The Head of Bendigeid Vran

By Terry John

One of the most famous tales in the Mabinogion is the legend of Bendigeid Vran, King of all Britain and a man of mighty stature. Bendigeid’s sister Branwen had married King Matholwch of Ireland, but a group of discontented noblemen had turned the king against her. Branwen was forced to work in the kitchens of the palace where she faced daily humiliation. The resourceful Branwen managed to tame a starling and taught it to speak. She told it where to find Bendigeid and, tying a letter to her brother beneath the bird’s wing, sent it off to fly to him.

When Bendigeid read the letter, he vowed to set free his sister. Gathering together a mighty army, he set sail for Ireland.  A group of shepherds saw the fleet approaching and rushed to tell Matholwch what they had seen. ”Lord King,” they said, “a wood has appeared upon the sea where there never was one before. And beside it is a vast mountain, with a high ridge at its top. And upon either side of the ridge there lies a lake. And all these things move across the surface of the sea.”

Matholwch sent for Branwen, who he believed could tell him what all this meant. ”These are the men of the Island of the Mighty”, said Branwen. “They come to avenge what has been done to me. The forest is the masts of their ships and the mountain is my brother Bendigeid. The ridge is his nose and the lakes are his eyes and no ship can hold him and he is angry.”

King Matholwch ordered his army to retreat beyond a wide river, breaking down the bridges as he went, but Bendigeid lay down in the river bed, forming a bridge across which his warriors passed in pursuit of the enemy. There were many battles, as well as attempted peace negotiations, but at last only a few men of Bendigeid’s army were left alive, including Bendigeid himself and his brother Manawyddan.

The seven men conferred amongst themselves as to what they should do, but it was Bendigeid himself who proposed the solution to their problems. He told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain, where it should be buried beneath the White Mount in London, with its face towards France.

“You will be a long time on your journey,” Bendigeid said. “For seven years you will reside at Harlech and all the time my head will be as pleasant company to you as it was when it was upon my body. Then you will stay for eighty years in a tower at Gwales. When you open a door that faces Cornwall, you must leave and hurry on towards London.”

His followers did as he instructed, taking Branwen with them. As they sailed across the sea to Wales, Branwen was overcome with sorrow at all the destruction that had been wrought on her behalf and, overcome with grief, she died. She was buried beside the river Alaw.

As Bendigeid had instructed, his friends remained for seven years at Harlech, where they were entertained by three birds, which sang to them more beautifully than any other birds they had ever heard.

At the end of the seven years they moved on to Gwales, a small island off the coast of what is now Pembrokeshire. We know it better as the bird sanctuary of Grassholm. There they dwelt in a tower with a spacious hall. There were three doors in the hall, two of which were open. The third door, facing Cornwall, was closed.

They were so happy on Gwales, that eighty years passed as swiftly as eighty hours. The head of Bendigeid seemed to them as if he were alive and well, and they rejoiced in his company.

At the end of this time, one of the group became curious as to what lay behind the closed door and opened it and looked out towards Cornwall. In that instant, two things happened; the seven men remembered everything that had happened and that they must make their way to London, carrying Bendigeid’s head with them; and a beam of light shot out from the doorway and imprinted a likeness of Bendigeid’s head upon the cliffs of Pembrokeshire.

The seven companions set off for London, where they buried Bendigeid’s head beneath the White Mount, with its face towards France. Some people believe that the White Mount is the White Tower of the Tower of London and if the head remains there undisturbed, no invasion will come to the Island of the Mighty from across the sea.

And there remains a column of rock near Linney Head in the Castlemartin ranges, where you can look upon the likeness of Bendigeid Vran. It is known as Linney Stack and is shaped like the face of a sleeping warrior.

Categories:Blog, History, Pembrokeshire

Tags:Wales

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