Benlli Gawr, which renders into English as Benlli the Giant, was a semi-mythical figure active in North East Wales in the years following the withdrawal of direct Roman rule at the beginning of the 5th century. All we know of Benlli comes largely from the Historia Brittonum, an 9th century compilation of British history, credited to the British monk, Nennius. This, in itself is something quite extraordinary, but Benlli’s presence in the landscape is also telling, and lends itself to a consideration of his importance in the area.
In Nennius, if myth and legend are to be believed, Benlli was a tyrant (whatever that actually meant in a 5th century context), known for his viciousness, contempt for the rule of law, delighting in the murder of Christians and his eventual fate at the hands of St Germanus of Auxerre (St Garmon). John Rhys considered Benlli as one of the, ‘dark figures in the Celtic pantheon.’ Reading between the lines, it is hard not to credit Benlli’s rivalry with Germanus as having its origin in the Saint’s stated aim of ridding these Islands of Pelagianism.
While the following tale is thoroughly exciting, it is worth keeping Thomas Pennant's observation of the story to mind, mindful that Nennius,
‘as is too usual with our ancient historians, blends so ridiculous a legend with the mention of him [Benlli] as would destroy the belief of his existence.’
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, p. 27
The Bronze Age cairn within the ramparts of Moel Fenlli
Still, from Moel Fenlli, his lawless band of thoroughly bad sorts would roam the Vale of Clwyd, killing and stealing whatever they could, from whoever they found, and leaving a trail of death behind them. They took particular pleasure in torturing the Christian missionaries they found travelling through the Vale, before killing them and leaving their bodies for the beasts.
St Garmon, whose life in North East Wales can be seen in a variety of place names, and who is mentioned prominently on Eliseg’s Pillar, had gathered Christian forces and beaten what was believed to be a huge army of pagans, whether Picts or Saxons is still debated. Benlli had sided with the pagans, more from a desire to kill Christians than for any political gain. The battle, for ever since called the ‘Alleluia Battle’ was fought in a field now called Maes Garmon. It was a rather one sided affair, and actually could not really be said to be a battle at all, since very little fighting took place.
Garmon’s forces, seeing the pagan army approaching from a distance, hid until the enemy was upon them. At the last possible moment before discovery by the enemy, Garmon rose and cried, ‘Alleluia!’ As one, his forces rose from their hiding places and repeated the deafening cry of, ‘Alleluia!’ Terrified, the pagan forces were routed. As they fled, Garmon noted the vile Benlli amongst their fleeing number, and decided then that he was a problem that must be dealt with.
Some days later, Garmon climbed the slopes of Benlli’s hillfort near to Bwlch Pen Barras, in a bid to confront the tyrant, and convert as many of his band to Christianity as possible. Benlli was at heart a coward, despite his great size, and refused to meet the Christian Garmon. Instead, he sent a lowly swineherd, who he hoped would insult the man with his lack of standing. Nothing of it, of course, for when Cadell opened the gate a little and peered through, Garmon saw immediately that the man was a good man, despite his company.
‘I would speak to Benlli, for I have much to explain to him with regard to his behaviour.’
‘My apologies, Master Garmon, but Benlli will not see you,’ replied Cadell.
‘Very well. If he is too much of a COWARD ‘, snapped Garmon, ‘to see me, I make this offer to the inhabitants of this den of iniquity directly.’ At this, Garmon looked up at the great wooden palisade that faced him. ‘All who would follow Christ, should leave this place and come with me. Baptised in the waters of the Alun, you will be free of sin, and shall join with us to make this place a beating heart of righteousness.’
The response was laughter and insults from within, thrown rubbish from the walls. Garmon could hear the screamed insults of Benlli from behind the palisade.
But Cadell was quiet. As Garmon turned to leave, Cadell touched his arm. ‘I would join you, Master Garmon, but I am afraid…’
Garmon smiled. ‘There is no need to fear Benlli and his despicable horde. Follow me, my son, and you will be safe in the love of Christ.’
With that, Garmon began to walk down the slope back into the Vale, Cadell following, screamed at, insulted and threatened as they left.
That evening, in Cadell’s little cottage, the two men prayed, and Cadell was baptised in the fast flowing waters of the Alun. Cadell, a poor man, killed the only calf he owned to feed Garmon and his party, but with the Saint’s intercession, found the calf alive the next morning. But despite these signs of power and God’s favour, Cadell was worried, fearing Benlli’s wrath.
‘Fear not, Cadell, have faith, for the Lord will ensure that Benlli is punished for his crimes.’
That night, Cadell slept fitfully, but prayed and finally slept in the hours before morning. In the little light before dawn, he awoke and leaving the cottage, he was amazed to see that there was a glow in the sky…and it was becoming closer and closer.
Eventually, he saw it for what it was; a huge fireball descending upon the fortress of Benlli. It tore through the early morning sky, leaving a wake of smoke and fume, before striking the hillfort. An enormous explosion threw Cadell to the ground, and brought out a yawning, stretching and wholly unsurprised Garmon from the cottage.
‘Is it done?’ he asked, looking up at the raging inferno on the hill.
‘I should think so,’ replied an incredulous Cadell.
‘Well, that’s good…what’s for breakfast?’
But Benlli was not dead. According to a cywydd written in the 16th century by Gruffudd ab Ieuan ab Llywelyn Fychan (relating to the waters of Ffynnon Gynhafal), Benlli had, by some miracle, survived the fire, though terribly burnt. He raged at the destruction of his fort, at the death of his band of ne’er-do-wells, and wandered the Vale of Clwyd, killing anyone who even vaguely looked like a Christian.
It was his further bad luck, however, to eventually come across another saint, this time Cynhafal, who was travelling along the old Roman road. Rather dramatically, Benlli, the ‘hoary giant’ leapt out from a bush, confronting the diminutive Cynhafal in the road. He brandished his axe, a huge thing, dulled with dried blood, his badly healed burns livid and ugly.
‘Prepare to die, little Christian!’ he screamed, ‘I shall rend you into little-‘
‘Oh do calm down,’ snapped, Cynhafal, who had known that Benlli wandered the road, and was unafraid. ‘Your anger shall burn you deeper than the fire that burnt your fort to ashes.’
Benlli hated being interrupted, it made him feel unimportant, and he screamed in rage. And as he did, he felt his blood begin to boil. He dropped his axe in fright, looked at the hands that had held the axe shaft and wide eyed, watched them smoulder.
‘What have you done?’ he cried.
‘What I am doing, through the Lord, of course,’ said Cynhafal, ‘is finishing the job that Garmon began.’
And with that, Benlli erupted into flames. He wailed through the flames and fled, a ‘frantic lion’, throwing himself into the River Alun. But cursed by the Lord, the River ran dry to prevent Benlli dowsing himself. Instead, Benlli ran and ran and ran, trailing black smoke and the sickening smell of burning flesh. Interestingly, Gruffudd claims the spot on the Alyn at which Benlli tried to dowse the flames was called, ‘Hesp Alun’ in Cilcain Parish - Dry (or barren) Alun. And at Cilcain, the Alun can run beneath the village for some distance at certain times of the year.
Cynhafal followed Benlli’s trail, it was not hard, and finally came across an enormous pile of ash. Benlli had been quite consumed by the Lord’s wrath. Cynhafal pondered a while, and then carefully scattered the still hot ashes with a sandaled foot, tutting at the mess it made of his robe.
At Bryn yr Ellyllon, the extraordinary Mold Gold Cape was found - the cairn has been associated with Benlli Fawr - an indication of his enduring legacy in the area.
I will freely admit to having embellished these tales a little - it’s in the nature of such stories to be handled so, and I couldn't help myself, in all honesty. In fact, the Nennius and Gruffudd versions both tell of Benlli being killed in flame by their respective saints. Affected in a brief but somewhat intense intercession by the Muse, I have conflated the two. Nennius’ version is freely available, while Gruffudd’s version was rather second hand, leaning heavily on Baring-Gould and Fisher.
While Benlli bore the brunt of Christian ire, painted as a tyrant, outlaw and murderer, we should of course be extremely cautious in believing such tales mirror the truth. Pennant’s thoughts ever in our minds. I would go as far as to say that Benlli was probably no myth, but rather a man of power and influence, who for reasons unstated, but probably related to Pelagianism, was roughly treated in writing by the literate clergy.
And it seems unlikely, given the memory of his name in the landscape, that Fenlli is a complete fiction. Obviously, Moel Fenlli bears his name, and Nennius claims it to have been his capital - this is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility, given its stature and importance, its visibility and clear power. Ynys Enlli, off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula (sometimes known as Bardsey Island) also carries his name - and it is hard not to see this as indicating that Benlli was a man of some considerable influence and prestige.
Benlli is also spoken of in the Black Book of Carmarthen, in a passage relating to his son, Beli - a passage also to be found within the Myvyrian Archaiology.
‘Pieu y bed yn y maes mawr
Balch y law ar i lafnawr
Bet beli vab benlli gawr.’*
Allan o’r Llyfr Du O Gaerfyrddin, Englynion Beddau Milwyr Ynys Prydain, Myvyrian Archaiology, 1870, no. 73, p 68
Perhaps, however, the most interesting and intriguing appearance of Benlli in the lore and legend of the area, is his apparent connection to the Mold Gold Cape. In the years before the discovery of this extraordinary artefact, the cairn within which it was found was said to be haunted by a giant spectre, dressed in a golden corslet, with witnesses claiming to have seen the spirit standing upon the ancient grave. Thus the cairn became known as the grave of Benlli Gawr, reflected in the plaque near to the site of Bryn yr Ellyllon, despite it predating him by over 2000 years. Such is the enduring memory of Benlli Gawr.
* Whose is the grave on Maes Mawr? He whose proud hand was upon his blade. The grave of Beli son of Benlli Gawr
S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, Lives of the British Saints Vol 2, London, 1908
ed. J. Gwenogvryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, Pwllheli, 1906
Ed. O. Jones, E. Williams & W. O Pughe, The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales, Denbigh, 1870
Nennius, Historia Brittonum, ed. Rev. W. Gunn, London, 1819
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, ed. J. Rhys, Caernarvon, 1883
J. Rhys, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, Oxford, 1891
T. Price, Hanes Cymru, Crughywel, 1842