British Folklore: Legends of the Black Dog

The British Isles are rich in history and tradition and there are many strange and wonderful legends gathered from folklore whose origins are lost in the mists of time.  From these mists there have emerged many folk tales of spectral animals with strange and terrible powers that are said to haunt the forests, hills and remote byways of this ancient land.  Perhaps one of the most terrifying of these is the legend of the Black Dog.

Black Dog – Author: Liza Phoenix – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Sightings of phantom Black Dogs have been recorded from many parts of Britain for many centuries, with encounters in England seeming to be the most prevalent.  Most of the English counties report incidents and sighting of these mysterious beasts which are known by many names, depending on location. In East Anglia the beast is often known as Black Shuck where it has haunted the countryside even before the arrival of the Vikings.  In Scotland there is the Cu Sith and in Tring, Hertfordshire, the Lean Dog and in other parts of England there is the Church, or Kirk, Grim and many other names.

The Black Dog of Bungay

One of the most frightening incidents ever reported took place in the quiet market town of Bungay, in Suffolk.  On the Sunday morning of the 4th of August, 1577, during the Morning Service at St. Mary’s Church a terrible and violent storm broke out. The sky darkened, thunder crashed and rain fell heavily from the skies.  Lightning flashed wildly as the storm broke upon the church.  Inside the congregation knelt to pray.

Suddenly to the horror of the congregation from out of a flash of lightning there appeared in the church a huge and monstrous Black Dog.  Howling wildly as the lightning flashed and thunder pealed, the beast ran amok attacking the terrified parishioners and causing havoc.

Two people at their prayers were killed and a third man was badly burned from being mauled by the beast, but did survived the ordeal.  There was great damage inflicted upon the church, as the tower was struck by lightning and the clock destroyed, before the Black Dog finally ran wildly from the church to the relief of the petrified congregation.

Around twelve miles away in the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh, at a about the same time the Black Dog, or another beast like it, appeared and also attacked the frightened congregation at prayers killing three people.  There are scorched scratch marks on the church door that can still be seen to this day.

Title page of the account of Rev. Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog “Black Shuck” at the church of Bungay, Suffolk in 1577: “A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in ye yeere of our Lord 1577.” – Author Abraham Fleming – Public Domain

The Lean Dog of Tring in Hertfordshire

In the Hertfordshire town of Tring a phantom with red, glowing, eyes and known as the Lean Dog is said to haunt the site where a gallows once stood.   In 1751 an old woman was accused of witchcraft by locals and drowned.   A local chimney sweep was accused of taking part in her murder and was hanged from the gallows.  In the 19th century two men who encountered the Lean Dog reported it as being gaunt, haggard and unkempt.

A local schoolmaster who encountered it reported it to being about the size of a Newfoundland dog with a shaggy coat and tail and long ears.  There are also reports that state that with its first appearances it materialize as, or from, a fiery torch.

The Cu Sith

In Scottish and Irish legend the Cu Sìth, which means ‘fairy dog,’ was said to have a dark-green, shaggy coat and to be about the size of a large calf.  Its eyes were large and had a fiery glow and its tail was curled and sometimes braided.

In Celtic tradition phantom dogs are usually black though sometimes they are white but have red ears.  The Irish Cu Sith is describe as being a huge black hound. Green is associated with ‘fairies’ in Celtic lore and it is named the ‘fairy dog’ and seems to be in league with them.

The Cu Sith was feared as a harbinger of death.  In much the same way the Grim Reaper appears at death to lead the soul to the afterlife, so the Cu Sith takes the soul to the underworld.

The hound is said to have hunted silently for its victim but would sometimes rend the air with three blood-curdling yowls that carried for a great distance. When this was heard men would lock up their women to prevent the Cu Sith from stealing them and taking them to the fairy world where they would be made to give up their milk to the children of the fairies.

The Church, or Kirk, Grim

The Vikings brought many of their customs and traditions to England from Scandinavia and may well have influenced the legends of the Black Dog.  The Church Grim was also known as Kirk Grim and in Finnish, ‘Kirkonväki’ and in Swedish, ‘Kyrkogrim.’  Both appear in English and Scandinavian folklore as sentinel spirits whose task was to protect a church and its grounds.  They could appear as small, dark, grotesquely formed people, or as a Black Dog.

In many parts of Europe, including Britain, early Christians are believed to have sacrificed animals when a new church was built.   A black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the land which would then become the guardian spirit keeping the church and grounds safe from the devil.  It was often regarded as a herald of doom bringing death to anyone who encountered it.

Hound of the Baskervilles – Image Author: w:Sidney Paget – Public Domain Image

The Black Dog of Galley Hill, Luton

In ancient times Galley Hill was home to a hill fort and barrow.  Later in 16th-and 17th century it became a place of execution and a gallows was erected.

Galley Hill is a highly visible landmark where witches and criminals were executed there and their bodies covered in tar to preserve them.  They were then left to hang on the gallows which stood high on the hill as a warning to others before being eventually buried.

It is reported that one night the hill was hit by a ferocious storm.   The gallows were struck by lightning setting it and the ground around it on fire.  In the flames a Black Dog was said to have been seen howling and capering wildly.  People believe that the beast comes for the souls of criminals and witches driving them through the Gates of Hell for Satan.

Benevolent Black Dogs

Sightings and encounters with Black Dogs are still reported though they seem less horrific than those of the past and in some cases even benevolent with the beast acting as a guardian or guide ensuring travellers arrive at their destination safely.  Sometimes they have been reported by drivers who have seen them in their headlights in the road at night only to vanish when the vehicle is about to make contact.  There are also reports from many other parts of the world about similar ghostly encounters which suggest that the Black Dog is not just a British phenomenon.

                                                                                                                    © 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

 Copyright 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

The Folktale of the Pedlar of Swaffham

The folktale of the Pedlar of Swaffham tells of how a poor pedlar came to find his fortune by following a dream. The story begins in the historic English market town of Swaffham in the county of Norfolk in the 15th century.

Pedlar of Swaffham , The town Sign, Swaffham, Norfolk – Image Author: Stavros1- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

A Dream of Fortune

The legend tells of how John acquired his money after a strange dream he experienced three times on consecutive nights. In that dream he saw the great city of London and he saw London Bridge stretching across the River Thames. He heard a voice telling him that if he was to travel all the way from Swaffham in Norfolk to London, where on London Bridge, he would meet someone who would tell him the most wonderful news.

The first night he dismissed it as just a dream. The second night he gave greater thought to it but again dismissed it as just a dream. After the third night of the dream he became convinced that he needed to follow the dream through, so he bid his wife farewell and set off with his dog to find London Bridge.

London Bridge

In those days the roads were long and hard and the countryside was wild, so it was good to have his dog with him for company. After many long and weary days he eventually found himself standing on London Bridge. In those days the river had many ships sailing up and down it and the bridge had many busy shops all along its length.

On his first day he walked the length of the bridge over and over again with his dog and stood and looked out over the river. He visited all the shops but he met with no one who had anything to say to him and he saw no signs to help him.

On the second day he did the same and he and his dog wandered in and out of the shops and gazed at the river as it flowed under the bridge. He began to doubt himself and began to feel foolish at coming all this way over a dream.

Good News

On third day he and his dog again wandered the length of the bridge visiting all the shops several times. Yet still he met with no one or saw any sign to help him. He was beginning to feel very despondent and he stood and gazed at the river as it flowed, thinking to himself how foolish he had been to set his hopes on just a dream.

Now it so happened that as he had wandered the bridge going in and out of all the shops over those three days he had caught the attention of a shopkeeper who came up and spoke to him.

The shopkeeper asked him why he was spending his time wandering in and out of the shops or just leaning on the bridge walls watching the river flow.  He asked John if he had any goods to sell or if indeed he was a beggar.  Chapman told him that he had nothing to sell and that he was not a beggar and could take care of himself.

Now full of curiosity the shopkeeper asked him where he had come from and what had brought him to London Bridge. Chapman then explained that he had lived in town in the country, but did not say where and that he had traveled all this way because of a dream he had experienced. The shopkeeper asked what was in the dream that had made him come all the way from his home in the country to London.

Chapman told him about the dream and how the voice had told him to go to London Bridge where he would here the most wonderful news. The shopkeeper laughed out loud at this and told him he was nothing but a fool to put such great faith in his dreams.

Laughing, the shopkeeper, told John that he had also had a dream over the last three nights. In that dream a voice had told him to travel to a town called Swaffham in Norfolk, where buried under an old apple tree in a small orchard, behind a house he would find the most wonderful treasure. The shopkeeper laughed saying that he would have been a fool to undertake such a long arduous journey purely on the say so of a voice in a dream, and adding that Chapman was also a fool for making such a long journey for those reasons as well.

Finding the Treasure

Hearing what the shopkeeper had to say and recognising the place he had described, Chapman hurried home to Swaffham as fast as he could. Digging under the apple tree in his orchard he found a small pot filled to the top with gold coins. He cleaned up the coins and hid them away safely but while he was cleaning the pot he noticed it had an inscription etched upon it but he did not have the skill to read it.

A few weeks later he persuaded a passing monk to take a look at the inscription. The monk told John that the inscription said, ‘Under me doth lie, another richer far than I’. Thanking the monk, John went to his orchard and again began digging under the apple tree. Sure enough underneath the place he found the first pot he came across a much larger and heavier pot filled to the brim with gold.

Being honest and industrious and a man of gratitude he invested his fortune wisely making his wealth grow. To show his gratitude for his good fortune he donated money to help the rebuilding of the local church.

Fact or Fiction?

History shows that a man called John Chapman lived in Swaffham and was a man who achieved considerable wealth though the means of how he did so cannot be proved. He was believed to have been a pedlar or a shopkeeper, or trader of some kind though his exact occupation remains unclear.

In his life-time he is credited with donating sufficient money to build the tower and north aisle of the local church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  The town sign has a depiction of him and his dog commemorating his generosity to the town and remembering the legend.

It is known the Rector of Swaffham between 1435 and 1474 was John Botewright who compiled an inventory of building work done to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The book came to be called the Swaffham Black Book and its records show that someone called John Chapman paid for the North Aisle to be rebuilt.

Furthermore, in the choir area of the church are three wooden pews. On one is carved the figure the pedlar and on the other his dog. On a third is a carving of a woman looking from a shop door way which possible depicts his wife.

Origin of the Legend

Very similar legends can be found all over Europe as well as the Middle East.  Possibly the earliest version In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo, Dreaming of Baghdad from the writings of  Jalal al-Din Rumia a 13th century Persian poet.

A similar theme can also be found in story from ‘The Arabian Nights’, a collection of folk tales from the Middle East titled The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream. Other places in the UK, Eire, and Europe also have local versions of the same theme including Upsall Castle, England and Dundonald Castle, Scotland. In recent times the theme was used by Paul Coelho in his novel, The Alchemist.

Of course the legend of the Pedlar of Swaffham may be based on facts that have been embellished over the centuries or have become intertwined with other legends from other places, or indeed it may possibly all be true. We will probably never know but it does still make a good story.

Reference and Attributions
Image - The Town Sign, Swaffham, 02-03-2009 (1).JPG from Wikimedia Commons - The town Sign, Swaffham, Norfolk - Image Author: Stavros1- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Pedlar of Swaffham from Wikipedia

Natural Folklore: The Northern and Southern Lights

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights

This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

The northern lights and the southern lights are natural phenomena that occur in the night skies over the polar regions of the planet. Today, we know they are caused by gas molecules in the atmosphere colliding with solar particles. This releases energy as light and creates colourful displays of light that display in fold-like shapes, streamers, rays, arches and many other amazing forms.

The northern lights are also known as ‘Aurora borealis’ and the southern lights as ‘Aurora australis.’ In Roman mythology Aurora was the goddess of the dawn, so Aurora borealis means ‘dawn of the north,’ and Aurora australis means dawn of the south.

They can be very beautiful and awe-inspiring and at the same time mysterious and even frightening. Many different cultural and ethnic groups who lived in places where they are seen have developed many myths and legends to try and explain and make meaning of them in their own terms.

The Fox-fires of Lapland

In the language of the Finnish people the northern lights are known as “Revontulet.” In English this means “Fox Fires” and comes from a very old Finnish myth which says that the lights were produced by magical snow foxes whose swishing tales sent snow spraying into the skies.

North of Finland, Norway and Sweden live the Lapp people in Lapland. This is a huge area within the Arctic Circle which ranges across parts of all three of these Scandinavian countries. The Lapps are closely related to the Finnish people. Their traditions say that the lights are the shining souls of the dead.

When the lights are in the skies people are expected to behave in a solemn and respectful way. Children were also expected to be solemnly too out of respect for the departed ones. To show disrespect would bring down bad luck, sickness and the risk of death.

The shamans of the Lapps painted runes representing the fires on their on their drums to help them attract and capture their magical energy. They were also believed that the lights had soothing powers over conflicts and arguments.

There was also a belief that if you whistled when the lights were active they would come to you and take you away with them.

The ride of the Valkiries

A red aurora of this magnitude is rare, and in this image it complements the green colour. Image taken at Hakoya island, just outside Tromsoe, Norway. October 25th, 2011 by photographer Frank Olsen

A red aurora of this magnitude is rare, and icomplements the green colour. Image taken Hakoya island, Norway. October 25th, 2011 by photographer Frank Olsen. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Norwegian folklore tells that they were the souls of old maids who danced and waved across the skies.

While in other parts of Scandinavia and Germany the belief was that it was the Valkiries who had taken to the air when the lights appeared.

In Scotland, which also has strong Norse links, the lights were sometimes referred to as “the merry dancers.”

Warriors battling in the skies

In other parts of the world the aurora borealis was believed to be heroes or warriors battling in the sky. In many places further from the Arctic and Antarctic Circles the lights are a rare occurrence and when they did appear they were seen as signs of coming war or sickness and were harbingers of doom.

Eskimo beliefs

Among some Eskimo tribes of Greenland the lights were connected with dancing. In some parts of Greenland the lights were thought top be the souls of children who had died at, or soon after birth.

In Labrador, young Eskimos believed the lights were the torches lit and carried by the dead as they played a kind of ball game in the skies with the skull of a walrus. They would dance as the lights played across the skies.

Spirits of animals

Aurora image taken at Hillesoy island, Norway. September 2011. Author Arctic light -Frank Olsen, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In eastern parts of Canada, the Salteaus Indians, along with the Kwakiutl and Tlingit tribes of south eastern parts of Alaska the lights were thought to the spirits of humans. Tribes living along the Yukon River thought that the lights were the spirits of animals such as elk, deer, salmon, seal and whales.

While to some Native American tribes of Wisconsin, North America, they were a bad omen as they believed the lights were the ghosts of the enemies they had killed who were now seeking revenge.

Everlasting love

Many cultures around the world looked up at them and made their own meanings and stories to explain them but here the last word goes to the Algonquin Indians. They believed the northern lights were the fires of the great creator god, Nanahbozho. After creating the world he retired to the far north. There he builds great magical campfires which light up the northern skies to remind them of the everlasting love he holds towards them.

 Causes of Color - Legends and myths of the aurora Folklore
 Accessed 04 September 2013
this is FINLAND - Beliefs on indigenous people
 Accessed 04 September 2013
Aurora (astronomy) - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit

Photo Author: Rod Bacon

Versions of the Green Children of Woolpit

Woolpit is a village in Suffolk that has a history that goes back 2,000 years or more. It has seen many events in its long history, but perhaps one of the strangest must be the appearance of two mysterious green children.  Their story was recorded by two chroniclers; Ralph of Coggershall and William of Newburgh.  There are also a number of other versions, some set in the neighbouring county of Norfolk, but it is the Suffolk version that is dealt with here.

Harvest Time

The story begins on a clear, bright, day during harvest time when the villagers were out reaping their crops. As they worked they became aware of the sound of someone weeping and crying.  The cries, although sad, were strange and seemed to be in words that they could not understand.

With growing concern that someone might be in trouble the villagers began searching the area.  Following the weeping sounds they found two small children; a young boy and a young girl.  Nearby, was the opening to a wolf-pit which they appeared to have come out of.  They were very frightened and cried bitterly.

Even though the villagers meant them no harm the children were frightened and tried to escape.  Although the villagers were very poor, they were kind and caring people and wanted to help the children.  They caught the children and looked to see how they could assist them. There was no sign of any adults accompanying them so they tried to calm them down and tried to ask them where they were from.

The villagers were astonished to find that although the children were very much the same physically as any other children; they had some very strange differences.  For a start the two children were wearing clothes of a style the villagers had never seen before and they spoke in a language that they could not understand. It was certainly not any form of English that the villagers knew. Stranger still, the villagers saw the children’s skin was a shade of green on all parts of their body.

Sir Richard de Caine Offers Them Food

The children were fearful of the villagers and held on to each other crying bitterly. The villagers felt terribly sorry for the children and refused to let them go, wanting to help them and keep them safe.  They took the children to Sir Richard de Caine, a knight, who they thought might know who they were and how to help them.

The children were still terrified and continued their crying and weeping. Despite being starved with hunger the children would not eat anything Sir Richard and his servants offered them.  No matter how gently Sir Richard coaxed or what his servants put before them they still refused to eat.

Fresh Green Beans

Having offered all the contents of his pantry and the children still refusing to eat Sir Richard had his servants go and look in the garden to see if there was anything there he could tempt them with.  The servants came back with fresh green beans and out of desperation Sir Richard offered them to the children.  On seeing the beans the children immediately showed interest.  Using gestures they indicated they wanted to try them.

However, when Sir Richard offered the bean pods and stalks on a plate to the children they picked up the stalks and opened them expecting to find beans inside.  Finding nothing in the hollow stalks the children were so upset they began crying again. Sir Richard and his servants on seeing this then showed them how to open the pods and get the beans out. On seeing the children cheered up and heartily began eating the beans straight from the pod.  For many months after the children would only eat green beans and nothing else.

The Green Children stay with Sir Richard

Sir Richard allowed the children to stay in his household as they had no where else to go.  Sadly, the boy, who was often low of spirit and of a despondent manner fell sick and passed away within a short while.  His sister, however, grew strong and full of vitality and began to eat other types of food other than green beans.  As she grew stronger and older her skin slowly lost its green tinge.

A Far, Far Country

The girl thrived and gradually learnt how to speak English.  Sir Richard was still curious as to where she and her brother had come from and asked her about her past.  She told him she and her brother had come from another country far, far away and that everyone who lived there had green skin.  The girl said that in that country there was no sun.  She told him that the light there was similar to twilight in England just after sunset but the light was green and so was everything else.

How the Green Children Came to England

Sir Richard asked how she and her brother had got to England. She told him that she and her brother had been tending their family’s flock of sheep which had strayed into a large cavern.  As they were tasked to guard the sheep they had followed them into the cave with the intention of driving them back out.

When they entered the cavern they heard the sound of bells ringing. They both thought this was the most wonderful and delight sound they had ever heard and they were enchanted by their ringing.

As if in a spell, the two children forgot all about their sheep and followed the sound of the bells down along a passage until at last they stumbled out of the cave into the bright sunlight.  The children’s eyes were not accustomed to such light. Temporarily blinded and disorientated they began crying.  That is when the villagers first heard them by the wolf-pit.  They had tried to find the cave entrance hoping to escape the villagers and return home.  However, in the bright light they became lost and could not find their way back.

Even though Sir Richard may have found her tale strange and far fetched he let her stay in his household for many years and had her baptized into the Christian church.  There were times he noted her behaviour to be immoderate and free now and then, but he was a kindly and tolerant man and let it be.

The Account of Sir William of Newbridge

In the account of Sir William of Newbridge this all happened during the reign of King Stephen between the years 1135-54 He claimed the children had been discovered during harvest time.  They had been found near the entrance to the Wolf-pits around 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. He said that they had both eventually lost the green tinge to their skin, been baptized and named Agnes and learned how to speak English.  Sadly, the boy had always been weak and sickly and had died.

St. Martin’s Land

According to Sir William the girl had flourished and eventually she married and had children.  She always claimed she came from a country called St Martin’s Land where everyone revered St Martin and everyone was a Christian and there were many churches.  The girl insisted that in that country there was no sun and everything was lit by a green light. There was a very wide river and on the opposite bank they could see a very bright country.

Fairies and Fullers

To some people the legend is the meeting of the fairy world with the human world. They argue that green is the traditional colour associated with fairies and the often immoderate and free behaviour of the girl were typical traits of the fairies.

Other people take the view that there may be parts of the legend that were based on fact but became exaggerated or distorted over time.  For example, it is known that about the time when it is thought to have happened there were immigrants from Belgium living and working in the area.  These were Flemish fullers and merchants.  The fullers made their living by processing and possibly dying wool different colours.  They also spoke their own language of Flemish.

Tensions arose between the Flemish and local people and the Flemish were massacred.  Some people think it possible the children escaped into the forest. Their green skin may have been dyed deliberately by their parents or themselves as camouflage.  Being of Flemish origin would also explain their language and their different clothes.

Although this is plausible it does not take into account what the girl is alleged to have told Sir Richard.  Another problem with this idea is that Sir Richard was almost certainly one of the most eminent people in the area.  As such he would probably have had some knowledge or direct involvement in such an attack.  It is also quite possible he may have had business dealings with the Flemish and would probably have realised that the language the children were speaking was Flemish.  Some accounts also say that it was not the Flemish fullers, but Flemish merchants who were massacred.

Chlorosis – The Green Sickness

Another theory is that the children were suffering from a type of anaemia known as chlorosis, sometimes called “green sickness”.  They may have acquired this through wandering starving and undernourished through the woods.  However, even though there are many accounts of girls, especially around the age of puberty being afflicted with green sickness, it is very much rarer in boys.

Continuing Intrigue

It is an interesting story and one that arouses the curiosity in people for many centuries. We will probably never know the truth now but no doubt it will continue to intrigue future generations just as much as today.

References and Attributions
Image - File:WoolpitSign.jpg From Wikipedia -   Author: Rod Bacon - 
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
History mysteries: The Green children of Woolpit 
Green children of Woolpit - From Wikipedia 
BBC Radio 4 The Green Children of Woolpit
Mysterious Britain & Ireland 
Mysterious People

The legend of Gelert

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.

Attribution: Tirwhan [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Prince Llywelyn

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