Cantre'r Gwaelod – The Mythical Sunken Kingdom of Wales
The story of Atlantis is one of the most renowned and enduring tales from ancient Greece. This island, mentioned in the works of the philosopher Plato, was said to have been swallowed up by the sea and vanished. Yet, the story of Atlantis is not unique to the ancient Greeks, as other cultures also have similar legends of landmasses that disappeared under the waves. One of these is the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod from Wales.
Cantre’r Gwaelod (meaning ‘The Lowland Hundred’) is said to lie between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in the area known today as Cardigan Bay, in the west of Wales, UK. It is believed that Cantre’r Gwaelod extended about 32 kilometers west of the current shoreline into the bay.
The prehistoric fossilized trees off Cardigan Bay are sometimes revealed by low tides. Is this the legendary land of Cantre’r Gwaelod? Yrhenwr/Flickr
During the sixth century, Cantre’r Gwaelod was said to have been ruled over by a legendary king by the name of Gwyddno Garanhir. In fact, up to around the 17th century, Cantre’r Gwaelod was known as Maes Gwyddno (meaning ‘Gwyddno’s Land’), so named after this Welsh ruler. An earlier version of the legend associated with Maes Gwyddno asserts that the land was submerged under water when Mererid, a priestess of a fairy well, allowed the water to overflow.
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A different legend, however, is known and told today. In this version, Cantre’r Gwaelod is described as an extremely fertile land, so much so that an acre of land there was worth four elsewhere. The only problem with Cantre’r Gwaelod was that it was said to be dependent on a dyke to protect it from the sea. At low tide, the sluice gates were opened to allow water to drain from the land, and at high tide, the gates were closed.
In the more recent version of the story, the watchman appointed to look after the gates was a man called Seithennin, a friend of Gwyddno Garanhir, and a heavy drinker. According to this story, Seithennin was at a party at the king’s palace one night when a storm approached from the south-west. As he was either having too much fun, or else fell asleep due to too much alcohol, Seithennin did not notice the oncoming storm, and failed to close the sluice gates. As a result, it is said the sea rushed in to flood the land, and 16 villages where drowned. Gwyddno and his followers were forced to leave the fertile lowlands, and seek a living in less fertile areas.
In the earlier version of the story, it was not Seithennin, but the maiden Mererid who was responsible for watching the sluice gates. Seithennin was said to be a visiting king who distracted the maiden with his amorous advances. Once again in the tale a storm approached, and Mererid, who was busy with Seithennin, failed to notice it, was unable to shut the sluice gates, and caused the drowning of Cantre’r Gwaelod.
The submerged prehistoric forest at Borth Beach, Wales. Kristi Herbert/Flickr
Some believe in the existence of Cantre’r Gwaelod, and there were even plans to carry out an underwater search for this lost land.
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Remains of prehistoric forests are sometimes exposed in Cardigan Bay during stormy weather. In addition, a wattle walkway with associated posts, fossilized human and animal footprints, and well as some human tools were discovered in recent years. The dating of these items, however, suggests that they are thousands of years old, indicating that there was indeed land in the area that is now sea, though this was the case a long time before the reign of Gwyddno Garanhir.
Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that the remains of the ancient forest fired the imagination of the people who saw them, resulting in the tale of Cantre’r Gwaelod.
It is also possible that the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod can be viewed as a morality tale. The earlier version of the story is a lesson warning about the dangers of lust, while the later version promotes the virtue of temperance. These changes in the story may be an indication of the changes in the values of Welsh society over time. Regardless of whether Cantre’r Gwaelod existed or not, it is likely the legend will continue to be told, and perhaps updated from time to time with the latest findings.
Featured image: Cantre’r Gwaelod, or The Lowland Hundred: The stumps are the remains of an ancient submerged forest that extends along the coast. Is this a long-lost sunken kingdom? Wikimedia Commons
Kennedy, M., 2014. Prehistoric forest arises in Cardigan Bay after storms strip away sand. [Online]
news.bbc.co.uk, 2006. Experts look for 'watery kingdom'. [Online]
Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/mid_/5016240.stm
www.bbc.co.uk, 2014. Cantre’r Gwaelod – The Lost Land of Wales. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/myths_legends/wales/w_mid/article_1.shtml