‘Maen Huail on which tradition states King Arthur beheaded Huail, brother of Gildas the historian.'
Thus reads the older of the two plaques attached to Exmewe House above this weather worn and limestone boulder in St Peter’s Square.
In ‘The Quarrel of Arthur and Huail, and the Death of Huail ap Caw’ by Elis Gruffud (c.1550), who was also known as the, ‘Soldier of Calais’, the following tale is told:
‘Kaw o Brydain was the name of a chieftain who ruled of Edeirnion, in North Wales. He had two sons, Gildas and Huail. Huail was gwr gorhewg anllad 'cheeky and wanton'. He obtained possession of one of Arthur's mistresses. Arthur cam to spy upon the pair, and a fierce combat took place between him and Huail. Finally Huail wounded Arthur in the knee. After this peace was made between them, on the condition that Huail should never reproach Arthur with regard to his wound. Arthur returned to his court at Caerwys, but for ever after he remained slightly lame.
On a subsequent occasion Arthur dressed himself in women's clothes in order to visit a girl at Rhuthun. Huail chanced to come there, and he recognized Arthur by his lameness, as he was dancing in a company of girls. These were his words: Da iawn yw downshio velly oni bai'r glun 'This dancing were all right if it were not for the knee'. Arthur heard them and knew who had spoken them. He returned to his court where he caused Huail to be brought before him, and he reproached him bitterly with his faithlessness. Huail was taken to Rhuthun, where Arthur cutt off his head on a stone in the market-place, which to this day is known as Maen Huail.’
Gruffud’s characterisation of Huail as gwr gorhewg anllad, and as dismissive of the powers that be, is reflected by a mention of him in Culhwch and Olwen. He is listed there at Arthur’s court, amongst the many sons of Caw, and described as having never, ‘submitted to a lord’s control’ - including, it would seem, Arthur himself. Interestingly, Culhwch and Olwen also suggests an alternative cause of the feud with Arthur, stating that Huail stabbed Gwydre son of Llwydeu, his nephew, son of his sister, Gwenabwy, causing the King to take against him, causing, in fact, hatred.
Huail’s brother was, as mentioned above, Gildas, the British monk of the 6th century, famous for the fulminating, ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae’, in which he recounts the struggle of the native British population against the incoming tide of migrant Saxons. The book is as much a lengthy criticism of the ungodly British kings, whose lack of respect for Christian devotion led to the deprivations of the Saxons, a divine retribution. In the Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llangarfan, dated to 1130-1150, further problems with Arthur appear, since Hueil is described as the eldest of the sons of Caw and, with shades of Culhwch and Olwen,
‘an active warrior and most distinguished soldier, submitted to no king, not even to Arthur. He used to harass the latter, and to provoke the greatest anger between them both. He would often swoop down from Scotland, set up conflagrations, and carry off spoils with victory and renown. In consequence, the king of all Britain, on hearing that the high-spirited youth had done such things and was doing similar things, pursued the victorious and excellent youth, who, as the inhabitants used to assert and hope, was destined to be king. In the hostile pursuit and council of war held on the island of Minau, he killed the young plunderer.'
The Life of Gildas, Caradoc of Llangarfan, Fordham University
Huail is also mentioned in the Englynion y Clyweid, contained in the Red Book of Talgarth, written around 1400, and also included in one of the Triads (though his name was subsequently changed in the Red Book of Hergest), in which he is described as a warrior of fame and renown.
'Hast thou heard what was sung by Huail
The son of Caw, whose saying was just?
Often will a curse fall from the bosom.'
From the sources, then, we have a Huail that would seem aggressively anti-establishment, a warrior of some renown and dismissive of his ‘betters’. His feud with Arthur, however the ancient Welsh texts paint it, seem to stem from Huail’s refusal to bend the knee to Arthur’s rule. Quite a character then.
Mythologists, and historians have often pondered as to the lack of an Arthur figure in Gildas’ work, given that there is a belief that the mythological Arthur was in fact based on a warlord who met with some success against the Saxon onslaught, most notably at Mount Badon. There are a number of possible reasons why this may be the case. The first is that there was in fact, no individual Arthur figure. The second, is that since this Arthur figure was in actual fact, somewhat successful against the enemy, there was no reason to write of this man in a work written purely to eviscerate the failures of the native kings of Ynys Prydein. The third is more pertinent to the tradition of Maen Huail – Arthur killed his brother. Indeed, Gerald of Wales tells us that Gildas was furious at the death of his brother at the hands of Arthur.
'The Britons maintain that, when Gildas criticized his own people so bitterly, he wrote as he did because he was so infuriated by the fact that King Arthur had killed his own brother, who was a Scottish chieftain. When he heard of his brother's death, also the Britons say, he threw into the sea a number of outstanding books which he had written in their praise and about Arthur's achievements. As a result you will find no book which gives an authentic account of that great prince.'
Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales Book II, Chapter 3
Caradoc, suggests a calmer Gildas, a more Godly Gildas, apt to forgive, but reading between the lines the suggestion that Arthur was not the British Monk’s favourite person is clear.
‘Gildas, historian of the Britons, who was staying in Ireland directing studies and preaching in the city of Armagh, heard that his brother had been slain by King Arthur. He was grieved at hearing the news, wept with lamentation, as a dear brother for a dear brother. He prayed daily for his brother's spirit; and, moreover, he used to pray for Arthur, his brother's persecutor and murderer, fulfilling the apostolic commandment, which says: Love those who persecute you, and do good to them that hate you. [Luke vi, 27]’
The Life of Gildas, Caradoc of Llangarfan, Fordham University
The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales suggests that the limestone block might well have been moved, possibly from the centre of St Peter’s Square, and some have thought that in fact, the Stone was originally a preaching stone or civic stone - quite right. But they were not above an appreciation of the legend.
‘It points to the romantic country around the southern end of the Vale of Clwyd as the centre of a body of Arthurian legend, with characteristics of its own.’
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales Denbigh, (1914), p. 182
Edward Lhuyd in 1699 recorded the name of the stone as, 'Maen Heol', calling it a 'flat stone in the middle of the street', suggesting he was somewhat unsure - not minded to dismiss the traditions surrounding the Stone entirely, but hedging his bets nonetheless. Still, the traditions of Arthur in North East Wales are stubborn and can be found throughout the region - and Maen Huail is fully part of that legend.
Caradoc of Llangarfan, The Life of Gildas, Fordham University
S. Davies, The Mabinogion, Oxford, (2007)
Elis Gruffudd, Cronicl o Wech Oesoedd
E. Lhuyd, Supplement Parochialia, Archaeologia Cambrensis, April (1909) Part 1
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales Denbigh, London, (1914)