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.
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.