WHERE THE FOLK do people Rap-Battle a Horse at Christmas?
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
PICTURE THIS; you’re sitting in front of the fire with your family between Christmas and New Year’s Eve when you hear a clattering of bells coming up the street and voices chanting: “Well here we come, innocent friends, to ask leave, to ask leave, to ask leave to sing…”
You peer out the window and see a crowd of people gathered outside your house clad in strange outfits, including two blokes dressed as Punch and Judy. Their leader is a man grappling with an elaborately-dressed horse skull mounted on a large pole, himself hidden beneath the cloth. The demonic mare stops outside your front door and challenges you a Battle of Rhymes, called a ‘pwnco’, in which two individuals take turns singing verses until one side subsides. The dead mare sings that she should be given access to your house, and you must sing back to her why she should bugger off instead. Win, and she leads the crowd onwards to the next house. Lose, and she will bursts into your home and cause havoc, snapping her skeletal mouth at you and scaring the life out of your children while the man beneath the sackcloth does his best to keep her under control. In the meantime, the crowd raids your pantry and drinks all your beer.
This is the story of the old wassailing folk custom of the ‘Mari Lwyd’…
For this post, I have come to the village of Llangynwyd, about two miles outside of Maesteg, in the county borough of Bridgend. Here, you can visit the ruins of Llangynwyd Castle and have a pint at one of the oldest pubs in Wales- The Old House Inn, circa 1147. The old village, known locally as ‘Top Llan’, sits atop a hill, surrounded by high-hedged, narrow country lanes. I nearly burned my clutch out when I came across a stubborn 4x4 driver and had to reverse back up the hill after I managed to drive straight past the village the first time around.
The place owes its name to the church of Saint Cynwyd, originally founded in the 6th century. It is the site of the largest private cemetery in Europe, and is the resting place of a very famous local couple; Ann Maddocks and Wil Hopcyn. Parking up outside the Old House, I quickly learned by asking for directions from two women on their way in for a coffee that the locals are very proud of their village’s history, and were eager to tell me the tale of ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’…
Ann Thomas was born in 1704 to William Thomas and his wife, Catherine Price, relative of the Welsh philosopher, Richard Price. Her father died in 1706 and she was placed in the care of Anthony Maddocks, a lawyer from Cwmrisga, who decided that Ann should marry his son, of the same name. Records show that the two were wed on the 4th May, 1725. However, the story goes that Ann did not love her rich husband, but instead loved the local poet and thatcher, Wil Hopcyn (William Hopkin). When their relationship was uncovered before her marriage to Anthony, Ann was forbidden from seeing her lover and was kept prisoner, locked in her bedroom in the big manor house. But the lovers kept in touch via a series of love letters, delivered by the Maddock family’s servants and maids, who hid them in a hollow oak tree on the estate. When her mother found out, she took away Ann’s writing materials, but she apparently kept on writing to her lover using leaves and her own blood.
Wil, always the charmer, eventually gave up hope and left the area, leaving Ann to marry into the Maddocks family. But Ann pined so desperately for her true love that she fell ill. On her deathbed, she asked her husband if she could see Wil one last time. Furious, Anthony left her, but her mother sought out the young Wil. When he arrived, in 1727, Ann died in his arms. Her original headstone, along with Wil’s, can be found in the church’s bell tower, but there is a plaque commemorating her in the chancel. The lovers are also remembered on the Hopcyn Cross, which stands in the middle of the crossroads outside the churchyard, erected in 1927. Anthony married another woman and was buried in the family tomb on the grounds of St Cynwyd. Wil lived for another fourteen years, then died by falling off a ladder whilst thatching a roof in the village on 19th August, 1741. He was buried beneath the western yew tree at St Cynwyd.
The story was re-told in a series of poems called ‘The Cupid’ by Thomas Morgan of Maesteg in 1896, which led locals to restore the decaying church and graveyard, and to this day, people still flock to the village to pay their respects to the estranged lovers.
But I didn’t come to Llangynwyd for the Welsh Romeo and Juliet, though it is an interesting tale, with a lot more depth to it than my own slap-dash reiteration… I came here because the village is one of the few places that still celebrates the New Year with the tradition of the Mari Lwyd, another topic the two ladies were willing to discuss with me, although, one was itching to drag her friend away from me by that point.
You see, I was born and raised in Wales, and have never once seen Mari Lwyd used in any festive celebration, and she’s certainly never knocked on my door and challenged me to a pwnco. So, where the folk do people rap-battle a horse at Christmas?!
Well, two-thirds of all recorded instances fall within the borders of Glamorgan. The most easterly account, and one of the earliest, comes from the town of Monmouth. There have also been accounts in Carmarthenshire, Brecknockshire and Ceredigion. It has only been officially recorded in North Wales once, at Wrexham, although, it would be difficult to prove that it did not take place elsewhere up north. Ironically, the earliest published account of Mari Lwyd dates back to 1800, in A Tour through Part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at Other Times by J. Evans., but even though the book was based up north, the bit that featured Mari Lwyd related to all of Wales as a whole.
Suffice to say, it appears to be a southern tradition.
The origins of the Mari Lwyd are a bit of a mystery. It was originally thought to have existed long before Christianity reached Wales, based on the numerous white horses that feature in Celtic mythology, though support for these claims has since diminished due to a lack of solid evidence.
Other folklorists have suggested that the name refers to the Holy Mary, mother of Jesus, saying it had once been part of the ‘Feast of the Ass’ (behave!), which revolved around Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt, with the Mari Lwyd representing the donkey on which Mary rode in the story.
Others say that the term originally meant ‘Grey Mare’, considering that ‘llwyd’ is the Welsh word for ‘grey’ and the possibility that the Welsh had mutated the English word ‘mare’. Similar traditions exist in Ireland (Lair Bhan), as well as the Isle of Man (Laare Vane), both of which translate to ‘White Mare’. There also existed an English term that sounds remarkably similar; ‘Merry Lude’, which refers to a ‘merry game’. Not many Welsh people would like to hear it, but this theory might be the most plausible, or was at least a strong contributing factor to the custom's given name.
Saying that, there have been examples of the tradition being given completely different names, altogether. It has been referred to as ‘Y Wasail’ (The Wassail) in parts of Carmarthenshire and ‘Y March’ or ‘Y Gynfasfarch’ in Pembrokeshire. There is even one account in Glamorgan of the custom being called ‘Yr Aderyn Bi Llwyd’ (The Grey Magpie), though scholars have debated that this may have been done in error when the horse’s head was confused for the ‘Aderyn Pica Lwyd’, a bird often carried by wassailers in that area (‘wassailing’ being a tradition involving plenty of booze, food and door-to-door singing).
The tradition began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the use of ‘hobby horses’ and various other hooded animals became popular amongst the elite classes of Britain. Around that time, there emerged the Hoodening of Kent, the Broad of the Cotswolds and the Old Tup of Derbyshire. The tradition of the Mari Lwyd declined in the mid-twentieth century, mainly thanks to the opposition of the local clergy and the growing popularity of the Christmas traditions we all know today. It perhaps also didn’t help when one troupe of Mari Lwyd’s took a rather violent approach to the custom, essentially using it as an excuse to commit violent, Clockwork Orange-style home invasions, but it was revived and renewed in the later part of the century here at Llangynwyd.
In 1941, the poet Vernon Watkins published his Ballad of Mari Lwyd:
“Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari
A sacred thing through the night they carry.
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All confused by a horse’s head.”
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, said of the poem; “… it is one of the outstanding poems of the century… it draws together the folk-ritual of the New Year, the Christian Eucharist and the uneasy frontier between living and dead…”
Indeed, it is important to note that, as well as the Mari Lwyd, Welsh traditions involving a horse’s head are usually reserved for the changing of the seasons, suggesting there is, indeed, a link between the old and the new, or the living and the dead… an account from 1897 described an entity known as ‘Bwca Llwyd’ (Grey Bogy), involving an imitation of a horse’s head stuffed with hay being carried about on Halloween. There was also a Mari Lwyd-esque entity involved in a springtime festival known as ‘mynwenta’ or ‘pynwenta’ in Pembrokeshire in 1820. There was also a northern, nineteenth century tradition called “Giving a Skull” (original!) in which men placed a skull of a horse or donkey on a woman’s front door on May Day out of spite (perhaps if she was an ex, or someone they fancied whom had chosen someone else). There was also an old Welsh tradition of attaching horns to a horse’s head and giving it to someone whom had behaved ‘immorally’ in order to shame them.
Mari’s appearance alters slightly each year and across different locales, with the preparation for the event often being a communal event, with many locals doing their bit in decorating the mare.
Even the time of year in which Mari makes her appearance changes according to locality and period in time, though it has mostly been reserved for the winter months. Some celebrate the tradition at Christmas, others on New Year’s Eve, others over several consecutive nights between those days. In the Gower, the mare’s head was kept buried throughout the year and dug up to be used during the Christmas period. Whichever date, however, the custom is usually celebrated at night-time, often lasting from dusk into the early hours of the morning.
The crowd of people accompanying Mari through the village initially consisted of a group of four to seven men and a smartly-dressed leader. There would also often be men dressed as various stock characters, such as the ‘Merryman’, who played music, or Punch and Judy, often played by two men wearing black-face. In Nantgarw, the Punch and Judy characters played a bigger role in the custom, with Punch tapping the ground to the rhythm of the music and Judy brushing the house’s floors, walls, windows and ceilings. The occupants would have to make Punch promise not to touch the fireplace during their visit, and should they forget, he would rake it out with his poker.
Here in Llangynywd, Mari Lwyd’s troupe were often granted access after singing the first verse of their song, the occupants putting in little effort to stop them.
It nearly diminished altogether in the twentieth century, but the tradition of the Mari Lwyd lives on and has seen something of a revival in recent times, and is not reserved for the residents of Top Llan.
In the 1980s, Mari Lwyd festivities popped up in Caerphilly, St Fagans and Llantrisant. In 1991, the latter’s Mari Lwyd was taken to Yn Chruinnaghtm, a Cornish festival. She has even made appearances across the Atlantic, thanks to Welsh immigrants who took their traditions with them across the pond. For the Millennium celebrations of 2000, Aberystwyth organised “The World’s Largest Mari Lwyd”, and she also makes an appearance at Chepstow every January.
She has also become more prominent in Welsh media and popular culture in recent years, appearing in comedy sketches on S4C and on various social media platforms, with more and more people becoming familiar with her name, though they may still be unsure of whom or what she is, exactly. Most scholars believe the reason for this revival is due to a newfound sense of mainstream patriotism here in Wales, and a rise in Welsh nationalism. It seems that the people of Wales are looking to re-establish lost traditions in the hope of securing Welsh culture in the wake of a modern, multi-cultural Britain.
But whatever the reason, and despite her hazy origins, there is one thing we can be sure of- Mari Lwyd is making a comeback!
Now let’s see what one of the oldest pubs in Wales has to offer…
Thanks for reading.
I’m interested to know if Mari Lwyd has ever made an appearance in your own home town?
Would you like to see the tradition re-established?
Also, has anyone got any input on the origins of this strange custom?
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
Evans, J (1800) A Tour through Part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at Other Times
Morgan, Thomas (1896) The Cupid
Stevenson, Peter (2017), Welsh Folk Tales
Vernon, Watkins (1941) Ballad of Mari Lwyd
Ann Maddocks". Dictionary of Welsh Biography. National Library of Wales.
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