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Monmouth, Monmouthshire. The town stands where the Monnow river flows into the Wye, and both it and the county to which it gives its name occupy a most important strategic position. It holds the lower hills between the moorland heart of Wales and the wide fields of the Midlands; it masters the outfall of the rivers whose upper reaches lead to the central passes between Severn and Dovey, and whoever holds it can control the whole Deheubarth. or South of Wales. It was this line between the Wye and Severn on the one side and the mid-point of the western coast of Wales that decided the political pattern and the succession of wars that at last gave the country its character. The Romans were aware of how natural features must dictate the lines of strategic advance; they had their station near Monmouth and they called it Blestium, an important link in the chain that went one way through Caerwent and Caerleon, another way to Wrexham, Caersws. and Chester. Humphrey Lhuyd. antiquarian of Denbigh. in the 16th century set Monmouth, to which he is careful to add the “British” name of Mynwy, firmly on the West of the Wye and in the territory of the Deheubarth, leaving the principality of Powys to run down the other bank of the river and include the Forest of Dean, now reckoned as English and part of Gloucestershire, though still retaining some vestiges of its separate identity. For Humphrey Lhuyd traced the division of Wales into its three provinces Powys, Gwynedd, and the South to sub-Roman times long before the sons of Rhodri the Great in the 9th century resumed that division of territory.

From positions that they established in the angle between Severn and Wye, which the Welsh call Gwent, the Normans under FitzHamon and his twelve knights conquered Glamorgan. and Bernard of Neufmarché, the illegitimate son of William the Conqueror, advanced to seize Brycheiniog (Breconshire). Norman power in Monmouth town is now shown only by the Norman chapel close to the famous gateway and the bridge over the Monnow that must be crossed to enter the town. It is a prized and unique possession, and the remarkable architectural harmony achieved by the builders is typical of the work of the 13th century to which it belongs. At the end of the 13th century, after the fall of the last native Prince of Wales, Edward I of England took Gwent, alone among the territories administered by the Lords Marcher, into the Kingdom of England. It was a recognition of the extreme military importance of the area. But, more than anywhere else in the borderlands known as the Marches. Monmouthshire has remained mostly Welsh, not only in place-names but in the use of the language. The legislation of Westminster increasingly during the 20th century had to refer to Wales and Monmouthshire together, in educational and Parliamentary matters and for recruitment of the Welsh Guards. It can be truthfully said that Wales has recovered at least one of its lost provinces.

The most famous of its natives is Geoffrey of Monmouth, sometimes known as Geoffrey ab Arthur, Archdeacon of Llandaff in 1140 and consecrated in 1152 as Bishop of St Asaph, a place he never visited before his death three years later. Although Henry V of England was also, in due course, horn in the castle at Monmouth. Geoffrey can claim to be the founder of the great Arthurian legend that spread through Europe in his time and inspired Malory and Tennyson and many others with what came to be known as the “Matter of Britain”. Geoffrey alleged that he got the details of his historical romance from a “very ancient” book in Welsh that came from Brittany. The history that Geoffrey wrote of Britain before the days of Henry II was based partly on a medley of legends into which the tale of Britain's unruly participation in the affairs of the Roman Empire had fallen. Carausius, who had made it independent in the 3rd century; the military commanders who supported the other provinces of the West in setting up the short-lived Gallic Empire in the next; the Maximus who followed a similar path in the 5th century and won a place for himself in Welsh legend as Macsen Wledig: and the Riothamus (wrongly assumed by later historians to be a Breton) who attempted to restore the Gallic Prefecture in the 5th century were all pressed into service to create a British hero who was intended to act as a precedent for the Angevin Empire that, under Henry II, ruled from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

Geoffrey's fellow Welshman and fellow cleric, Gerald de Barn, writing some forty years after the appearance of Geoffrey's book, summed up its authenticity by telling the talc of a dying man oppressed with various devils who danced on his chest. This is not to deny that Geoffrey's tales contained a kernel of truth; modern archaeology has even found a basis for the legend he accepts that Britain was first colonized by the Brutus who came from fallen Troy, though not for the way in which Geoffrey retails it. Geoffrey's sources were both philosophical and allegorical. But he created an epic in prose of the constant battle men have to fight for the sake of civilization, and it has made both him and his visionary king immortal.

The Henry of Monmouth who was born about 250 years after Geoffrey's death did in some way realize the ideals of which he had written. As Henry V he owes a great deal to Shakespeare's patriotic handling of his deeds and reputation. The Welsh Fluellen whom the dramatist attached to King Harry represented the considerable and important part Welshmen from Gwent played in the victories of Crécy and Agincourt. It was not simply that the David Gam (David the Wry) who had attempted to assassinate Owain Glyndwr at Machynlleth distinguished himself on the field; the archers to whom Henry V owed his success were the bowmen from Monmouthshire. The special skill of the Welsh with the long-bow was in drawing it back to the ear, an art the Normans never knew. It was said to have been made possible by the unusual suppleness of the yews that grew in Gwent, from which the bows were made; but in any event Welsh archery was recognized as being superior to that of all others.

Gerald the Welshman makes a strong point of this matter. The people of Venta (Gwent) were more famous for war and for their archery than any other in Wales. He cites an instance in which Welsh arrows went through the oak portal of a tower, tour fingers thick, and in memory of so remarkable a feat the arrows were left in the gate. He quotes William de Braose, of evil memory, as saying that one of his men-at-arms was struck through the armour of the thigh, the thigh itself, and the flap of his saddle by a Welsh arrow that killed the horse under him. But Gerald disposes of the idea that it was the yews of Gwent which made such feats possible. The wild elm is the tree that he praises.

It was to mounted Welsh archers that Strong-bow, the Clare who was the Norman Lord of Pembroke about 1170, owed his nickname and his successful invasion of Ireland. Richard II of England maintained himself with a special force of Welsh archers; and there seems to have been a readiness in Wales in the 15th century, to accept Henry V as a Welshman since he was born at Monmouth.

Nothing now remains of Monmouth Castle, though some relics of the town walls can be traced. The l4th century church with its tall tower is largely a restoration. But there is a museum with mementoes of Admiral Lord Nelson, and the pleasant hotel at which he stayed keeps, with its cobbled approach, a Regency-style charm. The Shire Hall is 18th century, and has before it a statue to the Hon. Charles S. Rolls, founder of Rolls-Royce and the first person to fly the Channel both ways without landing.

Nearby cities: Hereford, Newport

Nearby towns: Abergavenny, Chepstow, Cinderford, Coleford, Ross-on-Wye

Nearby villages: Bream, Broad Oak, Bryngwyn, Cwmcarvan, Dingestow, Garway, Goodrich, Grosmont, Hewelsfield, Kerne Bridge, Llandenny, Llandogo, Llandogo, Llangarren, Llanishen, Llanrothal, Llansoy, Llanthony, Lydbrook, Marstow, Mitchel Troy, Newland, Parkend, Penrhos, Penyclawdd, Peterstow, Raglan, Rockfield, Ross-on-wye, Saint Maughans, Skenfrith, Skenfrith, St. Briavels, St. Weonards, Symond's Yat, Tintern, Trellech, Walford, Whitchurch, Whitecroft, Wilton, Wonastow

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