The real Arthur was probably a Romano-British chieftain who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. Arthur’s heroic deeds were recounted by medieval Welsh poets and story tellers, and the tales became richer and more embroidered with each telling. King Arthur and his entourage are linked with scores of sites all over Wales, from standing stones and caves to lakes and islands.
Owain Glyndŵr (c1359–c1415)
You’ll still see Owain Glyndŵr’s flag, four lions rampant on gold-and-red, flying proudly on flagpoles around Wales today. This great national hero was born around 1359 into a noble Welsh family, and served the English crown as a soldier. Glyndŵr had retired to peaceful middle-age in the borderlands … until a neighbouring baron swindled him out of land. Glyndŵr’s fight for justice ignited a full-scale rebellion against Henry IV. By 1404 Glyndŵr controlled most of North and Mid Wales from his court in Harlech Castle. In 1404 he held his first parliament in Machynlleth, where he was crowned Prince of Wales - the last native Welshman to bear the title. The rebellion was suppressed in the early 1410s; Glyndŵr himself was never captured, but mysteriously vanished.
The stories collected in the Mabinogion (or to give them their correct title, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi) are the earliest surviving works of British prose literature. They were passed on orally for centuries before finally being written down in Welsh in the 11th century. Branwen plays a starring role in the second Branch as the sister of Bendigeidfran, the giant king of Britain, who marries her off to the king of Ireland. It doesn’t end well: after a series of gory incidents involving mutilated horses, severed heads and a magical cauldron, Branwen returns to Wales to die of a broken heart. According to tradition, she’s buried near the village of Llanddeusant on Anglesey, where there’s a Bronze Age burial mound called Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s grave).
Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (c1223–1282)
Llywelyn ‘the Last’ (or in Welsh, Ein Llyw Olaf – ‘our last leader’) was the last sovereign Prince of Wales. He came from noble lineage: his grandfather was Llywelyn the Great, who had ruled over Wales for 45 years. The grandson’s hold on power was far shakier: although by 1270 Llywelyn controlled three-quarters of Wales from his powerbase in Snowdonia, his reign was constantly under threat from the English crown, Marcher Lords, lesser Welsh princes, and even his own brothers. In 1282 Llywelyn led his army south, to rally support in Mid Wales. He was killed by English soldiers near Builth Wells; today he is commemorated by a stone monument at Cilmeri.
We meet our heroine Blodeuwedd in the fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. A man named Lleu has been cursed: he will never marry a human wife. Two enterprising magicians make a wife for Lleu out of flowers - Blodeuwedd (her name means ‘flower face’). They couple settle down at a castle near Trawsfynydd until Blodeuwedd has an ill-advised fling with the lord of Penllyn (modern-day Bala). In revenge, she’s hunted down to Llyn Morwynion (’the lake of the maidens’) near Blaenau Ffestiniog, and turned into an owl.
Merlin crops up widely in early Celtic literature as a mystical wild man of the woods, but it was the 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth who laid the foundations of Merlin’s popular image as King Arthur’s supernatural sidekick. It was the boy wizard Merlin who discovered why the castle walls of Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert kept falling down: two dragons, one red and one white, were fighting in a pool beneath the castle (the red dragon won, of course – and became the symbol of the fight against the Saxon foe). As the legend grew, Merlin became Arthur’s wise counsellor and court magician. In Wales, he’s most strongly associated with Carmarthen: the town’s Welsh name is Caerfyrddin; Myrddin is the Welsh form of Merlin, hence ‘Merlin’s Fort’.
Women in the Mabinogi often get a tough time, but Rhiannon emerges as one of the strongest and most likeable characters in the entire canon. She is married (mostly happily) to Pwyll, prince of Dyfed and, after his death, Manawydan, a warrior who in later poems is one of King Arthur’s knights. Rhiannon is probably based on a Celtic horse goddess - she first appears on a gleaming white horse - and has three magical birds whose song can ‘wake the dead and lull the living to sleep’. She was celebrated in the Fleetwood Mac song that bears her name, and remains a popular folk figure around Narberth, where she made her home.
Llyn y Fan
Or more specifically, Llyn y Fan Fach, a lovely glacial lake on the western flanks of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Here lived the beautiful Lady of the Lake, who married a local farm lad with a pre-nuptial clause that if he struck her three times, she would go straight back to her lake and take all the farm animals with her. In common with our other Welsh heroines, the marriage ended in tears, but their sons went on to become the first of many generations of expert herbalists and healers, the Physicians of Myddfai.
‘Brân the Blessed’ was the giant king of Britain, ruling the island from his court in Harlech. He married off his sister Branwen to the king of Ireland, but discovered that she wasn’t being treated well, and set off to rescue her. Being a giant, Bendigeidfran waded across the Irish Sea, then lay across the River Shannon so his army could walk over his back. The giant king was mortally wounded in the skirmish that followed, and instructed his men to cut off his head and bury it in London – facing France, so that Britain would never be invaded by sea.
Of all the Welsh pirate captains (and, shamefully, we’ve produced many – notably from Pembrokeshire) the most successful was Bartholomew Roberts (1682–1722). Black Bart, or Barti Ddu, was drawn into piracy when his ship was captured by another Welsh pirate, Howell Davis. Within a few weeks, Davis was killed in action and Barti, remarkably, was elected new captain by his shipmates. He chose to accept: “A merry life and a short one shall be my motto,” he said. For the next three years, Barti captured more than 400 ships as he marauded the coasts of the Americas, Caribbean and West Africa. His luck ran out off the coast of Gabon, when Barti was killed by grapeshot fired by the Royal Navy warship HMS Swallow.
Twm Siôn Cati
Born in Tregaron around 1530, Twm was a shameless trickster, thief and con-artist whose quick-witted exploits made him something of a Robin Hood-esque folk hero, and the subject of many tall tales. His cave hideaway, where he hid both himself and his booty, sits on a steep hillside overlooking the RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas nature reserve, which offers one of the most beautiful walks in Wales. Back in Tregaron, there’s a Twm Siôn Cati trail, and you can see a copy of his will at the town’s Kite Centre and Museum.