Friday, November 05, 2010

Forgotten Radnorians - Sir John Clanvowe

Look up the soldier, diplomat and Lollard Sir John Clanvowe of Hergest (1341-1391) on Wikipedia and it says that he came from a Herefordshire family - of course his part of the Welsh March did not become part of that county until 1535. In reality the Clanvowes hailed from the lands which later became Radnorshire.

The Clanvowes were an interesting family, harbingers of the kind of gentry family who, a couple of centuries later, would abandoned their loyalty Wales. Although descended from Rhys ap Tewdwr, the Clanvowes, from the time of Hywel ap Meurig of Gladestry who died in 1281, served foreign masters and married foreign brides. Hywel ap Meurig, for example, held Cefnllys Castle for the Mortimers, later he was constable of the castle at Builth. The surname Clanvowe itself - one of the earliest examples of a Welsh family abandoning the patronym system - came from Hywel ap Meurig's wife.

Sir John Clanvowe - if his authorship of the Cuckoo and the Nightingale is correct then he was the first Welshman to write poetry in English - was the great great grandson of Hywel ap Meurig. Recently Clanvowe has become a topic of interest to historians of homosexuality since in 1913, during restoration work at Istanbul's Arap Mosque, workers reportedly uncovered the floor of an earlier Dominican church. Among the gravestones was one in grey-white marble with pink and blue veins. Two helmets faced each other as if kissing, this was the tomb of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. Neville died within four days of Clanvowe's death having starved himself, I guess that would mean refusing to drink. Below the helmets on the gravestone the two knights' shields rest on each other, their coats-of-arms are identical, half-Neville, half-Clanvowe, an ‘impalement’, usually used to show the arms of a married couple, with Neville’s saltire on the husband’s half. Not unreasonably this has been taken as evidence that the pair were lovers. There have even been recent claims that Clanvowe created the Robin Hood legend perhaps as some sort of gay propaganda.

It's an interesting place, this borderland with it's Mortimers, Clanvowes, Oldcastles, Cliffords, Crofts, Whitneys etc. and its three cultures - English, Welsh and Norman-French living side-by-side. It needs someone with the appropriate linguistic tools to tell its story.

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