The Medieval Welsh Englynion y Beddau

What are the “Englynion y Beddau”? 

An englyn is an epigrammatic stanza of 3 or 4 lines, often self-contained. The Englynion y Beddau is usually translated as ‘Stanzas of the Graves’. The graves in question belong to characters in medieval Welsh stories, some famous, some obscure.

Ours refer to a single hero, or sometimes two. Some of the heroes are mythological — there’s at least one giant — while others, such as Vortigern and Rhydderch of Dumbarton, were real people in the fifth and sixth centuries. Chronologically, Penda, king of Mercia in the mid-seventh century, is the latest person named.

Where are these ‘stanzas of the graves’ found and how old are these manuscripts?

The earliest is the Black Book of Carmarthen (c. 1250). It contains the longest series of Englynion y Beddau, but a shorter, probably older, northern Welsh series survives in late copies that all go back to a lost manuscript belonging to William Salesbury, the sixteenth-century Protestant humanist.

There are also some stray stanzas in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts: the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. I think that the latest of the stray stanzas was composed in the early sixteenth century in the Beddgelert area; it keeps company in the manuscripts with an englyn on the grave of a hound with the English name ‘Kilhart’, invented to explain the name Beddgelert.

What are the challenges in naming and attributing these poems?

The poems were not given a title in the Black Book of Carmarthen until a late medieval scribe wrote one in, “Englynnionn y Beddev”, and that caught on. Personally, I like the alternative title, Graves of the Warriors of the Island of Britain, first attested in 1635-41, in one of John Jones’s manuscripts, written during one of his many sojourns in a debtors’ prison. It’s more informative and helpfully indicates the poems’ similarity to The Triads of the Island of Britain, which is the other main key to lost medieval Welsh literature.

Admittedly, the word ‘Warriors’ is not ideal, because the Black Book text refers once to women’s graves (on the shore near Llandudno). The stanza in question is an addition by a second scribe, however, and it’s not in the englyn form. Otherwise, women’s graves are excluded; even the grave of Branwen, a Bronze Age round barrow in Anglesey, goes unmentioned, despite figuring in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi: returning from Ireland, ‘she heaved a great sigh, and with that broke her heart. And a four-sided grave was made for her, and she was buried on the bank of the Alaw’.

The poems are anonymous and were probably composed by many poets over a long period. By the thirteenth century some of the stanzas were being attributed to the legendary, all-knowing poet Taliesin. Like St Martin, Taliesin could stand on a tumulus and divine who was buried in it! Modern excavation suggests that the tumulus on which Taliesin stood was really the base of a Roman watchtower in Anglesey; we’re talking about legend here. I included Taliesin in my subtitle as it’s the only attribution that we have.

Some of the Englynion y Beddau have been identified with prehistoric monuments. What clues do the poems provide for the meaning of megaliths and monuments from the period?

The poems refer to the graves’ location and hint at their nature: standing stones, long barrows worth digging for treasure (they claim), cromlechs, and so on. Antiquarians have been searching for them since 1600; the celebrated Edward Lhuyd was collecting material for a project on them before his untimely death in 1709, and I have published his index in the book.

For centuries people imagined that the englynion had a historical basis. Really, they reveal how stories can arise to explain Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. Such stories are common in the Celtic countries (the Irish Dindshenchas), and also elsewhere. The Norse Ynglingatal has sometimes been compared to Englynion y Beddau, and there must have been similar topographical material in Anglo-Saxon England, as you can see from names like ‘Grendel’s pit’ in charter-boundaries.

I love maps and locating literature in the landscape, so field expeditions throughout Wales were a high point in my research. It turned out that many of the grave-sites were near monastic estates and granges. I argue that the earliest extant englynion were written down in pre-Norman churches, especially the church at Clynnog in the north-west (which also played a part in transmitting the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, I believe), and that they were then enlarged as they passed from north to south through the network of Cistercian monasteries, attracting additions.

What challenges did you encounter or discoveries did you make in translating these poems?

The earliest English translations are loose, Romantic, and elegiac; that’s why they appealed to Yeats and his contemporaries. I tried to be more literal, staying closer to the clipped, enigmatic economy of the Middle Welsh.

The main challenge was to identify the people and places mentioned, as some names are corrupt in the manuscripts. For example, some texts wrongly put Penda’s grave in Arvon (Arfon near Caernarfon), but others have avon ‘a river’, which agrees with what Bede says about Penda’s defeat when the river Winwæd overflowed its banks and drowned Penda’s army. And then there’s the obscure hydronym Peryddon. The grave of Arthur’s nephew Gwalchmai is ‘in Peryddon‘. Cross-referencing William of Malmesbury’s report about the grave of Arthur’s nephew Walwen, ‘fourteen feet in length’ being found on the shore of Pembrokeshire in the time of William the Conqueror, I argue that Peryddon refers to the same location.

My favourite line is a famous one, also echoed in William of Malmesbury: Anoeth bid bet y Arthur ‘The hardest thing in the world (to find), a grave for Arthur’.

What is one thing you would like readers to take away from your work?

How much more narrative literature than just the well-known ‘Mabinogion’ there was in Wales and how much can still be recovered from allusions in medieval poetry. At present the standard key to the lost literature is Trioedd Ynys Prydein, edited and translated by my old teacher Rachel Bromwich. I hope that my EYB will find a place next to her TYP on readers’ shelves.

The Medieval Welsh Englynnion y Beddau

Part of the series
Studies in the History of Medieval Religion
D.S. Brewer



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PATRICK SIMS-WILLIAMS is a Fellow of the British Academy and an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy; he was formerly Reader in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge and Professor of Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University.