‘Dyrnwyn (‘White-Hilt), the sword of Rhydderch the Generous: if a well-born man drew it himself, it burst into flame from its hilt to its tip. And everyone who used to ask for it would receive it; but because of this peculiarity everyone used to reject it. And therefore he was called Rhydderch the Generous.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain
I draw the sword.
It does not burst into flames
when my mongrel hand closes
around the bone-white hilt,
pulls it from its sheath.
It balances uneasily
in my incompetent grip
remembering the death-grip
of kings, its blood-groove
steeped in redness.
My tasteless saliva
dries up as I see blood
pouring from the mouths
of victim after victim,
the fire in their eyes
dimming as the blade
burns brighter and brighter
in the white-knuckled unburnt hands
of Rhydderch the Generous:
defender of the Faith.
I fear it will burn me,
but it remains colder than flesh,
puzzling, inhuman, this thing
drawn from stone forged
by infernal magic.
I wish I had the strength
to break it over my knee
and return the broken halves
to the caves of the underworld
or throw it into the river:
Clutha’s outstretched hand
would souse its flames in the deep,
but its fire has drawn the life from me;
the victims it keeps claiming,
their heads on stakes.
Rhydderch Hael ‘the Generous’ was the son of Tudwal Tudglyd and a descendant of the Macsen Wledig lineage. He ruled Alt Clut (Strathclyde) from 580 until 614. Rhydderch’s patronage of St Kentigern and epithet ‘defender of the Faith’ show he was Christian. His wife was Gwenddydd*, sister of Myrddin ap Morfran: a warrior of Gwenddolau, ruler of Arfderydd.
Rhydderch was renowned for his generosity and exploits in war. In 547 he was part of a raiding party who burnt Arfon to the ground. With his allies Rhydderch defeated Gwenddolau at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 at a terrible cost: Myrddin killed Rhydderch and Gwenddydd’s only son and daughter. Driven mad by guilt and grief by killing his sister’s children Myrddin fled to the forest of Celyddon where Rhydderch pursued him relentlessly.
Rhydderch fought with other northern rulers: Urien, Gwallog, and Morgan, against the Angles at Ynys Metcaut. His absence from the Battle of Catraeth suggests by 600 he was too old to fight. In 614 he died childless, of old age, and the rulership of Alt Clut went to Nwython ap Gwyddno.
The name of Rhydderch’s sword, Dyrnwyn, ‘White-Hilt’, probably derives from its bone handle. Like many other Celtic long swords it may have been carved with an anthropomorphic figure, perhaps resembling Rhydderch or one of its past owners, with a head for its pommel, a body for its sword-grip, and arms and legs for its crossbars.
Its peculiarity – that it bursts into flame from hilt to tip whenever a well-born man draws it – points to the importance of bloodlines to the Brythonic rulers. Intriguingly the wielder of the sword does not get burnt. Perhaps the condition for wielding the sword was that it set alight without burning the one who drew it and the king was decided by this trial. Prior to Christianity this may have been rooted in proving one’s fitness to the sovereign goddess of the land who, in Alt Clut, was Clutha, goddess of the river Clyde.
Dyrnwyn shares similarities with Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, ‘Breach of Battle’, which was engraved with two serpents who spat jets of flame and was so terrifying his adversaries could not look at it. Later known as Excalibur its owner proved himself worthy by drawing it from a stone and it was returned to Morgan, the Lady of the Lake, a goddess of Avalon.
These fiery weapons of Christian warlords may have some basis in the Biblical story of the cherubim placed at the east of Eden with a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. If we wish to look for a pagan origin, perhaps a sword of flame was wielded by the pre-Christian god of summer and fire, Gwythyr ap Greidol, ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ against his rival, Gwyn ap Nudd, ‘White son of Mist’, a god of winter and ruler of Annwn.
Such weapons may have been forged by the smith-god, Gofannon, who is connected with nearby Govan. Smithing, and particularly the skill needed to make a flaming sword, would have been viewed as magical processes. No doubt there once existed a story about how Dyrnwyn originated and came into the hands of Rhydderch the Generous.
*She is also known as Ganied and Langoureth.
Mac Congail, ‘Little Metal Men – Celtic Anthropomorphic Swords’, Balkancelts,
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)