WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II
“SO WHY HASN’T HE GOT ANY ARMS OR LEGS, THEN? VANDALS?”
“’Vandals’! It’s meant to be artsy…”
“What do you mean?”
“You know- it symbolises something. You’re supposed to, like… interpret it.”
We stand there for a moment, squinting in the low winter sun as we gaze up at Ivor Robert-Jones’ (an English sculptor of Welsh heritage) bronze statue of the giant king Bendigeidfran. He’s riding a horse, upon which is mounted the body of his deceased nephew, Gwern.
“… I think it’s supposed to represent the loss of something you love, or something that’s important to you. 'Like losing a limb’, kinda’ thing…”
“Look- there’s a plaque over there!” Dad walks over to a pair of informational plaques, one in English and the other in Welsh.
“…only thing is, in the story, Gwern was only a baby, or a young boy, at least, and he was thrown into a fire… and Bendigeidfran never rode home on a horse, he was beheaded…”
“The dimensions are all wrong, anyway! I thought he was supposed to be a giant- how the hell could he be riding a horse?!” he stands with his hands on his hips and reads out aloud: “’The Two Kings’. The Mabinogion story of Branwen is a lament over the folly and carnage of war. Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran, the King of Britain, departed from the court at Harlech to marry the King of Ireland. Their son, the boy King Gwern, was killed in the war which followed… in the sculpture, the figure of Bendigeidfran, bearing the body of his nephew Gwern, symbolises the sorrowful burden that love can be- you were right! Commissioned by the Welsh Arts Council and presented to the people of Wales in 1984…”
“Hmm… wonder why it’s called the ‘Two Kings’ though… Bendigeidfran was a king, don’t think Gwern was… future king of Ireland, maybe…?”
The Irish offered to make Gwern King of Ireland the same time they built Bendigeidfran a palace in order to make peace when they were losing the war. But you shouldn’t look to Wikipedia for such information- Gwern’s page states that Efnysien cast him into the fire “seemingly without motive”, when in actual fact he did so after discovering that the palace offered to Bendigeidfran was nothing more than a ‘Trojan horse’.
Dad returns to my side and looks up at the statue for a moment, then turns and heads back towards the car park. “Come on, then…”
In WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part I, I told the story of Branwen from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, one of the most popular and well-known tales from the Mabinogion, and gave you a brief background on the history of the Mabinogion themselves. I also paid a visit to Bedd Branwen, rumoured to be Branwen’s final resting place, along the banks of Afon Alaw on Anglesey. We learned that numerous places are mentioned in this tale, a tale that by no means restricts itself to Welsh locales (it also features locations in England and Ireland).
Indeed, one could write an entire book dissecting Branwen’s story, let alone on visiting all the locations mentioned in the tale, as well. However, for the sake of allowing myself time to cover other tales, I have decided to visit only one other location from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi; Harlech (or ‘Harddlech’ as it appears in the tale, meaning ‘pretty stone/slate’), said to be the site of Bendigeidfran’s court.
Many of the tales’ important events took place here. It is where Matholwch first arrives to ask Bendigeidfran (also known as Brân the Blessed) for his sister Branwen’s hand in marriage and where a scorned Efnysien mutilates Matholwch’s horses, an act that ultimately plants the seeds of war. It is also where Branwen’s tamed starling flies to across the Irish Sea to ask for Bendigeidfran’s help and where the giant king’s head is kept for seven years following the war, entertaining guests with mead and angelic music.
It is said that Bendigeidfran’s court was built on top of the rocky knoll upon which Harlech Castle now stands, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Welsh ever built any kind of structure here. Nevertheless, the castle and the town built around it have played important roles in Welsh history and culture over the years, and I think it’s worth exploring them further…
Harlech is a seaside town found in Gwynedd, north-west Wales, at Tremadog Bay in Snowdonia National Park. Prior to 1966, the town belonged to the Meirionydd District of Gwynedd, but the area is referred to as Ardudwy in the Mabinogion, which existed under the old Kingdom of Gwynedd. Ardudwy features heavily in the tales, and I shall discuss the area in further detail in future posts when covering the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. The town’s local secondary school, Ysgol Ardudwy, is named after the old district. Until 2017, the town was also home to Wales’ only long-term adult residential college, Coleg Harlech (sometimes referred to as the “college of second chances”), with the building now used by Adult Learning Wales and being the site of Theatr Harlech, formerly Theatr Ardudwy.
The sense of identity here at Harlech is somewhat divided- almost straight down the middle, in fact, with only 51% of the population being Welsh-speakers. Over half of the residents do not identify as Welsh. The main reason for this is that Harlech has been a popular seaside resort for many years (indeed, you can’t avoid the rows of caravans from the view on top of the castle), and many visitors decided to stay. From the castle, you also have a great view of Harlech’s sandy beach and the Royal Saint David’s Golf Club. To the east, you have the Rhonogydd/Rhinogs mountain range.
In 2007, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning (a World War II fighter plane) was unearthed on the beach, described as "one of the most important WWII finds in recent history". The plane came down in September 1942 when it was on a gunnery practice mission. The pilot was Second Lt Robert F Elliott, 24, of North Carolina. He survived, but was reported missing in action a few months later. In August 2019, Cadw, who also run most of the castles in Wales, Harlech included, gave the remains scheduled status, which made it the first legally protected military aircraft crash site in the UK.
There is a street in Harlech called ‘Ffordd Pen Llech’ (“road on top of the rock”) which was recognized by the Guinness World Records in 2019 as the steepest residential street in the world, with a gradient of 37.45%. Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand, measured in at 35%. However, the steepness of the roads were measured from the lower side of the streets but it was decided later that it was more accurate to measure from the middle, which knocked the gradient of Ffordd Pen Llech down to 28.6%. Baldwin Street came in at 35%, and the world record was lost.
Another interesting fact about Harlech is that the former Lord Harlech founded ITV Wales & West, which was originally named HTV/Harlech Television.
But we came for the castle, like most tourists. Heading through the gift shop, we’re treated to a short film that sums up the history of the place, then we cross the bridge over the moat and head inside.
UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) reckons that Harlech Castle, along with Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon, is one of the “finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe", and it is classed as a World Heritage Site. Construction began in 1282 as part of Edward I’s invasion of Wales and lasted until 1289. You may know him as “Edward Longshanks”, the tyrannical villain from Braveheart. English kings and Welsh princes had been fighting for control of North Wales since the 1070s, but battle-hardened Eddy decided to put an end to it once and for all...
He was a strong advocate of building impenetrable castles as a means of keeping control, and with the help of French architect Master James of Saint George (given the title ‘Master of the Royal Works in Wales’ in 1285 and constable of Harlech Castle from 1290 to 1293), built an “Iron Ring” of castles around Wales. What they found with such castles was that you didn’t need much manpower to defend them, as we shall discuss later. They were also useful tools for psychological warfare- as the courts (or ‘llysau’) of Welsh princes fell, Eddy and James would carefully deconstruct them then re-erect them within the walls of these castles, often using them as barns or pantries and such.
Harlech Castle’s defences were first put to the test in 1294-95, when Madog ap Llywelyn led a Welsh uprising against the English. His forces tried taking Harlech, which was manned by a garrison of around 36 men (with a blacksmith, a carpenter, a stonemason and the constable included in this). The Welsh thought they could starve them out at the very least, but they were not aware of “Edward’s secret weapon”, being a water-gate round the back where the English could sneak supplies in from the sea (at the time, the sea came right up to the rocky knoll, but now lies nearly a mile away). Needless to say, Madog’s efforts proved fruitless.
And so, the English ruled over Harlech from their castle on the hill for over a hundred years thereafter, until a certain Welsh rebel disturbed the peace once more- the man, the legend, Owain Glyndŵr.
Also known as Owain ap Gruffydd, Lord of Glyndyfrdwy and “Owen Glendower” to the English, Owain Glyndŵr’s antics are legendary, and he is often depicted as the “Welsh William Wallace” as it were, a national hero on all levels, whether you’re into burning down holiday homes or taking inflatable sheep to the rugby. But it would seem that he wasn’t much of a patriot in his early years…
Raised in north-east Wales, the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales was a descendant of the Princes of Powys on his father’s side and descendant of the Princes of Deheubarth on his mother’s side, which made him a descendant of Llywelyn the Great.
He attended university in London, and spent much of his youth brushing shoulders with the English elite. His military career began in 1384, serving under the infamous Sir Gregory Sais (a Welshman- the Welsh word for Englishman is “Sais”, but it has no connection to Sir Gregory) on the English-Scottish border. After this, in 1385, he fought for Richard II in the Scottish War.
His discontent towards the English came about when an argument occurred between him and his neighbour, Reginald de Grey, Lord of Rhuthin, after Reg stole some of his land. Reg was good mates with the king, and Glyndŵr’s pleas went unheard. As such, on September 16th, 1400, he instigated the Welsh Revolt against Henry IV. The rebellion kicked off to a good start for the Welsh, and the English suffered a series of devastating defeats, with several castles falling to the Welsh. News of the uprising spread fast across Europe, and the Welsh received support from both Scotland and Brittany. Soon after, King Charles VI of France also sent reinforcements. The English were under attack, and everyone wanted a piece of the action!
By 1403, only a small handful of castles still stood against Glyndŵr’s forces, Harlech included. With an inventory consisting of just three shields, eight helmets, six lances, ten pairs of gloves and four guns (this came as a surprise to me, but by that time, there existed a ballistics weapon called the ‘arquebus’, from which all other types of small arms and rifles derive), the English garrison didn’t stand a chance. Harlech Castle fell to the Welsh, and it became Glyndŵr’s residence, family home and military headquarters for four years.
In 1404, he was crowned Prince of Wales. He held parliament at Machynlleth, where he outlined his “National Programme for Wales”, which included plans to build two Welsh universities (one for the South and one for the North), to re-introduce the traditional Welsh laws of Hywel Dda and to set up an independent Welsh Church. Convoys from other countries, including Spain, France and Scotland, were also present.
Despite all this, with the use of better equipment and sheer numbers, the English turned the tide of the war in 1407. In 1408, following the orders of future king Henry V, English forces undertook a siege of the Harlech Castle, bombarding it with canons and destroying the southern and eastern parts of the outer walls. This didn’t quite do the trick, but Henry gave the job to a John Talbot while he went off to try and take back Aberystwyth Castle instead, and Harlech fell to the English a year later, with many of the Welsh having died of exhaustion (including Edmund Mortimer, the castle’s commander).
But Glyndŵr himself managed to escape, disguising himself as an old man and running to the hills with a band of loyal supporters. Like Robert Carlyle in 28 Weeks Later, he left his family behind, and they were incarcerated in the Tower of London. By 1409, the English had taken back most of Wales. Despite being offered a full pardon twice, Glyndŵr spent the rest of his days hiding in the woods, ambushing English forces. The last recorded sighting of him was in 1412, when he attacked English troops on a road in Brecon and captured one of Henry V’s leading supporters, holding him ransom. Despite there being a handsome reward offered for his capture, he was never betrayed.
Photos of sites associated with Glyndŵr, kindly donated by my friend, Rhodri ap Hywel (from top left: City Hall, his seal, Cardiff, Corwen, Machynlleth, stsatue in Pennal unveiled by Led Zeppelin member Robert Plant, Corwen, hill where he was proclaimed Prince of Wales, letters to France):
How he died and where he’s buried, however, remain a mystery. In fact, his disappearance transformed him into something of a mythical figure amongst the English and the Welsh. Alex Gibbon argued in The Mystery of Jack of Kent and the Fate of Owain Glyndŵr that the folk hero Jack o’ Kent (Siôn Cent in Welsh), mentioned in WHERE THE FOLK has the Most Extortionate Toll Charge Ever? was actually Owain Glyndŵr, and that he spent the rest of his days with his daughter Alys in Herefordshire, posing as either a friar, a chaplain or a tutor. Numerous other locations are said to be his final resting place, with some historians claiming that his grave was actually discovered by the English and his remains dug up and discarded in the wilderness.
Needless to say, he became something of a folk hero, someone with unearthly powers who would one day return to liberate the Welsh from their oppressors, much like King Arthur (see WHERE THE FOLK did King Arthur, his Sleeping Army and the Giant Caveman go?). Even William Shakespeare claimed in Henry IV, Part I that he “ruled with magic” and had the ability to “call spirits from the vasty deep”, saying that his enemies referred to him as “that damned magician” and that he could change the weather to suit his needs in battle. In his Tours in Wales (1778, 1781 and 1783), Thomas Pennant published some of the legends and places associated with his name (what I am now doing with Welsh legends and folktales in general).
Since then, he has had a profound impact on Welsh culture:
· The discovery of his Great Seal and letters to the French helped revive him as something of a national hero, and the political group Cymru Fydd (founded by the London Welsh in 1886) helped recreate him as “the father of Welsh nationalism”
· The English poet William Blake claimed that he appeared to him in a vision one night
· During WWI, Welsh Prime Minister David Lloyd George unveiled a statue of him at Cardiff City Hall and a postcard depicting his image was sold to raise money for wounded Welsh soldiers
· Stamps depicting his image were released in 1974 and 2008
· Meibion Glyndŵr (Sons of Glyndŵr), founded in 1979, is a Welsh nationalist group who strongly oppose the loss of Welsh culture and were responsible for setting fire to English-owned holiday homes between 1979 and the mid-1990s. In 1980, Welsh Police, under Operation Tân (Operation Fire) carried out a series of raids in in a bid to arrest the prominent members of the group. In the following decade, an estimated 220 properties were damaged, peaking in the late 1980s, when they shifted their focus towards the homes of Tory MPs. David Hunt, Welsh secretary at the time, was targeted in 1990. Three other movements tried taking the glory for the attacks (which included several bombings), namely Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement to Defend Wales), Cadwyr Cymru (The Keepers of Wales) and the Welsh Army for the Workers Republic (WAWR). Letters claiming responsibility for the attacks were signed “Rhys Gethin”, a homage to one of Glyndŵr’s closest allies. Rather controversially, Plaid Cymru member Elfyn Llwyd claimed that the group was a front to cover the activities of MI5!
· In 2000, celebrations were held all over Wales to commemorate the 600th anniversary of his revolt, including a historic re-enactment at the Millennium National Eisteddfod of Wales, Llanelli
· In 2003, he came second in the 100 Welsh Heroes poll, with Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, taking first place
· In 2007, the Manic Street Preachers released "1404" (see below)
· The same year, a statue of him was erected in Corwen, Denbighshire, not far from the Owain Glyndŵr Hotel (although, streets, parks and public squares have been named after him all over Wales, including the long-distance footpath, ‘Glyndŵr's Way’, and a well-known pub in central Cardiff)
· In 2008, what is now Glyndŵr University was established in Wrexham (formerly Wrexham School of Science and Art). There is also a residential residence in the University of Cape Town called ‘Glendower Residence’ named after him
· The Glyndŵr Award is an annual award for achievement in the arts and literature
· The name of the RGC 1404 (Rygbi Gogledd Cymru/North Wales Rugby) rugby union team pays homage to him
· There is a campaign to make September 16th a public holiday in Wales. This is yet to become a reality, but many schools and organisations do hold street parades on this day, such as 'Gŵyl y Fflam' (Festival of the Flame)
Indeed, whether you believe that Owain Glyndŵr was a patriot or simply getting his own back for the theft of his land, or that you associate his name with proud nationalism or needless terrorism, there is no denying that he has had a profound impact on Welsh culture and identity, and his name won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Here's a link to the Manic Street Preachers' song, "1404":
The events here at Harlech Castle helped turn the tide of the war in favour of the English, and perhaps even the course of Welsh history itself. Who knows what might have happened if Glyndŵr’s forces had held out! But the castle was also the site of another historic battle that had a huge impact on Welsh culture, and inspired one of the most popular songs of all time…
In the years that followed Glyndŵr’s rebellion, the people of England and Wales were once more embroiled in bloody war; this time, a series of civil wars dubbed the ‘Wars of the Roses’, caused by a feud between two rival factions of the House of Lancaster and the House of York.
Queen Margaret of Anjoy fled to Harlech Castle in 1460 after losing the Battle of Northampton. Led by Dafydd ap Ieuan, the Lancastrians held the castle from 1461-68, under what became known as “the seven-year siege”, being the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles.
This siege inspired the song and military march “Men of Harlech”, otherwise known as “The March of the Men of Harlech”, though it has often been associated with the time Glyndŵr held the castle. “Through Seven Years” is an alternative title for the song. There’s not a Welsh person alive who hasn’t heard this song, in some shape or form- I first heard it when watching the 1964 film Zulu (though that version was written especially for the film) on some lazy afternoon between Christmas and New Years’ Eve, no doubt! It gained international recognition, however, when it featured in the 1941 film, How Green Was My Valley.
The music for the song came first (1794) as ‘Gorhoffedd Gwŷr Harlech’ (March of the Men of Harlech) in the second edition of The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, although it is said to have been a much older folk song than that. The earliest printed version to have included lyrics appeared in a broadsheet newspaper in 1830. In the years that followed, numerous English translations of the song popped up, but there isn't one truly accepted English version out there.
It’s mainly used as a regimental march, particularly by the British Army and Commonwealth regiments associated with Wales. It is used as the slow march of the Welsh Guards, the quick march of the Royal Welsh and also as the march of the Royal Canadian Hussars (Montreal), The Governor Generals’ Horse Guards and The Ontario Regiment, oddly enough.
Indeed, “Men of Harlech” is known the world over: Rick Rescorla, Chief of Security for Morgan Stanley’s World Trade Centre office, performed a Cornish adaptation of the song on a bullhorn (amongst other songs) to help keep employee spirits high while they evacuated during the September 11th attacks in 2001. After that, he returned to the towers to save others, only for the towers to collapse on him.
Adapted versions are sung by fans of several Welsh football clubs and in schools and colleges the world over. It has also featured a lot in British popular culture, being used as the start-up music for the ITV station Teledu Cymru in the 1960s as part of HTV’s Wales Tonight theme from 1996 to 1999 and also as Fritz Spiegl’s BBC Radio 4 UK theme until April 2006. You may remember it from the ‘Pot Noodle Miners’ ads! Pot Noodles are manufactured in Croespenmaen near Crumlin, Caerphilly, you see.
I’ll attach a video link to Bryn Terfels’ rendition of the song for you at the end- even if you’re not into old songs or military marches, I’m sure you’ll find that you’ve heard it before!
As the tide of the wars turned in favour of the Yorkists, Harlech became the last major stronghold for the Lancastrians and their main base of operations. In 1566, Jasper Tudor (Henry VII's uncle) landed there with French reinforcements (using the water-gate round the back, no doubt) and he promptly raided the town of Denbigh. This caused the Yorkist Edward IV to panic, and he sent William Herbert, with an army of around 10,000 men, to seize the castle once and for all. The siege lasted a month, and the small garrison finally surrendered on August 14th.
Later, in 1642, the English Civil War between the Royalist supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians saw the folly of war return to Harlech Castle once more. The place hadn’t been patched up since the 1468 siege, and was practically unusable, though locals did use the gatehouse for local assizes (court hearings). Prince Rupert gave the task of repairing the castle to a Colonel William Owen in 1644. Good thing he did, for a long siege took place there from June 1646 right up until March 15th, 1647, when the garrison of just 44 men finally surrendered to Major-General Thomas Mytton. It was the last royal fortress to surrender, marking the end of the war.
To stop the Royalists or anyone else from ever using it again, Parliament ordered its slighting (destruction), but they must have hired a bunch of cowboys, for they only destroyed the staircases, technically rendering it unusable, but still standing. Looters were quick to take advantage of this, stealing a bunch of stones to build houses for themselves in the surrounding town.
For years thereafter, Harlech Castle, like most of the castles built by Edward I, became nothing more than a muse for artists and painters until its eventual restoration in the 21st Century for use as a museum and tourist attraction, as we know it today.
Seems a bit of an anti-climax, really, for a castle that has had such a profound influence on Welsh culture, from being the home of Bendigeidfran’s court in the Mabinogion to seeing the fall of Owain Glyndŵr to being the scene of the longest siege in British history (a siege that inspired one of the most beloved Welsh songs of all time). But at least it’s role in Welsh history will never be forgotten…
And so ends my coverage of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi- those of you who have read the Mabinogion might have spotted what I did there! I hope you have learned as much as I have on this trip. I shall leave you with Bryn Terfel’s rendition of the Men of Harlech… enjoy!
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know your thoughts on Owain Glyndŵr as a Welsh hero. There’s no denying that his actions have had a profound effect on Welsh history and culture, but what comes to mind when you see his flag raised in a crowd or hanging out a window? What does it mean to you?
Also, where did you first hear “Men of Harlech”, and what emotions does it evoke in you?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION: