The King’s Beards

The recent Seven Wonders series included a post about Snowdon.  In today’s legend, retold by Sarah-Ann, we learn how the mountain got its welsh name.

Once upon a time there were two kings, Nyniaw, and Pebiaw.  Their realms adjoined each other, and for the most part, they got along well, except for their incredibly quick tempers and insufferable pride.

One day they were walking with each other at sundown.  It had been beautifully clear, and the stars were beginning to glimmer above them like a pearly blanket.

Nyniaw looked up at the sky, and sighed with content, “Look how much land I own.”  Back then kings were often elevated to the status of gods.

Pebiaw, not to be outdone, looked quickly up at the stars, “Ah, but look how many sheep and cows I have grazing in your land!”

“What?” gasped Nyniaw, “You insufferable beast!  How dare you graze your animals in my land!  Our friendship is over, my lord.  This means war!”

They marched home, and true to their word, next day they prepared their armies for battle.  This turned into a long and bloody war between their two kingdoms, shedding the blood of countless innocent lives.

At that time there was a king in Wales, called Rhitta the Giant.  He lived in a palace high in the mountains of Gwynedd, and he soon heard of the quarrel.

“I can’t believe my own ears,” he spluttered out between great bursts of laughter.  “I always thought they were stupid, but this!  This needs to stop now.”

So, of course, he went to war against Nyniaw and Pebiaw.  The men of Gwynedd were mighty, and the two kings were soon defeated.  Rhitta looked down at their bodies with satisfaction.  Their faces were noble, even in death, made even more so by their long brown beards that drifted down their chests.

Seized with a sudden idea, he took a knife out of his belt and slashed the beards off.  They would make the beginnings of a very fine cloak.

Pleased with his work, Rhitta went back home to Gwynedd.  But he did not long remain free from the consequences of his actions.  For as soon as some other kings heard of the defeat of Nyniaw and Pebiaw, and the cutting of their beards, they banded together, and decided this insolent giant must be punished!

So there was another war, and again, Rhitta was victorious.  And, as before, he slashed the beards off his enemies and had them sewn onto his cloak, which, with the addition of these new kings, was almost complete.  There was just room for one more.

For there was one young king who got on Rhitta’s nerves, what with his victories over the Saxons, and his rapidly advancing borders.  To request his beard, Rhitta thought, would be a very clever way to subdue him.

So Rhitta sent a message to the young king of the south, Arthur, requesting his beard.  It was worded in the politest of terms, but young Arthur had no doubt of its true message.

“I – send him my beard?  Mine to fill up the gap, alongside all of the ones he has conquered?  Never! I see what he is doing – by putting my beard in with the rest of them he says I am like them – even though I am not dead.  It would mean a tacit submission to him.  The world would see me as a coward and traitor to my own people.  This presumptuous man must be stopped!”

So there was another war.  Arthur’s army met Rhitta’s in Snowdonia, but this time, they decided to end it in single combat.

The place where they fought was on the side of a bitterly cold mountain.  Rhitta marched up to where King Arthur was awaiting him, and for the first time in his life, he quailed.

King Arthur’s armour was fully gold and silver, with a crest of peacock feathers.  Tall he stood, with the light of authority in his eyes, and the movements of one accustomed to being obeyed.  Here was a king who stood his ground, who ruled, who came of a great line.

He glanced coldly at Rhitta now, “Well, and is it for my beard you have come?”

Rhitta pulled himself up.  Arthur was not the only one from a great line.  “It is, young whelp.  You must be a rash man indeed to deny me.”

The battle began, and it lasted for hours.  The men fought with almost superhuman strength, but finally, Arthur, being much the quickest, dashed upwards with a lightning stroke that felled the giant.

“Cut off his own beard and add it to the cloak,” Arthur ordered.  “And bury him here, on the top of this mountain, which will from now on be called Yr Wyddfa.”

So they buried Rhitta the giant there, under a cairn on top of the mountain, which we call Snowdon, but the Welsh call Yr Wyddfa even today.  It means, “the tumulus” or “the barrow”, which is a burial place, after the grave of King Rhitta the giant.