databas cerddi guto'r glyn

The fireplace

A reconstruction of the fireplace at Cochwillan as it was in Guto's time.
The fireplace at Cochwillan
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One notable change in fifteenth-century houses was to move the open fire from the middle of the floor to a grand hearth and fireplace on one of the walls. Since the Early Middle Ages, the hall was heated by a fire in the middle of the room and the smoke would escape through a hole in the roof, called a louver (lwfer).[1] This type of chimney was not particularly effective, of course, and the hall would be filled with smoke and soot. Therefore, when the gentry decided to rebuild their houses, building a proper fireplace and chimney on an outer wall for the smoke to escape seemed to be a practical solution. Such fireplaces seem to have become status symbols, and featured elements such as carved beams or engraved stones to enclose the hearth. The fireplace at Cochwillan, a surviving example with chamfered jambs and moulded lintel, is described by Guto’r Glyn as:

A gwych allor Gwchwillan 
Ac aelwyd teg i gael tân; 
Y mae deuwres i ’mdiro: 
Ei goed o’r glyn gyda’r glo. 
and Cochwillan’s brilliant altar
and a fair hearth for a fire;
there are two types of heat for warming:
his trees from the glen along with the coal.

(poem 55.15-8)

The kitchen at Raglan castle had this grand fireplace.
One of the fireplaces at Raglan
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However, it seems that the old type of chimney, the louver, was still quite popular, especially in homes of peasants and some gentry in north and east Wales.[2] Indeed, traces of the louver can still be seen in some old houses because the timber has been blackened by the fire and smoke. Two houses Guto visited seem to have had a louver: the new house at Llandrinio, home of Syr Siôn Mechain, and Prysaeddfed, home of Huw Lewys. The louver at Llandrunio must have been a new one as Guto notes that the new roof was made of slates from Corndon Hill with a ‘louver which does not let in a flood from the roof’ (poem 85.25). A reference to the louver at Prysaeddfed occurs in a poem composed in response to Llywelyn ap Gutun’s satire, which alleged that Guto had drowned at Malltraeth. In his reply, Guto states that the flow of the sea came as far as the roof of the house in Prysaeddfed:

I lys Huw Lewys a’i lawr 
Y dôi lanw i delyniawr, 
A thybio, er clwyfo clêr, 
Y dôi lif hyd y lwfer. 
To Huw Lewys’s court and floor
came a tide according to a harpist,
thinking that a flow was coming as far as the chimney
in order to wound minstrels.

(poem 65.21-4)

While questioning why some Welsh gentry preferred the louver rather than an enclosed fire, Enid Roberts suggests that the new type of chimney did not provide as much warmth as the old one.[3] Old or new, a hearth with a roaring fire was a clear sign of hospitality according to the poets, and noting that the smoke was visible from afar was one means of emphasizing this. Guto’r Glyn, for example, claims that the smoke of Vaynor in Powys could be seen from as far afield as Anglesey and Caerleon (poem 38.42-3).


[1]: E. Wiliam, 'Yr Aelwyd: The Architectural Development of the Hearth in Wales', Folk Life, 16 (1978), 85-100.
[2]: P. Smith, Houses of the Welsh Countryside (Cardiff, 1975 & 1988), 39.
[3]: E. Roberts, Tai Uchelwyr y Beirdd (Cyhoeddiadau Barddas, 1986).
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