An American Knight in an English Castle (Or: Battles, Seiges and a Drip in the Loo)

By Sir Guillaume de la Belgique
(©2004 Scott Farrell)

For nearly 20 years I have been a part of the Current Middle Ages. During that time, however, my only contact with the actual, historical Middle Ages has been watching the motion picture “The Warlord” starring Charlton Heston, who, as you know, began his acting career shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta. So, to avoid the risk of being called a sissy, roller-blading, aroma-therapized, MTV-generation knight by my compassionate brethren in chivalry, I felt the time had come for me to travel to Europe and experience the true sights, sounds and — in some cases — smells, of the Middle Ages.

So, the Award-Winning Caidan Journalism, Photography and Dog-Washing Team, consisting of myself, Baroness Felinah and Mistress Kyriath, began planning a trip to England.

Our goals on this trip were extremely varied. Felinah planned to conduct a broad survey of the arts and sciences of the Middle Ages, and to evaluate the success of the SCA in re-creating medieval crafts. My goal was to visit as many castles as humanly possible in the hope that some old wall would collapse on me and I could go down in history as the last knight in history to die in a medieval castle. Kyriath’s plans consisted primarily of seeing weird bugs, dead guys, torture chambers, gross food, and a famous needlework shop in the town of Broadway. (Traveling with Kyriath was a little like touring Britain with a short, female Edgar Allen Poe.)

Felinah and Kyriath spent a great deal of time planning our trip utilizing that traditional medieval information source, Ye Olde Internet. In accordance with my level of computer expertise as well as my considerable attention span, my duties during this period were 1) to complain that we weren’t planning to visit enough castles, and 2) to drive down to “Rambertino’s Casa De Manteca” and pick up authentic medieval shrimp burritos for dinner.

Finally, the moment arrived when only a 12-hour airplane ride separated us from our tour of England. After listening to approximately 1,374 children wail unmercifully from one minute after the plane took off to one minute before the plane landed, it was time to start my education as a true medieval knight.

Home Sweet Dump

Our study of English castles began at a small keep called Penhow, overlooking the Welsh region of Talgarth. Penhow was built in 1070 as part of William the Conqueror’s campaign to fortify the border and subdue the Welsh once and for all through an overwhelming display of Norman military might. Penhow was part of a ring of small, outlying keeps which surrounded Chepstow castle. The fort at Penhow was occupied by about 10 warriors who, according to the guidebook, “protected the border and gave advance warning of any Welsh uprising.” In other words, if a band of enraged Welsh psychopaths came storming over the border, the soldiers stationed at Penhow would flee to Chepstow in order to warn them to raise the drawbridge while the Welsh army ravaged the countryside and slaughtered the populace.

In 1129 the keep at Penhow was granted to a knight named Roger de St. Maur — an early predecessor of the powerful Seymour family. It was at Penhow that the illustrious St. Maurs got their start in feudal society, which provides an excellent look into the practical responsibilities of a medieval knight.

According to a charter which is actually still on file in the British Public Record Office, in 1240 Sir William de St. Maur agreed to provide his overlord, Gilbert Marshall, with men to help garrison the castle at Chepstow and one mounted knight in times of war. In return, according to this sworn agreement made in the medieval spirit of chivalry and honor, Sir William was allowed to pillage the neighboring Welsh province of Woundy, and to usurp the manor and its profitable vineyards from their rightful owner Prince Morgan ap Howell. For his part in the deal, Marshall agreed to provide an army to support Sir William if the Welsh prince had any problems with this agreement, and would thus receive half of the profits from this new “business deal.” (It might be prudent to recall that these were the same people who conquered Sicily. If this means nothing to you, you should go rent a videotape of “The Godfather.”)

The most interesting aspect of Penhow is the fact that it was a “typical knight’s fee.” That means, for all you uppity knights out there who have not achieved the rank of duke, earl or — ahem — baron, this is exactly the kind of dump where you would have been stuck for most of your career.

Penhow consists of three rooms. The first, at ground level, was a basement. The main function of this room was to store wine and to give the lord a place to lock the squires if they got too rowdy.

The next level, called the first floor, was the great hall. This room was so grand and spectacular that, today, federal regulations would not allow the housing of prisoners inside. The great hall was about 20 feet long and narrow enough that Felinah and I could hold hands and touch the sides. It was lit by a single window — an arrow slit — which was about two feet tall and about four inches wide, providing the illumination equivalent of a 40-watt bulb. Not only was this the place where the soldiers, cooks, squires and servants slept, it was also the dining hall and the latrine with two open pit toilets at either end of the room. Yum!

On the next level was the chamber of the lord and lady of the manor. They had the luxury of actually having a bed which was nearly as wide as the room itself. There was just enough room for the soldiers to walk past when they went through in the middle of the night, because this room provided the only access to the battlements atop the castle.

From the roof, there is a tremendous view of the Welsh countryside which, even today, is much like it must have been in 1070 — emerald fields of newly sprouted grain, stone sheep barns, peasants’ houses and a parish church nearby, and tracts of untamed forest on the horizon. It’s easy to imagine ol’ Roger de St. Maur standing up there, thinking to himself, “This is all mine!” It’s also easy to imagine him thinking, “If I have to eat dinner in the dark next to the latrine again tonight, I’m going to kill someone.” It was probably exactly that thought which inspired one of the later members of the Seymour family to marry Lady Celia Beauchamp, the wealthy heiress of Somerset, and get the hell out of Penhow.

Fun with English town names: “Woundy” is a funny name for a town. Today it is called “Undy.” The world record funniest English town name is a place called “Middle Wallop.”

Our Time In The Big House

In contrast to the tiny fortress at Penhow, we also visited the castle of Caerphilly, located just north of Cardiff. Caerphilly was built by Earl Gilbert de Clare in 1268 with the approval of Henry III, who wanted to fortify the border and subdue the Welsh once and for all through an overwhelming display of Norman military might.
At the time, Wales was in the midst of an uprising under the leadership of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, who was attempting to aid English reformists in their crusade to establish a representative government and to chop the King of England into pieces the size of tennis balls. As the reformists were defeated and the cause of democracy was set back hundreds of years, King Henry drew up a peace accord with Llewelyn, assuring the Welsh Prince, among other things, control of the province of Glamorgan.

In order to aid in the peace process, Gilbert de Clare seized upon the fact that Llewelyn had removed his soldiers from Glamorgan and promptly invaded the province and began constructing the mighty fortress of Caerphilly. Henry then dispatched two bishops to take control of the castle and negotiate peace between de Clare and Llewelyn, but the Earl quickly re-gained Caerphilly by sending in 40 soldiers in plumbers’ uniforms, claiming, “Someone complained about a drip in the loo.” When Henry attempted to hold the Earl accountable for violating the truce, Gilbert claimed he “didn’t know how those troops had gotten in,” and also that, due to a rusty gear, “the drawbridge was stuck and no one could come out.” Henry, reacting with the kind of resolve and fortitude that our modern leaders can only dream of, died, leaving the crown to Edward I, who continued the peace process by invading Wales and decorating the tip of his lance with Llewelyn’s head. This left Caerphilly at last securely in the hands of the de Clares, who showed their gratitude to the King by initiating a civil war.

Even today, Caerphilly is an awesome structure. It is surrounded by two lakes which serve as its “moat” and it encompasses a total of 30 acres — which our investigative team walked around twice because the gate was under construction and we couldn’t tell how to get in. Looking at Caerphilly from a distance, it’s hard to grasp that it is a man-made structure — it’s like trying to imagine the Grand Canyon being dug by a bunch of guys with shovels. Even more impressive, Caerphilly was built primarily in a period of three years, and almost completely finished in 10. A display inside the castle shows that hundreds of masons, carpenters and workers were conscripted from all across England to build it. (“Conscript” is a word derived from the Latin “conuum” meaning, “Guys who stack rocks together,” and “scriptus,” meaning, “Because it’s better than being in a dungeon.”)

Part of Caerphilly’s defense is a long, walled peninsula which serves as a dam. The de Clare family used this area as a tournament ground when the castle was not at war. As Kyriath, Felinah and I stood at one end, with the modern city obscured by the wall and nothing in view but the placid lake, a reconstructed medieval catapult and the spectacular gatehouse of Caerphilly, I imagined the tournament area filled with the colors and pageantry of an SCA tourney. I could almost see the knights I have come to admire over the years, not just for their skill, but also for their style — John, Gavin, Dietrich, Derrek, Armand — meeting in combat right there, exactly as our medieval counterparts had done hundreds of years ago, and I thought to myself, “Someday … ”

Quirky British cuisine: Caerphilly has the distinction of being directly across the street from the little café where Mistress Kyriath convinced me to try an English delicacy called “jacket potato with tuna.” To create this dish, the English take a perfectly good baked potato and fill it with a wad of cold canned tuna mixed with greasy mayonnaise and — just to add that certain jaunty flair that you just don’t get outside of an elementary school cafeteria — corn which was possibly canned to feed the troops in the Crimean War. I can safely say this dish was every bit as good as it sounds.

Enjoy more amusingly irreverent articles on medieval history and life in the SCA in “We Are Not Amused, Sir Guillaume!”

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