This is a collection of 30 tales from the ancient lore of the modern county borough of Wrexham, including local legends, folk tales, stories of magic and mystery, and stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Wales is especially rich in the folklore of place, and this collection brings a new perspective to the study of place names and their history. Fluent in both the languages of Wales, the author has collected some unusual material, which will enchant non-Welsh speakers who have never heard them before.
About the Author
Fiona Collins is a storyteller telling traditional tales from around the world and specializing in Welsh folklore. She is a committed Welsh learner and almost fluent, which gives her access to local stories in both languages of Wales. She is the author of Denbighshire Folk Tales and The Legend of Pryderi.
Read an Excerpt
Wrexham County Folk Tales
By Fiona Collins
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Fiona Collins
All rights reserved.
The Massacre of the Monks
When the heathen trumpet's clang
Round beleaguered Chester rang,
Veiled nun and friar gray
Marched from Bangor's fair Abbaye;
High their holy anthem sounds,
Cestria's vale the hymn rebounds,
Floating down the sylvan Dee.
O Miserere, Domine!
On the long procession goes,
Glory round their crosses glows,
And the Virgin-mother mild
In their peaceful banner smiled:
Who could think such saintly band
Doomed to feel unhallowed hand!
Such was the Divine decree,
O Miserere, Domine!
Bands that masses only sung,
Hands that censers only swung,
Met the northern bow and bill,
Heard the war-cry wild and shrill;
Woe to Brochmael's feeble hand,
Woe to Aelfrid's bloody brand,
Woe to Saxon cruelty,
O Miserere, Domine!
Weltering amid warriors slain,
Spurned by steeds with bloody mane,
Slaughtered down by heathen blade,
Bangor's peaceful monks are laid;
Word of parting rest unspoken,
Mass unsung and bread unbroken;
For their souls for charity,
Sing, O Miserere, Domine!
Bangor! O'er the murder wail!
Long thy ruins told the tale,
Shattered towers and broken arch
Long recalled the woeful march:
On thy shrine no tapers burn,
Never shall thy priests return;
The pilgrim sighs and sings for thee,
O Miserere, Domine!
Written by Sir Walter Scott and set to music by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1817.
The massacre described in this poem is part history, part legend. Certainly it is historical fact that a great monastery once stood on the bank of the River Dee, in what is now Wrexham County Borough. It was described as 'the mother of all learning' but was so completely destroyed that archaeologists have found no trace of a religious centre that housed over 2,000 monks and an unknown number of lay brothers. The poet, however, is unlikely to have been correct in his assumption that there were also nuns there, for there is no evidence that the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee was a 'double-house' of the type established at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, by St Milburga.
When trying to reconstruct events which took place so long ago, history and legend soon collide. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Brut y Brenhinoedd, its British equivalent, the battle recalled in this poem took place in AD 604, though more recent scholars give the date as AD 616. The historical facts of this bloodbath are difficult to determine. Legend, however, is quite definite in its version of events.
It was St Dunod who established the monastery of Bangor-on-Dee, or Bangor-is-y-coed, as it is named in Welsh, in the late sixth century. In the ancient verses known as the Welsh Triads, it is named as one of the Three Perpetual Harmonies of the island of Britain, for 2,400 monks lived there, divided into groups of 100. Each group 'continued in prayer and service to God, ceaselessly and without rest' for an hour at a time each day, so that there was never a moment when words of worship could not be heard there.
When St Augustine arrived in Britain from Rome in AD 597, his mission from Pope Gregory was to convert the pagan Angles of the kingdom of Kent to Christianity. The king of Kent, Aethelberht (sometimes called Ethelbert), was married to Bertha, the Christian daughter of the King of the Franks, so it is possible that he was already a Christian before Augustine arrived.
Augustine, having won over and baptised many of the Saxons, turned his attention to the Christians in the west of Britain. He wanted them to acknowledge the supremacy of Rome and accept the Pope as head of the Church; this the British were loath to do, as their Church had a tradition of its own, reaching back to the Romano-British era. However, they were prepared to enter into dialogue with Augustine, and so the seven foremost bishops of Wales agreed to meet with him at a certain tree, known as Augustine's Oak, on the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The bishops were accompanied by monks from Bangor-is-y-coed, as it was regarded as a great seat of learning.
On their way, the monks met an old man, who asked where they were going.
'We are going,' they said, 'to meet Augustine, who was sent by one he calls the Pope of Rome to preach to the Saxons. Now he asks us to obey him and to follow the ceremonies set out by the Church of Rome. Pray tell us, what is your opinion on this subject? Shall we obey him or not?'
The old man answered, 'If God has sent him, obey him.'
'But how can we know whether he is sent by God or not?' they asked.
'If Augustine is a meek and humble man, listen to him, but if not, have nothing to do with him.'
'How shall we know whether he is proud or humble?' asked the perplexed monks.
'That is easily done,' said their advisor. 'Make your way to the appointed place slowly, to make sure that Augustine arrives before you and takes his seat. Now, he is only one, and I know that there are many learned and respectable men among you. If Augustine receives you humbly, you will know it at once, for he will not remain seated while you stand. But if he does not rise from his chair to greet you, you will know that he is a proud man. If this is the case, do not obey him.'
The monks accepted this advice gratefully, feeling that the old man must have been sent by God to help them in their hour of need. They thanked him and made their farewells, continuing their journey at a steady but slow pace, to ensure that they arrived after Augustine, so that the simple test proposed by the old man could be put into action.
When they reached the oak, they saw Augustine seated under its canopy in an elaborately carved chair, with seven empty chairs arranged around him, ready for the bishops of Wales to join him. However, as the monks approached, Augustine made no move to stand or even to greet them.
Instead, his face cold, he launched straight into a speech: 'Dear brothers, though you hold many ideas contrary to our customs, yet we will bear with you, as long as you will, at this time, agree with us in three matters: to observe the feast of Easter according to the ways of the Church of Rome; to perform the ministry of baptism in the manner practised by the said Church; to assist us in preaching the gospel to the Saxons. If you will submit to us in these matters, we will bear with you, for a time, in other matters now in dispute between us.'
The monks exchanged glances. One of the bishops stepped forward to speak for them all.
'We will not follow the Church of Rome, nor will we acknowledge you as our Archbishop,' he said. 'For as you were too proud to rise from your seat to greet us today, how much more will you despise us if once we submit to your authority?'
The chronicler gleefully records that Augustine's blood 'boiled within him' as he replied.
'Is that your story? Perhaps you will repent later. If you do not think it proper to join us in preaching the gospel to the Saxons, the time will come, and come soon, when you will receive death at their hands!'
This concluded the fruitless meeting. The bishops and monks of Wales returned to their homes, shocked by Augustine's threatening words, but more convinced than ever that they had done the right thing in rejecting his proposals.
Augustine, however, set out to make sure his prophecy came true by urging the newly-converted Saxon king of Kent, Aethelberht, to take up arms against the troublesome Britons. Aethelberht raised his war band and called on his fellow Saxon, Aelfrith, king of Northumbria, to join him. The two armies set out for the floodplain of the River Dee, where now it marks the border between Wales and England, Wrexham and Cheshire.
From the decaying Roman stronghold of Chester, Brochfael, grandson of the great Powys leader Brychan Brycheiniog, prepared to defend the land and its people. He sent heralds to the Saxon leaders to sue for peace, but the Saxons killed the messengers and sent back their bodies as a silent and deadly answer. The battle which followed is known in the Welsh Triads as the Contest of Bangor Orchard.
Out from the monastery came a solemn procession of hundreds of pious monks, who had fasted for three days and were not afraid to die. They came to support Brochfael with the power of prayer, and gathered at the side of his troops, singing and calling for divine aid with such loud and united voices that Aethelberht demanded to know who they were.
'We are the priests of the most high God,' rang out a voice from the throng, 'come to pray for the success of our countrymen against you!'
When he heard this, Aethelberht was furious, and ordered his men to attack the monks. The monks of Bangor-on-Dee put up no resistance, nor made any attempt to defend themselves but fell like barley at the harvest before the Saxon long knives, still singing as long as there was voice left in them. Then the Saxons turned on Brochfael's troops and continued the slaughter. Bede calculated that about 1,200 monks who had come there to pray were slain that day, and only fifty or less escaped in flight.
The battle was a decisive victory for the Saxons and of great strategic importance in their campaign to control the island of Britain, for it pushed a wedge between the British kingdoms of Strathclyde and what is now Wales, leaving both increasingly isolated.
The Saxons went on to raze the monastery to the ground: no trace of it remains.CHAPTER 2
Jack Mary Ann
Jack 'Mary Ann' Jones lived in Broughton at No.12 Top Boat Houses, Stables Road, Moss, with his long-suffering wife. She, of course, was Mary Ann.
They had a little stone house in a terrace on the hillside, with an excellent view down onto the single-track railway between Moss and Ffrwd. In fact, there was a good chance of seeing a train passing while you were sitting in the petty, the privy at the bottom of the garden, as long as you left the door ajar.
Jack worked for a while in the signal box on the GWR railway line down the valley. He might have worked there a lot longer if it hadn't been for an unexpected visit from the district signalling inspector.
'This is just a routine visit, Jack,' said the inspector, 'so I'm hoping you won't mind answering a few questions.'
'Fire away,' urged Jack cheerfully.
'Very well.' The inspector took this as permission to give Jack a true grilling. 'Say a passenger train were coming towards you up the line, but a coal train, heavily loaded, were running away downhill at speed because of a brake failure, and both were on the same track. As signalman, what would you do?'
'Well, now,' said Jack, looking confident, 'I'd pull these levers here, which would move the signals to Danger, and that would let the two drivers know they need to brake.'
'Very good, Jack, very good,' nodded the inspector approvingly, 'but suppose the signal wire were broken and the signal failed to operate?'
'Then I'd change the points, fast as a nail in a sure place, and set the road to switch one of the trains – probably the downhill – into the sidings.'
'Ah, but what if the points were jammed and couldn't be moved?' asked the relentless inspector.
'Well, there'd only be one thing left for me to do,' said Jack after due deliberation.
'And that would be?' prompted the inspector.
'I'd run like hell to the Clayton Arms for Dic Dal-Deryn. He's bound to be there. Then we'd both get back here as quick as ...'
Jack got no further because the inspector interrupted him.
'Just hold it a minute! Why would you be fetching this Dic Dal-Deryn? He's not a railway employee, is he? What good would he be in this sort of trouble?'
'Well, no good at all, of course,' agreed Jack, 'but we're old mates, you see, and I know he's never seen a train crash either.'
Sadly, this encounter, and particularly Jack's attitude to the inevitable disaster the inspector had conjured, brought a sudden end to a promising career with the railway. However, never downhearted for long, Jack applied to join the police force instead. While waiting for his application to make its way through the official channels, he thought he'd have a night out with his friend Dic Dal-Deryn – a night poaching. Dic was an expert in this field, as shown by his nickname, which means 'bird catcher'.
Dic and Jack arranged, over a pint in the Clayton Arms of course, to meet late on the night of full moon.
'I'll call for you from your house about two, Jack,' said Dic. And so it was agreed.
Mary Ann went to bed at her usual time, but Jack said he would sit up a while longer before he followed her upstairs. Though she knew Jack well enough to be sure that something was up, Mary Ann simply sighed, kissed the top of his head and left him by the fire.
Jack was dozing in his chair when Dic tapped gently on the door. And tapped again. By the time Jack finally stirred, Dic was bashing at the door like one possessed. Upstairs, Mary Ann lay still, apparently fast asleep but actually listening to every word.
'Jack, come on, Jack boi. Open up! What are you waiting for?'
Dic's voice whistled through the keyhole, passed Jack's snoring form and made its way upstairs to reach Mary Ann's ears. She waited for Jack to respond, quietly amused to notice that he was almost as slow in replying to Dic as he would be to her.
'Hmm? Umm? O, yes, Dic, yes, I'm coming. I'll be right there.'
Blearily, Jack picked up his jacket and let himself out the back door. Mary Ann heard it close quietly behind him. She settled down with a sigh. Dic greeted Jack with another sigh.
'What took you so long, Jack? I've been here for ages ... let's get going!'
'I just need to go to the petty first,' said Jack, 'I shan't be long.'
Dic almost groaned in frustration, but then thought: 'Fair's fair, when a fellow's got to go ...'
He leaned on the wall, while Jack blundered down the path to the privy, his jacket over one shoulder. Dic gazed at the moon and waited. And waited. And waited. Five minutes went by. Ten minutes went by. Why was Jack taking so long? Dic's thoughts worked their way slowly from annoyed to concerned to worried. At last he decided he had better go to see what the matter was.
As he went down through the garden, Jack appeared from the privy at last.
'You've taken your time,' said Dic.
'My jacket fell down the hole,' said Jack. 'I've been all this time trying to fish it out with a stick.'
'Duw, boy, you won't be able to wear that again, even if Mary Ann were to wash it for you,' said Dic, wondering why on earth Jack had wasted valuable time on such a thankless task.
'Well, I know that,' replied Jack scornfully, 'It's not the jacket I'm bothered about. It's my butties – they're in the pocket!'
Up at the bedroom window, Mary Ann stifled a snort of laughter and climbed back into bed.
It was only a few days later that a letter arrived, inviting Jack to present himself for training as an officer of the law. He embarked on his new career with enthusiasm, and was soon a familiar figure faithfully patrolling his beat. It did not take him long to get to know every inch of it, particularly the many taverns and ale-houses, which needed visiting frequently to make sure that everything was in order. Of course, it would have been churlish to refuse any refreshment he might be offered by the landlords he visited, all of whom needed to keep on the right side of the law, and hence of Jack.
Jack liked his ale, so he continued to frequent the many drinking holes of Broughton, just as he had done before he had his 'official' reason for being there.
One night, as he propped up the bar in the Clayton Arms, his helmet on the counter beside him and his pint in his hand, an unfamiliar figure pushed open the door.
'Is PC Jones in here?' asked a deep unknown voice.
Jack saw the glint of metal buttons and heard the unmistakable heavy tread of standard-issue police boots.
'I am,' he said, coming forward into the light, pint glass in hand, 'and you must be the new Police Sergeant.'
There was no reply, as Jack's newly appointed senior officer stared in disbelief at the unkempt and unsteady figure of his constable.
Jack put his head to one side and admired the Sergeant's trim uniform, before breathing beerily into his face, raising his glass in a toast, and saying: 'You've got a good job there, boi, so mind you hold onto it as long as you can, for sure as eggs is eggs, I've just lost mine.'
In this, as in so many other things, Jack was quite right, and the longsuffering Mary Ann found herself once more trying to make ends meet and keep body and soul together, without a penny coming in from Jack.
Soon they fell behind with the rent. It didn't take long until they were so far behind that it seemed as though the landlord might have to pay them to live there. Instead, of course, he sent his agent with a notice to quit. Jack was home alone at the time and saw the agent coming towards the house. Recognising him for what he was by the hat on his head and the papers in his hand, Jack didn't answer the door. The agent knocked and knocked, and when no reply was forthcoming, crouched down to push the envelope under the door. Jack looked around, his mind working overtime, and grabbed the bellows from the fireside. Pumping them vigorously, he blew the notice to quit back out through the gap under the door. The agent tried again. Jack puffed it out again. And again.
Excerpted from Wrexham County Folk Tales by Fiona Collins. Copyright © 2014 Fiona Collins. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Massacre of the Monks,
2 Jack Mary Ann,
3 The Twelve Apostles,
4 Alice in the Circle: St Mary's School Ghost,
Bwlchgwyn and Rossett,
5 Fauna and Flora,
Caer Alyn and the Fairy Mound,
6 The King of the Giants,
Cefn Mawr, Marchwiel, Acrefair, Trevor, Garth and Froncysyllte,
7 Wartime Tales,
8 The Red Hand of Chirk,
9 In the Black Park,
Coedpoeth, Gresford & Rhosllannerchrugog,
10 Mining Tales,
11 The Three-Way Crossroad,
12 The River that Runs in the Sky,
13 A Living Witness,
14 A Wrexham Werewolf,
15 The Marriage of Owain Glyndwr,
16 The Boys Beneath the Bridge,
17 Robin Ruin's Ruin,
18 The Old Un o' the Moor,
19 Lady Blackbird,
20 Dancing with the Fair Folk,
21 Offa's Offspring,
22 Some Wonders of Overton,
23 The Witch of Penley,
24 The Pig of the Valley: John Roberts the Cunning Man,
25 Buried Alive for Eight Days,
26 The Red River,
27 One of Six,
28 Balaclava Ned,
29 Fred and Frances,
30 Two Saints,