The Thirteen Treasures of Britain

Dyrnwyn, the flaming sword, lost for centuries beneath the earth.

A hamper that feeds a hundred, a knife to serve twenty-four,

A chariot to carry a man on the wind,

A halter to tame any horse he might wish.

The cauldron of the Giant to test the brave,

A whetstone for deadly sharpened swords,

An entertaining chess set,

A crock and a dish, each to fill one’s every wish,

A cup that bestows immortality on those worthy of it,

And the mantle of Arthur.

His healing sword descends;

Our enemies flee our unseen and mighty champion.

–Taliesin, The Thirteen Treasures, The Black Book of Gwynedd

tlp blogI wrote that poem (on behalf of Taliesin) for my Last Pendragon Saga, but it has deep roots in Celtic mythology.

When JK Rowling talks about the deathly hallows in the Harry Potter books, she is giving a nod to the Thirteen Treasures, which she didn’t make up, in that their roots lie in the mythology of Britain dating back to the Celts.  In the Deathly Hallows, the treasures are an invisibility cloak, a stone that brings the spirit of someone back from the death (for a time), and a powerful wand.

The original thirteen treasures are tied to the Arthurian legend.  In some sources, Merlin seeks them, in others, Arthur or his men are sent on quests to retrieve them.

“The “Thirteen Treasures of Britain” were famous in early legend. They belonged to gods and heroes, and were current in our island till the end of the divine age, when Merlin, fading out of the world, took them with him into his airy tomb, never to be seen by mortal eyes again. According to tradition, they consisted of a sword, a basket, a drinking-horn, a chariot, a halter, a knife, a cauldron, a whetstone, a garment, a pan, a platter, a chess board, and a mantle, all possessed of [marvelous qualities] . . .

It is these same legendary treasures that reappear, no doubt, in the story of “Kulhwch and Olwen”. The number tallies, for there are thirteen of them . . . That there should be  discrepancies need cause no surprise, for it is not unlikely that there were several different versions of their legend. Everyone had heard of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. Many, no doubt, disputed as to what they were. Others might ask whence they came. The story of “Kulhwch and Olwen” was composed to tell them. They were won by Arthur and his mighty men.”

From Wikipedia:  “The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain (Welsh: Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain) are a series of items in late medieval Welsh tradition. Lists of the items appear in texts dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of the items are placed in the Hen Ogledd or “Old North”, the Brythonic-speaking parts of what is now southern Scotland and Northern England; some early manuscripts refer to the whole list specifically as treasures “that were in the North”. The number of treasures is always given as thirteen, but some later versions list different items, replacing or combining entries to maintain the number. Later versions also supplement the plain list with explanatory comments about each treasure.”

Wikipedia has a list (see link above), and another can be found here:

and here you can take a quiz about them!:

The History of Chester

The City of Chester is the first stop of our Wales Odyssey!  We began with a tour of the walls, which were begun when the city was called ‘Deva’, and fortified by the Romans.


“The Roman military presence at Chester probably began with a fort or marching camp at the mouth of the Deva Fluvius (River Dee) very likely established during the early campaigns of governor Publius Ostorius Scapula against the Deceangi in north-east Wales sometime around AD47/48. There is some evidence of pre-Flavian occupation, possibly even a timber-built fort, but proof positive of a Scapulan foundation has yet to emerge.

After the first tentative forays of Scapula, the next military activity in the area was conducted during the early administration of governor Sextus Julius Frontinus sometime around AD74 when an auxiliary fort was constructed at Chester. The placement of this fort was a strategic move by Frontinus designed both to block the route of any routed British bands trying to escape to the north, and also to guard against any help arriving from the Brigantes.

By AD79 the site had developed into the twenty-five hectare fortress base of Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis. The external dimensions of the fortress were 1,950 x 1,360 feet (594 x 415 m), which, allowing for the width of the defences gave an interior area of about 56 acres (22.7 ha). This early Flavian timber fortress is evidenced by lead piping bearing the name of Gnaeus Julius Agricola.”

“After the Romans withdrew circa AD400, the prosperous city fell prey to marauding Danes and Saxons and was virtually derelict by 900.

The Normans reached Chester circa 1070 and a revival began, Chester Castle was built, housing Hugh the Wolf, First Earl of Chester, nephew of William the Conqueror. By the Middle Ages, Chester had become an affluent and prosperous port. It was during this time that the famous Rows were built. so that by the 13th century, it had again become a centre of shipping trade, a port serving Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. In the 14th century began the Mystery Plays and pageants for which the city became famous. Henry VIII granted a charter in 1541 and made Chester a bishopric.”

“Five hundred years after the Legions withdrew from Deva, their Saxon successors knew the city as Legecaester, a translation of part of the British (Welsh) Caer Lleon Vawr ar Ddyfrdwy or ‘Camp of the Great Legion on the Dee’- also called Caerleon-ar-Dour. Long before the Norman conquest, the first part of the name was being omitted in documents, and by the time of Henry I (1100-1135) the coinage had also simplified it to a form which is recognisable as the modern Chester. Our Welsh-speaking neighbours however, to this day refer to the city as Caer. …

Robert Stoker in his book The Legacy of Arthur’s Chester (1963), who pointed out that there were actually two cities bearing the name Caerleon, and, after the departure of the Legions, it was here, Caerleon-upon-Dee that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain, Capital of Wales, GHQ of the centuries-long campaigns against the Saxons and the city of the coronation, in the early seventh century, of a not-so-legendary King Arthur– not Caerleon-on-Usk (Roman Isca) in South Wales. The confusion seemingly lay with Arthur’s medieval chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose patron, Robert of Gloucester, was Lord of the Monmouth Marches, where Caerleon-on-Usk is situated. It seems that Geoffrey, doubtess partly in order to please his Lord, attributed all references dealing with ‘Caerleon-ar-Dour’ (Chester) to Caerleon without qualifying which one the old chronicles were referring to.

Consequently, Stoker claims, historians have ever since been crediting, for example, Isca with having an archbishop since AD180 because a local boy in Monmouth had said so nine hundred years later.  Whatever the case, think of the still-magnificent old fortress when you go here to read Geoffrey’s description of the coronation of King Arthur…

Throughout the centuries, as peoples came and went and wars were won and lost, Chester continued to gain increasing military, political and economic significance due to its position as the lowest bridging point of the River Dee, controlling a key route into North Wales and the main western route to northern England and to Scotland.”

Medieval Siege Weapons

Within the world of medieval warfare, there were multiple kinds of siege weapons:  ballistas, battering rams, trebuchets, and catapults.  ‘Catapult’ can be used as a more general term for all throwing siege weapons:  “Catapults are siege engines using an arm to hurl a projectile a great distance. Any machine that hurls an object can be considered a catapult, but the term is generally understood to mean medieval siege weapons.

The name is derived from the Greek ‘to hurl a missle’.  Originally, “catapult” referred to a stone-thrower, while “ballista” referred to a dart-thrower, but the two terms swapped meaning sometime in the fourth century AD.

Catapults were usually assembled at the site of a siege, and an army carried few or no pieces of it with them because wood was easily available on site. Catapults can be classified according to the physical concept used to store and release the energy required to propel the projectile.”

My son has built a trebuchet for his senior project.   He’s the tall one in the picture, with assorted brothers and cousins.

Ballista:  “One of the siege weapons used during the Middle Ages include the Ballista. The Ballista was an invaluable Medieval siege attack weapon. The Ballista design was similar to a giant crossbow and worked by using tension. The Ballista was designed to aim huge wooden, iron clad, darts or arrows which were powered by twisted skeins of rope, hair, or sinew – the ballista design was based on a huge dart-throwing machine. The Ballista loosed heavy bolts, darts and spears along a flat trajectory. The force of the missiles launched from the Ballista was designed to have great penetration and were capable of skewering several of the enemy at one time!”

Battering Ram:  “The concept behind the battering ram is simple – momentum coupled with mass. In other words, take a heavy object and hurl it repeatedly at a stationary object, such as a door or gate, to break through the object. Typically a large tree would be felled and the branches removed to allow those that remained to be used as grips. A group of soldiers would lift the tree trunk and, after a running start to build momentum, ram the trunk into whatever they wanted to break through, generally a castle gate. If this was done enough times, the door would break open.

Sometimes the tree trunk was affixed to a support system that was then positioned in front of the door or gate and swung like a pendulum. This allowed larger rams to be used, operated by fewer men. The support system could also be covered to shield and protect those operating the ram from attack.”

Trebuchet:  “Trebuchets were used to throw stones–or dead animals–with great accuracy. A trebuchet was capable of launching 200lb. projectiles towards virtually anything. We can define a trebuchet as “the atom bomb of its time.” Earlier trebuchets could only fire small stones or even cows. As time passed and as trebuchets were improved (Leonardo Da Vinci dramatically improved them) they were able to launch huge projectiles towards a castle’s walls.

Many persons were needed to operate a trebuchet. Trial-and-error was the method used to destroy a wall. When a certain point of a castle was targeted, the trebuchet was so accurate that it could remain firing almost invariantly at that same spot; making them very effective.

With trebuchets, invading armies could fire cows and other dead animals from a relatively large distance. The only downside of trebuchets was their enormous size. In earlier medieval times, it was very hard to transport such gigantic machinery. As they were improved, new methods to arm them were discovered.”  The picture shows Carew firing a water balloon.  The video below shows the trial and error involved in getting it right.  As it turned out, it wasn’t launching the water balloons far at first because the rope on the sling was too long and the angle of the ‘finger’ at the end (onto which the rope was hooked) was angled too sharply.