Sunday, 8 June 2014

Ardudwy: Land of Legend

History and Legend
Ardudwy is the ancient name of the area which extends from near Beddgelert in northern Snowdonia (Eryri), to Barmouth in the south, stretching from Harlech in the west to Trawsfynydd in the east. Ardudwy in Gwynedd, Wales, is a region rich in folk tales; every hill, every rock has a story to tell.

Ardudwy, a fertile swathe of pasture land lying between the coast of Tremadog Bay and the Rhinog mountains (Rhinogydd), was part of the ancient kingdom of Gwynedd known as Dunoding, traditionally named after one of the sons of Cunedda Wledig who came down from the Old North in the 5th century to expel Irish settlers from the area. According to The Harleian MS 3859, Cunedda had eight sons who gave their names to areas of Wales, such as Meirionydd and Ceredigion. The 9th century Historia Brittonum recalls:

“.....Cunedag, with his sons, whose number was eight, had come previously from the northern part, that is from the region which is called Manau Gododdin, one hundred and forty-six years before Maelgwn reigned. And with great slaughter they drove out from those regions the Scotti who never returned again to inhabit them.

Maelgwn of Gwynedd, Gildas' Maglocunus, the 'Dragon of the island',  appears in the genealogies as Cunedda’s great-grandson, and the Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae) record his obit during the 'great mortality' of 547 AD. We have no record of when Maelgwn commenced his reign, however, 146 years before his death brings us to the time of the ending of Roman Britain, at the very beginning of the 5th century.
The legend of lands founded by Cunedda and his sons
(after Koch: Celtic Culture, 2006)
It has been suggested that the migration from Manau Gododdin in the north was part of the policy of Gildas' superbus tyrannus (Bede's Vortigern) to protect Britain from the attacks of the Picts and Scotti following the Roman withdrawal. Yet, the Historia Brittonum states the interval was 146 years before Maelgwn's reign, so we must be looking for a considerably earlier time. Maelgwn must have commenced his reign around the beginning of the 6th century pushing the time of the migration back to around 370- 380 AD, the time of the Theodosian restoration of Britannia following the Barbarian Conspiracy of 367 AD, a simultaneous attack by Saxons, Attacotti, Picts and Scotti, recorded by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

The Irish settlements in late Roman to post-Roman Wales are attested by Ogam inscriptions and place-name evidence such as the derivation of the name of the Llyn peninsula from Primitive Irish *Legeni, i.e. Laigin = ‘Leinstermen’. Further, Cunedda's sons, the migration to Wales  and the war with the Irish do not figure at all in the archaic Welsh elegy Marwnad Cunedda (Death-song of Cunedda) found in the Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin). Consequently, the story of Cunedda's migration to Gwynedd is generally considered an origin legend rather than an historical event.

Setting of the Mabinogion Tales
North Wales holds a special affinity for the distinguished Hispanic general Magnus Maximus famed for his part in the recovery of Northern Britain following the Barbarian Conspiracy and defeating an incursion of Picts and Scots in 381. Maximus is often named as the Roman general who brought Cunedda to north Wales. Maximus was proclaimed Emperor by the army in  Britannia in 383 AD and is accused by Gildas of stripping the island of her military forces and 'the flower of her youth' when crossing to Gaul in pursuit of his short-lived ambitions; he was executed five years later.

Evidence of his popularity in early medieval Wales is found in traditional tales where he is remembered as Mascen Wledig, and appears in the genealogical records, an early example of which can be found on the 9th century ‘Pillar of Eliseg’ at Valle Crucis by Llangollen, which claims the marriage of his daughter Sevira to Vortigern, king of the Britons.

Lady Guest's 19th century collection of native tales known as the Mabinogion preserves the memory of Magnus Maximus in the tale of the Dream of Mascen Wledig which features Caer Seint, the Roman fort of Segontium, "the fort at the mouth of the Seiont,"  at Caernarfon.

Segontium overlooking Caernarfon
This is Mabinogion country and Ardudwy features prominently in the Welsh mythologies. In The Third Branch of the Mabinogi, Bendigeidfran holds court at Harlech, and his severed head returns there for seven years before it is taken on to Gwales. In The Fourth Branch, Lleu Llaw Gyffes built his palace on the other side of the Rhinogs at Mur-y-Castell in Ardudwy and lived here with his beautiful wife Blodeuedd, the flower maiden, created by Math and Gwydion. It is near here, at the River Cynfael that Lleu is hit by the poisoned spear of his adversary Gron and takes flight as an eagle. Gwydion finds him further north in an oak tree at Nantle, near Snowdon.

Mur-y-Castell was originally built by the Romans and known as Tomen-y-Mur (Mound in the Walls) on the slope of Mynydd Maentwrog to the north east of Llyn Trawsfynydd, with access from A470. The Roman fort stood in a prominent position on the road from Brithdir (near Dolgellau) to Segontium. Off the B4391 is Llyn Morwynion (the Maidens' Lake), which, according to the Mabinogion, is where Blodeuedd's Maidens of Ardudwy drowned whilst fleeing from the wizard Gwydion and the men of Gwynedd. Gwydion turned Blodeuedd in to an owl. An alternative folk tale of  Llyn y Morwynion can be found in The Men of Ardudwy included in W. Jenkyn Thomas' The Welsh Fairy Book (1908).

The Cantiorix stone was found near the site traditionally known as the 'Graves of the Men of Ardudwy'. The site has been destroyed over time, with little but the line of the Roman road now visible. Antiquarian accounts suggest this was the site of a prehistoric cemetery. The Cantiorix Inscription is a stone grave marker from the early post-Roman era, now located at the church at Penmachno. It is the first known historical reference to the Kingdom of Gwynedd.

The Stones of Ardudwy
Travelling north on the A496 road from Barmouth toward Harlech one soon comes upon the village of Dyffryn Ardudwy situated  at the foot of Moelfre, part of the Rhinogydd range. Signposted from the school it is a short walk from the main road to the twin burial chambers constructed on the west-facing coastal strip of Ardudwy. The site consists of two well preserved cromlechs about 8 metres apart on a platform of white rock, the western most monument is the eldest, estimated to have been built c.3500 BC.

Just a few miles from here is Bron y Foel Isaf Burial Chamber, now badly damaged, the huge capstone and incorporated into a dry stone wall.  This was one of three stones thrown by Arthur from the top of Moelfre. Close by is the stone circle of Waun Hir Ring Cairn. About a mile east of Dyffryn Ardudwy is Cors-y-Gedol Cromlech with just one orthostat precariously supporting the tipped capstone.

Cors-y-Gedol Cromlech 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Travelling further north is the little Welsh village of Llanbedr. Tucked away behind some houses, 120m east of the Afon Artro, are two standing stones known as Meini Hirion. One is a fine menhir, the other looking suspect and rather fragile. Some believe these stones to be the remains of a stone circle, but more likely a single menhir marking a Bronze Age trade route from the sea into the mountains. At the north end of the village is St Peter's Church, tucked away behind the font is a stone about three feet tall with a spiral carving at the top, about 30cm across. Apparently the stone was brought down from a hut circle above Llanbedr.

About a mile and a bit west of Llanbedr is a sandy peninsula of land known as Shell Island (Mochras). In 1819 the 9th Earl of Winchilsea created the present Llandanwg harbour entrance by diverting the river Artro to improve access to the wharf at Pensarn which was the shipment point for slate brought down from Llanfair and Llanbedr. The Artro had previously entered the sea south of Shell Island, the diversion is responsible for creating Morfa Dyffryn sand dunes. The peninsula is said to have been connected to the mythical Cantre'r Gwaelod, the lowland hundred. Accounts variously suggest the tract of land now submerged beneath the sea once extended from Bardsey Island to Cardigan or as far south as Ramsey Island. Legends of the land suggest that it may have extended 20 miles west of the present coast. Although there is no reliable physical evidence for this legendary land under the sea, reports persist of sightings and sounds of the ringing of old church bells.

Sunken Lands
Legend claims that Gwyddno Garanhir (Longshanks) once ruled these lands now submerged beneath Cardigan Bay. Seithenyn, a notorious drunkard, is blamed for the incident as he fell asleep and failed to shut the floodgates causing the inundation of the land. A similar myth persists around the north Wales coast in Llys Helig (Helig's Court) where Elphin found a baby in a fish trap, and named him Taliesin. About seven miles west of Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire, is a collection of stones, named as Caer Wyddno, "the fort or palace of Gwyddno" which Samuel Lewis, claimed in The Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1849), is adjoined by the vestiges of one of more of the more southern causeways or embankments of Cantre'r Gwaelod. Remains of a submerged forest at Borth add fuel to the myth.

Oceanographic map of  Tremadoc Bay
(© Crown copyright)
The "causeways" described by Lewis can still be seen today in Cardigan Bay. Known as 'Sarnau' these ridges stretch several miles out to sea from the coast. Sarn Badrig, or Sarn Padrig ('St. Patrick's Causeway' in Welsh), is the longest and most northerly of these, can be seen at neap tides extending south-westwards under the sea from Mochras Point, on Shell Island for a distance of about 15 miles. There are claims that Sarn Badrig runs all the way to Ireland and St Patrick used it to journey between the two lands. A little further south down the coast is the causeway of Sarn y Bwch, close to Tywyn and just north of Aberystwyth is Sarn Gynfelyn. These causeways are said to be linear shingle reefs of glacial deposits left by receding ice sheets at the end of the last ice age and probably connected to distant memories of the flood.

Further along the coast from Shell Island in the Llandanwg dunes is the historic church of St. Tanwg, said to have been the son of Ithel the Generous of Armorica of the 6th century. The church's position in the sand dunes used to cause it to disappear under the sand each winter whilst it was closed. The present church building is medieval, dating from the 13th century, however there are two 6th century inscribed stones indicating much earlier activity, and it has probably been a place of worship from the early 5th century.

The ancient church is thought to have been founded around 435 AD as part of St. Patrick's communication system between Ireland and Britain, and oddly not so far from the point where Sarn Badrig comes ashore by Mochras Point. But it's all just legend of course!

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

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