The texts

There are more than thirty poems in Welsh, dating mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which feature the English city of Chester as a significant location. Some of the poems merely mention it in passing as the home town of a well-praised patron; others say a little more about the status of Chester as a major border city where the Welsh of the northern province of Gwynedd came to trade, pray, stand trial or simply enjoy the attractions of a large city.

In the poems which I have edited and translated here, the themes of religion and violence predominate. At least ten of the Chester poems are addressed directly to the cross at Chester – that is, the gilt crucifix in the church of St John the Baptist which was believed to contain remnants of the ‘true cross’, washed up by the tide on the Dee estuary and brought to Chester. 'The Poem to the Cross at Chester', by Maredudd ap Rhys, is typical of the ‘cross’ poems in attributing healing powers to the relic: most of the Welsh poems to the cross mention its potency as a magnet for the sick and disabled, travelling to Chester to seek a cure. Tudur Penllyn's ‘To Rheinallt ap Gruffudd ap Bleddyn of the Tower’ and Lewys Glyn Cothi's ‘Satire on the Men of Chester’ describe in stark detail the consequences of political factionalism during the Wars of the Roses and the violent schisms that opened up not simply between Welsh and English, but between families and neighbours in both nations (Evans, 1998). As a garrison town, Chester was a key location in the civil war, providing a fortified base for Yorkist support. When William Herbert raged through Wales to capture Harlech and a number of other castles in Lancastrian hands, described in Guto’r Glyn's ‘To William Herbert’, much of his army would have mustered at Chester.

'The Elegy for a Poet Killed near Chester', perhaps the work of Tudur Aled, is an elegy for a young Welsh poet apparently killed near Chester and buried at the church of St Mary on the Hill. Whether the poem is a literal account or has a metaphorical sub-text, as I have suggested (see the Introduction to the Poem), it reiterates the two most common aspects of Chester from the Welsh point of view: its centrality to acts of violence and its desirability as a place of religious worship. The remaining poems, ‘A man going to Chester on an errand’ and Raff ap Robert's ‘Satire on Chester beer’, are short humorous stanzas, of a kind increasingly common in later medieval Welsh poetry. They express the north Welsh contempt for authority in their local county town, which happened to be in England rather than Wales.

The authors

Of the seven poems edited here, five are by known poets. One of the two short poems is anonymous, clearly the product of popular culture, and the ‘Elegy for a Poet killed near Chester’ is attributed to a particular poet but is almost certainly not by him. In medieval Wales, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, trained poets (as opposed to minstrels and other popular entertainers) enjoyed a high status, supported by wealthy patrons among the Welsh and even English gentries (Johnston, 2005; Jarman and Hughes, 1997). Many of these poets are known by name and are attached to often substantial bodies of surviving work, but little evidence remains about their lives. Most of them seem to have come from the same social class as their audiences, the landed gentry of Wales and the March, and their patrons included local gentry families, both Welsh and English, as well as senior clerics and administrative officials.

The manuscripts

A very large number of manuscripts containing late-medieval Welsh poetry survive but few of them can be dated before the fifteenth century (Huws, 2000). By the late fifteenth century we find manuscripts that are contemporary with the poets themselves, sometimes written in their own hands, but the work of earlier poets survives only in manuscript copies much later than their period of composition and performance. In the absence of a legal printing press in Wales before the eighteenth century, poems and other forms of Welsh literature continued to be circulated in manuscript form until the early nineteenth century, kept alive by a network of dedicated antiquarians. Most manuscripts are anthologies, containing selections of the work of different poets from different periods; this means that each individual poem may be recorded in more than forty or fifty manuscripts, a laborious task for the editor. The major collections are now in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and the British Library in London (Evans, 1898-1910).

A note on the edition and translation

In editing the poems, I have based the text on one significant source manuscript (usually the earliest) while using readings from others to correct obvious errors of transcription (Fulton, 1996). I have listed all the known manuscript copies where the list is fairly short, and a selection of the others. A full list of all the manuscript sources of all the poems can be found on the ‘Maldwyn’ electronic database on the National Library of Wales website ( Some of the poems are already in print and my editions differ from these in a few minor details. The English translations are entirely my own, and only one of the poems (Guto’r Glyn, ‘To William Herbert’) has previously been translated into English. The translations stay as close as possible to the original Welsh, though some idiomatic expressions have been replaced with equivalent English idioms.

Critical reception

It is very hard to gauge the critical reception of these poems to Chester, or indeed of most medieval Welsh poetry, as there is little evidence outside the poems themselves. Clearly there was a strong network of communication between poets and patrons: the cross-referencing between Tudur Penllyn's ‘To Rheinallt ap Gruffudd ap Bleddyn of the Tower’ and Lewys Glyn Cothi's ‘Satire on the Men of Chester’ is mirrored in many other poems which imply that poets and patrons were known to each other as acquaintances or relatives. The genealogies of particular poets that survive in manuscripts clearly indicate such links. I would guess that the events described in the ‘Elegy for a Poet killed near Chester’ refer to an event well-known to local audiences, as the ellipses would only make sense to a listener familiar with the background. Medieval Welsh poetry, like other literatures, was composed to be performed to a listening audience, dramatically declaimed to a musical accompaniment (Fulton, 2006; Harper, 2007). A number of poets address hyperbolic satires to each other, criticizing their poetic skills, or lack of them, but the fact that so many poets could make a living from praise-poetry suggests that gentry audiences generally gave them a positive reception.

During the early modern period in Wales, the work of the court poets was highly prized by Welsh gentry families and antiquarians, as is evidenced by manuscript copying, but the poems were scarcely known outside Wales. When literary histories of Wales began to be written in the late eighteenth century, the Middle Ages were seen as the golden age of poetry, but the most prized works were those which conformed to the dominant Romantic aesthetic of the time, particularly love poetry and nature poetry. The themes of religion, politics and the dutiful praise of worthy gentry folk, all represented in these Chester poems, were less appealing even though they are typical of the vast bulk of medieval Welsh court poetry. Even today, such poems are rarely included in translated anthologies, and it is largely due to a series of major editorial projects sponsored by the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (University of Wales, Aberystwyth) and funded by the AHRC that a great deal more of the poetic corpus of medieval Wales has now been edited or is in the process of being edited. For most readers outside Wales, and/or with no knowledge of Welsh, the court poetry of medieval Wales remains an untapped source of information about the social and historical context of late-medieval Britain.

Place and identity in the Welsh poems to Chester

Chester was the largest and most important of a number of English fortified towns known to the Welsh. Its major difference was that it was in England rather than in Wales itself where the plantation towns of the Edwardian conquest of 1284, marked by castles at Flint, Conway, Caernarfon, Beaumaris and elsewhere, were a constant reminder of Welsh subjugation by the English (Davies, 1978; Lieberman, 2008). As the county town of Flintshire in north-east Wales, a role assigned to it in the wake of Edward I’s conquest of north Wales in 1284, Chester played an inescapable administrative role for the Welsh of Gwynedd, obliging them to visit Chester on regular occasions.

In these poems to Chester, we are given an impression of the size of the city, both physically and in terms of its significance, from the Welsh point of view. We see it through the eyes of travellers coming from the west, from Anglesey and the north Welsh coast, rather than from the east or south, as English travellers would approach it. As in other national literatures of the Middle Ages, the poetry of medieval Wales expresses a deep ambivalence to towns and urban life. Anti-English satire, never far away in medieval Welsh poetry, is added to a broader Welsh suspicion of urban life, itself a largely English import (Fulton, 1997; Fulton, 2008); and yet in describing the cross and its healing powers, the Welsh poets are unstinting in their praise of Chester as a beautiful English city.