4. The Chariot of Morgan

The chariot of Morgan the Wealthy: if a man went in it, he might wish to be wherever he would, and he would be there quickly.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain

Keening wheels and axles grinding thundering hooves across the moors
shining scythes slicing through the fog of space and time
two black horses are approaching with curly manes
and luscious fetlocks trailing
claggy black peat
from 599.

Clattering skulls adorn the chariot of the Red Ravager.
The straining yoke and trembling pole
and plaited reins are flecked
with blood,

so is the face of the driver – a silent unpenitent mute
who carries a whip he cracks at the centuries.
He has never told where he has been
or where he goes.

The heads of the horses are handsome
their nostrils wide and pink
but they are eyeless
as sacks

(they have never seen where they have been or go).

What battlefield has it come from and without its owner?
Where is he? Losing his shield between sword and spear?

I have spears at my back too but they are not so visible.
I am knee deep in mud without a destination.
Got to go somewhere do something…

“Take me anywhere fast as you can.”

~

The Chariot of Morgan

~

Morgan Mwynfawr ‘the Wealthy’ was born around 540 and was the son of Tudwal Tudclyd and brother of Rhydderch. This places him in the Macsen Wledig lineage. Morgan fought with Rhydderch, Urien, and Gwallog against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. It was on his order that Llofan Llawddifro assassinated Urien. Afterward Morgan drove Llywarch Hen, Urien’s cousin, from his lands.

Morgan was renowned as one of ‘Three Red Reapers’: For a year neither grass nor plants used to come where one of the three would walk.’ It seems likely his savage reputation was based on his assassination of Urien and hounding of Urien’s family.

Horses were domesticated in Britain around 2000BCE and mainly used to pull carts. Chariot burials dating from 500 – 100BCE have been discovered in East and West Yorkshire and Newbridge near Edinburgh. At least one includes a horse. This shows the chariots of Iron Age warriors were essential to their role and viewed as symbols of their status. It also suggests they believed they would journey on their chariots into the afterlife and ride them there.

Chariots were widely used in warfare in ancient Britain. When Julius Caesar invaded in 55BC he noted the Britons terrified their enemies with ‘the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels’. The warriors used throwing weapons to break up the ranks, then leapt from their chariots to engage on foot whilst their charioteers withdrew and waited to pick them up.

At the time of the triumph of Claudius in 43CE the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela claimed the Britons fought from two horse chariots ‘on which they use axles equipped with scythes’. Tacitus notes when Agricola won the a Battle of Mons Grapius against the Caledonians in northern Scotland the plain was filled by noisy charioteers and consequently ‘runaway chariots’.

Excavations in Colchester have uncovered a Roman chariot race track dating to 2CE showing chariot racing had become a source of entertainment in Romano-British times.

I haven’t come across any records of chariots being used in the 6th century. However, this period is poorly recorded in general. It’s possible to imagine Morgan, the Red Reaper, fighting from a chariot that reached its destination quickly and leaving a trail of devastation wherever he went. If he was buried with it the location of his grave remains unknown.

As to who might design and make such a chariot and imbue it with magic? So far I haven’t come across any clues in our Brythonic myths. This is the only text I know of featuring a chariot, although the chariot of Cu Chulainn is prominent in Irish mythology and scholars have associated him with the chariot burials of the Parisii tribe in Yorkshire. Unfortunately there does not appear a story about the origin’s Cu Chulainn’s chariot, which remains a mystery. What we do know is he appears on a phantom chariot after death. Perhaps Morgan does too…

~

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico
Pomponius Mela, De Chorographia Liber Tertius
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)
Builders find chariot race track’, BBC NEWS
The British War Chariot’, Roman Britain,

Lady of the Oak

I leave the shelter of the grove ducking beneath twisted hawthorn branches. The trees weave the entrance closed behind me. Rain hits my face, falling from a heaven of relentless grey. Reading the sky’s grimace I wonder what has been seen.

A crow caws his warning. Sprinting toward me up the hollow way I see a young man, legs a blur of blue white checkers and feet a splash of mud and leather. Hair slicked to his head, his dark eyes flicker with awe and wariness. The first dapples of a beard play across his chin like leafy shadows.

“M-my Lady of the Oak,” he stammers pulling up.

His breathless chest heaves beneath a sodden tunic. It is rare for youths to approach me without an elder. Looking more closely at my gnarled face his eyes widen in dawning horror. “Bad news travels from up river. A Man of the Oak wishes to speak with you.” He runs away in a flurry of muddy feet.

I follow down the hollow way heedless of the downpour weighing my cloak for the damp of the air already resides deep within my bones. Looking east, rain drenches the green hill, our sacred headland, and the greener barrow housing our ancestors. The torrent’s drumming beat strikes bubbles across the marsh land. As I walk onto the wooden pad way the reeds hiss like snakes. Decay bites my throat. The steely cast of the river of shining water reflects the glumness of the sky.

In a canoe roped to the jetty my cousin Drust sits hunched in his robes. I question what he is doing here, alone.

The river’s song answers. Her visions flood my mind. I see the battle at the ford of roaring water. Broken chariots, tribesmen slaughtered, the hero light vanishing from their eyes like fleeing stars. The eagle standard flies high, reflected in the crimson river. Seeing the pale flicker of their separating ghosts I speak a prayer for the souls doomed to return to a land where they no longer belong.

Sorrow chokes me like bile. I vomit it in anger at Drust, “what are you doing here, when your clan are dead?”

Drust looks up, yet his face remains hidden by his cowl. “I am taking the remnants of our traditions and our gods to the island across the sea.”

I laugh, a throaty brittle sound like twigs twisting and snapping. “Gods are not like saplings, to be taken away and re-rooted and traditions are not nurtured by foreign soils. It seems the ideas of the invaders have penetrated more deeply than I imagined.”

Drust tenses. Drawing my knife from its leather sheath I lean down and slice the rope tying his canoe to the jetty. The river sluices him west and out to sea.

The wind carries enemy voices. Reflected in the falling droplets I see swords and plumed helms. Slipping on the wood and slithering up the hollow way I reach the grove and beg the hawthorns for passage. A peace of ancient green breaks over me, like I’m sinking into a bed of moss. Beneath the canopy’s protective shadow I believe myself safe until tumult disturbs the roots. Crows caw, anticipating carrion.

I cross a sea of acorns and approach the grove’s mighty king. Putting my arms around his trunk, I press my face to the rough bark. “Brother Oak, let me see into the future.”

My heartbeat merges with the pulse of rising sap. My feet become roots reaching downward through damp soil to the outer edges of the grove. My arms stretch into branches and split, bearing bunches of lobed leaves nourished by the hidden sun, washed by the rain, flourishing green.

The ground shudders at the march of soldiers, galloping hooves and chariot wheels. Battle cries are hollered. Bows hum to the crash of metal. Screams and groans rock me. I taste blood and its bitterness fills me.

Earth and water shift as ditches are cut, fields plundered to feed the enemy. Ancestral ghosts clutch my twigs shrieking of their barrow torn down and a temple built to a foreign god. I moan at the ache of rot softening my flesh, bowing and creaking as my branches snap and innards hollow. I beg for lightning’s merciful release but there is no answer from the clouds of sorrow.

“Brother, let me return,” I speak. “The tribe need my support in their defeat.”

I ease back from the oak as the hawthorns scream and turn to see branches broken, shredded leaves and burst haws at the sandaled feet of a man dressed in a plumed helmet, iron breast plate and red woollen tunic. His eyes are blue, skin tanned by the sun of a hotter land. Brandishing a sword stained with blood and sap he accuses me of witchcraft, of sacrificing innocents to divine the future from their death throes.

I smile. The man freezes in horror. I draw my knife and mustering all my oaken might I drive it between the iron plates and slice open his stomach, spilling his guts upon the grass. Attempting to gather them in like rope he drops twitching and groaning to his knees.

I read the future of his people and their empire from his pulsing entrails.

Kneeling, I pick up a handful of blood soaked acorns and address my brother, “do not fear. Whilst tribes and empires rise and fall, the steady strength of oak will conquer all.”

Oak, St Mary's graveyard, Castle Hill