Benlli Gawr, which translates simply as Benlli the Giant, is a semi-mythical figure from dark time after the end of the Roman occupation in the 5th century. He was believed to be a tyrant based within the hillfort that has taken his name, Moel Fenlli. He was known for his viciousness, his contempt the rule of law, and his delight in the killing of Christians.
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 this 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, briefly leaning towards the partially open gate, ‘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 Alyn, 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 and Cadell began to walk down the slope back into the Vale, screamed at, insulted and threatened as they went.
They evening, in Cadell’s little cottage, the two men prayed, and Cadell was baptised in the fast flowing waters of the Alyn. But 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 coming 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 Cadell.
‘Well, that’s good…what’s for breakfast?’
But Benlli was not dead. He 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 south along the old Roman road. Rather dramatically, Benlli 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. 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 cold steel of 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, throwing himself into the River Alyn. 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.
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.