Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Great Trees of Wales #2: Nevern's Bleeding Yew

Does a bleeding yew tree mark the grave of an ancient High King in a small Welsh churchyard?

Bleeding yew trees are actually common enough to be a readers problem on Gardner's World, but this one is the famous Bleeding Yew. It's a pity then that there isn't a better story about why blood red sap seeps from this 700 year old tree at certain times of the year, but maybe I can do something about that.

The main story is that a monk was hanged here for a crime he didn't commit, but there are also versions where it is empathy for Jesus or that it is waiting for an independent Wales or world peace, or something.

However the yew though is just the hook to lure you into the churchyard of this fascinating little hamlet.

Nevern is in an interesting part of the world. A few miles away is Castell Henllys, a reconstruction Iron Age village on the site of a genuine Iron Age village. The discovery of the post holes of the original huts in 1980 saved the place from becoming an Asterix theme park, and instead there are authentic Celtic roundhouses here, a reminder of a time when there were no Welsh or English, just Britons.

Also nearby is Pendre Ifan, possibly the finest dolmen in Wales.

The Church of St Brynach though is in its own way just as fascinating.

First of all there's St Brynach himself, who according to his chronicler was a bit of a lad until he converted to Christianity and cleaned up his act. At least one woman was apparently unimpressed with his new found chastity and attacked him with a spear when he wouldn't do the business with her.

The current church is a Norman one built on the site of St Brynach's original "clas". Apparently this was his third attempt at church building. The first failed when he was chased away by demons and the second when the locals stole his wood. (You know, I'm starting to think this chronicler was taking the piss.....).

What does remain though are some very curious stones. One is now the outside sill of a window and is inscribed with the seemingly random letters. Another is inside and has a rather stylised cross on it, but the most interesting has some curious upside down Ogham writing on it. It just says 'Maglocunos son of Clutarius' (was here?), but because it says it in Latin as well it helped scholars to decipher this ancient script.

Outside is a wonderful 10th century Celtic high cross, but the highlight of the churchyard is the enigmatic Vitalianus Stone. This dates from about 500AD and is also inscribed in Ogham and Latin. Possibly this was here even before Brynach.

Now 500AD is right in the middle of the Age of Arthur. This is the year usually given for the Battle of Badon Hill, which is mentioned enough times in different sources to probably be a real defeat for the Anglo-Saxons, although it's far from clear if anyone called Arthur was ever involved in it.

Now Vitalani could just be some otherwise anonymous Roman who just happens to be buried in what subsequently became the home of a Celtic Saint, but he could also be someone much more interesting. The Latin inscription actually says "Vitalani Emerato" which is cod Latin, the second word should probably be Emeritus, meaning "of merit". This may be a spelling mistake, or it could be a local Celtic dialect.

But if the second word is wrong, what if the first word is too? Vitalani or Vitalinus is not a common Latin name. However the chronicler Nennius, who cobbled together a work called Historia Brittonum in the ninth century does have someone whose father and grandfather both have that name. After the brief mention of Arthur in the poem Y Goddodin, Nennius is our oldest primary source for the legendary chap, although Nennius actually calls him dux bellorum meaning Great Leader, not king. It is from Nennius that we get the famous list of Arthur's twelve battles.

Nennius also gives us the tale of Vortigern, who invited the Saxons over as mercenaries only to have them betray him. The story most people know about Vortigern is how his castle kept falling down until Merlin told him about the two dragons under the foundations. Merlin was added to this story in the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in Nennius the boy who narrowly avoids becoming part of the castle is Ambosius Aurelianus, who is well attested enough to probably be real as well.

Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena by William Hamilton
What interesting though is that Nennius tells us
Vortigern's dad and granddad were both called Vitalinus. Now in Old Welsh Vortigern actually means Great King, so it could be a title rather than a name. In which case, what was he actually called? Well, the obvious answer is Vitalinus, the family name.

In which case do we have an ancient High King of Britain buried here?

We can't be sure, but both the Historia Brittonum and the Black Book of Carmarthen have Vortigern fleeing into the west from the victorious Saxons. With a church dedicated to a barely believable Celtic Saint along with some Ogham and bad Latin this is certainly the sort of place you'd expect to find someone like him.

Rutger Hauer as Vortigern in Merlin (1998)
So maybe what the yew is bleeding for is the last superbus tyrannus, the Romano-British ruler of old Roman Province of Britannia, who tried to hold together a Latin speaking Celtic kingdom to the very end, and who, before he died, saw his kingdom fracture into feuding tribal groups. Perhaps it bleeds because the process of putting it back together again is not yet complete? 

More on the possible Vortigern/Vitaninus link.

1 comment:

Nathalie Uy said...

We're just trying to find some color in this black and white world.
Keep on making inspiring article :)
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