In 1736, landowner Nehemiah Griffiths, who lived near Mold, built an obelisk in one of his fields, near the so-called "Goblin's Well". The stone monument he erected included a Latin inscription and was built to commemorate one of the strangest battles having been recorded as taking place in Wales. Legends of the battle dated back centuries and local stories also told of a gold-clad warrior who took part in it and haunted a nearby mound, the so-called "Goblin's Hill". In 1833 the mound was excavated and revealed a golden cope or cloak of fantastic workmanship. While the cope dates from prehistoric times, its story can be explored with a starting point in the last years of Roman Britain and the early years of what would be known as the Dark Ages. That provides the basis of an analysis as to whether the story of the "golden warrior" and the "golden cape" are in fact in any way related. It is perhaps worth noting that some local guidebooks on the subject are particularly ill-informed. One written in 1978 and apparently revised in 2010 states that the "cloak" is "of Etruscan design and probably dated from the Roman-British period". In fact, the cope dates from about 1900-1600 BC and is almost certainly of Bronze Age origin. It might be locally made although the most authoritative account up to now, however, prefers an European origin to the gold cape, or alternatively, an itinerant craftsman from the north of the Continent. However, despite the local guidebooks getting it wrong, the story of a gold-clad "ghost" leading to the discovery of a golden article of clothing is fascinating and many of the places involved in the "ghost story" can still be visited today.
The Collapse of Rome
The collapse of Rome was brought about by a combination of factors. One of these was that the Germanic tribes to the northwest of Europe had undergone massive technological, social, and economic changes after four centuries of border contact with the Roman Empire. From the first to fourth centuries, Germanic populations, economic production, and tribal confederations grew, and their ability to conduct warfare increased to the point of challenging Rome. The Goths, one of the Germanic tribes, had invaded the Roman empire on and off since 238, but in the late 4th century, the Huns began to invade the lands of the Germanic tribes, and pushed many of them into the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire could no longer defend itself against either internal rebellion or the external threats. In 383, the usurper Magnus Maximus withdrew troops from northern and western Britain, possibly at that stage leaving local "warlords" in charge. As explained in the article on Elen of the Hosts Maximus' story was converted into the confused Welsh legend of Macsen Wledig. Maximus' ambitions led him to invade Italy, resulting in his defeat by Theodosius I at the Battle of the Save in 388. He was then executed by Theodosius. In the view of some historians, his death marked the end of direct imperial presence in Northern Gaul and Britain. However, coins dated later than 383 have been excavated along Hadrian's Wall, suggesting that troops were not all stripped from it my Maximus.
Britain was by this time suffering raids by the Scoti, Saxons, and Picts and, sometime between 396 and 398, Stilicho allegedly ordered a campaign against the Picts, likely a naval campaign intended to end their seaborne raids on the east coast of Britain. He may also have ordered campaigns against the Scoti and Saxons at the same time, but either way this would be the last Roman campaign in Britain of which there is any record. By around the year 400 the provinces of Britain were effectively isolated, lacking support from the failing Roman Empire, and the local military forces set-up and pulled-down a series of emperors as the soldiers supported each in turn. One of these, Constantine III, was a British common soldier who was declared Western Emperor and invaded Gaul in 407, eventually occupying Arles, but in the process probably drained Britain of the last of it's Roman legions. Constantine gained the upper hand after several battles with the forces of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius. As a result, Honorius recognised Constantine as co-emperor in 409. However, the activities of the invading tribes, raids by Saxons on the near-defenseless Britain and desertions by some of his top commanders led to a collapse of support for Constantine III. After further military setbacks he abdicated in 411. He was either assassinated or captured and executed shortly afterwards. An appeal for help by the British communities was, according to Zosimus, rejected by the Emperor Honorius in 410 AD. In the text called the "Rescript of Honorius" of 411, the Emperor Honorius told the British "civitates" to look to their own defence as his regime was still fighting usurpers in the south of Gaul and trying to deal with the Visigoths who were in the very south of Italy.
Chester had been a major Roman base, with outposts stretching along the coast of North Wales to a fort at Holyhead. In addition to material remains the Romans left behind not only the basis for local legends, but evidently some genetic influence particularly around Abergele where DNA evidence shows that people of Balkan origin had probably been settled there in Roman times and that their descendants were still there. As the Romans drew many of their auxiliary troops from the Balkans, this has been taken as evidence that the Romans not only established communities along the North wales coast, but also left many of those communities behind when their administration left. The invaders were to be the Saxons from the east, the Picts from the north and various seaborne peoples from the "Celtic fringe" of the empire. Wales was to be one of the places where the Roman or post-Roman forces and their church held out longest. In part this was simply due to distance from the sources of the invaders but another important factor was the local topography as this would favour a defender over an invader unless the invader was prepared to invest in significant complex logistics operations such as fort- or castle-building.
The River Alyn
This particular story centers on Mold, which lies on the River Alyn (Welsh: Afon Alun) a tributary of the River Dee. The river was recorded as Aluni c.1191, Alun in 1337 and Alyn in 1478-79. Many other rivers in Britain have similar names, such as the Aln in Northumberland and Allan in Scotland. In this instance, the al- element may denote "meandering". While the river does not meander in the classic sense, it does head north, east, south and east again before reaching the Dee.
The Alyn rises at the southern end of the Clwydian hills and the Alyn Valley forms part of the Clwydian Range. The Romans probably mined lead here. The River Alyn crosses the carboniferous limestone from Halkyn Mountain and goes north through the Loggerheads area before heading southeast, passing through Mold before reaching its confluence with the River Dee to the northeast of Wrexham. Between Loggerheads and Rhydymwyn it runs through the Alyn Gorge, (parts of which are also known as the "Devil's Gorge") which is the site of the caves Ogof Hesp Alyn ("Dry Alyn Cave"), Ogof Hen Ffynhonnau ("Poacher's Cave") and Ogof Nadolig ("Christmas Cave"). Several local legends are associated with the gorge and the caves and while the walk along the "Leet Path" is mostly a pleasant stroll, the high, narrow path in places certainly prompts thoughts of the "next world".
The river mainly runs across a limestone surface, creating potholes and underwater caves in the river bed, into which the river flows through some of the summer, when water levels have decreased significantly. For parts of this stretch the river bed is dry for most of the year. Flows in the River Alyn are also significantly affected by mining, particularly the Milwr mine drainage tunnel which diverts a sizeable amount (23 million gallons of water per day) of the River Alyn out of its catchment and into the estuary of the River Dee at Bagillt. The numerous sinks and springs have influenced the development of local legends and the complex sub-surface flows feed St Winefride's spring at Holywell.
The river also has a darker side. In the late 1930s the Chamberlain Government and ICI planned that Britain should be in a position at the beginning of any war to retaliate in kind if the Nazi government, as expected, utilised mustard gas. This gas has been used extensively by the Italians during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, when they had developed the technology to spray it from aircraft. Exiled Emperor Haile Selassie has given extensive publicity to this during a speech at the League of Nations. The Ministry of Supply instructed ICI’s Special Products Division to construct the "M.S. Factory" and storage area in the Alyn valley close to Rhydymwyn. The site was codenamed "Valley". The factory was to manufacture mustard gas. In the years 1940-1959 it was involved in the manufacturing, assembly or storage of chemical weapons or mustard gas in bulk containers. During the years 1947-1959 the tunnel complex held the majority of the country’s stock of mustard gas. Uranium enrichment facilities for atom-bomb experiments were installed at Rhydymwyn in 1941. These units were tested by a team of about seventy under the guidance of Rudolf Peierls and his assistant Klaus Fuchs. M.S. Factory, Valley eventually closed in 1994, with almost all of the above ground buildings being destroyed, except for a couple. One of these, the Grade II listed Building P6, was where the atomic research took place, though the interior is inaccessible due to contamination. The official opening of the Rhydymwyn Tunnels took place on Saturday, 22 April 2017 when Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure in the Welsh Government, officially opened the tunnels for public managed access. Access to the tunnels is strictly limited and can only be arranged as part of a tour run by Rhydymwyn Valley History Society.
It would appear that several elements of local legend are linked to the "Arthur cycle" of myths. St Winefride's well (as famously described by Celia Fiennes) is one of the few locations mentioned by name in the anonymous medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Various legends have Arthur slaying Hueil mab Caw at Mold or more commonly at Maen Huail in Ruthin. Several of these legends involving beheading as a common theme which may or may not imply a connection. As discussed in more detail below, even Germanus' role as a suddenly appearing war-leader who organises and "saves" the populace in the face of a threat has echoes in the later Arthurian legends.
The Legend of St Germanus
Help for the beleaugered British came from an unlikely source. St German of Auxerre - who came to britain in 429 and (according to tradition) defeated the Saxons and Picts at a place known as "Maes Garmon" (which is traditionally located near Mold) in the "Battle of the Hallelujahs". "Maes Garmon" is often said to mean "Field of Gaermanicus", but language scholars have cast some doubt on this derivation. The principal source for the events of his life is the Vita Germani, a hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon around 480, and a brief passage added onto the end of the Passio Albani, which may possibly have been written or commissioned by Germanus. Constantius was a friend of Bishop Lupus of Troyes, who accompanied Germanus to Britain, which provided Constantius with a clear link to Germanus. It should not be forgotten that the Vita Germani was written by the continental church whose works promoted a view of the "Celtic" church as being almost non-existent after the departure of the Romans c. 400 and before the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury around 600.
The reality appears to be somewhat different. There are suggestions that Cor Tewdws or Bangor Tewdws (Meaning "college" or "chief university" of Theodosius) a Celtic monastery and college in what is now Llantwit Major, Glamorgan was founded c. 395. The original college was said to have been established by (or in honour of) the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, and was named after him. The college was reputedly burnt down in 446, with different sources attributing the destruction to Irish pirates and Saxon war bands. This would have the college in existence during the visit of Germanus, although it is not mentioned in the Vita Germani.
Defeating the Saxons and Picts does not seem to have been the main reason why St German (c. 378 – c. 442-448 AD) was in Britain. He had been seent to Britain to refute the heresy of "Pelagianism" in or around 429 AD. Pelagius (c. 355 – c. 420 CE) was a British monk. Put simply, Pelagianism is a heterodox Christian theological position which holds that the original sin did not taint human nature and that humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace. Pelagius taught that God could not command believers to do the impossible, and therefore it must be possible to satisfy all divine commandments. He also taught that it was unjust to punish one person for the sins of another; therefore, infants are born blameless. The obvious problem which this "heresy" presented for the church was that without "original sin" the good did not need "saving", which usually involved paying money to the church. Pelagianism was decisively condemned at the 418 Council of Carthage and is still regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church.
Around 429, a Gaulish assembly of bishops chose Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to visit the island. It was alleged that Pelagianism was rife among the British clergy, led by a British bishop's son named Agricola. Germanus went to combat the threat and satisfy the Pope that the British church would not break away from the church of Rome. According to the official version Germanus and Lupus confronted the British clergy at a public meeting before a huge crowd in Britain. The Pelagians were described as being:
- "conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress and surrounded by a fawning multitude".
The bishops debated and, despite having no popular support, Germanus was able to "defeat" the Pelagians using his superior rhetorical skills. It is probably worth noting that this description of Germanus "victory" was written by his own side.
Immediately after the debate with the Pelagians, Germanus gave thanks for his victory at the grave of Saint Alban, which was likely in some sort of tomb or basilica, probably in the modern St Albans's, the Roman Verulamium. Some translators use the word "shrine"; this word, which is not the original Latin, would have suggested that the cult of Saint Alban had been established before Germanus' visit to Britain, others suggest that Germanus established the cult. Whichever of these are true, either points to the existence of some kind of established social/political structure still surviving in Britain.
Another act of Germanus which is widely reported is a miracle cure. There are several versions of this. Constantius recounts the miraculous healing of the blind daughter of "a man with tribunician power". Bede tells a different story about the son of a local ruler:
- "Then suddenly Elafius cast himself at the feet of the bishops, presenting his son, whose distress was visible and needed no words to express it. All were grieved, but especially the bishops, who, filled with pity, invoked the mercy of God; and straightway the blessed Germanus, causing the youth to sit down, touched the bent and feeble knee and passed his healing hand over all the diseased part. At once health was restored by the power of his touch, the withered limb regained its vigour, the sinews resumed their task, and the youth was, in the presence of all the people, delivered whole to his father."
Much ink has been spilt trying to discern the meaning and purpose of the inscription on Eliseg's Pillar, especially as regards the apparent mention of Germanus. For example in the line often read as "Britu son of Vortigern..." the original latin reads:
- "Britu a[u]t[e]m filius Guarthi/[girn] que(m) bened[ixit] Germanus que(m) / … peperit ei Se[v]ira filia Maximi / [re]gis qui occidit regem Romano/rum"
..it is not clear who is getting blessed ("Vortigern" or his son?), and while "bore" is in the sense of "give birth" (peperit being the third-person singular perfect active indicative of pario) rather than "carry"(ferro) it isn't clear that "Maximi.." refers to a person, such as Magnus Maximus or to simply the "great king who slew the king of the Romans". While the text on the pillar is confusing it does possibly tie together Magnus Maximus (whose legend was to survive in north Wales) and Germanus. According to Nennius Vortigern's son also has an interaction with Germanus, but only because the son was the incestuous product of a union between Vortigern and his own daughter:
- "When this was made known to St. Germanus, he came, with all the British clergy, to reprove him: and whilst a numerous assembly of the ecclesiastics and laity were in consultation, the weak king ordered his daughter to appear before them, and in the presence of all to present her son to St. Germanus, and declare that he was the father of the child."
The identity and historicity of "Vortigern" (Old Welsh: Guorthigirn, Guorthegern; Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Old English: Wyrtgeorn; Old Breton: Gurdiern, Gurthiern; Irish: Foirtchern; Latin: Vortigernus, Vertigernus, Uuertigernus, etc.) presents a mystery. He is cited at the beginning of the genealogy of the early Kings of Powys and other Welsh kings. What is generally believed to be the "authentic" text of Gildas does not use the name. Bede mostly paraphrases Gildas in his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" and "The Reckoning of Time", adding several details, perhaps most importantly the name of this "proud tyrant", whom he first calls Vertigernus (in his Chronica Maiora) and later Vurtigernus (in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum). The Vertigernus form may reflect an earlier Celtic source or a lost version of Gildas. The Historia Brittonum (said to be by Nennius) recounts many details about Vortigern and his sons. By the time of William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of Monmouth, Vortigern has become a full-blown early king who invited the Saxons into Britain as mercenaries. It is occasionally suggested by scholars that Vortigern could be a title rather than a personal name: the name in Brittonic literally means "Great King" or "Overlord". However others point out that the element *tigerno- was a regular one in Brittonic personal names.
In addition to his debate with the Pelagians, miracle cure and dealings with the cult of Alban, Germanus also found time for military activity, which traditionally placed him in the vicinity of Mold at the "Battle of the Alleluia".
The traditional site, now marked by an obelisk, lies on easiest valley route (and classic ambush point) through the Clwydian hills. The "Life of St Germanus" describes the events as follows:
- Meanwhile the enemy had learned of the practices and appearance of the camp. They promised themselves an easy victory over practically disarmed troops and pressed on in haste. But their approach was discovered by scouts and, when the Easter solemnities had been celebrated, the army -- the greater part of it fresh from the font -- began to take up their weapons and prepare for battle and Germanus announced that he would be their general (dux proelii, "leader for this battle"). He chose some light-armed troops and made a tour of the outworks. In the direction from which the enemy were expected he saw a valley enclosed by steep mountains. Here he stationed an army on a new model, under his own command.
- "He picked out the most active, explored the country round about, and observed, in the way by which the enemy was expected, a valley encompassed by hills of moderate height. In that place he drew up his untried troops, himself acting as their general. And now a formidable host of foes drew near, visible, as they approached, to his men lying in ambush."
Bede is here quoting almost verbatim from the Vita sancti Germani.
Other Christian missionaries of the period include Patrick who (at least according to legend) landed in the Wirral. A Chester legend (recorded by Phillip Jones) holds that a certain "Gormundus", a "Roman Cap’tayne", had built fortifications at Heronbridge, a former Roman site just up-river from Chester and defeated the “Saxons” in a major battle. It has been suggested that "Gormundus" is a corruption of "Garmonus", and it is noteworthy that St German had been a soldier (some say a lawyer) before he became a man of the cloth, however the legend seems to be a confusion between St German's battle at Maes Garmon (which is technically up-river from Chester) and the later Battle of Chester (616). The Chronicle of the Abbey of S. Werburg does not mention either to visit of Germanus or the battle and simply says for the year 400 "Pelagius the heretic lived".
The text on the Maes Garmon obelisk reads as follows:
- "In the year 420 the Saxons and Picts having joined their forces made war upon the Britons and engaged them on this plain which bears to this day the name of Maes Garmon. As the British leaders Germanus and Lupus were about to commence the battle Christ himself fought in the camp. Thrice the British army exclaim Alleluia. The hostile troops are confounded with dismay and the Britons triumph over their enemy without bloodshed. Thus it was faith and not force that obtained the victory. In memory of the Victoria Alleluiatica Nehemiah Griffith has erected this monument AD 1736."
One puzzle is why Germanus should have his troops shout "Hallelujah". This is apprently an ancient Hebrew praise-shout ( הַלְלוּ יָהּ) closely related to the arabic ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّٰهِ (al-Ḥamdu lillāh). The Hebrew means "Hail Yah," which is a shortened form of "Yahweh." It is translated into Latin as "Alleluia" and translated into English as "Praise the Lord." It appears in Psalms 106, 111-113, 135, and 146-150. With one exception (Ps 135:3), it is always found at the beginning and/or end of the psalms in which it appears. Its imperative form suggests that it may have been a call to praise in post-exilic temple worship. Interestingly it is excluded from the Roman (but not the Orthodox) liturgy during Lent, which would have ended on the eve of the battle, depending on which version of the calculation of the date of Easter one applies (April 8th 429 according to one version). It has been suggested that this "chant" may be derived from the ancient practice of "Ululation" - famously parodied, probably unintentionally, by Jeff Wayne's musical version of Well's "The War of the Worlds".
A well nearby called Ffynnon Gwaed or the Bloody Well is believed by some to have derived its name from this battle, so it might not have been quite so bloodless. Yet another noted well the Goblins' Well also once lay nearby having since fallen victim to a road widening scheme. The well last appears on the 1899 Ordnance Survey maps and was visited and described by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in 1910, they write:
- "Within the field (Maes Garmon) is a stone enclosure, 8 feet by 4 feet, containing a spring called the Goblins’ Well; the stones are mostly displaced, and the bed of the well is trampled by cattle; the overflow is fairly copious. – Visited 21st September 1910."
Local legends have hauntings associated with both wells, but this is not uncommon in the area. There is certainly little or no hard evidence that the battle, although recorded by Bede amongst others, took place at this particular spot. It may even be that the battle never happened and is simply a re-telling of the biblical/mythical story of Gideon's victory over the Midianites at the Well of Harod in the Valley of Jezreel, where a relatively small force is supposed to have routed a larger one by a noisy demonstration. Much like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Gideon became symbolic of military success of a small force against overwhelming numerical odds, a common feature of early "heroic" literature. It is interesting that Bede makes the noisy demonstration of Germanus (Roman church) at Maes Garmon a success while he makes that of the monks of Bangor (Celtic church) at the Battle of Chester an utter failure.
The final appeal for help to the Roman commander in Europe took the form of the "Groans of the Britons". Dated to c. 446, the message is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae (the "Ruin of Britain"), and later by Bede. Gildas records it in his usual style:
- igitur rursum miserae mittentes epistolas reliquiae ad agitium romanae potestatis uirum, hoc modo loquentes: ‘agitio ter consuli gemitus britannorum;’ et post pauca querentes: ‘repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur;’ nec pro eis quicquam adiutorii habent. interea famis dira ac famosissima uagis ac nutantdibus haeret, quae multos eorum cruentis compulit praedonibus sine dilatione uictus dare manus, ut pauxillum ad refocillandam animam cibi caperent, alios uero nusquam: quin potius de ipsis montibus, speluncis ac saltibus, dumis consertis continue rebellabant. (Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:— "To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further, thus:— "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence: others of them, however, lying hid in mountains, caves and woods, continually sallied out from thence to renew the war.)
Flavius Aetius or simply Aëtius, (c. 396–454), dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man of the Western Roman Empire for two decades (433-454). He managed the attacks of the barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire. He gathered a large and mostly barbarian army to win the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, ending the invasion of Attila the Hun in 451. Given these other concerns no military aid was forthcoming from Flavius, although it may be that this was the cause of the second visit of St German of Auxerre who returned to Britain in c. AD 446-7.
Perhaps Flavius could have saved Britain, but on September 21, 454, when at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Flavius Aëtius was slain by the last Western (and barking mad) Emperor Valentinian III's own hand. Edward Gibbon credits Sidonius Apollinaris with the famous observation:
- "I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left."
The "Groans of the British" would now be forever unanswered. Drained of troops by civil wars elsewhere in a troubled empire ruled by madmen, the Romano-British were left to their own devices. Between 383 and 446, in less than a lifetime, Roman rule in Britain had collapsed.
The church in Britain would continue to develop along a somewhat different line to that of the church of Rome. Bede would later make much of this in his account of the Battle of Chester, eventually to be fought around 616.
The ruined Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis lies near the confluence of the Eglwyseg and the Dee north of Llangollen, and was founded by Madog ap Gruffydd on 28th January 1201 as a colony of Strata Marcella near Welshpool. The now ruined abbey buildings are typical of many Cistercian foundations, lying in a secluded river valley surrounded by farmland. The Pillar of Eliseg, the base of a stone "cross" prominently sited in the Eglwyseg valley, was (according to its inscription) erected in the first half of the 9th century by Cyngen ap Cadell in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg (who was probably known as Elisedd ap Gwylog and died c. 755). The cross was knocked down in the upheaval of the Civil War. Many of the Parliamentarians regarded old monuments of this kind as symbols of superstition and idolatry. A similar fate befell the High Cross in Chester.
In 1696 the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded the original inscription, before it had deteriorated to its now largely illegible state. The inscription traced the perhaps part legendary descent of the royal house of Powys from the early 5th-century king Gwrtheyrn ("Vortigern"), the late 4th century Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), and a religious blessing from St Germanus of Auxerre, thus laying down political and territorial claims reaching back to the late Roman world - see the Dark Ages article on the Romano-British for more. According to tradition, Magnus married Elen Luyddog - "Elen of the Hosts", who is associated with the building of many "Roman Roads" in Wales (some of which are prehistoric trackways - such as the "Ffordd Gam Elin" which runs from the earthworks at Caer Bont further up the Dee to the cairn/circle on the summit of Cader Bronwen). Elen and Magnus Maximus turn up in a garbled form in the Nativity Play of the Chester Mystery Cycle.
What these various "relics" (whether material or in folk-tales) appear to be are fragments representing the transition from Roman occupation through the Dark Ages to later times when record-keeping was much improved. There is only a glimpse of the political continuity evidenced by the survival of the church in Wales from its Roman roots to its later reconnection with Rome after the arrival of Augustine, and what few fragments of political history survived were later to be re-interpreted by later writers for a variety of purposes. Wales in the early Middle Ages was a society with a landed warrior aristocracy, and after c. 500 Welsh politics were dominated by kings with territorial kingdoms. The legitimacy of the kingship was of paramount importance, the legitimate attainment of power was to a large extent determined by dynastic inheritance as well as by military proficiency. Hence a very great weight was placed up ancestry and there was considerable meddling with historic records. Similarly, adherents of the Roman church, especially Bede sought to interpret history so as to run-down the achievements of the Celtic church. Later "historians" including "Nennius" also interpreted these fragments to support their own view of historical truth and lend support to various causes.
The Rhual Obelisk
The diary of Nehemiah Griffith of Rhual, 1715, was published by the Chester Archaeological Society in 1909. Rhual Mansion was built in 1634 by Evan Edwards, secretary to Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, a Baron of the Exchequer of Chester, and M.P. for Camelford. He was a member of an old-established Flintshire family which traced its descent from Hywel Dda. He was pre-deceased by his son, Thomas, and on his death in 1670 the estate passed first to his grandson, Thomas, and subsequently to Thomas's sister, Mary, who in 1688 had married Walter Griffith of Llanfyllin, Montgomeryshire. Mary’s brother, Thomas Edwards of Rhual was a prominent Dissenter who had played a national role in the 1690s Crisp controversy over Richard Baxter’s views on Calvinism and salvation, in which Edwards had vigorously asserted a hyper-Calvinist position against Baxter and his followers.. Their eldest son, Nehemiah Griffith (1691-1738), a country squire of literary tendencies and an active Flintshire J.P. As an adult, Nehemiah Griffith continued the family’s dissenting ways. He rebuilt Llanfyllin chapel in 1717, two years after it was wrecked in Tory-Jacobite rioting in 1715. On inheriting lands from his Harwood relatives in the 1720s he frequently resided at Broad Marston; when there he regularly worshipped at a dissenting meeting house at Chipping Camden. Perhaps guided by the example of the exclusion of his Edwards uncle from public affairs, Nehemiah also occasionally conformed to the established church, and was buried in Mold parish churchyard.
Griffith’s two surviving diaries, for 1715 and 1726, reveal a social round of drinking, dining, play-going (he saw a version of Amphitryon, probably John Dryden’s, in Chester in February 1715), race meetings, bear-baiting and cock fights. In 1727 he was admitted to a dining club at the Red Lion in Mold which had been started by his younger brother Thomas. In 1715 he noted the solar eclipse of 22 April, discussed a star in the constellation Cygnus which grew brighter and then faded (possibly the luminous blue variable P Cygni), and bought a telescope; the inventory of his goods on his death listed a large telescope, perhaps the same one. He comes across as a typical early eighteenth-century squire, his conviviality perhaps emphasised by his life-long bachelordom. He had been unlucky in love, his efforts to wed Eliza Lloyd were thwarted when she contracted blood poisoning from a thorn which scratched her face while she was riding with him and died.
As part of his wider improvements to his house and gardens at Rhual, in 1736 Griffith erected an obelisk, visible from the house, commemorating the ‘Alleluia Victory’ of the early fifth century in which the British Christian army of St Germanus defeated the pagan Saxons and Picts. By Griffith’s reading (and here he was dependent on a noted history of the early British church by Archbishop James Ussher published a century earlier), the battlefield lay on his estate. Rather than holding the battle up as a British (or Welsh) triumph over the Saxons (or English), it seems more likely that Griffith was commemorating what he saw as the triumph of the true church over false religion, for Germanus had been sent to Britain to combat the Pelagian heresy, and hence the victory could be seen as an analogue of the Protestant triumph over Roman Catholicism and a further reminder of the defeat of the Jacobites.
Ussher's chronology (published 1650) represented a considerable feat of scholarship in its time, but is well-known for arriving at some perculiar conclusions, notably that the Universe came into existence at nightfall on 22 October 4004 BC. Ussher fell into disrepute in the 19th century. Ussher's history of the early church locates the battle at "Maes Garmon", but the complications start when one attempts to translate this into English. Garmon is much more likely to be derived from a root meaning "shout" (cry, outcry, clamour) than to refer to "Germanus". A further complication is that Germanus could often be confused with a similarly named St Garmon, who is also associated with well sites such as that at St Garmon's Well, Llandegla - another valley site located on the Alyn. Little is known about St Garmon. According to tradition, he lived in the ninth century and preached from a mound in the churchyard at Llanfechain, even further away from Mold. Baring-Gould in his "Lives of the British Saints" believes that the two were frequently confused quite separate saints. Other contenders for the location of the battle could include Llanarmon-yn-Iâl which is again in a valley through the hills and where drovers roads and various fortifications might indicate that it sat on an ancient route.
The Mold Cope
A tumulus or round barrow at Bryn yr Ellyllon, Pentre, Mold, is the findspot of the Mold Cape, one of Britain's most famous prehistoric artefacts. There is nothin to see on site except a rather inaccurate plaque. Workmen from a local workhouse dug into the mound in 1833 whilst digging for stone. They uncovered a stone lined burial chamber, within which were fragments of the crushed gold cape. This was shared out between the finders and local myth in Mold still holds that many wedding rings handed down through families are made from gold that left the site in the pockets of the workmen. Also in the grave were hundreds of amber beads, fragments of a second gold cape, a bronze knife and the fragile remains of woven textile. The discovery was brought to the attention of the wider antiquarian community largely through the efforts of the local vicar. Most of these other artifacts have long since disappeared including pieces of the cape, and only one of the amber beads survives in the British Museum. The nature of the "excavation" was such that most of the context of the find was lost as well as much of the physical remains. At one point the cope was even thrown into a hedge by Langford before its importance was recognised. What little remains of the description of the dig would undoubtedly horrify a modern archaeologist, with the local reverend (see links below) indicating that the beads "broke bright and clear" and "burned well".
Mr Langford, the tenant of the land containing the find, kept the largest part of the cape and sold this to the British Museum in 1836. Long considered to be a corselet, breastplate or even a decorative breast piece for a pony, it was Professor Terence Powell of the University of Liverpool who, in 1954, concluded that the item was infact a cape. The gold cape would always have been a flimsy item and may only have been worn for special ocassions. The entire cape was found crushed and broken and was repaired using reinvented technology to replace the missing 15% of the metal by Conservator Ian Macintrye. While the original Cape resides in the British Museum, a replica can be seen in the Mold Museum situated above Mold library.
The cope is one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working and is quite unique in form and design. It was laboriously beaten out of a single ingot of gold, and then embellished with intense decoration of ribs and bosses to mimic multiple strings of beads amid folds of cloth. Perforations along the upper and lower edges indicate that it was once attached to a lining, perhaps of leather, which has decayed. The bronze strips founded with the cape may have served to strengthen the adornment further. We know that it was not just made and used as a burial offering as it showed signs of repair. Scholars have speculated that the owners of the cope were associated with the mine on the Great Orme, north Wales, the largest copper mine in north-west Europe at that time
The site of the barrow is presently occupied by a house in the eastern suburbs of Mold, but the find is commerated by a plaque set into the wall. The original cape was exhibited at Wrexham in 2005. The Mold Gold Cape was featured as one of the top ten treasures in the 100 objects in A History of the World in partnership with the BBC.
The Ghostly Warrior
Sightings of a ghostly warrior (or in some versions boy), clad in gold, a glittering apparition in the moonlight, had apparently been reported frequently enough for travellers to avoid the "hill" of Bryn yr Ellyllon (literally "Hill of elves" - although in some translations "ellyllon" means wraith or spirit) after dark. That is, at least, the version as given by modern writers, who add mention of sightings of the apparition having the result that a certain female began to throw fits, another become crazy, and a drunkard was scared into sobriety. There is however some slight evidence that such accounts are based on actual tales.
One such account came in 1819 from a woman called Nancy who’d was herding her cows down the lane in moonlight when she saw the "Golden Ghost" cross the track in front of her as it walked down the "Goblin’s Hill" a quarter of a mile outside the town boundary. Nancy gave her account to the local landowner, one Mr. Langford, who mentioned it to the local vicar the Reverend Gough, who in return noted it to the Diocese. It was the same Mr. Langford who many years later, in the autumn of 1833, ordered the burial mound to be levelled. Nancy is said to have seen the ghost on a scenod occasion and reported to have been relieved when the cope was found, no doubt as she would no longer be considered to be the local madwoman.
An alternative version is given by a reverend Charles Butler Clough (educated with his better-known poet brother in Chester) who had supposedly written the following in the 1861 book "Scenes and Stories Little Known". The book was actually written by his wife, Margaret Butler Clough, wheras the text below is from a letter reproduced in the journal "Archaeologia" (see links below):
- "Connected with this subject, it is certainly a strange circumstance that an elderly woman, who had been to Mold to lead her husband home late at night from a public house, should have seen or fancied, a spectre to have crossed the road before her to the identical mound of grave, "of unusual size, and clothed in a coat of gold, which shone like the sun," and that she should tell the story in the next morning many years ago, amongst others to the very person, Mr John Langford, whose workmen drew the treasure out of its prison-house. Her having related this story is an undoubted fact. I cannot, however, learn that the there was any tradition of such an internment having taken place; though possibly this old woman might have heard of something of the kind in her youth, which still dwelt upon her memory, and associated with the common appellation of the Bank ‘Bryn-yr Ellyllon’, (the Fairies’ or Goblins’ Hill) and a very general idea that the place was haunted, presented the gold effigy to imagination."
It has been reported that reverend Clough did some more research and found that the barrow itself was known as Tomen yr Ellyllon, and that it was regarded as haunted and a place people avoided. An old man who lived nearby told him of Brenin yr Allt, the King of the Hillside. The field in which the mound lay was supposedly called "Cae'r Yspryd" (Field of the Spirit (Ghost)).
In yet another version of the tale it is said that soon after the excavation, a man who had personally witnessed the discovery wrote:
- "I certainly heard it rumoured a year or two before 1833 that Bryn yr Ellyllon and Cae'r Yspryd (Field of the Ghost) were haunted as well as the adjacent main road by an apparition -- 'A Headless Warrior riding a grey horse.' You may imagine the excitement which arose when something was found."
The problem with all of these accounts (see the links below for more information) is that none of them date with certainty to a time prior to the discovery of the cope, and there is clearly some confusion as to who wrote what. However it does appear that several apparently reliable witnesses state that the story of the "golden ghost" was known prior to the discovery of the cope. Apart from simply taking the "ghost sightings" as fact, or assuming they were all a mixture of misquoted local myth, it is possible that fragments of gold or possibly other artifacts had been found in the area in the past and the legend arose from these. Whatever the truth, the story of a "golden warrior ghost" beckoning travellers to a site where a golden cope was later found is one of the strangest in the region.
The Mold Cope has been dated with some certainty to the Bronze Age, and is not the "Etruscan" armour of a warrior associated with the Romans, although it may have been an import. The size of the artifact and its shape suggest that it was a ceremonial object probably intended to be worn by a woman (or other person of slight build) and not an article of armour, for which purpose it would be quite unsuitable. The site of the sub-Roman battlefield is only conjectural and in any event lies on the other side of Mold to the location of the Bronze-Age Cope find. The fact that there is no apparent connection between the two legends does not however make them any less interesting.
Even if Germanus did take part a battle just outside of Mold it remains uncertain who was fighting who: 420 seems a remarkably early date for fighting Saxons in a part of Wales where a post-Roman society may have still been quite strong. However, an ambush hereabouts does seem to make military sense given that this section of the River Alyn forms part of a relatively low level route through the hills between the Dee Valley and the Vale of Clwyd, a route later followed by the Mold and Denbigh Junction Railway. However, there are several other places that could have been the site of the battle.
The golden cope decorated with amber beads indicates that long-distance trade of high value items was established in the Bronze Age. The fact that the cope had been repaired implies that it was not made for a specific burial and raises the question as to what series of events led to the decision to bury it. If the legend of the "golden ghost" existed before the find was made it may have actually kept people away from the dig site until a time came when the treasure could be treated as a historic artifact to be preserved rather than simply as loot to be melted down.
Places To Visit
Several of the places mentioned in this article are within easy travel of Chester. Others are described on in page relating to Roman Chester. The following is a list of related locations which could be seen either in Chester on a day out based in Chester:
- Grosvenor Museum in Chester has a large collection of Roman relics which relate to the major military presence in Roman Chester. Just outside of Chester are the well of Plegmund and the site of the Battle of Chester near a possible Roman-era eccesiastical site at Eccleston. The Amphitheatre in Chester has some faint signs that it once housed a martyr shrine;
- Holywell: St Winifred's Well. The present remarkable and architecturally unique building, set into a hillside, dates from the late 15th century. It was probably built for Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, to replace an earlier structure, and is richly ornamented on the exterior with a frieze of animals, and the badges of Henry VII and Thomas Stanley (Margaret Beaufort's third husband); the quality of the workmanship suggests that royal masons may have been employed. The well demonstrates the long-standing establishment of religius cults in the region. "Wellhopper" has an excellent description with useful historical detail. The well was notably visited by Celia Fiennes.
- Prestatyn: Roman Bathouse built in about AD 120 and extended in about AD 150. It had a cold plunge-bath at the far end which was fed by a local spring by means of a timber aqueduct. The floors and roof were made with tiles transported all the way from the workshops of Legio XX at Holt near Chester, over 40 miles to the south-east, and may have been built by legionary masons. This is one of several Roman outposts along the coast of North Wales which may have in part survived after the departure of the legions.
- Denbigh: thought to have been the location of a fortified settlement during the Roman occupation. Roman roads in the region seem to follow a line along both sides of the later Offa's Dyke and many of the Roman sites were later adopted by religious communities, especially monks. This could have simply been convenience or it could have been a survival of elements of communities established in Roman times.
- Ruthin: The possibility that Ruthin was the site of a Roman fort was heightened as a result of the discovery of stake-holes and a pit containing coarsewares of c. AD 70-110 during the course of building work on the Hospital Site in 1981. There is high probability of an auxiliary fort at the very heart of the town, the most likely site being that later chosen by the builders of the Medieval castle. The material to the east of the castle will thus represent the very periphery of a vicus and a cemetery, together with later agricultural activity..
- Loggerheads: the (occasionally terrifying) "Leete Path" at Loggerheads Country Park follows the line of the old water channel or leat that ran to Rhydymwyn on the ancient route up the Alyn, serving former lead mines. While not directly connected to the story of the Mold Cope, this area demonstrates the local geology and how it influenced both mineral extraction and the establishment of travel routes over a complex landscape. Approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) from Rhydymwyn is the small hamlet of Hendre. Along the main road from the old Sardis Chapel, and only a few feet from the edge of the A541 there is an ancient well - "Ffynnon leinw" - (leinw comes from the Welsh word "llanw" meaning tide as it is reported that the water in the well rose and ebbed with the tides of the Dee Estuary). The well has been listed as one of the holy wells of Wales on a par with the more famous St Winefride's Well in Holywell. The well in Hendre is mentioned by Thomas Pennant in his 'A Tour in Wales' - written between 1778–1783 and also by Giraldus Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales in his 'Journey through Wales' written in 1188
- Mold: the small local museum contains a copy of the Cope. BRYN-YR-ELLYLLON TUMULUS no longer exists, although the site is marked by a somewhat innaccurate plaque. The bottom step on the ascent to the Norman Motte is said to be taken from the mound where the Cope was recovered. The MAES GARMON OBELISK still atands.
- Eliseg's Pillar: this provides more tantalising fragments involving Germanus, the Romans and their relation to regional political history. Nearby Valle Crucis abbey, whose name refers directly to the pillar in the "Valley of the Cross" was founded in 1201 by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd and the ‘white monks’ of the Cistercian order. The nearby Llangollen museum’s centerpiece is an exact replica of Eliseg’s Pillar
- Roman Chester: includes a guide to Roman sites in North wales;
- Battle of Chester: Bede and others mix myth and history for a variety of reasons;
- Amphitheatre: early christian activity in Chester;
- Eliseg's Pillar: ..and the visit of Germanus;
- Elen of the Hosts: myth and the Chester Mystery Plays;
- Road Transport: a look at local trade in the Bronze Age (and later);
Sources and Links
- The Mold Cape on Wikipedia;
- Leaflet from the Wrexham exhibition;
- On an ancient Gold Corslet discovered near Mold.: paper by Thomas Hughes;
- History of Mold: on the local website;
- Nehemiah Griffith: genial Anglo-Welsh squire;
- "The Diary of Nehemiah Griffith, Esq., of Rhual, Mold, for the Year 1715": Journal of the Chester and North Wales Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society, 15 (1909);
- History of the World in 100 objects: the Mold Cope;
- Goblin's Well: at "Wellhopper" (has a good image of the nearby obelisk);
- A further dig at Bryn-yr-Ellyllon: from 2013 (also reported by the BBC);
- An AchaeoDeath blog: Howard Williams has a day out;
- "The Ghost of Goblin Hill": another blog;
- Archaeologia: Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, Volume 26
- Archeaological Cambrensis: report on the find;
- The Monthly review: 1837 (vol 3) - an early report;
- The Modern Antiquarian;
- THE BRONZE AGE GOLD CEREMONIAL CAPE FROM MOLD: from the Mold Civic Society;
- Saint Alban and the Cult of Saints in Late Antique Britain;
- Constantius, St Germanus and ﬁfth-century Britain: a 2014 paper;