It is unlikely that we shall ever find the whole truth surrounding the four marriages of Catrin o Ferain (Katherine of Berain, d. 1591). She is reputed to have agreed to one marriage proposal on the way to a husband’s funeral. Her favourite method of despatching lovers is said to have been by pouring molten lead into their ears! The popular image is that of a scheming, manipulative ‘Lucrezia Borgia of Wales’. Thus has she become firmly established as arguably the most well-known female resident of Wales during the Tudor period. But what of the truth?
Catrin did marry 4 times, and made advantageous matches (and so did her husbands!). Her descendants became the ancestors of many prominent families in North Wales. She drew a succession of poets to her household, and commissioned one poet, Wiliam Cynwal, to record her family’s lineage in a special ‘household book’. More remarkably still, we have a picture of what she looked like, perhaps one of the earliest depictions of a named Welsh woman.
The National Museum of Wales has since 1957 owned a portrait of Catrin, painted on panels during her sojourn at Antwerp in 1568, and attributed to Adriaen van Cronenburgh. Now, through the kindness of the Garthewin family, visitors to the National Library of Wales will be able to see a version of the same painting.
On 20 November, in a special ceremony at the Library, Menna and Bethany McBain presented a portrait of their ancestor to the temporary safe-keeping of the Library. Preliminary studies seem to indicate that this painting may also have been executed at Antwerp during the late 1560s, perhaps as a contemporary version of the Cardiff portrait.
Visitors to the Library will now be able to gaze at the ‘Mother of Wales’, and decide for themselves whether or not the benign and pious-looking figure deserves the reputation built up in folk memory. Thus, another ‘icon’ awaits to welcome visitors to this term’s exhibits at the National Library of Wales.
Maredudd ap Huw & Lona Mason