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The view from Mt. Snowdon, at 3,650 feet the highest mountain in Wales
The Fall of Wales and the Meaning of Courage
Omigosh! I have just finished reading a book called The Reckoning, which is by this brilliant author who is called Sharon Kay Penman, who writes historical fiction about Great Britain, and The Reckoning is the third and last book in her series on the Welsh princes…
Chirk Castle (Welsh: Castell y Waun) at Chirk, Wrexham, Wales, built in 1295 as part of a chain of castles across north Wales, used by King Richard I of England to subjugate the Welsh people and protect the English border
…who were more like kings, really, brave and charismatic Welshmen of the thirteenth century who tried to keep Wales from being absorbed into England, and the readers of these books are ALL OVER that, because the Welsh, with a few treasonous exceptions, are the good guys, who loved their wild, craggy homeland, who had their own language (Cymraeg or y Gymraeg), customs, and legal system — although, however, if the the shoe had been on the other foot and the Welsh had conquered England, we would all be speaking Cymraeg and having to use words such as Abergwyngregyn and possibly Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch,
Powys Castle, built c. 1200 as a fortress for the princes of Powys, a region of medieval Wales; image via Wikipedia
which is a Welsh town whose name means “the church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave” (astonishingly, there are about five hundred thousand Welsh speakers in Wales), but I digress, I was about to say that there are some four hundred castles in Wales, and it’s no wonder, because in the wars conducted over the sovereignty of Wales, both the English and the Welsh thought nothing of burning a castle to the ground and building a new one on the site, as if you could just slap one together, using stuff that’s lying around the house, and expect it to protect you, your loved ones, your squires, your villeins, your cotters, et cetera, when the enemy gets out the battering ram or sends flaming arrows into the bailey….
Aber Falls, Wales
Back to Abergwyngregyn (Aber for short, thank all the saints and angels), which was one of the most secure castles (being remote and surrounded by forests and mountains) held by Llewellyn the Great, who adored his English wife, Joanna, a bastard daughter of King John of England, and they are all of course in the first book, which is Here Be Dragons, while the second book, called Falls the Shadow, is mostly about the French–English nobleman Simon de Montfort and how he led English nobles and even commoners, wow! in a rebellion against the inept and clumsy ruler King Henry III, who was the brother of Simon de Montfort’s wife, Nell, who was totally gone over her husband (Nell was, not Henry III, who loathed de Montford as he would loathe seeping pustulant warts all over his body, only a thousand times more), and Simon was just as gone over Nell, which, that being the case, partly accounts for the astronomical number of children they had, about whom we learn much more in The Reckoning, for example, that Simon and Nell’s daughter, Ellen, marries the Welsh prince Llewellyn the Last (he was, of course, not called that during his lifetime), and they were very happy together once Ellen got out of captivity, having been abducted by pirates and delivered up to King Edward, her first cousin, for a princely sum, and I forgot to say that Nell’s aunt was Llewellyn the Great’s wife, Joanna, and they, Nell and Joanna, were very close friends and knew all of each other’s secrets, plus they were smart and brave and competent and sometimes accompanied their husbands on dangerous missions, et cetera.
Aberdovey, Wales; image by The Library of Congress via Flickr
Pablo is reading the Princes of Wales books too, but he doesn’t read as fast as I do, or, actually, to be perfectly honest, he looks up the pronunciations of the Welsh words, and that, of course, slows him down considerably, so he is just finishing Falls the Shadow.
In all these books, people are dropping like flies in battles and skirmishes, as if life weren’t difficult ENOUGH in the Middle Ages — there being no penicillin or central heating or proper bathrooms or reliable transportation — without having to go to WAR, which entailed all manner of unpleasantness, such as sleeping on the ground, risking being run through with a sword or starving to death in a siege, but, no matter:
once you were a king, or the equivalent, you always had to be (a) getting ready to fight a war, (b) fighting a war, or (c) cleaning up after a war, and, if there were absolutely no pretext for going to war near home, for example, nobody had borrowed your lawnmower or your chain saw and forgot to return it, you (d) went off on a pope-sanctioned Crusade to kill the “infidels” in the Holy Land.
Yes, I am making a point, which is:
16th-century illustration of Edward I presiding over Parliament. The scene shows Alexander III of Scotland and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Wales on either side of Edward, a meeting that never actually occurred; image via Wikipedia
One of the people in one of the books (I of course will not say who, because I don’t want to spoil your fun) is executed for high treason in the grisly manner described below:
Until reformed under the Treason Act 1814, the full punishment for the crime of treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in that the condemned prisoner would be:
- Dragged on a hurdle (a wooden frame) to the place of execution. This is one possible meaning of drawn.
- Hanged by the neck for a short time or until almost dead (hanged).
- Disembowelled and emasculated and the genitalia and entrails burned before the condemned’s eyes (this is another meaning of drawn—see the reference to the Oxford English Dictionary below)
- The body divided into four parts, then beheaded (quartered).
Typically, the resulting five parts (i.e. the four quarters of the body and the head) were gibbeted (put on public display) in different parts of the city, town, or, in famous cases, in the country, to deter would-be traitors who had not seen the execution. After 1814, the convict would be hanged until dead and the mutilation would be performed post-mortem. Gibbeting was later abolished in England in 1843, while drawing and quartering was abolished in 1870. —Wikipedia
Beaumaris, another of King Richard's fortresses; image by Today is a good day via Flickr
My blood ran cold. I was undone by (a) the unspeakable suffering of the condemned, and (b) the blackness of the human heart that could ordain such a punishment — in this case, that of King Edward I (Longshanks), who was a revered general in battle… who genuinely loved his beautiful Spanish wife… who could feel pity and sympathy for friends and for strangers… and who could sentence a man to be hanged, drawn, and quartered without batting an eye. In fact, King Edward’s guilt is all the greater because it was he who first conceived of this unspeakable method of torture.
Reincarnation in Hindu art; image via Wikipedia
Pablo and I talked about it, and we had the same thought: to test Sister Alma Rose’s vaunted courage yet again. Sister Alma Rose has said that she is never afraid and she never worries, and it is true that she is the most self-possessed and serene individual I have ever known, but Pablo and I don’t believe that she is NEVER, EVER, EVER afraid or worried, or that she could remain unafraid and unworried in every circumstance, so we are always trying to think of situations in which anyone who wasn’t brain-dead would be terrified.
“Sister Alma Rose,” we’ll say, “would you be afraid if you were about to be lowered into a vat of boiling oil?”
“Of course not,” she’ll reply, not even looking up from the cut flowers she is arranging, or whatever. “I would be too busy praying.”
A mitred Adhémar de Monteil carrying the Holy Lance in one of the battles of the First Crusade; image via Wikipedia
Pablo and I know, you see, that Sister Alma Rose has absolutely no fear of dying. She believes in reincarnation and she is certain that at the moment of death she will be born, literally, as a brand-new baby, and she says that she is rather excited about getting to be a child again, though she is not in any hurry.
But Pablo and I keep trying to find a chink in her armor. “Sister Alma Rose,” we’ll say, “would you be afraid if some thug broke into your house and you were taking care of your backyard-neighbor’s beautiful little Welsh baby, Ggwynwynnedd, and that thug grabbed the baby and held a knife at her throat?”
“No, silly children,” she’ll reply. “I would be supremely pissed off, and I would tear the thug limb from limb and feed his body parts to wild boars.”
Pablo and I look at each other; we have never heard Sister Alma Rose use language that is even the slightest bit indelicate. Then we look at Sister Alma Rose and we see that she is smirking!
We were pretty sure what she’d say when we told her about the hanging, drawing, and quartering of he-who-must-not-be-named, and asked her whether she would be afraid if she were facing that punishment, imminently.
“I know something about that,” she said, looking rather grim. “There are people who will tell y’all that King Edward was a good king,* according to the standards of his time. Cow pucky! In conquering Wales, he tried to destroy a civilization. He wanted to break their spirit, and he almost succeeded.”
Homage of Edward I (kneeling) to Philip IV (seated). As Duke of Aquitaine, Edward was a vassal of the French king. Image via Wikipedia
Sister Alma Rose had put on her schoolteacher face, which meant we were going to get a lecture about fear and worry, or about King Edward I, we were not sure. She motioned for to us to sit down, which we did, in the grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green wraparound porch. She sat too, in her own special chair, which was bigger and stouter than ours because Sister Alma Rose is bigger and stouter than we are. We felt very cozy and safe on the porch, because rain had started to batter the earth with a vengeance, but there wasn’t much wind so we stayed nice and dry.
“God wants his children to live every moment of their lives,” she began, “and when y’all are afraid, y’all are not really living. The great philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once told an audience the secret of his serenity: ‘I don’t mind anything,’ he said.”
“You’re making that up!” I interrupted.
“I beg y’all’s pardon?” said Sister Alma Rose coolly.
Oops. “…That there is actually someone in the world whose name is ‘Jiddu Krishnamurti’,” I finished lamely.
“There isn’t,” Sister Alma Rose said dryly, “but there used to be. And people named Fanny shouldn’t throw stones.”
Henry III of England, father of Edward I (Longshanks); the word "Edward" at the top of the painting was the artist's mistake; image via Wikipedia
Sister Alma Rose went on to say that the smartest way to endure pain is to not struggle against it. She made quite a point of this, lest Pablo’s and my minds be wandering.
“People who have practiced meditation for years and years know how to bring their pain gently into their meditation, affirming that they are not their pain, and they can step back from it, you see.”
The joy on the other side
“When something threatens y’all, Miss Fanny, Mr. Pablo, the first thing y’all must do is pray, asking to be shown the way around the threat or seeking the courage to go through it, if you must. For y’all’s fellow who was about to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, there was no way around. If he was a praying man, he surely asked God to help him through it. If he was a soldier, he probably wasn’t afraid of dying.
“Y’all have to look at the other side, beyond the pain. If it attacks, don’t struggle; and don’t take y’all’s eyes off the prize.”
“Here’s something for y’all to think on: For every person who is alive now and every person who has ever lived, there is a mother who endured the pain of childbirth — well, except, possibly, for those modern mothers who had epidural anesthesia — but setting them aside for the moment, it’s not unusual for mamas to be in labor for an entire day, even two days, and it is said that there is no pain more severe… and in the past, and even today in certain parts of the world, when a woman goes into labor there’s a very good chance that she, or the baby, or both will not survive. In the millions of years of human history, it’s been only recently that if the baby was, say, in the breech position, the mama could safely have a Caesarean section. Our ancestors just had to hope that the midwife could reach into the birth canal and turn the baby, and wouldn’t that be a walk in the park for the poor mama.
“And do y’all know what? Women keep having babies! They’re ecstatic when they find out they’re pregnant! They have parties! And all because they’re looking past the pain to the joy on the other side.”
You would think, wouldn’t you, that once would be enough, although Mama has had three babies, and she says that the first one is the hardest and after that they get easier to pop out.
Uh-oh! Sister Alma Rose is looking very grave, as serious as I’ve ever seen her.
“For all of us, eventually, what we’ll see on the other side of pain is death, but only as a doorway to a new and better life. If y’all understand that, then y’all will never be afraid of dying. ‘Y’all shall know the truth, and the truth shall set y’all free.’ Amen.”
The sermon was over. I felt like applauding, but instead I said, “Mama says everybody should plant a garden and work in it themselves and that way they’ll just soak up life all the time.”
And then Sister Alma Rose said that reminded her that she had almost two pounds of fresh blueberries in the icebox [that’s what Sister Alma Rose calls the refrigerator sometimes] and she thought she’d make some blueberry cobbler but it would be better with vanilla ice cream, so, since it had quit raining, why didn’t Pablo and I walk into town and go to Sandy’s Better Ice Cream and buy an entire gallon, so we did, and Sandy took our money and handed us the gallon of ice cream without a bag, so I said, “Sandy, could we please have a bag to carry it in?” and Sandy said no, we couldn’t, because he was out of bags, so Pablo had to carry the exceedingly cold and heavy carton of ice cream all the way back to Sister Alma Rose’s house, but it was worth it, he said later, because the blueberry cobbler was just out of the oven and nice and warm, which is how it tastes best, especially with ice cream, and there was something about eating ice cream on fresh blueberry cobbler, still warm and fragrant from the oven, with Pablo and Sister Alma Rose and Mr. Truman LaFollette, that chased away any worries I might have been harboring about being disemboweled, with strangers watching and everything, and then I noticed that my slice of blueberry cobbler had about twice as many blueberries as everyone else’s, and Sister Alma Rose winked at me, and I tried to wink back, but I haven’t quite mastered winking, so I’m going to work on it as soon as I get home.
Me, Fanny McElroy
* Edward was considered an able, even an ideal king by his contemporaries. Though not loved by his subjects, he was feared and respected. Particularly as a soldier did he meet contemporary expectations of kingship, sharing in the chivalric ideals of the age. In religious observance he also fulfilled the expectations of his age, attending chapel regularly and giving alms generously.
* * *