13. The Mantle of Arthur

The mantle of Arthur in Cornwall: whoever was under it could not be seen, and he could see everyone.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

We know of the atrocities
he committed when he was visible:
the headless giants, witches with cloven heads,
slaughtered dog-heads and wolves stripped of their furs.

We have seen the desolate battlefields in thisworld and Annwn.

What then of the invisible deeds behind his rise to power?

Some say Arthur walks invisibly amongst us still,
seeing everyone without being seen,
his hand guiding Empire.

Sweeping from his mantle the blade of Caledfwlch falls.

~

The Mantle of Arthur

~

Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and Eigr and was a legendary warlord who fought against the giants and witches of ancient Britain and carried out an infamous raid on Annwn. He also led twelve battles against the Anglo-Saxons and died at Camlan in 537. It’s odd to find Arthur’s mantle, here associated with Arthur’s court in Cornwall, in this list of northern treasures.

We find a detailed description of Arthur’s mantle, Gwen ‘White’ or ‘Blessed’, in Rhonabwy’s Dream. It is made of ‘damasced, brocaded silk’ and has ‘a reddish gold apple at each of its corners’. We are told of its attributes: ‘the person wrapped in it could see everyone yet no one could see him. And no colour would ever last on it except its own colour.’

In Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur’s mantle, along with his ship, sword, spear, shield, and dagger are listed as the only gifts that he refuses to give to Culhwch.

In ‘The Second Branch’ Caswallon, son of Beli Mawr, puts on a magic mantle in order to murder Caradog, son of Brân the Blessed, and six of his men, thus usurping the rulership of Britain. We are told ‘no one could see him killing the men – they could only see his sword.’ It may be suggested this is the same mantle and was associated with sovereignty.

As far as I am aware there are no stories about Arthur using his mantle to make himself invisible and carrying out any kind of deeds or misdeeds whilst under its protection.

Rich mantles, cloaks, and coats make frequent appearances in medieval Welsh mythology.  There is story about Arthur attempting to take Padarn’s Coat and I can’t help wondering whether these treasures are connected or the same. Culhwch wears a ‘purple, four-cornered cloak about him, with a ruby-gold ball at each corner. Each ball was worth a hundred cows.’

It seems possible that, like Padarn’s Coat, Arthur’s mantle and Culhwch’s cloak were dyed with Tyrian Purple and thus symbolic of the wealth and prestige of the Romano-British elites. Although the name of Arthur’s cloak, Gwen, suggests it may be white, I think this alludes to its blessed/magical nature. Without laundrettes and whiteners it would have been impractical to keep a garment white particularly for a warlord regularly up to his elbows in blood. One of the qualities of Tyrian Purple was its ‘resistance to weather and light’. For Arthur it would have been a blessing that his mantle kept its own colour and the countless blood stains didn’t show.

~

SOURCES

Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tyrian Purple, Wikipedia

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12. The Chessboard of Gwenddolau

The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play by themselves. The board was of gold, and the men of silver’.
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

I leave my world behind at Carwinley Burn
to follow the feral steps of a girl,
red-haired, torqued, coloured-trousered,
a wild thing with fox’s teeth at her neck
down a fox-hole to the grave
of Gwenddolau.
Beside his bull-horned corpse
stands a table and upon it a golden board.
Round its edges silver dead men lie.
The Chessboard of Gwenddolau.

has lain here as long as my father,”
she says. “It predicts the outcome of battles.
It played before Arfderydd, Catraeth,
when Britain’s air force clashed
with the Luftwaffe,
on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. As yet
it has never mispredicted an event.
At times of peace it sleeps.
At times of threat
if the pieces are set

they play out every move in the coming conflict.”
As she speaks the eyes of a warrior
jerk open and his spasmodic
hand grips his spear.
A warhorse rises from a tangle of stirrups and mane.
A bishop shakes off his robes and delves
for fireballs and mist in his pockets.
Caers rebuild their ramparts.
Returning to health
they play by themselves

speechless as automata resuming their positions.
Warriors move forward two squares
spearing on the diagonal.
Warhorses leap
over the mounting carnage,
on a fiery blast fall into splinters.
A king drags his queen into a caer.
As the bishops prepare the final spell
I am shaken by a premonitory shiver.
The board is gold and the men silver.

~

The Chessboard of Gwenddolaur

~

Gwenddolau was born around 400. He was the son of Ceidio and a descendant of Coel Hen. His fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water north of Carwinley Burn. It is likely Gwenddolau’s rule extended throughout the present-day parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd.

Gwenddolau was renowned as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain and referred to as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’ suggesting he ruled some of the other kingdoms. His ownership of two birds who ate two corpses of the Cymry for dinner and two for supper suggests he practiced excarnation.

In 573 Gwenddolau’s kinsmen: Gwrgi, Peredur, and Dunawd, allied against him with Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut. In spite of support from his nephew, Dreon ap Nudd, who fought bravely at the Dyke of Arfderydd, and his ability to conjure a mysterious battle-fog, Gwenddolau was killed during the Battle of Arfderydd. Afterward Gwyn ap Nudd gathered his soul.

The Welsh term for ‘chessboard’ is gwyddbwyll. Gwydd means ‘wood’ and pwyll ‘sense’ hence ‘wood sense’. It is translated here as ‘chess’. However it’s important to note that chess originated in the Arab world and was imported into Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. The game played by Gwenddolau would have been quite different to modern chessGwyddbwyll is associated with sovereigns in several medieval Welsh stories. In The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, in the hall of Elen of the Hosts, two lads play with silver and red gold pieces whilst a grey-haired man sits at a second board carving pieces with steel files from a bar of gold.

In Peredur the protagonist finds a board, like Gwenddolau’s, on which the two sides play each other and the losers shout ‘as if they were men’. Peredur is told the side of the Empress has lost and connects this with losing her Empire. This suggests the board represents a ruler’s kingdom.

Arthur and Owain Rheged play gwyddbwyll in Rhonabwy’s dream. The outcome of each game is connected with an ongoing battle between Arthur’s men and Owain’s ravens, suggesting it serves a divinatory function working from the level of microcosm to macrocosm.

One wonders whether Gwenddolau’s silver pieces fell before his death at the Battle of Arfderydd.

~

SOURCES

J. R. Murray, A History of Chess, (Clarendon Press, 1913)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO Ltd, 2006)
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)

10, 11. The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd

The Vat and Dish of Rhygenydd the Cleric: whatever food might be wished for in them, it would be found.’
Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

It’s a secret knowledge
passed down by generations:
the perfection of malt, mash, wort,
the duration of fermentation,
the best flavouring herbs.

Rhygenydd kept the doors
of his brewery shut – the people
of the North imagined him winnowing,
threshing, malting, sparging, boiling,
praying as he added yeast

and closed the lid of the vat.
They wondered if he knelt palms
pressed together in prayer to God
or petitioned pagan grain gods,
for the Vat of Rhygenydd

brewed Britain’s finest food.
Little did they know with one wish
the cleric could summon any ale:
pale, light, malty, dark, bitter
with bog myrtle or sweetened

with heather or meadowsweet,
that behind closed doors he liked
to sample each tipple and could
be found snoring contentedly,
an empty tankard in his hand.

To which monastery did he pass on
his secret and who owns the vat now?
I’m doing a round of the breweries,
comparing pales, IPAs, stouts,
amassing my tasting notes…

The Vat of Rhygenydd

~

If I was a cleric
with a magical dish
would I take it round
the cities of the North:
Liverpool, Manchester,
York, Carlisle, Newcastle,
Glasgow, Edinburgh,
in each square wish up
bread, fruit, stew, soup,
feed all the homeless
or keep it locked up
in a gold-adorned box
opened only on Sundays
and offer one thin wafer
to melt on each tongue?

The Dish of Rhygenydd

~

Rhygenydd Ysgolhaig ‘the Cleric’ does not appear by that name in any other sources. Rachel Bromwich notes the resemblance of the name to Renchidus episocpus who with Elbobdus episcoporum sanctissmus (Saint Elfoddw) gave Nennius the information about the baptism of Edwin of Deira by Rhun ap Urien, which appears in The History of the Britons.

 Nennius notes Edwin seized the kingdom of Elmet from Ceretic (son of Gwallog) and a year later received baptism by Rhun along with twelve thousand of his subjects within forty days. This took place in York in 627. By this time Rheged had been integrated into Northumbria. It seems Rhun maintained a position of power as a bishop. As Rendichus gives such importance to Rhun baptising Edwin it is possible he was connected with former Rheged and supported the taking of Elmet from Ceretic, whose father, Gwallog had turned against Urien and his sons.

Vat is translated from gren, ‘big vat or vessel, tub, pail, pitcher’. I found this somewhat confusing in relation to its property of generating ‘food’ until I realised that, well into the medieval period, ale was seen as a food-like source of nourishment and the vat was likely used for brewing.

People have been brewing in Britain since grain has been cultivated. In Skara Brae on Orkney,  Neolithic buildings were found with a malting floor, kiln flue, pots for mashing, and huge Grooved Ware pots with stone lids for fermentation that contained 30 gallons. ‘Vats’ of this nature have been found near a number of Neolithic henges and stone circles demonstrating the longevity of our tradition of drinking at seasonal rituals.

Although wine was imported into Britain in the Roman period, it was mainly drunk by the ruling classes. Soldiers and non-Romans, particularly the Britons, drank ale. Wine was consumed less in the North because of the difficulties transporting it. One of the tablets from Vindolanda is inscribed with a request to ‘order beer’ for the soldiers and our earliest reference to a brewer: Atrecus cervesarious, is from the Roman town.

When the Roman Empire collapsed it was the monasteries who retained the knowledge of brewing and wine-making. This fits perfectly with Rhygenydd the Cleric owning a magical vat.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when people began eating from wooden plates or dishes because wood rots. One of the earliest examples in Britain comes from the Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm where ‘a number of wooden platters… carved from a single piece of wood’ were preserved due to a fire.

Although people began hand-making pots from clay by the open fire method during the Neolithic period we do not find any earthenware plates. Wheel-made Samian tableware along with silver and pewter dishes were imported by the Romans. One of the best known dishes is the Great Dish, which was made of silver, weighed 8 kilograms, and was decorated with the face of Neptune and other Roman deities including Bacchus, Pan, Silenus, maenads, and nymphs.

Was Rhygenydd’s dish of similar make and proportions, perhaps minus the pagan deities, or was it humbler? Within the Christian tradition bread is served on a ‘paten’, a small plate, usually made of silver or gold’ as part of the mystery of the Eucharist alongside wine.

 ~

SOURCES

Kenneth Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section in Nennius,’ Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border, (Cambridge University Press, 1964)
Michelle of Heavenfield, ‘PW Rhun ap Urien of Rheged, Heavenfield
Merryn Dineley and Graham Dineley, ‘From Grain to Ale: Skara Bra, a Case Study’, Neolithic Orkney in its European Context, (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2000)
Robin Wood, ‘History of the Wooden Plate’
Rupert Millar, ‘Send beer! The Romans in North Britain’, The Drinks Business
Alcohol in the Middle Ages, Dark Ages, or Medieval Period’, Alcohol Problems and Solutions
Dig Diary 25: Wooden Objects’, Must Farm
Gren’, Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
Paten’, Wikipedia
Mildenhall Treasure’, Wikipedia

9. The Coat of Padarn

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
shrivel

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!

~

The Coat of Padarn - drawing - border

~

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.

~

SOURCES

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)
Padarn’, Wikipedia
Tyrian Purple’, Wikipedia

8. The Whetstone of Tudwal

The whetstone of Tudwal Tudglyd: if a brave man sharpened his sword on it, if he (then) drew blood from a man, he would die. If a cowardly man (sharpened his sword on it), he (his opponent) would be no worse.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

This is not
a Naniwa 5000
Shapton Glass 8000,
or DMT Diamond Hone.

Cut, sawed, planed, smoothed,
in a factory unknown
to its owner

it is not sandstone, siltstone,
gritstone, quartzite or schist.
Nobody has graded the grit –
the sharpness of the weapon
is dependent on the courage
of its wielder.

If I could sharpen my tongue
on this magical bar,

keening across its smoothness
like a sword,

would my words draw blood
from the villains everyone hates:
the bankers, the frackers, the president
even old ladies long to assassinate?

Would they fall down dead?

Or would my cowardice be proved
by the dullness of my blade
ringing in deaf ears?

~

The Whetstone of Tudwal

~

Tudwal Tudglyd, ‘defender of the people’* was a ruler of Alt Clut. His estimated date of birth is 510. His father is Clynog ap Dynfwal and he is part of the Macsen Wledig lineage. Rhydderch Hael and Morgan Mwynfawr (owners of the Sword and Chariot) are his sons. It seems possible the whetstone was passed on by Tudwal to Rhydderch to keep Dyrnwyn, the Sword, sharp. According to an eighth century poem and The Life of St Ninian Tudwal was blinded by Ninian for his rejection of Christianity then healed by the saint, presumably when he agreed to convert. Nothing else is known about him.

The need for whetstones originated with the invention of metal weapons in the Bronze Age. They were made from sandstone or gritstone. After the stone had been quarried, the slabs were sawed, cut into bars, planed, and smoothed by metal tools. Whetstones held an important place in post-Roman society: without a whetstone a warlord and his warriors could not sharpen their swords and maintain their power. A good whetstone was highly treasured for its magical capacity to sharpen a blade and passed down through generations with its stories.

The skills of a talented furbisher were also valued. This is shown in Culhwch and Olwen. Cai is allowed into the castle of Wrnach/Dyrnwch the Giant (owner of the Cauldron) because he possesses the skill of furbishing swords. Taking a ‘striped whetstone’ he asks Wrnach whether he would prefer his sword ‘white-bladed or dark blue-bladed’. The colour of a sword determines its value**. Cai’s ability to produce either result suggests that, like Tudwal’s whetstone, it is magical. It may even be the same whetstone. Wrnach allows Cai to choose how he furbishes the sword. We might assume that, like other sharp weapons in the tale, it can draw blood from the wind once Cai is done. Cai uses Wrnach’s newly sharpened sword to behead him and claims it for Culhwch in fulfilment of one of the impossible tasks.

*Rachel Bromwich explains her translation: ‘With tud cf. Ir. túath ‘tribe, people’, and the corresponding personal name Tuathal; Tutklyd ‘defender of the people’. Gwâl = ‘leader, ruler; so Tudwal ‘leader of the people’.
**In the law texts it states that a dark blue-bladed sword is worth sixteen pence and a white-bladed sword twenty-four pence. A blue blade is produced by tempering and a white blade by polishing and burnishing.

~

SOURCES

Aurélie Thiébaux, Marc Feller, Bruno Duchêne, Eric Goemaere, ‘Roman whetstone production in northern Gaul’
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Peter Nowlan, ‘The Best Sharpening Stones’
P.F. Whitehead, ‘A pictorial field guide to whetstones and related artefacts in Worcestershire during the past 4000 years’
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

7. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant: if meat for a coward were put in it to boil, it would never boil; but if meat for a brave man were put in, it would boil quickly (and thus the brave could be distinguished from the cowardly).’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

A warrior-bard rides his motorcycle across the north,
his words like his weapons bold and defiant,
seeking to prove his worth
at the Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant.

Will he lose his defiance with his stuttering rifle,
like a broken mike stammer and stall?
If meat for a coward were put in
it would never boil.

Or will he proclaim his exploits on a megaphone
whilst miming each gun-shot wittily?
If meat for a brave man were put in
it would boil quickly.

Either way in the depths of the cauldron
his youthful flesh will be devoured most thoroughly
(and thus the brave could be distinguished
from the cowardly).

~

The Cauldron of Dyrnwch

~

Dyrnwch the Giant is a legendary figure associated with the Old North. His epithet gawr ‘giant’ poses the question of whether he was a large human or belonged to a mythic race. References to giants such as Brân the Blessed shows they held an important position in Brythonic mythology. More confusingly, human chieftains such as Maelor Gawr, who was killed in a raid on his fortress at Pen Dinas by Gwerthmwl Wledig, were given the epithet ‘giant’.

Dyrnwch appears by the name Diwrnach Wyddel ‘the Irishman’ in Culhwch and Olwen. Here the getting of his cauldron to boil food for his wedding guests is one of the impossible tasks Culhwch must fulfil to win the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr, ‘Chief Giant’.

Diwrnach is the steward of Odgar King of Ireland. Arthur fulfils the task for Culhwch. He sails to Ireland on his ship, Prydwen, with his men. Diwrnarch invites them into his house to feast. When Arthur asks Diwrnach for the cauldron he refuses to hand it over. Llenlleog Wyddel, one of Diwrnach’s men, betrays him by grabbing Arthur’s sword, Caledfwlch, and killing Diwrnach and all his retinue. Arthur and his men flee with the cauldron filled with Irish treasure.

In Brythonic mythology Ireland is sometimes a synonym for Annwn, the Otherworld, because it is likewise across the sea. If this is the case, ‘Odgar’ is a name for the ruler of Annwn and Diwrnach is his steward. This reading is backed up by the fact that in ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ the Head of Annwn owns a cauldron just likes Diwrnach’s with a pearly rim that will not boil a coward’s food, which is again seized by Arthur.

Dyrnwch also appears by the name Wrnach in Culhwch and Olwen. Culhwch is told he must get Wrnach’s sword, which is the only weapon that can kill him. In this story he is most definitely a giant for he owns ‘the largest fort in the world’ and from it comes a ‘a black-haired man, bigger than three men of this world’. Cai fulfils the task for Culhwch by posing as a furbisher of swords and killing Wrnach with his own perfectly honed blade.

‘Arthur and the Porter’ mentions Arthur fought with a hag in Awrnach’s hall. This is another variant on the spelling of Dyrnwch and perhaps associates Dyrnwch with Orddu, ‘Very Black’, a ‘hag’ who dwelled in Pennant Gofid, ‘in the uplands of Hell’. Arthur went to the North to kill her. The boundaries between the North, Ireland, and Annwn blur. All are ‘not here’.

From this proliferation of stories we can conjecture that Dyrnwch was an important figure who guarded the cauldron of the Head of Annwn and died attempting to defend it in a liminal place.

From the Bronze Age, cauldrons literally held a central role in Brythonic culture at the centre of the feast. They were essential for cooking meat, which would have been seen as a magical process. The cauldron’s property of distinguishing the brave from the cowardly seems related to ‘the champion’s portion’ in which the bravest warrior was given first choice and the finest meat.

On a deeper level, in Welsh mythology, the cauldron is associated with death and rebirth. Brân the Blessed was gifted a cauldron which had the power to bring dead warriors back to life. Taliesin was reborn from the crochan ‘cauldron’ or ‘womb’ of Ceridwen from which the Awen* originates.

It seems likely the magical property of Dyrnwch’s cauldron and the champion’s portion had a deeper origin in an initiatory function wherein only a brave person could be initiated into the mysteries of death and rebirth in the depths of Annwn and thus receive his or her Awen.

*Divine inspiration. In some medieval Welsh poems it is synonymous with one’s destiny.

~

SOURCES

Kristoffer Hughes, From the Cauldron Born, (Llewellyn, 2013)
Marged Haycock, Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Patrick Ford, Mabinogi and Other Welsh Tales, (University of California Press, 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)
William Skene (transl.), ‘Arthur and the Porter’, The Black Book of Carmarthen, Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective

6. The Knife of Llawfrodedd

The knife of Llawfrodedd the Horseman, which would serve for twenty-four men to eat at table.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Llawfrodedd the horseman
chooses his own side,
serves no lord but himself,
but will lend his knife
as and when he sees fitting.
Thus it seems ominous
when he sits down at the table
of the Four Kings: Urien,
Rhydderch, Gwallog, Morgan,
and begins carving meat:
pork loin, a topside of beef,
the fat breast of a goose.
Twenty-four men are served
in the blinking of an eye.
The startled diners imagine
their foe thus butchered
and tuck in with added relish.
Llofan can see that blade
sliding quick as the deft needle
of an embroiderer between
the ribs of his target – Urien.
His killing hand is itching
as if bitten by an army of red ants.
The horseman will not part
with his weapon whilst he lives.
The assassin bides his time.
Llawfrodedd’s knife will dance
in a hundred red right hands
and at this carvery slip into mine.

~

The Knife of Llawfrodedd

~

Llawfrodedd the Horseman was born around 490. We have no record of who his ancestors are. In Bonedd y Saint he appears as the father as Gwyddnabi and the grandfather of St. Idloes. Unlike most of the other owners of the treasures he is not included in the northern lineages.

Llaw means ‘Hand’ and frodedd may perhaps derive from cyfrodedd ‘twisting’ or difrodedd ‘devastation’. His epithet ‘the Horseman’ is translated from Farchog. In other texts he is named Farfog ‘the Bearded’.

In Triad 46. ‘Three Principal Cows of Britain’ Llawfrodedd appears as the owner of Cornillo, ‘Little Horn’. He is also listed among the warriors of Arthur’s court in Culhwch and Olwen and Arthur’s forty-two counsellors in Rhonabwy’s Dream. This suggests he was a significant figure in medieval Wales whose stories have unfortunately been lost.

Knives are a longstanding part of the human toolkit. The Oldowan tools show early hominids were using knife-like objects two-and-half million years ago. At Boxgrove in West Sussex, a site dated to 500,000 years ago, flint ‘hand axes’ were used as knives by Homo Heidelbergensis to expertly butcher an array of animals including horses, red deer, giant deer, bison, rhinos, lions, wolves, and hyenas.

Flint knives of various types were used until the Bronze and Iron Ages when they were replaced by metal (although the Beaker people continued to make handled daggers from flint and they were hailed to be ‘the finest flint knives ever produced in Britain’). Knives were commonly found buried with their owner as grave goods and in Bronze and Iron Age hoards.

Everyone owned at least one knife for hunting, butchery, and eating. Until the Middle Ages hosts did not provide knives at the table – people were expected to use their own. A knife was an essential item no-one could live without. The magical properties of Llawfrodedd’s knife show knives were an important part of post-Roman society and skill at carving was held in high regard.

Of course, knives also served a more sinister function – killing other humans. This is famously evidenced by ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ which occurred in the 5th century. According to Nennius at a ‘peace council’ initiated by Hengist, ruler of the Anglo-Saxons, with Vortigern, ruler of the Britons, each of Hengist’s followers was instructed to ‘hide his knife under his foot in the middle of his shoe’ and slaughter the Briton standing beside him on the shout of “Eu nimet saxas”. Three hundred of Vortigern’s elders were killed and the king imprisoned.

Arthur used his knife, Carwennan, ‘White Hilt’, to gruesomely slaughter Orddu, ‘Very Black’, the last witch of Pennant Gofid in the Old North, by cutting her in half so she was ‘like two vats’.

Llawfrodedd’s name, with its implications of a twisting and devastating hand, suggests his knife, with which he showed such skill with carving for twenty-four men, may also have served a deadlier purpose.

~

SOURCES

David Derbyshire, ‘Inside the mind of an ancient axeman’, The Telegraph
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)
Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru
History of the Knife,’ Knife Crimes.org