CHAPTER 2 -- All Along the Watchtower
“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view.”
Thus it was that all of Gwynedd was brought under Bleddyn’s hand. But to the south, the Cymry remained vulnerable.
South of Powys, the county of Gwent was ruled by Caradog ap Gruffydd. And he was a man without redeeming qualities: envious and craven, and an absolute idiot both on the battlefield and in managing his lands. Nevertheless, he seemed possessed by delusions of grandeur; he required members of his court to address him in terms usually reserved for kings or emperors. And it was rumored that he plotted endlessly to expand his holdings, though his cowardice had so far prevented him from acting on any of his schemes. Bleddyn had no doubt that he would resist when the Normans came, because Caradog would never tolerate even the thought of someone taking what was his -- but he was such an incompetent that he would effectively be worse than having no commander at all.
Once again, something had to be done.
But Bleddyn had no claim on Gwent, at least none that was commonly recognized. The reach of the Mathrafals had never extended so far south. Nevertheless, perhaps a solution could be found in the law.
On that Saint David’s Day in Llangollen, after Bleddyn had beseeched God’s blessings upon the Cymry, he met with Cain in the rectory of the bishopric, where a fire blazed on the hearth to fight off the chill in the March air. Now that Mass was over, Cain was wrapped in a blanket -- he was sick that day, afflicted yet again with the mysterious illness that had plagued him for years, coming and going unpredictably, with no more warning than the cold breeze in early springtime.
“Do I not have a claim on Gwent?” Bleddyn asked, hoping there was some legal doctrine he did not know. “I am Duke of Gwynedd because Gruffydd was my half-brother. And Gruffydd ruled in Gwent also. Do I not have a claim that flows from him?”
Cain looked dubious. “You have always valued honesty,” he said, “so I will remind you of the hard truth. You rule in Gwynedd only because Harold Godwinson -- may he rot in hell -- placed you there. He could have picked anyone, given that he had the upper hand after Gruffydd’s death; but your bloodline was convenient, in terms of keeping the peace. And he saw you as the smallest risk. He disinherited Gruffydd’s sons because he thought you were more pliable and less ambitious.” Cain smiled at Bleddyn then. “On that point, both you and I know he was mistaken.”
Bleddyn sighed. There was no arguing with the accuracy of Cain’s assessment. And the thread of events was too recently woven into the memory of the Cymry to be spun now into something other than what it actually was -- Gruffydd had lain in his grave for only a little more than five years. “So is there nothing on my side in the law?”
“Not that I can think of,” Cain said. “Besides, Gruffydd ruled in Gwent by right of conquest. Do you really want to remind the Normans of that precedent?”
Bleddyn doubted that they needed any reminding. He pursed his lips in frustration. “So I should just sit on my hands when they come to take Gwent?”
”No,” Cain said, frowning momentarily, as if disapproving of Bleddyn’s insistence. “I have no doubt that when the Normans come, Caradog will welcome your help, just as I have no doubt that he will claim credit for your victories.” He looked away then, staring into the fire as if he could see the future there. “But I do not think that will happen quickly. The Saxons are restive. They will likely keep the Normans busy for some time.”
Bleddyn didn’t disagree. Even now, Morcar of Northumbria sat chained in a dungeon for having rebelled against the Normans the previous spring. And there were rumors of unrest from York to Northampton. The Saxons seemed no happier now with the Normans than they had been with the Danes, generations ago. Perhaps they might even eventually prevail against their new enemies, just as they had against the Danes. Only time would tell -- though to Bleddyn it seemed that the Normans were more ardent about their conquests than the Danes had ever been.
They talked for a long time then, plotting the way forward, examining all possibilities. Fundamentally, one thing was clear: if the Cymry were not somehow united, they would be vulnerable piecemeal. But unity had always eluded the Cymry, except during the seven years when Gruffydd had ruled. And after Gruffydd’s death, Harold Godwinson had made certain that the land was splintered once more, by returning the constituent holdings to the families that had traditionally ruled them. In the south, Cymru was once again split into three parts: Gwent, Glamorgan and Dyfed. And divided it seemed likely to remain.
To the west of Gwent, Cadwgan ap Meurig ruled in Glamorgan. Cadwgan was a contradiction: kind, temperate and charitable, a competent leader on the battlefield, but also foul-tempered and slothful. Cadwgan had never been known to maintain an alliance with anyone -- negotiations tended to break down in a storm of shouting and thrown wine cups. And he hated Caradog ap Gruffydd with a passion, given that most of Caradog’s schemes were focused on conquering Glamorgan. When the Normans came to Gwent, Cadwgan would likely stay home, and would probably consider them to be doing him a favor by removing a rival he was too lazy to get rid of himself.
Further west still, Maredudd ap Owain ruled in Dyfed as Duke of Deheubarth. Maredudd was Bleddyn’s second cousin, though they had never met in person. From what Bleddyn had heard, Maredudd possessed the perfect temperament for a monk -- shy, chaste, patient and kind -- which probably explained why he was still childless at age 58. It was said that Maredudd made a habit of washing the feet of beggars each year during lent. And Bleddyn thought that when the Normans came, Maredudd was apt to try turning the other cheek. Which only meant that he wouldn’t see the blow coming until it struck him in the face.
“They will never stand together,” Bleddyn said finally, with a sigh. “When the Normans come, the three of them will fall one by one. The Normans may even be able to turn them upon each other, and then simply pick up the pieces.” For a moment his temper got the better of him, and he glared at Cain. “And yet you still say there is nothing I can do now!”
“We have always been our own worst enemy,” Cain replied, glaring back at him just as ferociously. “We have always been more interested in fighting amongst ourselves than in standing together. Thus were the Saxons able to defeat us, time and again.” He turned his eyes back to the fire then, as if the flames were a window on the past. “Even when Gruffydd ruled, when the Cymry were supposedly united, we were our own greatest foe.” He glowered at the memory of it. “As you well know, the Cymry killed Gruffyd, not the Saxons. Godwinson defeated him in battle, yes -- but it was Gruffydd’s own men who actually cut his throat. They decided he’d become more trouble than he was worth, and they did not suffer him to live.” For a moment, then, Cain’s tone waxed philosophical. “It is just in our nature to be unruly. The Cymry are like wild horses, and any man who presumes to bridle them risks being trampled. That may well be our undoing, but it is apparently God’s will, for we are as He has made us.”
Cain stared for a moment more into the flames. Then he locked eyes with Bleddyn again, grimly. “Tread carefully, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn. God may yet grant you what you seek, but until that day you must bide your time. Because if you overreach, you’ll get your throat cut, too.”
It was after dark by then, and growing late. As the hours had lengthened, Cain’s acolyte had kept the fire stoked, and made sure their cups of warmed mead did not run dry, and had helped Cain stand and walk when he needed to relieve himself. Nevertheless, Cain’s face had grown more and more pale. But when Bleddyn suggested he should rest, Cain shook his head. “Only God knows the number of my days,” he said, “but I feel that few remain.” He took a sip from his mead, holding his cup in both hands, and Bleddyn saw that he was afflicted with tremors. “Since your victory at Rhuddlan, I have been sick more often than not,” Cain said. “And while I have prayed for healing, that prayer has not been answered.” He set his cup back down on the table beside him, very carefully, so as not to spill it. “Perhaps my letter to Edwyn was a sin, and this renewed illness is my penance.” For just an instant, a shadow of anxiety passed over his face. Then he smiled wryly. “I prefer to think that your victory is part of God’s plan, and that my work here is nearly done. But that could just be pride on my part.” He sighed, and stared back at the fire for a long, silent moment. Then he shrugged. “In any case, anything more that should be said between us should be said tonight.”
Bleddyn reached over and put his hand on Cain’s shoulder. He felt then just how frail the man had become -- even wrapped in the blanket, Cain seemed more bone than flesh. And it sank in to Bleddyn that this might indeed be the last time they spoke.
“What you have done, you have done for the Cymry,” he told Cain. “And that cannot be wrong in God’s eyes.”
Cain smiled slightly, as if he hoped that were true but was afraid it was not. Then he stared fiercely back at Bleddyn. “When the Normans come, they will come with more men than can be found in all of Cymru. You cannot hope to match them as things now stand. And it takes almost a score of years for a boy to grow into a man fit for battle. But I do not think the Normans will wait a score of years. So you cannot rely on the sons of Cymru to stop them.” He paused, and then the dire tone lifted from his voice. “But there is another way.”
He reached inside his robes, under the blanket he was wrapped in, and pulled out a silver Saxon penny. He held it up for Bleddyn to see. “This is the answer. Coin can be grown far faster than men, if it is tended well. And coin can be used to hire men from other shores. And with those other men you can match the Normans. Perhaps even overmatch them . . . .” His voice trailed off for a moment, as if he were imagining things in some future time. Then he snapped back to the present, and his eyes blazed with enthusiasm for what he was saying. “This can be your advantage. The Cymry are not a mercantile people, but you must do your best to make them so. You must encourage commerce at every turn, until there is a market within reach of every village, where the people can trade what they produce. And then you must tax every transaction, because otherwise they will just waste their profit on drink, or on trinkets for their women, or horde it under their beds. And with those taxes you can build up your strength, until the Normans are no longer a threat.”
Bleddyn stared at the coin in Cain’s hand. The idea did not sit well with him. There was a reason the coin was Saxon -- the Cymry did not mint their own coins. As Cain had said, they were not a mercantile people. They lived primarily by barter and payment in kind; cattle were a common medium of exchange. And now Cain would have him change that. But Bleddyn doubted such a change was even possible. The Cyrmy had always been warriors, not sellers of goods. He frowned. “So you would have me be ‘Lord of Merchants’?”
Cain nodded. “Better that than ‘Lord of Slaves’.”
There was no denying it. But the idea still did not sit well.
Bleddyn rose from his chair then. It was time to go; Cain’s face was looking grey in the firelight, probably from fatigue, but Bleddyn knew that Cain would continue the conversation for as long as they sat there together. He knelt down in front of Cain to take his leave; for he was, after all, a pious man. “Bless me, Father,” he said, taking a long look at Cain’s face, in case it was the last time they met. “I can see I’m going to need it.”
Cain smiled at that. Then he grew solemn. “God go with you, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn,” he said, tracing the sign of the cross on Bleddyn’s forehead. “Keep watch on our enemies, always. And use every moment God grants you to build up your strength.”