The Red Book of Hergest, Welsh Medieval Manuscript

This is one of three posts I have scheduled related to Hergest Court. We will also have a look at Sir Thomas Vaughan (October 24) and his trials with four English kings and, in celebration of all things haunted, the mystery of Hergest Court (October 27).

Facsimile of part of column 579 from the Red Book of Hergest

Facsimile of part of column 579 from the Red Book of Hergest

The Red Book of Hergest (Welsh: Llyfr Coch Hergest) is a large vellum manuscript written shortly after 1382, which ranks as one of the most important medieval manuscripts written in the Welsh language. It preserves a collection of Welsh prose and poetry, notably the tales of the Mabinogion, Gogynfeirdd poetry. The manuscript derives its name from the colour of its leather binding and from its association with Hergest Court between the late 15th and early 17th century.

Compilation
The manuscript was written between about 1382 and 1410. One of the several copyists responsible for the manuscript has been identified as Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Buellt. He is known to have worked for Hopcyn ap Tomas ab Einion (c. 1330 – after 1403) of Ynysforgan, Swansea, and it is possible that the manuscript was compiled for Hopcyn.

According to scholar Daniel Huws (Cited in “Oxford Jesus College 111: An Electronic Edition”, Welsh Prose 1350-1425), it is “by far the heaviest of the medieval books in Welsh, the largest in its dimensions […] and the thickest.”

History

Llyfr Coch Hergest 240-241~ Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Buellt - The Red Book of Hergest (1375 - 1425)

Llyfr Coch Hergest 240-241~
Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Buellt – The Red Book of Hergest (1375 – 1425)

The manuscript appears to have been retained by Hopcyn’s family until the end of the 15th century, when Hopcyn’s grandson Hopcyn ap Rhys was held complicit in the rebellion against King Edward IV and consequently saw much of his property forfeited. The Vaughans of Tretower (Tretŵr), then in Breconshire, obtained it, probably in 1465 on receiving Hopcyn’s forfeited possessions. Ownership is suggested by two odes (awdlau) dedicated to Sir Thomas Vaughan (d. 1483) and his sons, which were written into the manuscript by Welsh poet Lewys Glyn Cothi at Tretower. The Red Book soon passed into the possession of the Vaughans of Hergest Court, near Kington in the Welsh Marches. Sir John Price of Brecon reports to have seen the manuscript in 1550, presumably at Hergest. In the late 1560s, William Salesbury found the manuscript in the possession of Sir Henry Sidney at Ludlow, when Siancyn Gwyn of Llanidloes held it on loan from him.

By the early 17th century, the Red Book had passed to the Mansels of Margam, hence back in Glamorgan. It was possibly brought into the marriage between Henry’s granddaughter Catherine Sidney and Sir Lewis Mansel, who is reported to have owned it in 1634. The manuscript is later found in the collection of Thomas Wilkins (d. 1699), a Welsh clergyman and antiquarian, who may have borrowed it from the Mansels without ever returning it. In 1697, Wilkins was visited by Edward Lhuyd, who spent some time copying a manuscript which might well have been the Red Book. In 1701, two years after Wilkin’s death, his son Thomas Wilkins the Younger donated the manuscript to Jesus College, Oxford. Internal evidence, a note by the latter Wilkins, suggests that Edward Lhuyd then held the manuscript on loan, but that the college was able to retrieve it only 13 years later, after Lhuyd’s death. It is now kept at the Bodleian Library on behalf of Jesus College, Oxford, and catalogued as MS 111.

Content

The first part of the manuscript contains prose, including the Mabinogion, for which this is one of the manuscript sources (the other principal source being the White book of Rhydderch), other tales, historical texts (including a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae), and various other texts including a series of Triads. The rest of the manuscript contains poetry, especially from the period of court poetry known as Poetry of the Princes (Welsh:Gogynfeirdd or Beirdd y Tywysogion).

The manuscript also contains a collection of herbal remedies associated with Rhiwallon Feddyg, founder of a medical dynasty that lasted over 500 years – ‘The Physicians of Myddfai’ from the village of Myddfai just outside Llandovery.

Influence
J. R. R. Tolkien borrowed the title for the Red Book of Westmarch, the imagined legendary source of Tolkien’s tales.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Wales, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Red Book of Hergest, Welsh Medieval Manuscript

  1. I found this fascinating, It also makes me feel ashamed, like most Englishmen I have always tended to ignore Wales and Welsh history and culture whilst enjoying the singing of Male Welsh Choirs ( especially their National Anthem which I find the most thrilling anthem of all, closely followed by the French and American; GSTQ is way down my list).

    Many years ago I did read that the Welsh are the true English and those like me who call themselves English are in fact Anglo-Saxons. The last of the true English apparently after a last battle at Glastonbury escaped to Wales where the AS were loathe to venture. You may well be the right person to enlighten me as to the truth of the matter. .

    I’m looking forward to the next two instalments.

    Thanks again. Brian

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