‘Pious hermit! Knowst thou not, from dusky eve until return of morn, that tortured spirits in yon castle rove?’
In an wonderful work of 1826 entitled, ‘Legends of Terror and Tales of the Wonderful and the Wild’, an extraordinarily gothic tale, full of bats and screech owls, is told of Rhuddlan Castle, quite in keeping with the zeitgeist for stories of the weird in the early 19th century. In tone, it seems a mixture of Le Fanu, Stoker and Moorcock. It is told in the fashion of a fireside tale between a hermit and a pilgrim, who has lately received a terrible fright at Rhuddlan Castle.
The tale seems to be set during the 11th century, since the princes of Wales, ‘with pleasure did… observe her implacable enemy, the English, struggling to overcome a foreign foe – bloody were the battles fought with William of Normandy’. The story tries to shoehorn in some history of the Castle, but its fiction should not detract from a cracking tale.
The tale concerns the fair Elrida, princess of Rhuddlan and her father, Sir Rhyswick. While singing on the walls of the Castle, a melancholy Elrida meets a warrior knight, ‘in sable armour clad, with a Blood-red Plume waving on his brow.’ She falls immediately in love with the knight, and thus begins a tale of tragedy and terror.
‘Elrida was astonished; there was a wildness in the jet black eye of the unknown, that, while it fascinated, alarmed her—a beautiful colour tinged his cheek; but not of that nature to which she was accustomed. His locks were black and sleek—his figure was noble, and commanding—his voice, though harmony itself, still conveyed a hollow sound that was not pleasing. In short, his whole appearance, while it charmed to admiration, filled her with a kind of tremor; and she returned to the palace of Rhuddlan, charmed, and at the same time awed, with the martial appearance of the stranger’
The warrior knight leaves as suddenly as he appeared, but while accompanying her father, Sir Rhyswick on a hunt the following day, she meets the knight once again. Elrida, the, ‘heroic huntress’ becomes lost, and is found by the warrior knight, who formally introduces himself as, 'Wertwrold'. The warrior’s courting of the beautiful princess begins in earnest, and Wertwrold escorts her back to Rhuddlan Castle where he is feted for his saving of the princess.
Though Wertwrold attempts to leave once more, he is persuaded to stay through the fervent pleas of Sir Rhyswick and Elrida, who, ‘upon her knees entreats it.’ What follows is a tale of forlorn longing, as both Wertwrold and Elrida seemed fated to a relationship of ditant love, for Rhyswick has found a husband for his daughter, the prince Morven, that would end the prospect of war between the various Welsh kingdoms. Elrida and Wertwrold are despondent, with the warrior knight claiming that without Elrida as his wife, he is doomed,
‘Elrida,’ cried the knight, ‘my fate is in your hands – do with me as you please – you alone can avert my cruel destiny. From this moment I cease to hope or despair.’
Elrida, as is ever the way in such tales, is torn between her duty to her father, her people and her heart. However, they cannot be kept apart, the power of their love for one another overwhelming duty and propriety. Wertwrold nobly makes to leave, but does so reluctantly,
‘Farewll Elrida – irresistible fate leads me hence – and oh! Sometimes give a thought on him who harbours for you a fruitless passion.’
This is too much for the fair Elrida, and she submits to her passion, ‘Oh Wertwrold! cried the maid, and, sinking on his bosom. ‘I am yours and yours alone.’
Yet Wertwrold seems to doubt Elrida still, unsure of her feelings for him and doubts her claims that she would renounce the world for him. He gives her a charmed ring, upon which should she breathe, he would, ‘fly, in obedience to your command, though at the extremity of the world.’
Her father meets her for breakfast, and having learned that her intended husband will arrive at Rhuddlan earlier than originally, is astonished to find his daughter beside herself with misery,
‘I shall never know happiness with a man whom my heart will not acknowledge for its lord… as you love my peace of mind, send back the prince - Elrida cannot be the bride of Morven – another object has enchained her heart.’
Her father is furious, and banishes her to her room. Elrida, heartsick removes the charmed ring of Wertwrold and presses it to her lips. Immediately Wertwrold appears,
‘I come,’ he cried, ‘at your command, from the bosom of the vasty deep, to serve the mistress of my heart.’
It becomes clear that Wertwrold has a dark secret, a secret that despite Elrida's attempts to pry from her beloved, remains guarded,
‘Who I am, lady, must remain a secret – what I am, my warm sighs, my great affliction have revealed – your lover.’
Wertwrold likens Elrida’s decision as to love or duty, to a pair of roses, one in full bloom, the other withered and dying. Which, he asks, would she chose? The rose full of life, is her answer.
‘Then live, Elrida – life to enjoy the tide of pleasure and of happiness.’
At this they plan to together flee Rhuddlan Castle, to run from duty and be together.
Morven arrives the next morning, to the joy of a people who are tired of war and conflict. The prince is utterly enamoured of Elrida, and cannot wait to marry his the fair princess of Rhuddlan.
That evening Wertwrold appears, and seeks to leave with Elrida. But the princess begins to question her actions, her duty begins to encroach upon her love for the warrior knight of the Blood Red Plume.
‘Perjured Elrida! false fleeting woman – is this your truth – is this constantcy?’ snaps Wertwrold, and matters take a darker, more gothic turn.
Thus shamed, Elrida finally fully submits, and shockingly, Wertwrold gives her a dagger, and as they flee and are pursued, the warrior knight, once so noble, demands his lover use the blade upon her father, Sir Rhyswick.
‘In the bosom of my father? Cried she with horror. ‘Wertwrold – Merciful heavens! do not my ears deceive me? Horror! Horror! In the bosom of my father – Away, monster,’
But Wertwrold was insistent, and dragged Elrida on, aiming to reach a coracle hidden on the banks of the River Clwyd. Sir Rhyswick is in pursuit, and nearing his fleeing daughter, Wertwrold implores his love to kill her father. Though her conscience attempts to stay her hand, she turns and plunges the blade into her father’s breast,
‘Cruel Elrida!’ he gasps as he dies.
Riven with guilt and shame, but completely in the thrall of the Warrior of the Blood Red Plume, Elrida and Wertwrold continue to flee, pursued now by Morven. At last, as Elrida begins to faint from the guilt and pain, she clings to Wertwrold, who begins to smile a horrible smile,
‘Wertwrold?’ she exclaims, ‘Do you upbraid me?’
And it is here the true tragedy begins to become clear, ‘Enamoured beauty, no,’ he cries, ‘To me, this guilt is pleasure: had you deluged the world in a sea of blood, or brought another chaos on the earth – Wertwrold would have smiled.’
“For Heaven's sake,” cried the almost expiring criminal; “tell me, who are you?”
“The Warrior Knight of the Blood-red Plume; but,” he continued, “Erilda is beyond the reach of mercy — is inevitably mine—and I will reveal myself in all my glowing colours. I am an agent of the great infernal — my residence is in the bosom of the Clwyd — my occupation is to aggravate the crimes on earth, and be the great instigater of war and rapine: in my bosom spring those seeds of faction, which I scatter in the breasts of princes, urging them to raise the sword against each other's life, and plunge each other's nation in a torrent of destructive war: but this had ceased — Morven's father had restored Wales to prosperity and peace—and I, in the bosom of my native stream, was doomed to sleep and brood new broils, in painful inactivity. While thus my mind was occupied with thought, an incubus approached my bed, and breathed Erilda's fame into my ear: I was arouzed with the Sweet image my fancy drew; and, on beholding the enchanting object, found her sweeter than my imagination had painted her — and, from that moment, I resolved to make her mine. I heard of her many virtues — of her piety — and what a feeling heart she boasted; this news instructed me what shape to assume ; and the Warrior Knight of the Blood-red Plume answered every purpose. Erilda was easily ensnared: she pitied me, because she thought me unfortunate — pity instantly begat love — love the glowing fire of all-consuming passion. I had no power to deceive, but speciously—”
Laughing at Elrida’s efforts to pray for forgiveness, for killing the father that had loved and nurtured her, the Knight of the Blood Red Plume transforms into the monster that he always was. Suddenly covered in green scales and slime, a trident appeared in his terrible hand and screeching he plunged the terrible weapon into Elrida’s body. With thunder crashing about them on the walls of Rhuddlan Castle, lightning striking forth amongst the roiling clouds, the fiend grasps the dying Elrida by the hair and throws her from the walls into the Clwyd far below. Clinging to a a little life, she clung to the rocks by the riverbank, and saw her father’s ghost, plaintively pointing to the wound in his chest. And with that, Elrida dies, and is swept away by the river. The fair maiden of Rhuddlan can still be heard at times, screaming at her rage, and shame and guilt, and there have been visions of the Warrior of the Blood Red Plume pursuing the damned Elrida through the ruins of the Castle.
‘Such is the tale of Rhuddlan’s ruined towers. Pilgrim, go thy way, stop not within its blasted walls, foul fiends ride upon the misty air, and the demons of the angry Clwyd claim it as their right.’