History of Tanglwyst The Pembrokeshire Witch and Warding Off Evil

By Terry John Preseli hills from Bluestone

If you follow the road down from the long-stay car park at Bluestone, through the barrier and past the buggy and bicycle hire centre and the row of lodges that fringe the verge to your right, you soon come to a wide grassy area, where the ground slopes away and the village is revealed below you. In the distance the Preseli Hills rear against the skyline and if you look carefully you can see the grey towers of Llawhaden Castle against their background of trees. The scene is dominated by a large bluish-grey stone that leans into the breeze. This is the Tanglwyst Stone and it has a story to tell….

Tanglwyst, or Tanglost, was a real person who lived in Pembrokeshire during the early 16th century. She was said to have been a woman of great beauty, who lived an immoral life. She was perhaps the mistress of Thomas Wyriott of Orielton, who seems to have been fascinated by her, because the Bishop of St Davids was so offended by their relationship that he ordered her arrest and she was imprisoned in Llawhaden Castle. Anyone who committed a crime on the lands of the bishopric, or who ignored the teachings of the Church, was liable to be cast into the deep dungeons of the castle until they could be tried for their misdeeds.

Llawhaden Castle 

Tanglwyst had many friends and Thomas Wyriott  was able to gather together a group of armed men, who stormed the castle and released her. One stay in the dank cells should have been enough for Tanglwyst, but she got into mischief again. We don’t know what she did, but she was arrested and incarcerated at Llawhaden for a second time. Thomas Wyriott,  realising that another raid on the castle might cost him his life, begged the bishop to pardon them both.

Surprisingly, his pleas worked and Tanglwyst was released - but now she vowed vengeance on the bishop. She made her way to Bristol and there employed a witch to put a spell on the bishop. According to another version of the story, she indulged in witchcraft herself. Whatever the truth, wax effigies were made of the unfortunate prelate and were pierced with dozens of pins. The bishop, on hearing of this, was terrified. It was well known that one way of causing someone’s death was by making a wax figure of them and jabbing needles into it.

The bishop wrote a frantic letter to the Mayor of Bristol, begging him to take Tanglwyst into custody. But the crafty maiden got wind of this and vanished from the city. We don’t know where she went, or what she got up to, but a few years later she was back in Pembrokeshire. It is said that she had reformed and now led a godly life - or maybe she didn’t. An alternative version to the tale is that she encouraged the young people of the county to dance and drunk and behave disgracefully on the Sabbath and for that she was imprisoned in the column of stone now to be seen at Bluestone, there to remain until she is truly repentant.

For over five hundred years, the Tanglwyst Stone has occupied its present place, glowering at the castle where she was imprisoned so long ago. And it’s said that if you visit the stone at sunset, you can see her face staring back at you.

If Tanglwyst really was a witch, the bishop was right to be afraid of her. Pembrokeshire witches had a terrifying reputation, especially if they were descended from the Flemish settlers who made their homes in the county in the early 12th century. These incomers were much resented by the original Welsh inhabitants, whose lands they took and were regarded as being in league with the Devil. They were said to be experts at prophecy and divination. They would boil the right shoulder blades of rams and strip off all the meat and by carefully examining the hollows and cracks in the bone’s surface they could foretell the future and  discover the secrets of the past. Even more, they could reveal when wars would break out, when murders and fires were likely to happen, who was being unfaithful to their partners and when kings and queens were likely to die.  

It was commonly rumoured that they could launch themselves into the sea in a nutshell and could travel through the mightiest of tempests to come ashore in whatever place they wished. If they spat upon the floor of your cowshed, the cows would forever after produce sour milk.

There were things that could be done to ward off the evil influence of a witch. A common defence was to tie a red thread around your wrist - for some reason red was thought of as a powerful deterrent; witches, who had made a pact with the Devil, were punished with red fire, so perhaps that‘s where the belief originated. Burnings did not happen in England and Wales, where witches were hung instead, but red reminded them of their ultimate fate in the furnaces of Hell.

Many people gathered boughs of holly and placed them over the doors and windows of their houses and over the cowshed doors. Horses were protected from harm by placing a wreath of holly around their necks.

Holly was one of the three protective trees that warded off evil. Its evergreen qualities made it a plant of ‘good omen’ and its red berries repelled evil. It protected people from poison and, if brought indoors, frightened away goblins. It was wise, though, to  remove it from the house by 31st January, as any leaf remaining foretold misfortune.

The other two protective trees were hazel and rowan. Hazel was used by the ancient Druids to invoke invisibility and it had a great reputation as a healing plant. Hazelnuts formed part of many medicinal potions and hazel rods were used in dowsing to discover where water courses ran underground. So powerful was the tree that the very air around it was said to quiver with magical properties.

Rowan, or Mountain Ash, had such powerful protective qualities that it was used to make the cross beams of chimneys and at the Equinox and Solstice days rowan sticks were placed over door lintels. Sailors often carried rowan staffs to sea with them to prevent storms and shipwreck and small branches were laid in a circle around milk and butter churns to protect the milk from theft and evil. Goats were driven through hoops of rowan to ward of the evil eye, whilst oxen yokes were made from rowan to prevent bewitchment.

Protective necklaces made of rowan berries were worn by children to keep them safe from harm and a baby‘s cradle would have rowan wood worked into it. In Wales, when people went to church at Easter they wore crosses made from rowan wood.

To be extra sure of warding off harm, at least one of these magical trees were often planted by cottage doors or gates. It’s not unusual to find the deserted and ruined remains of old homesteads marked by clumps of these trees, where no-one has bothered to trim them back.

If you are worried about the possible damage that Tanglwyst may do should she escape into the world whilst you are staying at Bluestone- for there is a spell that, if chanted on a full moon, will release her from her stony confinement - then you can relax. There are healthy examples of holly, hazel and rowan growing around Bluestone and in its encircling woodlands, so she can do no harm.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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