Category Archives: Folklore

The Bear of Amsterdam, a ship of the Spanish Armada on the Dyfi in 1597

The story of the Bear of Amsterdam is probably the best known of all local stories, apart from the Bells of Aberdovey.  Unlike the Bells, this is not a matter of myth but a slice of Elizabethan history.

Philip II at his marriage to Mary I in 1552. Elizabeth I in 1592

The Bear of Amsterdam was a ship in the Third Spanish Armada, which took place between October and November 1597 during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604.  The war, which consists of a series of naval episodes over this period, had its origins in both religious and commercial disputes.  Philip II, King of Spain, defender of the Catholic faith, was under pressure to tackle the rise of Protestantism in Spanish territories in the southern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, collectively referred to as the Low Countries.   At the same time Queen Elizabeth had reinstated the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the national religion, detaching England from Catholic Papal authority.  This was naturally a source of tension between England and Spain.  This relationship became even more strained when the English crown supported the activities of English ships trading with Spanish outposts in the West Indies.  Spain held a trading monopoly on these colonies and English activities were condemned as smuggling.   Spanish retaliation at the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa resulted in the capture and sinking of English ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake.  The English retaliated with an escalation of privateering, which not only aimed to undermine the Spanish monopoly, but to line the pockets of the crews involved.  When England came out in support of the Dutch against Spanish military action to squash the rise of Protestantism in 1585, Spain considered this a declaration of war.  A number of skirmishes took place, but the final straw came with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, leading to Philip II’s decision to invade England in order to place a Catholic monarch on the English throne, a plan for which he received papal authority in July 1587.

Spanish ships in a storm

On 28 May 1588 the first Spanish Armada (armada meaning a fleet of warships) set sail for the English Channel and were met by the English fleet.  A battle of attrition succeeded in preventing the Spanish from reaching any English port and the Spanish withdrew to Calais to regroup. The English pursued them, using fireships to break through the defensive formation, forcing another battle on the Spanish, who were defeated and forced to retreat.  The second Spanish Armada took place in 1596, Philip II’s next attempt to tackle England, this time by invading Ireland, but the fleet hit a storm that annihilated it, and it never reached the English channel.

The third and final Armada took place between October and November 1597, aiming to surprise the English fleet in the English Channel as it returned from a failed expedition to the Azores, whilst another part of the Armada would land an invasion force in Falmouth or, if this proved impossible, Milford Haven, both of which were important Elizabethan ports.  136 ships set out from Spain with 8,634 soldiers, 4,000 sailors, a total of 12,634 men and 300 horses, but storms again led to the failure of Spanish plans.  With their fleet dispersed, only a few ships were able to land troops in England and Wales.  The returning English ships had also been disrupted by the storm, but still managed to capture several Spanish ships.  The third Armada was again defeated and remaining Spanish ships were captured.

Spanish caravels.  Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The last ship from the third Armada to be captured was the c.120 ton caravel, The Bear of Amsterdam.  Having headed for Milford Haven she overshot and eventually weighed anchor in the middle of the river Dyfi on 26 October 1597, probably to acquire stores.  The prevalence of Westerlies stranded the ship for until 5th November.  Aberdovey was very isolated at this time, with only a few houses that served the ferry from Aberdovey to Ynyslas.  A survey of ports, creeks and other landing places on the Welsh coast from earlier in the century stated that only during the herring season when fishermen arrived from elsewhere was there any activity in Aberdovey where there were only three houses, and no local boats.  Local militia from both sides of the river gathered on the banks of the Dyfi and prepared themselves for a fight, but there were no suitable boats with which to board The Bear of Amsterdam, and no canons with which to hole her.  Muskets had some impact, killing three and wounding others on board the ship, but the ship moved out of range during the night.  D.W. Morgan (Brief Glory) quotes a contemporary document that describes how the ship landed about six men ashore in a cockboat (a small rowing boat used as the ship’s tender), with two more remaining in the boat, but these were ambushed by the Merionethshire Militia, with two killed and four captured.  The Vice Admiral visited the camp of the Cardiganshire militia “but could do nothing except helplessly watch the Spaniard swinging to his anchor in midstream. Of little avail were the plans of the Merionethshire men.”  A plan by the Merionethshire milita to build wooden fire rafts and float them down the river on an outgoing tide in the hope that it would set fire to the ship failed when the wind turned.  In spite of intentions to capture The Bear of Amsterdam, the ship left without challenge or further incident when the winds changed.

Dartmouth Castle as it is thought to have looked in c.1550.  Source: English Heritage.

The Bear of Amsterdam headed south, but she did not manage to return to Spain.  Rounding the Cornish peninsula The Bear of Amsterdam suffered damage in another storm and surrendered on the 10th November to an English squadron.  She was led into Dartmouth with no ammunition on board and almost no supplies.  The crew consisted of 62 Spanish sailors, 3 Flemish and 2 English (one acting as a pilot, the other a known pirate who was immediately gaoled).  Morgan says that the Captain of The Bear of Amsterdam “was a man of note and was sent up to London under guard to be exchanged for 2 Englishmen who were Spanish prisoners.”

Back in Aberdovey, Morgan describes how the local magistrate was in trouble.  Ednyfed Griffith found himself under investigation when complaints were lodged against him about his handling of the Bear of Amsterdam affair:  “Although he lived within a mile of the scene he failed to repair thither with any men, arms or weapons;  nor did he raise any manner of force to resist the Queen’s enemies.  He, being remiss, slack and careless thus greatly discouraged those that were eager.”  It does not seem to have done him much harm, because in 1608 he was appointed Sheriff of Gwydgwian.

The reconstruction of The Bear of Amsterdam built for the Coronation of Elizabeth I, 1953. Source:  Hugh M. Lewis 2001. The Past Recalled. Dinas.

As with all good history, an unverifiable story emerged from the incident, which is that a handful of Spanish sailors swam ashore after dark, vanished into the hills and eventually integrated with Welsh inhabitants.  Unless they were fluent Welsh speakers, which is improbable, it seems unlikely that the presence of foreign accents in the area would have gone unnoticed in a period of heightened awareness and fear of Spanish invasion, but it is a nice story.

In 1953 both the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Elizabethan story of The Bear of Amsterdam were celebrated by fitting out a local ship to represent the Spanish caravel.  She was moored mid-river and set on fire.

Today the episode is preserved in a popular restaurant on the sea front in Aberdovey named The Bear of Amsterdam.

The legend of Cantre’r Gawelod and the bells of Aberdovey

The bells of Aberdovey are the most famous actors in a number a number of local legends.  The legends are captured in poems and songs, and will be very familiar to any regular visitors to Aberdovey.  They concern a piece of very fertile low land that was said to be several miles out from the shoreline of Cardigan Bay, and was swallowed by the sea.

The most common of the legends, the one favoured today, tells the story of the bells that belonged to wealthy towns that stood in rich, fertile land that was protected by sea walls but was eventually drowned by the sea.  In the tradition, the land, called Maes Gwyddno (Maes, meaning land or plain; Gwyddno, meaning of Gwyddno), was part of the kingdom of Meirionydd and ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir (Garanhir, meaning long limbs or Longshanks).  Meirionnydd was a kingdom and then cantref, the southern part of what is now Gwynedd, between the Mawddach river at Borth in the north and the Dfyi at Aberdovey in the south.

Meirionnydd in mid west Wales (Source: Map of cantrefi of Wales by XrysD CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Aberdovey is supposed to the be the nearest place on dry land to the former location of Maes Gwyddno.  The legend refers to Maes Gwyddno as Cantre’r Gawelod, which translates as The Bottom Hundred, or Lowland Hundred. The translation “hundred” comes from the word cantref itself, which was a way of dividing up the land for administrative purposes, like counties.  Cantref is a concatenation of two words, cant (meaning hundred) and tref (meaning town).  A hundred in English is also an administrative area.  The term is first recorded in the 10th Century, but the etymology of the word is unclear and the Oxford English Dictionary sits firmly on the fence in this matter.

The best known story is that the low land of Maes Gwyddno, or Cantre’r Gawelod,  with its 16 wealthy towns or villages, the most prestigious of which was Manua, was protected by dykes or sea walls.  The land was drained at low tide by opening sluice gates.  The sluice gates were closed as the tide began to rise, a task overseen by a watchman.  One night the spring tide was whipped into a frenzy by a bad storm and beat against the sea walls.  Instead of tending the open sluice gate the appointed watchman, the King’s knight Seithennin/Seithenyn, was attending revels in the King’s palace, also protected by the sea wall.  This dereliction of duty doomed the land.  As the sea rushed in, the King escaped with some of the revellers along the Sarn Cynfelyn causeway, which remains today (sarnau, meaning stones, are remnants of glacial moraines, now only visible at low tide), and the farmers and villagers were driven away from their rich lands into the far poorer fields and hills behind Cardigan Bay.

A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen (Source: National Library of Wales)

Another version, captured in the poem Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) is captured in the 13th Century Black Book of Carmarthen, which is the earliest known collection of Welsh verse, bringing together many earlier poems and legends, agrees that Seithennin was at the King’s palace at the time of the storm, but that it was a girl named Mererid who was in charge of the sluice gates.  Seithennin seduced Mererid who failed to close the sluice gates, causing the lands to be submerged beneath the sea.

A different legend says that a fairy well was located near the land, tended to by a priestess.  For reasons unknown, she decided to allow the well to overflow, with the same consequences.

Finally, another tradition has it that a giant called Idris Gawr, whose throne was Cadair Idris (cadair meaning chair) roamed the hills around Aberdovey carrying a massive bell.  Like most of us, he liked to paddle and he sometimes left his mountain eyrie to stride in the waters of the River Dyfi.  One day he was surprised by a great storm and drowned, but his bell continues to ring to this day.

All versions of the legend agree that if you listen carefully, particularly on a quiet night, a Sunday morning or in times of danger, the bells of Cantre’r Gawelod can still be heard from Aberdovey and Ynys-las ringing under the sea.

The English version of Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) poem is reproduced here, copied from the Cantre’r Gwaelog website, where it is also printed in original and modern Welsh.  I don’t read or speak Welsh but I found the English version incredibly powerful:

Seithennin, stand forth
And behold the seething ocean:
It has covered Gwyddno’s lands.

Cursed be the maiden
Who let it loose after the feast,
The cup-bearer of the mighty sea.

Cursed be the girl
Who let it loose after battle,
The cup-bearer of the desolate ocean.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights
Reaches even God.
After pride comes a long ending.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights today,
Implores God.
After pride comes remorse.

Mererid’s cry overcomes me tonight,
And I cannot prosper.
After pride comes a fall.

Mererid’s cry from strong wines;
Bountiful God has made this.
After excess comes poverty.

Mererid’s cry drives me
From my chamber.
After pride comes devastation.

The grave of high-minded Seithennin,
Between Caer Genedr and the sea:
Such a great leader was he.

The poem Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website, where the following details are given: “Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) is a poem of John James Williams (1869-1954), J. J. by his bardic name. A pastor and a poet, he composed secular poems, many hymns and two scriptural plays. He competed in the poetry contest of the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (National Eisteddfod of Wales), the most important of the yearly festivals of Welsh culture, and won the chair awarded to the best bard in 1906 and 1908.”  Interesting that the story was interpreted by The Guardian as one of a series of 21 poems that speak to issues of climate change.

The poem Cantre’r Gwaelod shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website at https://www.jrrvf.com/glaemscrafu/english/cantrergwaelod.html

The probably better known love song The Bells of Aberdyfi (Clychau Aberdyfi), beginning “If to me you can be true, Just as true as I to you, It’s one, two, three, four, five and six Sing the Bells of Aberdovey” is often cited as a Welsh poem, but its origins lie in the 18th Century English theatre.  In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, folk music expert Frank Kidson wrote: ” Charles Dibdin, who, writing a song for it in broken Welsh, used it in his opera Liberty Hall (1786). Miss [Jane] Williams, hearing it traditionally, published a version of it in her collection of 1844, and from that time onward it has been accepted as genuine Welsh. There is certainly no evidence to show that Dibdin used an existing tune (it was quite opposed to his practice), and no copy can be found except Dibdin’s of a date prior to 1844.”  The lyrics are available in both English and Welsh on the Musica International website, and the song can be heard on YouTube, a beautifully sung gentle and lyrical version in Welsh by Cass Meurig and Nial Cain at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2knRU0–dQ.  Here are the English lyrics:

If to me you can be true,
Just as true as I to you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Boys do love to be in love,
And girls do love to marry.
But my love’s for only one,
For Bess of Aberdovey.
If your love is just as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

Bold with love I’m back once more
Just to camp against your door.
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Here’s and end to all faint hearts,
Till truth it is you’re pleading.
If you just meet be half way,
It wil be all I’m needing.
If your love is half as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

The legends of the bells of Aberdovey have become part of the literary and folk music landscapes of Wales, and a fine tradition it is too.