Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Hidden Symbolism of Ruthin Castle

Ruthin Castle in north Wales was built in 1277 by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who after rebelling against Edward I in 1282, was hung, drawn and quartered. The castle passed to Reginald de Grey, and was attacked by Owain Glyndwr in 1400, and finally destroyed during the Civil War by Oliver Cromwell. The castle was rebuilt in 1827 and again in 1848 by the Myddleton family in glorious Gothic style, and the ruins of the original castle can still be seen in its grounds. The Cornwallis-West family (evolving from the Myddletons) owned the castle by the beginning of the twentieth century, and the castle had many notable visitors including Edward the Prince of Wales (Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England and future King Edward VII) and the mother of Sir Winston Churchill, who married George Cornwallis-West in 1900. The nineteenth century castle is now a hotel, however it remains largely unspoilt by its renovations and its adaptation for public use, and it still retains many Victorian features and its symbolism.

The large fireplace of what is now the Cornwallis Room depicts a deer and a boar facing each other, revealing some interesting symbolism that draws from Celtic folklore. The deer was thought to be honourable but elusive, ready to flee before fighting. The boar on the other hand was also thought to be elusive but was prone to face his attacker and strike back. Two conflicting beasts of the forest thus face each other like male and female cameos from the early nineteenth century; the deer represents the feminine, the boar the masculine. The deer and the boar also reflect the hunting and warrior culture of Welsh history. The fireplace is also decorated with floral motifs and fruits of the forests which add to the rustic and Celtic feel of the aesthetic; apples, pears and other fruits appear as a cornucopia of vines entwine to frame the fireplace. The symbolism celebrates the Welsh heritage and has deeper meanings that represent fertility and put forward the ethereal power of the mythical beasts of tradition.

Indeed, Celtic and Welsh folklore is incorporated in many features within the castle; the Welsh dragon appears in various guises, examples of zoomorphism appear in fireplaces, on certain doors in the castle, and as carvings in the architecture. The rich symbolism certainly draws from the Welsh mythical tradition, a tradition that was heroic, dream-like and otherworldly. The boar for example appears in a story called Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion; Culhwch seeks the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddadan, who gives Culhwch a number of near impossible tasks to complete before he his granted Olwen's hand in marriage. One of the tasks involves Culhwch killing Ysgithyrwn - the wildest boar in the land.

Dragons appear in the Mabinogion story Lludd and Llefelys, where the red British dragon fights the white invading dragon. King Lllud imprisons the dragons in a pit after they have drank mead and have fallen asleep. This story of the red and white dragons appeared in a sequel of sorts in the Historia Brittonum dated to the 9th century, when the fighting dragons were found buried in Dinas Emrys - a hill in north Wales. King Vortigern had tried in vain to build a fortress on Dinas Emrys, but the walls kept mysteriously collapsing at night. Vortigern received the help of a boy without a natural father, who advised him to excavate the hill, freeing the dragons. The two dragons continued their battle in the air, the red dragon finally overcoming the white dragon. The red dragon was associated with the Gwynedd Kings, and was adopted by Henry Tudor as his standard on his march through Wales towards Bosworth Field in 1485.

The castle is full of symbolic references to the Welsh past set within Gothic Victorian splendour, the Myddleton family celebrating Welsh tradition and folklore within the architecture and in the décor of the castle. It is well worth a visit.

For further reading see Carla Jefferson, The Depiction of the Otherworld in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi

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