Saeth fawr a saethai f’eryr,
Bows and arrows
As early as the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales noted that the men of south Wales, and Gwent in particular, showed great skill with their bows. Already in his time English magnates had begun to use Welsh archers in their armies, and this custom would continue in the later Middle Ages. The most important type of bow in Wales (and England) was the longbow, generally made from a single stave of yew wood, although other types of wood such as elm might also be used. The drawn bow would form a half-circle before the arrow was released, demanding considerable effort and strength on the part of the archer, as Guto’r Glyn noted in referring to a bow ‘of yew or elm which would make toil’ (yw neu lwyf a wnâi lafur, poem 11.8).
The longbow was a powerful weapon and its arrows could penetrate various kinds of armour, although improvements to plate armour during the fifteenth century meant that reasonably effective protection was available to those who could afford it. In the long run, the bow would be unable to compete with the increasing effectiveness and power of hand guns. But even during the Wars of the Roses (in the second half of the fifteenth century) it was the use of large numbers of longbows on both sides which caused the most terrible loss of life. A poem by Guto’r Glyn records that one of his own patrons, Dafydd ab Ieuan, was wounded by an arrow (poem 69.18), though we are not told whether this happened in battle or elsewhere.
Guto mentions the archery skills of another patron, Henry Griffith of Newcourt, in a praise poem (poem 33.4) and in the elegy he composed for him:
Saeth fawr a saethai f’eryr,
Saethu ’mlaen seithmil o wŷr.
My eagle used to shoot a great arrow,
shooting further than seven thousand men.
But this is not a description of fighting on the battlefield. Instead, Henry is being praised for his mastery of the ‘feat’ of archery, one of several physical feats or campau practised by the gentry in order to display their strength and skills - another, mentioned in these same two poems, was throwing a heavy stone. The bow was also important as a hunting weapon, as seen in Guto’s poem to request a hunting horn from Sieffrai Cyffin of Oswestry on behalf of Siôn Eutun ap Siâms. Here, the poet declares that the forester needs the horn to go with his ‘brave man’s bow’ (bwa gŵr, poem 99.26).
It is, however, in metaph0rical contexts that bows and arrows appear most often in Guto’s poems. Huw Bulkeley is described as a ‘great bow from Beaumaris’ (bwa mawr o’r Biwmares, poem 60.14), referring perhaps to his military skills or his power in a more general sense, though it is also possible that the imagery relates to generosity, as it certainly does in Guto’s poem to Siancyn Havard of Brecon. Here, Siancyn is described as a bow of good yew wood, in contrast to bad patrons who are like a bow made from immature, unsuitable branches (o frig yw afrywog ir) and which is bound to break as a result (poem 31.34-40). God himself has drawn the bow that is Siancyn with ‘the bowstring of generosity’ (llinyn haelioni), says Guto (poem 31.41-2), before elaborating:
Y saethau aur a saethych
Yw rhoddion y gweision gwych;
Dy nodau dianwadal –
Dy feirdd teg ar dy fwrdd tal.
there is only borrowing, taking goods,
on pain of double payment in the face of two plagues.
He is a man of body and spirit,
people of the Dauphin’s land will pay the price.
A similar idea is found in another poem, where Morgan ap Roger is described as ‘the bow of the bards’ (bwa’r glêr, poem 18.26), and a variety of imagery relating to archery is used elsewhere by Guto. In his praise poem to Wiliam Fychan ap Gwilym of Penrhyn the difficult task of drawing a bow is compared to men’s inability to bend the patron’s will (poem 56.53-6). And in his poem to Rhys ap Dafydd of Uwch Aeron, Guto develops an extended metaphor of himself as an archer shooting at a target:
Seythydd wyf, od ymsaethaf
Saethu nod yn syth a wnaf:
I am an archer, if I go shooting
I can shoot straight at a target:
It becomes clear that the patron is the targed (nod) and that it is the poet’s praise that is being ‘shot’ at him, using not a real bow of yew or elm (yw neu lwyf, poem 11.7) but rather:
Y tafawd, arawd eiriau,
Yw bwa’r gerdd heb air gau,
The tongue with its eloquent words
is the bow of song without a false word,
Similar imagery also occurs in Guto’s poem to Siôn Edward and Gwenhwyfar of Plasnewydd (poem 107.27-32).
Although Guto’r Glyn was not the first Welsh poet to use archery imagery, he does seem to have been particularly fond of it. His experience as an archer, early in his career, would no doubt have enriched his stock of archery metaphors, whilst his audience’s knowledge of that experience would have added to their impact.
(The above is based upon the more detailed discussion in: J. Day, ‘ “Arms of Stone upon my Grave”: Weapons in the Poetry of Guto’r Glyn’, in B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen and D.F. Evans (eds), ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’: Essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales (Aberystwyth, 2013).)
Bibliography: L. Thorpe (trans.), The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales (London, 1978), 111-13.
: M. Strickland and R. Hardy, The Great Warbow: from Hastings to the Mary Rose (Stroud, 2011), 82-96, 149-66, 198-7.
: Strickland and Hardy, The Great Warbow, 266-78.
: R. Hardy, Longbow: A Social and Military History (4th ed., Sparkford, 2006), 125-6.
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