“Seithennin, saf-di allan, ac edrychwyr-di faranres môr. Maes Gwyddnau rydöes.” | Boddi Maes Gwyddno, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin
When I was a little girl, I adored the Mabinogion, and the works of Susan Cooper. I loved the hints of the supernatural: the moonlit nights, the connections to an ancient land where magic was a reality. One could condemn a cheating wife to an eternity as an owl, or discover on their 11th birthday that they’re the last of an ancient line of guardians fighting a battle against the Dark. One of the most powerful stories I read, and which was included within Susan Cooper’s book Silver on The Tree, was the story of the Drowned Hundred, or the Kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod.
“Sure,’ Bran said. He chuckled. ‘From the Drowned Hundred, no doubt.’ Barney said blankly, ‘Whatever’s that?’ ‘Haven’t you heard that old story yet? About where the Bells of Aberdyfi ring, all ghostly out at sea on a summer night, over there?’ Masked by the dark glasses that covered his pale eyes once more, Bran got to his feet and pointed out at the mouth of the estuary, all of it sunlit now beneath wider patches of blue. “That was supposed to be Cantr’er Gwaelod , the Lowland Hundred, the lovely fertile land of the King Gwyddno Garanhir, centuries ago. The only trouble was, it was so flat that the seawater had to be kept out by dykes, and one night there was a terrible storm and the sea-wall broke, and all the water came in. And the land was drowned.” | Susan Cooper, ‘Silver on The Tree’
The story of the Drowned Hundred has several different versions, as a story so old is prone to do. But the simple outline is that the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod was a beautiful, fertile part of the realm. This land was protected from the sea by sluice gates, which were opened at low tide and closed again when it returned. However, one night a huge storm rolled in and the watchman, Seithennin, was too busy partying at King Gwydnno Garahir‘s palaces near Aberystwyth to shut the gates. Anybody remotely acquainted with the nightlife of Aberystwyth will understand how the unfortunate Seithennin could have been caught out in this manner, but the result of his night of frivolity was the flooding of Cantre’r Gwaelod, jewel of the land of Wales, which was drowned during the storm. Only a few members of the Royal Court managed to escape the deluge: over sixteen villages were drowned, and the people living within them. In other versions of the story, Seithennin is a visiting monarch and drunkenly seduces Mererid, the fair maiden in charge of the sluice gates, allowing the storm to do its worst to the lands and people of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Today, on still nights, it is said that one can still hear the bells of the old city tolling beneath the waves: tolling to remind the people of Borth and Aberdyfi of the loss of Gwydnno Garahir’s ancient kingdom.
This version of the legend is contained within the Black Book of Carmarthen, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, which is held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgel Genedlaethol Cymru in Aberystwyth. The manuscript is not only one of the oldest known works written in the Welsh language, it is designated one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales, and was written by a single scribe. The manuscript has been digitised by the National Library and is therefore available online via their website, where you can view folios from it, or access an image gallery. It is also part of the Library’s 4 Books exhibition, which unites for the first time the Black Book of Carmarthen and Book of Taliesin, also held at the Library, with the Book of Aneirin from Cardiff Central Library and the Red Book of Hergest from Jesus College, Oxford.
The recent storms in the UK, and the damaging effect on the Aberystwyth seafront and surrounding coastline, has done several things. It has allowed the story to take on another layer of resonance: we understand, now, the power of the sea and the inconsistency of nature: how it can turn on us, and take away something we thought was permanent. It has also physically returned Cantre’r Gwaelod to us, by stripping away the layers of sand and peat bog that have covered the area for over 4,000 years. Legend is made real once more.