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The Mold Gold Cape

On October 11th 1833 in a field on the outskirts of Mold, one of the most astonishing finds ever discovered in Wales was made - the Mold Gold Cape.  In fact, one could suggest with some confidence that the Cape is one of the most important finds in the British Isles, such is its value to our knowledge of the very ancient past of these Islands.  Thought now to date from the Early Bronze Age, some time around 1900 BC, it was likely worn on ceremonial occasions by a woman, perhaps a young person.  This thinking is the result of near enough two centuries of study and research, experimental archaeology and the patient gathering together of missing fragments of this amazing artefact.  It is hard to overestimate its importance, its influence - it continues to astonish, to challenge and to ask questions about our ancestors and their place in the greater society of Bronze Age Europe.  It has inspired and continues to inspire, has been the continued subject of historical articles, books and television programmes, but also artistic expression.  The excellence of its fashioning continues to dazzle.

 

It would be fair to say, that the focus of all subsequent work on the Cape has been historical, its aim to establish its providence, its place and relevance in the early Bronze Age - in north east Wales, in Wales, Britain and indeed Europe.  This article will not expand on our current historical knowledge of the Cape, but will rather summarize the development of our understanding of this awe-inspiring artefact.  And it will attempt to do something else - something largely overlooked since its discovery.  It will unashamedly address the place of the Cape in the folklore and myth of north east Wales, both at the time of its discovery and now.  It will in fact look at how Bryn yr Ellyllon, the tumulus in which the Cape was found, was a focus of myth and mystery before the famous discovery, and how the Cape has enhanced that mystery, played into it, even while it increased and continues to enhance our historical understanding of the early Bronze Age.  What remains utterly fascinating, is how the Cape has enlivened the mystery, rather than undermined it.  There is something rather profound in that.

 

The story of the Cape’s discovery is an extraordinary tale in itself.  What is little known is just how very close we came to losing this incredible artefact - indeed, what we have today is only a portion of the entire find, since much has been lost. Today, the tumulus of Bryn y Ellyllon is gone, levelled out and reduced to nothing behind housing dating from the early 20th century, but in 1833 it was a field tenanted to a John Langford, an agent to the Leeswood Estate.  There is some confusion as to why ten workmen under Langford found themselves in Cae Ellyllon on that day, but it seems they were either employed to dig for gravel in order to repair the adjoining road for which Langford was responsible, or to fill in an ‘unsightly’ pit which had already been dug for that purpose.  Either way, the job involved using the Bryn yr Ellyllon tumulus.

 

And consider that name, since it is a curious name for a tumulus, in truth. That is not to say that tumuli and barrows were not seen as supernatural in origin - often they were, our ignorance as to their providence obscured by superstition. You will find any number of such mounds named as bedd y cawr, which renders into English as, ‘the giants grave’ - a reference to the size of the mound, while also recognizing their existence as graves.  And attributing such works to giants is not, of course, specific to the native Welsh.  I am reminded of the Old English poem, The Ruin.

 

‘These wall-stones are wondrous —

calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants

corrupted.’

 

Yet, in this field in Mold, is something different.  Bryn yr Ellyllon translates as, ‘Hill of the Goblins’ or, ‘Goblin Hill’, and that is something altogether more curious.  It seems that the Tylwyth Teg and the Ellyllon are often considered to be one and the same, children of Annwn.  But it seems that while the Tylwyth Teg are often, though not always, depicted in folkloric tales as a comely people, honourable, mischievous perhaps, but inherently honourable, the Ellyllon are depicted as malicious.  Later tales often attach them to the Devil, Y Gwr Drwg.  And so the curiosity of this tumulus in Mold named as Bryn yr Ellyllon - a connection, it seems to a malevolent, darker past.

 

In a letter by Langford to John Fenton of Fishguard (son of the famous antiquarian, Richard Fenton) written in January 1835, over a year after the discovery in his field, and quoted by John Gage Esq, he describes how,

 

‘The gold breast-plate, now in my possession, was raised on the 11th October 1833 from a description of rough vault in a field in my field (about a quarter of a mile from the town) called Bryn-yr-Ellyllon.  The stones had partially fallen in, among which were found bones of a man, and the breast-plate, which was partly bent together from the weight of the stones which had fallen on it.  The discovery happened by removing what appeared to be a mass of litter, in order to level the mound with the rest of the field.  About three or four hundred loads of pebbles and other stones were found upon the place where the body had apparently been laid.’

 

So, one of the greatest historical discoveries in British history is thus described.  We owe a tremendous debt to the Reverend Charles Butler Clough, Vicar of Mold, for much of our early knowledge, since it is likely that his early intervention was the reason the Cape came to be seen for what it was and thus bought by the British Museum.  In a letter to John Gage, quoted in the Archaeologia (1836), Butler Clough describes in considerable detail the circumstances of the find.  He describes how 4ft from the top of Bryn yr Ellyllon, the ‘corselet’ was found.

 

‘It lay as it would have been worn, with the breast upwards, the back parts doubled behind, and contained within it a considerable number of small bones, vertebrae, etc., but none of them longer than from 2 to 3 in. The scull, of no unusual size, lay at the upper end, but no bones of the extremities were noticed.  These bones had no symptoms of fire upon them.  The Corselet was very resplendent.  Upon it in rows lay a quantity of beads, some of which I saw, but cannot now procure one.  They were evidently made of some kind of resin, as they broke bright and clear, and burnt well with the smell of that substance.

 

There were also remains of coarse cloth or serge, which from it appearing connected with or inclosing the beads formed, I should supposed, their covering, and was fastened round the edges or upon parts of the Corselet as braiding.  Some holes in the edge of the gold create an idea that this braiding was fastened on through them.  There were also several pieces of copper upon which the gold had been riveted with small nails, and which are still in Mr Langford’s possession.

 

A quantity of what was apparently iron rust, or iron completely decayed was the only further relic worthy of observation.  But while the chieftain’s bones were thus committed to the ground, unconsumed and apparelled as in life, it was not so with his followers; from two to three yards from the spot where he lay an urn was found, but, unfortunately, was broken to pieces by the workmen and more than a wheelbarrow full of remnants of burnt bones and ashes with it.  Some small pieces of these bones have been examined by an experienced surgeon, who has no doubt of their being human.  A quantity also of wood charcoal was found, which was like sponge, and when pressed discharged a black fluid.  Some of the largest stones which had been heaped together, were from 8 to 10 hundred pounds, or more, in weight; one or two of these were within 2 or 3ft of the Corselet.’

 

Butler Clough’s gives us a much better account of the finds in Bryn yr Ellyllon, and hence a greater level of information as to what has been lost.  Just about everything he describes has been long lost, other than much of the ‘Corselet’.  He describes the rough handling of the grave goods and their mutilation, an evident reason for the subsequent 100 year difficulty in assigning the artefact a function.  It would seem that on its discovery, Langford, who was either there at the time of its discovery or arrived shortly thereafter, assigned the finds little value and threw the ‘Corselet’ into a nearby hedge, instructing the workmen to bring it with them ‘when they returned home to dinner’.  It would seem the workmen did as they were instructed, although they broke off several substantial pieces of the corselet and distributed them amongst themselves.  It would seem that the vast majority of the other goods, especially the amber beads were similarly lost - today, only one known bead remains.

 

In 1869, Charles Henry Leslie wrote an account of the discovery in, ‘Rambles Around Mold’, and graphically describes how the site of the tumulus became something of a free-for-all.

 

‘...and the shining substance was pronounced to be GOLD. Alas! That so many Goths were among the crowd - persons who ought to have known better, began to break pieces off this gold treasure trove, and pocket them, this [thus] mutilating what would otherwise have been the most important, and most valuable antiquity of the kind any nation could boast of possessing…’

 

Shortly after the discovery, the antiquarian Miss Angharad Llwyd of Caerwys writes of the finding of the artefact, describing it as a ‘lorica’, a type of Roman body armour, a continuation of the belief that it was a breastplate of sorts.  But perhaps more interesting, she also gives some considerable details of the find site, Cae Ellyllon, or Field of the Goblins.  It should be said that many of the tales told of Cae Ellyllon subsequent to the discovery cannot be confirmed to have originated before 1833 with any certainty.  But it would seem that the field within which the Cape was discovered was known locally as a haunted place, known as Cae Ellyllon - and mention has already been made of the malevolent conclusions that can be made from the association of a place to the Ellyllon.  It’s probable that some considerable embellishment took place, traditional stories long known and told effectively supercharged by the find.  It’s just as likely that the field had a nefarious reputation - the name alone suggests this.

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Today the Cape is seen primarily as a priceless object, revered for its importance in what it can tell us about the early Bronze Age in Britain and north east Wales in particular.  In 1833, while some clearly saw its importance, the overlooked aspect of the find is the tremendous outpouring of folkloric tales the discovery induced.  It seems there was a huge interest in writing down in diaries, journals and even academic articles the legendary tales of Cae Ellyllon.  I rather fancy that while we should be ever careful, critical and err on the side of caution, we should not entirely dismiss the traditions of Cae Ellyllon as meaningless, or entirely invented after the discovery.  And it is true to say that some of those that recollected the tales of the field predating the find must be considered reliable.

 

The stories of Cae Ellyllon seem to largely involve the appearance of a formidable golden spectre seen standing upon the tumulus.  Angharad Llwyd lists a number of worthies who claim to have been told tales of Cae Ellyllon in the years leading up to 1833 - and that list includes  the Reverend Charles Butler Clough, the surgeon Mr Hughes, a Miss Wynne and Mr Williams (described as an intelligent agent of a Mr Cooke).  All tell of these hauntings being the reason why locals refused to walk through the field, though there was a path to do so.  Langford also told a, ‘Mr Newcome, Warden of Ruthin (the same Newcome who was noted as a friend of the Ladies of Llangollen and an author of a biography of Gabriel Goodman) that 25 years earlier he had heard the tale of a woman leading her drunken husband through the field when they both saw,

 

‘The Golden Spectre standing on the Tommen, which scared the woman into fits and the man into sobriety.’

 

The surgeon, Mr Hughes also relates the story of Nancy, who witnessed the gigantic golden figure in around 1819 while bringing home Langford’s cattle - and lived long enough to enjoy, ‘the idea of having lived to hear on her dying bed that the ghost was raised.’  Further stories related by Langford, Hughes and others tell of people having gone quite mad as a result of having witnessed the golden figure.  Llwyd further tells us of a boy who saw the figure in Cae Ellyllon, which he called the, ‘freetening of Bryn Ellyllon’ - a curious name for north east Wales, since the word ‘freetening’ is profoundly northern English in origin. Many such similar anecdotes were said to be common in the town.

 

Curiously, Margaret Butler Clough, the wife of our hero, Charles wrote a book of tales from north east Wales, by the title of, ‘Scenes and Stories Little Known’ (1869) which tells of the discovery of the Cape in rather lurid verse, but which does rather suggest a mysterious tradition to the field before the discovery.

 

‘...and the aged men

Who dwelt in yonder hamlet in the glen,

Would warn the children- ‘Go ye not to near,’

‘The Ancient King wakes there, behold, and fear.’

 

Such in my days of childhood , was the tale

That thrilled my fancy in the lovely vale .

Nor was inquiry made by any one,

How rose the tale, though well and widely known.’

 

So what are we to make of all these tales? Localised excitement, hysteria, superstitious twaddle? Perhaps. But, I rather fancy there is something to be regarded here - something of more note than credulous folk jumping in on a find of splendour. It would seem the name of the field before 1833 was known as Cae Ellyllon, and I would suggest that this would confirm that the area was known as a place of hauntings. Continued speculation suggested that the tumulus was the grave of none other than Benlli Gawr, he of Moel Fenlli, scourge of the Christian, who fought at the Alleluia Battle and fell foul of Saints Garmon and Cynhafal.  This probably stems from the belief that Benlli Gawr was a giant (as his name makes plain, of course), and the visions of a ‘giant golden spectre’ on the find site thus seems eminently logical.  It’s a common mistake, since the tumulus pre-dates the stories of Benlli Gawr by near enough 2000 years.  Still, the wish to weave a warp and weft of a narrative to explain the unknown is a reminder of our determination to make sense of things.

 

Immediately after the find, much of the finds were distributed amongst all and sundry.  The organic remains, a wheelbarrow full we are told by Butler Clough, were quickly lost, most turning to dust on exposure to the 19th century.  The amber beads are long lost, with just one known example remaining with the British Museum - some were burnt.  The cloth has disappeared, and pieces of the Cape melted down and rendered into jewelry.  It’s likely that there are pieces still out there somewhere, forgotten about in drawers and cupboards, on fingers and around throats - their owners oblivious to the fact they are wearing parts of a 4000 year old Bronze Age cape.  Some of the pieces were given to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, and these pieces were loaned to the British Museum in an effort to make sense of the artefact. Interestingly, some of these pieces, while definitely from Bryn yr Ellyllon are not of the Cape.  It would seem the grave contained a second golden object, another cape perhaps, suggesting all manner of new possibilities.  This is a line of enquiry currently being studied - it seems Bryn yr Ellyllon has not yet given up all its secrets.

 

Much of the Cape was saved.  Langford must have come to some kind of understanding of its worth soon after it was retrieved from the hedge he had thrown it into, probably from the furore of assorted antiquarians reacting to Butler-Clough’s observations.  He was apt to display the three pieces he had retained, eventually placing it in a glass case to prevent visitors from breaking off bits and having away with them.  He eventually sold the pieces to the British Museum in 1836, which is roughly when we start to gain the opinion of various antiquarians in letters written to journals of the day.  In the years following the sale of Langford's sizable pieces, the British Museum sought to buy as much of the ‘corselet’ as they could, and continued to do so till, incredibly, 1972.  Most of the pieces after 1836, however, were small, but all helped to build a picture of the purpose of the astonishing find.

 

As to its purpose, opinions, continued research and advances in our knowledge about our ancient past have consistently challenged conclusions made in the near two centuries since it was found.  It was thought at first to have been a corselet or breastplate, with, as you will recall, Angharad Llwyd referring to it as a lorica.  This led to many at the time believing the find was of Romano-British origin.  It is worth remembering that the definitions of the various ages, whether Bronze or Iron were only coming to be known as such at around this time, the work of the Dane, Christian Jurgensen.  By the beginning of the 20th century it was thought to be a peytrel, a chest ornament for a horse or a pony, and was described as such in a 1920 British Museum guidebook.

 

‘A piece of gold armour formerly known as the Mold corslet, is now seen to be a peytrel (French, poitrail) or brunt for a pony...A discovery of this kind demonstrates in a striking manner the abundance of gold at the end of our Bronze period.  It is obvious that before a warrior would decorate his horse with the precious metal, he had doubtless satisfied his own personal needs in this direction.’

 

As is clear from the guide, some rather sweeping conclusions were made, and as is obvious, the assertion was made that the artefact dated from the end of the Bronze Age, a time when the differences between the use of bronze and iron were much blurred.

 

It was not until the 1950s that the British Museum began to seriously once more assess the artefact in their care.  The historian T.G.E. Powell reassessed the peytrel as, in fact, a ceremonial cape - an opinion that became something considerably more certain a decade later with the first serious restoration of the artefact, having gathered together as much of the find as they thought at the time to be possible.  A further reconstruction took place in 2002, and confirmed the conclusions made by Powell in the 1950s.  What we have today, a centrepiece of the British Museum’s exhibition on the British Bronze Age, is the fruits of those reconstructions - the matter of its purpose seems, at last, to be at rest.

 

Interestingly, this debate as to the purpose of the Cape and the providence of Bryn yr Ellyllon has been reflected in the various plaques placed at or nearby the site.  The first plaque was a simple affair,

 

‘Bedd Benlli Gawr, 473’

 

Developments in our understanding of the find required a replacement in 1923, although it is curious to see the continued belief that the grave was possibly that of Benlli Gawr.

 

‘A cairn in this field explored in 1831 proved to be the burial place of an ancient British Chief. His amber bead adornments and the exquisitely worked gold breastplate of his war horse are now treasured in the British Museum, London, and give credit to the genius of the Celt so much admired by the Romans. Tradition ascribes this as possibly the grave of Benlli Gawr, a British Prince.’

 

As to who wore the Cape and when, current thinking seems to suggest that it was worn on ceremonial occasions and by a woman or young person, since it is thought to have been too slight to have fitted any man important enough to wear the item - a chieftain perhaps.  Certainly, the fabled Benlli Gawr would have been far too big to have worn the Cape.  It is, by all accounts, difficult to move one's upper arms whilst wearing the Cape, and it’s heavy.

 

The date of the Cape’s making has changed over the years.  As has been said, it was first thought to be from the end of the Roman occupation, a fifth or sixth century date mooted.  It was not long, however, before the date was radically pushed back, as the notion of a Bronze Age became a reality.  By the beginning of the 20th century, the age of the Cape had been revised as to having been fashioned in the middle Bronze Age, somewhere around 1500 BC.  Current studies by Dr. Stuart Needham have pushed back that date even further to the beginning of the Bronze Age, a date of around 1900 BC, largely based on stylistic interpretations.

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Even more astonishing is the story of its making.  Incredibly, the Cape was made from a single 700g ingot of gold.  Patiently and expertly beaten flat, the goldsmith then used a punching tool to create the intricate decoration, an utterly mesmerising detail of ribs and bosses, designed to give the impression of strings of beads within folds of cloth. In truth, it is something that at first thought would seem more at home in the golden hordes discovered at Troy by Schliemann in 1876, and the Mediterranean area in the later 19th century - but the discovery of the Mold Gold Cape predates them all.  The Cape is evidence of the very highest artistry and skill and challenges us to think differently about our ancient ancestors - these were no backward thinking people in the middle of nowhere - far from it.  These people were at the technical forefront, at the cutting edge of an early Bronze Age zeitgeist of thought, belief as well as craftsmanship.

 

Predictably then, there has been and remains a lively debate as to whether the Cape was made locally to the burial it was found within.  For a long time it was considered unquestionably to have been made elsewhere - those that thought so were not so quick to suggest where, just not here.  After all, how could a thing of such skill and beauty have been made in north east Wales?  Such thinking is still with us.  Yet, it is clear that there is an undeniable case for the Cape having been made in the area of Mold, perhaps by an individual working at the very edge of wild, wide eyed madness, perhaps by a small team within a workshop pushing each other to genius - I am reminded of the white hot creativity of the Italian Renaissance of the 14th - 17th centuries.  All the resources required to do so are close to hand, even possibly the gold itself (though it has long been considered a given that the gold was from Ireland). Undoubtedly, the Bronze Age peoples of north east Wales were tied into the robust trade networks stretching from Ireland, through the entirety of the British Isles and to the European continent.  The extraordinary grave goods found at nearby Llong, of many jet and jet like beads, not found in north Wales, are evidence enough of that.  It’s thus likely that this area of north east Wales was wealthy - perhaps partly fuelled by the skill of the goods being made here. The discovery of the Caergwrle Bowl, a rather incredible 3000 year old representation of a sea going vessel (the only example in the British Isles, it is worth noting) suggests an understanding of international trade and communication by the peoples of the area.  With the copper mines of the Great Orme just 40 miles away, and those of Alderley Edge some 50 miles distant, it’s as likely as not that this area of north east Wales was wealthy, an area of power and prestige.  Llong is a good example of the general wealth of the area, and there is undoubtedly more to be found.

 

The burial in which the cape was deposited was exceptional, certainly, and there is a question to be asked about the location of the tumulus, situated as it is in a curiously low lying area by the River Alyn.  Most, though not all tumuli do seem to have been placed on higher ground.  It’s possible that this burial in Cae Ellyllon, and the example at Llong, are evidence of the area being of exceptional ceremonial and spiritual importance, perhaps centred on the River Alyn.  Again, the Caergwrle Bowl, deposited as a votive offering in the marshy ground by the Alyn some 800 years later than the Cape’s fashioning has something to say about that.

 

The influence of the Mold Gold Cape has been nothing short of extraordinary, challenging and changing the way we think about the early Bronze Age and north east Wales specifically.  Its power has been recognised throughout Europe.  It has been the subject of countless academic studies, books radio and television programmes, even a woefully historically inaccurate bluegrass song, ‘King of Boys’ by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.  It was number 19 in the BBC Radio 4 series, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ and most recently recognised as a vibrant piece of early ‘Welsh’ art in a BBC Wales television series.  It continues to inspire artists of all forms, challenging them, pushing them to excellence.  During the summer of 2013, it was exhibited in Cardiff, before making a triumphant appearance at Wrexham Museum between August and September of that same year.  To look upon the Cape within its native north east Wales was entirely the most moving experience.