The Black Book of Basingwerk

Reference: NLW MS 7006D

The late fifteenth-century parchment manuscript known as the Black Book of Basingwerk (Llyfr Du Basing), now NLW MS 7006D, is mainly the work of the Welsh poet and scribe Gutun Owain (fl. 1460-1500). The tradition of its association with Basingwerk abbey, Flintshire, goes back to at least c. 1630, when the antiquary Robert Vaughan (?1592-1666) of Hengwrt transcribed extracts 'o Lyfr manachlog Dinas Basing' (now in NLW MS 13074D), and the manuscript was probably at that Cistercian monastery before and at the time of its dissolution in 1536. In 1481, Basingwerk's Welsh character had been strengthened by the appointment as abbot of Thomas Pennant, a member of a leading North Wales family, and for the remaining half-century before its dissolution the monastery became a centre of patronage for such poets as Tudur Aled (fl. 1480-1526) as well as Gutun Owain. It was probably Pennant who added marginal notes in yellow ink (e.g. pp. 260-1, 264, 266).

 

Gruffudd ap Huw ab Owain, better known as Gutun Owain, was a poet and nobleman born in Dudleston within the lordship of Oswestry. He studied the bardic craft under Dafydd ab Edmwnd (fl. 1450-97) and composed poems to many patrons in north-east Wales, including the abbots of Valle Crucis and Basingwerk. The surviving manuscripts in his hand bear witness to his desire to preserve the learning of the bards especially in cerdd dafod, history, genealogy and heraldry. It is now generally agreed that NLW MS 7006D was copied not at Basingwerk but at Valle Crucis in Denbighshire: Gutun Owain was far more closely associated with that house, where he spent nearly forty years of his life, and one of the sources he used in compiling this volume was a Valle Crucis manuscript, now Peniarth MS 20. The first three gatherings (pp. 1-88) were probably written by an older contemporary of Gutun Owain, the text breaking off abruptly at the end of p. 88. Gutun Owain's contribution (pp. 89-308) is complete but for a single missing leaf between pp. 104 and 107.

The Black Book of Basingwerk is unusual among Welsh manuscripts of the Middle Ages in retaining its medieval wooden boards covered with blind-tooled calf, and for the use of gold in some of its decorated letters (pp. 1, 41). The use of bluish-green ink (p. 198) within the text is also uncommon.

The manuscript contains a sequence of related texts, the core being a version of Brut y Brenhinedd (pp. 41-198), a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, which traces the descent of the Britons back to Brutus, the eponymous founder of Britain, who settled on the island with his followers after the fall of Troy. Geoffrey's chronicle, which provided the first full biographical account of king Arthur, was extremely popular and influential in Wales. Here Brut y Brenhinedd is prefaced (pp. 1-40) by Ystoria Dared, a Welsh version of the Latin Dares Phrygius, which recounts the events leading up to the fall of Troy. Gutun Owain continues Geoffrey's history with another chronicle, Brenhinedd y Saeson, which provides a record of events in Wales and England up to 1197. The continuation from 1197 to 1332 is based on two versions of Brut y Tywysogion. Gutun Owain continues the text to 1461, a date probably close to the time when he was writing (pp. 199-308).

The history of the manuscript immediately after the dissolution of the abbey in 1536 is not known, but by about 1630, according to a note by Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt (in NLW MS 5262A, ff. 27v, 66v), it was in the hands of Huw Lewys Dafydd of Llanasa, Flintshire; Vaughan's two notes in the volume (pp. 300, 308) date from this time. John Jones (c. 1585-1657/8), Gellilyfdy, made a copy of it (now Peniarth MS 264) while he was at the Fleet Prison, London, in 1635-6, probably adding the page numbers at the same time. Among the later owners were Thomas Jones of Cricin, Rhuddlan, who wrote his pedigree on p. iv in 1663 and Foulke Owen of Nantglyn, Denbighshire, who left his name on pp. iii and iv, in 1686, and probably bequeathed the manuscript to his nephew Foulke Jones, whose name with the date 1692 appears on p. iii. By about 1700 it had been acquired by the antiquary John Griffith (1678-1763) of Cae Cyriog near Wrexham, who added a number of notes to the volume. The manuscript remained in the possession of his family until his descendant, Montague C. Ll. Griffith of Cae Cyriog deposited it at the National Library of Wales, which purchased the volume following his death in 1933.

Among other persons who have written notes or their signatures in the volume are Humphrey Humphreys (1648-1712), bishop of Bangor and later of Hereford (p. iv), the antiquary William Maurice (c. 1620-1680), Cefn-y-braich (pp. 41, 45, 51, etc.), the poet John Davies ('Siôn Dafydd Las', died 1694) (p. 96), the lexicographer Thomas Lloyd (c. 1673-1734), Plas Power (p. 308), and Peter Roberts, who translated parts of the manuscript for his The Chronicle of the Kings of Britain (London, 1811) (p. 308). The englynion on p. 314 were added in the sixteenth century.

Digital photography has brought to light two marginal drawings by the scribe, barely visible before (p. 48). These and details of the decorated initials (pp. 1, 41, 199) are presented separately, following the image of the page on which they appear.

Further reading

  • J. J. Parry (ed.), Brut y Brehinedd. Cotton Cleopatra Version (Cambridge, Mass., 1937)
  • J. E. Caerwyn Williams, 'Gutun Owain', in A. O. H. Jarman, Gwilym Rees Hughes & Dafydd R. Johnston (eds), A Guide to Welsh literature, volume 2: 1282-c.1550 (2nd ed., 1997), pp. 240-55.
  • E. Bachellery, L'oeuvre poétique de Gutun Owain, 2 vols (Paris, 1950-1)

Related links