Snowdonia’s pair of troublemakers! King Ryons & Rhita Gawr

The pair of ‘em! They liked collecting other kings’ beards and in some stories were cooking children on a spit. This pair of rogue welsh kings were clearly made for each other. But who were King Ryons and Rhita Gawr? The legend of Rhita Gawr is well known one in the annals of Snowdonia, however, Rhita Gawr is not a legend restricted just to North Wales. Gawr is perhaps more widely known through his alter-ego King Ryons of North Wales. Da man is also known as Ryon, Ryence, Rience, & Rhines as found in the various Arthurian stories, Spenser’s The Fairie Queene and perhaps even alluded to by Shakespeare himself.

Arthurian stories are everywhere! The Church of England quarterly review 1857

In the early 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth details the story of Rhita Gawr as Ritho of Mount Aravius (Snowdon.) It is said the story had been handed down orally prior to that period, however it does not seem to surface other than fleetingly in sixth century Gaul. Rhys Goch of Eryri apparently introduced the tale into its present form but locates Gawr’s burial mound on Carnedd Llewellyn. Once people knew it was not the highest summit in Wales, the story re-located to Snowdon/Wyddfa. The only problem here is that there are other indications that Rhita Gawr was slain on a hill Rhiw y Barfau (Hill of beards) near Tywyn. Further places that the giant were found include St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Belgrave in Leicestershire and Huelgoat in Breton.

King Ryons appears to have initially surfaced in Lanval, Marie de France’s 12th Century work. It tells the story of an impoverished knight who secretly falls in love with a fair maiden. Such affair must be kept from Guinevere. Like most love stories, it is found out and chaos ensues. Lanval was re-written by Thomas Chestre during the 14th century, where Ryon was made the King of Ireland.

Cover of Malory’s Morte Darthur

These small bit-parts are substantially redeveloped by Sir Thomas Malory. Ryon of Ireland becomes Kynge Ryons of Northwalys in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1470.) The bit-piece of Malory’s tale, Ryons’ ysgin (or mantle) was made from other kings’ beards. A ysgin was valued one pound to a king or a queen. A very expensive piece of clothing! (Archaeologia Cambrensis 1850.)

Kynge Ryons of Northwalys’ entrance in Morte Darthur, related by Sir John Rhys

Sir Thomas Malory made Ryon’s bit-part more substantial and evil. The story revolves around the demands that Arthur give his beard to complete Ryons’ ysgin. Alex Davies tells us that the story of Ryon(s) is one that details ‘the aspirations of the unworthy,’ and that the court of Ryons is “afflicted by delusions of grandeur.” (Davis 2003) What of Arthur’s reply to Ryons? “Well thou hast said thy message, which is the most villainous and lewdest message that ever man heard sent to a king.” Tch!

King Ryons/Rience of Northwalys in metal casing

The excellent metal casing of King Ryons is made by Daved Pritchard of Montecito, California. This chess-piece shows Ryon’s ysgin, or cloak, made out of other kings’ beards. This and other excellent Arthurian chess pieces can be viewed at Daved Pritchard’s website

The conflict between King Arthur and King Ryons was one of the many mystery plays performed before Queen Elizabeth I on Wednesday 21st July during her 19 day visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575. It appears this was the first time the rogue king was introduced as Sir Ryons of North Wales in a play. The character was later used in Spenser’s Fairie Queene.

Musarum Deliciae…contening severall pieces of poetique wit 1656: Ryons/Rhines

The idea of de-bearding was really to adopt a stance and invite the opponent to be offended and thus causing conflict. Or as some say, the act of defiling a manhood. According to Spenser in his Fairie Queene, bearing a person is to cause affront or make the other person defiant. This is what King Ryons & Rhita Gawr were doing with Arthur. The pair have already told other kings to stand and fight. The handing over of their beards represents removal of their integrity. In the case of Arthur, a much more formidable adversary is provided.

The Bard himself, William Shakespeare, may well have known the story of the battle between King Arthur and King Ryons. Although Shakespeare doesnt mention Ryons nor used any elements from the Arthurian stories, it is clear that de-bearding was used in two of Shakespeare’s plays. These were Macbeth and Henry VI. It is possible that Shakespeare utilised the beard-ology from the same sources as as those that Michael Drayton used for his Poly-Olbion. That work was written between 1598 and 1612 and is a poem relating to the topography of Wales and England, with reference to the ancient Britons & Arthur.

Shakespeare’s Henry VI was written in stages between 1591 and 1600, whilst Macbeth was done between 1611 and 1612. These dates somewhat tie in with Drayton’s effort at his poem and so suggests the possibility of he and Shakespeare having used similar sources, or even that they had seen a performance of the King Arthur vs King Ryons mystery play. Song Four of Drayton’s work goes: “And for a trophy brought the giant’s coat away, made of the beards of kings.”

What of the pair’s real identity? Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Kenilworth in 1575 prompted a rush of suggestions that suggest Ryons had originated from “a manuscript in the library of the right honourable Thomas Lord  Windesore” (or Windsor, a 16th C peer.) This document had been copied four hundred years earlier by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Whether the unseen Windesore MSS postulated that Ryons might have been based upon a real person is not known. However, the possibility remains but it is quite clear that any such manuscript has long since been lost.

As for Rhita Gawr’s origins, the Mabinogion might possibly be the first source for the Welsh version of the legend. The 12th century work gives the name as Ricca within the narrative of Kilhwch & Olwen, the oldest tale of the Mabinogion. Whence its origins were is not known, but there is some evidence that long before the Mabinogion, in 6th century Gaul Rita Gawr was a female. Little is known of this female, other than she loved making blouses from kings’ beards. One such request was for the beard from King Clotaire of France.

The name ‘Gawr’ in Wales at least does not mean a giant but merely a person of high stature. Geoffrey of Monmouth is responsible for mis-reading old manuscripts and interpreting the names Cawr and Cewri as signifying giants. One of the earliest academics to rubbish Monmouth’s interpretations was Edward Llwyd, who gave alternative interpretations for Cawr/Gawr in Camden’s improved Britannia of 1695.

Camden’s Britannia of 1695

Gawr signified a British chieftain as Lewis Morris pointed out in his ‘Celtic Remains’ (1757.) There were many of these, his examples being Idris Gawr, Orthrwm Gawr, Rhuddlwm Gawr, Phili Gawr, Albion Gawr and Leon Gawr. As we shall see below, Rhuddlwm Gawr was either a real person or a mythological person depending on which sources are read. This makes it very difficult to ascertain the validity of the existence of many Welsh chieftains in the early centuries, so trying to ascertain whether Rhita Gawr or King Ryons were based on any real persons is made nigh on impossible.

Quite a few North Wales princes were known by the name of Gawr.  One of these may have been Rhuddwyn Gawr who may possibly have provided the ammo for Rhita Gawr. Rhuddwyn, allegedly a real prince, was said to have had three brothers who were giants. But it may be that historians have actually meant Rhuddlwm Gawr,  a mythological character who along with Math and Menew excelled in the art of deception.

Vida Dutton Scudder reminds us that Ryons is nothing less than the “authentic monster who has slain Helena and is roasting children on a spit…” (Scudder 1917.) If there was anyone Ryons should have been based upon, it seems as if it were to be someone who was capable of such bizarre extremity. Of course no such person has ever existed in North Wales! It’s like trying to prove that manic pizza-faced slasher, Frederick C. Krueger, was a real being who lived in ‘Springwood,’ Ohio.

Some noted writers, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Charles Squire, suggest that King Ryons was actually King Urien of South Wales. One of the factors for this line of thinking is Ryons is often spelt as Rience, whence Urien is often referred to as Urience. Squire tells us “Urien may also be identified in the Morte Darthur as King Rience, or Ryons, of North Wales…”

Despite Tennyson’s thoughts, it is clear Urien was no monster as Ryons. King Urien of Rheged (located in Cumbria),  a North Briton, became Lord of Gower – or King of Gore in Arthurian legend, as mentioned in the Golden Grove MSS. Urien’s bard was Taliesin himself, whose work confirms Urien had considerable influence in South Wales. Urien Rheged’s name itself means Urien of the Gift. Clearly there is no way the manic Ryons could have been styled upon Urien Rheged, and it appears some misfortune led to similarities between those names.

What of Rhita Gawr? Any credible personage that the legend could well be based upon? In terms of North Wales there are some faintly possible candidates, but none so cruel as Rhita Gawr was supposed to be. Fairly enough we could say that the cruelty is added to give the stories more spice, in the same way that they have done over the centuries and still do today. Cruelty, despite its horrors and abhorrence in practice, is very clearly employed as a tool to spice the made-up-world of the writers.

Arthur & Rhita Gawr – or Ryons?

Geoffrey of Monmouth says that Rhita Gawr was actually Ritho, which could possibly indicate Rithomous. Ritho is clearly an alternative of Rithon, the giant portrayed in the Morte Arthure – The alliterative romance of King Arthur. Found in a MSS at Lincoln cathedral, this particular version tells us of Rithon the giant who demands Arthur’s beard, and they eventually battle it out on Mount Aramanus (Snowdon.)

Polyphemus is said by some, such as John Gibson Lockhart, writing in his translation of Spanish Ballards (1841), to be the original model for Rithon – for both Rhita Gawr and King Ryons. Perhaps Polyphemus’ eating of people was likened to Rhita and Ryons’ penchant for cooking children on a spit or cutting off kings’ beards? Perhaps the origins of these progenitors does go further back than anyone thought possible…?

Polyphemus eating up parts of people

Celtic folklore – Welsh and Manx by Sir John Rhys (1901) gives some theory upon the pair of trouble-makers. He says Rhita was representative of a ruler of Ireland, and possibly went by the name of Ritta or Rittann. On these lines he concludes that from Rittann it became Ritton, Rithon, and eventually Rions, or Ryons. Sir John Rhys is slightly indicative that both Rhita Gawr and King Ryons were based on real people but makes no further elaboration.

In terms of a link to Ireland, there appear to be several possibilities, but none of which seem very conclusive. However Adrian Gilbert et al, writing in The Holy Kingdom (1999) suggest both King Ryons and Rhita Gawr were based on Reueth, a real Irish prince, who lived in the mid 4th Century. Gilbert tells us that Reueth was slain on the summit of Snowdon in AD367. As any actual references to this have not been seen, it remains just a line of enquiry. But it may well indicate yet another very long lineage between the original ‘Rience’ and any eventual re-working as Rhita Gawr or King Ryons in the middle ages.

Chivalry and romance in the English Renaissance, P 92. Alex Davies, Cambridge (2003)
Archaeologia cambrensis P179 Cambrian Archaeological Association (1850)
The holy kingdom, P240. Adrian Geoffrey Gilbert, Alan Wilson, Baram Blackett (1999)
Le Morte D’Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory and Its Sources, Vida Dutton Scudder (1917)

Updated November 2011

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