Sunday 11 March 2018

Madoc and the Discovery of America

Horn Gwennan, brought to the Gele,
To be given a square mast,
Was turned back to Afon Ganol’s quay
For Madog’s famous voyage

Madoc's Lost Harbour
Odstone House, Rhos on Sea, was designed and built by Manchester architect, Henry Goldsmith in 1912. Odstone had stood empty for the last ten years and became derelict with no interest from potential buyers for this colonial style house at Penrhyn Bay on the North Wales coast. Sadly the only interest came from a property developer Madock Development Ltd who planned to demolish Odstone and replace it with a dozen luxury apartments situated next to the golf course.

Odstone House
The driveway at Odstone is said to be formed from an old pier wall where legend has it that Prince Madoc set sail in 1170, crossed the Atlantic and landed at what is now Mobile, Alabama in the Americas. Madoc's legendary voyage was commemorated on a bronze plaque outside the house.

Madoc plaque at Odstone House
The Afon Conwy did not always follow its current course and the present day estuary is a more recent development; thousands of years ago the Conwy flowed through the site of the Rhos on Sea golf course and into the sea at Penrhyn Bay, possibly the old river delta. It is thought the prehistoric Conwy flowed through the course of the Afon Ganol down the Mochdre valley and discharged at Penrhyn Bay.

The course of the Conwy abandoned the Mochdre valley when it became blocked at its northern end by Irish Sea Ice. During the glacial retreat the valley remained in a state of constant saturation for a long period forming a boggy, marsh environment. Subsequent silting blocked off most of the Conwy’s old course with the much reduced flow following the ancient course which survives as Afon Ganol. For a long period the mouth of this river formed a navigable inlet; ancient documents record it use by ships of between “20 or 30 tun”.

Old maps of Penrhyn Bay show a large meandering marshy area across Morfa Rhyd with a stream forking towards Rhos on Sea. The main flow continued over the present golf links, passed through the grounds of Odstone House and out to sea.

When a new sewer was being constructed opposite the site of Odstone House in 1907, a stone wall about 12 foot thick, with holes said to be for iron stanchions, was discovered about 700 yards from the shore. Then during rebuilding of the sea wall in 1954 stone blocks were unearthed in the form of two walls about seven feet apart splaying to nine feet apart; 30 yards of the ancient quay formed part of a rockery in the Odstone House garden, with the drive passing over the top of it. The former owner of Odstone House that had lived there for some 50 years said that her father had told her that Prince Madoc had set sail for America from an old stone pier in the garden.

A 15th century poem by Cynric ap Gronow records how Madoc's legendary ship Gwennan Gorn set sail from Gele (Abergele) but turned back to Afon Ganal's quay after being caught in a storm. However, another account claims Madoc sailed from the Glaslyn estuary on the west coast of Wales. Before William Madocks damned the outflow and the estuary silted up there was an island there called Ynys Fadog which it is claimed was named after Prince Madoc who set sail from this point. William Madocks built a village on the land he reclaimed from the sea and called it Tremadog, not after himself as many thought, but after the Prince who sailed for America. More than one departure point for Prince Madoc does not contradict the legend which claims that he returned from his initial voyage, gathered a larger fleet then left Wales, this time never to be seen again.

The Legend
This well known persistent Welsh legend claims that America had been discovered by Prince Madoc ap Gwain Gwynedd some 300 years before Columbus. Prince Madoc, a son of Owain 12th century ruler of Gwynedd, sailed out of Rhos on Sea on the North Wales Coast, in 1170 to find a new place to live across the western ocean. Some years later he returned with news of a 'new abundant country', gathered a fleet of ships and hundreds of expectant settlers and sailed west again, never to return.

Legend tells that they landed somewhere in the area of what is now Alabama, and settled with a native American tribe known as the Mandans. In the 17th century as America was colonised reports filtered back to Britain of contact with Welsh speaking American Indians. In 1669 Reverend Morgan Jones reported that his life was spared by a tribe of North American Indians because they were Welsh speaking; in 1810, Major Amos Stoddard, first Governor of Tennessee, discovered that Indian history believed that ancient forts close to the Alabama River were built by the Welsh whose leader was called “Modok”. However, on their expeditions across North America during 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark reported that they had not found any evidence of Welsh speaking Indians. The Mandan tribe are said to have been wiped out by a smallpox epidemic introduced by traders in 1837.

Back in the late 16th century John Dee, occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, used the story of Prince Madoc's discovery of America prior to Columbus to assert British claims to “all the Coasts and Islands beginning at or about Terra Florida......unto Atlantis going Northerly.” Dee claimed to have drawn his information from an 'ancient Welsh chronicle'. Without doubt Madoc's story had been in oral circulation for some years but it wasn't until Sir George Peckham's 'True Reporte of the late Discoveries of the Newfound Landes' of 1583 that the tale appeared in print for the first time. Peckham also pointed to the 'ancient Welsh chronicles' as his source. Dee had also cited King Arthur as conqueror of Frisland in the north polar regions and therefore his heir Queen Elizabeth had a legitimate claim there.

However, there is just the faintest hint that knowledge of Madoc's discovery was known before Columbus 'discovered' the New World when he landed in the West Indies in 1492.

Richard Hakluyt in his 'Principal Navigations' (1600) cites a poem by Maredudd ap Rhys, dated to around 1440, which suggests there was a Welsh tradition extant in the 15th century of a seafarer by the name of Madoc, although the poem does not specifically mention the discovery of America. David Powel published an edition of Humphrey Llwyd's 1599 translation of the ancient Welsh Chronicles (Cronica Walliae) to which Powel added details of Madoc's second voyage, referring to Gutyn Owain who wrote between 1470 and 1490 that Madoc “went thither againe with ten sailes”. This now appears to be a lost source as Madoc is not mentioned in any of Gutyn Owain's surviving manuscripts.

John Cabot discovers Newfoundland
Yet, Columbus was certainly aware of the discovery of Newfoundland off the North American coast by the Men of Bristol in 1480 who had claimed to be searching for the legendary island of Hy-Brasil. Later in 1497 the Venetian explorer John Cabot made the 'official discovery' of the coast of North America under the commission of King Henry VII of England.

Odstone House Demolished
In 2016, some 800 years after Madoc set sail from Penrhyn Bay, more than 2,000 signatures were gathered in an attempt to save Odstone House after a planning application was submitted by agent Cadnant Planning on behalf of Madock Development to demolish the property and build 12 apartments. Campaigners argued the landmark property was built in the “Arts and Crafts” style and an important part of local heritage.

Odstone House, derelict just prior to demolition in 2016
Later that year, Madock Developments withdrew the application to permit Cadw to assess the historic value of the building. Following a review and site visit, Cadw, the Welsh Government’s department to conserve Wales’s heritage, confirmed Odstone did not represent a building of any special architectural interest and presumably there was no evidence of the ancient quay.

Subsequently, Madock Developments resubmitted their planning application and by September 2017 Odstone House had been demolished and any remains of Madoc's quay with it.

But they couldn't demolish the legend of Prince Madoc's discovery of America; in 1953, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a plaque at Mobile Bay:

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  1. Sadly the driveway has been flattened too all for these carbuncle flats


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