Montgomery returns to the Middle Ages
The Welsh Marches, the lands bordering England and Wales, were the site of countless bloody skirmishes in the Middle Ages. Back then, you would find a fiercely tribal culture. These borderlands were places to avoid, unless you were ready to risk the inevitable bloodbaths resulting from violent tribal clashes. These days, the people of Montgomery and the surrounding area are far more welcoming.
The 1267 Treaty of Montgomery
We do love to celebrate the rich history of our town, however. The weekend commencing 29th September 2017 offered us an occasion to return to the Middle Ages to acknowledge the 750th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery. This treaty formally established Llewelyn ap Gruffudd as Prince of Wales in 1267. The King of England, Henry III, declared his support, and both leaders swore to wipe the slate clean of all wrongs suffered at the hand of the other. This was the first time an English ruler recognised the right of a Welsh prince to rule over Wales. On a bank of the River Severn, the town of Montgomery recognised this historic event with a re-enactment at the site of the original signing, the Ford of Rhydwhyman. In a colourful display, dignitaries and schoolchildren from Montgomery, Abermule and Newtown acted out the event.
The Ford of Rhydwhyman
At the tail end of a very wet September, the river flowed vigorously in the background. It was difficult to imagine what a significant crossing place this has been. It attracted five separate fortifications over the centuries. In the Iron Age, it merited defending by a hill fort on Ffridd Faldwyn. Later, the Romans built a fortified camp Forden Gaer and occupied it for 300 years, well into the fourth Century. Then came Offa’s Dyke in the eighth Century. Roger of Montgomery arrived from Normandy in 1071, became the Earl of Shrewsbury, and wasted little time building a motte-and-bailey castle at Hendomen. Montgomery Castle became the final defensive ‘grand design’ in 1223, under King Henry III of England. The English and Welsh frequently met at the Ford of Rhydwhyman during the 13th Century. Nevertheless, after the 1267 Treaty, the ford’s strategic significance faded.
Not content merely with this re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty of Montgomery, the town also organised a medieval settlement in the castle grounds. We were fortunate to have such a competent band of re-enacters from Cwmwd Iâl. English and Welsh knights set up camp, along with their squires and peasants. They mixed up and brewed medicinal potions, made a beef and vegetable stew on an open fire, and fought one another. Some of the Welsh knights ventured into the town, much to the surprise of visitors and locals! We noticed the great efforts they had made at authenticity in their clothing and armour. Their garments were made of woven linen and wool, which was clearly far from practical in the Welsh rain. Also, they wore real chain mail and handmade leather shoes. During the day, they freely shared fascinating information about their lives in the 13th Century.
Firing up the imagination
This re-enactment really brought the 13th Century to life. Imagine the castle bustling with shelters, fires, and people going about their lives preparing food, spinning woollen yarns, caring for horses and other livestock, blacksmiths, and so on. Children of all ages would be involved too. If they survived into adulthood, which most didn’t, they could expect to live into their 50s. We could discover something about the march of technology in this period as well. The Normans had returned from their crusades with new shield and armour designs. The Norman kite shields offered protection from the shoulder to mid-calf, and curved around the body. By contrast, the circular shields previously used by the Welsh soldiers offered no protection to the legs and were usually flat.
Similarly, the helmets and swords gradually underwent modernisation – the helmets covered increasing areas of the head, face and neck, and the swords became longer and lighter. One advantage of experiencing the re-enactment, is that you can really appreciate the weight these knights and soldiers had to carry and how limited visibility (and breathing) can be in the helmets. Those children who were lucky enough to try on the chain mail and participate in mock fights, received an even more vivid experience.
(If you are interested in reading more background on these events, read this excellent blogpost https://barberblacksheep.wordpress.com/2017/10/01/war-and-peace/ but do read on...)
The town of Montgomery made one final gesture to these tribal times. They organised a medieval banquet in the Town Hall. Chefs in The Dragon Hotel and other members of Taste Montgomery created a menu based both on local produce and with a nod to authenticity, they substituted sugar with honey, made bread to ancient recipes, and recreated medieval soups and stews. We enjoyed some very tasty cider from Old Monty Cider. Moreover, Monty’s brewery made a very tasty and thirst-quenching ‘1267’ beer for the occasion. Through the evening, we were entertained with medieval music provided by local musicians and enjoyed the antics of a jester. The stocks were used liberally to punish people for their costumes being ‘too loud’ or audacious. Finally, the evening ended with medieval games and a medieval Ceilidh!
After this whirlwind of historical events, I must confess I feel better informed about a tiny piece of Montgomery’s tumultuous history. Next time someone asks me whether it was the Welsh or the English that built Montgomery castle, I can confidently reply ‘the English’.
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