On the banks of the River Usk, stories of water and wonder flow through the medieval history of Newport.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
Medieval Newport is all about water.
Its Castle was built in the 14th century to control the crossing and navigation of the River Usk, and the ruins of its towers still rise over its wide, murky waters. This Castle replaced an earlier Norman motte and bailey castle, built by William Rufus, probably located somewhere around Stow Hill (the site of Newport Cathedral). The Castle was sacked by Owain Glyndwr during the rebellion of 1402. Later, it had connections with the Welsh Tudor family, forebears of the great Tudor monarchs of England.
Depending on the tide, it sometimes seems that the River Usk here is more mud than water. That marvellous mud preserved the remains of the Newport Medieval Ship – the spectacular wreck of a 15th-century sailing vessel discovered on the west bank of the river in 2002. Artefacts found on the ship, including coins, cork and a shoe, suggest that it traded with Portugal; wood samples suggest it may have been built there, too.
Newport’s other impressive medieval survival is St Woolos Cathedral, high on Stow Hill overlooking the city.
A wooden church stood here from the early Middle Ages, with some pre-Conquest stonework still incorporated into the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the present building. Re-built by the Normans, this Chapel now houses a Norman font. The stunning decorative Norman archway through into the nave incorporates Roman pillars, perhaps ‘recycled’ from nearby Caerleon. The nave, with its Romanesque arches, is Norman; the tower is fifteenth century.
Water shaped Newport’s medieval history as a place of trade, wealth, conflict and religion.
Rivers also played a symbolic role in shaping the shifting territories of the March of Wales. Gerald of Wales, for example, explains how the changing course of the River Dee (further north) foretells who will prevail in that year’s battles: English or Welsh. He also shares a prophecy of the wizard Merlin, referring to a ford across the Usk near Newport.
‘Whenever you see a strong man with a freckled face cross over Rhyd Pencarn on his way to lead an invasion of South Wales, you can be quite sure that the Welsh troops will be beaten.’
The Hanged Man’s Journey
In the story of the hanging and strange revival of William Cragh, water and women often appear together.
When Cragh was taken out of the town of Swansea to be hanged, he was led out through the West Gate and across the boggy ground by the Nant Press stream. There, just outside the Gate was the ‘Washing Pool’, probably a place associated with the town’s women where they would come to wash clothes. Did they watch him pass on that autumn morning?
After the hanging, as Cragh began his unexpected recovery, Lady Mary de Briouze prepared broth for him herself in Swansea Castle.
This broth – an ‘almond milk’ which would keep longer than cow’s milk in a time before refrigerators – was spoon fed to Cragh to aid his recovery. Lady Mary sent her maid, Jovanta, to feed the broth to Cragh and care for him. It seems puzzling that Mary prepared this broth for Cragh (just as she had prayed to St Thomas for his intervention), given that she was the wife of the Anglo-Norman Marcher Lord who had ordered his execution. But we can read the story another way. Her nurture of Cragh is consistent with the charity and alms-giving expected of a pious noblewoman in the period. And, politically, the sight of Cragh being fed from the de Briouze silver spoon makes a powerful statement about his incorporation (willing or not) into the Norman community of Swansea.
St Thomas and Medieval Belief
One of the more unusual miracles of St Thomas of Hereford involves water.
Milo de Aula, of Eardisley, Herefordshire, was caught in a fight with the Welsh. Surrounded by his enemies, his only option was to plunge, together with his horse and servant, into the River Wye. The horse was drowned but, through the intervention of St Thomas, both Milo and his servant made it safely to the other side of the river, ‘as if carried by a ship’.
Like St Thomas of Hereford, St Woolos (Gwynllyw) was also a saint of the borderlands, associated with battle and conflict.
Living around the 5th century, the history of Woolos is mixed with myth and legend, but he is remembered as a fearsome warlord and raider, linked in medieval documents to King Arthur. He abducted Gwladys, one of the famous 24 children of King Brychan, to be his wife, and their son, Cadoc, grew up to be a pious man and a saint (the dedicatee of the church at Llancarfan, also on the St Thomas Way). Woolos may have been converted to Christianity by his son. Together with Gwladys, he founded a hermitage on Stow Hill – the site of present-day Newport Cathedral – and dedicated himself to an ascetic life.
Water flows through the story of St Woolos, too. When he prayed for water at his hermitage, a miraculous spring burst forth. And he and Gwladys bathed in the cold waters of the Usk to show their piety – not an appealing thought!
A place of reconciliation
Newport Cathedral overlooks the city that has developed beneath it on the banks of the Usk. The cathedral celebrates Saint Gwynllyw, a sixth-century Welsh king and man of great faith, as its founder. For William Cragh the church of Saint Gwynllyw (or Woolos, as the name has been corrupted in English) must have embodied Welsh history, independence and pride. For William de Briouze the Norman castle guarding the river crossing must have spoken powerfully of Anglo-Norman power and prestige.
Today Newport, the third largest city in Wales, is a dynamic synthesis of the ancient Welsh settlement and the Norman new town. The cathedral itself, built and rebuilt many times, embodies that gradual coming together of peoples and cultures. We enter through a chapel incorporating Roman and Celtic stonework, pass into the Norman nave, and finally reach a chancel built in the 1960s by Welsh and English people working together.
Lord, help me to be someone who heals and unites, not someone who divides. Open my eyes to see the best in people of other cultures and traditions, and to work with them to build a shared world of justice, mercy and peace.
The Usk River
The Usk river flows through three locations along the St Thomas Way: Abergavenny, Usk and Newport. The river rises from the Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons and flows out into the Severn Estuary just after the city of Newport. The unusual combination of river and tidal estuary creates the perfect conditions for a variety of plants, which in turn provide food and shelter for a range of animals.
Otters are one species to make use of the Usk in Newport. They are semi-aquatic, very secretive and nervous around humans, so are most active at night. During the twentieth century otters became a very rare sight in England and Wales due to high levels of harmful chemicals in the water. During the Middle Ages, however, otters were common throughout Britain, where they were hunted for their fur. Bede provides early documentary evidence of otters, writing that the creatures dried and warmed the feet of St Cuthbert after the saint prayed in the sea off Lindisfarne in Northumbria.
Along with Otters, the river is also home to a host of other creatures, including Lamprey, the Twaite Shad and the Reed Warbler.
The river in international travel and trade
The River Usk was hugely important to the region during medieval times. The remnants of the fifteenth-century Newport Ship (discovered in 2002) provides valuable evidence to indicate that the river was used extensively for transport and trade. It is likely that the ship traded between Wales and Portugal. On its voyages out from Newport, the ship may well have carried pilgrims on their way to the famous shrine at Santiago de Compostella.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, and a medieval harbour soundscape.
Distance: Approx. 2 miles
Time: Approx. 1 hour
Access: Easy, mostly paved, with some steps and underpasses beneath busy roads.
- Start your walk at Newport Cathedral Church of St Woolos (Welsh: St Gwynllyw). A religious institution has stood on the site of the cathedral since the fifth century when the Welsh Saint Gwynllyw founded an establishment. The current building dates back to around 1080, although has been rebuilt and extended many times. From the north side of the Cathedral, turn right onto Clifton Road, crossing the road carefully at Clifton Place. At Stow Hill carefully cross the road and turn left, following the raised pavement with the railings, then turn right onto Charles Street, continuing along this road past the bollards into the pedestrianised section of Charles Street.
- Turn left onto Commercial Street, heading up past Corn Street on your right. Cross the road at Stow Hill and head slightly to the right onto the High Street.
- As the High Street bends around to the right, walk past the King’s Head Hotel towards Queensway, taking the underpass footpath directly under the Old Green Interchange. Here you will pass the siteof the East Gate and find the remains of Newport Castle to your left.
- Newport Castle was built in the fourteenth century by Hugh de Audley, earl of Gloucester. From the castle, return to the underpass and turn left towards the Usk River.
- Continue along the pavement past the Riverfront and the disused Cinderhill Wharf.
- When you reach Newport City Footbridge turn right back towards the city centre, using the pedestrian crossing to cross over the busy A4042. Take the steps through the shopping centre, past Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
- Rejoin onto Charles Street, then turn left onto Stow Hill and right onto Clifton Road to complete your walk back at the Cathedral.
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