Sunday, 29 June 2014

Harlech: The Assembly of Bran

'Bendigeidfran son of Llyr was the crowned king of this Island, and exalted with the crown of London. One afternoon he was at Harlech in Ardudwy, a court of his. Seated on the rock of Harlech above the ocean were [Bendigeidfran] with his brother Manawydan son of Llyr.'

Twr Bronwen
Ardudwy features prominently in Welsh mythology; this is Mabinogion country. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr, Bendigeidfran holds court at Harlech, and his severed head is returned there for seven years before it is taken on to Gwales for a further four-score years.

Continuing our journey through Ardudwy travelling on the A496 about ten miles north of Barmouth we arrive at Harlech in the parish of Llandanwg, in the Merioneth district of Gwynedd. The parish is named after Saint Tanwg, said to be the founder of the small church at Llandanwg, about two miles south of Harlech, often covered by the shifting sand dunes on the coast nearby. The current church at Llandanwg dates from the 13th century but two rare inscribed stones there suggest a possible 5th century origin. In the centre of Harlech is another church dedicated to Saint Tanwg built in the 19th century as the new parish church, complete with the 15th century font from Llandanwg.

Harlech Castle (copyright CADW)
But it is the castle that is the prominent feature of this little north Wales village, once situated on the coast but now about a kilometre from its original position on the coastline some six hundred years ago. The castle is perched on the edge of the Harlech rock, once lapped by the sea but due to the expanding dune system has been pushed back inland. Hence, the seaward side of the castle was effectively defended by the cliffs of the precipice and the landward side protected by a deep, wide ditch.

Some Roman coins and a golden torque have been discovered in the area which has led to the suggestion that Harlech may have been the site of a fortified Roman post, constructed to defend the estuaries of Traeth Mawr and Traeth Bach. Others suggest the castle was founded by Maelgwyn Gwynedd in the early 6th century. The site is traditionally associated known as Caer Collwyn, said to have been the residence of Collwyn ab Tango in the 9th century, one of the fifteen tribes of North Wales, and lord of Eivionydd, Ardudwy, and part of Lleyn, who inhabited a square tower which later became incorporated into the modern castle.

However, there is no firm evidence for any structure having existed on the site prior to the present castle built by Edward I in the late 13th century. The castle, of which the towers and much of the curtain walls remain, was a massive 210 feet square structure, started in 1283 by Edward I, who chartered the town. Harlech was also known as Twr Bronwen; the south west tower of the castle is today still known as Bronwen's tower.

Sited outside the castle walls overlooking Tremadog Bay is The Two Kings sculpture by Ivor Robert-Jones. The figure depicts the sad story of Bendigeidfran carrying the body of his dead nephew Gwern from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, a collection of Welsh mythological tales found in two medieval manuscripts: the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch); and the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest). Although, in their current manuscript form, dated to the 14th century the Four Branches contain much older, pre-Christian material. The mythological character Pryderi appears in all Four Branches, although not always the central character, the tales are thought to have originally formed an ancient tradition surrounding his life. A collection of traditional tales was assembled by Lady Charlotte Guest in the mid 19th century. Being the first to publish English translations of The Four Branches, together with five Native Tales (Hanes Taliesin is not always included in the collection) and The Three Romances, Guest named the tales collectively as “The Mabinogion.”

The Two Kings sculpture by Ivor Robert-Jones
The Assembly of Bran
Bendigeidfran (literally "Blessed Raven") is a god-king of the Island of the Mighty in Welsh mythology. He appears in several of the Welsh Triads, but his features prominently in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen daughter of Llŷr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). The presence of Llŷr immediately informs us we are in the realm of the gods of  Welsh mythology. Llŷr was a sea god, father to Bendigeidfran, Branwen and Manawydan (The Children of Llŷr) known on both sides of the Irish Sea as cognate to Lir, father of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir from Irish mythology.

The Second Branch starts with Bendigeidfran and his companions seated at Harlech. They could see thirteen ships in the distance coming from Ireland. The ships had come from Matholwch, king of Ireland, to petition for the hand in marriage of the king's sister Branwen, daughter of Llyr, one of the three High Matriarchs of the Island of the Mighty. Bendigeidfran consented to Matholwch during a feast at Aberffraw, held in pavilions as Bendigeidfran had never been contained within a house.

Meanwhile, Bendigeidfran's half brother Efnisien, a quarrelsome man, feeling insulted that Branwen his sister had been given way without his consent set about mutilating the horses of Matholwch, he “sliced their lips back to their teeth, and their ears back to their heads, and their tails to their backs - and wherever he could get a grip on their eyelids, he would cut these back to the bone.”

By way of recompense, Bendigeidfran presented Matholwch with a cauldron with a peculiarity that “any man who is killed today and thrown in the cauldron, by the next day he will be as good as he was at his best, except he will not be able to talk.” He tells Matholwch  that the cauldron had originally come from a man from his own land, Llasar Llaes Gyfewid who had escaped with his wife Cymidei Kymeinvoll from the Iron House which had been made white hot around them. Matholwch says he knows of this and saw a large, monstrous man bringing a cauldron out of the “The Lake of the Cauldron” in Ireland.

Matholwch, together with Branwen, left for Ireland. This was The Assembly of Branwen and Matholwch. Branwen fell pregnant and in due course gave birth to a boy named Gwern, son of Matholwch. After three years of mistreatment in Ireland, Branwen sent a starling carrying a mesage to find Bendigeidfran. The bird found the king of the Island of the Mighty in Caer Seint. On reading of his sister's abuse he mustered the full levy of the seven-score and fourteen districts of the island. After taking council, Bendigeidfran decided to attack Ireland leaving just the seven elders in the island, this was The Assembly of Bran, with Caradog son of Bran as the chief elder among them.

“Bendigeidfran, and the aforementioned hosting sailed towards Ireland. The ocean was not extensive [back] then: he went by wading. There used to be nothing except two rivers called the Lli and the Archen. And after that the ocean spread out, and the sea flooded the kingdoms. Then he advanced, carrying all the string-minstrels on his back, making for the land of Ireland.

They took council with the men of Ireland  but fighting broke out when Efnisien threw Gwern into the fire and every man in the house reached for their weapons, that was when Mordwyt Tyllion said 'Dogs of Gwen, beware Mordwyt Tyllion.2

Plate form the Gundestrup Cauldron
Then the Irish began to kindle a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth, the cauldron that Bendigeidfran had presented to Matholwch, with the dead thrown in until it was full. The next day they would rise up, fighting men as good as before, except they would not be able to talk. Realising he was the cause of this devastation, Efnissiyen decided he had to bring an end to the carnage. He crawled in amongst the corpses of the Irishmen and got thrown into the cauldron. He then stretched himself out until the cauldron shattered into four pieces, breaking his heart at the same time.

And victory then went to the men of the Island of the Mighty but only seven men, along with Bendigeidfran wounded in his foot with a poisoned spear, survived: Pryderi, Manawydan; Glifieu Eil Taran; Taliesin; Ynawg; Gruddieu son of Muriel; and Heilyn son of Gwyn the Old.

And then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head:

'Take the head' said he 'and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.'

Continued in the Assembly of the Wondrous Head

See: Brân - Celtic god of Hades

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Quotations are from The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr by Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Bardic Press, 2005.
2. "Mordwyt Tyllion" means "pierced thighs", and is usually assumed to refer to Bran himself.
This interjection seems to be mirrored in The Book of Taliesin poem Song Before the Sons of Llyr which includes the lines: "I have been with Bran in Ireland, I saw when Morddwydtyllon was killed." The poem is clearly linked to the events of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi as it mentions "A battle against the sons of Llyr in Ebyr Henfelyn" (the estuary of the Severn).

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