WHERE THE FOLK is the Girl of My Dreams, cont?
Updated: Apr 8, 2022
MACSEN WLEDIG HAD A DREAM that, along with many other great tales, formed The Mabinogion, establishing itself as part of an entire nation’s mythos. That dream would lead him to my hometown of Caernarfon.
I could go on for days about the origins of the Mabinogi and the meaning behind each tale, but to save me the hassle, check out WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part I or WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I for an in-depth look at the Mabinogi and at how important they are in relation to Welsh history and culture.
Macsen Wledig, a.k.a. Magnus Maximus, was a real Roman emperor who ruled the western territories (namely Britannia and Gaul) from the year 383 to 388, when he died. Before all that he was a distinguished general, serving in Africa in 373 before being sent to Britain in the year 380, when he faced off against the Picts and the Scots. He usurped the imperial throne from Emperor Gratian, who was becoming unpopular here in Britain due to his soft spot for Christianity. Gratian was killed after fleeing to Lyon.
Meanwhile, Gratian’s brother, Valentinian II (who was only twelve years old at the time), kept hold of Italy, Pannonia, Hispania and Africa. However, Macsen got greedy and tried invading Italy in 387, which led to his defeat at the hands of Theodosius I at the Battle of Poetovio the following year.
Macsen is considered to be the founding father of several medieval Welsh dynasties, including those from the kingdoms of Powys and Gwent. He was first referred to as an ancestor of a Welsh king on the Pillar of Eliseg in Denbighshire, which names 'Sevira' as his daughter. Sevira was the wife of Vortigern, who faced off against the red and white dragons in WHERE THE FOLK did the Welsh get their flag from?. The pillar was erected 500 years after Macsen left Wales. He also features in the Fifteen Tribes of Wales. However, the story of his dream and meeting his wife Helen (or Elen, rather), which I am about to tell you, is considered to be a work of fiction, although there are some elements of truth to the tale…
The story goes that one day, Macsen decided that he wanted go to hunting. According to legend, he was a popular guy, considered to be very wise. Thirty-two kings joined him on this hunt, in a display of equal respect on the emperor’s behalf. He took them to a valley just outside Rome formed by the river that flowed into the city. They hunted until midday, but by that point the sun was unbearable and Macsen fancied himself a siesta. In classic imperial fashion, he got his men to raise their shields and form a protective barrier around him, then they gave him a gold shield to use as a pillow and off he went to sleep, leaving the poor sods to melt in the sun.
Cue the famous dream. Macsen dreamt that he was making his way up the valley, following the river towards its source. There, he climbed over the highest mountain in the world, discovering on the other side the most beautiful region he had ever seen. He saw two rivers flowing down from the mountains and into the sea and began to make his way towards the mouth of one of those rivers, that being the biggest he had ever seen.
What he found there was a great city with a huge castle. Multi-coloured towers reached up into the sky and the docks held the biggest fleet of ships he had ever laid eyes upon. One of the ships was much larger and grander than the others and crossing onto dry land from the deck of that ship was a bridge made of whale bone. Crossing the bridge, he came upon the most beautiful island he had ever seen and decided that he should tour it. He explored the island from coast to coast, coming across valleys, steep, rocky mountains and rugged landscapes. He saw another island just off the shore, and between him and that island was a country of vast mountains, forests and plains. From the highest mountain a river flowed down to the sea and at the mouth of that river he saw a great castle with multi-coloured towers that reached up into the sky.
Macsen travelled to this fortress, where he sees the most handsome guy he’s ever- there are a lot of firsts for Macsen on this trip! Prince Charming lets him inside and he enters a great hall, where he sees two ginger-haired children playing chess. Sitting in a nearby ivory chair was a bearded old man, carving out chess pieces. Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point that chess wasn’t actually invented until the 6th Century, emerging from northern India. The Mabinogion, however, weren’t written until the 12th or 13th Century- I suspect that whoever wrote it didn’t Google the history of chess first!
And sitting there in front of him on a chair made of gold was a maiden so beautiful that to look at her was like trying to look at the sun when it’s at its brightest. She got up and threw her arms around him, so he took a seat next to her on the golden chair and began caressing her… and of course, that’s the moment Macsen woke up from his dream. Typical!
Macsen wasn’t himself after this and couldn’t eat nor sleep. It was as though his very soul had been taken from him and there was only one person who could give it back- the girl from his dream. His people were worried about him, so the wisest men of Rome were brought before him to find a solution. He told them about his dream and they said that they would send out three messengers to the three parts of the world for the next three years so that they may find this land that he dreamt of (sequences often come in threes in Welsh mythology).
Alas, they returned empty-handed. Then the King of Rome suggested they followed the same path from Macsen’s dream, following the river up north and over the mountains then to the city by the sea and across to the island. Why they didn’t do this the first time is anybody’s guess! Another thirteen messengers were sent and came across a fleet of ships that would take them to Britain, where they eventually came across the “castle” from Macsen’s Dream- one supposedly found at Aber Sain- but don’t forget that Caernarfon Castle did not exist at the time! Entering the castle, they found the family from Macsen’s dream, as well as the beautiful maiden. They immediately fell to their knees and proclaimed; “Empress of Rome, all hail!”
She was flattered, but told them that she would only accept if Macsen went and asked her himself. They sent word back to Rome and Macsen came running, throwing his arms around her when they finally met.
This girl’s name was Elen (often anglicised as “Helen”). Elen, also known as “Helen of the Hosts” (from “Elen Luyddog”, after she asked Macsen to build a few roads for her, which we shall get to momentarily), is recognised as “Saint Helen of Caernarfon” by the Welsh church but not by Rome. She is also the official patron saint of British roadbuilders, also protecting those travelling along British roads. Her feast day is on 22nd May. She is said to have been a daughter of a Romano-British ruler named Octavius, or “Eudaf (or Eudwy) Hen”, making her the sister of Conan Meriadoc, the Celtic leader who founded Brittany. She founded many churches here in Wales, introducing us to the Celtic form of monasticism, and there are also over twenty holy wells dedicated to her, though some scholars argue that some of these are misinterpretations and are actually dedicated to Constantine the Great’s mum, Helen of Constantinople, otherwise known as Saint Helena. Elen was also Macsen Wledig’s wife in real life.
Elen’s name, as well as that of her offspring, which I’ll get to in a moment, has been staring me in the face my entire life. The woods of Coed Helen can be seen on the other side of the river from the castle, along with “Castell Bach” up on the hill. Tourists may also be familiar with Coed Helen Holiday Park. She is also the patron saint of the church found at Penisa’r Waun, a tiny village found just outside Caernarfon. I visited the village to snap a photo of this church (pictured) and spotted “St Helen’s Institute” next to it (also pictured), built in 1905.
From the left: St Helen's church, St Helen's Institute & Coed Helen
But the story doesn’t end there- far from it! The morning after their wedding, Elen lay down a few conditions to their marriage; her father would rule the Island of Britain for her, along with any land found between the Irish Sea and the English Channel, and Macsen would have to build three castles for her at locations of her choosing. These ended up being the Roman forts found at Caerleon, Carmarthen and Caernarfon. Too late to back out now, Max!
Growing up in Caernarfon, I would often take a short-cut through the fields of Segontium on my way home from school. My friends and I would walk along the fort’s walls, carrying sticks and pretending they were swords. The A4085 cuts straight through the fort. “Cair Segeint”, as it was known in Old Welsh, is located on the outskirts of Caernarfon, near Hendre and Llanbeblig. It was occupied by the Romans right up until they left Britain, manned by Roman auxiliaries from Germany and Belgium. It was the biggest military and administrative body of the Roman empire this side of the British Isles.
They reckon it got its name either from Afon Seiont, which runs nearby, or from the pre-Roman settlement that was there before it, mentioned in the Mabinogi. Indeed, “Segontium” isn’t entirely a Roman name- more of a cross between Latin and Brythonic, from “seg-ontio”, meaning “a strong place”.
A 9th Century Welsh monk named Nennius wrote that Emperor Constantius, father of Constantine the Great, died at Segontium. However, he was probably getting him mixed up with Constantine, one of Elen and Macsen’s five sons. Constantius actually died at York. Also in error, some people thought that Segontium might be linked to the Segontiaci, a British tribe known by the Romans, but this wasn’t the case.
But here’s the twist- Segontium was actually founded by Agricola (built to house a thousand infantry men) after he defeated the local Ordovices in the year 77, a whole three hundred years before Macsen came here! This would mean that Macsen did, indeed, travel to Segontium, but certainly didn’t build it. Furthermore, Caernarfon Castle was built by the mouth of the Seiont a thousand years later, around the time the Mabinogi were put into text, but Segontium is found high up on a hill. In addition to this, the forts at Carmarthen and Caerloen were built in AD 75.
Could it have been the court of Eudaf Hen, then? Perhaps, though I doubt he built multi-coloured towers that reached up into the clouds! There are so many things that don’t add up in this story and we’re not even done yet!
While these forts were “being built” Macsen went hunting whilst down in Carmarthen and pitched a tent (no pun intended!) on top of a mountain there. That mountain is called Cadeir Macsen (“Macsen’s Chair”). It is also said that, because he built the fort there with a small army (byddin) of men, he named the place “Caervyrddin”. However, others would claim that the town got its name from Myrddin Emrys, the Welsh name for Merlin, who was said to have been born in a cave just outside town. Furthermore, the Roman fort at Carmarthen was called 'Moridunum' and the town itself was later called Llanteulyddog until around the early Middle Ages, not long before the Mabinogi were written.
But when he got back home, Elen still wasn’t impressed! She demanded that he built her a series of roads leading through Britain (Elen did actually commission these in real life), leading from one castle to the other. So off he went, and these are the old Roman roads that we know of and still use here in the UK today. This is what elevated Elen to the role of “patron saint of British roadbuilders”. I have mentioned one of these roads, Sarn Helen, a few times before and have often come across it on my travels. It passes through a number of places mentioned so far in this blog, including:
· Betws-y-Coed in WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Giant Beaver Monster?
· Tomen-y-Mur in WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part III
· Ystradfellte in WHERE THE FOLK did King Arthur, his Sleeping Army and the Giant Caveman go?
I say “road”- it actually refers to a number of Roman roads which connect Aberconwy with Carmarthen via a 160-mile system. A lot of this has merged with modern-day road networks, but some parts haven’t even been uncovered yet. The annual Sarn Helen Hill Race is held in Lampeter. The Supper Furry Animals released a song called “Sarn Helen” which featured in their album Mwng, released in 2000. Check out this video I found on YouTube that features the song as well as images of Sarn Helen itself (note that I do not own the copyright to this) :
Back to the story. Macsen stayed in Wales for a total of seven years before being called back to Rome to defend his throne. Off he went, burning down entire cities in France and Burgundy along the way. A whole year of fighting went by and Macsen was as close to taking Rome as he was on the very first day. Because of this, Elen’s two brothers, Kynan son of Euday and Adeon son of Eday (probably the two ginger-haired chess players from his dream), came to his aid with a small band of warriors. Standing outside Rome, Kynan thought that they should take a different approach. Holding a ceasefire, the two emperors met for a drink. While this was happening, Kynan had his men scale the city walls with wooden ladders. The rival emperor didn’t stand a chance as Macsen’s men, lead by Elen’s brothers, seized the city, killing him and many others.
After this, the two brothers lead a bloody assault on other European cities, roaming the countryside pillaging anything that comes in their way. But Adeon eventually grows bored of this and comes back to Wales, leaving his brother behind in Italy. The tale ends somewhat abruptly and with Kynan committing a most gruesome act- he cuts out the tongues of the local women so that they can’t speak their native tongue and because of this, the men of Armorica (an area of Europe that includes Brittany) would forever be called “Britons”.
And that was The Dream of Macsen Wledig, emperor of Rome. That’s the end of the story )(those of you who have read The Mabinogion might have spotted what I did there!).
But we all know what really happened to Macsen Wledig when he tried invading Rome… let’s be honest though, the ending wasn’t the only exaggerated part of this story, itself a tale smothered in propaganda. Nevertheless, it has proven to be one of Wales’s most beloved folktales. Remember that it was first put into text in the 12th or 13th Century, around the time our old friend Edward ‘Longshanks' built Caernarfon Castle- as it turns out, Eddie was a a fan of this tale, himself…
The Romans left Britain in 382, after which the area that would become Caernarfon fell under the kingdom of Gwynedd. William the Conqueror built a motte-and-bailey there during the Norman conquest in the 11th Century. The invasion was, technically, unsuccessful.
Then Llywelyn ap Gruffudd refused to pay our friend Eddie some tax in the 13th Century, bringing forth the English invasion of Wales and construction of Caernarfon Castle, on the site of the old Norman motte-and-bailey, began in 1283. It would become one of the largest and most imposing Edwardian castles in Wales, painted white so that it could be seen from miles around. It would also end up playing an integral part in Welsh politics and its relationship with the English monarchy...
Now, as it turns out, Eddie was influenced by Macsen Wledig’s tale when he built his castle here in Caernarfon. He interpreted the castle seen by Macsen in his dream as being Segontium and incorporated some Roman imperial architecture into his work when designing his magnus opus (the ‘Eagle Tower’ comes to mind). When a body was discovered during the construction of the castle, he believed it to be that of Macsen’s and he ordered that it be buried in a local church. So Caernarfon Castle is built on the burial site of a John Doe- great!
Indeed, there have been many ghost sightings at Caernarfon Castle, but not of the ghost of Macsen Wledig- rather, the white, blue-ish, glowing form of a woman. In my last post, WHERE THE FOLK can I hear the Scream of a Banshee?, we discussed the Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle. Well, Caernarfon Castle has its own spectre; the “Floating Lady”. People have claimed that her presence tampers with electrical equipment. But who the folk is the Floating Lady of Caernarfon Castle, I wonder?
But American tourist Kristi Ormand, from Dallas, apparently has some photographic and video evidence of a different ghost wandering the castle. She reported “feeling a presence” at the time (2001), then when she looked back over her holiday pics, she saw what she reckoned was the figure of a short, crowned king wearing a cloak. Sceptics put it down to lens flare, though it only appeared in one photo and in the video. I couldn’t find anything else about this online, mind. Could this have been our John Doe? Perhaps he was the original occupier of this elusive "castle by the mouth of the river"...
Eddie would also use Caernarfon Castle as part of an elaborate scam that would give rise to the entire concept of an English Prince of Wales. Edward rushed his wife over to Caernarfon to give birth to his son, Edward II (also known as “Edward of Caernarfon”), the bisexual king discussed in WHERE THE FOLK did the “Mad Doctor” go to burn the Baby Welsh Messiah?. In doing so, he presented the Welsh with what they had previously said would be the only thing recognised as their ruler- a king born in Wales who does not speak a word of English. Ouch!
In 1969, Charles's investiture as Prince of Wales was held at the castle, which was met with mixed reception here in Wales- thousands turned up waving their Union Jacks, but there were also plenty of protests and terrorist threats. Indeed, one such threat, if it had been carried out successfully, could have changed the course of history forever; Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, both members of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (the “Welsh Defence Movement”), were killed when the bomb they were carrying went off too early, probably because they were rushing to catch the train, blowing up half a street at Abergele. The bomb was meant for the British Royal Train, which was due to arrive at the station. Imagine how different things might have been if they had been successful!
The sign on the way in reads “Welcome to the Royal Town of Caernarfon” but having grown up here, I can assure you that the majority of its residents are not big fans of the English monarchy… Caernarfon is found up at Gwynedd and has a population of around 10,000, if you count nearby Caeathro, that is. It sits along the shores of the Menai Strait, overlooking Anglesey. The town ran for the position of Welsh capital in 1955, but didn’t come close- Cardiff won with a 136 votes, Caernarfon had 11. It is also officially the most Welsh-speaking town in Wales. Old Karnarvon by William Henry Jones, written in 1882, offers a great insight into the development of the town and is full of great local anecdotes, including on how some of the town's families got their nicknames.
There is a rocky mound in Caernarfon called ‘Twthill’ that offers a view of the entire town. There's a Celtic cross at the top which commemorates the Welshmen who died in the South African War of 1899-1902. The hill was the sight of a battle in the Wars of the Roses which resulted in the exile of Jasper Tudor, Henry Tudor’s uncle. Some believe that remnants of an old fort or Norman motte-and-bailey can be found there. The name derives from an Old English or Anglo-Saxon term, “tõt hyll,”, which means “lookout hill”. Indeed, there are several ‘Twthills’ dotted around the country. It is said that Owain Glyndŵr stood here before laying siege to Caernarfon Castle. Stories tell of a witch or old hag who once lived in the cave on the side of the hill, but I can’t find much information on her… any Cofis here to enlighten us?!
Aside from its castle, what people tend to think of when they speak of Caernarfon is the people themselves- the Cofis. “Cofis” were traditionally classed as those born within the old town walls of Caernarfon, but these days it just means anyone from Caernarfon in general. The name derives from the Latin word for “town-dweller”- another gift from the Romans, perhaps?
The Cofi accent and dialect are quite unique and well-known throughout Wales. In 2011, Cwmni Da organised an event at Caernarfon Football Club celebrating this cherished dialect. I was actually named after an ex-goalkeeper of Caernarfon Football Club, by the way- not very exotic, I know! John Bishop once famously played for the "Cofi Army". My father would take me to the Christmas parties there when I was young, Santa being one of the local farmers handing out selection boxes.
Sadly, there are many words unique to the Cofi dialect that we no longer use today, but we still stand out amongst fellow Welsh-speakers. But perhaps the most famous Cofi word, one that has tickled the English-speaking population’s interest, is “cont”. Cofis end most of their sentences with the word “cont”, especially when they’ve had a few beers down them. It means exactly what it sounds like it means, but it can also be used as a term of endearment here in Caernarfon (go on a night out here and you just might hear someone being greeted with a “Iawn, cont!”). Or it can be used as an insult, either way! There is even a feminine version for the ladies; “gont”, also used to refer to female genitalia. There’s no link between these words and the name of our Roman fort, by the way!
We also use the word ‘jaman’ whenever someone gets something wrong; “Ha! Jaman, cont!”
I remember when attending secondary school here at Caernarfon that the classes were divided into letters: S.A.N.T.P.E.B.L.G., which stood for the Welsh version of “Saint Peblic”, though they must have not have had enough pupils for a “Dosbarth I”, I guess… Sant Peblig, also known as ‘Publicus’, was another one of Magnus and Elen’s sons. He built a church near Segontium, probably at the site of the old Roman burial ground, that became the parish church of Llanbeblig. Later, in the 14th Century, St Mary’s church (pictured) was built down at the Old Town as a “chapel of ease” for the worshippers of Llanbeblig.
Growing up, we would tell tales of the “Pink Lady” who supposedly haunts the graveyard at Llanbeblig. Again, I can’t any information about her online, but are there any Cofis about who have come across her, or heard of her, at least? She seemed very popular with the children in my primary school, which was located just opposite the graveyard (though it has since been knocked down and replaced with a housing estate).
I have lived away from Caernarfon for half of my life now, but the majority of my final years there, along with the time spent whenever I go back there, were spent in the pubs. Caernarfon has always been a “drinking town”, which inspired me to write my e-book Free House, available on Amazon. But some of the town’s pubs also have a reputation for being haunted, including the one I once lived and worked at…
The Black Boy Inn came in at number five in HauntedRooms.co.uk’s “14 Most Haunted Pubs in Wales”. It was built around 1522, which also makes it one of the oldest pubs in Wales. It was originally the site of two separate inns, the Fleur de Lys and the King’s Arms. Then a local man bought them both and built one big pub in their place.
The origins of the pub’s controversial name are unclear. The classic story goes that it was named after a young black named Jack, the first black person to be seen in Caernarfon, back in the mid-1700s. But the inn was actually named the Black Boy way before that. They changed it to the King’s Arms in 1828, then subsequently changed it back to the Black Boy at some point. Jack reportedly married a local woman, fathered seven children and was buried at the churchyard in Ynyscynhaearn, near Criccieth. Another theory is that it was one of many Black Boy pubs found across the UK that was dedicated to King Charles II during the English Civil War, who’s mother nicknamed him “Black Boy”. This would have been the late-1600s. Others say that the pub owes its name to a black ‘buoy’ that used to guide ships into Caernarfon’s harbour. There is a black buoy found outside the pub today.
The inn is found just within the old town walls, on Northgate Street (noted in 1881 as being formerly known as “Black Boy Street”), or “Stryd Pedwar-a-Chwech” in Welsh, which referred to the going rate for a girl, a bottle of gin and a room for the night back when it was one of the biggest brothels in town. Indeed, the Black Boy has seen some questionable times. There is an old tunnel that goes from the wine cellar (now blocked up) and down to the harbour that was once used by smugglers. This was back in the days when the Old Town would have housed a red-light district for horny sailors.
There have been many ghost sightings at the pub over the years. Staff members have reported seeing the ghost of an old man sitting at the bar watching everyone go by. I, myself, didn’t see a ghost during my time there, mind. The closest paranormal experience I had was when a bottle of J20 randomly exploded one quiet afternoon, though I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for that…
Plenty of guests have also seen ghosts here. One of them is referred to as the “strangler” and manifests himself as a sensation of being strangled by a pair of hands. Others say they’ve heard a child crying. When they stopped and asked what was the matter, it stopped. I remember when I worked there, we had a group of Geordie workmen staying with us and one would refuse to stay in a certain room because he swore he had seen a woman sitting at the edge of his bed one night. Other guests had complained about this particular room previously.
At one point, there was a convent situated round the back of the pub. Many guests have reported seeing the ghost of a nun wandering the halls of the old inn. There is a mural found there today depicting some of these ghosts (pictured). Indeed, many ghost enthusiasts visit the pub- it probably didn’t help when a skeleton of a woman was uncovered nearby in the 1990s, leading some to believe that a customer had been a bit too rough with one of the girls- the Strangler, perhaps…? Sceptics, however, say that she was probably buried there by a poor family to spare the cost of a funeral.
But my “local’”, as it were, used to be the Anglesey Arms. A pint of Guinness as I’m taking in the sunset- the perfect way to end this post!
The pub was originally a Custom House, built around 1736. It became the Anglesey Arms Hotel sometime in the 19th Century, when the Custom House moved to Porth-yr-Aur. The closest of the castle’s towers to the pub was nicknamed the “hanging tower” and was where the town’s executions would be held.
In 1838, it became the stage of a very Scooby-Doo-esque scenario… you see, locals had been too petrified to go out at night as there were rumours of a phantom hearse going around that brought bad luck to all those who saw it. Then a local trader named Boaz Pritchard was arrested one day- when customs officers raided his warehouse they found ninety-nine barrels of contraband brandy, a coffin and a hearse!
The Anglesey is said to be haunted by several mischievous ghosts who pick up glasses from off the shelves, hold them up in the air for a bit them smash them on the ground. People using the darts board have also reported darts flying off the board when no one was near them, and guests who have stayed in the rooms upstairs have reported hearing keys turning in locks late at night when no one was around. I, myself, have stayed here once or twice, back when the old landlords were there, but didn’t come across any ghostly tricksters, thank God. But the most haunted room of all, by all accounts, is Room Three, where a ghostly figure has often been seen sitting on the edge of the bed.
And there you have it- the ghost stories of Caernarfon, as well as the town’s links to the Mabinogi. Growing up here, I had no idea I was exposed to so much rich history and folklore! I wonder what else I’ve missed… we shall see!
I shall leave you with Geraint Lovegreen’s ‘Yma wyf innau i fod’, a song about Caernarfon- enjoy!
Thanks for reading.
Have any of you been to Caernarfon and seen a ghost?
Also, what stories from your own home town can you share with us? Is your hometown also linked to the Mabinogion?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
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