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St Dwynwen the Patron Saint of Lovers in Wales and Welsh bardic romance

The 25th January is the feast day of a 6th century Welsh saint called St Dwynwen. She is the patron saint of Welsh lovers and her own story is suitably romantic.

But who was St Dwynwen? Why is she the patron saint of lovers in Wales? What is her story? Where did that story originate? And more importantly how romantic are the Welsh?

In the video below from the History on your doorstep series we answer these and many other questions. We talk about her fascinating family tree being one of 36 children born of a family full of Kings and Queens and Saints. One of the saintly tribes of Wales. Her father King Brychan (also known as St Brychan) her sister St Gwladys, her nephew St Cadoc, founder of the Clas monastery in Llancarfan and the saint which Cadoxton in Barry is named after.

We also look at the bardic tradition in Wales and some wonderful romantic Welsh stories. Starting with the medieval romantic stories of the Mabinogion like Colhuwch and Olwen and Pwyll and Rhiannon in the first branch. We look at trends in tales of Welsh lovers and the techniques used by bards to bring them to life and look at them in the context of stories from Glamorgan. We also examine what makes them quite different from Romantic stories from ancient Greek folklore and other parts of Europe.

Specifically we look at the folklore behind the naming of the Captains Wife pub in Sully, and the better known romantic stories of the Maid of Cefn Ydfa and the Maid of Sker.

This video is a discussion between historian, author and broadcaster Graham Loveluck-Edwards and the history blogger Claire Miles (AKA Hisdoryan). First broadcast on Bro Radio on Monday 23rd January 2023. We explore the role of the bards in Wales, common themes in Welsh romantic folklore, the creative devices used by the bards to make their stories more credible and engaging.

For further reading on the themes and topics explored in this video I have written several books on local legends and folklore. More information available at https://grahamloveluckedwards.com/shop/

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A traditional Welsh Christmas

Christmas and New Year celebrations have changed a lot in Wales down the centuries. In this video history blogger Claire Miles (who writes the Hisdoryan blog) and history author & broadcaster Graham Loveluck-Edwards talk about the sort of Christmases our ancestors would have recognised. 

We take a whistle stop tour of all things Christmassy from Welsh history. The customs and traditions people observed. Things like;

Toasting the Ox on Christmas Eve

Wassailing 

The Aderyn Pig

The bird with the grey beak

The Plygain

A Tudor Christmas dinner

Calenig

The Mari Llwyd

First Footing

Hunting the wren

When Christmas was banned

The origins of Father Christmas

The very first Eisteddfod

The Abergavenny Christmas Massacre

We also look at some amazing Christmas stories like  Mallt-y-Nos’, Megan’ the Gwrach-Y-Rhibyn of St Donats and the sitings of the Cwn Annwn in the Vale at this time of year.

We also cover a whole host of ancient Welsh superstitions based around the festive period. Things that would bring you good and bad luck, ways to find love, to be sure of a good harvest and those ever fearsome portents of doom. To be fair most of them are predictors of death, but Some of them will have you laughing hysterically.

We really hope you enjoy this video. And if you do, feel free to share it on social media. But remember to subscribe to my YouTube channel as well. This programme was originally recorded for broadcast on Bro Radio. Click to play the video. First broadcast on Bro Radio.

Read more about Welsh festivals and traditions in my books.

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The swan ladies of Glamorgan

In Welsh folklore, there is no shortage of people able to morph into other forms. A flick through the pages of The Mabinogion can confirm that. There’s the story of Bloden- wedd, who transformed into an owl; Delilah, who transformed into an eagle; and Gilvaethy, who first turned into a deer, then a hog, then a wolf and finally back into a human.

Todays blog is about a more specific trend in Glamorgan folklore from later history. Stories about swans able to transform themselves at will into beautiful girls. I suppose given the delicate, porcelain like features, pure driven snow white complexion, long necks, demure bowed heads and overall glamour of your common or garden swan its probably not that surprising. But it isn’t something you commonly observe so frequently in the folklore of other areas.

These stories not only capitalise on the Welsh tradition for people taking the form of animals and vice versa to achieve a goal, they are also in that hopeless romantic genre so popular especially in the 19th century. A genre where people lose the love of their lives and die shortly afterwards of a broken heart. Or at the very least go mad.

Here are a couple which though unrelated, have a definite thread.

The first is set in the village of Candleston which used to lie between Merthyr Mawr and Tythegston, but these days has been lost to the sand dunes. It was a thriving community in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which makes it a little easier to date when this story originates from. Probably not co-incidental that this was also a time when it was very fashionable for the castles and great houses of the landed gentry to have a resident Welsh bard come along and stay for a few months, to write stories and songs. These would have been primarily for entertainment, and there were bragging rights to be had from who had the best bard. The stuff they would write would ostensibly be based on stories from history and would usually feature a celebrated descendant of the paying lord doing something tremendously brave or chivalrous. However, sometimes, their output like in this example, would have been purely for their entertainment value.

In this tale, a Candleston inn keeper’s wife had a reputation for keeping a string of lovers behind her husband’s back. What my mother would have described as being “a bit of a girl”. A wizard, seeking to punish her for her propensities, transformed her into a swan. Despite her indiscretions, the inn keeper loved his wife dearly and begged the wizard to turn her back. He refused, saying that she would turn back into human form in a year, by which time she would have learned the value of monogamy.

The inn keeper tied a blue ribbon to one of her wings, so that when she was swimming with the other swans in the estuary of the Ogmore river, he would know his beloved wife from the others. But one day, when she made advances on a male swan, his partner fought her off, and in the struggle that ensued, the ribbon was lost.

When all the swans flew south away, he watched them departing, unable to stop them, or even to spot his wife amongst them to bid her farewell. He never found out where she had flown to, or whether she turned back to her previous human form. They were never united again.

But if the innkeeper had come to hear a certain other local tale, then his story might have had a different ending. This might be total coincidence, but I think I might know where his wife got to.

There is quite a well-known local story about a farmer on Gower, although in some tellings it is set on Barry Island. This was back in the sixteenth century, when the island was still physically detached from the mainland, before it had houses or fun fairs, and the whole island was farmland.

While working in a field above Whitmore Bay, he saw a beautiful swan alighting among the rocks. There she laid aside her feathers and wings, turned herself into a beautiful maiden and bathed in the waters. After a time she put back on her trappings of a swan and flew away.

The amazed farmer watched this repeated on several occasions. Then one day he lay in wait for the swan, and as soon as she was transformed and enjoying the water, he snuck to the water’s edge, seized her swan garments and hid them. When eventually she rose from her bathe, she spied the farmer. Unable to recast herself as a swan, she asked him if he knew where her garments were. He claimed ignorance.

He offered instead to fetch her some clothes from his mother’s house, to save her dignity. This he did, and they walked along the beach together while he consoled her for the loss of her wings. As time passed, they got to know each other, fell in love and got married. For three years all was well. Then one day, by chance, he happened to leave open the oak chest where he had hidden her wings. Spotting them, she was enraged at the deception. However, over the years she had grown to love her husband, so striving to forgive him she said nothing about her discovery.

But having seen the wings, now all she could think about was the freedom of the skies and the life she had once lived. Then the day came when she heard her flock flying overhead. She could resist the call no more. She went back to the chest and put on her wings.

The farmer returned home from work that day to see his beautiful swan-like wife, her wings outstretched, slowly flying into the sunset. Her voice could be heard plaintively crying, ‘Farewell.’ The farmer so bitterly lamented his loss that he pined away and within a few months had died.

There is another version of this story, in which a man from Cadoxton and his friend from Rhoose find another two swan-ladies on Barry Island. Like the farmer, they marry these ladies, taking them back to their homes. However the Cadoxton swan-lady gets run over by a cart (being a swan she was unaware of the dangers of road traffic), while the one in Rhoose re-discovers her wings and takes to the skies. A nice detail of this version is that, after the swan ladies are gone, the two husbands are left to raise their children alone, and they all have conspicuously long necks.

This story was first published in my regular column in the Glamorgan Star. I have compiled these articles into a second book on the subject of local history, folklore and legend called ‘More legends and folklore from Barry, Bridgend and the Vale’. It retails for £12.99 and is available from Amazon, all good book shops or from my own website at a discounted price on this link. It would make a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Glamorgan’s colourful past.

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Barry Island – Land of myths and legends

If you have only ever briefly visited Barry Island or your only point of reference to it is Gavin and Stacy, this video might make your eyes pop out of your head.

Barry Island in the Vale of Glamorgan may be famous for Butlins holiday camp, the beach, the funfair and the arcades. But did you know it is supposedly the site of multiple miracles?

In the 6th or 7th century a monk called Baruc who was originally from Ireland, was a disciple of St Cadoc and was based at the ‘Clas’ Celtic Christian monastery at Llancarfan. He like countless monks before him, was using Barry Island as a retreat but events were to unfold here which would lead to a miracle and the canonisation of St Baruc.

This little known story led to Barry Island being the destination of countless pilgrims for the best part of 1,000 years. All eager to drink the waters of the holy well, claimed to have miraculous healing properties. Barry Island was the ‘Lourdes’ of the Vale of Glamorgan. Yet today very little remains to remind us of this. A few metres of crumbling masonry and a sign and that is about it.

In this latest video I tell the story of St Baruc, his legend, his miracle and his legacy.

I also cover a fun bit of folklore. A story published in 1909 but possibly dating back to the 17th century about two men. One from Rhoose and one from Cadoxton who spot two swans landing on a beach at Barry Island which turned into the women of their dreams.

I hope you enjoy it. If you want to watch more videos like this I have a YouTube channel full of them at https://youtube.com/user/grahamloveluck

If the written word is more your thing, both these stories are lifted from my latest book entitled ‘More legends and folklore from Barry, Bridgend and the Vale’. It is the second volume of such stories and is available at a discounted price from my online store. Just follow the link.

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The Original Maid of Sker

The original Maid of Sker, wooed by a penniless harpist

I am sure many students of literature will be familiar with the romantic novel by RD Blackmore called ‘The Maid of Sker’. You may or may not also be aware that the author grew up in the village of Nottage near Porthcawl. It is Sker house at the end of the dunes in Kenfig that was his inspiration for the story. The name of his novel, however, was borrowed from a much older Welsh legend from a book called Y Ferch o’r Scer, which was translated into English by William Davies of Neath in 1806.

It is claimed that the story originated from an air composed by a local harpist by the name of Thomas Evans. As is the usual way, the story has been further embellished by subsequent retellings and whether it is entirely true is disputed, not least by the family it is about. The characters themselves however are indisputably real.

Isaac Williams of Sker had two daughters. The youngest, Elizabeth, was tall, beautiful, and elegant, and she loved to dance. She lived for the annual Mabsant (festival of the saint). One of the traditions of the Mabsant was that a harpist would be brought in to play throughout the night for the younger members of the community to dance until dawn.

One especially popular harpist was Thomas Evans of the parish of Newton and Nottage, the man credited with writing the song that this legend is based on. The sight of the beautiful Elizabeth Williams, dancing so elegantly through the night, caught his eye and quickened his pulse. He was utterly transfixed with her, and to his joy she made it obvious that his attraction was reciprocated. By the time the sun rose in the morning they were lovers.

When Isaac Williams got wind of this courtship, he was furious. After all, he was a gentleman farmer and lord of the manor, and Thomas Evans was a mere carpenter. He could not possibly be considered a worthy suitor for his daughter, no matter how good a harpist he was. Undeterred, Evans hired a horse and carriage and rode out to Sker House at night, in the hope that he could persuade Elizabeth to elope with him. But his plan was scuppered when he woke the dogs, who started barking and gave the game away. In response Isaac refused to let Elizabeth leave the house, and she was kept a prisoner in her room under lock and key until she was married off to Mr Kirkhouse of Neath.

She never got on with the husband that had been forced on her, and always begrudged him and her father for breaking her heart. She never forgot about her first true love and sought him out wherever there was a Mabsant in the area. She would always find a way to contrive to meet him in secret. On one occasion they were even caught together by her husband.

Eventually she could not take the pain of being without her true love anymore and died of a broken heart. She was buried 6th January 1776 in Llansamlet. Thomas Evans pined for her for so long that he did not take a wife until he had turned fifty. He died in 1819 and is buried in Newton churchyard.

There are obvious parallels between this story and the far more famous one about ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’. May be the Welsh bards liked telling stories about the beautiful daughters of wealthy families falling head over heals in love with penniless bards.

This item is an exert from my book Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale. Available to buy here.

You may be interested to know that my blogs are published in The Glamorgan Star newspaper.

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The quirky family of Cadoc

No matter how embarrassing your father may have appeared to be when you were growing up, compared to St Cadoc, you had it easy. ‘Who is St Cadoc?’ you may be asking. I am sure you have noticed the many references to ‘Cadoc’ or ’Cadog’ around South Wales. In the names of churches, streets, wells, houses, schools, community centres and hospitals. To say nothing of the village of Cadoxton.

Historically, he was one of the most revered saints in the early Christian church. It gives you an idea how significant a figure he was when you consider that he was born in the latter quarter of the fifth century. Over 1,500 years ago. And we are still naming things after him today.

The life of St Cadoc is recorded in the ancient works of the Cambro British Saints. His story is the first ever to reference the now legendary King Arthur ‘the Great’ of Camelot. Amongst his achievements are the founding of the ‘Clas’ monastery at Llancarfan near Cowbridge as well as many churches throughout Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany. He also managed to fit in time for the odd miracle. Even as a baby it is claimed that he made the water in the font he was baptised in turn into milk.

All these achievements, however, were in spite of a really dysfunctional upbringing. It was so weird, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Channel 5 documentary

First of all, he was not the only saint in the family. Pretty well his whole family were saints. Then you have his father. All I can say is, I think the bar for sainthood must have been set low back then.

He was a brute, a drunkard, and a pirate. And randomly; a king. He was called Gwynllyw although somehow that got Anglicised in later history to Woolos. He is credited with being the founding father of the city of Newport and the cathedral there is dedicated to him to this day. He fell head over heels in love with Gwladys, the daughter of King Brychan (later Anglicised to Brecon). He wanted to marry her, but Brychan refused him. So Gwynllyw took an army of 300 men to knock on his castle gates and kidnapped her.

His passion for her never seemed to faulter, even in old age. There is an account that in later life after being converted to Christianity by his son; Cadoc, he tried to seek a prayerful retreat on a desolate mountain. His endeavours however would perpetually fail as he could not overcome his carnal urges towards her and could not help himself from continually running back down the mountain to her bed.

If you thought he made a rotten husband, he was hardly parent of the month either. There is also a story that one day, he gave his infant son: St Cadoc away to a total stranger in exchange for a cow while out on a drinking spree. We’ve all done it. Oh no. Hold on, we haven’t, have we?

But against all the odds, Cadoc grew up to be a cornerstone of early Christian mission in northern Europe and became famous across the known world for his wisdom. In the modern Catholic church, he is still patron saint of burns and skin complaints, so he is the one to pray to if you are bothered by such things. His father is patron saint of Newport and pirates. No words needed.

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The murder of Colyn Dolphin at Tresilian Bay

One of my favourite bits of folklore from the St Donats end of the Vale of Glamorgan is a tale of how a disgruntled aristocrat had his revenge on a pirate on a beach near Llantwit Major.

A notorious seventeenth century pirate from Brittany in Northern France who was the scourge of merchant ships in the Bristol Channel went by the name of Colyn Dolphin. But his greatest haul was not silver of gold, it was when he kidnapped Harry Stradling, son of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats Castle.

The riches he gained for the ransom lay heavy in his pocket until the day came when Stradling got his revenge at Tresilian Bay between St Donats and Llantwit Major. He buried the pirate up to his neck in sand and forced him to watch his crew hang from the gallows in front of him. Then the final horror as the incoming tide finally engulfed him as he lay powerless in the sands at the mouth of Reynolds Cave.

Watch the video on the link below for the full story. 👇

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Two sunny days and a light breeze please

In the 1700s if you wanted to be sure of some good weather for the weekend, there were people from whom you could buy it! And according to some new research, Barry was full of them.

Most people back then, sailors and sea farers in particular, were extremely superstitious. This played into the hands of a small group of people who you might either call ‘enterprising’ or ‘unscrupulous’ depending on your own moral compass.

They would ‘sell’ weather and I have found records of three such people who operated in the Barry and eastern Vale area in the eighteenth century. 

The first was called ‘Modryb Sina’ (which means Aunty Sina). She lived somewhere in the parish of Cadoxton. If you sailed out of Lavernock or Sully, for a fee, she would sell you ‘a fair wind’. Enough to fill your sails and give your vessel speed on the waves, but not enough to put you in danger. It seems that she peddled her wares for over 20 years so she must have been good.

But she obviously was not quite as good as another chap who lived on Barry Island called ‘Ewythr Dewi’ (or Uncle David). He not only sold weather to local sailors but was known to travel as far a field as Swansea as his ‘fair weather’ was in such demand. His reputation for doing a good line in weather was impeccable amongst the superstitious sailors of the Welsh ports on the Bristol Channel. 

Both of these people lived and worked in Welsh speaking parts of the Vale, and therefore catered for Welsh speaking sailors. But what if you were an English speaking sailor? Have no fear, you were catered for by another local man going by the name of ‘Bill O’Breaksea’ who offered a similar service in Aberthaw (which was an English speaking part of the Vale). However, we cannot be sure when he operated as records of him are more sketchy. Chances are it was around the same point in history or slightly earlier, when Aberthaw was having its boom years, trading with the merchants of Minehead and providing the people of Bristol with their supply of butter.

There is also folklore of wives who had grown weary of drunken, slothful or abusive husbands going to these people to pay for a good storm the next time they put to sea. To rid themselves of them once and for all. Probably cheaper than a divorce. Like I said, depending on your moral compass.

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History of Sully Island and the Captains Wife

I am delighted to be giving these history talks to the people taking part on the ’10 Days in May’ walking festival in the Vale of Glamorgan. Today I met the walkers outside the Captains Wife pub in Sully to tell them about the area and shot a video of it.

In this one I cover the ancient settlements which once stood on Sully Island and how it was used by smugglers in later history. Then the thorny issue of how the pub got its name and something about the nature of folklore which you might just find interesting.

Click on the link below to play.

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The Winch of Cardiff

The ‘Winch’ – is not a misspelling of ‘witch’, nor is it anything to do with the sort of winch you might use to raise a heavy object. It was a character in Welsh folklore similar to the sirens in ancient Greek mythology.

They were alluring temptresses that lived in or near water and would entice their unsuspecting male victims to their deaths while under their spell.

There is a legend of a ‘winch’ which lived by the whirlpool in the river Taff in Cardiff which local people used to believe was fathomless.

This winch would bathe near youthful men who were fishing or swimming in the river. As they swum out to her they would be caught in the swirling water and dragged to their deaths.

A teller of this tale to a nineteenth century traveller in south Wales described this winch as ‘the devil in disguise’. She said of the whirlpool “it reaches from the Taff to the mouth of perdition, where Satan waits for the souls who are beguiled by the lovely lady”.

There was another legend about this whirlpool. That in its cavernous depths a serpent lived, who would gorge itself on unfortunate victims sucked in to it. If ever someone floated to the surface after being sucked into the whirlpool (either alive or dead) it was believed that they were virtuous as the serpent would not touch those blessed by God.

I remember the whirlpool but I’m pretty confident it’s now gone – the victim of flood prevention engineering and the flooded bay.