King Arthur’s Snowdonia fact/fiction

Was Arthur real? Many seem to think not and to some the talk of Arthur amounts to some form of sacrilege. Perhaps the battles of Arthur that supposedly took place in Eryri were based on real events elsewhere. It is well known that Cornwall, Gaul (Amorica/Brittany) and Wales shared much in common and some observers initially thought that these were related peoples (as is discussed in the second edition of Camden’s Britannia.)

Ultimately it seems these peoples were influenced by another peoples who traded with these countries and brought the stories of Arthur to Cornwall, Gaul/Amorica and Snowdonia. There is some thought that it may have been the Romans who originated these stories because they are practically the only peoples who had any kind of tangible link between Amorica and Snowdonia.

Merlin from the Nuremberg Chronicle 1440-1514
(Image sourced from Wikipedia)

Within the Arthurian round table stories however, there is some belief that one of its most famous characters, Merlin may have been a real person and that he was Welsh, going by the name of Myrddin.The strongest link to the reality of Merlin appears to be that to Dinas Emrys, overlooking Llyn Dinas just up the valley from Beddgelert. It is said that during its construction the fortifications kept falling down, and Merlin, as a boy, was brought to Dinas Emrys in order to be killed so that the gods were appeased and the fortifications would finally stay up. According to myth, the boy Merlin revealed the secrets of why the castle refused to stay up, and that it was to do with dragons hidden beneath the foundations.

The truer story is that Merlin hailed from Camarthen and was summoned to Dinas Emrys by Vortigern somewhere around 460ad. The names of places around Dinas Emrys – such as Celli’r Dewinion, (groves of the magicians) and Beddau’r Dewinion, (tombs of the magicians) – may have led credence to the theory that Merlin was himself a magician. But we do not know what kind of magic was practised back then, was it a kind of alchemy, or was it ritualistic? What we see as magic and what was magic in the 5th century are clearly two different things.

Dinas Emrys hill fort near Beddgelert (picture from Wikipedia)

The question of the age of these historic sites is often debated. In the 1950’s archaeologist Dr H. N. Savory conducted excavations at Dinas Emrys and concluded the fort’s origins were from the 5th century, the time of Vortigern, and of course Merlin. It is said that large pits were discovered which may or may not have been the lair of the dragons – whether these had existed or not. Many archaeologists believe Dinas’ builder was the 13th Century Welsh leader Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Llywelyn’s work may have been a later build upon the old site, much in the style of Dolbadarn castle which we are told was built by Llywelyn as well, but according to some archives in the British Library, Dolbadarn existed in the 5th Century, preceding the Welsh princes who then rebuilt it some 700 years later.

Its not proof of Merlin’s involvement, however the noted Welsh writer Thomas Pennant insists that Dinas Emrys was built by Merlin in 490AD. We do know that the longer ago things were written, the more chance old documents would have been seen that may have led credence to what may now sound quite outlandish assertions. As it stands today, clearly myth, fact, fiction all merge together in great confusion and whatever stories or rudimentary evidence is looked at, the truth of Arthur’s existence in Snowdonia is no closer to being solved. One enigma arises from this. That is, who built Dinas Emrys in the 5th Century AD if it wasnt Merlin? And if it wasnt built then, was it actually Llywellyn who build its fortifications? Its heads or tails, or neither – the coin falls to the ground and rolls away into a hole so a hoped-for-answer is never realised…

Portrait of Thomas Pennant (1776) by Thomas Gainsborough, from the National Museum Wales.
Pennant suggested that Dinas Emrys was built by Merlin in 490 A.D.

For a long time it has been thought that Arthur was not a real person, quite a few Welsh authors dont mention him in their works, as part of the accepted wisdom. That is however changing, as more subtle findings proclaim the usually quite tenacious existence of this fabled man, and those around him. Parts of Snowdonia indicate an Arthurian influence, introduced (well in a round about way) by a Welsh monk by the name of Nennius. His Historia Brittonum, a 9th Century work, attempted to tell the real history of the Britons. Unlike Camden’s Britannia, which was well researched and strongly factual, Nennius’s tome is a somewhat unreliable source, which adds to the frustration of ascertaining any authencity of Snowdonia’s Arthur.

One very important element that ascends from Nennius’ work are the details of the twelve battles Arthur fought. Nennius documents the locations of Arthur’s battles but places none of these in Snowdonia. It is possible they were transposed to Snowdonia so as to give more defence in a metaphysical sense at a time when Snowdonia was in turmoil given the struggles between the Welsh and the English. Perhaps no other way was better than to try and plant allusions in the minds of the English of their very possible destruction that would arise as a result from any conflict against the Welsh, or as I would put it, a very early form of psychological warfare.

Shrouds of clouds adds mystery and intrigue to Snowdonia © Copyright Gwychder y Wyddfa

Standing amongst the mountains of Eryri one can almost feel that the stories of Arthur are all too real, North Wales has a large amount of mythologism woven into its fabric. The mountains of Snowdonia give much mystery in the way of clouded summits and dark valleys and gloomy lakes which fit in well with Arthurian lore and lends credence to its myths and metaphors.

The cave on Lliwedd – where Arthur’s soldiers are said to be sleeping, waiting for the day they will once again be needed in battle, are an example of the stories that surroound the Snowdon massif. We know things like this are just not possible. Yet the arrows that flew across the lakes between the two Bwlchau, (Saetheau and Glas) in what was Arthur’s final conflict – the battle of the Pass of the Arrows, may have some grain of truth in it.

These often contentious battles in difficult mountain terrain definitely existed between the Britons and the Romans. The Romans camped at Pen-y-Grwyd. What happened in real life was that the Welsh built huge walls to keep the Romans out of the mountain passes. For a time these walls did their job, then the Romans found a way to breach these and fight the Welsh. In my view these defence walls have somehow become re-interpreted as the battle of Bwlch Saetheau. On the other hand the Romans may have tried to ascend Snowdon to get round the Welsh defences and the two sides clashed on the upper ridges of the mountain.

Snowdon itself is said to be the site of another story related to Arthur. Rhudda Gawr/Rhita Gawr, the giant who slew most of the Kings of Britain and used their beards to make a cloak. When it came to facing King Arthur, Rhudda was slain. Gawr was buried upon the summit of Snowdon, beneath a cairn said to be called Gwyddfa Rhudda. Better access to a wider range of historical sources now denote the possibility that Rhita Gawr was based on real characters of early Britain, and the same applies to a contemporary of his in Arthurian fantasy – Kynge Ryons of Northwalys.

Arthur fighting a bearded master – maybe Rhudda Gawr – or King Ryons of North Wales?
(Picture from Wikipedia)

As texts in the British Library reveal, the summit of Snowdon (consider it possible even the other Welsh mountains too) were clearly used as prisons for enemies of the Welsh. Certain strategic enemies (usually the english) were banished to the summit of Snowdon. A structure for this upon the summit must have served as a gaol for these enemies. Upon falling into disrepair these stone gaols may have been transposed (re-altered) into becoming burial sites.

The summit of Snowdon has itself changed so much over the centuries and if we take the last year of the five or so Victorian buildings that stood on Snowdon’s summit to be 1935 (the year they were replaced by Hafod Eryri’s precessdor) then clearly at this time of writing – just 75 years later – it is very hard to stand on the summit and point out where Snowdon guide Robert’s building stood, where the Snowdon Hotel was and so on.

The Snowdon Hotel was on this very site untill 1935 – one wouldn’t think it just looking at the scene © Copyright Gwychder y Wyddfa

With the cairn/gaol-at-the-summit theory, its around 700 years ago and there’s just no way we can prove what actually occurred up on Wyddfa. If this time-frame is allocated to the earliest of the recorded observers who ascended the Welsh mountains – 1639 – the time frame then passed is almost 400 years and there would have been no remains of cairns/gaols that could be recorded.

Clearly the historians of Eryri often have to speculate because whatever they say offers little evidence to support modern day theories of Arthur. Proof of the existence of Arthur, or non the non-existence of the man, is to all purposes an unwinnable lottery. Only the discovery of some substantial evidence would change facts one way or the other and so far no such artifacts have been discovered that place a clearer picture of those murky aeons before the Saxons arrived in Snowdonia.

From the summit of Snowdon, one of the biggest views is that of Llyn Llydaw far below. This was where the mortally wounded Arthur was taken after the battle of Bwlch Saetheau. He was placed on a barge guarded by three maidens. This then sailed into the mists of Llyn Llydaw. Where could it have gone? Knowing the mountains very well, its pretty obvious that this barge didnt go anywhere – it didnt even arrive there in the first place! Common sense dictates that the event just described most likely never happened.

Why does Llyn Llydaw hold such amazing stories of Arthur? One explanation is that Letavia is the latin for Llydaw, or Armorica, in Britanny. This part of Europe shared much in common with Wales and Cornwall and Snowdonia in times of old was also known as Arvonia. It is possible this may have referred to Arvor, which was the Welsh for Armorica. Talk about a double edged sword! This part of the legend shows that fact and fiction are clearly being intertwined and Arthur’s death undoubtedly occured elsewhere in other parts of the world with similar occurrences of linguistic flow.

The Lamentation of King Arthur by William Bell Scott – mid 19th century painting

In conclusion, these stories are just pleasantries of the mind and so remains the difficult task of allocating a stronger demarcation between fact and fiction before the real history of ancient Snowdonia can be known. What we do know is that elements of modern Snowdonia carry remants of stories whose origins are forgotten. At least the stories can be enjoyed when one desires to know more about the mountains of Snowdonia, and it gives an opportunity to seek out the real stories of Eryri.

Updated August 2011

Copyright © 2011 Gwychder y Wyddfa

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