Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy – Red Bandits of Mawddwy
The Red Bandits were a band of red-haired robbers,highwaymen or footpads from the area of Mawddwy in Mid Wales in the 16th century, who became famous in folk literature.
The area of Mawddwy was a territory where there were then great difficulties in preserving the law, since it was situated on the boundary between the Welsh Marches and Meirionnydd.
They say that the Gwylliaid were the dregs of society, who came to the Dinas Mawddwy area having been excommunicated from their own areas. Thomas Pennant believed that the Gwylliaid were the refuse of the English Civil War between the houses of York and Lancaster, who were forced, following peace between both families, to flee to another area to continue their uncivilized way of life.
Local residents feared the Gwylliaid and whenever they would travel away from home, they would carry arms. Some would put a scythe or a sharp knife in the chimney of their home, in case one of the Gwylliaid decided to enter the house through the chimney.
The Gwylliaid had their own customs and traditions, with one person leading the group. The Gwylliaid’s attacks on people and property increased to such an extent, that the authorities decided that they must act. Sir John Wynn ab Meredydd of Gwydir and the Baron Lewis Owain were appointed to gather two armies of armed men to try to defeat the Gwylliaid. One Christmas night, they succeeded to catch around one hundred of the Gwylliaid. Some were hanged and others were exiled from the area forever. Two brothers pleaded to be pardoned by the Baron Owain, but they were rejected, thus enraging the Gwylliaid. They were intent on revenge and one night, while the Baron Owain travelled home from Montgomeryshire, the Gwylliaid set traps on the road and shot arrows at the baron and his company. His body was found with thirty arrows attached to it.
The only certain historical knowledge about the bandits is this murder of the Sheriff of Meirionnydd, the Baron Lewis Owen, of Cwrt Plas-yn-dre,Dolgellau on 12 October 1555. The attack was carried out by a group of bandits in Dugoed Mawddwy, near Dinas Mawddwy. Several of the bandits were hanged for the murder, and there are laments for the Baron by a number of poets, including Gruffudd Hiraethog. In the subsequent court case it was alleged that John Goch, or John Goch ap Gruffudd ap Huw, was the man who struck the fatal blow.
Other information about the bandits comes from sources such as Thomas Pennant, who related the history with the chronicle of his visit to Dinas Mawddwy in about 1770. There is no certainty whether this part of the story is history or fable. According to Pennant the Sheriff had arrested a number of the bandits and was about to hang them; in their midst two sons of Lowri, daughter of Gruffudd Llwyd. One of these was very young, and Lowri implored the Baron to have mercy on the youngest, but Lewis Owen refused to listen, and hanged the two together with more than eighty other bandits. Pennant said that Lowri threatened vengeance on the sheriff:
… the mother, in a rage, told him (baring her neck) these yellow breasts have given suck to those who shall wash their hands in your blood.
Lowri daughter of Gruffudd Llwyd was named in the court case in Sesiwn Fawr, Bala, in 1558 following the murder, but she was described as a spinster. In an attempt to save herself from the gallows, she declared that she was pregnant. This was confirmed by a jury of married women. The memory remains about the bandits in a number of placenames in the area, for example Llety’r Gwylliaid (bandits lodging) and Llety’r Lladron (robbers lodging) near Bwlch Oerddrws. The pub in Mallwyd is named the Brigands Inn.
It’s 35 miles from Mawddwy to Montgomery.
A Welsh fairy tale: Red Bandits of Montgomery
Published in 1921
Author: William Elliot Griffis
When chimneys were first added to houses in Wales, and the style of house-building changed, from round to square, many old people found fault with the new fashion of letting the smoke out.
They declared they caught colds and sneezed oftener, than in the times gone by. The chimneys, they said, cost too much money, and were useless extravagances. They got along well enough, in the good old days, when the smoke had its own way of getting out. Then, it took plenty of time to pass through the doors and windholes, for no one person or thing was in a hurry, when they were young. Moreover, when the fireplace was in the middle of the floor, the whole family sat around it and had a sociable time.
It was true, as they confessed, when argued with, that the smell of the cooking used to linger too long. The soot also, hung in long streamers from the rafters, and stuck to the house, like old friends.
But the greatest and most practical objection of the old folks to the chimneys was that robbers used them to climb down at night and steal people’s money, when they were asleep. So, many householders used to set old scythe blades across the new smoke holes, to keep out the thieves, or to slice them up, if they persisted.
In Montgomery, which is one of the Welsh shires, there was an epidemic of robbery, and the doings of the Red Bandits are famous in history.
Now there was a young widow, whose husband had been killed by the footpads, or road robbers. She was left alone in the world, with a little boy baby in the cradle and only one cow in the byre. She had hard work to pay her rent, but as there were three or four scythes set in the chimney, and the cow stable had a good lock on it, she thought she was safe from burglars or common thieves.
But the Reds picked out the most expert chimney-climber in their gang, and he one night slipped down into the widow’s cottage, without making any noise or cutting off his nose, toes, or fingers. Then, robbing the widow of her rent money, he picked the lock of the byre and drove off the cow. In the morning, the poor woman found both doors open, but there was no money and no cow.
While she was crying over her loss, and wringing her hands, because of her poverty, she heard a knock at the door.
“Come in,” said the widow.
There entered an old lady with a kindly face. She was very tall and well dressed. Her cloak, her gloves, and shoes, and the ruffles under her high peaked Welsh head dress, were all green. The widow thought she looked like an animated leek. In her right hand was a long staff, and in her left, under her cloak, she held a little bag, that was green, also.
“Why do you weep?” asked the visitor.
Then the widow told her tale of woe–the story of the loss of her husband, and how a red robber, in spite of the scythe blades set in the chimney, had come down and taken away both her money and her cow.
Now, although she had sold all her butter and cream, she could neither pay her rent, nor have any buttermilk with her rye bread and flummery.
“Dry your tears and take comfort,” said the tall lady in the green peaked hat. “Here is money enough to pay your rent and buy another cow.” With that, she sat down at the round table near the peat fire. Opening her bag, the shining gold coins slid out and formed a little heap on the table.
“There, you can have all this, if you will give me all I want.”
At first, the widow’s eyes opened wide, and then she glanced at the cradle, where her baby was sleeping. Then she wondered, though she said nothing.
But the next moment, she was laughing at herself, and looking around at her poor cottage. She tried to guess what there was in it, that the old lady could possibly want.
“You can have anything I have. Name it,” she said cheerfully to her visitor.
But only a moment more, and all her fears returned at the thought that the visitor might ask for her boy.
The old lady spoke again and said:
“I want to help you all I can, but what I came here for is to get the little boy in the cradle.”
The widow now saw that the old woman was a fairy, and that if her visitor got hold of her son, she would never see her child again.
So she begged piteously of the old lady, to take anything and everything, except her one child.
“No, I want that boy, and, if you want the gold, you must let me take him.”
“Is there anything else that I can do for you, so that I may get the money?” asked the widow.
“Well, I’ll make it easier for you. There are two things I must tell you to cheer you.”
“What are they?” asked the widow, eagerly.
“One is, that by our fairy law, I cannot take your boy, until three days have passed. Then, I shall come again, and you shall have the gold; but only on the one condition I have stated.”
“And the next?” almost gasped the widow.
“If you can guess my name, you will doubly win; for then, I shall give you the gold and you can keep your boy.”
Without waiting for another word, the lady in green scooped up her money, put it back in the bag, and moved off and out the door.
The poor woman, at once a widow and mother, and now stripped of her property, fearing to lose her boy, brooded all night over her troubles and never slept a wink.
In the morning, she rose up, left her baby with a neighbor, and went to visit some relatives in the next village, which was several miles distant. She told her story, but her kinsfolk were too poor to help her. So, all disconsolate, she turned her face homewards.
On her way back she had to pass through the woods, where, on one side, was a clearing. In the middle of this open space, was a ring of grass. In the ring a little fairy lady was tripping around and singing to herself.
Creeping up silently, the anxious mother heard to her joy, a rhymed couplet and caught the sound of a name, several times repeated. It sounded like “Silly Doot.”
Hurrying home and perfectly sure that she knew the secret that would save her boy, she set cheerily about her regular work and daily tasks. In fact, she slept soundly that night.
Next day, in came the lady in green as before, with her bag of money. Taking her seat at the round table, near the fire, she poured out the gold. Then jingling the coins in the pile, she said:
“Now give up your boy, or guess my name, if you want me to help you.”
The young widow, feeling sure that she had the old fairy in a trap, thought she would have some fun first.
“How many guesses am I allowed?” she asked.
“All you want, and as many as you please,” answered the green lady, smiling.
The widow rattled off a string of names, English, Welsh and Biblical; but every time the fairy shook her head. Her eyes began to gleam, as if she felt certain of getting the boy. She even moved her chair around to the side nearest the cradle.
“One more guess,” cried the widow. “Can it be Silly Doot?”
At this sound, the fairy turned red with rage. At the same moment, the door opened wide and a blast of wind made the hearth fire flare up. Leaving her gold behind her, the old woman flew up the chimney, and disappeared over the housetops.
The widow scooped up the gold, bought two cows, furnished her cottage with new chairs and fresh flowers, and put the rest of the coins away under one of the flag stones at the hearth. When her boy grew up, she gave him a good education, and he became one of the fearless judges, who, with the aid of Baron Owen, rooted out of their lair the Red Bandits, that had robbed his mother. Since that day, there has been little crime in Wales–the best governed part of the kingdom.