‘The coat of Padarn Red-Coat: if a well-born man put it on, it would be the right size for him; if a churl, it would not go upon him.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain
I don’t want to look at it,
let alone touch it,
try it on.
Padarn’s ‘red coat’
is Tyrian purple:
colour of the Roman Empire;
its emperors, consuls, priests.
If it touched my shoulders
one of us would
like bolindus brandaris
boiled in a vat.
At Tyre are mountains
of snail shells –
it took twelve thousand
just to dye the trim.
I’m spitting mucus.
I’d rather go naked
than wear that thing!
Padarn (Paternus) Beisrudd ‘Red Coat’ was born around 300 and was the son of Tegid (Tacitus). He was the ruler of Manaw Gododdin, a kingdom that may have centred on present-day Clachmannan ‘stone of Mannan/Manaw’ and perhaps extended to include Din Eidyn. His son, Edern (Aeternus), was the father of Cunedda Wledig, founder of Gwynedd.
The Latin names in Padarn’s pedigree suggest his rulership was subject to Roman authority. John Rhys argues Padarn’s ‘red coat’ was a purple robe worn by Roman officials. This fits with the fact the Tyrian purple symbolic of power in the Roman Empire ranged from red to purple to dried blood.
The dye was made from the mucus of a snail called bolinus brandaris, which was extracted by boiling the creatures in a vat for several days. To make 1.4g – enough to provide pigment for the hem of one robe – took twelve thousand snails. Mountains of their shells have been found in Tyre.
Padarn’s fame and his red coat seem to be bound up with him being held in favour by Rome. The descent of the rulers of Gwynedd from the northern lineage of Padarn is held important in Wales to this day. This is probably the source of the lines about his coat only fitting well born men.
In other lists of the Thirteen Treasures it is stated the coat will fit anyone whether they are well born or a churl or large or small or, obversely, that it will only fit Padarn. An additional property is that it will prevent its wearer from coming to harm. These might stem from older lore about magical garments originating from Annwn.
Curiously, in The Life of St Padarn, Padarn, who lived during the 6th century, is named as the owner of a tunic that Arthur longs for. Padarn refuses to give it to Arthur because it is ‘not fitting for the habit of a malign person, but for the habit of the clerical office’. Arthur storms away and returns levelling the ground with his feet. Padarn asks the earth to swallow Arthur, who he is buried to his chin until he acknowledges his guilt and begs forgiveness. This strange tale perhaps originates from the earlier Padarn’s red coat.
Colin Schultz, ‘In Ancient Rome, Purple Dye Was Made From Snails’, Smithsonian
Mark Bradley, ‘The Colour Purple in Ancient Rome’, Issuu
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)
‘Tyrian Purple’, Wikipedia