“There is no counsel, no lock, no opening…”
So wrote the bard Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch in response to the death of
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last native Prince of Wales in December 1282.
It is a record of despair. The death of Llywelyn and the subsequent invasion by Edward I meant the end of a line of rulers of Gwynedd that stretched back through Maelgwn Gwynedd to Cunedda and the Brythonic chieftains of ‘The Old North’. Wales had retained the Brythonic heritage of the island of Britain and now a Norman-English king invaded and crowned his own son as Prince of Wales.
What is more, Llywelyn’s head had been cut off after he was killed. Although they allowed his body to be buried in Wales they took his head to London and displayed it on London Bridge. Was this a simple act of spite or something done in full knowledge of its symbolic significance? Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch certainly made much of the beheading:
“His head has fallen and with it our pride
Fear and surrender are all we have left
His head has fallen – a dragon’s head
Noble it was , fierce to our foes
His head is stuck with an iron pole
The searing pain of it runs through my soul,
This land is empty – our spirit cut down.
His head had honour in nine hundred lands
Proud king, swift hawk, fierce wolf
True Lord of Aberffraw”
(from my translation of the elegy which can be viewed in full HERE)
The cutting off of heads in Midwinter is a motif of the season. Think of Gawain riding through the borderlands of Wales and Cheshire to meet the Green Knight to offer his own head a year after he had cut off the Green Knight’s head and it had magically re-attached itself. Gawain rode from the court of Arthur who himself, in another story, disappeared into the Otherworld awaiting his time after being mortally wounded.
Then consider the episode in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi where the mortally injured Brân asks the other survivors of the battle in Ireland to cut off his head:
‘Take the head’ said he ‘and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the Birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head.
In the Welsh Triads it is said that the burial of the head of Brân protected Britain from invasion, but that Arthur removed it “because it did not seem right to him that his island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own”(*).
Severed heads, it has been claimed, were an integral part of pagan celtic religious practice(**). Be that as it may, as we approach the Winter Solstice we might think of rebirth or renewal. But before re-birth there must be a death. In the story of Brân, in order for him to retain his protective function, his head must be struck off and buried. Llywelyn’s bard could not see this because the head had been taken to London not, as Brân’s, for burial but to be stuck on a iron pole on London Bridge. There could be ‘no counsel, no lock, no door’ to be opened at the appointed time and so no opening to a new life. His despair is understandable historically.
But the heritage of the Old North lived on in Wales, nurtured by bards as a sustaining inspiration for renewal. It was taken up again by Owain Glyndwr two hundred years later before he disappeared without being captured so could potentially rise again, and it has never been forgotten, inspiring bards writing in the Welsh strict metres still today (***).
This is both a universal and a personal initiatory theme. However labyrinthine the paths of the dead, however gloomy the darkness of the Netherworld, shall we not follow our guide on the path, the dark figure on the Grey Mare, through the last shadows and on past forgetting to where we have always lived, and always will? And will the Sun not rise again on our hopes as well as our fears? May the gods will it so.
* Triad 37
** See, for instance, Anne Ross Pagan Celtic Britain chapter two.
*** See for example, the work of Gerallt Lloyd Owen whose awdl Cilmeri hauntingly re-plays the events of Llywelyn’s death.