The Lowland Hundred
Part of an ancient submerged forest at Ynyslas thought to be associated with Cantre'r Gwaelod
|Welsh mythology location|
|Notable locations||Caer Wyddno|
|Notable characters||Gwyddno Garanhir, Seithenyn, Elffin ap Gwyddno|
Cantre'r Gwaelod, also known as Cantref Gwaelod or Cantref y Gwaelod (English: The Lowland Hundred), is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. It has been described as a "Welsh Atlantis" and has featured in folklore, literature and song.
Cantre'r Gwaelod was an area of land which, according to legend, was located in an area west of present-day Wales which is now under the waters of Cardigan Bay. Accounts variously suggest the tract of land extended from Bardsey Island to Cardigan or as far south as Ramsey Island. Legends of the land suggest that it may have extended 20 miles west of the present coast.
There are several versions of the myth. The earliest known form of the legend is usually said to appear in the Black Book of Carmarthen (Welsh: Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin'), in which the land is referred to as Maes Gwyddno (English: the Plain of Gwyddno). In this version, the land was lost to floods when a well-maiden named Mererid neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow.
Rachel Bromwich questions this identification, saying that "There is no certainty, however, that in twelfth century tradition Maes Gwyddneu did represent the submerged land in Cardigan Bay." She also links Gwyddno with the northern British kingdoms, not Wales.
The popular version known today is thought to have been formed from the 17th century onwards. Cantre'r Gwaelod is described as a low-lying land fortified against the sea by a dyke, Sarn Badrig (Saint Patrick's causeway), with a series of sluice gates which were opened at low tide to drain the land.
Cantre'r Gwaelod's capital was Caer Wyddno (English: the Fort of Gwyddno), seat of the ruler Gwyddno Garanhir. Two princes of the realm held charge over the dyke. One of these princes, called Seithenyn, is described in one version as a notorious drunkard and carouser, and it was through his negligence that the sea swept through the open floodgates, ruining the land.
The church bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod are said to ring out in times of danger.
Relationship to myth of Llys Helig
Rachel Bromwich discusses a similar tale, that of the submergence of the kingdom of Helig ap Glanawg in the Conwy estuary. As with Cantre'r Gwaelod, there are tales of remains being seen of the sunken kingdom (Llys Helig). Bromwich believes that the two stories influenced each other, and that "The widespread parallels to this inundation theme would suggest that the two stories are in fact one in origin, and were localized separately in Cardiganshire and in the Conway estuary, around two traditional figures of the sixth century. She also notes that the Halliwell Manuscript gives Helig the title "Lord of Cantre'r Gwaelod". In the book New Directions In Celtic Studies Antone Minard wrote that "The Welsh legends of Cantre'r Gwaelod and Llys Helig (Helig's Court) contain the same details of audible bells beneath the waves and ruins which are visible at the equinoctial tides, which are the anchors of credulity in the story".
There is no reliable physical evidence of the substantial community that legend promises lies under the sea, although several reports exist of remains being sighted.
In the 1846 edition of The Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis described a feature of stone walls and causeways beneath the shallow waters of Cardigan Bay:
In the sea, about seven miles west of Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire, is a collection of loose stones, termed Caer Wyddno, "the fort or palace of Gwyddno;" and adjoining it are vestiges of one of more of the more southern causeways or embankments of Catrev Gwaelod. The depth of water over the whole extent of the bay of Cardigan is not great; and on the recess of the tide, stones bearing Latin inscriptions, and Roman coins of various emperors, have been found below high-water mark: in different places in the water, also, are observed prostrate trees."
Lewis takes the view that maps by the cartographer Ptolemy marked the coastline of Cardigan Bay in the same location as it appears in modern times, suggesting that the date of the flood occurred before the second century AD.
|Sarn Gynfelyn and the submerged forest at Borth|
| Submerged trees in the Dyfi Estuary
Clips from Coast (BBC, 2006)
The "causeways" described by Lewis can be seen today at beaches around Cardigan Bay. Known as Sarnau, these ridges stretch several miles into the sea at right angles to the coast, and are located between each of the four river mouths in the north of Cardigan Bay. Modern geologists surmise that these formations of clay, gravel and rocks are moraines formed by the action of melting glaciers end of the last Ice Age. In a 2006 episode of the BBC television documentary Coast, presenter Neil Oliver visited Sarn Gynfelyn at Wallog. The programme also featured the remains of the submerged forest at Ynyslas, near Borth which is associated with the lost land of Cantre'r Gwaelod. The vista of dead oak, pine, birch, willow and hazel tree stumps preserved by the acid anaerobic conditions in the soil is revealed at low tide and is estimated to be about 5000 years old.
Origins of the myth
The myth, like so many others, may be a folk memory of gradually rising sea levels at the end of the ice age. The physical remains of the preserved sunken forest at Borth, and of Sarn Badrig nearby, could have suggested that some great tragedy had overcome a community there long ago, and so the myth may have grown from that.
Analogies in other legends
Several similar legends exist in Celtic mythology which refer to a lost land beneath the waves. Both the Breton legend of Ker-Ys and the Arthurian tale of Lyonesse refer to a kingdom submerged somewhere in the Celtic Sea, off the coast of Brittany or Cornwall respectively.
The legend has inspired many poems and songs throughout the ages. The earliest mention of Cantre'r Gwaelod is thought to be in the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen in a poem called "Boddi Maes Gwyddno" ("The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno") which relates the tale of Mererid and the well.
The story inspired a Victorian era-novel, The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), by Thomas Love Peacock. At the 1925 National Eisteddfod of Wales, held in Pwllheli, Dewi Morgan ('Dewi Teifi') won the Bardic Chair with his Awdl recounting the legend, adopting Thomas Love Peacock's version as the basis for his poetic rendition.
Geologist William Ashton's 1920 book, The Evolution of a Coast-Line, Barrow to Aberystwyth and the Isle of Man, with Notes on Lost Towns, Submarine Discoveries, &C, discusses the legend and takes Ptolemy's map as evidence of the existence of an area of lost land in Cardigan Bay. Ashton also includes a conjectural map of Cantre'r Gwaelod within the bay.
Cantre'r Gwaelod is also featured in modern children's literature. Cantre'r Gwaelod is central to the setting of the 1977 Newbery Honor Book A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond. The kingdom also plays a major role in Silver on the Tree, the last book of The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, parts of which are set in Aberdyfi. Siân Lewis and Jackie Morris's book Cities in the Sea (2002) retells the legend for children, and Welsh musician Cerys Matthews's first children's book Tales from the Deep (2011) features a story, The Ghost Bells of the Lowlands, which was adapted from the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod.
Music and art
The folk song "Clychau Aberdyfi" ("The Bells of Aberdovey"), popularised in the 18th Century, relates to the part of the legend about the bells being heard ringing beneath the waves in the town of Aberdyfi. This song inspired cultural projects in the town involving bells; a new chime of bells was installed in September 1936 in the tower St Peter's Church, Aberdyfi, specifically designed to allow the playing of The Bells of Aberdovey. An art installation by the sculptor Marcus Vergette, a bronze "Time and Tide Bell", was mounted beneath the jetty in Aberdyfi Harbour in July 2011 as a homage to the folk song. The bell is rung by the action of water at high tide.
Cantre'r Gwaelod featured in the BBC documentary series Coast. Presenter Neil Oliver visited the sands of Aberdyfi and Ynyslas, near Borth, and examined the remains of the submerged forest and Sarn Badrig which are revealed at low tide, assisted by local historians and dendrochronologists.
- Cantre'r Gwaelod - The Lost Land of Wales
- Experts look for 'watery kingdom'
- An exploration of the 'walled realm' version of the myth, and the semi-legendary King Gwyddno
- local history page looking at possible documentary evidence
- Submerged forest, Borth Sands, Wattle walkway exposed by storms of January 2014 - from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
- British band - The Lowland Hundred named for the English translation of Cantre'r Gwaelod
- Gwyndaf, Robin (1989). "34. Cantre'r Gwaelod, Dyfed". Welsh folk tales/Chwedlau gwerin Cymru (2 ed.). Cardiff: National Museum Wales/Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru. ISBN 978-0-7200-0326-0.
- "Cantre’r Gwaelod – The Lost Land of Wales". Legacies - UK History Local to You. BBC. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
- Rachel Bromwich (1950). "Cantre'r Gwaelod and Ker-Is". In Cyril Fox, Bruce Dickins. The Early Cultures of North-West Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 231.
- Antone Minard (2000). "Pre-Packaged Breton Folk Narrative". In Amy Hale and Philip Payton. New Directions In Celtic Studies. University of Exeter Press. p. 60. ISBN 9780859896221.
- Haughton, Brian (2008). Haunted spaces, sacred places : a field guide to stone circles, crop circles, ancient tombs, and supernatural landscapes. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books. p. 100. ISBN 1-60163-000-X.
- "Cardigan Bay to the Dee". Coast. Series 1. Episode 4. 2005. BBC.
- "5. Submerged Forest". Mid Wales Coast - Ynyslas Walk. BBC. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
- Thomas Love Peacock, Thomas Love (1829). "1. The Prosperity of Gwaelod". The Misfortunes of Elphin. Thomas Hookham. p. 240.
- Ashton, William. "31. The Lost Cantref Gwaelod". The Evolution of a Coast-Line, Barrow to Aberystwyth and the Isle of Man, with Notes on Lost Towns, Submarine Discoveries, &C. London: Edward Stanford Ltd. ISBN 978-1-176-60264-9. (map illustration on page 257)
- Morris, Siân Lewis & Jackie (2002). Cities in the sea. Llandysul: Pont. ISBN 1-84323-172-7.
- "Cerys Matthews writes children's book of Welsh legends". BBC News. 4 May 2011. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
- "About us". St Peter's Church website. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
- "New bell rings as the tide rises in Aberdyfi, Gwynedd". BBC News. 12 July 2011. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
- "Time and Tide Bell". Marcus Vergette official website. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
- Director: Elen Rhys, Producer; Dylan Adams, Writer (15 October 2009). "Cantre'r Gwaelod". Telly Tales. BBC. BBC Two Wales, Cbeebies. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ndwpq. Retrieved 4 January 2012.