread is sold here now, unless you want it surrounding a burger or beneath Gordon Ramsey’s pizza toppings, but there is an ancient waft of baking and it is difficult to see the end of the street through the light cloud of flour. The sound drifting along the scent of warm bread are the first notes played by Milton’s father on the occasion of his son’s birth. On the left, Milk Street is pedestrianised and adorned with small birch trees, but their trunks are white with spilled milk.
Rising above the concrete on the right is the tower of St Mary-le-Bow, also rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. The medieval church, St Mary de Arcubus, was destroyed some forty years before Henry II’s birth by a tornado but would be rebuilt before he ascended the throne as the first of the Plantagenet kings. Concrete builds once more, imprisoning Honey Lane, which is forced like syrup to squeeze its way between shops and beneath offices to collect in a viscous pool on Cheapside.
Things become altogether more regal as I pass by Crown Court and cross the junction of King Street and Queen Street, but soon return to more humble roots at Ironmonger Lane and the clanging of hammer on anvil builds in earnest. Beside Ironmonger Lane, long before Old Jewry, on the wall of a shoe shop, is the plaque I came to see. ‘St Thomas à Becket was born in a house near this spot’.
Where the Lord Rhys began an enemy to Henry II before gaining his favour later, Thomas Becket’s fortunes were very much the reverse. Becket was born on Cheapside to Norman City landowners and became, in his youth, a trusted clerk to Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury. Through the Archbishop, Becket entered King Henry’s service as Lord Chancellor in 1155. Becket’s favour and friendship with the king brought him greater fortune and titles and eventually the Archbishopric, but did not make him popular with the barons, who saw him as a jumped-up commoner. As Archbishop Becket undertook a life of asceticism and attempted to bolster the power of the church to the cost of Henry’s power. Disagreements between the old friends turned to assemblies and courts at Clarendon and Northampton Castle and Becket was forced to flee to France. On his return to England, following a compromise from Henry, orchestrated by Pope Alexander III, Becket, angered by the crowning of Henry the Young King in his absence, began excommunicating key opponents within the Church.
At this point, Henry II is said to have uttered the fateful words which damned his otherwise successful reign to relative obscurity and raised Becket to martyrdom and beatification. According to contemporary biographer and eyewitness to Becket’s murder, Edward Grim, the words were: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” Four knights, de Morville, FitzUrse, le Breton and de Tracy, took this as a command and set about assassinating Becket inside his own cathedral. Becket died, reportedly saying, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” With one deadly mistake, a saint was born and a king cast into a damp, green history.