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Legend of Branwen

Harlech is forever associated with the Legend of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, mythical King of all Britons.

This epic legend of betrayal and jealousy began with the arrival of the King of Ireland in Harlech seeking the hand of Branwen in marriage.

The marriage feast on Anglesey, however, was marred by the malice of her half brother Efinisien who, angry at not being consulted over the marriage by the giant Bendigeidfran, Branwen's brother, maimed the horses given to the Irish King as dowry.

Later, having settled in Ireland and given birth to a son, Branwen was punished for Efinisien's actions, being demoted to maid and slapped each day.

In desperation, Branwen sent a bird to her brother, seeking help. At once, the Britons crossed over to Ireland with Bendigeidfran walking as no ship could carry him. The Irish fought back but were beaten.

Branwen's young son Gwern was named King of Ireland but a treacherous plot to kill the Britons during the coronation feast was discovered by Efinisien. In a wilful act, he threw Gwern into the fire so beginning a fight to the death between the two armies. Eventually only seven Britons were left standing - even Bendigeidfran was killed - and they returned to Anglesey with Branwen. There she died of a broken heart realising that the two kingdoms were destroyed on her account.

For the full story of this legend, read on...


Branwen ferch Llŷr (The Second Branch of the Mabinogi)

Bendigeidfran fab Llŷr was the crowned king of Britain and one afternoon, he was sitting on a rock near his court in Harlech, looking over the sea. He was accompanied by his brother, Manawydan fab Llŷr and his two half brothers, Nisien and Efnisien. Nisien was a good, peaceful man, whereas Efnisien was jealous and belligerent.

From their place on the rock above the sea, the men saw beautiful ships sailing towards them. Bendigeidfran sent the other men to arm themselves and to see was sailing aboard the ships. A shield was lifted above the board of one of the ships, as a sign of peace, and the men saw that the ships belonged to Matholwch, king of Ireland.

Matholwch had sailed to Harlech to ask for Branwen ferch Llŷr, Bendigeidfran’s sister’s hand in marriage. As her brother, Bendigeidfran agreed and Branwen and Matholwch were married in Aberffraw, Anglesey. The wedding feast was held in a tent as there wasn’t a house large enough to accommodate Bendigeidfran.

Efnisien, Branwen and Bendigeidfran’s belligerent half brother, came across Matholwch’s horses and asked who owned them. The keeper told him, “These horses are owned by Matholwch, king of Ireland”.

“What are they doing here?”, asked Efnisien.

“Matholwch is here and has married Branwen, your sister”.

“Is that what they did with a maiden as good as Branwen? Give her to the king of Ireland without my permission. They couldn’t insult me more”.          

Efnisien was livid and attacked the horses by cutting their lips, ears and eyebrows to the bone and cut of their tails to the spine. The horses were ruined.

The tale came to Matholwch. He was amazed by the events, as Branwen’s family had given him such a beautiful and refined wife, without showing any opposition to the marriage. Matholwch gathered his ships but Bendigeidfran was told that Matholwch was leaving his court without asking for Bendigeidfran’s permission.

Bendigeidfran’s messengers asked Matholwch why he was leaving and Matholwch told them about the attack on his horses and of the insult made against him.

Bendigeidfran offered to pay compensation to Matholwch in the form of one horse for each of those ruined by Efnisien, a silver rod as thick as thick as Matholwch’s little finger and a gold plate of the same area as his face. As Efnisien was Bendigeidfran’s half brother, it wasn’t easy for Bendigeidfran to punish or kill him, but said that he would try to compensate for Efnisien’s insult in whatever way Matholwch desired. Matholwch accepted the compensation from Bendigeidfran: the horses, silver rod and gold plate, but his spirit was broken, such was Efnisien’s insult against him.

Therefore, Bendigeidfran offered to give Matholwch a magic cauldron. If one of Matholwch’s men was injured or killed, he could be thrown into the cauldron and he would resurrect to his former state, but he wouldn’t be able to speak. Matholwch thanked Bendigeidfran and the following day, the horses as well as several foals, were given to him.

Matholwch and Branwen started their journey to Ireland the following morning. They were both given a warm welcome in Ireland and Branwen was greatly admired by the Irish people. Within a year, Branwen was pregnant and a son, named Gwern fab Matholwch, was born to her and Matholwch.

Shortly afterwards, the Irish people began to talk about the insult against Matholwch in Wales and Matholwch decided that he would never live it down until he had taken his revenge for the insult. Consequently, Branwen was sent to live and work in the kitchen as a baker and was beaten daily by the butcher. Irish ships, boats and vessels were forbidden from sailing to Wales and any Welsh visitors were imprisoned, so that Branwen’s family wouldn’t hear of the insult against her.

Three years went by and Branwen befriended a starling in the kitchen, taught it her language and described Bendigeidfran to it. Branwen sent the starling to find Bendigeidfran, with a letter expressing the insult against her, tied around the starling’s wing. The starling found Bendigeidfran in Caer Saint, Arfon. Bendigeidfran read the letter and took counsel on the matter. It was decided that Branwen’s family and their men should sail to Ireland and leave Caradog fab Brân as the leader of Britain, with seven knights to support him: Hefëydd Hir, Unig glew Ysgwydd, Iddig fab Anarawd, Walltgrwn Ffodor fab Erfyll, Wlch Miasgwrn, Lashar fab Llesaer Llaesgynwyd and Pendaran Dyfed.  

Bendigeidfran’s fleet sailed to Ireland, but Bendigeidfran himself walked, as there wasn’t a ship big enough to carry him

Matholwch’s men were watching the coast one day, when they saw a wonder. They went to Matholwch and told him that they had seen trees on the sea and a mountain with a tall ridge and a lake at each side of the ridge, all moving across the sea. No one knew what the wonder was, so Matholwch ordered his messengers to ask Branwen if she knew anything about it. She was asked and told them that they were Bendigeidfran’s men, coming over the sea after hearing about the insult against her.

“What are the trees we see on the sea?”, asked the men.

“The masts of the ships”, said Branwen.

“What was the mountain we saw alongside the ships?”

“That is Bendigeidfran, my brother. There isn’t a ship big enough to contain him”.   

“What was the ridge and the lake on either side of the ridge?”

“They were his two eyes on either side of his nose”.

Matholwch gathered all of the Irish soldiers and decided to retreat to the other side of the Shannon river and demolish the bridge across the river, to obstruct Bendigeidfran and his men from reaching them. When Bendigeidfran’s fleet arrived at the river, his men said to him,

“Lord, you know the size of the river: we cannot cross it and there is no bridge across it. What is your advice for a bridge?”

“Only this: he that would lead, let him be a bridge. I will be a bridge”.

Bendigeidfran lay across the river and his fleet crossed the river.  

Matholwch’s men came to Bendigeidfran and told him that Matholwch would compensate for the insult against Branwen, by giving Ireland to his son, Gwern, who was Bendigeidfran’s nephew. Bendigeidfran discussed the offer with his men and Matholwch’s messengers returned to him and suggested that he built a house large enough to accommodate Bendigeidfran and his men, as Bendigeidfran was unable to live in an ordinary house. They believed that Bendigeidfran would surely agree to peace with Matholwch, then. Branwen advised Bendigeidfran to accept the offer to avoid war, and that is what he did.

A house was built for Bendigeidfran but an armed man was hidden in each of the one hundred pillars in the house. Efnisien squeezed the brains of each of these armed men, and killed them. That evening, a peace agreement was made between Britain and Ireland and Ireland was given to Gwern.

Gwern came to the house and was greeted by his uncles, Bendigeidfran, Manawydan and Nisien, and finally, Efnisien. Efnisien thought to himself, “To God I make my confession, I will now create a massacre that no one in this house expects.” Efnisien lifted Gwern of the ground by his feet and threw him into the fire. Branwen tried to jump into the fire after him, but was held back by Bendigeidfran. All of the men rose to their feet and a horrendous battle commenced.

The Irish men threw their dead and injured soldiers into the magic cauldron and they were resurrected to their former state, but they couldn’t speak. Efnisien saw the pile of dead British men and thought, “Oh God, woe me for causing this huge pile of British bodies and shame on me unless I try to salve the situation”. He threw himself into the pile of dead Irish men and was thrown into the cauldron. He stretched his body inside the cauldron, smashing it to pieces. This lead to a victory for Bendigeidfran’s men, but only seven of them had survived: Pryderi, Manawydan fab Llŷr, Glifiau Ail Daran, Taliesin, Ynawg, Gruddiau fab Muriel and Heilyn fab Gwyn Hen.

Bendigeidfran had also survived but had been struck in his foot with a poisonous spear. He ordered his men to behead him and to carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (allegedly the area where St Paul’s Cathedral stands today) and bury it there, facing France. Bendigeidfran said that theirs would be a long journey and that they would dine in Harlech for seven years, with the Birds of Rhiannon singing to them. They would then spend twenty four years on Gwales or Grassholm Island, Pembrokeshire. The head wouldn’t be damaged during this time, until they opened the door towards Aber Henfelen (the Welsh name for the Bristol Channel). After opening this door, they would have to leave for London and bury the head, before the men would travel onwards.

The seven men sailed back to Britain with Branwen and came to the land in Aber Alaw, Anglesey. Branwen looked at Britain and Ireland and broke her heart at the devastation caused by her. Branwen died there and was buried on the banks of the River Alaw.

The seven surviving men travelled onwards and when they came across a group of people, they asked, “Have you any news?”.

“No”, they replied, “only that Caswallon fab Beli has conquered Britain and he wears the crown of London”,

“What happened to Caradog fab Brân and the seven knights left here with him?”

“Caswallon wore a magic cape, so that he became invisible and attacked them. No one saw Caswallon, only the sword in his hand. He struck the sword through the hearts of each of the men, except for Caradog and Pendaran Dyfed. Caradog died of a broken heart and Pendaran Dyfed ran into the woods.

The seven men arrived in Harlech, and they spent seven years there, feasting and being entertained by the Birds of Rhiannon.

After seven years, they travelled to Gwales, or Grassholm Island, Pembrokeshire. They stayed in a fantastic hall above the sea, with two doors open and the third door, which looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henfelen, closed. “Look”, said Manawydan, “that it the door we should not open”.

For twenty four years, the men stayed there and it was a very happy and peaceful time. But one day, Heilyn fab Gwyn sain, “Shame on me unless I open the third door, to see if Bendigeidfran spoke the truth”.

Straight away after opening the door towards Cornwall and Aber Henfelen, they saw that Bendigeidfran had spoken the truth, as the seven men saw all of the losses of people and property that they ever had. This caused them great sadness. The men couldn’t stay there any longer and left for London immediately. They arrived at the Gwynfryn, London and buried Bendigeidfran’s head there, facing towards France, as he had wished. While Bendigeidfran’s head was buried there, Britain would be safe.

Every living soul in Ireland had been killed, except for five pregnant women in a cave. Five sons were born to them and they were raised by their mothers until they were strong men who wished to have wives of their own. The men took their peers’ mothers as wives and children were born to them. Ireland was divided between the five sons, forming the five districts of Ireland.

This is how this branch of the Mabinogi ends.  

The two kings, Harlech
Harlech Castle (Cadw, Welsh Assembly Government, Crown Copyright)
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