Wales is a country full of legends. From the spectacular and fantastic myths of the Mabinogion to ancient folk tales about spectral hounds that appear out of the mist on winter nights, there has always been an abundance of traditional stories to frighten and enthrall the listener.
One of the lesser-known tales – although it is, arguably, fundamental to the character of Welsh people – is the story of the old man of Pencader.
The story dates from 1162 when Henry II was in Deheubarth, journeying to Cardigan Castle to receive homage from the Lord Rhys. It had been a difficult and troublesome time for the English king, the Welsh constantly rising in revolt against his over-lordship. Now, it seemed, he might have to agree to some form of compromise with the Lord Rhys.
The tomb of Henry II at Fontevrault Abbey
At Pencader, then the site of a motte and bailey castle built by Gilbert de Clare some fifteen or twenty years before, Henry paused. According to the legend he saw and spoke to an old man who was standing at the roadside. This man was a native of the area and Henry wanted to see how the locals felt about the situation in Wales and, perhaps more importantly, how they viewed the future.
The old man replied that although Wales might be attacked, even defeated, by her neighbours the English, the country would only ever be really destroyed by divine anger. More importantly, it was the Welsh themselves who would answer for their fate.
As the old man said: "this nation may now be harassed, weakened and decimated by your soldiery, as it has so often been by others in former times; but it will never be totally destroyed by the wrath of man, unless at the same time it is punished by the wrath of God."
The message of the old man has gone down in folk lore as words that reflect the Welsh nation's natural instinct for survival – often against all the odds.
According to the legend the old man then went on to say: "I do not think that on the Day of Direct Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge for all this small corner of the earth."
The plaque at Pencader. Photo courtesy of John Hubert
Whether the story is true will never be known but it was told by Giraldus Cambrensis in his book Description of Wales. Giraldus often discounted many of the old Welsh myths or legends he encountered but he did not dismiss this one – which might mean that the story has a little more credibility than most other folk tales.
Perhaps Henry believed the old man of Pencader as he did, thereafter, leave the Lord Rhys to rule and control this western part of Wales in his name. Such speculation just adds to the power of the legend.
Pencader, these days, is a quiet little village some three miles south of Llandysul. Since its railway station and branch line to Newcastle Emlyn closed in the 1960s, it has maintained its rural atmosphere with just a few hundred houses and a couple of country pubs.
The words of the old man of Pencader can be seen, engraved on a plaque on the main road into the village. They remain a crucial part of one of the most important of all Welsh legends.