Hywel Sele and the Demon Oak

My grave this time is, oddly enough, a wooden drinking  vessel which you can find in the National Museum in Cardiff, one of many such  objects apparently, made from a great oak tree which blew down in a storm in  1813. The tree was called Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll – the Hollow Tree of the  Demons – and it once stood on the old Nannau Estate near Dolgellau. And the  legend will tell you that Owain Glyndwr once used the tree as a handy place in which  to store the body of his cousin.

Ceubren Cup
The story of Owain Glyndwr is far too complex  to explore properly here. His celebrity is based in part upon the fact that he  was the last Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales although his dates  are vague, from 1354 or 1359 to perhaps 1416. In the centuries since his death,  so many different legends have accumulated around him. He has become a notable  figure in popular culture and a famous military hero, beating the English  forces through intelligent strategy and cunning. Like King Arthur he merely  sleeps, waiting apparently for the moment when he will rise as the saviour of  his homeland.
He lived in turbulent times and his life  was defined by conflict, leading a revolt against the rule of Henry IV. The  rebellion ultimately failed and his last years were shrouded in mystery. He was  neither betrayed nor captured and instead faded from view. Where he lived at  the end of his life remained a mystery, although today it is generally believed  that he lived with his daughter Alys at Monnington Straddel in Herefordshire,  perhaps disguised as a friar.
The episode which concerns me here comes  from the height of the rebellion, in 1402. His cousin Hywel Sele, Lord of  Nannau , was a supporter of the English crown. He invited Owain to his estate  for what he claimed was to be the cut and thrust of political debate, with a  bit of hunting thrown in. However, it appears to have turned into an  assassination attempt.
The two cousins went out hunting. Hywel  Sele raised his bow to shoot a stag, but suddenly turned and fired directly at  Owain. Clearly their relationship was not based upon trust on either side,  for beneath his clothes Owain had prudently  selected a chain mail vest. Owain did not have a particularly forgiving  nature…
At least that is one version. Another would  suggest that as Hywel Sele aimed and turned to follow his target he suddenly  discovered that he was aiming unexpectedly straight at Owain. He, well versed  in the techniques of self preservation, immediately ran him through with his  sword.
Either way Hywel Sele was dead.  Owain hid his body in the hollow oak tree and  made off.
Another version has an enraged Glyndwr  obviously surviving the assassination attempt and imprisoning Hywel Sele in the  tree before burning down his house, which just goes to show you how cross they  could be in those days.
But whichever version you prefer, they all  come back to the idea of the body in the tree. And this legend certainly gave the  tree its reputation as a haunted place of evil. Fire was said to hover above  it; strange noises could be heard. It was “the terror of every peasant for  miles around.”
The family searched for Hywel but could not  find him. He remained on the missing list until his skeleton was found inside  the tree trunk 40 years later. Hywel Sele might have drifted into obscurity but  at least the tree’s reputation was assured.
Of course by the early nineteenth century  Derwen Ceubren yr Ellyll was misshapen and ancient, in the last stages of  decay. When the oak fell after being hit appropriately by lightning the wood  was used to make commemorative items for the coming of age party of Robert  Vaughan on 25 June 1824. He was a direct descendant of Hywel Sele and later  became 3 Baronet of Nannau.  It was quite  a party they say, for which the Great White Ox of Nannau was slaughtered and roasted,  which is certainly more dramatic than sending out for a pizza.  The newspaper, the Salopian Journal said that the air was, “resounding with joyful  acclamations” and that “a number of Welsh bards and harpers were in attendance.”  It was definitely the place to be seen that special June day.
At least the ancient tree wasn’t just  turned into firewood.  A nineteenth  century text tells us that the items made from the oak were “valued by their  fortunate possessors…as relics of so venerable and remarkable a parent. “ If  you chose to believe the legends then those objects were made from a living  coffin from long ago. It is one of these Ceubren cups that the museum holds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.