Gelert is a legendary dog. He was the supposed favourite hunting hound of Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd, the most powerful man in Wales in the early 13th century. The dog is associated with the village of Beddgelert (which means grave of gelert) in northwest Wales. The heart-wrenching story of Gelert has been told many times. As in our retelling of the legend, Prince Llywelyn leaves his faithful hound to guard his baby son while he goes hunting. On his return he discovers an overturned empty cradle and Gelert with blood stained fur around his mouth. Thinking the dog had attacked his son, he draws his sword and kills the dog, only to discover his child safe behind the cot with a wolf lying dead beside it. Brave Gelert had saved the baby’s life. Overcome with remorse he buries the dog with great ceremony. Despite making what amends he can, he still continues to hear the dog’s dying yelp and, from that day, he never smiles again. In Beddgelert there is an enclosure, shaded by a tree and protected by modern railings. In the enclosure in front of a large limestone boulder are two slate tablets that bear the story one in English and one in Welsh.
Is the story true?
Unfortunately, the story may have had more to do with tourism than truth. It is widely accepted that the village took its name from a priory that was once sited there, dedicated to Saint Celert or Kilart. So how did the village name become associated with the story of the dog Gelert? Well, it seems that history and myth become a little blurred when, in 1793, a man called David Pritchard came to live in Beddgelert. He was the landlord of the Royal Goat Inn (now the Royal Goat Hotel). He merged a Welsh legend about a dog named Cilhart, buried at Beddgelert, with the story of a brave dog whose master thinks it has killed his baby son. Making up the name of Gelert, he adapted it to fit the village. His aim was to increase trade at the inn. Indeed, rather than a memorial put in place long ago by a grieving remorseful prince, the grave is actually just over 200 years old. It is thought to have been erected at the turn of the 19th century by Pritchard with the help of the parish clerk and several other villagers, in an attempt to lure Snowdon's visitors to the village and thus line their pockets.
So is there any truth in the tale? Well, it is certainly true that hunting with dogs was a popular and important sport for the nobility in medieval times. So important that killing a greyhound was punishable by death, a punishment equivalent to that for murder. In the earliest recorded version of the legend, dating to the late 15th century, Gelert (known then as Cilhart) died of exhaustion after a long and arduous hunt and was duly buried at Beddgelert. But, whilst it was very likely that Prince Llywelyn did indeed own a number of hunting dogs, possibly greyhounds or Irish wolf hounds, it is very unlikely that he ever killed poor Gelert in a case of mistaken criminal identity.
What are the origins of the tale?
From The Jungle Books, Volume 2 by Rudyard Kipling
The story appears, in one form or another, in many countries of the world. The earliest of these is from India. In ancient India the mongoose was a natural enemy of the snake, and a useful pet for this reason. In an old Indian folktale, ‘The Brahmin's Wife and the Mongoose’, the Brahmin's wife has only a single son and she also cares for a mongoose like a son. One day she tucks her son in bed and asks her husband to protect the boy, whilst she goes for water, but the Brahman goes off to beg for food, leaving the house empty. While he is gone, a black snake slithers from his hole towards the baby’s cradle. The mongoose, afraid for the life of his baby brother, falls upon the vicious serpent and tears him to bits. Delighted with his own bravery, he runs, blood trickling from his mouth, to greet the mother. Horrified at the sight and thinking he must have eaten her baby boy, she angrily drops the water-jar upon him, killing him instantly. She hurries home, where she finds the baby safe and sound, and a great black snake torn to bits. Realising she has thoughtlessly killed her benefactor, she is overwhelmed with sorrow. When the Brahman came home with a dish of rice gruel, “Greedy! Greedy!” she cries. “Because you did not do as I told you, I must now taste the bitterness of death”. The story soon became one of the world's most travelled tales but, as it migrated eastwards and westwards, the animals involved varied according to the culture of the tellers. In Persia the mongoose became a cat; in Malaysia, there is there is a tame protective bear and a vicious, prowling tiger. The bear is kept by a Malay hunter as the guardian of his young daughter. Returning home from an expedition, he finds his daughter gone and the bear covered in blood. Hastily thinking the bear has devoured his daughter, the hunter kills it with his spear, but later finds the body of a tiger, killed by the bear in defense of the daughter, who shortly emerges from the her jungle refuge. In Western variants of the story, the animal saviour is most often a ‘faithful hound’. In France, the story became the cult of the greyhound Saint Guinefort and, in
Austria, it was a sheepdog.
Why does it have such an impact?
The popularity and impact of the story comes from the fact that it covers some very powerful emotions:- injustice, repentance and grief. These are feelings that we can all identify with and are likely to experience, in some way or another, in our lives. The story is often used as a cautionary tale against taking hasty action. It also includes the undeserved death of an innocent and reminds us of, what is in the UK one of our most valued principles of justice – 'innocent until proven guilty’, a premise dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. In Western versions of the story, the protector of the child is usually a dog. In Britain the dog was a popular pet for the aristocracy from early times. With the advent of the industrial revolution the new wealthy merchant class wanted to emulate the lifestyle of the upper class and the dog became a must have acquisition. The Victorians began a love affair with the dog that still continues today. It is an animal to which we are particularly close, they hunt for us, work for us, guard our properties and families and provide affection for us. They also look to us with trust to treat them with kindness and fairness. All which makes the death of brave Gelert seems incredibly unjust. In Victorian times, versions of the tale became even more elaborate and sentimental in the telling, with poor Gelert, for example, gently licking or nuzzling his master’s hand in forgiveness as it takes its last dying breath, a version guaranteed to strike at the sentimental heart of a dog loving population.
Who was Llywelyn the Great and why was the story attached to him?
Llywelyn ab Iorwerth
Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and eventually ruler over most of Wales. It is believed that David Pritchard attached the story to Llywelyn because of the Prince's connection with the nearby Abbey. It also helped that he was a nobleman and one of the most powerful ever to rule in Wales, thereby adding another dimension to the story - that even the powerful were fallible and could make mistakes.
Llywelyn was born about 1173, the grandson of Owain Gwynedd, who was of Prince of Gwynedd until his death in 1170. By combining war with diplomacy, Llywelyn dominated Wales for 40 years. During Llywelyn's boyhood, the rule of Gwynedd was split between two of his uncles. Llywelyn began a campaign to win power and by 1200 was the sole ruler of Gwynedd. He made a treaty with King John of England that year and he married John's natural daughter, Joan, in 1205. In some versions of the story, Gelert is given to him by King John. When John arrested Gwenwynwyn ab Owain of Powys in 1208, Llywelyn took the opportunity to annex southern Powys. However, in 1210, relations with the King deteriorated, and John invaded Gwynedd in 1211. Llywelyn was forced to seek terms and to give up all lands east of the River Conwy. Never one to be defeated for long, he recovered them the following year in alliance with the other Welsh princes. He then allied himself with the barons who forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. By 1216, he was the dominant power in Wales, holding a council at Aberdyfi to apportion lands to the other princes. Following King John's death, Llywelyn concluded the Treaty of Worcester with his successor, Henry III, in 1218. During the next fifteen years, Llywelyn was frequently involved in fights with the Marcher lords (rulers of the Welsh Marches) and sometimes with the king, but also made alliances with major powers. The Peace of Middle agreed between Llywelyn and the king in 1234 saw the end of Llywelyn's military career. It was an agreed truce of two years but was extended, year by year, for the remainder of his reign until his death in 1240.
Nevertheless, despite all these achievements, outside Wales, Llywelyn probably remains best known for his actions towards a legendary dog.
How did the Story of Gelert become so well known?
This story formed the basis for several English poems, including 'Beth-Gelert' by the Hon William R Spencer. It was first printed in a private broadsheet around 1800 and then in a collection of Spencer's poems in 1811. He stated that: "The story of this ballad is in a village at the foot of Snowdon where Llewellyn the Great had a house. The Greyhound named Gelert was given him by his father-in-law, King John, in the year 1205, and the place to this day is called Beth-Gelert, or the grave of Gelert." It also featured in poems by Richard Henry Horne, Robert Spencer, Francis Orray Ticknor and the dramatic poem ‘Llewellyn’ by Walter Richard Cassels. It is recorded in Wild Wales by George Borrow, who notes it as a well-known legend. Every year thousands of people still visit the grave of this brave dog!