Welsh Celtic Lore: The Mabinogi of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr Retold

Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”).  The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)

The Second Branch of the Mabinogi

Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty.  He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter.  These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children of LlŷrThey are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brân was a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him. 

 One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan  on  high cliff looking out over the sea.   They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces.  Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles of Brân’s court.  As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast.  One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace

Matholwch, King of Ireland

Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.  This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.  

Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses.  The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen.  Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.

The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast.  There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.  At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other.   It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship.  At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.

The Insult

Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage.  In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.  Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it.  Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law? 

After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people.  He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all.  The more he thought about it the worse it seemed.  His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.

Compensation

Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place.  He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after.  Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was  true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.

Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages.  At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds.  In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.

The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors.  Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.

The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content.  Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life.  At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.

Branwen’s Welcome

The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride.   When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved.  The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much.   To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past.  The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened.  Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.  

The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds.  They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting.  Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them.  She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court.  For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity.  To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.

Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain.  This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister.  To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm

Branwen and the Starling

For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery.  In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.

Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight.  Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message.  Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it.  In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her. 

Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him.  He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.

Bran goes to War

The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish.  Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen.  Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.  

Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him.  She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.

“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.

“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.

“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.

“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.

“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.

“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland.  The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.

The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer.  Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice.  They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them.   There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.

Brân the Bridge

Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed.  The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles.  What would you have us do?”

Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body.  In this way his host passed over to the other side.  

Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him.  He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.

Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel.  Until I have considered it no other answer will you get.  Go tell your king.”

“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”

“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.

House of Betrayal

His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army.  Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self.   It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage.  They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals.  They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.  

Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals.  Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery.  After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals.  Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice.  Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.

Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket.  Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior.  At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons

Efnissyen

The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast.  Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress.  Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside.  He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head.  He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle.  He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.

The Killing of Gwern

The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him.  Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection.  From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.

Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying,  “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle?  He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”

“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.

Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son.  Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.

Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another.  All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.  

The Cauldron of Rebirth

The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses.  They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.

Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain.  However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage.   Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors.  Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in.  As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process.  With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.

The Seven Survivors

Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear.  Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear.  Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen.  Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived. 

Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves.  They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.

The Assembly of the Wondrous Head

Bran the Blessed – by zteve t evans

Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France.  He advised them this task would take many years.  In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”.  All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed.  They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed.  He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân. 

However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish.  Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain.  The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment. 

The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper.   Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France.  Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.

© 03/02/2021 zteve t evans

Reference, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 2nd, 2021 zteve t evans

The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames, London

Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair.jpg

Thomas Wyke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as London Folklore: The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames by zteve t evans on December 27, 2018

The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.

The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.  In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames.  In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.  Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past.  Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.

The Little Ice Age

The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.  The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river.   Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.

With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?

Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt.  These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870.  (Expert opinion varies on this subject,  and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.

The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer.   When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.  However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted.   In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.  Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.

The First Frost Fair (1607-08)

In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.  A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink.  Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking.  Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed.  This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.

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Lludd and Llevelys and the Three Plagues of Britain

TwoDragons3

Cropped image of Two Dragons from History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth – Public Domain

King Lludd

King Lludd appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Lludd and Llevelys as King of Britain.  This is a tale that tells how with the help of Llevelys, his younger brother, he overcome the Three Plagues of Britain that had caused his people great anxiety and fear.  It is thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth in the History of the Kings of Britain refers to him as Lud and it may be the case that the Mabinogion tale owes much to Geoffrey.

After the death of his father Beli the Great, as his eldest son, Lludd became King of the Island of Britain.   Lludd was a great and generous king and a mighty warrior and leader of men.  He was generous in giving food and hospitality to any who sought it from him and cared for the welfare of his lords and subjects.  During the reign of Lludd the island of Britain prospered greatly.  Lludd rebuilt the city of London that Brutus the Trojan, the legendary first King of Britain was said to have founded.  He surrounded it with strong walls with many towers to defend its citizens and called upon his subjects to built fine houses within those walls and London became the finest and richest city on the island of Britain.

King Llevelys

According to the Mabinogion, Lludd had three brothers and the youngest named Llevelys was his favourite. He was extremely fond of Llevelys who grew up to be a very wise and discreet man whom he could always trust.   It so happened that when the King of France passed away and having no male heirs to the throne he had left his kingdom to his daughter.  Llevelys sought her hand in marriage and after a successful courtship  married her and became the ruler of France.   He was to prove to be a good and just ruler who governed with great wisdom for many years and had a long and happy life.

The Three Plagues of Britain

The island of Britain ruled by Lludd continued to prosper as did France ruled by Llevelys.  There came a time in Britain when the situation changed for the worse and the people grew fearful and troubled.  Three plagues had descended upon the island of Britain that caused the people great distress and anxiety.   The first of these plagues was a people called the Coranians, the second was an unearthly Shriek heard throughout the land and the third was the theft of Royal provisions.

The Coranians

The Coranians were said to be a race of dwarves who had the power to hear anything and everything the wind touched.  No word could be spoken anywhere without them instantly hearing it.  They could hear every word that was uttered upon the island of Britain and so could never be attacked unprepared.  In some texts they were said to have settled near the Humber and allies themselves with the enemies of Britain.

The Shriek

The second plague came every year on the eve of May Day when without fail the most unearthly and terrifying shriek was heard throughout the land.  It was such an awful and terrifying sound that it would pierce the hearts of the people causing such terror that grown men turned pale and maidens lost their reason and cause animals, trees and the very earth to become barren.

Theft of Provisions

The third plague was baffling and annoying.   However much of the King’s food and drink was prepared in the Royal courts from morning to nightfall the next morning it would be discovered to have vanished overnight without a trace.

Lludd Seeks Counsel

Of these three plagues Lludd had more hope of being cured of the first than the other two because he knew the cause of the first, whereas with the other two the cause was a mystery.  Lludd called together the princes, the nobles and his wise men of his realm to discuss and set out a course of action.  After much debating and arguing they had to admit they were all baffled not knowing the cause so not knowing a remedy.  In the end it was decided by all that Lludd should travel to the court of his youngest brother Llevelys to ask his advice and most  being the wisest person and most trustworthy they knew.  All further preparations for the voyage were done in silence in case the Coranians heard of the venture. So it was that in silence and secrecy a fleet of ships embarked from the island of Britain bound for France to seek out the counsel of Llevelys.

When tidings of the fleet reached Llevelys he was puzzled at the meaning of the ships not knowing his brother’s reason for them.  Llevelys then assembled his own fleet and sailed to meet him.    When Lludd saw his brother’s fleet he immediately ordered all ships save the one that bore him to hold back while he sailed to meet his brother.   On seeing this Llevelys immediately did the same and the two brothers met together and embraced in love,  friendship and joy at their reunion.

Defeating the Coranians

Brass tube of Llevelys

Levely flushes out the Demon – Public Domain

After Lludd had explained the cause of his visit Llevelys said that it was good that he had come and that he could help and advised they go below ship out of the wind lest the Coranians should get word of their meeting.   Llevelys ordered the making of a long brass tube that they could use to talk through to one another without fear of the Coranians hearing.  This was done but when they spoke to each other through the tube the only words the hearer could hear from the speaker were all words of anger and hostility.  Llevelys realised that the horn was possessed by a demon of some kind that was deliberately twisting their words into anger.  He washed it through with wine which because of the goodness of the wine the demon to flee.

When at last Llevelys and Lludd could talk freely and naturally to each other Llevelys told his brother that he would provide him with insects and teach him how to crush these in water to create a mixture that would rid him of the Coranians. He would also teach him how to breed them should the Coralians ever return.  He instructed Lludd that he would need to throw the specially prepared mixture over the Coranians and they would be destroyed but not harm any of the people of Britain that the mixture might fall upon.

The Two Dragons

Two Dragons

The Two Warring Dragons – Public Domain

Then Llevelys turned his attention to the second plague and said,

“The second plague is caused by a dragon within your realm that is fighting a foreign dragon in a life or death battle.  The dragon of your realm is making the fearful shriek and here is what you must do.

When you return home you must have the length and breadth of the island of Britain measured from this you must work out the exact center of the island.  There in the very heart of the island you must have a deep pit dug and place a cauldron filled with the best mead in the land to be placed in the bottom of the pit.  Then, cover the cauldron with a sheet of satin and there you, yourself must remain to watch for the warring beasts which will appear in the form of two terrible animals.  These will fight each other but eventually they will rise into the air and take the form of two dragons.  These will continue to fight furiously in the air until they grow tired and will transform into pigs and drop out of the air into the cauldron onto the satin covering and fall through sinking to the bottom of the cauldron and drink up the mead.  This will cause them to fall asleep and as soon as they are asleep wrap the around in the sheet and then place them in a stone kistvaen and transport them to the strongest place of your kingdom and bury them.  While they remain buried in that place no plague shall again trouble Britain.” (1)

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic

Mighty Man of Magic Stealing the King;s Provisions – Public Domain

Llevelys then told his brother that the cause of the third plague was a mighty man of magic who was using his magical arts to send everyone to sleep while he stole the food from Lludd’s court.  To prevent this Llevelys advised that it would be necessary for Lludd himself to stay awake to guard the store and confront the thief.  He told him to ensure he stays awake he should keep a cauldron of cold water at his side to splash over his face should he begin to drowse.

Lludd Frees Britain of the Plagues

Thanking his brother Lludd returned to Britain where he summoned the whole of his people along with the Coranians to a great meeting.  He had previously crushed and prepared the insect mixture as his brother had taught him and when all were assembled he threw the concoction over the Coranians killing them but leaving the Britons unharmed.    In this way through the advice of Llevelys the Coranians were defeated and the plague ended.

After this Lludd had his servants measure the length and breadth of Britain to determine the center of the realm and decided this was at a place now known as Oxford.  In that place Lludd had a pit dug and placed a cauldron of mead at its base.  He then covered it with a sheet of satin as his brother had advised.  On the eve of May Day he set himself to watch what events should unfold.

That night he witnessed the appearance of the two warring beasts who immediately set about fighting each other just as his brother had foretold. He saw how they rose into the air and transformed into great fighting dragons.  He watched as they battled each other and eventually overcome with exhaustion fell from the air into the cauldron of mead which they then drank and fell into a deep slumber.   Seizing his chance Lludd wrapped them in the satin sheet and placed them into a stone container and transported them to Dinas Emrys, which was the strongest part of his kingdom at the time.   This action ended the fearful shrieking that had plagued and terrified the entire island of Britain.

After this, Lludd resolved to deal with the mighty man of magic who had been plundering his stores.  He ordered a great banquet to be prepared  and setting himself on watch with a vessel of cold water beside him he awaited the arrival of the thief.  In the dead hours after midnight he heard many wonderful songs and many curious things and found himself sinking into a dreamy slumber.   Rousing himself he splashed his face with old water from the cauldron. He found he needed to do this often battling to stay awake.

As he fought against the slumber he became aware of the appearance of a huge man clad in the armour of a warrior and armed with a sword.  The giant proceed to gather all the food and drink and place it in a huge hamper.  Lludd sat still and watched for a while in wonderment and was further amazed that the hamper never overflowed with all that was being placed inside.  At last he decided enough was enough and jumping up and cried, “Stop! stop! You have insulted me enough!  Stop now or face my sword!

Ludd and the Mghty Man of Magic

Lludd Fights the Mighty Man of Magic – Public Domain

With a mighty roar the giant threw down the hamper and rushed at Lludd with his drawing his sword.  Lludd rushed to meet him and they fell together in deadly combat.  Fire flew from their swords and after a hard fight fortune gave the victory to Lludd.  As he threw down his foe to the ground and had him at the mercy of his sword he asked,  “Should I spare thee for all the wrongs you have done me?”

“Spare me and all that I have taken shall be returned in equal amount and from this day on I will be your faithful servant,” replied the giant. Lludd quickly reflected upon this and accepted and the Mighty Man of Magic served him faithfully and fully as he had promised.

The Two Dragons Reappear

So it was that Lludd rid Britain of the three plagues and from that day on his realm bloomed and prospered in peace and security and so the story of Lludd and Llevelys ended.  However, part of the story was to reappear many centuries later in the time of King Vortigern when the two dragons resurfaced to hinder the construction of a fortress Vortigern was building. This event was to see the emergence of a young Merlin who prophesied the coming of Arthur who would unite Britain under his banner and become King of Britain and drive out the Anglo-Saxon invaders at least for a time.

© 12/07/2017 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans July 12th, 2017

The Curious Case of Spring-heeled Jack

Spring-heeled Jack was a legendary character who first appeared in Victorian London. He would terrify people by springing out on them and by his fearsome appearance.

Victorian London

Victorian London Scene – Public Domain.

In Victorian times London was the largest city in the world. It had experienced an explosion in population as people moved from the countryside in search of work as the Industrial Revolution unfolded.
In 1800 the population was about one million people but by 1880 it had reached 4.5 million.

This influx of people from the countryside was supplemented by people coming from foreign countries to live and trade in the great city. It was a melting pot of cultures where people brought their own traditions, superstitions and folklore with each adding to the other.

The rich and middle class lived in comfortable and spacious homes but lived in relatively close proximity to the poor and working class whose housing was usually in overcrowded slums. The streets were badly lit at night and crime was rife. In such an atmosphere urban legends sprang up and spread rapidly.

The first reports of Spring-heeled Jack

Reports of sightings of Spring-heeled Jack first appeared in London in 1837. Later reports came from all across Great Britain, with most coming from London and its surrounding area. There were also reports from the Midlands, Liverpool and Scotland. It soon developed into a popular urban legend. The last reported sighting of him was in Liverpool in 1904.

The strange appearance of Spring-heeled Jack

Artist’s impression of Spring Heeled Jack – Public Domain

Spring-heeled Jack was generally described as having a long pale face, horns on his head and had the ability to breathe blue and white fire from his mouth. His eyes were also said to glow red and he wore a tight fitting garment of white over his tall, thin, body covered by a dark cloak. His hands were like sharp metallic claws.

He got his name from his acrobatic abilities and was said to be able to spring and leap huge distances to escape capture. According to two witnesses he could speak good English.

During Victorian times there were many reports of ghosts that haunted the streets of London. They were said to be very pale and human-like and would prey on people walking alone. The stories told about these hauntings are part of a unique London ghost tradition which many people believe created the basis for the legendary Spring-heeled Jack.

The Mary Stevens incident

His first reported victim was a servant girl in London named Mary Stevens. She had been to visit her parents in Battersea and was walking to her place of work in Lavender Hill when she encountered him.

While she was walking through Clapham Common she was attacked by dark, bizarre figure that had sprung out of the shadows of an alley. Grabbing hold of her arms he had restrained her while kissing her face. His hands were like claws and he ripped at her clothing. Mary later described them as “being cold and clammy as those of a corpse.”

Fortunately for her, when she screamed he sprang off. Hearing her panic stricken screams a number of local people came to her assistance. Although they searched all over they could not find her attacker.

The next attack

The next day the strange figure struck again near to where Mary Stevens lived. This time he chose a different victim and mode of attack. He lay in wait for a passing carriage and sprang out in front of the horses causing them to panic. The coachman lost control resulting in him crashing the carriage and being seriously injured.

According to several eye-witnesses the culprit sprang off laughing manically leaping over a 9 ft fence to make his escape. As news of these attacks spread by word of mouth and the press he became known as Spring-heeled Jack.

A matter of public concern

Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, at a public session revealed that he had been sent an anonymous letter from someone in Peckham. The letter claimed that Spring-heeled Jack was a high ranking person in London life who had accepted a bet. The bet required this person to appear as a ghost, a bear and a devil in many of the villages around London.

The letter also alleged that Jack had struck several times and had so terrified his victims that at least two would never fully recover. It also claimed that although these events had been happening over a period of time the newspapers were strangely not reporting the attacks. The writer claimed that they knew about the attacks and knew who was responsible but chose not to publish on the matter.

A member of the audience revealed that there had also been a number of attacks in Kensington, Ealing and Hammersmith on servant girls. The girls were terrified and talked of being attacked by a ghost or the devil himself.

Reports of more incidents

File:Springheel Jack.png From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Author User Allen3 on en.wikipedia

Spring-heeled Jack jumped over a gate

On the 9th of January “The Times” did publish a report and the next day several other national newspapers followed. The Lord Mayor revealed he had received many letters from many places in the London area reporting similar acts.

Indeed, the sheer number of letters from all around London suggested that the culprit had been highly active in and all around the capital city. Many young women had been terrified out of their wits and some had been injured by the attacker who either had false, or real claws on his hands.

There were claims that many people in Brixton, Stockwell, Vauxhall and Camberwell had been overcome by fits when attacked or had died of fright. There were also reports that the attacker had also been active in Blackheath and Lewisham.

The Lord Mayor was undecided what to make of the situation. On one hand he thought that the events had been exaggerated but on the other someone he knew and trusted had related to him the case of a servant girl who had gone into fits when attacked by someone wearing a bear’s skin. Nevertheless, he was sure that the culprit would be eventually apprehended and brought to justice. Rewards were offered for information leading towards his capture and the police were now searching for him.

The Sussex Incident

A story originally reported in the “Brighton Gazette” was taken up by “The Times” on 14th April, 1838. The report told how a gardener had experienced a terrifying encounter with an unknown beast.

The incident occurred on the 13th of April, 1838, when a gardener in Rosehill, Sussex, had his attention caught by some kind of animal growl. A bear-like animal then appeared and climbed upon the garden wall and ran along the top before leaping down and chasing the gardener. It terrorised him for some time before finally climbing back over the wall and escaping.

Although there was little of similarity between the London incidents and this one “The Times” claimed, “Spring-heeled Jack, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast.”

The infamy of Spring-heeled Jack spreads

Two of the most notorious and best known incidents were those that happened to Jane Alsop and Lucy Scales, both teenage girls. It was the coverage of these by the newspapers that elevated Spring-heeled Jack in public awareness.

The Jane Alsop incident

On the night of 19th February, 1838, Jane Alsop answered a knock on the door of her father’s house. On answering she found a man wearing a great cloak who claimed he was a policeman. He asked her to bring a light outside as the police believed they had captured Spring-heeled Jack in the lane.

She ran inside and brought out a candle into the lane. Upon giving him the candle the man threw off the cloak giving the girl the fright of her life. His appearance, “presented a most hideous and frightful appearance”, vomiting blue and white flame from his mouth while his eyes resembled “red balls of fire”. According to Jane he wore a style of garment that was tight-fitting and similar to white oilskin. On his head he wore a large helmet.

He did not utter a further word but commenced tearing at her clothing with hands that were like metallic claws. Screaming she managed to escape his grasp and tried to run back to the house. He caught up with her and clawed her neck and arms wounding her. Her sister, on hearing the screams came to her assistance and the attacker ran off into the night.

The Lucy Scales Incident

Just over a week later on the 28th of February another attack on a teenage girl took place. The victim was Lucy Scales an 18 year old who was walking back to her home accompanied by her sister. They had been visiting their brother who was a butcher in a high class area of Limehouse.

They had just left their brother’s house to return home. As they passed by a passage known as Green Dragon Alley they noticed someone standing in an angle of the alleyway. At the time Lucy was walking to the fore with her sister following behind. She noticed the person was wearing a large dark cloak.

Just as she came to pass him by she claimed “a quantity of blue flame” issued from his mouth into her face blinding her. Terrified she fell to the floor and began having fits which were to last for several hours.

Her brother told of how he had heard screams and realising it was his sisters had run after them. On finding them he found Lucy on the floor convulsed in a fit with his other sister supporting and holding her. Her brother and sister took Lucy safely home.

Once there Lucy’s sister explained to her brother what had happened. She told him that the assailant had the appearance and air of a gentleman. He was tall and thin in stature and wore a large dark cloak. He was holding in his hand a bull’s eye lantern or lamp like those used by police constables. He did not utter a word and he did not try to grab hold of them. Instead he turned and walked swiftly away from the scene vanishing in the shadows.

The police made an intensive search of the area for the culprit of this and similar attacks. They apprehended and questioned many people but they were all released.

An arrest is made

On the 2nd of March 1838 “The Times” ran a report on the Jane Alsop incident. They led with the headline, “The Late Outrage at Old Ford,” which was followed by an account of the trial of Thomas Millbank. The police had arrested Millbank who had been bragging in the Morgan’s Arms public house that he was Spring-heeled Jack.

The policeman who arrested Millbank was James Lea who had earlier tracked down and arrested William Corder who had murdered his lover, Maria Marten, in what became known as the “The Red Barn Murder.”

Millbank had been wearing a greatcoat over white overall. He had dropped the greatcoat and a candle both of which were found.

He was tried at Lambeth Street court but was not convicted because Jane Alsop steadfastly claimed that her assailant had exhaled fire from his mouth. Of course Millbank could do no such thing and he was acquitted.

Incidents around the country

File:Jack4.jpg From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia – Public Domain Image

These incidents were to catapult Spring-heeled Jack into the British public awareness. Alleged incidents were reported and attributed to him across the country. He became a popular character for plays and Penny Dreadfuls. He was in all the newspapers and even replaced the devil in many Punch and Judy Shows of the time.

Oddly, even though he was becoming more well known the incidents attributed to him became less though more widespread across Britain. In an incident in Northamptonshire he was described as having flaming eyes and horns on his head like the Devil.

From East Anglia an increase in attacks of mail coach drivers was reported and Spring-heeled Jack was accused of being the culprit.

An investigation in Teighnmouth, Devon, in the July of 1847 led to a conviction to a Captain Finch for assault on two women. It was claimed he dressed in skin coat and a skull cap with horns and that he wore a mask.

Spring-heeled Jack is linked to other phenomena

Links were also made to a strange phenomenon that occurred in 1855 called the “Devil’s Footprints.” After a heavy snow marks appeared in the snow that looked like hoof prints. The prints could be seen for many miles.

Reports of incidents became scarcer for a number of years and then in November of 1872 the “News of the World” ran a story about the “Peckham Ghost” claiming that it was non other than Spring-heeled Jack returned. Similarly reports were published in April and May in 1873 reporting about the “Park Ghost” in Sheffield. Local people blamed Spring-heeled Jack.

Aldershot Barracks

During August in 1877 one of the most extraordinary incidents was reported to have been witnessed by soldiers at Aldershot Barracks. According to reports a soldier on night time sentry duty challenged a strange figure that advanced towards him. The challenge was ignored and the figure approached the sentry and slapped his face several times.

Another sentry is said to have fired shots at the figure but there is confusion as to whether the shots were blanks, warning shots, or simply missed the target. What ever the case they had no effect on the attacker who with great leaps and bounds disappeared quickly into the night.

There were several more sightings at Aldershot Barracks and also Colchester. It is said the army responded by ensuring sentries had live ammunition and were ordered to shoot intruders on sight. However, no more incidents were recorded by the army.

An incident in Lincolnshire

A report was made in Newport Arch, Lincoln, Lincolnshire where he made an appearance but was chased by and furious mob who shot at him but could cause him no harm. They managed to corner him but
He escaped by using great leaps to leave the crowd behind.

Last seen in Liverpool

An incident was reported in Liverpool at the end of the 19th century of Spring-heeled Jack making appearances. First, in 1888, in the district of Everton he was seen on the top of the roof of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street. Later in 1904, he was seen nearby in William Henry Street.

Theories

All sorts of theories abound about who or what he was. Some say he was a paranormal phenomenon such as the bogeyman or a ghost. Others say he was an alien from another planet. Others say it was a case of mass hysteria claiming that witnesses exaggerated what had been seen or were just mistaken.

Others point back to the anonymous letter received by John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London that claimed the Spring-heeled Jack incidents were the result of a bet by a group of young aristocrats.

Many think sensationalism by the press and mass public hysteria had snowballed into creating some kind of superhuman bogeyman. Copycat incidents across the country may have further exaggerated the reputation of Spring-heeled Jack.

Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford

One of the chief suspects as the original perpetrator was Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. The Marquess had a reputation for public brawling, drunken behaviour and had rather a macabre sense of humour. Known as “the Mad Marquess” he was known to be disrespectful to women and police officers and was always willing to take on a bet. He was known to be in London when the incidents first began to be reported.

In 1880, the Reverend Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, compiler of “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” accused the Marquis of being the perpetrator. He referenced his liking of jumping out and frightening unsuspecting travellers, claiming that others had also copied his pranks.

What ever the truth in these accusations the Marquess is known to have married and resided in Curraghmore House in County Waterford in 1842. There he lived respectably and flawlessly until his death in 1859 in a riding accident.

Although Captain Finch was convicted of attacking two women in 1847, it seems to have been more of a copycat incident or something different. The Marquess died in 1859 and incidents of Spring-heeled Jack continued to be reported up to 1904.

Concluding the case

Most of the evidence seems to be both exaggerated by terrified witnesses and embellished by the press of the day. The most likely explanation seems to be that a foolish prank carried out by a young aristocrat grew out of proportion by word of mouth and by an over enthusiastic press. Similar incidents were then routinely attributed to a shady figure known as Spring-heeled Jack and the incidents snowballed with each report, spreading beyond London to many other parts of the land.

References

Urban Dictionary
Spring-heeled Jack
http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Spring%20Heeled%20Jack

Spring-heeled Jack
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring-heeled_Jack

BBC Legacies

http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/england/black_country/article_1.shtml