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SNOWDONIA, THE FASTNESS OF LLEWELYN
THE story of the great struggle of Wales for freedom under a Prince of her own is laid, fitly enough, amid the wild scenery that surrounds the highest point in Southern Britain. The whole district of Snowdon, with its grim moorlands and towering heights forming a bulwark to the western shore, breathes an air of freedom, and it was here that the last Llewelyn defied the might of the first English Edward.
Roused by the bitter lament of those who had fallen under the yoke of the Anglo-Norman barons, Llewelyn, Lord of Snowdon, threw off the pretence of alliance and friendship which Henry III. had thought well to keep up between them, and claimed to be ruler of all Wales, as his grandfather had done in the days of Henry II. During the long Barons' War in England the "Lord of Snowdon" found no difficulty in maintaining his right to be "Prince of Wales"; the real trouble only began when Edward I., on his accession, called upon the Prince to do homage as his vassal. For two years Llewelyn paid no heed, and when he heard that an English army was advancing upon him, went out boldly to meet it.
But the chieftains of Central and South Wales turned traitor, his own brother David deserted him, and the Prince, driven back to the inmost recesses of his mountain fastness, was forced to lay down his arms. Preferring to have him as friend rather than enemy, Edward behaved generously enough, merely seizing a large slice of his dominions, confining him to the Snowdon district, and providing that the title "Prince of Wales" should cease at his death.
Four years elapsed of outward peace and inward commotion. Then came a rumour of a strange event. Long years before, Merlin, a famous Welsh bard and prophet, had foretold that "when English money became round, a Prince of Wales should be crowned in London." In 1282 a new copper coinage had taken the place of the usual breaking of the silver penny into halves and quarters; and in that same year the traitor David, who had been rewarded with an English earldom, threw off his allegiance to Edward, and appeared with an army before his brother's dwelling-place. Gladly did Llewelyn once more raise the standard of revolt, and a desperate struggle for freedom began. The great army of the English King, encircling the Snowdon range, which was the headquarters of the Prince, drew in closer and closer; but meantime the English soldiers were suffering terribly in that hard winter of 1282, which the hardy Welshmen, living in the snowbound caves of the mountain, seemed to pass through unheeding. As long as Llewelyn was there to inspire and cheer, pain and even death were to be welcomed; but almost by chance the men of Wales lost their leader in a quite unimportant skirmish. Llewelyn had emerged from his mountain lair, and, hoping to drive the English from the Brecknock district, had ridden forth to meet some allies. He was met by a party of English horsemen and cut down by an almost unknown knight. With Llewelyn, "our last ruler," as the Welsh still call him, the cause of Welsh independence was lost. At Rhuddlan, in Flintshire, you may still see a bit of the wall remaining where the Statute of Wales was passed by the Parliament held there in 1284; and in that Statute Edward showed the greatest wisdom; for, instead of forcing English laws and customs upon them, he allowed the Welsh to keep their own as far as possible, altering them only where it was clearly for their own advantage.
It was at Carnarvon Castle, which guards the entrance to "Snowdonia," that the little Prince was born who was presented by Edward I. to the Welsh chieftains upon a shield as a "Prince of Wales who could not speak a word of English." And nowadays Carnarvon is, perhaps, the best starting-point from which to take a glimpse of this wild and mountainous district.
Behind us, as we look towards the mountains, lie the Menai Straits, spanned by the fine suspension bridge, so strong and yet so fairy-like with its arches of Anglesey marble, that it has been called a " poem in stone and iron." This bridge continues the Holyhead road to the island of Anglesey, the home of the Llewelyns, where the soil is so fertile that an old saying declares that it can provide corn enough for all the people in Wales; and thence, across the island, we may reach Holyhead, the starting-point for the Irish mail-boats.
Travelling towards Snowdon by rail to Llanberis, the scenery changes rapidly from pretty woods and pastures to that of rugged heights, crags, and rockbound lakes. The mountain valley in which the village lies is commanded by the very ancient Welsh castle of Dolbadarn, once the prison of Owen, the brother of the ill-fated Llewelyn, Lord of Snowdon. Below is the great lake, and beyond the wild Pass of Llanberis, bounded by a "tumultuous chaos of rock and crag, as if Titans in some burst of fury had been rending cliffs and flinging their fragments far and wide." If we are lazy, we may climb Snowdon by the little mountain train, but if not, we set off the ascent till, just below the steepest part, we turn off a little from the path to look at the wonderful hollow of Cwmglas, high up in the mountainside, with its two tiny tarns, surrounded by "striated" or glacier-marked rocks.
A steep scramble brings us to the top of Snowdon, and if it is a clear day a glorious view rewards us. Beyond the line of sea is the blue range of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland; below us, half hidden by the crags and shoulders of the huge mass, lie lakes and valleys, and the quiet lowlands stretching to the borders of the Atlantic.
Through one of the loveliest of these valleys we reach the mountain-girt village of Beddgelert. You all know the story of Llewelyn and his faithful dog, killed by his master because he thought he had eaten the child he had in reality saved from a wolf. Here you may see the stones which mark his tomb; but you will probably be told that the story is but a myth, and that the grave is really that of a Welsh chieftain named Gelert, and not of a dog at all. You may console yourselves with knowing that, whether this is true or not, the picturesque little village was a favourite hunting-spot for the Llewelyn whose story we know in history, and that the curious little church there is part of one of the oldest monasteries in Wales.
Another beautiful valley leads to the famous pass and bridge of Aberglaslyn. Here the huge cliffs on either hand approach so closely to one another that there is barely room for road and river; and the wooded slopes, as they near the water, afford a strong contrast to the wild rocks above.
After this rugged splendour, the prettiness of the Fairy Glen at Bettws-y-Coed will seem tame enough. We will not linger there, but will finish our glimpse of this land of Llewelyn by a visit to Conway Castle, built by Edward I. in 1283, to safeguard this part of Wild Wales that he had so hardly won.
"The town of Conway," rugged without, beautiful within," is a fine example of the fortified walled towns of the Middle Ages. The walls are triangular, and are said to represent a Welsh harp, and are entered by crumbling stone gateways.
Above them towers the castle of Edward I., in which he was himself besieged on one occasion by the rebel Welsh, and was only saved by the arrival of his fleet.
The poet Gray makes this neighbourhood the scene of an event upon which the light of history throws grave doubt. The English King, believing that the conquest of Wales would never be completed while the bards remained to stir up the patriotic zeal of their fellow-countrymen, is said to have ordered a general massacre of them on the banks of the River Conway. It was the prophetic curse pronounced on the King by one of these bards, standing "on a rock, whose haughty brow frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood," which
"Scattered wild dismay
As down the steep of Snowdon's shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array."
In spite of "Cambria's curse and Cambria's tears," the English King must have felt fairly secure within the massive walls of the castle, whose banqueting-hall, now open to the sky, and ivy-grown, is of such noble length and breadth that it might well have contained a regiment of retainers. The passionate patriotism of Wales had little chance against the solid strength of English builders and English troops.