Wales is an ancient and mysterious land of mist-covered mountains, hidden valleys and wild woodlands. It is a land of history and mythology and many legends and tales of folklore originate from the mountains and valleys. The legend of Gelert tells a tragic tale how a judgement made in haste can easily lead to terrible and tragic consequences for the innocent.
Some parts of this legend cannot be verified and there are many different versions. For example in some versions Gelert is a greyhound while in others he is a wolfhound. It is likely that the story was added to and embellished over the centuries; nevertheless it is an important part of Welsh legend and still has meaning to this day.
Llywelyn the Great (1173 – 1240) was a prince of Gynedd in North Wales in the days of King John of England who was his liege lord. He was a major figure in the power struggles of Wales and also involved with the politics of England, allying himself with the Barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Over a period of forty years through war, diplomacy and strategic planning, he came to be regarded as acting leader and principle power over most of Wales. He was one of only two Welsh princes to earn the title ‘Great.’ His ancestor, Rhodri was the other. Although Llywelyn had sided with the Barons over the Magna Carta there had been times when he had been an ally of King John. In thanks, John had given is daughter, Joan, to be Prince Llywelyn’s wife, possibly to cement their alliance.
The legend of Gelert
The Prince was a great huntsman and as a wedding gift King John had given him a most magnificent and massive Irish wolfhound who was named Gelert. Around people the dog was gentle, friendly and obedient. In the hunt Gelert was a tireless and fearless hunter and soon rose to be leader of Llywelyn’s hunting pack. He was also loyal and faithful to his master and soon became a great favourite of Llywelyn’s.
The prince goes hunting
In those days the countryside was wild and open with great forests that was home to many wild and dangerous animals. When Llywelyn went hunting sometimes he was away for days on end. This did not please his new wife, Joan who persuaded him to build a network of hunting lodges in the wilds so that she could accompany him One day Prince Llywelyn set off with his pack of dogs for a day of hunting from one of these lodges taking his wife Joan with him and leaving their baby son in the care of a nurse and some servants. Growing bored in the lodge with the baby, the nurse and servants decide to go outside for a walk, leaving the baby alone in the lodge unguarded.
Gelert goes missing
Meanwhile, Llywelyn and Joan are away hunting and the Prince becomes aware that Gelert has gone missing. Concerned because Gelert was always the most eager and enthusiastic of his dogs and the pack leader, he decides to abandon the hunt and try and find him. Reasoning that Gelert would probably return to the lodge if he became separated from the pack the hunting party headed back there. On reaching the lodge and after dismounting from their horses, the Prince is delighted to see Gelert come bounding towards him barking with joy and wagging his tail at seeing his master. But delight turns to fear as Llywelyn sees the dog’s jaws are dripping with blood and he and his wife rush into the lodge calling out their son’s name.
Blood on the cradle
The scene that greets them in the lodge fills them with fear. There is blood all over the floor and the baby’s cradle is lying askew on the ground. The baby’s blankets are bloody and strewn around the room. They can see no sign of the infant. Stricken with grief and anger Llywelyn draws his sword and plunges it into the dog. As Gelert dies he lets out a cry that is answered by the baby boy lying out of sight behind the fallen cradle. Llywelyn gently lifts the cradle to discover his baby son safe and unharmed. Lying along side of him was the body of a massive wolf covered in blood with its throat ripped out. Instantly, the Prince understood what had happened. The wolf had entered the lodge while the nurse and servants were out leaving the child unprotected. Gelert must have had some kind of premonition of the baby’s danger and had returned to the lodge in time to save the child and fight and kill the wolf. Now, it is said the Prince Llywelyn was so distraught from grief and guilt from his hasty deed that he never smiled again. Llywelyn buried Gelert in honour in a nearby meadow and placed stones over the body.
The facts of the legend
Although the legend cannot be fully verified there are certain elements that are fact. The main characters, Prince Llywelyn, his wife Joan and her father, King John are all known to have been real people. The village of Beddgelert which some claim to have been the final resting place of Gelert exists and there is a grave with stone placed over it dedicated to Gelert. There are two plaques inscribed with the legend; one being in Welsh and the other being in English. However the stones are believed to have been placed there by David Pritchard, who was landlord of the nearby Royal Goat Hotel and other local entrepreneurs in the late 18th century in an attempt to stimulate tourism. Beddgelert is said to mean, ‘grave of Gelert.’ But many scholars think the name is derived from Celert, or Cilert, who was a Christian missionary to the area in the 8th century. The legend was further romanticised in poetry and song by poets and writers such as William Robert Spencer, Richard Henry Horne, Francis Orray Ticknor, Walter Richard Cassels and others throughout history.
Origins of the legend
Nevertheless, the theme of the legend is possibly older than the late 18th century and may have been associated with the area before the deeds of David Pritchard and his associates. Variations of the legend can also be found in many other countries around the world, where the central theme is a warning about jumping to quick conclusions and taking action in haste that is later regretted. It usually involves two animals with one saving the life of a human baby from the other, or of a loyal servant who receives rough justice from their master after a heroic act. One of the earliest known versions is from India and the animals involved are a mongoose and a snake. The mongoose kills a snake that is threatening a baby and is killed in turn by the grieving mother who mistakenly believes it had killed her baby. Another Welsh variation can be found in the Mabinogion and Aesop’s fable also contains a version.
Do not act in haste!
It cannot be proved or disproved that Gelert the faithful hound ever existing. Even so it is an enduring and interesting story of times and people who we know did exist and who had an influence and roles in shaping modern day Wales and the United Kingdom. With that in mind and with the theme of the legend, when we try and judge the truth of the legend, it may be best not to act in haste.
© 06/10/2013 zteve t evans
References and Attributions Copyright October 6, 2013 zteve t evans