Back in the summer I was totally smitten by this circle of six ancient wood-carved figures in a forest clearing in Tintern, Monmouthshire.
The figures themselves, sculpted from oak (or in one case sweet chestnut), are not ancient, but the people they represent are historical and mythical characters at the heart of this part of the country.
They were created by sculptors Neil Gow and John Hobbs between 2002 and 2003, partly funded by the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and commissioned by the Monmouthshire County Council Countryside Service.
The figures stand at the Old Station in Tintern, not far from the famous Cistercian Abbey, about which I have posted before here.
In a railway carriage at the Old Station you can watch a video about the six characters and you will also find a complete explanation of the figures on this link, along with maps for walking trails in the area. But here is a summary of the importance of this “Circle of Legends”…
Sabrina is the Latin name for Hafren, goddess of the river Severn that separates South Wales from England.
Her story is told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says she was the daughter of a married English king and a woman called Elfridis. The king’s wife allegedly killed him and had Sabrina and her mother thrown into the river, where Sabrina became a goddess of healing.
In Wales the second Severn bridge is sometimes called Pont Hafren after the goddess and the river.
Geoffrey of Monmouth
At the core of the Monmouthshire legends is their teller, Geoffrey of Monmouth, born around the year 1100, who wrote the History of the Kings of Britain, which glorified King Arthur and brought King Lear and Old King Cole into our literature.
Surely most people in Britain have heard of the legends of King Arthur and he has been the subject of many movies and TV series, the latest being the BBC’s Merlin.
Perhaps closer to the original “real” Arthur was the 1970s TV series Arthur of the Britons. Some historians believe he was Arthwys (or Arthuruis) ap Meurig ap Tewdrig, a 7th century chieftain/king in Gwent (the old name for Monmouthshire).
Tewdrig is believed by some to have been the grandfather of Arthur, but he has his own story, perhaps more likely to be true than the Arthurian legends.
Tewdrig was a 6th century king of Gwent but retired to become a hermit in Tintern. Then the Saxons invaded and his people begged him to come out of retirement to fight them. Although he foresaw his own death in battle, he defeated the Saxons at Pont y Saison, “Bridge of the Saxons”, not too far from Tintern.
The border skirmishes between English (Saxon) and Welsh cut both ways and in the 8th century the Welsh incursions into England were becoming such a pain that Offa’s Dyke was built as a defence all the way along the Welsh border from north coast to south coast.
The dyke follows the cliffs on the far side of the River Wye from Tintern Abbey and the Old Station.
Offa was Saxon ruler of the Midland kingdom of Mercia, which stretched as far North as the Humber, his reign lasting from 757 to 796.
Eleanor of Provence
The final character in the Circle of Legends was very real – Eleanor of Provence, who lived from 1223 to 1291.
Eleanor was younger sister of the Queen of France and married England’s King Henry III. They had nine children, including King Edward I, who warred with the Welsh and built several great concentric castles in North Wales.
Eleanor also dabbled in architecture and her influence can be seen at Grosmont Church and Grosmont Castle. On the day I visited the Circle of Legends we tried to find the centre of nearby Grosmont with all its wonders, including a lovely town hall from the days when this village was a thriving market town, third biggest in the county.
But we failed miserably and sailed straight past in the car, lost in the impenetrable rolling green countryside of this Monmouthshire triangle.
I will write a separate post about the Old Station at Tintern, so watch this space…