Maelgwn Gwynedd and the Yellow Eye
"... you the last I write of but the first and greatest in evil, more than many in ability but also in malice, more generous in giving but also more liberal in sin, strong in war but stronger to destroy your soul ...".
De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
On the Ruin and conquest of Britain.
A sermon by St. Gildas (500-570AD)
Maelgwn Gwynedd, also known as Maelgwn Hir, (Maelgwn the Tall) was the King of Gwynedd. He was a ruthless and ambitious man and had seized the throne from his uncle. Even after he became King of Gwynedd, his ambition was not satisfied, for there were three other kingdoms in Wales. Maelgwn was a jealous man. He wanted to be more powerful than the other Kings. He wanted them all to pay homage to him.
He invited the other Kings to meet him on the sands of Aberdovey and to bring their thrones with them. There would be feasting and games, said the invitation. Maelgwn told them that they would be treated as honoured guests. The Kings accepted the tempting offer and journeyed from across the land with their retainers. A great tent filled with carpets and tables laden with silver platters loaded with food was erected on the beach. Men at arms lined the shore, their weapons sparkling in the sunshine. Royal banners fluttered gaily in the breeze. Trumpeters welcomed the visitors and fine words of greeting were exchanged between them.
The thrones were carried into the tent and the feast began. The Kings chatted gaily. All agreed that the food and wines were fit for Kings. Slowly, so as not to be obvious, Maelgwn turned the conversation to address a question. Which of the four Kings was the most senior? The Kings could not agree. One said they were equal, another claimed he was Chief King. The debate grew heated and the Kings began to argue.
“My Lords. There is a simple way we can settle the matter,” cried Maeglwn.
“How so?” asked the Kings.
“The tide is out. Let us have our thrones moved to the edge of the water where we will sit. Which ever of us remains seated for the longest shall be honoured by all as Supreme King,” suggested Maeglwn.
It was agreed and the four thrones were carried to the waters edge. The tide turned and the water started to rise. Before long their feet were under water but none of the Kings moved. All wanted to be Chief King. The sea level continued to rise, covering their knees but they did not move. Then, a strange thing happened. Maeglwn’s throne began to lift up while the other kings slowly submerged. One by one they abandoned their thrones and waded away, leaving King Maeglwn alone floating on the water.
Concealed beneath his seat, King Maeglwn had fitted pigs bladders filled with air. The three Kings had been tricked but, having given their solemn word, were obliged to honour Maeglwn and pledged their loyalty to him as their Chief King.
Maelgwn built a castle with a great tower on the twin hills of Deganwy known as the Vardre. He prayed with the monks but quickly grew bored with their piety.
“Life is for living and I shall live like a King,” he told his courtiers. Maelgwn summoned musicians to entertain him and bards to write epic stories of his courage and goodness, but the songs and poems were lies for the truth was that Maeglwn was an evil man with a violent temper.
Maelgwn took Nesta, a Princess from the North of England as his wife and gave her an ancient gold ring that had been worn by all the Queens of Gwynedd. Later, as Nesta bathed in the river, the ring slipped from her wet finger and vanished into the water. Nesta was afraid of her husband and asked the Bishop of Llanelwy what she should do about the lost heirloom.
The Bishop considered her problem and invited the royal couple to join him for dinner. As the meal started the Bishop began to explain what had happened but, hearing that the ring was lost, Maelgwn flew into a rage. He accused his wife of adultery, paid for with the ring.
“Come Sire. That cannot be. Let us keep calm and consider the facts,” said the Bishop.
Maelgwn sat sullenly staring at his wife.
“Look at this fine salmon. It was caught this morning in the river,” said the Bishop. He cut and served the fish giving the largest piece to the King.
“What is this,” cried King Maelgwn, pointing at the salmon.
Something glittered on the plate. It was the ring his wife had lost in the river.
Maelgwn said nothing more but he did not forgive his wife.
When Maelgwyn’s nephew visited Deganwy with a new bride, Maelgwn grew jealous. He wanted the woman for himself. So the King had his own wife and the nephew murdered and seduced the young bride. As time passed, Maelgwn’s tyranny grew worse until all his people hated him.
“Who will rid us of this evil King,” they cried.
A wise prophet and bard, named Taleisin lived in the land.
“Tell us, wise man. Who will end Maelgwn’s evil,” asked the people.
“A great beast will appear from the east. Its skin will be rotting and fetid. Its teeth and eyes will be yellow and its foul breath will whisper of death. This great putrid beast will avenge Maelgwn’s evil and people will speak of the long sleep of Maelgwn in the Church of Rhos,” said Taleisin.
The plague, which had started in Europe, spread quickly across England. It reached Gwynedd in 547 bringing misery and death to the people. Their skins ran with sores, their lungs filled with blood, their teeth and eyes turned yellow and their breath stank of death. Maelgwn feared for his life and, ignoring the cries for help from his courtiers as they died around him, he fled from the castle. The evil King locked himself alone in the church at Llanrhos and prayed for sanctuary. The few loyal guards that remained waited outside, unsure of what to do. They knocked on the door of the church.
“Sire. What are your orders,” they shouted.
“Go away,” yelled the King.
That night, as Maelgwyn knelt praying, he heard a strange scratching at the door.
“Maelgwyn I have come for you,” whispered a voice from outside.
“Leave me alone,” cried the King.
“Maelgwyn. Let me in,” whispered the voice.
Maelgwyn picked up his candle and moved to the door. He bent down and peered through the keyhole. A large yellow eye stared back at him.
The guards returned the next morning but Maelgwyn did not answer their calls.
“The king is asleep. We dare not wake him,” said the guards and went away.
Days passed before they broke down the door. The evil King’s body was rotting and fetid. His teeth and eyes had turned yellow.
Maelgwyn’s body was taken to Ynys Seiriol and buried.
Taleisin’s prophecy had come true. 'Hir hun Faelgwn yn eglwys Ros - The long sleep of Maelgwn in the Church of Rhos.’