The Red Bandits of Mawddwy

Friday 31 August 2012, 12:49

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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In the 15th and 16th centuries the area around Dinas Mawddwy in the county of Merioneth was considered to be the most lawless place in Wales.

It was remote, desolate countryside, on the fringe of the Welsh Marches, one of the reasons that a group of outlaws – later immortalised in stories and poems as the Red Bandits of Mawddwy – chose it as their base.

A mythical presence

We actually know very little about the bandits, and what we do know is clouded by legend and by the more than dramatic reconstructions of writers such as Thomas Pennant and ID Hoosan. That, in part, is one of the reasons for the popularity of their story, lack of knowledge giving them an almost mythical presence in Welsh legend and folk history.

What we do know is that these were no Robin Hood-style figures, robbing the rich to feed the poor. These were violent and vicious criminals. Their name derives from the fact that the bandits were supposedly blessed with flowing manes of red hair, although, while many were probably related to each other and would therefore have had common genes, it is highly unlikely that all of them had such distinctive colouring.

Mawddwy – a robbers’ paradise

The bandits came from many parts of the kingdom, gravitating to Mawddwy to take refuge in what was almost a robbers’ paradise, a place that was outside the reach of the law. Thomas Pennant believed that many of them came to the area at the end of what he called the civil war - he meant, of course, the Wars of the Roses.

The Red Bandits terrorised the area around Dinas Mawddwy for many years, stealing cattle, money and possessions almost at will. So great was the fear of this band – actually several groups, all organised and governed by an individual leader – that householders were forced to take drastic action to protect themselves and their property.

In one story, local farmers took the precaution of lodging scythes inside their chimneys in case the bandits decided to break in that way. Whether such a devise was ever called into action is not recorded.

The Sheriff of Merionedd

One thing we do know about the bandits is that on 12 October 1555 a group of them – estimates vary between eight and 80 – ambushed and killed the Sheriff of Merionedd, Baron Lewis Owen, as he returned to Dinas Mawddwy from the assizes at Welshpool.

The reasons for the attack are unclear. Certainly Lewis Owen and Sir John Wynn ab Meredydd had been waging an intense campaign to curb the activities of the bandits and, one Christmas night, managed to capture around 100 of them.

About 80 of the men were condemned to death. Some sources say that Lowri, daughter of Gruffudd Llwydd, pleaded for the life of her young son, one of the condemned. When this was rejected and the sentence carried out, she vowed vengeance on the sheriff. When she and other members of the gang were subsequently put on trial for the murder of Lewis Owen, Lowri pleaded pregnancy to avoid the rope. Her claim was substantiated and Lowri managed to escape the death penalty.

The murder of Baron Lewis Owen was a cold blooded affair, an ambush in the dark of evening. According to one account his body, when it was found, had up to 30 arrows lodged in it. In another telling of the legend, the sheriff was struck down by daggers, swords and cudgels, one John ap Gruffudd ap Huw delivering the fatal wound.

In the wake of the murder the full forces of law and order were finally brought to bear on the Red Bandits of Mawddwy. Many of them were hunted down and arrested, and large numbers were sent to the gallows for their crimes. Peace finally settled on the area around Dinas Mawddwy.

Welsh folklore

The story of the Red Bandits has, however, lodged itself in the folklore of Wales. Thomas Pennant visited Dinas Mawddwy in about 1770, many years after the last bandit had met his end, and talked to people about the legend. He subsequently wrote about it, as did the Welsh poet ID Hoosan who produced a famous poem about the murder of Baron Lewis Owen and the doings of the Red Bandits.

These days the Red Bandits live on in story form – and in places such as the pub in Mallwyd that is called simply The Brigands Inn. And that's probably the best place for such a gang of miscreants to remain, in legend and history where they can do no more harm.

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    Comment number 1.

    Something I meant to say in the blog - but forgot - was a query or question, to myself as much as anyone. I wonder if R D Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone, had the Red Bandits in mind when he wrote about Carver Doone and his family of outlaws - after all, Blackmore did live in Wales for several years and would undoubtedly have known the original story.

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    Comment number 2.

    I believe there is an element of truth in respect to farmers precautions and their chimneys. In the early 1980`s myself and a group of friends stayed in the youth hostel at Dinas Mawddwy. We were up there for a long weekend to climb the Aran Mountain range and our start off point was at the end of Cwm Cywarch which is a startlingly beautiful valley. The leader of our group had visited this area before and he is not adverse to knocking on doors requesting information. We parked the car below Craig Cwm Cywarch and Ray our leader pointed to an old farmhouse on the hillside. He stated that some years previously he had knocked on the door of that particular farmhouse and the farmer had actually invited him inside to show him a very large old fireplace. Up inside the chimney was a metal grill with metal spikes pointing up into the chimney. The farmer stated that the device was put there to deter the bandits from gaining access to the farmhouse via that route.
    A point of interest. Whilst pointing to this farmhouse, we noticed a series of tracks etched into the mountainside above the farm. This was normally the precursor to the Forestry Commission blanketing huge swathes of mountains with unnatural regimented rows of conifers now augmented by regimented rows of wind turbines. Nearby, was another farmhouse and we noticed a woman walking across the farmyard. Ray took it upon himslef to lead us into the farmyard to enquire with the woman as to the meaning of the tracks on the mountain. We startled the poor woman whom I estimated to have been in her 50`s. She was dressed in a raincoat tied at the waist with string, a large beret and wellies. What became evident is that she spoke very little English and her brother whom she lived with spoke even less English. She could not understand despite asking us twice, that even though we were all Welsh, that none of us could speak Welsh. So, with a combination of our limited Welsh, her limited English and some sign language we were able to establish the meaning of the tracks on the mountainside. We also obtained other information such as when she and her brother were children, they would walk to school on Monday morning of every week over the mountains to Llanuwchllyn which was a considerable distance. Because of the distance, they would remain there and not return home until after school on Friday. They had no TV as the reception was too poor in the valley and they listened only to BBC radio Cymru. They had no need for the English language but in recent years due to the large influx of English into the area they had felt isolated and for

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    Comment number 3.

    (Continued...) and foreign in their own country. On the side of the farmhouse were the initials EB and the year 1873. This she informed us were the initials of Edmund Buckley who owned the estate and the year signified the date the farmhouse was built. Baron Buckley, Lord of Mawddwy had bought the estate and Lordship of Mawddwy from the Mytton family who had been Lords of Mawddwy since the 13th century.
    We set off on our walk up the Arans via Hengwm and about half way up we were aware that a lone walker was catching up with us. We could see that he was a good many years older than us but this man just kept plodding away without resting. Much to our shame we just simply could not outdistance him and he eventually caught up with us. This was fortunate for ourselves as he was a local farmer who lived in nearby Llanymawddwy and was an avid hill walker. He was a mine of information and he gave us a guided walk of the mountain range. His English thankfully was very good but he had difficulty with certain things such as names of birds which he knew in Welsh and by describing them I was able to establish the English name such as the Ring Ouzel. His local knowledge made an enjoyable walk into a history lesson and he took us to many interesting places on the mountain, far too many to relate here. He took us into what looked like a cave on the crags of Craig Cwm Cywarch which he informed us was a Roman mine. My memory tells me that he stated it was a copper mine but I can find no reference to copper mines on the crags, but lead was mined there up until the beginning of the 20th century. It occurred to me that this could have been a hiding place of the Red Bandits. Also, maybe the red hair was not a genetic factor but due to sleeping and living in such caves with all the residues from the mine workings?
    One interesting story that he related concerned a land dispute in the area some hundreds of years prior. He pointed out the land that was in dispute in one of the valleys below the ridge on which we were standing. In order to settle this dispute, the man who claimed the land had to stand on the disputed land and swear an oath on the bible that the land was in fact his. This devious claimant cut a sod of turf from his own long held land and transported it the day before to the spot where the oath taking was arranged. So, on that particular day, with a bible in his hand, he was actually able to swear that the land on which he stood was his own and by this method gained ownership of the dispute land.

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    Comment number 4.

    Thanks for that detailed and fascinating reply to the blog, Stephen. Such information has to be preserved and so it's great that you took the trouble to write.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hi, I have no Welsh connections, but in the 1980's spent a holiday on the farm Brynuchaf, Llanymawddwy. The owners at that time, John & Mari Jones (well known in Welsh Christian circles), they told us about the Red Bandits. I particularly remember them telling us of the practice of fixing sickle blades (pointing upwards) into the chimney.

 
 

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