Some pretty nasty stuff has happened in Wales over the last 250,000 years or so. It’s fine now, though, honest.
450AD Deadly Dragons
In North Wales there is an old hill fort, known as Dinas Emrys. There is a legend that the British King Vortigern, who fled to Wales from the Saxons, tried to build his castle here. But every night, when the work stopped, the tower fell down.
A wise old man explained to Vortigern that a new building needed a blood sacrifice. The wise old man added that the blood must be of a young fatherless boy. Vortigern’s men returned with a young boy named Merlin.
Just as Merlin was about to get the chop he claimed that he knew the real reason the castle kept falling down. Beneath the ground, he explained, was a deep pool where two dragons lived. The red dragon and the white dragon would fight every night and the struggle would bring down the tower.
The red dragon represented Wales and the white dragon represented Saxon England. When the red dragon eventually won the fight, then peace would return.
Of course, Vortigern never did get to defeat the Saxons. That was down to another British leader – the man they knew as Arthur. Merlin joined Arthur and for a while the British defeated the Saxon enemies.
When Dinas Emrys was finally dug up in the 1950s they really did find a deep pool. Spooky or what?
600AD Heads You Win
Severed heads appear in lots of Welsh tales. That tells us something about the Celts who lived in Wales in ancient times. At one time heads must have been bouncing round Celtic lands like lottery numbers in a drum.
One of the most famous loppings was St Gwenfrewi (or Winifride in English) – around 600AD.
Winifride was a nun. She was also the niece of Saint Beuno, an abbot in sixth-century Wales.
Young Welsh Prince Caradog ap Alyn loved her but she refused to marry him. This upset the young prince so he drew his sword and cut off her head. As her head hit the ground a spring of water gushed out of the dry rock. Along came Saint Beuno, stuck her head back on her body and she was restored to life, with just a thin white line round her neck to show her little accident.
Beuno was not so kind to Caradog. The saint cursed the prince until the earth opened up and swallowed him. Winifride’s well waters are now said to cure illnesses and the well in Holywell, North Wales, is still visited by tourists today.
880AD Lovely Laws
In the year 927 the Welsh princes said they’d let themselves be ruled by the English king. But there were still some great Welsh princes. There were people like Hywel the Good (880-950). The Welsh called him Hywel Dda.
Of course he wasn’t all THAT good – he had his brother-in-law killed.
But Hywel did create the ‘Law Of Hywel’, a set of laws that would be in force in Wales for hundreds of years.
They say he took the laws to Rome and had them blessed by the Pope.
They were sensible laws, less of the old ‘punishment’ and more ‘pay cash for your crime’.
Hywel’s laws saw women as almost equal to men. Almost, but not quite...
A woman slave was worth less than a man slave.
Hywel was the first person to get all the bards of Wales together for a contest. It was his idea that was copied in 1880 when The National Eisteddfod was formed.
Llywelyn The Last
Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (1223-1282) was also known as Llywelyn ap Gwynedd and Llywelyn the Last.
Of course, he didn’t know he was going to be the last. He probably thought he’d be the first in a long line of Welsh princes.
Henry III gave Llywelyn the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ and he had to fight to keep Wales for the Welsh. In 1282 he rebelled against King Edward of England.
He burned Edward’s castles and fought Edward’s troops. Edward was furious. But while Llywelyn was away gathering a new army, the English attacked first.
The Welsh were beaten near Builth Wells.
They say 3,000 Welsh were slaughtered, and the rest put down their weapons – then the English slaughtered them.
Some people believe the corpses are buried under the course at Builth Wells Golf Club. Llywelyn heard the battle and rushed back. But it was a trap. He’d been betrayed.
When Llywelyn got to the Orewin Bridge he met an English knight, Stephan de Frankton, who challenged him to a fight.
Llywelyn was the most wanted man in Britain – but Stephen de Frankton had no idea he was fighting the Prince Of Wales, as Llywelyn wasn’t wearing any armour – just a tunic. Stephen de Frankton charged at him with a lance. When he found out who he’d killed, he cut off Llywelyn’s head and it was put on show in English towns.
There’s a stone monument at the nearby village of Cilmeri where Llywelyn fell. It says: Ein Llyw Olaf ...Our Last Ruler
1400 The Peasants are Revolting!
make the most of the time they had left: they boozed... and they fought. They elected Owain Glyndŵr as their leader.
The English tried to crush the revolt, but storms smashed the English army. The rebels said God was on their side.
By 1402 Glyndŵr ruled most of Wales but hadn’t captured any castles. He got help from the French... and from rebels in England! Owain could be pretty cruel in victory.
It was said the castle keeper at Peterston-super-Ely was beheaded after he surrendered.
When Owain Glyndŵr took Radnor Castle, 60 prisoners surrendered. Owain ordered them all to be executed.
It was the future Henry V who defeated the Welsh. In 1405 he killed the Abbot of Llantarnam’s army at a battle near Usk and the war turned against Owain Glyndŵr. And, if you want a terrible tale, Owain’s son, Tudor, was hacked to death and 300 Welsh soldiers were beheaded near the river Usk.
The French stopped helping Owain in 1406.
By 1408 Owain’s army had lost Aberystwyth Castle. In 1409 the English took Harlech Castle and captured Owain’s family. But not Owain. No, he slipped away to the mountains to continue the fight. And then… He disappeared! He may have died at his sister’s house in 1415.
In the 1700s Thomas Pennant collected the stories of Owain that made him out as the chief hero of the Welsh. They say he’s still alive. Sitting in a cave playing chess with King Arthur. Waiting for the day when the Welsh need a hero to save them!
1797 The Wild Women of Wales
Everybody remembers the first French invasion of Britain in 1066 – they remember King Harold the hero who died with an arrow in his eye. Sadly, Jemima Nicholas and the Pembroke Mum’s Army have been almost forgotten. She was a woman, of course, and it doesn’t seem to matter that she actually won!
This is her dramatic – and almost forgotten – story.
On the 22 February 1797, 1,500 French troops, known as the Black Legion, landed at Carreg Wastad, near Fishguard, on the west coast of Wales. The main French army was planning to invade Ireland and set it free from British rule.
The French sent these 1,500 to attack Bristol – to make the English think THAT’S where the attack would be. But gales blew them past Bristol so they sailed round to Fishguard instead.
The French expected the Welsh to rise up and fight the English! Bad idea. But they picked a good place to land. The defenders only had eight cannons in the whole of Fishguard – and those cannons only had three cannonballs! SO what did the defenders do? They fired blanks! It kept the French army quiet until Lord Cawdor arrived with a proper army.
Jemima Nicholas – a local cobbler – went out into fields that day and saw a dozen of the French soldiers wandering around. They were poor soldiers – half of the French army were criminals fresh out of jails. Some of them still had ankle irons on. They were starving and drunk; Jemima caught them chasing her sheep and chickens to eat.
She picked up a pitchfork and pointed it at them. They threw down their weapons. Jemima marched them down to the local jail. She became a Welsh heroine and was awarded a pension of £50 a year for life.
If you want to learn more about Druids, go to the Isle of Anglesey on the north-west coast of Wales, where they struck terror into the Roman soldiers.
These days you can walk along Offa’s Dyke Path, marking the border between England and Wales, without worrying about getting your arms chopped off.
Discover 2,000 years of history at one of the most significant heritage locations in Wales dating back to the Romans in 50 AD.
We didn’t make it up about the Rebecca Riots, when men dressed up in women’s clothing to disguise themselves during their lawless pursuits. If you want proof, visit the National History Museum at St Fagans, on the outskirts of Cardiff.
The wild women of Wales sent the last invaders of Britain packing back to France. The leader of that brave band was Jemima Nicholas and her grave is situated outside St Mary’s Church in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire www.visitpembrokeshire.com
It’s unlikely that Hywel Dda ever thought his progressive lawmaking would lead to the creation of the only garden in Europe dedicated to the law in Whitland Carmarthenshire.
You can also visit the memorial to Llywelyn The Last. The monument in Cilmeri, near Builth Wells, Powys, is located near to where he had a lance driven through him in a fight near Orewin Bridge. Bet that stung...
Visit the Owain Glyndŵr Centre in Machynlleth, where he was crowned Prince of Wales. www.canolfanglyndwr.org
If it’s turrets and moats you’re after you’ve come to the right place. Wales is the capital of castles, with around 100 still standing and another 300 identified locations where they once stood. Here are just a few that we’ve featured: -
Dinefwr Castle in Carmarthenshire, first established by Rhodri Mawr. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
The site of Twthill Castle, the royal seat of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn in Denbighshire (just near Rhuddlan Castle).
Dinas Emrys Castle, the location of the prophecy of Merlin near Beddgelert, in Snowdonia.
Native Welsh castles established during the time of Llywelyn the Great, including Castell y Bere, Ewloe, Dolbadarn and Dolwyddelan. www.cadw.wales.gov.uk
Harlech Castle on the Gwynedd coast, where Owain Glyndŵr held parliament, is a dramatic sight to behold, nearly 700 years after it was built.