Moel Cynghorion – The Hill of Counsels

Why Council Hill?

A series of guidebooks was published for the Festival of Britain of 1951, and one of these covered North Wales, a copy which I found in a second hand bookshop. It has a photograph denoting the Black Pool and Council Hill as seen from the Snowdon mountain railway trackbed high above Clogwyn Goch.

The view of Council Hill from p.24 North Wales & The Marches, pub 1951

The ‘Black Pool’ (an approximate but rarely used translation) refers to Llyn Du’r Arddu at the foot of Clogwyn cliffs whilst Council Hill refers to Moel Cynghorion, perhaps better known as the hill of counsels. Council Hill is a term seemingly never used for not one other book dating right back to the 19th century uses this. Most recently, in another book, Great Days Out in Snowdonia, Terry Marsh tell us on p.43 that it is The Hill of the Councillors, and this is but a couple of examples.

The Festival of Britain book cover

Other examples of the Festival books with a short write up can be seen at Inprint

It may be that someone in the Festival of Britain publicity department decided that it would be better described as Council Hill, but then perhaps they had not understood its historical context. The author of the book was a Welshman, W. J. Gruffydd, who was Professor of Celtic at University College, Cardiff 1918 – 1946. It seems doubtful he would have written it down as Council Hill – as he does not even mention it in the text. Perhaps the series’ editor thought Council Hill was a better translation? The editor of the Festival In Britain series was the noted poet Geoffrey E.H. Grigson. Did he make the decision to change to Council Hill? Possibly, but ultimately it may have been the uncredited photographer who had decided on the use of Council Hill rather than Hill of Counsels.

Moel Cygnhorion from Clogwyn. Copyright © Gwychder y Wyddfa

The above photograph shows Moel Cygnhorion from Snowdon. The smooth sides of the mountain can be seen. In the time of Edward I its lower slopes consisted of alder and oak forests. The upper parts were well above the treeline and clear of obstructions, making a splendid outlook post.

Translating the anglicised versions

What does Hill of the Councillors translate as? Allt chan ‘r Chynghorwyr is one version whilst another was Hill Cynghorwyr. In both these examples we find some similarity to Cynghorion which means counsels or advices. Council Hill translates as Chwnsel allt or Bryn cyngor, so we can see that council is related to cyngor. Hill of counsels became , translated as mountain advice, hill advices or even bare tip. Moel refers to a bald hill so the possibility exists that Moel Cynghorion was a bald tipped mountain rather than a hill of counsels.

Why would this be? If one considers the angular shape of its summit we can easily imagine this being a little pyramid standing just above the treeline, a somewhat unusual sight. The possibility that it wasnt a hill of counsels but a bare tip would change its history completely. Unfortunately it seems that there is no evidence to support one or the other. According to Lampeter’s Geiriadaur cynghori means counsel so the best possible description and clearly the most popular, has to be the hill of counsels.

No 11 ‘Peris’ & train front Moel Cynghorion during a burst of sunshine late August 2010
Copyright © Gwychder y Wyddfa

Counsels or Council?

It seems the Welshman Thomas Pennant coined it The Hill of Council in his book Tours in Wales of 1810. Soon after this term was regularly used in other publications, whilst fewer writers stuck with hill of counsels. British History Online tells us “Moely-Cynghorion, or “the hill of council,” on the southern confines of the parish (of Llanberis), is supposed to derive its name from a council held upon it by the Welsh chieftains, when about to surrender to the victorious Edward.”

The question is was it a council or counsels that met on Moel Cygnhorion? Council is a word that derives from the 12th century and derived from the Anglo-Norman cuncile. Counsel is a slightly older word dating from the late 11th century. Etymologically, a council is a body that has been ‘called together’ or ‘summoned’. Counsel is the consensus to a course of action, and it is achieved by giving counsel/advice or get/take counsel/advice. In this sense it is quite obvious there wasnt a council for the Welsh had not been summoned to such a meeting, but more importantly a meeting at which the ‘brave people of Snowdon’ held counsel because they were trapped by the english.

Another possible indicator that it was not a council lies in the fact that the medieval lands in Wales were managed by cwmwd, or commotes. First recorded in the Domesday book, these were administrative courts with jurisdiction over their relevant areas. In the 13th century these were controlled through the cantrefi managed by the princes of Gwynedd, and the nearest place of these to Snowdon was Dolbadarn castle. Ultimately the gathering at Moel Cynghorion was between the princes and their army leaders, and not one of administration.

The following passage reinforces the idea that it wasn’t a ‘council’ meeting. George Borrow, writing in A Vision of Britain, has this to say: “Struck by the name of Moel y Cynghorion, which in English signifies the hill of the counsellors, I enquired of our guide why the hill was so called, but as he could afford me no information on the point I presumed that it was either called the hill of the counsellors from the Druids having held high consultation on its top, in time of old, or from the unfortunate Llewelyn having consulted there with his chieftains, whilst his army lay encamped in the vale below.”

Again, it appears that hill of counsels is the more correct translation to use. It must be said that that translations between the welsh and english languages is actually quite difficult because I have discovered other terms for the other mountains and peaks around Snowdon that are very confusing. Recording of the welsh language was sparse and those who began researching and recording welsh had little to go on themselves. Example – the so-called summit of “Garnedd Ugain” is said to mean the ‘Hill of Twenty’ but it appears there is that number of translations and variations (e.g twenty!) upon “Garnedd Ugain.” It is very difficult to find historical indicators that might confirm any one of these twenty or so translations and so “Garnedd Ugain” is a summit that has no basis in history.

Confusing explanation in Johnson’s Topographical Dictionary of Wales

The role which Moel Cynghorion played.

Very little is known about the role Moel Cynghorion played in the battles of the 1270’s and 1280’s. The western and southern sides of the mountain clearly provided a sheltered place for the Welsh armies, as well as offering good routes into the valleys for battles, hence the summit of Moel Cynghorion most likely proved to be an excellent observation post. If such a post had been based on the summit of Snowdon, low clouds and archaic weather as well as the time taken to ascend it would have made any effort rather useless.

View of the summits of Moel Cynghorion and Snowdon August 2010. The plateau on Moel Cynghorion can be clearly seen.
Copyright © Gwychder y Wyddfa

The above photograph taken late August 2010 shows the relative ease of access to the summit of Moel Cynghorion. In the time of Edward I there would have been forest almost right up to the elevation where two people can be just made out. The advantages Moel Cynghorion conferred were clearly ease of accessibility, good cover, shelter, easily graded ground in places for pitching, and perhaps most important of all, an important observation point with communication ability & speed to most parts of the original 12th Century Snowdonia.

Moel Cynghorion and Snowdon. The Moel Cynghorion plateau clearly offered a good observation platform for the Welsh armies. Copyright © Gwychder y Wyddfa

Thomas Gray’s poem The Bard of 1757 tells us of the despair faced by a Welsh poet as the country lay in defeat. The poem ends with the Welsh poet leaping to his death from the side of Snowdon. This poem tells us of the despair faced by the Welsh as the long struggle against the brutal regime of Edward I to keep him out of Snowdonia was over, and he had become ruler of Gwynedd and all of Wales.

Moel Cynghorion is part of the Helfa Fawr estate. This was sold at an auction in Llanberis on 9th July 2010 for £1m. The publicity described Helfa Fawr as a remarkable run of mountain, moorland and rough grazing including the peaks of Moel Cynghorion and Foel Goch. See Daily Post

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