The Woes of Branwen

Statue of Bran the Blessed, carrying Gwern's body

James Lloyd visits a small village in Anglesey, reputed to be the burial place of a beautiful princess, whose fate it was to bring destruction upon two kingdoms.

In 1813, a farmer at the hamlet of Helim in Anglesey was looking for stones to build an extension to his house. He had noticed a few poking from the earth of a circular mound on a promontory in the River Alaw. Having dug around the stones, he realized that they were only the top part of a buried cairn, within which he discovered a four-sided cist. He lifted the lid and found a terracotta urn, face downwards. The urn, when turned up, was found to contain ashes and fragments of bone. It did not escape the attention of local antiquaries that the promontory was called “Ynys Branwen”, the Isle of the White-Bosomed and it was hastily identified as the burial place of a tragic heroine from Welsh mythology.

The story, part of the Mabinogion collection, is set before the Romans invaded Britain, when Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, ruled over the island. Bran was a giant, whom no house can contain and who towered over the ships that carried him. One day he was visited by ambassadors from King Matholwch of Ireland, asking for the hand of Bran’s sister Branwen, whose name meant “White-Bosomed”. Bran agreed and the British and Irish royal families met at Aberffraw for the wedding.

Every family has its black sheep and in Bran’s case it was his half-brother Evnissyen, son of Euroswydd. This congenital troublemaker snuck into the tents where the Irish King’s horses were kept and cut off their tails, eyelids, ears and lips. When the King of Ireland heard that his horses had been mutilated, he assumed that this had been done at Bran’s order and began to sail away in disgust. Bran sent messengers after him and, when he heard how Matholwch had been offended, he realized that it must have been his half-brother who had done this. Bran offered Matholwch gifts and a new set of horses. Matholwch accepted the compensation and returned to Britain.

Bran noticed that Matholwch was still unhappy, so he offered to top up the compensation with a magic cauldron that he had obtained from Irish exiles in Britain. The cauldron possessed the property that the body of any slain warrior placed in it would be re-animated the next day, though mute. Matholwch, who had himself had dealings with the cauldron’s previous owners and banished them from Ireland, accepted the additional gift and returned to Ireland.

For a year, he and Branwen were happy and the British princess gave birth to the Irish king’s son Gwern. However, Matholwch’s foster-brothers decided that the King had been disgraced by what had happened in Britain, that the compensation paid was insufficient and that further justice could only be done by having Branwen work in the kitchens, where the cook was to give her a daily slap in the face. For three years Branwen suffered but she reared a starling in her kneading-trough, trained it and attached a letter narrating her woes to its leg. She then sent it to fly away to find her brother and it alighted on his very shoulder. When Bran read the letter, he declared war on Ireland and left his son Caradog as regent in Britain.

The British fleet filled the sea and was mistaken by those who saw it from land as a forest. When Matholwch was told, he took advice from his nobles, who told him to retreat behind the River Lennon and destroy the bridge. However, when the British reached the river, Bran himself lay across it and allowed his army to march over him, saying “Let him who will be chief be a bridge.”

Matholwch called a truce by presenting Gwern, his son by Branwen, to the British King and offering to make him his heir apparent. Bran agreed to attend a formal meeting, at which Gwern’s succession would be acknowledged, though the Irish had to build a house specially just to accommodate him.

A recreated Iron-Age house (not the one in the story)

The house, however, was a trap. The Irish hung leather bags around the posts of the house, in which were soldiers concealed but they had reckoned without the treachery of Evnissyen. Those who cannot be trusted themselves are never quick to trust others and he asked to be shown around the house prior to the meeting. Suspicious of the bags, he asked what each one contained as he and his guide passed it. He was always told that the bag contained meal, so he squeezed it, just to be sure, until he had crushed each soldier’s head.

Both parties assembled in the house and Gwern was presented to the British, greeting each personage in turn. When the little boy reached Evnissyen, the traitor threw him into the fireplace. The horrified Branwen tried to jump in after him but Bran restrained her. A fight broke out between the British and the Irish.

The battle raged for days. Their superior numbers allowed the British to inflict serious losses on the Irish but the magic cauldron allowed the Irish to replenish their forces every night, so that it was the British who were gradually whittled down. When Evnissyen realized that all this was his fault, he hid amongst the Irish corpses. Two Irishmen, thinking he was one of their own men, threw him into the cauldron, which he wrenched apart from within, giving himself a heart attack in the process.

Robbed of their secret weapon, the Irish army was finally wiped out but only seven Britons were left alive. Even Bran was fatally wounded. On his instructions, the survivors severed his head and carried it with them back to Britain, where they buried it under the White Mount in London. The head stayed alive and chatty all the time. En route, they stopped off on the banks of the River Alaw in Anglesey. Branwen looked west towards Ireland, then east towards Britain and bewailed “Alas, woe is me that I was ever born. Two islands have been destroyed because of me.” She broke her heart and died. They buried her there in a four-sided grave on the banks of the Alaw.

This compressed narrative condenses into Rural Voice proportions a story that is actually much more complicated, with several digressions and supplemental episodes. On one level, the story’s purpose was to explain various items of folklore, one example of which was included in the above summary: The Welsh proverb that he who would be chief must be a bridge.

On another level, there are distinct elements of Celtic mythology to it. For example, Llyr, father of Bran and Branwen, has the same name as the Irish sea god. The story also contains legendary versions of real human beings. Caradog, son of Bran, may represent Caratacus, in reality the son of Cunobelin, chief of the Catuvellauni tribe in the east Midlands, who led the British resistance to the Roman conquest. Lady Charlotte Guest, who first translated this legend into English, suggested that Evnissyen’s father Euroswydd represents the Roman governor of Britain Publius Ostorius Scapula, who captured Caratacus.

In its present form, the legend is later medieval. The compensation offered to Matholwch for the mutilation of his horses accords with that prescribed for a king in the Laws of Howel the Good and the White Mountain in London is a reference to the White Tower built by William I. The earliest, fragmentary manuscript is fourteenth-century but the text is no doubt older.

As for Ynys Branwen on Anglesey, there is no substance to the myth. It is absurd to identify any ancient burial site in Wales as the burial site of a legendary character. The old name for the promontory proves only that nineteenth-century antiquarians who made the connection were not the first to fall for such wishful thinking.

Site of Bedd Branwen

Photo credits: Y Ddau Frenin – The Two Kings (Alan Fryer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Iron Age Village, Llynnon Mill, Llanddeusant, Anglesey (Stephen Elwyn RODDICK) / CC BY-SA 2.0

The site of Bedd Branwen (Eric Jones) / CC BY-SA 2.0