The tale of the dragons of Dinas Emrys actually begins with the Mabinogion of Lludd a Llefelys, where one of the pestilences affecting the Island of Britain (a hideous shriek heard throughout the land on the eve of Beltane). Llefelys informed his brother, Lludd that the shriek was caused by the clash of two fighting dragons: one a native of the land, the other an invader. The contest between these two beasts was endless, but every May eve, the native dragon would utter a scream because of its pain and hurt. Llefelys further informed Lludd that he should take his wisest men and have them make a survey of the entire realm to find the very centre of the country. There they should dig a large pit and in that pit a large cauldron brim-full of mead should be placed and covered with a silken cloth. The dragons will be seen fighting in the sky, but eventually, in their exhaustion they will fall to earth in the form of piglets. As they fall, the cloth will catch them and they will sink into the mead. This they will drink and as a result they would fall into a stupor.
At this point Lludd was to bind them up in the silk cloth before placing them securely in a stone chest. This should be taken to the mightiest fortress in Lludd's kingdom and there the chest should be buried beneath stone. Lludd returned home and did as his brother had advised him. The stone chest with the captive dragons was taken to the mountain realm of Eryri (Snowdonia) and there it was buried beneath a rocky hill there; a hill that later became known as Dinas Emrys (Ambrosius' Fortress) and which is pictured above.
The next part of the tale is told in a number of Medieval sources. Nennius refers to the tale in his ninth-century Historia Brittonum. The tale is later repeated by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae and in Giraldius Cambrensis' Itinerarium Cambriae showing that the tale was well known into the thirteenth century. Indeed, the tale is very well known in Gwynedd today and what I present below represents an amalgam of all the sources, though drawing heavily on the extant oral tradition.
The tale concerns probably the most notorious of the sub-Roman Brythonic leaders, Gwrtheyrn (known in English as Vortigern and probably known in his own age as Wortigernos). He is the leader held responsible for inviting Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to Britain to bolster the country's defences against Irish invaders from the east and Pictish invaders from the north. These mercenaries were given the island of Thanet, but they, in their treachery used this as a beach-head from which to amass their forces and initiate a whole-scale invasion of Britain. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth matters came to a head circa 460 CE when Vortigern arranged a banquet in Wiltshire (possibly at Stonehenge) to seal a peace treaty. This may have been on account of the ceding of Essex to the Saxons in exchange for the marriage of Rowena the daughter of the Saxon chieftain, Hengist. All the Brythonic leaders were there and the story says that the Saxons, treacherous as ever, arrived at the banquet armed, surprising the Brython who were slaughtered. Only Gwrtheyrn escaped and this episode is known as the 'Night of the Long Knives'.
After the treachery of the Night of the Long Knives the Saxons advanced and the Brython, under the leadership of Gwrtheyrn were inexorably driven back and forced to cede concession after concession. Desperate, and driven inexorably westwards, Gwrtheyrn gathered to him his remaining advisors and enquired of them as to what he should do. These wise men, twelve in total, took counsel and returned to their Great Lord, telling him that he should 'Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, and, even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt, after your death!'
On hearing this, Gwrtheyrn was pleased and thanking his advisors he took his teulu and travelled through many parts of his remaining territories, seeking a place where he could re-establish his defences. Eventually he came to a mountain realm in the land that is now known as Gwynedd. There, close by to Nant Gwynant he saw a rocky hill (known in those days as Dinas Ffaraon) which had a wide, flat shelf covering half the summit, and behind it a curved rocky ridge suitable for the towers of a castle. This seemed like an ideal defensive position and once more Gwrtheyrn summoned his wise men to him and they concurred that the site would be ideal for Gwrtheyrn's new fortress; for the site was easily defensible and had a ready supply of materials nearby.
Gwrtheyrn summoned stone masons and carpenters from all corners of his realm and bade them raise him a build him a great hall at the center of the plateau with walls and watch towers surrounding this. A great workforce was amassed and they began to quarry the local hills for stone and cut the neighbouring forests for lumber. These hewn stones and shaped timbers were brought up the side of the hill and stacked ready for building the following day. The workers retired for the night, but on the following morning, to their horror they saw that all the construction matériel had simply vanished. Nothing remained with which to start the construction of Gwrtheyrn's great hall. Not a little afraid, the workers set out to the forests and quarries once more, bringing back more stone blocks and wooden timbers which they stacked both on the hill's plateau and at the hill's base. Exhausted, they retired for the night and at dawn the following morning they returned to commence construction. But as soon as they had climbed the side of the hill they found once again that the materials they had prepared the previous day had simply vanished, almost as if the greensward had swallowed it whole. This time, however, they had the materials stacked at the base of the hill to fall back on and working in gangs the hewn stones and timbers were brought up and the masons began to construct the first of the great watchtowers. Satisfied for the first time that they had achieved something that day, the masons had their men tidy their workings and, as dusk fell, they retired for the night. A gibbous moon hung in a cloudless sky, lighting the workers' way back to their makeshift shacks where each collapsed, exhausted, onto their pallets for the night. Somewhere after midnight there came a rumbling from direction of Gwrtheyrn's hill. This was followed by a shaking of the earth the instantly roused all the men from their slumbers and they rushed out with torches to seek the source of the disturbance. But almost as soon as they reached their doorways the rumblings and shaking of the earth ceased and the land quietened again.
At dawn, the men returned to their work, but saw to their dismay that the tower they had so carefully constructed the day before lay in ruins on the ground; each great block cracked and the supporting timbers splintered. All the men feared that the location was cursed and Gwrtheyrn was forced to call together his wise men. Gwrtheyrn was angry, for had these wise men not told him to build his fortress upon this site? He commanded them, upon pain of death, to deliver a solution to his problem.
Again the wise men went into counsel and they emerged to inform Gwrtheyrn: 'The site is protected, and would make an impregnable fortress. But the protective spirit needs propitiation. You must find a fatherless child, no more than nine years of age. He should be put to death upon this site, his blood collected and sprinkled on the ground where your fortress is to be built. If you do not do this then your purpose here will never be achieved.'
Gwrtheyrn listened well and took his advisers' counsel. He had horses prepared and saddled and these were dispatched to every corner of his kingdom where they were to seek-out a fatherless child. The riders scoured the entire realm, and each returned empty-handed. It seemed as if Gwrtheyrn's quest was to be fruitless. Then, just as the entire venture was about to be abandoned one of the riders heard whispers of a strange tale in Mynwy. He travelled to the western end of the Island of Britain and the tales eventually brought the rider to Caerfyrddin. There, in a tower on the shore was a woman with a young child. She, and her handmaidens avowed that her child had no father — save for a figure who had visited the woman in a dream and seemed not to be a being of this earth.
Knowing that his quest was over, the messenger took the boy upon the pommel of his steed and made his way northwards with all haste. Within a few days, despite his flagging steed, the rider made his way to Gwrtheyrn and deposited the boy before his lord.
Undaunted by the imposing imperious figure towering above him the boy gazed steadily and undaunted into Gwrtheyrn's eyes before enquiring of him: 'Why have you brought me hither?'
Gwrtheyrn was a Great Lord and the creature before him was but a boy, yet there was something in the child's demeanour that bade Gwrtheyrn proffer a response: 'My wise men have informed me,' Gwrtheyrn said, 'that I may only build a fortress upon this site if the ground and the mortar are anointed with your blood.'
Instead of showing fear at this, he child simply snorted and turning towards the wise men he enquired of them: 'By what magic and lore do you know this? For I believe that it is by dint of magic that you seek to find out how the building materials vanish into the earth and how any structures constructed on this site and shattered by the quivering earth.'
Shocked by the boy's knowledge the wise men proffered no response, so the child turned towards Gwrtheyrn and said: 'My lord, let me prove to you the superiority of my knowledge and the ignorance of these so-called 'wise' men of yours. Let me prove that I can see both further and more clearly than they. Bid that they answer the questions that I put to them. If they can respond truly and I cannot solve the riddle of your problem then let my life be forfeit.'
With a motion of his hand, Gwrtheyrn bad the boy ask his question.
'Firstly,' said the boy, 'tell me of that which lies hidden beneath this site that will prevent any building from being erected here.'
The wise men could not answer and the boy turned to Gwrtheyrn, saying: 'My lord, I beg you to command your workmen to dig into the ground upon this spot. Below our feet you will find a pit containing a pool or water. It is this that causes the footings of your palace to sink and the construction materials to be swallowed up.'
This was done, and just as the boy had foretold the workmen uncovered a deep pool beneath the ground. Again the boy turned towards the wise men and enquired of them: 'Now tell me what lies at the bottom of the pool that causes the ground to heave and shake.' When the wise men could not answer him, the boy turned towards Gwrtheyrn and said: 'At the bottom of this pool lies a great stone chest. Within the chest is a tent that enfolds two sleeping dragons which sometimes wake and fight one with another. It is when they fight that the ground shakes and trembles and any building erected here will tumble and fall. Lord, have your men drain the pool and you shall see that what I tell is the truth.'
Again, Gwrtheyrn had his workmen do as the boy had said and behold, at the bottom of the pool was found a great stone chest. This was opened with some difficulty and within was found a great silk tent. The boy bade that the tent be unwrapped and told all those assembled to watch what happened next. The unwrapping of the silken canvas revealed two great sleeping dragons. One red and one white. Slowly the dragons awakened from their stupor and baring their great teeth and un-sheathing their claws they attacked one another. They prowled the length and breadth of the tent-cloth until the white dragon raised itself on its hind-quarters and getting a hold on the red dragon managed to throw its opponent to the ground at the centre of the tent. Seemingly the red dragon was defeated, for the white dragon managed to overcome its foe thrice. However, at the end of this initial tussle the red dragon (seemingly the weaker of the two) re-gained its strength and gaining a good hold on the white dragon managed to throw its opponent entirely off the cloth of the tent. Head and tail held high the red dragon almost gleamed in its victory and it chased the white dragon across the bottom of the pool until the defeated, white, dragon entirely disappeared from view.
Again the boy turned towards the wise men and enquired of them as to what the vision they had seen meant. But once again the wise men were unable to give an answer which left the boy to turn towards Gwrtheyrn and provide his own interpretation of what they had just seen. 'The pool,' the boy said, 'is the world and the opened tent is your realm, lord Gwrtheyrn. The two beasts we saw are two dragons; the red dragon is your own emblem, but the white dragon is the totem of the Saxons which now occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea. For the moment the Saxons are gaining in strength, but at length our people shall rise and drive the invading Saxons out of your realm and even beyond the sea from whence they have come. But that is the feature, the foretold fate. You, Gwrtheyrn have a dihenydd upon you, that you may not build upon this site. Depart from here and erect your fortress elsewhere. Lay your foundations there.'
Seeing that the boy truly possessed the gift of augury and knowing that his wise men had deceived him, Gwrtheyrn ordered that they be put to death and buried in an unmarked pit in a nearby field.
Now knowing the boy's true power Gwrtheyrn asked the boy his name. 'I am Myrddin, sometimes known as Emrys' replied the boy. 'And it is here at Dinas Ffaraon where I shall dwell and henceforth it shall be known as Dinas Emrys. With this Gwrtheyrn made to depart for a new stronghold in the realm of Powys, but before doing so he could not resist turning to the boy one last time to enquire of him: 'And me, child of no man, what is to be my fate?'
The boy gazed long at Gwrtheyrn before responding: 'There will be no respite for thee, High Lord of the Brython. Caer Wrtheyrn shall rise by the Tywi, in the land of the Demetæ but all therein shall perish in heavenly fire. The Saxons will lay waste your land, but Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uthr will claim you, seeking revenge for the murder you wrought upon them. Hengist will be killed, and Aurelius Ambrosius will be crowned king; he will restore the land but will die of poison. Uthr will succeed him but will also die of poison and the land will mourn until Uthr's son, Arthur will arise to avenge his father. This is your foretold fate.'
In the fullness of time Emrys Wledig joined Myrddin Emrys at Dinas Emrys though he eventually persuaded Myrddin to journey north with him. Before leaving, Myrddin gathered all his worldly treasures together and placing them in a great cauldron he hid them in a nearby cave and magically sealed the entrance so that it was no different from the surrounding rocks. It is said that the treasure awaits the arrival of a worthy young man for whom a bell will peal to invite him into the cave, where he shall receive his inheritance. Many have sought Myrddin's treasure, but none have found it (yet).
Dinas Emrys is an ancient hillfort. It has been occupied since iron-age times with succeeding generations adding their own fortifications. However, excavations in 1954-56 the archaeologist Dr H. N. Savory, which focused on the entrances, suggested that the inner rampart, which forms an almost separate summit fort, dates to post-Roman times (though the existence of the pool had been known for a long time). Not only this, but there actually was a pool on the site which also dated to the mid fourth century. Thus part of the site at least seems to date to the correct historical period. To a great extent, of course, the tale is a 'just-so' story explaining the red dragon as the national emblem of the Welsh peoples (indeed, the red Welsh dragon is the most ancient surviving national emblem of any of the European peoples). However, it is likely that the 'dragon' originated in the late Roman Draco standard (see left), a 'windsock' originating from the Eurasian Sarmatian armies where the wind flowing through the dragon's mouth inflated its cloth tail and created noise (which would tie-in with the shriek of the dragon in the tale of Lludd a Llefelys). This may well have been adopted as he standard of sub-Roman leaders to establish their link as the continuation of the glories of the past. There is also some confusion in the legends between Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrosius) and Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus) and in at least one version that I know of the child brought before Gwrtheyrn in Ambrosius Aurelianus rather than Myrddin Emrys. Thus the fortress of Dinas Emrys could have been named after either of these men.
Dinas Emrys (Welsh: fortress of Ambrosius) is a rocky and wooded hillock near Beddgelert in Gwynedd, north-west Wales. Rising some 250 ft above the floor of the Glaslyn river valley, it overlooks the southern end of Llyn Dinas in Snowdonia. Little remains of the castle structures that once stood here, save its stone ramparts and the base of a keep. Some believe the castle was erected by Llewelyn the Last to guard the road to the mountain pass of Snowdon.
Dinas Emrys with the River Glaslyn in the foreground
While it is of interest to archaeologists because it is an example of a hill fort whose fortifications entirely postdate the Roman period, this hill is also of interest to enthusiasts about the legends of King Arthur. This is the setting of the famous exchange of the warlord Vortigern and the youthful Merlin, as told in the Historia Britonum.
According to legend, when Vortigern fled into Wales to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders, he chose this lofty hillfort as the site for his royal retreat. Every day his men would work hard erecting the first of several proposed towers; but the next morning they would return to find the masonry collapsed in a heap. This continued for many weeks until Vortigern was advised to seek the help of a young boy born of a virgin mother. The King sent his soldiers out across the land to find such a lad. The boy they found was called Myrddin Emrys (Merlin Ambrosius). Vortigern, following the advice of his councillors, was planning to kill the boy in order to appease supernatural powers that prevented him from building a fortress here. Merlin scorned this advice, and instead explained that the hill fort could not stand due to a hidden pool containing two vermes (dragons). He explained how the White Dragon of the Saxons though winning the battle at present, would soon be defeated by the British Red Dragon. After Vortigern's downfall, the fort was given to alias Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus), hence its name.
Origin and confinement of the dragons
The earliest sources regard the two dragons as distinctly different, and in a metaphor of the Adventus Saxonum describes one as being native to the island of Britain (it had arrived first) which was then joined by another new and alien dragon that fought it for supremacy.
As to how the dragons became confined there, the story of Lludd and Llefelys in the Mabinogion gives details. According to the legend, when Lludd ruled Britain (c.100 BC), a hideous scream, whose origin could not be determined, was heard each May Eve. This scream so perplexed the Britons that it caused infertility, panic and mayhem throughout the realm. In need of help Lludd sought counsel on this and other matters from his brother Llefelys, a King of Gaul. Llefelys furnished the information that the scream was caused by battling dragons. The scream would be uttered by the dragon of the Britons when it was fighting another alien dragon and was being defeated. Lludd heeded the advice given to him by Llefelys and captured both dragons in a cauldron filled with beer when they had transformed themselves, as apparently dragons did, into pigs. The captured dragons were buried at the place later called Dinas Emrys, as it was regarded as the safest place to put them.
The main entrance to the fort is on the northern side of the hill and traces of a ruined medieval tower 36 feet by 24 feet have been found on the summit. Nearby is a circle of tumbled stones about 30 feet in diameter which is said to be where the dragons were hidden. Before Dinas Emrys was so-named the fort was known as Dinas Ffaraon Dandde.
The Prophecy of Merlin which features the enduring legend of the Red Dragon is centred on Dinas Emrys
Other local legends
According to local legend Myrddin hid treasure in a cave at Dinas Emrys. The discoverer of the treasure will be 'golden-haired and blue-eyed'. When that lucky person is near to Dinas Emrys a bell will ring to invite him or her into the cave, which will open of its own accord as soon as that person's foot touches it. A young man who lived near Beddgelert once searched for the treasure, hoping to give himself a good start in life. He took a pickaxe and climbed to the top of the hill. When he began to dig in earnest on the site of the tower, some terrible unearthly noises began to rumble under his feet. The Dinas began to rock like a cradle and the sun clouded over so it became pitch dark. Lightning flashed in the sky and thunder clapped over his head. He dropped the pickaxe and ran home. When he arrived, everything was calm again but he never returned to collect his pickaxe. Not far from Dinas Emrys is Cell-y-Dewiniaid - "The Grove of the Magicians". There is a field here that once had a thick grove of oak trees at its northern end. Local tradition holds that Vortigern's wise men used to meet here to discuss the great events of their times. An adjacent field is where they were buried and at one time a stone actually marked the site of each grave. A white thorn tree annually decorated each resting place with falling white blossoms.
Actual archeological findings
Ruins of what is considered to be an 11th Century tower
It has long been known that there is a pool inside of the fort, but when the archaeologist Dr H. N. Savory excavated the hill fort between 1954-6, he was surprised to find that not only were the fortifications of about the right time frame for either Vortigern or Ambrosius, but that there was a platform above the pool as described in the Historia Britonum. However, he found the platform to date much later than the accepted floruit of either personage.
Savory described the fortifications as consisting of stone walls between 2.5 and 3 metres thick, which exploited every irregularity in the rocky hill-top, enclosing an irregular area of about a 10,000 m² in size. The original means of access was by a steep path on the western side of the hill fort. The present entrance from the north-east is a later addition. The walls had been "poorly built of stone two or three times ", possibly inspiring the legend's reference to the building collapsing several times during construction.
The most conspicuous object currently on the hill is the base of a rectangular tower. It is generally accepted that this is part of an undocumented castle built by the princes of Gwynedd in the eleventh century.
Archaeologists have speculated that this may be the platform above the pool where the prophecy was revealed
There are a few variations of the story.
"There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning"