Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 97

Llandovery — Griffith ap Nicholas — Powerful Enemies — Last Words — Llandovery Church — Rees Pritchard — The Wiser Creature — God’s better than All — The Old Vicarage.

THE morning of the ninth was very beautiful, with a slight tendency to frost. I breakfasted, and having no intention of proceeding on my journey that day, I went to take a leisurely view of Llandovery and the neighbourhood.

Llandovery is a small but beautiful town, situated amidst fertile meadows. It is a water-girdled spot, whence its name Llandovery or Llanymdyfri, which signifies the church surrounded by water. On its west is the Towey, and on its east the river Bran or Brein, which descending from certain lofty mountains to the north-east runs into the Towey a little way below the town. The most striking object which Llandovery can show is its castle, from which the inn, which stands near to it, has its name. This castle, majestic though in ruins, stands on a green mound, the eastern side of which is washed by the Bran. Little with respect to its history is known. One thing, however, is certain, namely that it was one of the many strongholds, which at one time belonged to Griffith ap Nicholas, Lord of Dinevor, one of the most remarkable men which South Wales has ever produced, of whom a brief account here will not be out of place.

Griffith ap Nicholas flourished towards the concluding part of the reign of Henry the Sixth. He was a powerful chieftain of South Wales and possessed immense estates in the counties of Carmarthen and Cardigan. King Henry the Sixth, fully aware of his importance in his own country, bestowed upon him the commission of the peace, an honour at that time seldom vouchsafed to a Welshman, and the captaincy of Kilgarran, a strong royal castle situated on the southern bank of the Teivi a few miles above Cardigan. He had many castles of his own, in which he occasionally resided, but his chief residence was Dinevor, half way between Llandovery and Carmarthen, once a palace of the kings of South Wales, from whom Griffith traced lineal descent. He was a man very proud at heart, but with too much wisdom to exhibit many marks of pride, speaking generally with the utmost gentleness and suavity, and though very brave addicted to dashing into danger for the mere sake of displaying his valour. He was a great master of the English tongue, and well acquainted with what learning it contained, but nevertheless was passionately attached to the language and literature of Wales, a proof of which he gave by holding a congress of bards and literati at Carmarthen, at which various pieces of eloquence and poetry were recited, and certain alterations introduced into the canons of Welsh versification. Though holding offices of trust and emolument under the Saxon, he in the depths of his soul detested the race, and would have rejoiced to see it utterly extirpated from Britain. This hatred of his against the English was the cause of his doing that which cannot be justified on any principle of honour, giving shelter and encouragement to Welsh thieves, who were in the habit of plundering and ravaging the English borders. Though at the head of a numerous and warlike clan, which was strongly attached to him on various accounts, Griffith did not exactly occupy a bed of roses. He had amongst his neighbours four powerful enemies who envied him his large possessions, with whom he had continual disputes about property and privilege. Powerful enemies they may well be called, as they were no less personages than Humphrey Duke of Buckingham, Richard Duke of York, who began the contest for the crown with King Henry the Sixth, Jasper Earl of Pembroke, son of Owen Tudor, and half-brother of the king, and the Earl of Warwick. These accused him at court of being a comforter and harbourer of thieves, the result being that he was deprived not only of the commission of the peace, but of the captaincy of Kilgarran, which the Earl of Pembroke, through his influence with his half-brother, procured for himself. They moreover induced William Borley and Thomas Corbet, two justices of the peace for the county of Hereford, to grant a warrant for his apprehension on the ground of his being in league with the thieves of the Marches. Griffith in the bosom of his mighty clan bade defiance to Saxon warrants, though once having ventured to Hereford he nearly fell into the power of the ministers of justice, only escaping by the intervention of Sir John Scudamore, with whom he was connected by marriage. Shortly afterwards, the civil war breaking out, the Duke of York apologised to Griffith, and besought his assistance against the king which the chieftain readily enough promised, not out of affection for York, but from the hatred which he felt, on account of the Kilgarran affair, for the Earl of Pembroke, who had sided, very naturally, with his half-brother, the king, and commanded his forces in the west. Griffith fell at the great battle of Mortimer’s cross, which was won for York by a desperate charge made right at Pembroke’s banner by Griffith and his Welshmen, when the rest of the Yorkists were wavering. His last words were: “Welcome, Death! since honour and victory make for us.”

The power and wealth of Griffith ap Nicholas, and also parts of his character, have been well described by one of his bards, Gwilym ab Ieuan Hen, in an ode to the following effect:-

“Griffith ap Nicholas, who like thee For wealth and power and majesty! Which most abound, I cannot say, On either side of Towey gay, From hence to where it meets the brine, Trees or stately towers of thine? The chair of judgment thou didst gain, But not to deal in judgments vain — To thee upon thy judgment chair From near and far do crowds repair; But though betwixt the weak and strong No questions rose from right or wrong The strong the weak to thee would hie; The strong to do thee injury, And to the weak thou wine wouldst deal, And wouldst trip up the mighty heel. A lion unto the lofty thou, A lamb unto the weak and low. Much thou resemblest Nudd of yore, Surpassing all who went before; Like him thou’rt fam’d for bravery, For noble birth and high degree. Hail, captain of Kilgarran’s hold! Lieutenant of Carmarthen old! Hail, chieftain, Cambria’s choicest boast! Hail, justice, at the Saxon’s cost! Seven castles high confess thy sway, Seven palaces thy hands obey. Against my chief, with envy fired, Three dukes and judges two conspired, But thou a dauntless front didst show, And to retreat they were not slow. O, with what gratitude is heard From mouth of thine the whispered word, The deepest pools in rivers found In summer are of softest sound; The sage concealeth what he knows, A deal of talk no wisdom shows; The sage is silent as the grave, Whilst of his lips the fool is slave; Thy smile doth every joy impart, Of faith a fountain is thy heart; Thy hand is strong, thine eye is keen, Thy head o’er every head is seen.”

The church of Llandovery is a large edifice standing at the southern extremity of the town in the vicinity of the Towey. The outside exhibits many appearances of antiquity, but the interior has been sadly modernized. It contains no remarkable tombs; I was pleased, however, to observe upon one or two of the monuments the name of Ryce, the appellation of the great clan to which Griffith ap Nicholas belonged; of old the regal race of South Wales. On inquiring of the clerk, an intelligent young man who showed me over the sacred edifice, as to the state of the Church of England at Llandovery, he gave me a very cheering account, adding, however, that before the arrival of the present incumbent it was very low indeed. “What is the clergyman’s name?” said I; “I heard him preach last night.”

“I know you did, sir,” said the clerk, bowing, “for I saw you at the service at Llanfair — his name is Hughes.”

“Any relation of the clergyman at Tregaron?” said I.

“Own brother, sir.”

“He at Tregaron bears a very high character,” said I.

“And very deservedly, sir,” said the clerk, “for he is an excellent man; he is, however, not more worthy of his high character than his brother here is of the one which he bears, which is equally high, and which the very dissenters have nothing to say against.”

“Have you ever heard,” said I, “of a man of the name of Rees Pritchard, who preached within these walls some two hundred years ago?”

“Rees Pritchard, sir! Of course I have — who hasn’t heard of the old vicar — the Welshman’s candle? Ah, he was a man indeed! We have some good men in the Church, very good; but the old vicar — where shall we find his equal?”

“Is he buried in this church?” said I.

“No, sir, he was buried out abroad in the churchyard, near the wall by the Towey.”

“Can you show me his tomb?” said I. “No, sir, nor can any one; his tomb was swept away more than a hundred years ago by a dreadful inundation of the river, which swept away not only tombs but dead bodies out of graves. But there’s his house in the market-place, the old vicarage, which you should go and see. I would go and show it you myself but I have church matters just now to attend to — the place of church clerk at Llandovery, long a sinecure, is anything but that under the present clergyman, who, though not a Rees Pritchard, is a very zealous Christian, and not unworthy to preach in the pulpit of the old vicar.”

Leaving the church I went to see the old vicarage, but before saying anything respecting it, a few words about the old vicar.

Rees Pritchard was born at Llandovery, about the year 1575, of respectable parents. He received the rudiments of a classical education at the school of the place, and at the age of eighteen was sent to Oxford, being intended for the clerical profession. At Oxford he did not distinguish himself in an advantageous manner, being more remarkable for dissipation and riot than application in the pursuit of learning. Returning to Wales, he was admitted into the ministry, and after the lapse of a few years was appointed vicar of Llandovery. His conduct for a considerable time was not only unbecoming a clergyman, but a human being in any sphere. Drunkenness was very prevalent in the age in which he lived, but Rees Pritchard was so inordinately addicted to that vice that the very worst of his parishioners were scandalized, and said: “Bad as we may be we are not half so bad as the parson.”

He was in the habit of spending the greater part of his time in the public-house, from which he was generally trundled home in a wheel-barrow in a state of utter insensibility. God, however, who is aware of what every man is capable of, had reserved Rees Pritchard for great and noble things, and brought about his conversion in a very remarkable manner.

The people of the tavern which Rees Pritchard frequented had a large he-goat, which went in and out and mingled with the guests. One day Rees in the midst of his orgies called the goat to him and offered it some ale; the creature, far from refusing it, drank greedily, and soon becoming intoxicated, fell down upon the floor, where it lay quivering, to the great delight of Rees Pritchard, who made its drunkenness a subject of jest to his boon companions, who, however, said nothing, being struck with horror at such conduct in a person who was placed among them to be a pattern and example. Before night, however, Pritchard became himself intoxicated, and was trundled to the vicarage in the usual manner. During the whole of the next day he was very ill and kept at home, but on the following one he again repaired to the public-house, sat down and called for his pipe and tankard. The goat was now perfectly recovered, and was standing nigh. No sooner was the tankard brought than Rees taking hold of it held it to the goat’s mouth. The creature, however, turned away its head in disgust, and hurried out of the room. This circumstance produced an instantaneous effect upon Rees Pritchard. “My God!” said he to himself, “is this poor dumb creature wiser than I? Yes, surely; it has been drunk, but having once experienced the wretched consequences of drunkenness, it refuses to be drunk again. How different is its conduct to mine! I, after having experienced a hundred times the filthiness and misery of drunkenness, have still persisted in debasing myself below the condition of a beast. Oh, if I persist in this conduct what have I to expect but wretchedness and contempt in this world and eternal perdition in the next? But, thank God, it is not yet too late to amend; I am still alive — I will become a new man — the goat has taught me a lesson.” Smashing his pipe he left his tankard untasted on the table, went home, and became an altered man.

Different as an angel of light is from the fiend of the pit was Rees Pritchard from that moment from what he had been in former days. For upwards of thirty years he preached the Gospel as it had never been preached before in the Welsh tongue since the time of Saint Paul, supposing the beautiful legend to be true which tells us that Saint Paul in his wanderings found his way to Britain and preached to the inhabitants the inestimable efficacy of Christ’s bloodshedding in the fairest Welsh, having like all the other apostles the miraculous gift of tongues. The good vicar did more. In the short intervals of relaxation which he allowed himself from the labour of the ministry during those years he composed a number of poetical pieces, which after his death were gathered together into a volume and published, under the title of “Canwyll y Cymry; or, the Candle of the Welshman.” This work, which has gone through almost countless editions, is written in two common easy measures, and the language is so plain and simple that it is intelligible to the homeliest hind who speaks the Welsh language. All of the pieces are of a strictly devotional character, with the exception of one, namely, a welcome to Charles, Prince of Wales, on his return from Spain, to which country he had gone to see the Spanish ladye whom at one time he sought as bride. Some of the pieces are highly curious, as they bear upon events at present forgotten; for example, the song upon the year 1629, when the corn was blighted throughout the land, and “A Warning to the Cumry to repent when the Plague of Blotches and Boils was prevalent in London.” Some of the pieces are written with astonishing vigour, for example, “The Song of the Husbandman,” and “God’s Better than All,” of which last piece the following is a literal translation:-

“GOD’S BETTER THAN ALL—

“God’s better than heaven or aught therein, Than the earth or aught we there can win, Better than the world or its wealth to me — God’s better than all that is or can be. Better than father, than mother, than nurse, Better than riches, oft proving a curse, Better than Martha or Mary even — Better by far is the God of heaven. If God for thy portion thou hast ta’en There’s Christ to support thee in every pain, The world to respect thee thou wilt gain, To fear thee the fiend and all his train. Of the best of portions thou choice didst make When thou the high God to thyself didst take, A portion which none from thy grasp can rend Whilst the sun and the moon on their course shall wend When the sun grows dark and the moon turns red, When the stars shall drop and millions dread, When the earth shall vanish with its pomps in fire, Thy portion still shall remain entire. Then let not thy heart, though distressed, complain! A hold on thy portion firm maintain. Thou didst choose the best portion, again I say — Resign it not till thy dying day.”

The old vicarage of Llandovery is a very large mansion of dark red brick, fronting the principal street or market-place, and with its back to a green meadow bounded by the river Bran. It is in a very dilapidated condition, and is inhabited at present by various poor families. The principal room, which is said to have been the old vicar’s library, and the place where he composed his undying Candle, is in many respects a remarkable apartment. It is of large dimensions. The roof is curiously inlaid with stucco or mortar, and is traversed from east to west by an immense black beam. The fire-place, which is at the south, is very large and seemingly of high antiquity. The windows, which are two in number and look westward into the street, have a quaint and singular appearance. Of all the houses in Llandovery the old vicarage is by far the most worthy of attention, irrespective of the wonderful monument of God’s providence and grace who once inhabited it.

The reverence in which the memory of Rees Pritchard is still held in Llandovery the following anecdote will show. As I was standing in the principal street staring intently at the antique vicarage, a respectable-looking farmer came up and was about to pass, but observing how I was employed he stopped, and looked now at me and now at the antique house. Presently he said

“A fine old place, is it not, sir? but do you know who lived there?”

Wishing to know what the man would say provided he thought I was ignorant as to the ancient inmate, I turned a face of inquiry upon him; whereupon he advanced towards me two or three steps, and placing his face so close to mine that his nose nearly touched my cheek, he said in a kind of piercing whisper —

“The Vicar.”

Then drawing his face back he looked me full in the eyes as if to observe the effect of his intelligence, gave me two nods as if to say, “He did, indeed,” and departed.

THE Vicar of Llandovery had then been dead nearly two hundred years. Truly the man in whom piety and genius are blended is immortal upon earth.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50