‘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.
In the original, Caradoc ap Brân is identified with the Caractacus mentioned by Tacitus. His resistance to the Roman Empire is seen in the same light as the struggle against imperialism which took place in Iolo Morgannwg’s lifetime, and the prison of bones is depicted sympathetically, as a symbol of the birth of the judiciary and the rule of law. Here, I interpret the same material in the light of current political conflicts, and the dangers of becoming wholly committed to a moral or political ideal.
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 except with 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 scorched earth, 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,’ 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 their 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 now have burnt our forests to the ground, and all our land is stripped bare. Come, and we will meet your armies on bare ground, two Romans for every Welshmen, and then we will see 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 corner 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 roofed with thatch. They learned how to make lime, and to surround their villages with palisades and earthworks now that the forests could no longer protect them, and they posted guards on the Severn and the Towy, to question such travellers as entered or left. The bones of the Romans still covered the land, so Manawyddan the brother of the king gathered them together, and built them into a prison of bone, where soldiers captured in war could be held, along with those denounced for sedition, subversion or treason, with malcontents, moaners, foreigners, and spies. 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 once stood.