Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) (c.1146–c.1223), cleric and writer, was born at Manorbier (Maenor Pyr) castle, Pembrokeshire (Dyfed), Wales, of mixed Norman and Welsh ancestry, youngest son of William de Barri and his wife Angharad, daughter of Nesta, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth. He showed an aptitude for learning from an early age and aspirations to a career in the church, under the influence of his uncle David fitz Gerald, bishop of St David's. He was educated by Haimon, master of the Benedictine school of St Peter's abbey, Gloucester. He went to Paris on several occasions, where he received an education in rhetoric, law, philosophy, and theology, and returned in 1172 after a stay of thirteen years. His uncle appointed him to collect the tithes of wool and cheese due from the diocese of St David's – a task that he undertook with zeal and courage, as his excommunication of William Carquit, the sheriff of Pembroke, for taking property from the priory of Pembroke, amply showed. His uncle then took the archdeaconry of Brecknock under his own control and gave it to Gerald.
On the death of his uncle (1176), the see of St David's fell vacant and the canons of St David's nominated Gerald as their chosen candidate for the post, perhaps in the hope of making that see independent of Canterbury; but his appointment was opposed by Henry II (qv), probably because he suspected his close associations with several powerful Welshmen. Despite Gerald's making his objections known to the pope, Peter de Leia was elected. Disappointed in failing to achieve the appointment, Gerald left the country and returned to Paris to study and teach. His autobiography, ‘De rebus a se gestis‘, which is our primary source for much biographical information about Gerald, describes the enthusiastic reception which his lectures received. He returned to Wales in 1179 and was entrusted by the archbishop of Canterbury with the running of the diocese of St David's, which he found to have been despoiled and abandoned by its bishop.
In November 1183 he paid his first visit to Ireland with his brother Philip, and remained there for almost a year. It was at this time that he began accumulating materials for probably his most famous book, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’. He returned to Wales in 1184 to assist Henry II in mollifying the Welsh princes, particularly Rhys ap Gruffydd. In 1185 he visited Ireland for the second time in the company of Henry's son, John (qv). He remained on that occasion for nine months, during which he compiled materials for his history of the English conquest of Ireland, ‘Expugnatio Hibernica’. Gerald wasted no opportunity to denounce the Irish in his writings and his sermons.
He returned to Wales after Easter 1186 and prepared his text of the ‘Topography of Ireland’. When complete, he read it over three consecutive days before different audiences of commoners, scholars, and knights in Oxford, entertaining them lavishly each day, at his own expense – a remarkably astute piece of salesmanship, which Gerald fully appreciated. The ‘Topography’ is a valuable document for the history of medieval Ireland, while containing also fables about the fauna of the island and its wonders and miracles. But it was, to judge by the great number of manuscripts that have survived, a best-seller, complete with lurid detail of barbarous and bizarre rites and tall stories, illustrated in full colour. Like his account of the conquest of Ireland, its basic purpose was to justify the conquest on the premise that ‘[the Irish] are a wild and inhospitable people’ and to glorify his own racial origins. He describes his kinsmen (several of whom played a key role in the invasion of Ireland) in the ‘Expugnatio’ in the words: ‘O family! O race! Indeed it is doubly noble; deriving their courage from the Trojans and their skill from the French.’ (Expugnatio, Rolls Series ed., 326). The Irish by contrast are described thus: ‘They live on beasts only and live like beasts’. Nevertheless, both works are of considerable historical value for a period of Irish history between 1166 and 1185 for which we are otherwise reliant on terse Irish annalistic entries which scarcely even mention the arrival of the English.
Gerald's next mission, in 1188, was to preach the crusade to the Welsh, many of whom (he tells us) were publicly moved to tears and to go on crusade, even though they had not understood a word of his sermons, which were delivered in French and Latin. He has given us an account of his time in Wales in the ‘Itinerarium Cambriae’ (completed in 1191). Gerald then crossed to France in the company of the justiciar, Ranulf de Glanville, but never went on crusade, having obtained an exemption from his crusading vow. He returned to Wales on the death of Henry II and was offered, successively, the bishoprics of Bangor and Llandaff, but declined both, as he had previously declined the offer by John of the dioceses of Ferns and Leighlin in Ireland. On the death of Peter de Leia (1198), the chapter again nominated him, with three others, as successor. After a journey to France by a number of the canons to seek permission from John for Gerald's election, against the express wish of Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury, he was duly elected on 29 June. He journeyed to Rome to receive consecration at the hands of the pope, which would thus have conferred upon him the dignity of a metropolitan, but the archbishop had sent letters which reached the pope before Gerald did, and which nullified his claim to have been properly elected and to have St David's made independent of Canterbury. On his return he canvassed the support of the Welsh princes, but in 1202 the king took the lands and revenues of St David's into his hands and initiated legal proceedings against him, which came to nothing. Gerald's attempts to restore himself were fruitless, and he returned to Rome to plead the entire matter. The pope annulled both episcopal elections to St David's, and that left the matter as it had been at the start. After several manoeuvres, Gerald eventually consented to the election of Geoffrey Henlaw as bishop and was reconciled with both archbishop and king. Gerald penned several works relating to this lengthy episode which relate his own somewhat biased account of it; but he was clearly embittered by his failure to receive the ecclesiastical promotion which he thought his due.
Gerald was an outstanding writer of the twelfth century, fully immersed in the scholarship of the schools and taking advantage of the new learning. His work is suffused with theological concerns and reflects the reforming interests of the age. His command of literary and grammatical devices gives his work energy and power, although at times it can be tedious. Gerald had acute powers of observation that can be seen in his work on Ireland and Wales. As an ethnographer (although he would have viewed his work more as history), and lacking complete classical models to follow, he is a harbinger of the anthropology of more recent times. His exposition of the good and evil mores of the Welsh and Irish had a theological structure, put to the service of justifying conquest. The power of his writing in this area stimulated works of opposition, particularly in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when his works reached a wide audience in printed form. They again became part of English propaganda against the Irish, which led to responses from Philip O’Sullivan Beare (qv) in the 1620s and later John Lynch (qv), whose Cambrensis eversus, was published in 1662. Opposition to Gerald's views has continued to excite varying opinions.
Gerald spent the last years of his life in retirement and writing. His works are numerous, and include a treatise, ‘On the instruction of a ruler’, and many letters, sermons, lives of saints, and a work of pastoral theology, but most importantly his uncompleted autobiography, ‘De rebus a se gestis’. His works on Ireland also went through several revisions. He died c.1223 and was buried in the cathedral of St David's.