Storytelling is an ancient tradition in Wales, and an art at which we’re quite adept!
In the days before reading and writing were widely-held skills, the art of storytelling was a valuable one. Not only was it a way to keep history alive (although stories would have been altered considerably over many years of telling); but it was a way to share news before we had newspapers.
In this part of Wales we have some interesting tales that we’re still familiar with today. In Caernarfon in particular, there are two old legends that most of us have heard in one form or another. Both are related to the castle.
In the first, a castle at what is now Caernarfon was seen in a dream by a Roman emperor, Magnus Maximus (known locally as Macsen Wledig). He sent men out to search the world for the castle in his dream, and eventually it was found – and in it, the beautiful maiden who had also featured in the dream. Macsen married her and became king of the Britons. His wife, Elen (Anglicised to Helen) ordered the construction of roads all over Wales, and it is from her that we get the ancient road, Sarn Helen.
When Edward I built Caernarfon Castle, it is said that his design was inspired by the dream of Macsen Wledig as well as being a nod to the walls of Constantinople.
The other Caernarfon Castle-related story concerns the birth of Edward’s son, Edward of Caernarfon, crowned Prince of Wales in 1301. The legend says that knowing the Welsh would not accept any English-speaking Prince of Wales who had not been born in Wales, Edward put a clever ‘spin’ on things by making sure that his son was born in the castle. With French being the language of court and polite society at that time, and English being spoken only by commoners, clearly the child would be unlikely to ever grow up speaking English and thus the wishes of the local people could be said to have been granted.
These are just two stories of Caernarfon that have been passed down through the centuries – there are a good many more.
A little further afield but still local, Snowdonia is subject of an unfathomable number of myths and legends. The 12th century chronicler, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) recounted some curious local legends from the area in his book The Journey Through Wales.
In the first, he says that local people describe a lake in the mountains which contains a floating island which moves about, “often driven to the opposite side by the force of the winds”. He says that shepherds are “amazed to see the flocks which are feeding there carried off to distant parts of the lake”.
In the second, a story of another nearby lake, he says there are “three different kinds of fish, eels, trout and perch, and all of them have only one eye, the right one being there but not the left.”
And in the third, he tells of an eagle which on every fifth feast-day perches on a specific stone, “hoping to satiate its hunger with the bodies of dead men, for on that day it thinks that war will break out. The stone on which it takes its stand has a hole pierced nearly through it, for it is there that the eagle cleans and sharpens its beak.”
Do you know any ancient stories about Caernarfon that were passed down through your family but which might not be commonly known? If so we’d love to hear them – please get in touch if you’d like to share!