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The concavities of it

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An astrologer casts Gruffydd ap Llewelyn’s nativity on a showery day in late August. It is the eighth year of King Richard’s reign. Summer is on its way out and there is a squally breeze blowing, but the earth is trundling placidly in its sphere with the sun and fixed stars around it, no eruption occurs in the fabric of wholesome and benign (if damp, this being Wales, after all) Nature. Goats behave altogether normally.

On the day after he is baptised, the feast of St John Baptist, his mother dies of the loss of blood sustained at his birth. His father follows her to the grave before Gruffydd is three: he remembers him mainly as a leathery smell and a pair of knees. He gives his parents faces from the bright paintings on the wall in the parish church, paintings that his grandmother ordered to be made and which Gruffydd thinks, even when he has gone up and down in the world and prayed in many churches, are the best and bravest in all Christendom. His mother is St Barbara, with her tower, and his father is St Michael trampling the devil. His grandmother is named Catrin, she married an Englishman, whom she loved somewhat well till his death, though not quite enough not to cuckold him with a poet, the finest poet of all Wales, and an utter rake of one. Gruffydd's fourth part of English blood is therefore something of a legal technicality. His grandmother is feme sole, which is a fairly silly Norman-French phrase for what Welshwomen never truly relinquished.

When Gruffydd is seven he beats another, older, boy of the household senseless. They ask him what it was about, and he says, truthfully, that he can’t remember. He doesn’t know which of them started it, he doesn’t even know how it started, just that it did start, and then all he knew was that he had to reach the whin bush on the other side of his juvenile opponent, and he would do it by any means necessary.

His grandmother decides he needs a firm hand, and fosters him to a neighbour: a Crown loyalist with a crooked leg. Relations between them have not always been cordial: Gruffydd’s official function is that of page, but if you got a seamy whiff of hostage off him, your nose wouldn't be playing you false. He’s suddenly the lowest of the low: higher-born than the servants, certainly, but they are low-born people doing their office, which has its own dignity. He’s a little gentleman emptying piss-pots and scouring armour. He’s too slow; he inadvertently insults someone. He gets the shit kicked out of him; he goes berserk. He decides he’s going to master this system: chivalry. He learns all the rules; it works for him, it keeps him calm. They might be loyal to the English crown here, but they’re still Welsh. The bards come and sing their poems of praise. One day they will compose them about him, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn: no-one will ever forget him. He trains; he’s quick on his feet and he has stamina. He’s good with dogs and bad with horses.

He’s a tall child; the biggest of the household boys until he’s about thirteen. And then they all shoot up, and he just grows steadily, and he ends up rather a short young man. He falls in love with a man he has to arm, undress, and share a pallet with. He listens patiently to his beloved’s plaints about the wretched female he’s dotty about this week. System, order. He learns the rules of fin’amor. He doesn’t think he’ll have much personal use for them, but you never know. He has a lot of respect for women. They’re mostly good managers of land and people, if you only let them do it. He never quite manages to fall in love with a woman. He falls in love with the knight he serves. And then he does it again. Sometimes it’s mutual, and that is bliss. Sometimes it’s not, and that’s just bloody murder.

He thinks he can speak the language of the Saeson all right, he’s heard a lot of it; he understands most. On his first campaign he finds out how wrong he is. He can’t speak English at all. He sets about learning English. He learns reams of English poetry, Master Gower and Master Chaucer, because he thinks that’s how you do it.

Years and years later, after the Glyndwr business, after years of free company service undertaken because he can bear to swear allegiance to neither Henry of England or the buffoon Prince of Wales, he meets a man named Gower. He’s tall, fair, humbly born, and very, very English. This wasn’t supposed to happen: he knows the system, the discipline—he knows how he loves, he loves a man who is his social better, who grants him favour. How is he going to work this into his system, his mental book of discipline, this loving a man who makes a noise when he eats and doesn’t bother to turn before he spits or scratches his balls? Gruffydd sardonically quotes him a few lines of the poem in praise of peace that Master Gower wrote for the king’s father and Gower (his Gower, as he as already begun to think of him) says with a smile sweet but condescending, come again, mate? and he wishes Dame Kind would plough herself all up to a depth of four yards or more so he could fall into the hole in the ground that did not open at his perfectly ordinary, if difficult, birth.