Tag Archives: Red Book of Hergest


Eleanor (Elinor) de Montfort


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Eleanor (Elinor in Welsh) de Montfort (1252-1282) was the wife of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales.  She was the daughter of Simon de Montfort, who was killed in the Battle of Evesham by the forces of Edward I when she was only thirteen.  Her mother, Eleanor of Leicester, was the youngest daughter of King John of England and his wife, Isabella of Angouleme.  Interestingly, that made Elinor’s mother and Joanna, Princess of Wales and the wife of Llywelyn Fawr (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s grandfather), half-sisters.  Joanna had been born in 1191.  After Simon de Montfort’s death, Elinor and her mother) found refuge at the Dominican nunnery of Monargis in France.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan,_Lady_of_Wales

J. Beverely Smith writes:  “Llywelyn’s decision to marry Simon de Montfort’s daughter was revealed in dramatic circumstances at the end of 1275.  Eleanor was travelling from France to join the prince [whom she had already married per verba de presenti–or inabsentia] when she was detained at sea and taken into Edward’s custody.  She sailed in the company of her brother Amaury, and the king was jubilant at a capture which placed Montfort’s son and daughter in his hands and revealed, hidden beneath the ship’s boards, the arms and banner of the Montforts” (1998:390).  Finally, by Edward’s lights, he had real justification for re-entering Wales and forcing Llywelyn to submit to England once and for all.  Note that Elinor was also Edward’s cousin.

For Llywelyn’s part, he had decided to marry Elinor after the events of 1274 when his brother, Dafydd, and other conspirators had tried to kill him.  Nobody knows why he’d waited this long to marry (he was now approaching 50 years old) but his failure to father a child with any woman up until then might have played a role–once married, there was no chance to father a child with another woman who might prove more fertile, AND have that child acknowledged by Edward and/or the Church.

In the end, Edward kept Elinor captive for three years, until after Llywelyn had lost the war of 1277 and submitted to Edward at Rhuddlan castle.  Elinor and Llywelyn were married (again) on October 13th (the Feast of St. Edward) in 1278, at the cathedral church at Worcester.  Edward gave Elinor away.

Wales remained at peace until 1282, when Prince Dafydd’s men launched a surprise attack on English castles on Palm Sunday.  Elinor herself died in childbirth on June 19, 1282 at Garth Celyn, and was buried across the Menai Strait at Llanfair Abbey, beside her aunt, Joanna.  No trace remains of her grave.

From The Chronicles of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest): “And then, on the Feast of St. Edward, the marriage of Llywelyn and Eleanor solemnized at Winchester, Edward, king of England himself bearing the cost of the banquet and nuptial on the feast of St.  festivities liberally. And of that Eleanor there was a daughter to Llywelyn, called Gwenllian and Eleanor died in childbirth, and was buried in the chapter house of the barefooted friars at Llanvaes in Mona. Gwenllian, after the death of her father, was taken as a prisoner to England, and before she was of age, she was made a nun against her consent.”


Was King Arthur real?

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cmh blogWhether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’–or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.  In another blog (here), I list the original sources that posit the existence of King Arthur.

Obviously, since I’ve written a novel about King Arthur, he’s very real to me!

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough analysis of the subject:

For now, I’d like to point to two aspects of the ‘wasn’t’ camp that I find particularly interesting, as they have to do with the development of Welsh myth and the transformation of Wales from a pagan culture to a Christian one.

One theory about King Arthur was that his stories were originally not about him at all, but about Gwydion, one of the sons of Don and a chief character in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  In these tales, Gwydion, while evident through much of the Mabinogi, is completely absent from the stories that include Arthur, implying that the ancient poet did a global ‘find and replace’. This theory was originally posited by Sir John Rhys, writing at the end of the 19th century.

The second curious aspect of the development of Arthur, which parallels the Gwydion relationship, is the way in which the character adopted not only the characteristics of Gwydion, but of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last ‘King’ of Wales (died 682 AD).  Included in the books of Taliesin are not only poems about Arthur, but also about Cadwaladr.  It is Cadwaladr whom the Welsh tales describe as sleeping in a cave on Mount Snowdon, and whose return the Welsh await (see my post on The Great Prophecy of Britain).

I would love for Arthur to have been a ‘real’ person, but I find the discovery of the way in which myth becomes ‘real’, as well as the ‘real’ becomes myth fascinating.  It is almost a parallel process:  many scholars of celtic myth believe that the stories of the Don or Tuatha de Dannan (in Ireland) were once ‘real’ to the people who told them, but with the coming of Christianity, their tales were either adopted and transformed into Christian parable, or faded into the realm of fable.  Similarly, Gwydion (a mythic character) or Cadwaladr (a ‘real’ one) might have had their stories blended into the tale of King Arthur–for Gywdion, the stories were sanitized and made palatable for Christian audiences, and for Cadwaladr, his story was submerged into the tale of an already more famous and reknowned hero and thus made more ‘mythic’.


Possible King Arthur (s)

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I have very definite opinions about who King Arthur was, as evidenced by my book, Cold My Heart, as well as the numerous posts I’ve written on the subject. That said, his identity is up for debate …

The web site, Early British Kingdoms, has an entire section devoted to King Arthur, particularly who he could have been if he wasn’t ‘Arthur’, as no leader of that name in the middle 6th century or earlier seems to fit that profile.

The possibilities are quite endless, especially if you consider Scots as well as Welsh rulers.  For example, Norma Lorre Goodrich places Arthur at Carlisle (as Camelot) and as Arthur ic Uibar, in her book ‘King Arthur’.   In the book “Arturius – A Quest for Camelot,” David Carroll suggests that King Arthur is, in fact, the historical late 6th century Prince Artuir, eldest son of King Aidan of Dalriada. Carroll believes that Artuir ruled Manau Gododdin, the narrow coastal region on the south side of the the Firth of Forth, during his father’s Dalriadan reign. He died at the Battle of the Miathi in 582.  Carroll equates this with Camlann and places it in the same kingdom. “What is more natural than for this Prince to make his capital at the old Roman Fort of Colania (which Carroll refers to as Ad Vallum) in the centre of Manau Gododdin, a place called Camelot in the past and still called Camelon today?” http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/archaeology/camelon.html

In an earlier post, I postulated that Arthur could be a substitute for Gwydion, son of Don, one of the Welsh mythological heroes, as well as his links to Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, especially given that ‘Cadwaladr’ means ‘battle-leader’, the title attributed to Arthur (Dux Bellorum) by Nennius, rather than ‘king’.

Other possibilities abound,  however.  This site, makes an argument in favor of a Prince Arthur in Scotland, who had a daughter named Gwenwynwyn.  Another argues that Arthur was really Cuneglas (or Cynglas in Welsh) one of the five tyrants named in Gildas’ writings (one of the stumbling blocks to belief that Arthur existed is that Gildas does not mention him).  Gildas writes:

“Why have you been rolling in the filth of your past wickedness,you bear, rider of many and driver of the chariot of the Bear’s Stronghold, despiser of God and oppressor of his lot, Cuneglasus, in Latin ‘red butcher’? Why do you wage such a war against men and God? – against men, that is our countrymen, with arms special to yourself, against God with infinite sins. Why, aside from countless other lapses, have you rejected your own wife and now, against the ban of the apostle, who says that adulterers cannot be citizens of the kingdom of heaven, do you cast your eyes, with all the reverence (or rather dullness) of your mind, on her villainous sister, although she has promised to God perpetually chaste widowhood, like, as the poet says, the supreme tenderness of the dwellers in heaven? Why do you provoke with continual injuries the groans and sighs of the holy men who are present in the flesh by your side; they are the teeth of an appalling lioness that will one day break your bones.”  http://www.angelfire.com/md/devere/gildas.html

Lovely stuff.  Mark Devere Davies writes further, in reference to the name Arthur as ‘bear’:  “It has long been recognized that Arthur best translates as “Bear” in Celtic. A marginal note on a 13th century copy of the “Historia Brittonum”, by Nennius(9th century) says that Arthur means “Ursus Horribilis”. No matter what the actual origin of the name, this earliest etymology is important as it shows beyond doubt that the ancients understood “Arthur” to mean “Bear”. A rival theory has been current for years which claims Arthur derives from the Roman Artorius. This is more of a speculation than a theory as no text supports such a reading. The name is always rendered as some variant of the Welsh Arthur, or is Latinized in various ways like Artus, Arturus, or Arturius. And it should be remembered that “Arthur” was most likely not a personal name at this time. The word is unrecorded as a personal name before the end of the sixth and early seventh century, when several “Arthurs” are known.”  http://www.angelfire.com/md/devere/urse.html

Din Arth, the Fort of the Bear, was Cuneglas’ home, located in the Kingdom of Rhos, one of the sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd.  It was situated above Colwyn Bay on Bryn Euryn.  “An oval enclosure was built in the 5th century at the highest point of the fort to form a sturdy inner sanctum. Along with the surrounding Iron Age enclosure, a layout similar to the motte and bailey castles of the Normans was achieved and the same arrangement can be seen just a few miles up the Conwy Valley at Pen-Y-Castell, on a rocky ridge high above the village of Maenan.”  http://www.castlewales.com/euryn.html


The Conquests of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth

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Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, born around 1172, was the grandson of Owain Gwynedd and ruled Wales from the late 12th century (certainly by 1200) to his death in 1240 AD.  He married Joanna (Joan), the eldest (albeit illegitimate) daughter of King John of England.

Llywelyn “proved to be the greatest and most constructive Welsh statesman of the Middle Ages. In his long career he succeeded, by constant warfare, by tactful yielding under pressure and by masterly resilience the moment that pressure was relieved, in bringing under his control most of Pura Wallia. When he died in 1240, full of honor and glory, he left a principality which had the possibility of expanding into a truly national state of Wales. There was a moment when an independent Wales seemed about to become a reality.”  http://www.castlewales.com/llewelyn.html

The Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur edition) details the events of the 13th century in more detail than virtually any other contemporary source, particularly from a Welsh perspective, albeit one written by monks.   Llywelyn’s conquests are treated with some detail and give insight into the kind of ‘constant warfare’ to which the above quote refers:

1211 In this year Llywelyn ab Iorwerth led frequent attacks against the Saxons, harassing them cruelly. And because of that, John, king of England, gathered a mighty host and made for Gwynedd, planning to dispossess Llywelyn and to destroy him utterly. And the king came as far as Chester and to the castle of Degannwy. And there the host suffered lack of food to such an extent that an egg was sold for a penny-halfpenny; and they found the flesh of their horses as good as the best dishes. And because of that the king having lost many of his men, returned in shame to England without having fulfilled aught of his mission. And he returned again in August, and with him a host which was greater and fiercer.  And Llywelyn, being unable to suffer the king’s rage, sent his wife, the king’s daughter, to him by the counsel of his leading men to make peace with the king on whatever terms he could. And after he had accepted safe conduct to go to the king and to come away from him free, he went to the king and was reconciled to him. And then all the princes of Wales made peace with the king, except the two sons of Gruffudd, son of Yr Arglwydd Rhys. And the king with great joy and victory returned to England.  And he commanded Falkes, sheriff of Cardiff, to take all the host of Glamorgan and Dyfed with him to force the sons of Gruffudd ap Rhys to yield or else to drive them from all the kingdom. And Rhys and Owain, being unable to counter such great might as that, sent messengers to Falkes to draw up peace for them; for there was no place for them to flee in all of Wales. And Rhys and Owain went to the king under safe conduct of Falkes; and the king received them into reconciliation and into peace.

1212 In this year Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, prince of Gwynedd, being unable to bear the injuries which the men from the new castles were inflicting upon him, made a solm pact with the princes of Wales, namely, Gwenwynwyn, Maelgwn ap Rhys, Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, Maredudd ap Rhobert. And he rose up against the king, and by the end of two months, he laid seige to all the castles which the king had built in Gwynedd, and took them all except two, Degannwy and Rhuddlan.  And three leaders of gentle birth from Wales were hanged in England, namely, Hywel ap Cadwallon, Madog ap Maelgwn, Meurig Barach.  And Pope Innocent the Third absolved three princes, namely, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and Gwenwynwyn and Maelgwn ap Rhys, from the oath and allegiance they owed to the king of England. And he enjoined upon them, for the remission of their sins, to direct friendly endeavour and action against the iniquity of that king. And he interdicted the churches for five years in all England and Wales, except for the territory of those three princes and those who were leagued with them.

1213 In this year John, king of England, went to the archbisho of Canterbury to do penance. And he recalled the archbishop and the bishops and the clerics who had gone into exile because of the interdict on the churches. And he swore, too, that he would restore everything that he had taken from the Church.  And Llywelyn ab Iorwerth took the castle of Degannwy and the castle of Rhuddlan, and he gained possession of them.

The included map shows the lands Llywelyn Fawr controlled directly (yellow) and those belonging to his client princes (gray) circa 1271 AD.


Historical Sources for King Arthur

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cmh blogHistorians are not in agreement as to whether or not the ‘real’ Arthur—the living, breathing, fighting human being—ever existed. The original sources for the legend of King Arthur come from a few Welsh texts. These are:

1) Y Goddodin—a Welsh poem by the 7th century poet, Aneirin, with it’s passing mention of Arthur. The author refers to the battle of Catraeth, fought around AD 600 and describes a warrior who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.  http://www.missgien.net/celtic/gododdin/poem.html

2) Gildas, a 6th century British cleric who wrote De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain). He never mentions Arthur, although he states that his own birth was in the year of the siege of Mount Badon. The fact that he does not mention Arthur, and yet is our only historian of the 6th century, is an example of why many historians suspect that King Arthur never existed.   http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gildas.html

3) Taliesin, a 6th century poet, to whom The Spoils of Annwn, is ascribed.  This poem is only one of several in which he mentions Arthur.  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/t30.html

4)  Nennius – “History of the Britons” (Historia Brittonum, c. 829-30)
“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror.”  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/nennius-full.html

5) Native Welsh Tales: These connected works of Welsh mythology were named the Mabinogion in the 19th century by their first translator, Lady Charlotte Guest.  These include the story of Culhwch and Olwen, in which Arthur and his men track down the thirteen treasures of Britain, and The Dream of Rhonabwy.  These stories are found in the Red Book of Hergest and/or the White Book of Rhydderch, both copied in the mid-14th century.   http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/index_welsh.html

6) The Annales Cambriae. This book is a Welsh chronicle compiled no later than the 10th century AD. It consists of a series of dates, two of which mention Arthur: “Year 72, The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors. Year 93, The Strife of Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”    The early dates of the above works indicate little or no relation to the later English/French embellishments of Arthur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth popularized.   http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/annalescambriae.html

Later texts that are built on the above works, in chronological order, are:

1) William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Leon – “Legend of St. Goeznovius, preface” (c. 1019)
“In the course of time, the usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons. Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the islane, and there was great oppression of the Britons, destruction of churches and persecution of saints. This persecution went on through the times of many kings, Saxons and Britons striving back and forth. In those days, many holy men gave themselves up to martyrdom; others, in conformity to the Gsopel, left the greater Britain which is now the Saxon’s homeland, and sailed across to the lesser Britain [ed. note: Brittany].”.]

[ed. note from Brittanica.com: There are enough similarities with Geoffrey’s “History” that some have questioned whether Goeznovious might be of later date, i.e. post-Geoffrey. But, unless William’s original source, “Ystoria Britannica,” is found and proves otherwise, we have to consider the possibility that Geoffrey may have used Goeznovious as a source.

2) William of Malmesbury – “The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum)” (c. 1125)
“When he [ed. note: Vortigern’s son, Vortimer] died the strength of the Britons diminished and all hope left them. They would soon have been altogether destroyed if Ambrosius, the sole survivor of the Romans who became king after Vortigern, had not defeated the presumptuous barbarians with the powerful aid of the warlike Arthur. This is that Arthur of whom the trifling of the Britons talks such nonsense even today; a man clearly worthy not to be dreamed of in fallacious fables, but to be proclaimed in veracious histories, as one who long sustained his tottering country, and gave the shattered minds of his fellow citizens an edge for war.

3) Henry of Huntingdon – “History of the English” (Historia Anglorum, c. 1130)
“The valiant Arthur, who was at that time the commander of the soldiers and kings of Britain, fought against [the invaders] invincibly. Twelve times he led in battle. Twelve times was he victorious in battle. The twelfth and hardest battle that Arthur fought against the Saxons was on Mount Badon, where 440 of his men died in the attack that day, and no Briton stayed to support him, the Lord alone strengthening him.”

4) The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, dating to the middle 12th century. This is the beginning of the King Arthur legend as we know it. Geoffrey was born in Wales, but worked for his patron, Robert of Gloucester, who was particularly interested in legitimizing the claim of his sister (Matilda) to the English crown. Thus, the confusion of landmarks which moved Arthur from Wales to England proper, and the romanticizing of the tale, including the notion that Britain was originally conquered by Brutus, the son of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and thus Britain was ‘classical’ in origin.

5) Roman y Brut (The Romance of Brutus) is the translation of Geoffrey’s work into Anglo-Norman verse. It takes much of Geoffrey’s story and adds the round table, courtly love, and chivalry, thus transforming Arthur from a Welsh warrior to a medieval, Anglo-French knight.  From this point, the Welsh Arthur is all but lost, and the Anglo/Norman/French ‘King Arthur’ is paramount.

By 1191, the monks of Glastonbury were claiming knowledge of his grave, and soon after, the link between Arthur and the Holy Grail, which Joseph of Arimathea supposedly brought there. By 1225, monks in France had written The Vulgate Cycle, telling of the holy grail from the death of Jesus Christ to the death of Arthur, and included the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. This story became the standard version used throughout Europe.

One critic stands out, however:  William of Newburgh – “History of English Affairs” (Historia rerum Anglicarum, c. 1198)
“For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur, drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own, and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history.”

[ed. note: Amid the near universal chorus of hosannas heard throughout Europe for Geoffrey of Monmouth and his “History of the Kings of Britain,” William of Newburgh stands out as, perhaps, the first and certainly his most ardent critic. In fact, the full preface to his ‘History’ is taken up with ever-crescendoing criticsm, of which the above quote is only the opening salvo. CLICK HERE to read William of Newburgh’s full preface.]   http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/historians.html


Annwn, the Welsh Underworld


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Annwn, or Annuvin in the Chronicles of Prydein by Lloyd Alexander, is an ‘other’ world, from the one that mortals live in.  It is the realm of the gods, or of the dead, depending upon the source.

This site states:  “The Welsh word annwn, annwfyn is traditionally translated “otherworld,” and is akin to some of the Irish worlds of the gods (Tír na mBéo, “Land of the Living,” etc.) One will recall that in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, Pwyll exchanges place and shape with Arawn, king of Annwn, whose realm is there depicted as co-existent with Pwyll’s Dyfed. In another poem from The Book of Taliesin ( Angar Kyfyndawt, 18.26-23.8) the speaker declares annwfyn to be underground:

yn annwfyn ydiwyth, in Annwfyn the peacefulness,
yn annwfyn ygorwyth in Annwfyn the wrath,
yn annwfyn is eluyd in Annwfyn below the earth…

It can be subaqueous, as it seems to be here in this poem. Annwn is popularly associated with the land of the old gods who can bestow gifts, including the gift of poetry (awen): awen aganaf / odwfyn ys dygaf, “It is Awen I sing, / from the deep I bring it”; AK). Semantically and conceptually the term is ambiguous. The MW prefix an- can negate as well as intensify (as in Latin in-) so that the word yields either or both an + dwfyn, “un-world,” “very-deep,” possibly “extreme world.” It is not a Celtic “underworld,” per se, although mention of “hell,” (vffern, suggests that associations between Annwn (“very deep”?) and the land of the dead were vivid to whoever committed this text to writing.”

As Wales became more Christian, ‘Annwn’ became associated with the Christian ‘hell’, but it appears to be more akin to the Greek sense of the ‘Underworld’–yes, it is a place of the dead, but it is for all people, not just bad ones and it is possible to move back and forth from our world to Annwn under the right circumstances, such as Arthur does in the Spoils of Annwn.

Both Arawn at times, and Gwyn ap Nudd at others, rule Annwn.  Arawn fought in the Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) with Bran against Amathaon and Gwyddion. Arawn, like Gwyn ap Nudd, was a master hunter who rode a pale horse and rode with a pack of white hounds with red ears. The archetypal purpose of the hunt was to gather souls for the Otherworld if the quarry was not smart enough to evade the chase.  Arawn possessed a black cauldron (perhaps also associated with Cerridwen), which Arthur tried to steal.  http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/Celtic/deities.html

Gwyn ap Nudd appears to be a very similar deity, leading one to think it is a different, later, name for the same god/ruler.  Like Arawn, he is the leader of the Wild Hunt and associated with Arthur, but didn’t seem to take his full shape until the late Middle Ages.   http://www.answers.com/topic/gwyn-ap-nudd

All of these gods/characters play a role in my book, The Last Pendragon, with it’s emphasis on Welsh myth and mythology.


Brecon Castle

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Brecon Castle was begun in 1093 by Bernard de Newmarch, when (as my book ‘Welsh Castles’ puts it) ‘he established his lordship of Brecon.’  The Normans had only come to Britain in 1066 and it was a wild time on the borders between England and Wales as they tried to gain control over the Welsh lands.  The Chronicle of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest version) says (for 1093)  “the French devastated Gower, Cydweli, and the Vale of Tywi; and the countries remained a desert.”

The lands had been occupied since before the Romans came, as Pen-y-crug hillfort, or Caer Coch, sits to the northwest of the castle.  http://www.wisdomofrhiannon.co.uk/Brecon.html

Brecon Castle was much fought over.  From Newmarch, the castle passed to the Braose dynasty.  King John seized it from William de Braose, who was in rebellion, in 1207 and William’s son Reginald recaptured it during the Magna Carta war.  In 1241, it passed to the Earls of Hereford, the Bohuns.  (Welsh Castles, Adam Pettifer, p. 8).

During the Barons war of 1263-65, both Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and the Bohuns allied themselves with Simon de Montfort.  Humphrey de Bohun ruled Brecon at the time.  He had been the guardian of Gilbert de Clare, but when Clare switched back to King Henry’s side, Clare took it upon himself to capture Brecon Castle from his former guardian in 1264.  In 1265, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd took it from Clare (but note, didn’t give it back to Bohun).  By then, things had begun to fall apart for Montfort.  Soon he was dead, along with the Earl of Hereford’s son, Humphrey. (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, J. Beverely Smith, 1990)

Llywelyn lost control of those lands with the treaty of 1277, although he was much besieged through the 1270s.  (ibid p. 358)

Of the castle itself, it is set between the Honddu and Usk Rivers.  “There were two entrances as well as the postern gate. The main gate faced west and overlooked the Usk. It was approached across a drawbridge and probably guarded by two semi-circular towers and the usual great door and portcullis. From the town direction the castle was also guarded by a drawbridge on the site of the present bridge which crosses the Honddu. These gates were joined by the encircling curtain wail. which enclosed the whole area of the castle. Within these outer defences the most imposing building was the great Hall; this was the social centre of the castle and the Lordship where the Lords of Brecon held court when in the area. (The surviving medieval halls at Christ College – across the river from the castle – give a good idea of what it must have looked like inside. The private apartments of the Lord were next to the Hall. There are references to other rooms and buildings in the medieval documents. For example the Constable and the Receiver (of taxes and dues) had their own chambers. There was a chapel, exchequer, kitchen, harness tower, stable and porter’s chamber. The well was described as being 30 feet deep. These buildings suggest that the castle was more like a bustling town than the romantic, military fortress of imagination. People from the surrounding Lordship came to the courts held at the castle, they paid their dues to the exchequer, they pleaded for privileges or came with supplies of food, timber and other necessaries.”  http://www.castlewales.com/brecon.html

The castle is mostly destroyed now and parts of it have been turned into a hotel.  The only plan is above, from Speed, 1610:  http://www.breconcastle.co.uk/brecon-castle-history.asp

Brecon Castle plays an important role in my After Cilmeri series.



Taliesin the Bard

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Whence come night and flood?
How they disappear?
Whither flies night from day;
And how is it not seen?

These lines are taken from a poem by Taliesin, a Welsh poet who lived roughly between 534 and 599 AD.  His poetry has survived in the medieval Red Book of the Hergest, and The Book of Taliesin, found here: http://www.llgc.org.uk/index.php?id=bookoftaliesinpeniarthms2.

“It is this manuscript which preserves the texts of famous poems such as ‘Armes Prydein Fawr’, ‘Preiddeu Annwfn’ (which refers to Arthur and his warriors sailing across the sea to win a spear and a cauldron), and elegies to Cunedda and Dylan eil Ton, as well as the earliest mention in any western vernacular of the feats of Hercules and Alexander. The manuscript is incomplete, having lost a number of its original leaves, including the first.”

He is associated with Arthur, in part because he wrote so much about him, but that he was a court poet dates to the 11th century Welsh work, Culhwch and Olwen.

Scholars are divided as to how many poems are attributable to Taliesin. Of the 57 poems in the Red Book, those that are addressed to rulers of Wales at the time are confirmed as his. The rest are on mythological and religious topics. Some scholars imply that these are thus of a later date, and that wouldn’t be unusual, in that it was not uncommon when transcribing a book to attribute later works to the original source.

The open-source translations of Taliesin’s poetry are not necessarly the best, most poetic, or most accurate, but here is the source: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/llyfrtaliesin.html

Taliesin as myth is another person entirely. Within the Welsh mythology, and then later the Arthurian legend, Taliesin becomes a prophet-bard. A good summary of the mythology is found here: http://www.timelessmyths.com/celtic/mabinogion.html#Taliesin


Red, Black, and White Books

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In Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves Sam the Red Book of Westmarch, in which to record the goings on of Middle Earth after he is gone. Tolkein himself says that his inspiration for the fictional book was the Red Book of Hergest in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which he knew well.

In Wales, there were three such books of which we know:
The Red Book of Hergest
The Black Book of Camarthan
The White Book of Rhydderch

The Red Book of Hergest was written between 1375 and 1425 by Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Fuellt, for his employer, Hopcyn ap Tomas ap Einion of Ynys Tawe. In it are some of the most famous Welsh texts, including the Chronicles of the Princes, The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, and so on. The complete list is here: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/hindex.html

The Black Book of Camarthen, in the National Library of Wales (Peniarth Manuscript 1), dates to the mid-thirteenth century and is believed to have been the work of a single scribe at the Priory of St. John in Carmarthen. It is one of the first works written wholly in Welsh and comprised mostly of poetry, primarily on the subject of Dark Age (sorry, Brynne) topics. The contents of which are here: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/bbcindex.html

The White Book of Rhydderch contains much of what is in the other two books, with an emphasis on religious subjects and prose, rather than poetry. The copy in the National Library of Wales dates to around 1350 AD. It is found here: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/windex.html

As to how old the material in the books actually, it is not clear, or from what earlier books they were copies. Scholars date the version of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi that is in these books to around 1100 AD, given the linguistic characteristics, but that is not to say that the stories aren’t older. Much of the poetry is much older–dating to between 400-700 AD for the Dark Age poets such as Taliesin and Aneurin.


The Four Branches of the Mabinogi


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The Four Branches of the Mabinogi is a compliation of Welsh mythological tales found in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both dating to the middle of the fourteenth century.   The stories however, are older, the specific versions dating to around 1100 AD, and thus before the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 

Parker writes:  “The Four Branches also relay aspects of a deeply pagan thought-world, which ultimately draws on traditions and beliefs from the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of prehistoric Britain, as well as those of the Celtic Iron Age and Romano-British eras.”  http://www.mabinogion.info/

The first branch tells the story of Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed.  Pwyll spends a year as Lord of  Annwn, the Underworld and then encounters Rhiannon, whom he marries.  I loved the following exchange between the two, in the initial stages of their courtship when Pwyll inadvertently promises Rhiannon to someone else and Rhiannon isn’t shy about speaking her mind:

Gwawl:  ‘Lord, it is for you I have a request, and to ask you for it I have come.’

Pwyll:  ‘Whatever boon you put to me, as far as I am able to get it, it will be yours.’

Rhiannon:  ‘Och!’ Why do you give such an answer?’

Gwawl:  ‘That is how he has given it, Lady, in the presence of nobles.”

Pwyll:  ‘Friend, what is your boon?’

Gwawl:  ‘You are [about] to sleep with the woman whom I love the most tonight. And it is to ask for her, [along] with the provisions and victuals which are here that I have come.’

Pwyll fell silent, for there was not an answer he could give.

Rhiannon:  ‘Be dumb as long as you like.  There was never a man so slow with his wits as you were [just] then.’


“The main action of the Four Branches takes place in two key centres of power within this region: the Cardigan/Teifi valley area of Dyfed in West Wales, and the northwest of Gwynedd centred on the Anglesey and Arfon coastlands. The relationship between these regional power-centres and the crown of London in the Mabinogi bears a strong resemblance to the geo-politics of the late-twelfth century, echoing the relationship between the native Welsh warlords and the Anglo-Norman Angevin kings during centuries between the establishment of the March and the Edwardian conquest of the late 13th century. These parallels were not accidental. It would appear that for the contemporary courtly audiences in Wales, this process of typological insinuation – linking the mythic past with the politics of the present – was an established function of the genre.”  http://www.mabinogion.info/four-branches.htm

“A single character, Pryderi links all four branches. In the first tale he’s born and fostered, inherits a kingdom and marries. In the second he’s scarcely mentioned, but in the third he’s imprisoned by enchantment and then released. In the fourth he falls in battle.

The tales themselves are concerned with the themes of fall and redemption, loyalty, marriage, love, fidelity, the wronged wife, and incest.

They’re set in a bizarre and magical landscape which corresponds geographically to the western coast of south and north Wales, and are full of white horses that appear magically, giants, beautiful, intelligent women and heroic men.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/society/myths_mabinogion.shtml