A Tale of Three Rivers: The Ystwyth, the Severn and the Wye

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Richard Webb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many legends and myths that explain how different British rivers originated. Many of these have been influenced by pagan beliefs and the worship of water goddesses, spirits or nymphs and have distinct Celtic connections.   This work looks at a legend that tells how the three British rivers known today as the Ystwyth, Severn and Wye  had their beginnings on the flanks of Mount Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales.   It gives an explanation of how they formed and found their way to the sea to become part of the great rain cycle that brings growth and nourishment to the land and its inhabitants. The work presented here draws from more than one source and owes much to Pollyanna Jones and Bill Gwilliam.

The Sleeping Giant

The story begins on Plynlimon which is a massif that is the highest point in the Cambrian Mountains and the highest point in Mid Wales.  Underneath the massif there was said to be a sleeping giant.  This giant had three daughters who were Niskai in Celtic mythology, sometimes known as water goddesses or nymphs.  There names were Ystwyth, Hafren and Gwy.

Although the giant slept he watched over his daughters in his slumber seeing them grow safely from the rain and the mountain mist that settled upon the mountain sides.  He watched the raindrops form puddles which formed pools which joined together to form little rivulets that trickled gently down the mountain.   In his dreams, he looked upon them and saw the energy that was brimming up inside of them ready to overflow and gush forth and he knew their time had come.

The Giant Awakes

Waking from his slumber he called them to him and told them,  “The time has come when you should fulfill your destiny and join with the sea.” And then he asked, “How will you fulfill your destiny?”

Being water nymphs they greatly desired to visit the ocean and to explore the great and mysterious region of the Celtic Sea and the wonders that lay beyond. It is very often the case with sisters that each will have different personalities and strong characteristics and express their individuality in different ways.  The choice each sister would make for themselves would be an expression of their unique personalities and individuality.

Ystwyth’s Choice

 

Ystwyth, was the smallest and was always in a hurry and made decisions and accomplished tasks in great haste.   As might be expected she quickly made up her mind that she would join the sea by the quickest and shortest route.  Stepping forward  she told her father, “I long to see the sea, to smell the salt air and see the sun rise and set over its wide waters.   I would go west by the shortest and the quickest route I can find to the sea to fulfill my destiny.”

“Then goodbye and go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”  her father said, kissing and her embracing her.   Saying her goodbyes to her sisters she skipped and danced down the mountainside, drawing strength and speed from the small brooks and streams from her father’s side and flowed westerly, sparkling and shimmering through the land of Wales reaching the sea much faster than her two sisters ever would.  The people who lived in the lands she flowed through called her the River Ystwyth and she arrived at the sea fulfilling her destiny at a place now called Aberystwyth that was named after her.

Hafren’s Choice

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River Severn in Shrewsbury – By The original uploader was Chrisbayley at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then Hafren stepped forward.  She said she was in no great hurry and wanted to take a good look at the countryside and to see the cities of humans and flow through their kingdoms.  She told her father, “I would choose to roam over the land taking the long way to the sea.  Then I could meet other waters of the land and learn the wisdom of the earth.   I would wander through the great cities, the beautiful towns and the villages of the fair people and learn what I could of their ways before I rendezvous with my sisters in the sea.  I have no need for haste and wish to learn and take my time. On my way, I will water and nourish the meadows of those fair folk but woe betide them should they abuse my good nature.  This is how I want to fulfill my destiny.”

Then her father kissed and embraced her and said, “Then go now and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

Saying goodbye to her remaining sister,  she did exactly as she said she would.  She took her time and wandered through the landscape visiting some of the wonderful cities, towns, and villages along the way before she eventually joined with the Celtic Sea.  Her flow became known as the River Severn that glides serenely through the land to join the sea in the Bristol Channel.  True to her word those who abused her by setting their buildings and homes too close to her banks, or by invading her water pastures caused her to rise up and inundate them but she fulfills her destiny as she should.

Gwy’s Choice

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Jonathan Billinger [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The giant turned to his last daughter, Gwy as she watched her two sisters go their separate ways saying, “And now it’s your turn.  What direction do you choose for yourself?”

Gwy was not in such a hurry as Ystwyth and unlike Hafren who yearned for knowledge she was more inclined towards beauty.  She decided she would like to visit some of the beautiful countryside before she joined with the sea.  She stepped forward and kissed her father saying, “Ystywyth is in a hurry to join the sea.  Hafren seeks knowledge and experience. Beauty and harmony with nature are what I seek.  I will seek a way to the sea through the valleys and forests and all creatures shall find in my flow a place of peace and fulfillment and a sanctuary where their needs shall be met.  I will bring happiness and tranquility where ever I go.”

Her father smiled kissed and embraced his daughter and said, “Goodbye.  Go and fulfill your destiny and know that we shall meet again!”

So Gwy flowed down the mountain and happily wandered through the valleys and the forests visiting the prettiest of the countryside before she eventually joined with the sea.  Gwy would become known by the people who lived along her flow as the River Wye and join up with her sister Hafren at a place now known as the Severn Estuary.  No doubt as the two sisters continued their journey through the Bristol Channel they found much to talk about together and to tell their hasty sister Ystwyth when they finally all met up again in the Celtic Sea.

The Giant Sleeps

The giant, although he knew he would miss his daughters, was happy because he knew they were fulfilling their destiny in the great scheme of things.  He had watched for time untold as they had been born from the Welsh mists and rain that often covered the mountainsides forming droplets on plants and rocks which collected together to form puddles. These would eventual gather moss and became pools ready to overflow into brooks and streams that would join together to flow over the land to the sea.

He was not sad because he knew that in the great cycle his daughters would return and visit him riding in the clouds that formed high above the ocean.  They would then be blown across the sea to the land to fall as rain on the mountainside.  They would stay for a time before once again making their way to the sea.  And so the great cycle would continue bringing nourishment and life to the land and all living things that dwell upon it.  Feeling satisfied that all was as it should be the giant went to sleep.

© 14/02/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright February 14th, 2018 zteve t evans

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Gwendolen: Legendary Queen of the Britons

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Artist – Edward Burne-Jones

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legendary Gwendolen, became the first queen regnant, reigning over the Britons in her own right.    The Historia Regum Britanniae (History of Britain) by Geoffrey of Monmouth, tells how Gwendolen is betrayed and humiliated by her husband, King Locrinus, the legendary ruler of Loegria.    His public rejection and humiliation of her in favor of his lover, Estrildis, spurred Gwendolen to take swift and dramatic action. Although Geoffrey’s work was accepted as fact up to the 17th century, today it is largely dismissed as a historical record by historians. Nevertheless, it still has its fascinations and many think he was influenced by older myths and legends. This work introduces the main characters of her story and tells how betrayal and rejection motivated her into wreaking a terrible but calculated revenge on those who had wronged her and put the future peace and stability of Britain at risk.

Locrinus, son of Brutus of Troy

King Locrinus was the eldest son of Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder and the first king of Britain.  Brutus was the descendant of Aeneas, the Trojan commander, who survived the fall of Troy and after escaping went on to found the Aeneads, who were said by Virgil to be the progenitors of the Romans.  It is this hereditary link with Troy and Rome that supposedly provides the ancient authority to rule for the descendants of Brutus and supposedly elevates the historical status of Britain and its rulers in medieval and later times.

Gwendolen, daughter of Corineus

Gwendolen was the daughter of the legendary Corineus, the first ruler of Cornwall, a companion and commander to Brutus of Troy.  Corineus was a towering figure at the time, a mighty warrior and highly respected for his military skill and bravery.  He was commander of his own band of followers who had joined up with Brutus and his army to conquer and settle Britain.   Corineus had killed Gogmagog, the last King of the race of Giants that had ruled Britain before the arrival of the Trojans in a fight to the death.

The death of Brutus

When Brutus died his kingdom fragmented  and was divided into three parts with his three sons, Locrinus,  Albanactus, and Kamber inheriting a share each. The kingdom of Locrinus was known as Loegria which was roughly equivalent to England.  Albanactus ruled Albania ,or Albany, which was roughly equivalent to Scotland and Kamber ruled Cambria or Kambria which was roughly equivalent with Wales.  Corineus still ruled Cornwall which Brutus had given him as his own in reward for help in subduing Britain.

Locrinus inherits Loegria

When Brutus died and Locrinus his eldest son, became ruler of Loegria, Corineus was still alive and as ruler of Cornwall was still a much respected and powerful ruler.  Locrinus now ruled over a powerful kingdom so a marriage with Gwendolen would have made a great deal of political sense for both him and Corineus.  There were still many enemies in the world so an alliance with the powerful Corineus would have been highly desirable and Locrinus made a pact with Corineus to marry his daughter.

One of those enemies were the Norsemen led by Humber the Hun who attacked Albany killing Albanactus in battle and forcing his people to retreat.  Locrinus and Kamber joined forces and met Humber in battle near one of the main  rivers of Britain defeating him.  umber was said to have drowned in the battle in the river which was named the River Humber after him.

After the battle Locrinus captured Humber’s ships and as well as a good deal of treasure found  Estrildis, the daughter of a German king who was being held hostage.  Locrinus  fell in love with her and set her free, but he was betrothed to Gwendolen the daughter of the powerful Corineus who he did not want to upset.

Corinius was not happy that Locrinus had fallen in love with the German princess and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms.  Rather than risk upsetting him  Locrinus married Gwendolen despite his love for Estrildis.  Wanting the best of both worlds he took Estrildis as his mistress, but secretly kept her hidden in a cave below Trinovantum, now London, the city Brutus built as his capital.  There she remained for seven years. She was looked after by her servants and gave birth to his daughter, Habren and stayed there until Corineus died.  

Gwendolen’s revenge

With the death of Corineus, Locrinus promptly divorced Gwendolen and married Estrildis. This proved to be a costly mistake and the old adage of hell knowing no fury like a woman scorned, rang true for him.   Gwendolen, being the daughter of the great warrior Corineus took swift and decisive action.

She returned to Cornwall where the people were still loyal to her and her family and raised an army which she led against Locrinus.  Not only had she inherited her father’s courage but also his decisiveness and skill in war.  The two armies met at the River Stour which in those days was the boundary between Loegria and Cornwall.  Gwendolen was victorious defeating Locrinus who was killed by an arrow. This made her the undisputed ruler and queen of both Loegria and Cornwall, becoming the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time.

She wasted no time in disposing of Elstrildis and Habren having them both drowned in a river which by Gwendolen’s decree was named after Habren.  Habren was also known as Hafren who became the eponym of the river. The latinized form was Sabrina which became Severn and was possibly influenced by earlier gods or spirits and sometimes she was known as Sabre and the river became known as the Severn.

The River Severn was named after Habren, not Elstrida, to emphasize and make known that a heir and potential rival to the British kingdom had been killed just as the River Humber was named after the Hun leader to emphasize his death and the ascendancy  of the British rulers to any potential outside challenge.  Elstrida did not get a river or place named after and was deliberately allowed to die in ignominy.  The killing of  Estrildis and Habren was more than just the revenge of a woman scorned.  It was also a political act that strengthened her power and that of her son by Locrinus,  Maddan, and when she abdicated the throne of Loegria went to him.

The attack on the country by Humber the Hun had been a typical invasion by men at arms who fought to control the land and the people.  The danger from Estrildis was more passive but potentially dangerous and subversive to the ruling order of Britain at the time and in the future.  The infatuation of Locrinus with a foreign princess threatened the future line of Brutus to the undisputed kingship of Britain.  Any possibility of a foreign heir to the throne potentially threatened the stability of Britain with the possibility of further invasions from Germanic rulers who may have believed they had a claim to Britain.

If Habren married outside of the British ruling community then an outsider is brought into future equations about who rules Britain.  With them out of the way Gwendolen reduces considerably the potential for foreign interference in the ruling elite of Britain.  Although other invaders did come after her time her action brought peace and stability during her reign and the reign of her successor.  She ruled her realm wisely and peacefully for 15 years and then abdicated. Her son by Maddan, by Locrinus, became king and she retired to Cornwall.

Legacy of Gwendolen

Gwendolen’s decisive action against Locrinus demonstrated the potential power and influence that women could wield.  It especially demonstrated how her gender was not a disadvantage to her use of power which she used to her advantage and to the benefit of those she ruled.  She was prepared to go to the extreme lengths of war and violence when she believed it necessary to protect her own realm acting and leading with decisiveness, wisdom, courage and military skill and foresight.

© 05/07/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright July 5th, 2016 zteve t evans