Under Conwy Castle

St Mary's Church Conwy viewed from the castle ramparts. Photo by the author. 2013.

Dusk had fallen on a cold November Sunday. We had driven from the scarred valleys of the south, through the beautiful heartland of central Wales, and were entering the familiar and familial landscape of the north. The four by four was large and comfortable and we five appreciated the snug warmth exuding from the heater.

My niece Debbie was driving and her husband, Martin, was chatting away to us from the front passenger seat.

Have you seen the grave yard in Conwy, he asked?

I knew the historically stunning and beautiful walled town of Conwy to wander around but had never visited the graveyard.

You must he adjured.

He explained that in the centre of Conwy in the old churchyard of St Mary’s lay the graves of seven children. It was a moving story, he concluded, somewhat enigmatically.

I inquired why. 

Well, he observed thoughtfully, William Wordsworth wrote a poem about them.

Really, pray tell.

A few moments of searching on his smart phone and he called up the poem. He made to pass the phone to me – read it out suggested my cousin Colin and, without any hint of self-consciousness, Martin turned on the overhead map reading light and started to read.

In steady cadence his gentle Welsh voice caressed Wordsworth’s moving lines. I couldn’t have been more entranced if I had been treated to a personal recitation of Under Milkwood by Richard Burton.   

A few days later I was back in the medieval fortress town of Conwy. It remains for me amongst the prime evocative locales in Britain, best appreciated in the off-tourist season. The impregnable castle built by King Edward the First dominates the town. Built between 1283 and 1289 in his campaign against the Welsh, Edward sited his fortress well. Overlooking the strategic crossing point of the Conwy River, it proved to be the most successful of his 'iron ring' of castles. The connection to Edward is tangible. Under intense pressure by the Welsh Prince, Madog ap Llywelyn, Edward and his forces were besieged and spent the winter of 1294–95 at Conwy Castle until relieved in the New Year. Sitting in the small chapel in the Chapel Tower, listening to the wind howling outside, one needs little imagination to picture Edward celebrating Christmas mass in his cold and dank fastness.

Edward’s military architecture extends from the castle in the shape of a massive walled circuit, guarded by 22 towers, extending over some three quarters of a mile around the town. History has bestowed Conwy with the sobriquet as being the ‘classic walled town’. Standing in the small town square one can readily capture the sense of security the sunset clanking shut of the massive wooden doors would imbue.

But on that blustery cold morning, high upon the castle ramparts, the wet wind whipped up from the Conwy stinging my face, I gazed down upon St Mary’s parish church and resolved to visit the Seven.

The church yard is a small green space off the center of town. Walking through an old gate into the rain-soaked grassed yard the hustle of the small town drifted away to be replaced by that transcendent peace inimical to churchyards.

The historic church building of St Mary’s served originally as the church of the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy c.1186.  The Abbey was the religious heart of the princes of Gwynedd during that last century of Welsh independence. When King Edward appropriated the land for his fortress the abbey was moved to Maenan in the Conwy Valley. Thereby from c.1283 the abbey church became the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.

The humble churchyard has been the final resting place of various notables over the centuries, including members of the powerful Holland and Wynn families, whose landholdings extended across north Wales.

The churchyard’s most distinguished, but sadly temporary, ‘resident’ was Llywelyn Fawr, the first Prince of Wales. Buried in 1240 his remains were later removed and his sarcophagus is now in Llanrwst church.

But I had no time that morning for such luminaries and history. My purpose was of a more literary nature and there, set slightly apart and marked by distinctive wrought-iron work; lay the object of my search - the purported resting place of the ‘Seven’.

I had been strangely moved by the image of the little girl, fresh and innocent and yet so wise beyond her years in her steadfast refusal to be subsumed by the oppression of death. Standing under the grey shadow of the church Martin’s gentle intonation ‘Oh Master, we are seven’ echoed around my mind.

Only recently have I come to learn that there is some contrariety as to the inspiration and setting of the poem. Some scholars suggest that Wordsworth claimed that the idea for We are Seven came to him while travelling through England in October 1793. That narrative would have it that immersed in solitude Wordsworth came to Goodrich Castle, a Norman ruin in Herefordshire and met a little girl who would serve as the model for the poem.

Irrespective of the details of the matter, the simple affirmation of life expressed in the poem resonates deeply with me. Moreover, just as Wordsworth’s lines ineluctably link the poem to Conwy, so will the memories of my north Welsh family forever by Conwy dwell.  

  

We Are Seven

                -  A simple child,

That lightly draws its breath,

And feels its life in every limb,

What should it know of death?

 

I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
--Her beauty made me glad.

"Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?"
"How many? Seven in all," she said
And wondering looked at me.

"And where are they? I pray you tell."
She answered, "Seven are we;
And two of us at Conwy dwell,
And two are gone to sea.

"Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother."

"You say that two at Conwy dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven!--I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be."

Then did the little Maid reply,
"Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree."

"You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."

"Their graves are green, they may be seen,"
The little Maid replied,
"Twelve steps or more from my mother's door,
And they are side by side.

"My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.

"And often after sunset, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.

"The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.

"So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.

"And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side."

"How many are you, then," said I,
"If they two are in heaven?"
Quick was the little Maid's reply,
"O Master! we are seven."

"But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!"
'Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, "Nay, we are seven!"

William Wordsworth 1798