What happened to Wales’ greatest historical treasures? by Mel Hopkins

When Edward I conquered Wales in 1282 not only did he capture the land of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd he also gained access to Wales’ greatest relics and treasures. The princes of Gwynedd had in their possession two key treasures which were:

1. King Arthur’s coronet, the alleged crown of King Arthur .
2. The cross of Neith, a holy relic which contained a piece of the True Cross of the crucifixion.

The two treasures had been entrusted into the care of the monks at Cymer Abbey in early 1282 for safekeeping as Edward’s campaign against Llywelyn raged.

Both had supreme symbolism for the Welsh and Edward knew the importance of legend and tradition .Both treasures are now missing.
King Arthur’s coronet.

Coron Arthur

The origins of the crown are unclear. Some historians such as R.R. Davies suggest there were many coronets and that the Arthur’s crown seized in 1282 from Llywelyn may have been a forgery. The crown was then covered in gold plate which suggests it may not have appeared as impressive as Edward had hoped. The crown along with The Cross of Neith was presented to the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey in 1284. The coronet was kept in the abbey until 1303 when it was placed in the Tower of London. No more was heard of the coronet. Many believe the crown was then destroyed in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell.

The Cross of Neith

The cross of Neith was a reliquary which contained a piece of the true cross. It is unknown how the relic came into the possession of the Welsh princes. It is known by many names, the cross of Neith, y groes naid, y groes nawdd and Croysseneyht. Peter Owen Jones suggests it might have been brought to Wales by St Neot who visited the holy land in the 8th century. A welsh prince Hywel Dda (Howell the Good) visited Rome in the 10th century when he was a child and he may have been given a piece of wood from the crucifixion cross in 928 CE. Others have speculated that Simon de Montfort received the cross as a reward for participating in the crusades and gave the cross to Llywelyn when he married Simon’s daughter Eleanor in 1278.
There is evidence that the Welsh princes swore oaths on a holy relic, but records do not state specifically what this relic was. At the treaty of Gwerneigron in 1241 between Henry III and Dafydd ap Llywelyn , the Welsh prince swore to keep the terms of the treaty by taking an oath above the sacred relics of the Welsh. The relic had been inherited by the Welsh princes.

In 1282 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd had been defeated by Edward. The Cross of Neith enters the historical record in 1283. In that year the Huw ab Ithel, a member of Llywelyn’s household presented the cross to Edward at Aberconwy in exchange for a cloak and a scholarship to Oxford. The cross became one of Edward’s most prized possessions. A great ceremony was conducted in 1285; Edward and his wife Eleanor and all the great magnates of the time were led in solemn procession by the Archbishop of Canterbury and fourteen bishops from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey. They passed the heads of Llywelyn and his brother Dafydd , both lay on top of spikes by the Tower. The cross was placed at the high altar of Westminster abbey.

Shortly afterwards the cross was removed and placed in the care of nuns at St Helena in Bishopsgate. The historian Marc Morris makes the key point that this was deliberate and showed the reverence Edward had to the relic. St Helena was the mother of the emperor Constantine and was the first to discover the location of the three crosses at Golgotha during her pilgrimage to the holy land in the 4th century.

The cross was then given by Edward III to St George’s chapel in Windsor in 1352, where it was given its own shrine. Nothing remains of the Cross today: however a stone boss in the roof shows Edward IV and Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury , kneeling before the cross of Neith c. 1480. There is still an inscription in the small Quire Aisle which states that those who prayed there ,’ kneeling in the presence of this Holy Crosse,’ would receive forty days of pardon from the church. Pilgrims from all over Britain came to Windsor to pray at the shrine and it was considered the most important relic at St George’s chapel.

Peter Ogwen Jones refers to possibly the last time the cross was used by referring to an incident in 1506, when king Philip of Castile was shipwrecked when a storm destroyed his ship English Channel. He met king Henry VII at Windsor Castle, where he was sworn in as a Knight of the Garter. The ceremony involved swearing an oath on the Welsh Cross, which, at that time lay on a gold cloth cushion. During the turmoil of religious uncertainty during Henry VIII’s reign and the dissolution of the monasteries and attacks on religious imagery and relics many treasures were destroyed or hidden.

In 1552 Edward VI’s commissioners confiscated the cross of Neith where it ended up in the Tower of London,’ awaiting the King’s further instructions.’ No further instructions have come to light. The cross may still be at the tower or lost. Some historians claim it was moved to Europe for safekeeping others believe it was destroyed for its valuable gold casing or was destroyed by the puritans after 1649.

In both cases, Edward showed a great knowledge of the traditions and history of Wales. He deliberately manipulated discoveries and history to show that he was the legitimate heir to Arthur and as a result the king of the Welsh. The so called discoveries of the tombs of Arthur at Glastonbury in 1278 ; Emperor Maximus in Caernarvon in 1283, great grandfather of Arthur according to Geoffrey of Monmouth were part of the policy of linking Wales great past with a future under Edward as king. The cross of Neith and Arthur’s coronet both served important political functions.

References

  • Bartlett, W.G. The Taming of the Dragon, Sutton Publishing (2003)
  • Davies, R.R. The Age of Conquest: Wales, 1063–1415 Oxford University Press (2000)
  • Jones Ogwen Peter The Welsh Cross Mystery (2008) https://archive.org/details/TheWelshCrossMystery
  • Moore, David The Welsh Wars of Independence Tempus Publishing (2005)
  • Morris, Marc A Great and Terrible King Windmill Books (2008)
  • Prestwich, Michael Edward I Guild Publishing (1988)
  • Smith Beverley J Llywelyn ap Gruffudd Tywysog Cymru Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru (1986)

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What happened to Wales’ greatest historical treasures? by Mel Hopkins

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