Myths and legends of Pembrokeshire
A thousand years ago, Pembrokeshire was described as a land of mystery and enchantment by the anonymous author of The Mabinogion, an 11th century collection of folktales.
That description still rings true today as Pembrokeshire, the last rocky outpost of Wales thrusting out into the Celtic Sea, is still haunted by a wealth of ancient myths and legends.
Perhaps the most persistent of these legends concern St David – or Dewi Sant – the patron saint of Wales. According to the story, he was born to St Non, neice of King Arthur, during a fierce storm on the south coast of the peninsula which now bears his name.
As she gave birth, an unearthly light illuminated the scene, all became calm and still, and a spring of crystal clear water burst forth on the spot.
You can still see that spring high on the clifftop above St Non’s Bay to the south of St Davids, where a simple stone arch covers St Non’s Well. It is still a place of pilgrimage, and before the Reformation, water from the well was taken and used as holy water at nearby St David’s Cathedral.
St David, who was alleged to have lived to the ripe old age of 147 years, died in 588 and was buried in his cathedral church, where his tomb can still be seen in the west wall of the chapel of the Holy Trinity.
The connection of David’s mother St Non with King Arthur echoes another common theme in the folklore of Pembrokeshire. One of the many alleged sites of Arthur’s grave is at Bedd Arthur, high on the Preseli ridge, where the rocky outcrop of Cerrig Marchogion (the rocks of the knights), is also said to mark the spot where the mythical boar Twrch Trwyth slew several of Arthur’s knights and turned them into stone.
Of course, the bluestones of Stonehenge’s inner circle were taken from the Preselis, legend says magically by Arthur’s mentor Merlin from a mountain in Ireland. Others claim the 200-mile journey was made by glacial action, but modern archaeologists are convinced that they were transported by river and sea to Wiltshire.
The mysterious figure of St Govan, whose tiny 13th century chapel lies tucked away under the cliffs west of St Govan’s Head, also has Arthurian connections. Some scholars have identified him as the chivalrous Sir Gawain, hero of the early 15th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the chapel as the Green Chapel which marks the denouement of the story.
Prominent to the north of the Preselis is the magical mountain of Carningli, which although only 347m (1,138 ft), dominates the landscape around Newport. In old documents the mountain is called Carn Yengly or Carnengli, which has been translated as “the rocky summit of the angels.”
According to legend, St Brynach, a good friend of St David, used to climb to the summit in the 5th century to find serenity, to pray and to “commune with the angels”. Some people believe if you spend a night on the summit, you could find yourself dreaming of angels like Brynach.
An invisible line stretching from Brandy Brook near Newgale in the west to Amroth in the east marks an ancient social division in the Pembrokeshire landscape. Once marked by a line of over 50 Norman strongholds, it is known by the Saxon word of ‘Landsker’. At one time, it was frowned upon to marry across this social barrier, and was something which seldom occurred.
And if you are in Pembrokeshire on St David’s Day – March 1 – you may see people wearing a daffodil in their lapels and local children in traditional Welsh dress, in proud celebration of their locally-born patron saint. And some may even be wearing the special Tenby daffodil.
Read more about ancient sites on castles and heritage in Pembrokeshire.