Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 79

Machynlleth — Remarkable Events — Ode to Glendower — Dafydd Gam — Lawdden’s Hatchet.

MACHYNLLETH, pronounced Machuncleth, is one of the principal towns of the district which the English call Montgomeryshire, and the Welsh Shire Trefaldwyn or the Shire of Baldwin’s town, Trefaldwyn or the town of Baldwin being the Welsh name for the town which is generally termed Montgomery. It is situated in nearly the centre of the valley of the Dyfi, amidst pleasant green meadows, having to the north the river, from which, however, it is separated by a gentle hill. It possesses a stately church, parts of which are of considerable antiquity, and one or two good streets. It is a thoroughly Welsh town, and the inhabitants, who amount in number to about four thousand, speak the ancient British language with considerable purity.

Machynlleth has been the scene of remarkable events, and is connected with remarkable names, some of which have rung through the world. At Machynlleth, in 1402, Owen Glendower, after several brilliant victories over the English, held a parliament in a house which is yet to be seen in the Eastern Street, and was formally crowned King of Wales; in his retinue was the venerable bard Iolo Goch, who, imagining that he now saw the old prophecy fulfilled, namely, that a prince of the race of Cadwaladr should rule the Britons, after emancipating them from the Saxon yoke, greeted the chieftain with an ode, to the following effect:-

“Here’s the life I’ve sigh’d for long: Abash’d is now the Saxon throng, And Britons have a British lord Whose emblem is the conquering sword; There’s none I trow but knows him well, The hero of the watery dell, Owain of bloody spear in field, Owain his country’s strongest shield; A sovereign bright in grandeur drest, Whose frown affrights the bravest breast. Let from the world upsoar on high A voice of splendid prophecy! All praise to him who forth doth stand To ‘venge his injured native land! Of him — of him a lay I’ll frame Shall bear through countless years his name, In him are blended portents three, Their glories blended sung shall be: There’s Oswain, meteor of the glen, The head of princely generous men; Owain the lord of trenchant steel, Who makes the hostile squadrons reel; Owain, besides, of warlike look, A conqueror who no stay will brook; Hail to the lion leader gay! Marshaller of Griffith’s war array; The scourger of the flattering race, For them a dagger has his face; Each traitor false he loves to smite, A lion is he for deeds of might; Soon may he tear, like lion grim, All the Lloegrians limb from limb! May God and Rome’s blest father high Deck him in surest panoply! Hail to the valiant carnager, Worthy three diadems to bear! Hail to the valley’s belted king! Hail to the widely conquering, The liberal, hospitable, kind, Trusty and keen as steel refined! Vigorous of form he nations bows, Whilst from his breast-plate bounty flows. Of Horsa’s seed on hill and plain Four hundred thousand he has slain. The copestone of our nation’s he, In him our weal, our all we see; Though calm he looks his plans when breeding, Yet oaks he’d break his clans when leading. Hail to this partisan of war, This bursting meteor flaming far! Where’er he wends, Saint Peter guard him, And may the Lord five lives award him!”

To Machynlleth on the occasion of the parliament came Dafydd Gam, so celebrated in after time; not, however, with the view of entering into the councils of Glendower, or of doing him homage, but of assassinating him. This man, whose surname Gam signifies crooked, was a petty chieftain of Breconshire. He was small of stature and deformed in person, though possessed of great strength. He was very sensitive of injury, though quite as alive to kindness; a thorough-going enemy and a thorough-going friend. In the earlier part of his life he had been driven from his own country for killing a man, called Big Richard of Slwch, in the High Street of Aber Honddu or Brecon, and had found refuge in England and kind treatment in the house of John of Gaunt, for whose son Henry, generally called Bolingbroke, he formed one of his violent friendships. Bolingbroke, on becoming King Henry the Fourth, not only restored the crooked little Welshman to his possessions, but gave him employments of great trust and profit in Herefordshire. The insurrection of Glendower against Henry was quite sufficient to kindle against him the deadly hatred of Dafydd, who swore “by the nails of God” that he would stab his countryman for daring to rebel against his friend King Henry, the son of the man who had received him in his house and comforted him when his own countrymen were threatening his destruction. He therefore went to Machynlleth with the full intention of stabbing Glendower, perfectly indifferent as to what might subsequently be his own fate. Glendower, however, who had heard of his threat, caused him to be seized and conducted in chains to a prison which he had in the mountains of Sycharth. Shortly afterwards, passing through Breconshire with his host, he burnt Dafydd’s house — a fair edifice called the Cyrnigwen, situated on a hillock near the river Honddu — to the ground, and seeing one of Gam’s dependents gazing mournfully on the smouldering ruins he uttered the following taunting englyn:-

“Shouldst thou a little red man descry Asking about his dwelling fair, Tell him it under the bank doth lie, And its brow the mark of the coal doth bear.”

Dafydd remained confined till the fall of Glendower, shortly after which event he followed Henry the Fifth to France, where he achieved that glory which will for ever bloom, dying, covered with wounds, on the field of Agincourt after saving the life of the king, to whom in the dreadest and most critical moment of the fight he stuck closer than a brother, not from any abstract feeling of loyalty, but from the consideration that King Henry the Fifth was the son of King Henry the Fourth, who was the son of the man who received and comforted him in his house, after his own countrymen had hunted him from house and land.

Connected with Machynlleth is a name not so widely celebrated as those of Glendower and Dafydd Gam, but well known to and cherished by the lovers of Welsh song. It is that of Lawdden, a Welsh bard in holy orders, who officiated as priest at Machynlleth from 1440 to 1460. But though Machynlleth was his place of residence for many years, it was not the place of his birth, Lychwr in Carmarthenshire being the spot where he first saw the light. He was an excellent poet, and displayed in his compositions such elegance of language, and such a knowledge of prosody, that it was customary, long after his death, when any masterpiece of vocal song or eloquence was produced, to say that it bore the traces of Lawdden’s hatchet. At the request of Griffith ap Nicholas, a powerful chieftain of South Wales, and a great patron of the Muse, he drew up a statute relating to poets and poetry, and at the great Eisteddfodd, or poetical congress, held at Carmarthen in the year 1450, under the auspices of Griffith, which was attended by the most celebrated bards of the north and south, he officiated as judge, in conjunction with the chieftain, upon the compositions of the bards who competed for the prize — a little silver chair. Not without reason, therefore, do the inhabitants of Machynlleth consider the residence of such a man within their walls, though at a far by-gone period, as conferring a lustre on their town, and Lewis Meredith has probability on his side when, in his pretty poem on Glen Dyfi, he says:-

“Whilst fair Machynlleth decks thy quiet plain, Conjoined with it shall Lawdden’s name remain.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51