WHERE THE FOLK did the "Mad Doctor" go to burn the Baby Welsh Messiah?
Updated: Feb 24, 2022
HIGH UP ON THE HILL above Talbot Green and its busy shopping centre sits an old town with an interesting history, a lot of which is shrouded in mystery. Apparently, the insulting hand gesture the “V-sign” was invented by the famous longbowmen of the town, the same men who helped make the three ostrich feathers the symbol of the Prince of Wales. A former vicar once said that he’s been called out for more blessings and exorcisms in this town than anywhere else in his career. Women accused of witchcraft were put on trial here, and the great-but-eccentric Dr William Price, whose own life is very much shrouded in myth and legend, cremated his baby son up on the hill, an event that would ultimately lead to the revival of cremation in the UK.
Can you tell where the folk it is yet? That’s right! I am heading up the steep, winding road that takes me up to Llantrisant. My original intention was to pop up there for a photo of the statue of Dr William Price, found on the town square, or “Bull Ring”, but I soon learned that by opting to go to there, I had opened Pandora’s Box- there is so much more to the town than a Bob Marley-esque statue of an eccentric surgeon!
The “Parish of the Three Saints” pays homage to Saint Illtyd, St Gwynno and St Dyfodwg. … St Illtyd was said to have been King Arthur’s cousin, and served him as a soldier in his youth. He was also one of the “triumvirate”, being the three men to whom Arthur gave custody of the Holy Grail, the other two being Cadoc and Peredur. Because of this, some scholars have tried connecting the “Knight Illtyd” with Sir Galahad. Illtyd was mentioned in WHERE THE FOLK do people Rap-Battle a Horse at Christmas?. Gwynno was regarded as a confessor and was said to have had a sacred well, Ffynnon Wyno. Llanwonno was discussed in WHERE THE FOLK is the Propa’ Valley Girl of the Lake, ‘en?. Dyfodwg was a disciple of Illtyd and was rumoured to have been a chieftain who was promised sainthood by the monks of Penrhys.
There is evidence of people having lived in Llantrisant from as far back as the Bronze Age. There seems to have been a wooden fortress built here, but it was seized by the Normans in 1246 and Richard de Clare built Llantrisant Castle in its place. A hundred years later, in 1346, the town was granted a Royal Charter, the same year that local archers helped Edward, the “Black Prince”, win against the French at the Battle of Crécy, bringing the three ostrich feathers back to Wales with them.
The Charter gave the merchants of Llantrisant the right to trade without paying any taxes to the Lord of Glamorgan. It also gave them the right to graze cattle out on the common, to vote in parliamentary elections (eventually) and award the powers as a gift or inheritance to their sons and sons-in-law. They became known as the “Free Men of Llantrisant”, or simply as the “Freemen”.
Through the Freemen, the town celebrates a tradition called the “Beating of the Bounds”, whereby every seven years, local children, often the offspring of local Freemen, are held up by their arms and legs and their backsides bounced on the boundary stones of the old borough. It is a seven-mile circular walk. The tradition goes back as far as the 14th Century, possibly to 1346, when Llantrisant was awarded its Royal Charter. Today, it attracts quite a crowd- recently as many as 15,000 people! The next one is due to take place in 2024, although, as I make my way through the narrow cobbled streets in search of a parking space, I wouldn’t recommend driving for it!
But the Beating of the Bounds isn’t solely reserved for Llantrisant. It is an ancient custom that people still carry on as a tradition today in other places like England and New England in America. It is often celebrated on “Gangdays”, from an old custom people had before the days of the Norman Conquest. You see, back in those days, detailed maps were hard to come by, so it was important to pass down the knowledge of parish limits in the event of legal disputes. Back then, the boys were sometimes whipped or violently bumped on the rocks to make sure they remembered! It is thought to have derived from the Roman celebration of “Terminalia”, a festival held in honour of Terminus, the god of landmarks. Although, Norsemen also brought pagan practices of a similar nature with them to the UK.
It is also worth mentioning that Llantrisant is the home of one of the longest-established male choirs in Wales; the Llantrisant Male Choir, which has been in existence since at least 1898.
I pass by the Cross Keys Hotel and head up a short hill to the centre of town. Back in the 1800s, the Cross Keys was used for “petty sessions” in which women accused of witchcraft were put on trial. As I wait for other cars to pass, my satnav hollering at me to “go straight”, I see the famous statue that I came here for, standing proud with his arms open to the world. Behind him is the Bull Ring, with the Model House behind that. Dotted around the Bull Ring are numerous pubs, cafes and restaurants, and an old antique toy shop.
Heading down the hill on the other side now, with the common stretching out in front of me, I descend a little then take a right and park up at the free car park before heading back up the hill on-foot. It’s a steep climb, and isn’t made any easier by the fact you have to climb up onto people’s front doorsteps at times to avoid traffic, but it’s not far. It being lunchtime, I decide to pop into the Butchers Arms Gallery & Coffee Shop, a rather quaint-looking former coaching inn tucked away behind the much-larger Bear Inn.
It’s busy inside, the air thick with the smell of coffee beans and freshly-baked cakes. The walls are adorned with locally-made goods. I’m greeted by the loveliest group of women you will ever meet, and taken to my table.
“The stuffing was freshly-made today... can I recommend the turkey and stuffing?”
“Sounds lovely, I’ll have it in a sandwich, please.”
“Go on, then! And a pot of tea, please. And one of those coffee and walnut cakes!”
“… and a coffee and walnut cake… righto! So, are you just visiting town, then?”
“I am. I’m writing a blog. Well… hopefully, one day, a book, on Welsh folklore.”
“Oh well, you’ve certainly come to the right place for that! Let me get you a leaflet!” she wanders off and comes back with some information on Llantrisant, complete with a brief history of each building of interest.
“Oh wow, thank you! I’m also hoping to head up to the top of the hill, to… what’s it called?”
“The Billy Wynt?”
It’s a place an old colleague of mine had pointed out to me when we took a client out shopping to Talbot Green once. She had grown up around here, and would often go up to there to admire the view and to cleanse her soul of life's stresses.
“What is it, then?”
“No one’s really sure, some say it’s a windmill…”
She wanders off, then returns with a little hand-drawn map of the town for me, with a marked route snaking through it. Notable landmarks were noted: “school”, “church”, “New Inn”, “cottages”.
“… that’s where they filmed The Indian Doctor back in 2010… and that’ll take you right up to the Billy Wynt!”
Indeed, it isn’t not long before I realize that the people of Llantrisant are both friendly and forthcoming; when I leave the café and cross the road onto the Bull Ring to snap a photo of the statue, a trio of friends call me over. They had been sitting in the table next to me back at the café and had heard about me writing about Welsh folklore. After telling me all about growing up in Llantrisant, they then start pointing out various places of interest, then give me a series of confusing and much-debated directions. But the one place I simply had to go to was the museum up at the Guildhall. I assure them that I’ll go just as soon as I was finished soaking up the Bull Ring.
The Bull Ring is the main focal point of the town, and was once the site of a bloody sporting event in which local farmers would tie a bull to a ring on the square and bring their terriers down. The owner of the dog who bit onto the bull’s tongue the longest won the prize money. It was disallowed in 1827, but not because it was cruel to animals- more that the local constabulary couldn’t put up with all the drunken crowds anymore!
WHAT THE FOLK can I see up at the Bull Ring...?
You can find several places of interest on the Bull Ring, according to my leaflet… a big feature is Model House. Now, the first workhouse in Glamorgan opened here in May 1784, but it was made up from several cottages, as well as part of the Black Cock inn. Then in 1884, the Union Workhouse was built, being the building you see here today. It replaced numerous demolished buildings, including several cottages and two pubs. Directly in front of it you’ll see the town pump, which supplied fresh(ish) water to the town. The place became known as “The Model House”, in the hope that its inmates would become model Christians. It is now an art and craft design centre ran by Rhondda Cynon Taf Council.
Another building that stands out is the Pink Zebra. Originally a bakery, it is now a shop selling various clothing and accessories. Near that is O’Sullivan’s Brasserie, a restaurant with a rather bizarre menu (just look at the photo of the specials board I took!). Expect python and llama stew, buffalo steaks, kangaroo… anything but the expected, really!
In any case, I should probably head over to the Guildhall to see if they have anything on William Price... although I do end up popping into Model House on the way, and the woman at the counter gives me a great insight into what life in Llantrisant is really like- and it sounds lovely!
So who the folk is this “Mad Doctor Price”, then? He featured in a chapter on “Dynion Hysbys” ("Welsh witchdoctors”, if you will, though they tended to be referred to as “Wise Men”. I shall discuss them in more detail in a future post) in a book on Welsh folklore that I read, but he stood out from the others for some reason. Perhaps it was because he had had such a profound impact on Welsh, well, British culture in his lifetime, or perhaps it was because I didn’t feel that he should have been classed as one of the Dynion Hysbys in the first place… whatever the reason, I felt that he at least deserved a post of his own.
There were some bizarre stories circulating about him, you see, like how he replaced a man’s amputated leg with that of a calf’s, and tricked an alcoholic into giving up the booze by convincing him that he had toads growing in his stomach. He did this by using a neat trick involving a bucket, induced vomiting and an actual, previously-acquired toad. But those were merely inflated rumours, and the great surgeon’s actual life story is a tale that needs to be told, in my opinion…
Price lived from 4th March, 1800 until 23rd January, 1893. He grew up in a small cottage outside Caerphilly, son to a schizophrenic vicar who could barely hold down a living. He then went to uni in London, becoming one of the youngest people ever to graduate from the Royal College of Surgeons. Unimpressed by snobbish London society, however, he then came back to Wales and saw that the land had changed drastically thanks to the Industrial Revolution. He saw the same problems here as he had seen in London- widespread poverty, illness and workplace injuries- and vowed to help the Welsh people.
He then became involved with the Chartist movement, which involved giving equal democratic rights to all men. To avoid persecution following this failed movement, Price fled to France, where he became obsessed with Iolo Morganwg’s ideas of a Druidic Wales and convinced himself that an ancient prophecy said that he would be the one who would save Wales from English rule. So he came back to spread the word about Druidic belief and crowned himself Archdruid of Wales.
Price eventually fell in love and married, albeit a Druidic marriage, a local girl named Gwenllian, who was over fifty years younger than him. This is despite the fact that Price was against marriage, which he saw as the enslavement of women. He was quite the feminist, was Price. Although, he loved women a bit too much, perhaps- he believed in free love, and had many children with a multitude of them.
In any case, he and Gwenllian had a baby son, who sadly died of a fit in Price’s arms five months later. They had named him “Iesu Grist” (Welsh for Jesus Christ), and believed that he was some sort of “Druidic Welsh messiah”, and so decided to cremate him, as is Druidic custom.
This caused an outrage, as three hundred people gathered on the hill above Llantrisant to see what was going on. When police arrived and kicked the casket over, sending the burning baby rolling onto the grass, all hell broke loose. Price was lucky to get out of there alive, apparently! He was put on trial and chose to defend himself, as he had always done in the past. Indeed, Price loved causing a scene in court, so much so that people would attend his trials just for laughs!
The judge declared that there was no law which said that cremation was illegal in the UK, and after the prosecution tried getting him done for cremating a child before a proper inquest was held into the death first, Price reminded them that he was a doctor and was therefore qualified to do the job himself. He got away with it, and got to cremate his son after all.
He died before the Cremation Act was actually passed, however, and around 20,000 people attended his own cremation. So what was the deal with cremation if it wasn’t illegal, then? Until then, cremation was very rare in the UK, you see, and just wasn’t done. More on this in my next post, WHO THE FOLK are Dean Powell and Dr William Price?.
Indeed, Price lived quite the life, and achieved stardom through his eccentricity and tendency to brush shoulders with the elite. Rumours say that he had a pint with Karl Marx down in Soho. An anti-smoker, anti-vaxxer and a vegetarian, he made sure that his views were known to the world. He was also good friends with Lady Charlotte Guest, who translated the Mabinogion into English, and he proposed a health system that would surely inspire Aneurin Bevan when he came up with the NHS all those years later.
It would make a great film or television series, I’m telling you! Actually, whilst on this subject- in 2020, Robert Downey Jr apparently based his portrayal of Dr Dolittle on Price! Although, the critics weren’t impressed: "... but when a Hollywood actor tries to do so in a Welsh accent inspired by a nudist Victorian druid, perhaps it's best that he doesn't speak at all." (John Mitchell, The Times, 2021).
There was just too much to say about Price to feature him in a post on the Dynion Hysbys alone, so I decided to begin my research on him here. Climbing up the steep cobbled street known as Yr Allt, I take a left and find the Guildhall, with the remains of Llantrisant Castle behind it. There are a set of stocks outside, and in the distance you can see the hill where Dr William Price cremated his son. Heading inside, pausing to put my mask on, I am greeted by a group of museum staff, who all scarper into position. “Please, sit down!”
They put me in a chair in front of a television and look on eagerly and with great anticipation as I am treated to a ten-minute video that tells me all about the town’s history. They smile and comment whenever they see anyone they know, which I love!
After the video, they show me the silver mace of the Freemen of Llantrisant then promptly usher me downstairs. There, a lovely lady shows me everything they have of Price, from a replica of his outfit to his surgical instruments, old photos and a stained glass image of him that was found in a skip. I tell her about my blog.
“Where the… where the folk.”
“Weather? What about the weather?!”
“No! Where the folk… it’s a pun on where the f-…”
“Oh, right! Haha! Brilliant!”
She then shows me a full-size replica of what a local archer might have looked like and tells me of their connection to the “V-sign”: “…they were fighting the French, you see, and when the French would catch them, they would chop off their fingers, so that they were never able to use a bow again. So the Welsh archers who survived and still had their fingers couldn’t wait to show them off to the defeated French!”
I’m intrigued, and want to know if this is true. Well, want it to be true, rather… turns out, it’s not quite as straight forward as that. It never is.
It goes by many names; the “two-fingered salute”, the “forks”, “flicking the V”- and is used all over the world as an insult, from the UK to Ireland, Australia, South Africa, India, Pakistan and New Zealand. Many claim that it does indeed originate from the longbowmen fighting in the English army, but from the 1416 Battle of Agincourt, not Crécy. Others also argued that the French cut off three fingers, not two.
The earliest evidence we have of the V-sign being used as an insult is in a piece of film from 1901, where a workman outside Parkgate Ironworks in Rotherham flicks the V-sign to the camera. Ultimately, however, its origins remain a mystery. So who the folk knows!
Before I leave, I am encouraged to speak with a “Dean Powell”, manager and a Freeman of Llantrisant. “Wait right here, I’ll go get him!”
When Dean comes out, I mention my blog and he tells me that he has written several books himself, pointing out Dr William Price: Wales’s First Radical and Ghostly Tales of Llantrisant on the shelves. Turns out, he also does ghost tours of the town, which has had more than its fair share of ghostly goings-on, apparently… I ask him if he would agree to an interview with me in the near future, and he does. We exchange numbers and I buy his book on Dr Price on the way out. The lady at the counter also gives me a couple of brochures on Llantrisant, and I end up leaving with a whole bagful of goodies. Included is a flyer which lists all the events being held at the Guildhall this year, from Dean’s lectures on Dr Price, opera nights, concerts, the Big Picnic… there’s a lot going on in Llantrisant, it seems!
What luck! I can come back to ask him more about Dr William Price and the history of Llantrisant, along with all the ghost stories! I leave feeling thrilled by the whole experience. I have never asked if I can interview someone for the blog before, and it has opened up a wide range of possibilities! Considering these, I stride over to what remains of Llantrisant Castle. I still need to see everything I came here to see, after all…
What remains of the castle is one side of the “raven tower”. The rest is thought to have been destroyed by Owain Glyndŵr in 1404, though there is currently no evidence to back this up. Nevertheless, it was in ruins by the 1500s, at least. It did see its fair share of Welsh revolts, mind, from that of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and Llywelyn Bren in 1316. It was built by Richard de Clare, Lord of Glamorgan at the time, in 1246, a hundred years before the town was given its Royal Charter.
From here, I make my way through the churchyard towards “the row of cottages where they filmed the Indian Doctor back in 2010”. There used to be eight churches at Llantrisant, now there are only two. The largest, “Church of the Three Saints”, dates back to at least the 7th Century, but it was Richard de Clare who built the main structure in 1246, then a tower was added in the 15th Century. But I am far more interested in the view, which I know from what my colleague said, will only get better…
Passing by the cottages, I ascend the steep climb up to the Billy Wynt, my final destination. There’s a great view of Talbot Green and beyond to be seen on the way up (pictured). A group of walkers pass by. “Is that your packed lunch…?”
I glance down at the brown paper bag in my hand. “No. Got these from the museum. Watch yourself down there, they’re great salespeople!”
“Haha! Well our friend here could have told you all about the history of this place… he is a Freeman, after all!”
These Freemen are everywhere!
The Billy Wynt is found at the highest point of Y Graig and is a source of great debate down in the local pubs. Many think that it used to be a windmill, and that the name derives from the Welsh name “felin wynt”. But historians say that what we see here today is but a folly, built in 1890, and based on a windmill. The original structure might have been an auxiliary tower built by the Normans. I shall have to ask Dean about it!
The view from Y Billy Wynt:
Heading back to the car, I drop into the New Inn (ironically, the oldest pub in town) on the way and ask the barmaid about where to find the stones along the route of the Beating of the Bounds. She doesn’t know, but the man sat at the bar cradling his pint tells me all about it, from strenuous walks to big crowds and people climbing over private property to get to the stones. I decide to leave it. When I tell him that I live in Cardiff, he dreamily reminisces about his days working in an office down in the Welsh capital: “I would walk to work through Bute Park, in my suit, carrying my briefcase…”
“What brought you back to Llantrisant, then?”
“Ah, living in a city is fun, for a while, but you shouldn’t let it consume you… I would much rather live in a community like this!”
Indeed. As I leave Llantrisant, I can’t help but feel drawn to the people there, like I’m somehow a small part of their community now. But who the folk am I? The Northman who came to town?!
I decide to leave a different way, heading through Llantrisant Common and Pastures, a 113-hectacre Site of Special Scientific Interest that is home to several rare species of plant, this due to the fact that sheep have never grazed here. Owned by the Freemen of Llantrisant, it is rumoured that the original stone and ring to which they tied the bull to at the Bull Ring can be found somewhere out here… but the actual reason I’m leaving this way is because I want to catch a glimpse of the Royal Mint.
Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more to Llantrisant, eh? The Royal Mint produces all of our British coins, as well as coins for around sixty other countries. They also make medals, bullion coins and bars there. The site moved from London in 1967, and now employs around 900 locals. Before that, it had been in London for around 1,100 years! It was first located within the Tower of London, then at Tower Hill. You can apparently go on the “Royal Mint Experience” and see how your coinage is made.
Today, however, I decide to just park up on the opposite side of the road and snap a few photos. Two guards spot me and one of them nudges the other. Putting my phone away, I ignite the engine and drive off.
I’ll be visiting Llantrisant again for my next post, WHO THE FOLK are Dean Powell and Dr William Price?, being the first post for a new feature called ‘WHO THE FOLK’, in which I interview various experts from around the country about Welsh history and folklore. For my first interview, Dean Powell talks about the history and ghostly goings-on of Llantrisant, as well as his own experiences of being a Freeman and of why he chose to write a book about the life of Dr William Price.
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know if you already knew about Dr William Price, and if so, what comes to mind when you hear his name? Do you think he should be referred to as a Dyn Hysbys?
Also, what are your thoughts on the origins of the “V-sign” and its links to Welsh archers? Do you believe this rumour?
And have any of you had any ghostly or spiritual experiences in Llantrisant that you want to tell me about before I go on this ghost tour?!
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Beating the bounds - Wikipedia
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