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Nant Gwrtheyrn folk tales: The story of Gwrtheyrn

Nant Gwrtheyrn takes its name from Brenin Gwrtheyrn, a disgraced Kentish king who ruled ancient Britain early in the fifth century.

In an attempt to hold onto power, Gwrtheyrn sought help from Saxon mercenaries, a move which made him unpopular amongst his people. Soon after the Saxons’ arrival, Gwrtheyrn fell in love with Alys Rhonwen, the daughter of the Saxon leader, Hengist, and asked for her hand in marriage.

To celebrate, Hengist organised a banquet which was attended by Gwrtheyrn, his mercenaries, and other powerful Britons.

But Hengist cunningly plotted to assassinate his rivals and on his command, each Saxon rose and stabbed the Briton who was seated next to him.

Horrified by the betrayal, Gwrtheyrn fled to the Nant where he spent the rest of his grief-stricken life.

Some say that his misjudgement was to blame for allowing the Saxons to seize power and conquer most of what is now England. Gwrtheyrn was blamed and became notorious in history as the British king who betrayed his own people to the Saxons.

Gwrtheyrn’s druids advised him “Go to the furthest point of your country and build a fort there”. Gwrtheyrn came through Mid Wales to the mountains of Snowdonia and began building his fort. However each time he attempted to build, the fort would collapse and disappear mysteriously. Eventually, he found a fatherless boy who could help him, a young magician called Emrys Wledig. Emrys told the king that there was a lake beneath the fort’s foundations with two sleeping dragons, a white one representing the Saxons and the red dragon of new Wales. Gwrtheyrn drained the lake and the two dragons began fighting in the sky. The red dragon was victorious. The magician built his own fort, henceforth called Dinas Emrys, opposite the lake – Llyn Dinas near Beddgelert – and Gwrtheyrn was forced to “go north”.

Gwrtheyrn is said to have settled in Nant Gwrtheyrn where he certainly would have found sufficient iron to make weapons for an army. There are two versions of what happened to him next. In the first version, God sent fire from Heaven to burn him, signified perhaps by the lightning storms which occur in the Nant. As they were trying to flee, Gwrtheyrn and his son, Gwrthefyr Fendigaid, were killed by Garmon, one of the local leaders.

In the other version, Gwrtheyrn’s heart broke after he invited the Saxons to Britain. He lost his mind and roamed the mountains – a recurrent theme in Celtic literature. The major elements in these stories, the fire from heaven, the fatherless boy and the wandering madman occur in other legends throughout Wales.