Wales: the King Arthur connection

“On a lonely sword leaned he,
Like Arthur on Excalibur
In the battle by the sea.”

G K Chesterton The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911

Well,  which sea,  you might ask? King Arthur is a legendary figure claimed by much of northern Europe, but we’d argue that Wales’s relationship with the Once and Future King is the most compelling.

His story is a sweeping epic filled with grisly foes, timeless romance and unmatched heroism, so it’s unsurprising that everyone wants a piece of the Arthur legend.

Today, academics widely agree that King Arthur is a wholly fictional chap. Despite this, many locations in the UK and beyond have been linked with the legendary king and his valiant knights, such as Camelot, the mythical seat of Arthur and home of the famous Round Table.

Wales, with its bardic tradition of  storytelling and singing, has a particularly deep connection with the Arthur legend. In 1879, folklorist Wirt Sikes wrote: “In a certain sense, Wales may be spoken of as the cradle of fairy legend. It is not now disputed that from the Welsh were borrowed many of the first subjects of composition in the literature of all the cultivated peoples of Europe.”

The very first references to Arthur were written in ancient Welsh (or Brythonic, the language from which Welsh descends). Starting with the Roman invasion and continuing until around 1000 AD, the Brythonic people were systematically pushed west by a string of conquerors. As they fled, their language and culture went with them, to be preserved in the oral tradition by the Welsh bards. This goes some way to explain why the Arthurian legends become more tangible the further west you travel in Britain.

First mentions

The earliest reference to Arthur is in Aneirin’s Y Gododdin, a poem dating from around 594 AD. It is the earliest surviving Welsh poem and tells the tale of the warriors of Gododdin who died at the Battle of Catraeth (modern day Catterick in Yorkshire) fighting the Saxons.

The poem references Arthur, which suggests he was already a celebrated figure at the time of its composition. Arthur’s appearance in such an early text suggests that his story is rooted deep in Welsh folklore.

A bard’s tale

There is also an early Welsh text, the Historia Brittonum, from around 800 AD, which reads: “Arthur fought at that time against them (the Saxons) in those days along with the kings of the Britons, but he was their leader in battles.”

The poem lists Arthur’s battles, culminating with his participation in the Battle of Badon Hill.

A matter of record

In the earliest mentions of Arthur in Welsh texts, he is never given the title of king. However, the texts frequently refer to him as ameraudur which means emperor or war leader. Among Arthurian historians, there is a belief that the real Arthur was actually a Romano-British warlord who defended Britain against waves of Saxon invaders in the 5th or 6th century.

The earliest version of the Welsh Annals was composed in the mid-10th century. In it, there are two key references to Arthur: firstly, at the Battle of Badon where he is said to have carried the cross of Jesus on his shoulders for three days and nights (most likely emblazoned upon his shield); and, secondly, at the Battle of Camlann, where he was killed at the hands of the evil knight Mordred.

These chronicles were compiled or derived from diverse sources at St David’s in Dyfed, Wales. Like the Annals, all other sources that name Arthur were written at least 400 years after the events they describe and it is possible they are a mix of many orals traditions, not just Welsh.

However, both the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth and French troubadour Chrétien de Troyes place Camelot in Caerleon, South Wales, one of three significant Roman forts in early medieval Britain.

… and that’s a fact!

Most of Arthur’s contemporaries were content to wax lyrical over the king’s valour, fictitious or otherwise, but early chronicler William of Malmesbury went one step further.

In Gesta regum Anglorum, he writes: “This the Arthur about whom the foolish tales of the Britons rave even today. One who is clearly worthy to be told about in truthful histories rather than to be dreamed about in deceitful fables, since for a long time he sustained his ailing nation, and sharpened the unbroken minds of his people to war.”

He seemed very sure that Arthur was indeed a native Briton.

The Mabinogion

The legend of Arthur and his knights also appears in The Mabinogion, a collection of eleven stories collated from early medieval Welsh manuscripts (you can read more about it here).

The Mabinogion stories meld mythology, folklore and history. They were written down in the fourteenth century but are based on much older stories from the oral tradition – when tales and news were spread by travelling storytellers or bards.

Five of the tales involve Arthur and his knights and include one of the earliest references to the Grail legend. Three of them are set at Arthur’s court which, according to The Mabinogion, is located in Wales.

If you fancy physically following in King Arthur’s footsteps, why not take a look at this blog we wrote? With it you will explore Snowdonia from a completely new perspective!

Image courtesy: Creator:John Garrick / Public domain, 1862.

Exploring the world of the Welsh mystics

The region surrounding our hotel is plentiful with ancient sites and stone circles, which begs the question – why are they there?

Welsh history and oral tradition are steeped in mysticism and otherworldly stories, and it seems that they have some roots in pre-Christian Britain.

Everything intrinsically ‘Welsh’ entwines the land and its spirits, and the tradition of this goes back millennia. Today, we’re going to take you back in time to explore the roots of Welsh mysticism and learn more about this sacred land.

The men, the myth

Druids, the ancient priests of Celtic Britain, have long kindled our imaginations. We cultivate a stereotypical image of a white-robed wise man, but what else do we know about these powerful yet elusive figures?

The druids were first mentioned more than 2,000 years ago and were described as observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers. Similar to the druids were the bards. The bards were singers, poets and diviners who interpreted sacrifices in order to foretell the future.

Historically, the Welsh people believed that the environment had magical links and practiced ritual and sacrifice to appease their many deities. Gods lay in the water of fast-flowing streams and in the bark of the Sacred Oak. The moon, the sun and the stars were also important and they divined the future by looking to the heavens. They also worshipped the time of the tide and the changing of the seasons.

A bloody history?

Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, gave an account of when the Roman army, led by Suetonius Paulinus, attacked the sacred isle of Ynys Mon (Anglesey). Tacitus is the only primary source that gives accounts of druids in Britain though he remained hostile toward them, believing them to be ignorant savages.

On landing on the isle, the Roman legionaries were startled by the appearance of a band of druids, who were described as forming a circle ‘lifting their hands to heaven’, which is in keeping with some Celtic images that we have of their shamans in prayer.

The druids were cursing whilst the blood of prisoners drenched upon their altars (a chilling image) as they requested aid from the Gods to avenge them. That they formed a circle would imply that they believed that some sort of power was derived from this ritual. The courageous Romans, however, soon overcame their fears. The Britons were put to flight, and the sacred groves were cut down.

Nora Chadwick, an expert in medieval Welsh and Irish literature, emphatically believed that the druids were merely great philosophers, and not involved in human sacrifice at all. Tacitus’s account clearly has prejudice, but there is seemingly some truth to his statement.

Offerings were made to the Gods in return for protection and good fortune, and there’s evidence to suggest that humans were set before the Gods as payment. The ritual deposition of items in Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey includes swords, spears, chariot fittings, horse bridles, cauldrons and a trumpet. However, although they were omitted from the report, the excavation at this site did recover human remains.

A new age (ironically)

The raid on Anglesey effectively marked the end of Druidism as an effective force in Britain but worship of the gods was tolerated under the Roman regime.

Further to the Roman invasion, the introduction of metalworking to Wales seems to have had an effect on the religious practices of the natives, too. Dolmens and stone circles were no longer constructed. This is perhaps because the making of metal was believed to be an act of magic in itself. This new, tangible alchemy seduced them into leaving the old ways behind.

Have a look for yourself!

Archaeologists have spent centuries trying to establish the origins of these mysterious stones. Luckily, there is now sufficient evidence available to make an educated guess as to the purpose of Wales’s mystical spots. Constructed in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Bronze Age c. 3,500 BC and 1,500 BC, there are dozens of these landmarks in Wales.

Some academics suggest they were ancient places of worship, constructed high on hills to be close to the gods, and yet others claim the structures were solely to appease them. Others will claim that they were used in burial ceremonies, or that stone circles are often aligned with constellations indicating a prehistoric knowledge of the heavens. It’s also possible that they had a dual function as community centres, where tribes could meet and trade. Whatever their purpose, they have survived, and perhaps one day scientific advances will allow some more of their mysteries to be unravelled.

Here three spiritual spaces you might want to explore:

Barclodiad y Gawres

Barclodiad y Gawres is one of the most impressive of the many prehistoric remains on the Isle of Anglesey. This Neolithic chambered tomb has been partially reconstructed, which helps a great deal to give an idea of the site and how it was used. The tomb’s name means ‘the giantess’s apronful’, which gives you an idea of its impressive size. The tomb is built to a cruciform pattern, with a central area with a hearth, and side chambers.

There is a wealth of carved stones, particularly several carved with spiral patterns which are unique in Wales. Two cremated male burials were discovered in a side chamber.

Bryn Cader Faner Cairn Circle

If you’re ready for a real trek up into the Welsh heartland, this cairn circle is really impressive, and has likely survived so well because of its remote positioning. Access is via a 4-mile walk through marshy ground, so be sure to wear proper walking boots!

Top tip: there is a small parking on a no through road past the Maes-Y-Neuadd hotel (LL47 6YA) near Talsarnau.

Fifteen stones survive here, and they’re up to six feet tall. The stones are spread out from the centre of the cairn like a porcupine’s bristles. There were originally up to 30 standing stones, but the site was damaged prior to World War Two. The military removed some stones from the east side of the circle and used the circle for target practice.

At the centre of the cairn is a depression that suggests a grave, left by treasure-hunters in the 1800s. If there were any remains at the centre of the cairn they were removed, but why the combined stone circle and cairn? Perhaps this spot is a result of different traditions harmonising together at once.

Bryn Celli Ddu Burial Chamber

Bryn Celli Ddu is a Neolithic chambered tomb, and a perfect spiritual location to celebrate the dawn of the Summer solstice. People flock to Anglesey from far and wide to observe the druidic service that accompanies the rising of the sun during the solstice. As the first rays of dawn penetrate the open doorway, lighting the inner burial chamber, it is filled with a sense of life, even in a place of the dead. That said, it’s also a marvellous place to enjoy a picnic on a sunny afternoon!

Bryn Celli Ddu is perhaps Anglesey’s best-known prehistoric monument, a burial chamber known in English as ‘the mound in the dark grove’. It is unique in being the only tomb to be aligned directly with the rising sun on the summer solstice on the island.

Continuing tradition

In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century and during the 1700s, the image of the druids became what it is today. From then, the Druids were seen as the ancestors of the bards, the beloved poets, musicians and genealogists who flourished in Welsh medieval society.

Stone circles haven’t been built in thousands of years, but the practice was revived following the activities of 18th-century antiquarian Iolo Morgannwg. It must have caused quite the stir when it became a part of the activities of the National Eisteddfod! Today, wherever the Eisteddfod visits a stone circle is erected and is the focus of Bardic ceremonies during Eisteddfod week.

Yes, it’s exciting to be told stories of giants and dragons, lake-dwelling sorceresses and gallant knights, but if you’re hankering for a story about ancient tribes communing with the stars and exacting terrible violence of unlucky souls chosen for sacrifice, then you needn’t turn to fairytales!

Image courtesy: Sterim64, 15 September 2018, Sterim64 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).