Monday 12 August 2013

Love like a Hare: Monuments and Masculinity in Medieval North Wales

For my PhD thesis I am examining the archaeological and historical evidence for the parks, gardens and designed landscapes of North Wales and North West Shropshire, which were created and used during the medieval period. I am also attempting to find evidence for the variety of people who created, administered and trespassed in these spaces.

There are a variety of written sources available for the period, including court rolls, chronicles and charters. In the main, these have already been examined (Barrell et al undated, Cavell 2007, Jack 1968, Jack 1969, Korngiebel 2007) and a theoretical picture of life has been established through these documents. These were largely created and curated by the English Government, who ruled fourteenth century post-conquest Wales through a network of Lordships and Shires.

These sources however, tell only one side of the story, and there are other sources available to colour the life of the Welsh inhabitants of this world. After the Edwardian Conquest of Wales in 1283, the Princes of Gwynedd and Powys had been replaced at the very top of Welsh society by the Uchelwyr (literally 'High-Born Men'). These men, and their descents, came to dominate native Welsh life until the seventeenth century.

The first generations of the Uchelwyr left a legacy of their largesse and, using the poetry and monumental grave slabs that they commissioned, it is possible to gain some idea of them and their perceptions of themselves in celebration of life and in commemoration of death.

A new genre of poetry flourished in the fourteenth century in Wales. With the loss of Princely patrons and a secure place as part of their retinue, the poet became a peripatetic figure, travelling from individual Uchelwr to individual Uchelwr. The result is a newer, fresher approach to writing and the emergence of new themes within the poetry (Johnston 2005).

Perhaps the finest exponent of this poetry was Dafydd ap Gwilym (c.1315/1320 - c.1350/1370), recognised as one of the finest writers in Europe in the fourteenth century. His poetry has been edited and placed online in 2007 ( ).

One of the poems is entitled Serch fel Ysgyfarnog 'Love like a Hare'. Within the poem the pursuit of a hare during the hunt is compared to the pursuit of a woman in the tradition of courtly love. This poem, or at least the dual symbolism within it, appears to have been articulated with a series of grave slabs dating to the same period.

Five grave slabs, dated stylistically to the fourteenth century have survived with images of the hunt on them. The slabs are in St. Asaph Cathedral (Flintshire); Llanyblodwel church (Shropshire); Valley Crusis Abbey and the churches of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd and Ysbyty Ifan (Denbighshire). They cover a wide geographical area, ranging from Ysbyty Ifan on the fringes of Snowdonia in the west to Llanyblodwel and the lowlands of England in the east.

The Grave Slab from St. Asaph Cathedral, depicting a hound pursing a hare
Two themes are represented by the imagery on the slabs. The examples from Valle Crusis and Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd depict a hunter and his horn; whilst the other three examples depict variations of a hound pursuing a hare.

Until I began my research, there had not been any study of the place of these grave slabs in their wider landscape context. One issue is the relocation of these grave slabs. The example from Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd is now to be found, weathered and damaged in the porch of the new church, constructed in the nineteenth century to replace its medieval predecessor.

This medieval church was 1km to the north west, and it is the siting of this church and the monument within it which is significant. Situated on the south side of Dyffryn Clwyd (the Vale of Clwyd), this land had formerly been in the possession of Welsh Prince Dafydd ap Gruffudd, a man known, from letters petitioning King Edward I, to have had a love of the hunt (Pryce with Insley 2005: 646-647). Dafydd lost these lands when he rebelled against the King in 1282, and was captured and killed the following year.

The fourteenth century saw an expansion of the parkland in Dyffryn Clwyd and the neighbouring lordship of Denbighshire, with Welsh tenants removed from their former lands by new English Lords to allow for these events (Berry 1994). It would appear that the Uchelwr buried in Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd - his name does not survive on the slab - chose to be buried overlooking a hunting ground which had been used by his Welsh forbearers, as well as by himself under a new imposed Lord and Lordship.

Further research will identify the relationship between the other Uchelwyr buried under the grave slabs and their own particular landscape context. In conjunction with the other evidence recovered archaeologically and which is illustrated within some of poetry, it will enable an understanding of how these men lived in a world transformed in their lifetime.

Contributed by: Spencer Gavin Smith

Barrell, A. D. M., Brown, M. H. and Padel, O. J. (undated) Dyffryn Clwyd Court Roll Database, 1294 – 1422, UK Data Archive, Economic and Social Research Council

Berry, A. Q. (1994) The Parks and Forests of the Lordship of Dyffryn Clwyd, Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions, 43, 7-25

Cavell, E. (2007) Aristocratic Widows and the Medieval Welsh Frontier: The Shropshire Evidence, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 17, 57-82

Dafydd ap Gwilym (2007) [online] available from:

Jack, R. I. (1968) Records of Denbighshire Lordships, II, the lordship of Dyffryn Clwyd in 1324, Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions 17, 13-18

Jack, R. I. (1969) Welsh and English in the medieval lordship of Ruthin, Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions 18, 23-49

Johnston, D. (2005) Llen Yr Uchelwyr: Hanes Beirniadol Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg 1300-1525, University of Wales Press, Cardiff

Korngiebel, D. M. (2007) English Colonial Ethnic Discrimination in the Lordship of Dyffryn Clwyd: Segregation and Integration, 1282-c.1340, The Welsh History Review 23, 1-24

Pryce, H. with Insley, C. (2005) The Acts of Welsh Rulers, University of Wales Press, Cardiff


  1. Fascinating! Thank you for this Spencer!

    I'd be interested to know how the parks and gardens contributed to a sense of status and identity, or how they worked as a projected visual expression of power.

    Good look with your crowdfunding!

  2. Sounds interesting...

  3. wow! that is very nice design for grave slab. I think granite grave slabs looks so amazing in such a design. Very nice post