2017 is Wales’ “Year of Legends” and we have a few local legends of our own…
Offa and his Dyke
OK, you’ve heard of Offa’s Dyke but what is it and who was Offa?
Let’s take Offa first. Some 1200 years ago, Offa was king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, reigning from 757 to his death in 796 – a long reign for the times and roughly 100 years before Alfred the Great. Under his kingship Mercia became the most powerful kingdom in Britain; though Mercia itself roughly covered what we today call ‘the Midlands’, King Offa also controlled Kent, Sussex, London and East Anglia. He was a powerful, ruthless and wealthy king: the recently discovered ‘Stafford Hoard’ gives us an idea of the skill of Anglo-Saxon craftsmen working in gold and jewels, and of the wealth of the nobility who owned such things. It may surprise us today, but this ‘Dark Ages’ king was also a European statesman who corresponded with Charlemagne (King of the Franks and first Holy Roman Emperor), mainly about trade and the safety of pilgrims and merchants.
Where do we start with Offa’s Dyke? Well ‘Dyke’ refers to a high earth bank and it was almost certainly constructed at the height of Mercian power under the orders of King Offa, who had the will and money to make it happen. A number of uncertainties surround Offa’s Dyke, perhaps not so surprising given that it all happened 1200 years ago. One question is about just how long it was: about 80 miles of it still remain today but Bishop Asser, writing in his Life of King Alfred only about 100 years later, says Offa “…had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea” which would make it nearly 180 miles long. Some people question this because there is no evidence on the ground today, but what would be the point of constructing a vast linear earthwork and then leaving huge gaps in it? And 1200 years of erosion by wind, rain and farming will have taken their toll in the gentler parts of the landscape. Not only immensely long, it was also massive in size, with a ditch over 6 feet deep and a bank rising above it by about 25 feet, at an angle of 45 degrees – not an easy thing to cross. The other great uncertainty is about its exact purpose. It certainly marked the frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms to the west and perhaps channelled movement of people through specific control points – Knighton would be such a point, being the only town which sits on the line of the Dyke. But, while the earth bank itself is a defensible barrier, it didn’t have a timber palisade and it’s just too long to man with soldiers along its entire length. Perhaps more likely is that it was both a frontier ‘wall’ which could be patrolled by mounted troops, and a statement of Mercian power designed to overawe the Welsh neighbours. We’ll probably never know for sure but we can only marvel at the sheer amount of effort that went into constructing it in an age before machines.
Owain Glyndŵr and the Battle of Pilleth
Of the many military leaders who have battled over this border landscape few are better known in Wales than Owain Glyndŵr.
Known to the English as Owen Glendower, in the early 15th century Glyndŵr led a campaign, initially very successfully, against the rule of the English King Henry IV. By doing so he secured himself a place not just in history, but in Shakespeare, in his play Henry IV Part I.
At the battle of Pilleth, on 22nd June 1402 Glyndŵr famously defeated the forces of the powerful Marcher Lord Edmund Mortimer, of Wigmore. Mortimer, captured by Glyndŵr, then changed sides, made an alliance with his captor and even married one of his daughters. Glyndŵr was eventually defeated though, and disappeared without trace. He is believed to be buried somewhere in Herefordshire, but no-one really knows.
In the late 19th century local landowner Sir Richard Green-Price discovered human bones on Bryn Glâs, the hill above St Mary’s Church at Pilleth, and planted a square patch of fir trees to mark the spot where he presumed the dead of the battle to lie buried. The trees are now a local landmark and the site, which is about 5 miles by road from Knighton, is signposted from the B4356
Today Glyndŵr’s name lives on, not just through Glyndŵr’s Way, and Shakespeare, but also the Owain Glyndŵr Society which in the year 2000 celebrated the 600th anniversary of his revolt.
King Arthur and his marriage to Guinevere at Knucklas Castle
It is generally accepted that tales of Arthur originated in Wales and that the first legends recorded in the Middle Ages were based on much older Welsh manuscripts.
Studying these manuscripts, some of which are now lost, various scholars in the 14th, 15th and 16th century connected Arthur to Knucklas Castle.
These say the castle had been known as ‘Castell Pendragon’ – Arthur’s family name.
They also tell us that Guinevere was the daughter of the giant, Gogfran Gawr, and that her brothers had been kidnapped by other giants. Arthur killed the giants and freed her brothers. He then cut off the biggest giant’s head and threw it into the River Teme to use as a stepping stone on his way to Castell-y-Cnwclas (Knucklas Castle). As he stepped across he cried ‘tyfed yr iad’ meaning ‘may the head grow in the river like a stone’. This is how the River Teme got its Welsh name – Afon Tefediad.
Arthur and Guinevere then rode to the Knucklas Castle where they married.
Another local legend holds that Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, held a castle at Crug y Byddar, near Felindre, further up the Teme valley.
Caractacus’ Last Stand
Caradoc, also known to history as Caractactus, was a British war leader who led the resistance of many of the British tribes against the invasion by Rome during the years AD43 – 51. He was probably a prince of the Catuvellauni tribe centred around Colchester but helped lead the British tribes in their first battles against the Romans on the River Medway in Kent. Following defeat, he helped lead British resistance for several years in guerilla style wars but was unable to stem the tide of Roman occupation. Driven ever further west, he helped lead the Silures in South Wales and the Ordovices in Mid Wales. In around AD51 he persuaded the Welsh tribes to seek a decisive battle with the Romans on ground of his choosing in Mid Wales.
We know that such a battle did take place through the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus, who was writing only about one hundred years after the event (very recent in terms of ancient history!). But what we shall probably never know is the exact location of that battle – unless some convincing archaeological evidence comes to light. What we do know from Tacitus is that it was amongst “lofty hills in the territory of the Ordovices” which almost certainly places it in eastern Powys – i.e. not far from Knighton! Tacitus also mentions a river of varying depth across the British front which the Roman infantry had to ford.
Of the various candidates for the battle site, we can rule out both the Caer Caradoc hill near Church Stretton and another Caer Caradoc hill a couple of miles north of Knighton, as neither have significant rivers by them. Another candidate is the hill of Coxall Knoll near Bucknell, a few miles east of Knighton, which does have the River Teme flowing along the side of it, and has an Iron Age hill fort on its summit. But, as some authors have pointed out, Caradoc would have already learnt how even the strongest hill forts (e.g. Maiden Castle in Dorset) were vulnerable to being surrounded and overrun by the Romans. He would have wanted a strong defensive hill, but one which had a means of retreat if the battle went against the British. Some authors have suggested a site at Llandinam on the River Severn near Caersws (between Newtown and Llanidloes); this is certainly possible – but it is a long way deep into the lands of the Ordovices, and the River Severn is a major river, so why didn’t Tacitus name it (it was known to the Romans as the Sabrina)? Just outside Knighton, across the River Teme, lies the hill known as Kinsley Wood, and this seems like another strong candidate. First, it is a lofty and substantial hill which effectively blocks westward movement down the Teme Valley; second, the River Teme still runs across much of its base and would provide a significant obstacle; third, there are high hills across narrow valleys (including that of the River Teme) to either side, creating dangers for any advancing force; and fourth, there is a route for retreat across the hills or up the Teme Valley to the northwest. Come and see the area and judge for yourself!
In the event, after a hard fought battle, during which the Romans forded the river and advanced in their famous protective testudo (or tortoise) formation, the British warriors were defeated. Caradoc was able to make his escape but his wife and children were captured. Caradoc fled to seek assistance from Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes in Northern Britain, but unfortunately she was loyal to Rome and handed him over to the Romans. Caradoc was taken to Rome where, unusually, it seems that he was not executed but treated with some honour, being allowed to address the Roman Senate and live out the rest of his life in peace.
The dragon, the forest, and the archangel
St Michael the Archangel, leader of heavenly armies, is reputed to have fought a war in heaven against Lucifer, and is usually portrayed with a sword in his hand subduing the Devil in the form of a writhing dragon at his feet and, in fact, within the boundaries of the old county of Radnorshire there are ten churches dedicated to St. Michael.
However, this area has an extra special need for protection due to the old belief that a fearsome dragon – the last dragon in Wales – lives within the Radnor Forest, and indeed five St Michael churches surround it- the “Radnor Ring”
Llanfihangel (St Michael) Nant Melan – a 12th century church in a setting which predates it as can be seen by the ancient yews in the church yard.
Llanfihangel Cefnllys – partially 13th century but well restored!
Llanfihangel Rhydithon – now wholly Victorian.
Llanfihangel Discoed – where the yew, one of the five oldest in the UK, suggests a pre-Christian past.
Llanfihangel Cascob – is medieval in origin, possibly built on a pre-Christian sacred site and the tower is built over what may be a large prehistoric burial mound. Sheep graze the church yard. Inside the church is a framed ‘abracadabra’ spell. The story goes of local girl, Elizabeth Lloyd, for whom the spell was used in the 18th Century to free her from ‘witchcraft’ and ‘all Evil spirites and all evil men of women or Wizardes’.
Brilliana Harley – Unsung Heroine of the Civil War
Lady Brilliana Harley was the wife of Sir Robert Harley, owner of Brampton Bryan Castle and Estate, which lies just over the border a few miles to the east of Knighton. She was born around 1598 in the Dutch town of Brill (now Brielle near Rotterdam) where her father, Sir Edward Conway, was Governor and her unusual name stems from the name of this town. Sir Robert and Brilliana were married in July 1623 and their first son Edward was born just over a year later.
Unlike many of their neighbours, they were both very strongly puritan in their religious beliefs. They were also strong supporters of Parliament (indeed Sir Robert was the MP for the local area) in an area that was predominantly Royalist in its loyalties. This became a serious issue in 1642 when the dispute between King Charles I and Parliament triggered the English Civil War. During 1642 Brilliana was effectively the head of the household, as Sir Robert was serving Parliament in London and their eldest son Edward was with the Parliamentarian field army. But little happened at Brampton Bryan that year other than intimidation, theft of livestock and general harassment by local Royalists.
However, this uneasy peace could not last and in March 1643 Brilliana was presented with a formal summons to surrender the castle and all arms and ammunition. She politely declined. A temporary reprieve then followed when the main Royalist force under Lord Herbert was driven out of the area by a Parliamentary army under Sir William Waller. But the Royalists returned to the task and the castle was besieged by forces under Sir William Vavasour and Colonel Lingen from 26 July. Brilliana had about 50 soldiers plus some civilians to defend what was basically a modest medieval castle; the Royalists may have had up to 2,000 soldiers but, crucially, neither side had much in the way of artillery – a critical lack for the besiegers. Within a fortnight Vavasour left with his men to join the King’s attack on Gloucester, leaving the siege to Lingen and his 700 troops. Although they destroyed much of the village, they could not make any impression on the castle and Brilliana maintained her defence, refusing to be intimidated by the enemy’s superior numbers. Indeed, she skilfully bought time by spinning out truces through endless negotiations. This first siege was lifted on 9 September 1643 when the Royalist forces left to face other threats.
Although Sir Robert felt that his family would be safer elsewhere, Brilliana thought that a successful evacuation might be difficult to achieve and so decided to stay at the castle. It was a fateful decision. By early October 1643 the castle was once again threatened by Royalist troops and Brilliana once again made arrangements to defend her home. However, perhaps triggered by the stresses and strains she had endured, Brilliana’s health went into a sudden decline and she died at the end of October 1643 aged 45.
Command of the castle passed to Brilliana’s her doctor and friend, Dr Wright (who held a Parliamentary commission) and the castle remained in Parliamentary hands until 17 April 1644. Sir Robert eventually fell out with Oliver Cromwell (as he supported reconciliation with the King), was imprisoned for a while and lost his estate. He later found favour under King Charles II and had his lands restored to him, eventually dying in 1656 at the age of 77. Impressively, some 370 years later, the Harley family still occupy the Brampton Bryan Estate and the family names of Robert and Edward are still in use. In virtually every generation since the Civil War, a female child of the family has been named Brilliana, thus providing a lasting tribute to their doughty ancestor.
John Dee (1527 – 1608) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, philosopher, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth 1st. He devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy and Hermetic philosophy. He was also an advocate of England’s imperial expansion.
Dee straddled the worlds of science and magic just as they were becoming distinguishable. One of the most learned men of his age, he went to Cambridge University when he was 15 and became a Fellow of Trinity College after graduation. He was invited to lecture on geometry at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. Dee was an ardent promoter of mathematics and a respected astronomer, as well as a leading expert in navigation, having trained many of those seamen who would conduct England’s voyages of discovery.
Dee’s family home is at Nant-y-Groes in Whitton, near Knighton, and he may have been born here. Dee is thought to be the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Faustus, and to have drafted the “Abracadabra” charm which is still to be seen in Cascob church.