Wales has many great folk tales, but perhaps few are more evocative than the tale of Gelert, the faithful and heroic hound that died an undeserved death.
The story goes as follows: Gelert was owned by Llywelyn, the 13th century prince of Gwynedd, and was guarding the prince’s infant son when his master went out hunting.
When Llywelyn returned, he was horrified to see Gelert by the crib with blood around his mouth. Believing the dog had killed his son, the prince took out his sword and killed the dog. But then came the cries of a baby, and Llywelyn swiftly realised the truth: There, under the crib, lay a dead wolf, killed by the brave Gelert before it could attack the infant.
Mortified by the killing of his heroic and innocent dog, the prince had Gelert buried with great ceremony and reportedly never smiled again. So goes the tale, and visitors to the beautiful village of Beddgelert in Snowdonia (Gelert’s grave in English) can visit his supposed resting place.
However, the truth is rather different. The tale in its present form is an 18th century legend, a reworking of a 15th century story in which the dog was called Cilhart and actually died of exhaustion after a long hunt. As for the grave, that’s also an 18th century fabrication, created by the local innkeeper as an attraction for tourists.
However, while the story of the dog is a legend, there actually was a real Gelert, or rather Celer. He was a saint and martyr who lived as a hermit in the seventh century.
St Celer lived in Plas Gelert near Llandysul in Ceredigion, where there is an Orthodox monastic community bearing his name today. He is believed to have undertaken missionary work in the Beddgelert area, hence the association, but the ‘grave’ is no more his than that of Prince Llywelyn’s dog.
Of course, none of this detracts from the beauty of the village, which lies at the foot of Moel Hebog and is on the narrow gauge Welsh Highland Railway. This railway celebrates its centenary in 2023, so that’s one bit of local history that needs no legendary retelling.
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