Branwen is also the name of a character in some versions of Tristan and Iseult.
Branwen, Daughter of Llyr is a major character in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, which is sometimes called the Mabinogi of Branwen after her. Branwen is a daughter of Llyr and Penarddun and is considered the Welsh goddess of love and beauty. She is married to the King of Ireland, but the marriage does not bring peace.

The Story of Branwen

The story opens with Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed), King of Britain, sitting on a rock by the sea at Harlech and seeing the vessels of Matholwch King of Ireland approaching. Matholwch has come to ask for the hand of Bran's sister Branwen in marriage. Bran agrees to this, and a feast is held to celebrate the betrothal. While the feast is going on, Efnisien, a half-brother of Branwen and Bran, arrived and asked why there were celebrations. On being told, he was furious that his half sister had been given in marriage without his consent, and vented his spleen by mutilating Matholwch's horses. Matholwch was deeply offended, but was conciliated by Bran who gave him a magical cauldron which could bring the dead to life.

The Starling and Bran the Blessed

Once in Ireland, Branwen was treated cruelly by her husband Matholwch as punishment for Efnisien's mutilation of the horses (though not before she gave birth to an heir, Gwern). She tamed a starling and sent it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brother and Bran brought an invasion force from Wales to Ireland to rescue her. Some swineherds saw the giant Bran wading the sea and reported to Matholwch who retreated beyond a river and destroyed the bridges. However, Bran laid himself down over the river to serve as a bridge for his men. Matholwch, fearing war, tried to conciliate Bran and built a house big enough for him to fit into in order to do him honour. Matholwch agreed to give the kingdom to Gwern, his son by Branwen, to pacify Bran. The Irish lords didn't like the idea, so they hid themselves in flour bags tied to the pillars of the huge newly built house to attack the Welsh. Efnisien, checking out the house prior to the arrival of Bran and his men, guessed what was happening and killed the hidden men by squeezing their heads. At the subsequent feast to celebrate Gwern's investiture as King of Ireland, Efnisien threw his nephew Gwern into the fire in order to break the peace settlement.

War against Ireland

In the ensuing war, all the Irish were killed save for five pregnant women who repopulated the island, while only seven of the Welsh survived to return home with Branwen, taking with them the severed head of Bran. On landing in Wales at Aber Alaw in Anglesey Branwen died of grief that so much destruction had been caused on her account, crying "Oh Son of God, woe to me that I was born! Two fair islands have been laid waste because of me!". She was buried beside the River Alaw.

Bran commanded his men to cut off his head and to "bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France." And so for seven years his men spent feasting in Harlech, accompanied by three singing birds and Bran's head. After the seven years they went to Gwales in Penvro, where they remained for fourscore years. Eventually they went to London and buried the head of Bran in the White Mount. Legend said that as long as the head was there, no invasion would come over the sea to Britain.

Branwen's grave

At Llanddeusant, Anglesey on the banks of the Alaw can be found the cairn called Bedd Branwen, her supposed grave. Now in ruins, it still has one standing stone. It was dug up in 1800, and again in the 1960s by Frances Lynch, who found several urns with human ashes. It is believed that if the story of Branwen is based on real events, these must have taken place during the Bedd Branwen Period of Bronze Age British history.


Welsh text and editions

  • Branwen Uerch Lyr. Ed. Derick S. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. II. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976. ISBN 1-85500-059-8

Secondary sources

  • Ford, Patrick K. "Branwen: A Study of the Celtic Affinities," Studia Celtica 22/23 (1987/1988): 29-35.


In 1994 a feature film was released called Branwen.

See also

External links

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