Carmarthen and Merlin the Magician
By ALAN B. RANDALL, B.SC. (ECON.), M.R.T.P.I.
This article has been reproduced on this website with the kind permission of Alan B. Randall
Among the characters of early romance few have held a more prominent position than Merlin (or Myrddin as he was known in Welsh). In the world of romance and song he is the "mighty enchanter, whose birth and death are alike involved in mystery. Many circumstances combine to elude any satisfactory investigation of this weird but enthralling character, whose interesting life, as the only great seer acknowledged by Wales, is full of striking events and curious anomalies".1
Who then was this person who has had such an influence on local folklore? To some he is regarded as a historical person of the 6th century, yet to others he is solely a legendary figure whose name was originally Llallogan or Lailoken. As far as Welsh traditions of the Myrddin Story are concerned these are covered in the works of Professor Jarman.2
It is a version of the wild fugitive story, a legend transfered from northern Britain to Wales sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries. The Welsh sources of the legend are contained in a series of poems, three of which — Yr Afallenau (The Apple Trees), 'Yr Oianau' (Greetings) and 'Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin' (The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin) — are to be found in the Black Book of Carmarthen
(c. 1200). The other poems are 'Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer' (The Conversation of Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd) and 'Gwasgargerdd Fyrddin yn y Bedd' (The Song uttered by Myrddin in the Grave), both from the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400), and 'Peirian Faban' (Commanding Youth) from a 15th century manuscript (Peniarth 50).
With the exception of 'The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin', they are prophetic poems, the product of the 11th and 12th centuries mirroring the struggle between Welshman and Norman. Though prophetic, they nevertheless preserve a substantial proportion of the original legend. Myrddin is the son of Morfryn and brother of Gwenddydd. He had fought against Rhydderch Hael at the Battle of Arfderydd, near Carlisle, on the side of his lord Gwenddolau. At the battle his lord was slain and Myrddin lost his reason, possibly through his responsibility for the death of Gwenddydd's son. He hides in Coed Celyddon, or the Caledonian Forest, for 50 years with no company but the trees and beasts, leading a wretched existence, meditating on his present misery, or on his former happiness and worrying lest Rhydderch should come against him. In this frenzied condition he is said to have acquired the gift of prophecy. However, the Myrddin of the 'Cyfoesi' is a different and dignified person, no longer tormented by fear of Rhydderch Hael but able to prophesy his adversary's death.
Clearly, the traditional Welsh version of the Myrddin legend has no association with the Carmarthen area, except that the three poems contained in the "disparate, bound volume" called the Black Book of Carmarthen could have been written at the Priory in the town. Though, at the Dissolution Morgan Watkins.3
believes "the Black Canons doubtless owned it, . . . we have no proof whatsoever except that it probably bore then the name it has enjoyed ever since" and he adds that "one or two of its parts might have emanated from another house".
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Tale
To Geoffrey of Monmouth
we must look for the first direct link between Merlin and Carmarthen in the literature. It is his intervention in the development of the Myrddin legend that Jarman believes leads to "Myrddin's new career in international literature under the name 'Merlin'." Not a great deal is known about Geoffrey; he was possibly a Welshman, though perhaps a Breton born in Wales, who became a teacher and later a priest and bishop. His three main works were Prophetiae Merlini,
which first appeared in 1135; the Historia Regum Britanniae,
which incorporated the Prophetiae Merlini,
and was written some time between 1135-1139; and the Vita Merlini
It is in his Historia Regum Britanniae
that he provides the first written relationship between Merlin and Carmarthen. The book attempts to trace the 1900 year history from the mythical Brutus to the British King Cadwallader
. It was a work that was to be accepted as authoritative both by early British historians and French chroniclers. By 1155 Wace had completed his Roman de Brut,
a reproduction in verse of the Historia,
and it in turn served as a direct source of the Brut written by an English priest, Layamon, by 1204.4
The discovery of the boy Merlin is included in Geoffrey's Historia. Vortigern
in fear of Hengest flees the Saxons and is advised by his magicians to build a strong tower. He selects a site at Mount Erith, and whatever he builds one day the earth swallowed up the next. His magicians advise him to find a boy without a father, kill him and sprinkle the mortar and stones with his blood so that the foundations hold firm.
The King sent his messengers out to search for such a person. "They came to a town which was afterwards called Kaermerdin and there they saw some lads playing by the town gate . . .4
A quarrel broke out between the two lads Merlin and Dinabutius, and as they argued Dinabutius said to Merlin: "Why do you try to compete with me, fathead? How can we two be equal in skill? I myself am of royal blood on both sides of my family. As for you, nobody knows who you are, for you never had a father!" The messengers hurried to the governor of the town (whom Layamon refers to as a reeve named Eli),5
they investigated but no one knew who his father had been though "his mother was daughter of a King of Demetia and that she lived in that same town, in St. Peter's Church, along with some nuns." Wace.5
describes her as 'Nun she was of her state, a gentlewoman of right holy life, and lodged in a convent within the walls of their city". To Layamon she was daughter of Conaan, lord of knights, a king.
Both Merlin and his mother are sent to Vortigern. The Layamon embellishments of the story are interesting, in view of later prophecies, in that Eli the reeve of Carmarthen is threatened that "this burgh all consumed, this folk all destroyed" if he did not arrange to deliver Merlin to the king.
From her explanation of Merlin's conception it was clear that she had had no relations with a man. "I know only this: that, when I was in our private apartments with my sister nuns, some one used to come to me in the form of a most handsome young man.." Maugantius, the king's adviser, explained that it was possibly an incubus demon that had visited her and impregnated her. These incubus demons inhabit a region between the earth and the moon and "have partly the nature of men and partly that of angels, and when they wish they assume mortal shapes and have intercourse with women".
Merlin proves to Vortigern that his magicians had lied, and that under the tower there was a pool which contained two hollow stones. Inside the stones were to be found two sleeping dragons. When the king's workmen had drained the pool and discovered the creatures, all present "were equally amazed at his knowledge, and they realized that there was something supernatural about him". When the two dragons, one white, one red, emerged they fought bitterly. Merlin explained that the portent meant that the British (the red dragon) would be hard pressed by the Saxons (the white dragon) until the coming of the Boar of Cornwall (Arthur), who would drive out the Saxons. Merlin then delivers a long string of obscure prophecies.
Merlin foretells Vortigern's fate, appears as adviser to Aurelius and Uther Pendragon and is responsible for transfering Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. He then "uses his magic arts to stage-manage the conception of Arthur at Tintagel and after this he disappears from the story".6
What is so surprising in Geoffrey's story is the complete disimilarity between his Merlin and the Myrddin of Welsh tradition. The character he presents is a far cry from the "wild-man in the woods". Merlin's conception by a half-demon; his superiority over Vortigern's magicians; his clairvoyant and prophetic powers; his movement of Stonehenge by engineering skills and wizardry and his ability to change his appearance all create a strange and unfamiliar character. These powers were to develop in later legends where "although Merlin is a Christian, he is something more. He represents an older understanding of man and nature, a profound wisdom from a pagan past, not in opposition to Christianity but in anticipation of it. It may be that memories of the Druids went into his making".6
What were Geoffrey's sources? Did he show, as Tatlock7
suggests, a clear personal knowledge in placing the nun-mother "in ecclesia sancti Petri inter monachas"?
Not only is the chief church still St. Peter's, but we learn from the Chronicle of Battel Abbey that Henry I had given to that abbey the church 'in honorem Sancti Petri apostoli fundatum"
in the city of Chaermerdi in Wales, and in 1125 gave it to the bishop of St. Davids, who removed the monks and put in Augustinian canons. So why not nuns at St. Peter's seven centuries earlier? But to Tatlock there is more, in that Geoffrey is showing an accurate knowledge of recent detail, and also probably of a tradition of Merlin there.
Geoffrey was to claim that his main source for the Historia
was 'a certain very ancient book written in the British language' given to him by Walter the Archdeacon of Oxford. Yet as early as 1190 William of Newburgh claimed that everything that Geoffrey had written about Arthur and his successors and even his predecessors from Vortigern onwards was invention "either from an inordinate love of lying or for the sake of pleasing the Britons".4
Without question Geoffrey's chief source is a compilation made about 800 A.D. by the Welsh priest Nennius entitled the Historia Brittonum.
He also makes a number of borrowings from Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae.
As Thorpe notes, Geoffrey's debt to "these two early chroniclers is a considerable one. Some scholars have suggested that our search for sources might well begin and end there."
Certainly it was from Nennius
that Geoffrey took the story of Vortigern's tower; the finding of the fatherless boy; and the confrontation with Vortigern. He embellishes and slightly alters the story by finding the boy at Carmarthen rather than Nennius's location 50 miles to the east of the town. He changes the boy's name from Ambrosius and divides him into two — Merlin Ambrosius, the marvellous boy without a father, and Aurelius Ambrosius, who is the son of a Roman consul and later a king. For the story of the begetting by an incubus Tatlock believes Geoffrey may well have used the work of Apuleius which was well known in the Middle Ages, and interpreted it in the light of contemporary notions. The prediction of the coming of Cadwallader and Cynan to drive out the Saxons, and the presentation of Myrddin as a prophet is found in the Armes Prydein
(The Prophecy of Britain), written circa 930.8
Why did Geoffrey relocate Nennius's story from Glamorgan to Carmarthen and change his name from Myrddin to Merlin? Parry9
observes that it "was the fashion in Geoffrey's day to explain place-names as derived from personal names, and he took full advantage of the opportunity given to him, creating a person from the name of a place and telling a story to account for the latter." Though the form Myrddin is regularly derived from Moridunum, the Roman name for Carmarthen, meaning 'Sea-Fort', Jarman believes that an eponymous founder was created out of a place-name, with Caerfyrddin interpreted as the 'Fortress of Myrddin', such a conversion being the result of popular fancy. Similarly, Tatlock has no doubt that an eponymous prophet, Myrddin, had previously been heard of at Carmarthen.
The changing of Myrddin's name to Merlin is quite clearly Geoffrey's responsibility. Clarke10
argues that Merlin as a name is unattested before Geoffrey, that it is his own variation of Myrddin, made, "it is surmised, in order to avoid the sound similarity to merde [excrement]; a large part of his readership would be French speaking."
What is surprising is that when he wrote his Historia
Geoffrey knew so little of the Welsh Myrddin legend. Even when he learned the content of the traditions and incorporated them in his Vita Merlini
(c. 1150) he did not admit to error, but simply made Merlin live on into another age. In consequence, Giraldus Cambrensis11
carefully distinguishes two Merlins — Merlin Ambrosius (also known as Myrddin Emrys) and Merlin Calidonius or Merlin Silvester (also known as Myrddin Wyllt), a distinction preserved until recent years.
Though the Vita Merlini
seems to have excercised no great influence on later literature, Geoffrey's Historia
had a widespread impact, and was a best-seller of its time, with more than 200 manuscript copies of Latin text still in existence. As "a source book for the imaginitive writing of others, as an inspiration for poetry, drama and romantic fiction down the centuries," declares Thorpe, "it has had few if any equals in the whole history of European literature".
It is not suprising therefore that in view of the enormous popularity of the Historia,
so much local tradition can be traced back to Geoffrey. His tale of Vortigern's flight and death in his tower has at some stage been localised to Craig Gwrtheyrn some 12 miles from Lampeter on the Teifi.12
Dr. Arbour Stephens would have us believe that West Wales was the setting for the whole Glastonbury legend with the Isle of Avalon located in the valley of the Gwendraeth Fawr.13
Much of the local association of Merlin and Carmarthen is summarised in the following few lines from a peom entitled Llangunnor Hill
written about 1794:14
"There with delightful pleasure view
Carmarthen town, both old and new
The place where Merlin claim'd his birth,
That mighty prophet when on earth,
Who in Allt' Fyrddin form'd a cave,
Which serv'd him for his house and grave;
His wants were truly few indeed
But few are those which mortals need!"
The belief that Merlin was born in Carmarthen clearly goes back to the Historia,
but it was developed over the years. From the Rev. Mr. Meyrick's reply to Edward Llwyd's questionnaire in March 1697/8 we learn that not only is there a tradition that Merlin was born in Priory Street, but that "the house of his nativity is yet shown there."15
The association of Merlin with the town was further developed in the poetry of Spenser
Drayton. In Spenser's Fairy Queen,
written by 1590, Britomart and her nurse, Old Glance, go to consult Merlin:
"To Maridunum, that is now by change
Of name Cayr Mardin call'd, they took their way;
There the wise Merlin whilom went, they say,
To make his wonne, low underneath the ground,
In a deep delve, far from the view of day
That of no living wight he mote be found,
When so he counsell'd with his sprights encompass'd round
And if thou ever happen that same way
To travel, go to see that dreadful place;
It is an hideous hollow cave they say,
Under a rock that lies a little space
From the swift Barry tumbling down apace,
Amongst the woody hills of Dynevowre;
But dare not thou, I charge, in any case,
To enter into that same baleful tower,
For fear the cruel fiends should thee unnawares devour.
A little while,
Before that Merlin dy'd he did intend,
A brazen wall in compass to compile
About Cayrmarden, and did it commend
Unto his sprights to bring to perfect end;
During which time the Lady of the Lake,
Whom long he lov'd, for him in haste did send
Who therefore forc'd his workmen to forsake,
Them bound til his return their labour not to slake
In the meantime, by that false lady's train
He was surprised, and bury'd under bier
Ne ever to his work return'd again"
Book III Chapter III.
Michael Drayton's Polyolbion,
printed in 1612, contains similar allusions to Carmarthen, including Merlin's intention to build a wall of brass around the town, to the Lady of the Lake, and to the marvellous cave:
"Now Merlin by his skill and magic's wound'rous might,
From Ireland hither brought the Stonendge in a night:
And for Caermarthen's sake would fain have brought to pass,
About it to have built a wall of solid brass,
And set his fiends to work upon the mighty frame,
Some to anvil — some that still enforced the flame,
But whilst it was in hand, by loving of an elf,
(For all his wond'rous skill) was cozen'd by himself:
For walking with his fay, her to the rock he brought,
In which he oft before his necromancies wrought,
And going in there at his magic's to have shewn,
She stopt the cavern's mouth with an enchanted stone:
Whose cunning strongly crost, amaz'd while he did stand,
She captive him conveyed into the fairy land,
Then how the lab'ring spirits to rocks by fetters bound,
With bellows rumbling groans, and hammer's thund'ring sound
A fearful horrid din still in the earth do keep,
Their master to awake, supposed by them to sleep;
As at their work how still the grieved spirits repine,
Tormented in the fire, and tired in the mine."
The reference in the two extracts to Merlin building the wall of brass around Carmarthen seems to be Spenser's personal contribution to the legend. It may well have been Giraldus Cambrensis's description of the town 'enclosed by brick walls' that suggested the colour of brass. In the same context Giraldus talks of woods and impenetrable forests, and to Dinefwr Castle "built on the top of a high hill which overlooks the river Tywi," and this may have prompted the location of the cave. His incarceration in the cave he doubtless obtained from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur
Differing stories of Merlin's fate abound in literature. There are several variants of him being enthralled by a beautiful maiden or fay named Vivien, sometimes identified as the Lady of the Lake. He is entombed by her magical charms in caves, tombs, castles in the air, towers of mist and is sent to sea in a house of glass never to be heard of again. The locations for his imprisonment extend from the 'woody hills of Dynevowre' to the forest of Brécilien.
refering presumably to "The Dream of Macsen Wledig" from the Mabinogion,
relates the incarceration story directly to the foundation of Carmarthen. "Carmarthen enters into another legend which represents that town built by a princess called Elen Luydawg, or Elen Mistress of a Host: that is but another way of describing the Lady of the Lake constructing a house of glass or some still more pellucid material to be Merlin's prison."
When Merlin's Hill, Abergwili became associated with Merlin is uncertain; that it did is not surprising. Describing the scenery between Llandeilo and Carmarthen in 1791 Mrs. Morgan17
"It is no wonder that such a romantic situation as this, surrounded by mountains, should give rise to a thousand legendary tales, in an age in which oral traditions were all they had to depend upon .... With the imagination thus wound up, on a near approach to Merlin's Hill, and the evening just closing, it was very easy, by the aid of the poets, to believe that I saw the magician at the entrance of a cave."
The association most probably occured sometime after Spenser's Fairy Queen
was printed in 1590, and had certainly occured by 1767 when Sir Joseph Banks18
was to record that Merlin's "residence is said to have been a little hill, which still bears his name: it is situate about one mile from the town." The hill itself rises to over 490 feet and like Craig Gwrtheyrn referred to earlier is an Iron Age hill fort dating from the period c
500 BC—AD 43. It has been described by Grealey19
as tongue-shaped "of 'contour-type' defended by a single, massive rampart which encloses an area of about 10 acres."
Apart from containing Merlin's cave, it is also the location of his grave, chair and well. When Donovan20
visited the hill early in the 19th century he recorded that "the cluster of trees upon this eminence, was pointed out to us by a shepherd's boy, under the title of Merlin's grove, and a cavity he mentioned on one side, of course by that of Merlin's cave." About the same time Malkin21
was to see a rock near the brow of the hill known as Merlin's chair "in which it is said, that famous prophet at other times used to sit, when he uttered his prophesies."
Just as Donovan and Malkin learned something of popular beliefs in the Merlin tradition, so too a hundred years later Ceredig Davies22
was to record the beliefs of Abergwili people in Merlin. He was informed by many persons who lived in the neighbourhood of Abergwili that Merlin was such a giant that he could jump over the Vale of Towy. The influence of Drayton is so very clear in the story of Merlin's cave that he reports after staying near Carmarthen, "Merlin's Hill (Bryn Myrddin) was pointed out to me where the great magician still lives (so they say) in a cave in that hill, . . . moreover, it is added, that if you listen in the twilight, you will hear his groans, and also the clanking of the iron chains which hold him bound. Others say he is heard working in his underground prison."
Welsh legend abounds with cave tales and it comes as no surprise to learn that Carmarthenshire boasts yet another cave containing Merlin. But it also contains Owen Lawgoch and his warriors. The cave — Ogof Myrddin at Dinas, Llandybie — is said by Rhys23
to "concede priority of tenancy to the great magician." The story is a version of the enchanted sleep of Arthur and his knights, where the heroes, in this case Owen Lawgoch and his men remain incarcerated awaiting a second advent. The story has its embellishment with Bradley24
describing Owen as seated on an ancient bardic chair; a man of immense stature, with his red hand grasping a mighty sword, and sleeping until he can claim and seize the throne of Britain.
Also in the parish of Abergwili is a stone known as 'Carreg Myrddin.' An entry in the Inventory of Ancient Monuments for Carmarthenshire
describes it as 5 feet above ground, 4 foot six inches broad at its base. Though Sir John Rhys thought the stone contained traces of Ogams, he was unable to make anything intelligible or continuous of them. The tradition surrounding the monolith was outlined by Aaron Roberts, Vicar of Newchurch, in 187625
: "Merlin Ambrosius prophesied that a raven would drink up a man's blood off it; and a rather remarkable coincidence is said to have taken place within the memory of persons who were alive about fifteen years ago. A man hunting for treasure-trove sought, by digging on one side, to get at the base. The earth gave way, and the stone fell upon and crushed him to death. The proprietor of the soil ordered the stone to be placed back in its original position, to effect which it took the full strength of five horses with strong chains."
The Merlin Prophecies
A great many prophecies and sayings have been attributed to Merlin over the centuries, some are said to have been fulfilled, others are yet to occur. Prophecy or vaticination has a long history. Parry26
tells us it was practised in Wales from the 9th century with a large number of prophecies linked to great poets like Taliesin and Myrddin. A special legend grew around Myrddin, according to which he had the gift of foretelling the future. Many poets were to take up the idea and write prophetic poetry in his name. It was prophecy born of defeat, often foretelling a hero — Arthur, Cadwallader, or Owain, who would rise again to deliver his people.
These prophecies were generally believed. The Prophetiae Merlini
of Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, were "taken most seriously even by the learned and worldly-wise, in many nations ... There was scarcely a cranny of Christendom outside the Eastern Church which did not recognise Merlin as a great seer."9
The Welsh appear to have readily accepted Merlin's prophecies, for as Donovan observed: "The invincible attachment of the Welsh to the prophecies of Merlin to this day is astonishing: there are thousands in the principality even now, who are firmly persuaded that sooner or later his prophecies must be fulfilled." Camden, however, was unconvinced; Merlin "hath been accounted among the credulous and unskilfull people a most renowned Prophet" who had "devised for our Britains prophecies, nay rather meere phantasticall dreams.."27
Notwithstanding Camden, the Welsh clung to their prophecies. Writing in 1889, Rowland."28
records that fifty years previously the old people of Carmarthenshire had great faith in Merlin's prophecies and that a copy of them was to be found in every house. The printed prophecies were sold in fairs and markets and were written in modern Welsh.
Several publications containing Merlin's prophecies were printed in Carmarthen at the beginning of the 19th century. Thomas Heywood's The Life of Merlin Sirnamed Abrosius,
originally printed in London in 1641, was reprinted in 1812 by J. Evans of Priory Street, Carmarthen. It is clear from the subscription list that the book had great local appeal. At the end of the book, however, Evans had a 26 stanza song in Welsh, entitled 'Cân o Brophwydoliaeth Myrddin', said to be taken from the Book of Prophecies
written by a clergyman. The same poem was reproduced by him as a pamphlet entitled "Prophwydoliaeth Myrddin; Wedi ei chyfansoddi ar Fesur Cerdd yn y Flwyddyn 1668".
A further, undated, version of the prophecies appears in a short booklet Prophwydoliaeth Myrddin Wyllt,
published and sold by M. Jones of Priory Street, Carmarthen, at two pence. The 26 stanzas are included as Merlin's second song of prophecy, and are preceded by a short introduction on the life of Merlin and a 49 stanza first song of prophecy. It is probable that this edition is the one suggested by Rhys Phillips29
as having been printed in Carmarthen in 1842. The original date and authorship of the prophecies has been the subject of some debate. The date 1668 included in the 1812 pamphlet was criticised by the Rev. Wm. Rowlands30
as not being late enough; he thought 1768 was more appropriate. Rhys Phillips, however, publishes yet another version of the poem, in which the final stanza gives a clue to the Welsh "pseudo-Merlin": "Davidd yw ei enw mab William yw ar gan". In consequence he attributes the authorship to the Rev. David Williams (Dafydd o'r Nant), Vicar of Penllîn, near Cowbridge, c
.1460-90. The following stanzas are selected in view of their local significance:
Fe ddaw y Llew i'r Mwythig yn gwisgo arfau cent,
A'r Hebog hono ynteu yn rowndio Castell Gwent;
Fe ddaw y Milgi a'r Llwynog i'r Aberhonddu fawr,
Fe ddaw y Gath a'r Weingei a'r hyd Glan Towi i lawr.
Ceir gweled Owen lawgoch yn d'od i Frydain Fawr,
Ceir gweled newyn ceunog yn nhre' Caerlleon Gawr:
Ceir gweled Towi'n waedlyd, a chlwyf ar Edmwnt goch,
Waith bod yn aber Milffort o blaid i'r Saeson moch.
Ceir gweled yn Nghaerfyrddin ymrafael cethin tyn,
Cyn delo dial arni, ei chaearau syrth yn syn;
O achos ymgynghori y'mhlaid y Barut du,
Mae Llyfr y D'roganau yn dweud y geiriau yn hy.
Ceir gwel'd ymladdfa greulon ar Gefen-cethin fryn,
A'r gwaed a fydd yn llifo ar hyd cleddyfau'n lyn;
A'r cyrn a fydd yn canu o gwmpas Abernant,
Ac ar Riw-cyrph, and odid, y lleddir llawer cant.
Cyn delo hyn mewn effaith, ceir gwel'd arwyddion maith,
Daw llong dros Gefen-berwyn, fe gyll y Cymry'n briaith;
Daw tarw i ben y clochdŷ Caerfyrddin hoywedd sydd,
A'r dw'r a doriff dani, and dyna newydd prudd.
Ceredig Davies believed that the last two lines of stanza 4 foretold the coming of the railway train running along the banks of the Towy. The reference to the bull and the clocktower in stanza 24 is significant in view of other prophecies foretelling the destruction of the town.
Terror and Panic
How far back the prophecies of Carmarthen's destruction go is hard to say. They are not referred to in the written prophecies of Merlin, though the Vita Merlini
foretells great damage to a number of towns, such as Dumbarton, Porchester, Segontium and Richborough. Sir Joseph Banks observed in 1767 that of the several prophecies still preserved in this country, "one particularly, which says that Carmarthen shall some time be overwhelmed by water, seems to have some credit".
There are several instances of the seriousness with which such prophecies were taken. Writing in the Red Dragon31
Helen Watney asked, if it was true that Carmarthen would be swallowed up by an earthquake some 12th of August fairday when a red bull ran up the steeple ? She reported that her Welsh nurse had told her so, and one fair day a little red bull made for St. Peter's 'Churchyard, alarming the townsfolk. "She made me quite dread (when a little girl) staying on the fated 12th with some dear old aunts in the town".
quotes a story that appeared in Tit-Bits
in 1889, under the heading 'False Prophecies', that tells of Carmarthen Fair held on August 12th being "thinly attended owing to a rumour, founded on an ancient prophecy, that on that day the town would be destroyed by an inundation". It was further reported that the people had so much confidence in the prophecy that "hundreds of them left town for the neighbouring villages, and in fact the terror was so great that many left on the preceding day for Swansea and other towns".
The source of the account of panic was according to Rowland28
a Welsh paper published in America under the name 'Old Letters from Wales' written by Anna Beynon at Bargod, Pencader to her sister Mary Powell in America. He asserts that the account was subsequently alleged to be fictitious and that in his view it was founded on a story quoted by Spurrell32
"Aug 12 Great consternation caused on the fair day by a big man, with long hair, ragged clothes, and eyes shining like two stars, crying "mae tref Caerfyrddin i suddo o'r golwg am ddau o'r gloch heddyw" (the town of Carmarthen will sink today at two o'clock).
It had been noised about the country that Carmarthen would sink some time, and that Merlin had said,
'Y Gaer fawr, ti gei oer fore,
Daiar a'th lwnc, daw dwr i'th le'.
'Llanllwch fu, Caerfyrddin sudd, Abergwili saif'."
Interestingly, Ceredig Davies quotes a slightly different version of the above, which he translates as
'Carmarthen, thou shalt have a cold morning
Earth shall swallow thee, water into thy place'
'Llanllwch has been, Carmarthen shall sink, Abergwili shall stand'
The full version of the story, as Rowland knew it, is given below. As is is an interesting anecdote no apology is made for quoting it at length:
"Everybody believed that the day of destruction had come, and that the mysterious stranger was a second Jonah sent to warn them of the danger. The people in the fair were bewildered the same as the cattle in Newcastle Emlyn fair. The country people ran in all directions towards home, and the town people ran out to the country, and most of them turned to Abergwili because that place was to stand. There were a great many young men from this neighbourhood, who went to the coal-pits to fetch coal for Evan the Blacksmith, and intended to spend a few hours in the fair on their way home; but when they came near the town they could see that everything was turned topsy turvey. The people ran against them shouting — "The town is sinking, half of Water Street has sunk already, and houses in Priory Street and Lammas Street are disappearing". They saw a great many people carrying their treasures. They saw one woman carrying her sick husband on her back, and her little girl carrying a cat. They saw an old lady with a hairy dog in her arms lamenting in English that she had left her silver plate behind. The young men had great difficulty in crossing the bridge because so many people were pushing against them. In the town a drunken publican called after them, "Don't be in a hurry, boys, the town will not sink for two hours yet. Come to have a drop of beer. I give mine all away". They drank too much. Some were too drunk to take care of their horses, and the bags of coal fell off their backs and were left on the roadside, and other bags burst and all the coal was lost. Tom Penddol lost all his coal, and mounted one of his horses and led the other. He fell between them, and the horse trod upon him and he was killed on the spot".
The Old Oak Legend
Prophecies regarding the destruction of the town are not uncommon. Ceredig Davies had heard that Carmarthen was to sink when Llyn Eiddwen, a lake in Cardiganshire dried up. Perhaps the best known, however, is that associated with the Oak that once stood in Priory Street, Carmarthen:-
'When Merlin's tree shall tumble down
Then shall fall Carmarthen town'
Very little is known about the history of Merlin's Oak (Priory Oak or the Old Oak) or the reasons for its associations with the magician. A number of explanations have been advanced. Was it, for example, one of a number of oaks which formed an avenue to the Priory or did it merely derive its name from "a local Priory-Street boy called Myrddin, who was in the habit of visiting the Coach and Horses Inn which stood opposite the Old Oak" and who would take his drink under the tree?33
Perhaps we can look even further back to the possible Druidic associations of Merlin suggested by Cavendish. The Druids appear to have been especially concerned with the Oak; assemblies being held under these venerated trees, with a taboo on damaging them in any way.34
What facts there are present a less romantic tale. On the back of an old playbill of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden is a hand-written memo: "Old Oak in Priory Street was planted by an Ancestor of President Adams, of America, May 29th 1659". Part of the Play-bill is retained in the Carmarthen County Record Office (Derwydd H16), and as the memo was written in the 19th century it provides flimsy evidence. According to Stepney-Gulston,35
who once owned the play-bill, Charles II was proclaimed at Carmarthen on 19th May, 1659, ten days before the oak is said to have been planted and a year before, the King landed at Dover. Stepney-Gulston thought it not "unlikely that it was planted to commemorate the return of a Sovereign to power after the death of Oliver Cromwell" in Sept. 1658. Spurrell had recorded that the Oak was planted by "Adams, Master of Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, in this town, an ancestor of one of the Presidents of that name"; but other researchers dispute this, asserting there is no evidence in the school records for an Adams, either as headmaster or member of the staff.
From a poem written by Alex Aitken in 185636
it appears that the oak had died in the first half of the 19th century:
Behold me now, the time has been
Though not a trace doth now remain,
When I was covered o'er with green.
And my broad arms o'er hung the plain,
No mark of life adorns me now,
But rugged antlers crown my brow.
We learn from Lodwick37
that the oak had been deliberately poisoned by tradesmen who "disapproved of the practice of people congregating under its spreading branches at all hours of the day and night".
Whatever its origins, the arguments surrounding the removal of the oak in 1978 gave credence to the local beliefs. Indeed, until its removal the stump had been well guarded, being encased in concrete and surrounded by metal railings.
has recorded his reaction when, as a child at the
turn of the century, he rode into Carmarthen in a gambo:
"As we jog along, father shouts that we are coming to the old oak — the Oak of Merlin. I jump up and take a good look at it. It is now a mere decayed trunk with a withered stump of what was once a hefty branch pointing awkwardly away from the town, walled up with cement and ribbed with iron bands, a brown, dry mummy, it has survived in its coffin for over half a century. I never knew it in its glory. On a plaque, may be, read the following prophecy of Merlin: 'When Priory's Oak shall tumble down then will fall Carmarthen town'. This particular morning I did not like the look of it. It might fall while I was in the town and my life perish with it. Had not my father told me of the ancient prophecy that when it falls Carmarthen will be flooded and its inhabitants perish! I feared for my fate. He assured me that he had heard that many families left the town on Lammas Day, for somehow the belief had become current that that was the day on which it would happen. To me now these tales can have no meaning beyond indicating the place that the old oak, and Lammas Day, filled in the minds of the old citizens of Carmarthen....
Perhaps the young Parry Jones worried unnecessarily, like so many inhabitants of the town, for it may be argued that the prophecy
had already been fulfilled ! In Parochialia15
Meyrick wrote: "At
Llanllwch there's a large pool where according to tradition old Caermarthen stood". This is partly reflected in a story told by Helen Watney's nurse that "Carmarthen had once been swallowed up, and that on a clear day the tops of the houses could be seen in some pond near Johnstown'. Yet another location for Carmarthen is given by Mary Curtis39
in an even more extraordinary tale:
"It is said Old Caermarthen stood where Cefn Sidan is. This is a bank of sand near the Laugharne Burrows; that is sunk by enchantment; that a man was standing on Capthorne farm, near Llansadurnen church, when it sank; that if you stand on the very spot he stood on, keep your eye fixed on the part where the town stood, and place a cat on it, the town will rise again; and when it has risen, if you walk straight to Cefn Sidan, keeping your eye fixed on it, put a cat or any other animal there which will sink down, the town will never sink again...."
What if anything, can be concluded about Merlin and the stories associated with him? Perhaps the words that Wace applied to the tales surrounding Arthur apply equally to Merlin, such stories being "not all lies, nor all true, all foolishness, nor all sense; so much have the story tellers told, and so much have the makers of fables fabled to embellish their stories that they have made all seem a fable".