‘A Cage of Trees and a Prison of Bones’ is taken from the manuscripts of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826), and is retold by Rob Mimpriss.
A Cage of Trees and a Prison of Bones
The survivor of a routed army came before their emperor in Rome, to complain of Caradoc, the son of Brân, and his warriors in the forests of Siluria. ‘Their settlements lie deep in the forests,’ he said, ‘like the lairs of beasts: they hide, and come upon us unawares, and the trees surround us like the bars of a cage to lime us when we retreat.’ And when he heard how many of his legions had been slaughtered, the emperor ordered an army to Wales to burn the forests of Siluria, so that there would no place for Caradoc and his warriors to hide in.
Caradoc and his men heard of the order he had given, and with one voice they said this: ‘It would be ignoble for us to defend our country with anything less than fire and blood, so let us burn the forests ourselves, from the Severn as far as the river Towy, so that there is not even a sprig left where we could hang a flea. Then we shall challenge the Romans to come, and we shall meet them on open ground, and still we shall defeat them.’ Thus they set fire to the woods, and through the length and breadth of Caradoc’s realm the smoke and dust rose from the parched soil, and even the smallest gnat could not find shade.
Then once again the Emperor of Rome received messengers from Wales. ‘We are sent by King Caradoc, the son of Brân, the son of Llŷr Llediaith,’ they said. ‘We would sooner have peace and tranquillity than war, sooner feed our cattle and sheep than our war-horses, sooner meet our brothers for feasting than your legionaries for your slaughter: the war between your race and ours was not begun by us. We have met your armies in the forest, and you know how we have destroyed them, but we have burnt our forests to the ground, and all our land is open. Come, and we will meet your armies on bare ground, two Romans for every Welshmen, and then we will know if you can win back the honour you have lost. Mark our words well, for it is Caradoc himself who summons you.’
The ambassadors returned to their king, although the emperor itched to kill them, and the Roman armies marched upon Wales, a great foreign rabble blown by the winds from every corners of the earth. Caradoc and his men fought them fiercely, as easily in the open as they had in the woods, and left the carcasses of their dead in great piles for the ravens and wolves to feed on.
Because they had burnt the forests, there was no wood to build houses, so instead they built roundhouses of stone, the ruins of which are still seen in deserted places. They learned how to make lime, and to protect their villages with earthworks and fences now that the forests were gone, and they posted guards to their borders, to question those who entered or left. The bones of the Romans still covered the land, so Manawyddan the son of Llŷr gathered them together, and built them into a prison of bone, where those denounced for sedition or treason could be held, with malcontents, foreigners, suspected spies, and soldiers captured in war. Over time the prison decayed, and the very bones turned to dust. The dust and lime were ploughed into the soil, and when they saw the grass growing tall and thick, the people planted barley and wheat in the place where it had stood.