Tag Archives: druids


Ynys Mon (Anglesey) in the Dark and Middle Ages

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Of all the places in north Wales/Gwynedd, the name for Ynys Mon was deliberately changed by the English/Norman invaders, but it belies the fact that Ynys Mon remains resolutely Welsh, with 7 out of 10 residents speaking Welsh.  Because of its location, the populace suffered greatly over the millenia from foreign invaders, culminating with the wars of 1277 and 1282, when it was conquered as a stepping stone to Eryri, the stronghold of the Welsh princes.  After this last war, Edward deliberately razed much that was Welsh to the ground, including Llanfaes Abbey, the gravesite of Princesses Joanna and Elinor and built Beaumaris over the top of it.  In the process, hundreds of Welsh were ‘resettled’ elsewhere and English people brought in.

“Ethnic cleansing is not a new concept. When Edward I reached Llanfaes, he forced all the Welsh people to move to a new village called Newborough. However, the worst effects were felt in the towns of Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. No Welsh people were permitted in the towns and they were mostly inhabited by the English with a few people from Ireland, Gascony and Savoy. 1,500 hectares around those towns was also cleared of Welsh people in order that the colonists had fields for crops and livestock. The villages of Aberystwyth and Lleweni were similarly cleared of Welsh people.”  http://www.princesofgwynedd.com/drivingtour.asp?pid=3

The name ‘Anglesey’ is in fact a Viking word from the 10th century, indicating that the Vikings were successful enough in their sacking of the island for a place-name to stick, and be adopted later by the English/Normans.


Anglesey has some of the best farmland in Wales, is one of the flatter areas, and is also the driest region of Wales.  Thus, settlement has existed on Anglesey as long as people have lived in Wales.  Prehistoric megaliths scatter the island:  http://www.megalithia.com/overview/anglesey.html

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Romans conquered Anglesey in 61 AD but only after defeating Boudica elsewhere:  “The Romans vehemently opposed the Celtic druids, whom they did not see as pious priests, but as ferocious freedom fighters – terrorists. The druids continuously tried to rally the local population to take up the arms against the Romans. The Roman invasion of Britain had set these men on the run, with the centre of the druid cult becoming, or possibly always being Anglesey, which thus, in the first century AD, was the centre of the Celtic religion in Britain.

This situation is confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus and Emperor Nero, who specifically identified Anglesey as an island that needed to be conquered. Many troops were relocated from other British locations towards Wales in an effort to do so. However, this power vacuum elsewhere resulted in certain insurrections, such as that of Queen Boudica.

Realising the Roman troops could not maintain order and attack Anglesey at the same time, the Empire forsook a final attack on Anglesey – the conquest of Anglesey was insignificant against the loss of London and the rest of Britain. Hence, it is claimed that the Roman general Paulinus tore up Nero’s orders, returned to London via the newly constructed Watling Street, to meet the army that had been scrambled by Queen Boudica, which had left London, in search of a Roman army they could fight. In the end, the battle occurred in Atherstone, Warwickshire, where the Romans attained an easy victory. Enthusiasm lost against well-oiled organisation.

The fact that “druid terrorists” lived in Anglesey meant that in 61 AD, Suetonius Paulinus managed to get his army across the Menai Strait and massacred the druids and burnt their sacred groves. The Romans remained aware, however, that the druids might continue to pose a problem and hence they constructed the fortress of Segontium, present Caernarfon, on the edge of the Menai Strait, to make sure that what little remained of an intact Celtic culture remained on Anglesey – and did not try to seed dissent in “Roman Britain”.

Tacitus wrote how the battle occurred on the coastline of the Menai Strait: “On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralysed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed.””


After the Romans, came the Irish, the Vikings, the Scots, and the Danes (briefly), but it was strong enough defensibly for the Kings of Gwynedd to seat their court on the west coast at Aberffraw from c.860 AD until c.1170 AD.  No trace remains of that court as the llys was dismantled for the building and maintenance of Edward I’s castle at Beaumaris.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberffraw


Boudicca’s Revolt

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The Romans conquered Britain over the course of one hundred and fifty years.  Julius Caesar was the first to attempt it.  He established a beachhead in the east, but never got further into the country despite multiple expeditions.

“His first expedition, however, was ill-conceived and too hastily organised. With just two legions, he failed to do much more than force his way ashore at Deal and win a token victory that impressed the senate in Rome more than it did the tribesmen of Britain. In 54 BC, he tried again, this time with five legions, and succeeded in re-establishing Commius on the Atrebatic throne. Yet he returned to Gaul disgruntled and empty-handed, complaining in a letter to Cicero that there was no silver or booty to be found in Britain after all.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/romans/questions_01.shtml


100 years later, in 43 AD, the Emperor Claudius determined to try again, and this time the Romans would not be dissuaded.  By 60 AD, after many years of upheaval, factional disputes and multiple emperors and governors, C. Suetonius Paullinus was chosen to lead the forces in Wales and put down the Druids on Anglesey.

“This island had become the last point of retreat for the rebels. Being surrounded by water, this was logical since the British forces could only retreat towards the sea. The Druids, seen as one of the strongest band of people in Britain, were also on the island. Angelsey was to be no pushover. It is written that it was defended by praying Druids, fierce warriors and wild women. The assault and taking of Angelsey was brutal, bloody and savage in the extreme.”  http://www.allempires.com/article/index.php?q=conquest_roman_britain

After the defeat of Anglesey and the destruction of the druids, Boudicca rose in rebellion.  The Roman legions were busy cleaning up the mess they had made there, so had left little protection in the east.

“Boudicca was married to Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni people of East Anglia. When the Romans conquered southern England in AD 43, they allowed Prasutagus to continue to rule. However, when Prasutagus died the Romans decided to rule the Iceni directly and confiscated the property of the leading tribesmen. They are also said to have stripped and flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters. These actions exacerbated widespread resentment at Roman rule.

Boudicca’s warriors successfully defeated the Roman Ninth Legion and destroyed the capital of Roman Britain, then at Colchester. They went on to destroy London and Verulamium (St Albans). Thousands were killed. Finally, Boudicca was defeated by a Roman army led by Paulinus. Many Britons were killed and Boudicca is thought to have poisoned herself to avoid capture. The site of the battle, and of Boudicca’s death, are unknown.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/boudicca.shtml

“The main Roman army was making its way back from Angelsey along the Watling Road. Suetonius knew he was heavily outnumbered, so he selected a place for the battle and waited for the Iceni to come to him. With dense woodland protecting his rear and a narrow defile in front, he was in a position where his troops (outnumbered by 10 to 1) had the advantage.

The Iceni, so confident of victory, charged down the defile falling over each other in the charge. The Romans stood firm. The Iceni charged again and again, but they were no match for the diciplined Romans, and in the end the Romans charged against the Iceni trapping them against the waggons that had followed the army. By the end of the day 80,000 Iceni lay dead.”  http://www.oldcity.org.uk/norwich/names/boudicca.php

The timeline for these events is here:  http://www.historyonthenet.com/Chronology/timelineroman.htm

and here:  http://localheroes.digitalbrain.com/localheroes/web/Final/boudica/03/

The ordnance survey has some excellent maps that are less accessible than they were (but I bought so as to have a paper copy).  You can see the roman roads and all the ruins in Wales through Getamap:  http://www.getamap.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk/

I use this all the time, not only for Roman ruins, but for all ancient artifacts on the landscape.


Welsh Faeries

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The Welsh had a pantheon of gods and goddesses before the coming of the Romans.  With the defeat of the druids and the extermination of their sites on Anglesey, the druid religion in Wales went into decline–and perhaps that is the reason there are relatively few Welsh gods and goddesses compared to the Irish, whose religion flourished during the Dark Ages and also developed a unique form of Christianity alongside it.

Within the belief system, faeries, or Tylwyth Teg, the modern designation, had a role, divisible into five classes:  the Ellyllon, or elves, the Coblynau, or mine fairies, the Bwbachod, or household fairies, the Gwragedd Annwn, or fairies of the lakes and streams; and the Gwyllion, or mountain fairies.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfl/wfl02.htm

Ellyllon:  “The Ellyllon are the pigmy elves who haunt the groves and valleys, and correspond pretty closely with the English elves. The English name was probably derived from the Welsh el, a spirit, elf, an element; there is a whole brood of words of this class in the Welsh language, expressing every variety of flowing, gliding, spirituality, devilry, angelhood, and goblinism. Ellyllon (the plural of ellyll), is also doubtless allied with the Hebrew Elilim, having with it an identity both of origin and meaning. [Pughe’s ‘Welsh Dictionary.’ (Denbigh, 1866)]  http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/wfl/wfl02.htm

Coblynau:  “The Welsh version of the Cornish Knockers, these mine spirits were relatively good humoured, and helped the miners by knocking in places with rich lodes of mineral, or metal. The Coblynau dressed in miners’ attire, and stood at around 18 inches in height.  Belief in these mine spirits was once widespread especially in Celtic areas which were heavily mined, for example Wales and Cornwall.”  http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/wales/folklore/the-coblynau.html

Bwbachod:  “The Bwbachod or otherwise known as the Bwca or Bwbach is a Welsh household spirit. The Bwbachod performs tasks when appreciated but becomes mischievous and destructive when offended. The Bwbachod detest people that don’t drink alcohol . . .”  The modern update is that this creatures also hates church and ministers.  http://www.mythcreatures.co.uk/celtic/bwbachod.asp

Gwragedd Annwn:  “The Gwragedd Annwn are Welsh water faeries who live in towns and villages beneath lakes. Often using glamour to disguise these dwellings, the most famous example of which was the Lady of the Lake, whose palace was disguised with a magical lake. Gwragedd Annwn as kithain do not live in underwater communities like those of their faerie cousins; the relative lack of glamour makes this impractical, and the encroachment of humanity, and the pollution it brings with it, on lakes and bodies of water makes the construction of underwater cities impossible. Now the Gwragedd Annwn have to cling to what sparing freshwater they can safely haunt.

They have an innate aptitiude for all things medicinal. There are reports of secret gardens hidden on islands in the middle of lakes, which are impossible to find except by a special entrance which is only opened on New Year’s Day. Everything in these gardens is sacred and removal of even the most trivial of items, such as a flower, leads to the permanent closure of the garden, except to the Gwragedd Annwn. Now, these precious few secret gardens serve as moderately powerful freeholds, but those which still exist are difficult in the extreme to enter, having long been left by their faerie denizens.

It is said of Gwragedd Annwn who take mortals for partners that if they should be struck three times causelessly, they must leave their partner, never to be seen by them again, and to Gwragedd Annwn, this is as strong as the most powerful oath. Gwragedd Annwn have contrary reactions to most collective emotions; they might cry and lament at a wedding, or laugh and sing at a funeral. These unusual feelings must be learned to be dealt with if the kithain is to get along in ordinary society.”  http://www.angelfire.com/ca4/dataweaver/play/changeling/gwargeddannwn.html

Gwyllion:  “The Gwyllion is a mythological creature from Wales. Even though these elfish creatures are mostly harmless you should always invite them into your house and treat them well, because if you don’t, it may result in destruction. The female faerie is very hideous and its only job is to cause travelers to become lost. Many times they just bother you or possibly frighten you by sitting on either side of a mountain path and following the traveler with their eyes. These ladies usually like on mountain trails, but if the weather becomes bad they resort to going to the valley. If you do happen to be threatened by a Gwyllion just take out a knife and point it directly at her. It is strongly recommend to have a knife handy if one plans on hiking in the night time, for this is there prime time for terror. Just beware next time you plan on going on any trails.”  http://www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gwyllion.html


The Summer Solstice


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June 21, 2011 is the summer solstice this year, celebrated at Stonehenge and across the globe, for the longest day of the year.  “Sol + stice derives from a combination of Latin words meaning “sun” + “to stand still.” As the days lengthen, the sun rises higher and higher until it seems to stand still in the sky.”  http://www.chiff.com/a/summer-solstice.htm

Within Welsh mythology, there is very little discussion of the solstices or what holidays were celebrated within the celtic/druid year.  This is not the case of Stonehenge, which archaeologists and historians have studied extensively.

“When one stands in the middle of Stonehenge and looks through the entrance of the avenue on the morning of the summer solstice, for example, the Sun will rise above the Heel Stone, which is set on the avenue. If one stands in the entrance and looks into the circle at dusk of that day, the Sun will set between a trilithon.”


There are a couple of stone circles in Wales (more than a couple, but many are ruinous and not properly documented).  One, Bryn Cader Faner, is a small cairn 8,5m (28ft) wide and less than 1m (3ft) high, with fifteen thin slabs leaning out of the mass of the monument like a crown of thorns, near Porthmadog.


A second is Carn Llechart near Swansea.  It “is one of the largest ring cairns in Wales. It is an unusual circle of 25 stones leaning slightly outwards and surrounding a central burial cist. Aubrey Burl in his “The Stone Circles of British Isles” wrote that such rings were thought to be the first stage of development of stone circles, but that these cairns, however, are almost certainly too late to provide such an ancestry. The reverse seems likely, that the existence of stone circles elsewhere impelled people to place tall stones around the bases of their own round cairns, a fusion of traditions resulting in monuments like spiky coronets. Such cairns may be seen on North and South Uist, and in Wales at Carn Llechart and Bryn Cader Faner.  The circle is 12m (40ft) in diameter, and the central cist has its east side stone and capstone missing. It seems that there is no entry to the circle and no trace of covering mound. A possible date for the site is the 2nd millenium BC.  In the area there are also a Neolithic burial chamber and some Bronze Age cairns.”  (http://www.stonepages.com/wales/wales.html),

Archaeologists are of the opinion that these stone circles have more to do with burial sites than worship, giving them less kinship to Stonehenge than one might think at first.  This site (http://www.geodrome.demon.co.uk/megalith/stone.htm), however, argues strongly for a similar rationale for stone circles in Wales, in which the author has documented the alignment of a number of stone circles.


Myth and Religion in the Dark Ages

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While many fictional accounts of the Dark Ages describe conflict between pagan religions and Christianity, that seems to be a product of the medieval mind, rather than an accurate analysis of Dark Age religion.  For there to be conflict there must be a power relationship as well as organization, and for both the pagans and the Christians in Wales in 655 AD, there were neither.

When the Romans conquered Wales in 43 AD, although Rome was not Christian at the time (Emperor Constantine didn’t  convert until 311 AD), the legions systematically wiped out the reigning religion of Wales at the time, which was druidism.  Why did they do this?  The Romans themselves were pagans, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Why did they not simply incorporate the native gods into their own religion as they did in most other places, and as the Catholic Church did later throughout the world?

The difference was that the druids formed the basis of a nationalist movement in Britain—and throughout the Celtic world.  To quell it, the Romans systematically destroyed the sacred sites and groves, particularly on the island of Anglesey, prompting Boudicca’s revolt in 61 AD.  The Romans defeated her, and the end of the revolt spelled the end of organized druidism in Britain.

Thus, in the time between this momentous defeat and when the Roman empire became Christian, there was a lengthy vacuum, both in religious leadership and belief.  Christianity came to Britain in the first century, not long after the death of Christ, but was no more organized than paganism without the druids.  Wales was far from Rome and the seats of learning, and when the Roman legions left, the Christian religion was cut off from its roots.

Christianity in the Dark Ages, then, was one of several available options in Wales.  By the mid-600s, Christianity was growing more organized, but it was a religion based around monasteries.  There were cells of monks and hermitages, but few, if any, churches as we understand them.  There were also strong pulls towards different sects within Christianity, and strong resistance to the Roman Church, with which the Welsh Church did not reconcile until 763 AD.

Even up until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 AD, the Welsh Christians were unhappy with conformity to Rome, especially as the Church kept excommunicating their Princes for not bowing to England.  Welsh laws did not conform to the Church’s teachings well into the Middle Ages.  Most notably, women in Wales had a higher status compared to the rest of Europe, divorce was easier, illegitimate children could inherit, lords levied fines instead of executing criminals as punishment for crimes, and the punitive forest laws of English/French feudalism were absent.

Religion in the Dark Ages was at the intersection of superstition and mythology.  The old Welsh gods had not been vanquished, but were everyday participants in daily life.  They were random and capricious, just like the weather.  Jesus Christ, if adhered to at all, brought a message of personal salvation and belief in heaven, rather than the Underworld.  Christ allowed a believer control over his ultimate destiny.

Eventually, it was Christianity that incorporated the pagan Welsh gods into its pantheon of saints, accommodating the old beliefs.  In the Spoils of Annwn by Taliesin, a Christian, the final two stanzas of the poem rail against dissolute monks, comparing them to wolves or wild dogs and end with a prayer to the Lord and Christ.  At the same time, the bulk of the poem describes Arthur’s descent to the Underworld and his battles in the world of the sidhe.  This blend of pagan and Christian is the hallmark of Dark Age Wales.