This tale concerns Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, known as Llywelyn Fawr (the Great) of the House of Gwynedd. He was born in 1173 and resided in Castell Dolwyddelan, sited on the southern slopes of Moel Siabod to guard the western pass across Eryri from Dyffryn Conwy.
To protect his lands and acquisitions Llywelyn swore an oath of allegiance to king John of England upon his succession to the throne of Gwynedd in 1201 and in 1205 he married John’s illegitimate daughter Joan and they resided in Arberffraw as their chief Llys. Upon his marriage to Joan he was gifted with a great Irish Wolfhound by John and Llywelyn called the dog Gelert.
Llywelyn enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and he would often hunt in the woods of the mainland. Because of his strength and stature Gelert soon became his favourite and would lead his hunting dogs in the chase. So strong was Gelert that he would pick-up the scent of a stag, give a bark of alert and then follow the hart’s scent. He might lose the scent of that stag and gain the scent of another, travelling all the while, so that it was not strange for Llywelyn to find himself far to the south of his realm reaching even the boundary of the Mawddach where he would have to make camp. Sometimes he would be away for weeks at a time. This angered Joan, especially after their son, Gruffudd was born and she implored Llywelyn to build hunting lodges across his realm that she and their son could accompany him on the hunt. Many such lodges was built, one being constructed near the place which today is called Beddgelert.
The Llys would often find themselves encamped by this lodge and it was at times like these that Gelert proved his loyalty to his master. He was gentle and puppy-like in his affection to all who showed kindness to his master and his household. But to anyone who seemed threatening or disrespected his master Gelert would bar the way baring his teeth and emitting a bass rumble of a threatening growl. Being such a faithful guardian Gelert was the only dog allowed to be by his master when he was at table. He would lie quietly on the floor by his master’s chair, head cocked to one side, tongue lolling, as his left ear was cocked towards the door and his right ear listened to the table in case some tasty morsel might come his way. Which was more often than not the case, as Gelert had so often been responsible for bringing the meat to table.
By the time Gruffudd had a baby brother, Dafydd, he was old enough to crawl and would hang on to Gelert’s tail as the great dog dragged him around the great hall and would even allow the little boy to pull his mane or tug at his ears. He would even sleep by the boy’s crib at night, maintaining guard. By the time the young prince was a toddler he and the hound had become inseparable. Such was the bond between dog and child that even when Llywelyn called his pack-leader to the hunt the dog would not come. Indeed, as Llywelyn became more irate and shouted at his charge the dog would bare his teeth and growl back at his master. Eventually the hunting pack gained a new leader and Gelert was allowed to remain behind to protect his young charge.
So confident were they of the dog that Llywelyn and Joan would venture out to hunt, leaving Gruffudd and Gelert together in the lodge. Then, later that autumn, just after the rut, Gruffudd was put to bed and Llywelyn and his wife went out after a stag seen further up the valley earlier the same day. Flushed with success Llywelyn returned triumphantly to the lodge. His elation was soon dampened as the saw the door ajar and the furniture of the main hall in disarray. Taking hold of his sword he ran though the hall and into the private chambers where he burst through into his son’s chamber. The sight that greeted his eyes made him stop in his tracks. For his boy’s crib lay overturned and broken on the floor, its sheets bloodstained, ripped and scattered all about. Of his son, however there was no sign — only Gelert, pelt matted and jaws mired with blood. Aghast, and able to come to but one conclusion, Llywelyn gave and anguished cry and drew his sword. Believing that the giant dog had turned upon and savaged his little son Llywelyn fell upon the dog, driving his sword into the dog’s heaving flank. The sword sank deep and Gelert gave a mournful howl as, mortally wounded, he crashed to the floor.
Blinded by rage and regret, Llywelyn almost missed the snuffling cry of a child. Groaning with rage Llywelyn bodily lifted the broken cot and beneath he found the cowering, still breathing, form of Gruffudd. The child was lying atop the corpse of the largest he-wolf that Llywelyn had ever seen. A wolf whose throat had been torn out and whose blood was pooling and congealing on the floor. With a sob Llywelyn cradled his son in his arms and crossed to Gelert where he kneeled and gathered the faithful wolfhound’s great head in his lap. Even in his death throes the great hound made to lick his master’s hand but with a final sigh the dog’s entire frame shuddered and his eyes glazed over in death.
From the tableau it seemed as if the wolf had entered the lodge in its quest for food. Somehow the animal had made its way to Gruffudd’s bed chamber. In defence of his young charge Gelert had met the wild animal head-on and they had fought in a battle to the death. During the struggle the cot had been overturned but Gelert had gained a hold on the wolf’s throat and had killed him, saving his charge.
Llywelyn had the faithful dog interred upon the plains before the river Glaslyn and some months later, still grieving for his most faithful of companions, Llywelyn had a memorial stone erected at the site of Gelert’s grave. A stone which can be seen to this day, and this is why the nearby village is called Beddgelert (Gelert’s Grave).
This is perhaps one of the most famous folk-tales of the Snowdonia (Eryri) area. However, it is an invention of the early nineteenth century. The first settlement of the area seems to have occurred about 700 CE with the establishment of a hermitage. The leader of this band of monks may have been Celer and it is after his grave that Beddgelert is actually named (the real meaning being ‘The Grave of Celert’).
By 1230 the community of monks had been re-formed as an Augustinian Priory and the house of Gwynedd gave lands and paid for a stone priory church. After the dissolution of the 1530s the priory church became the parish church of Beddgelert and the lands were sold to local landowners. In the late 1700s a new road was built from Caernarfon to Dolgellau and this passed through Beddgelert and by 1796, with the building of the Beddgelert bridge a village had begun to form.
However, the fame of the village as a tourist destination did not begin until the early nineteenth century when the Napoleonic wars precluded travel to the continent and English tourists began to come to the region. In 1803 the new Beddgelert Hotel was constructed to accommodate them (This is the modern Royal Goat Hotel). At about this time, the hotel manager, along with several local men created Gelert’s grave and began spreading the story of Gelert and Llywelyn. Visitors have been coming to the area and visiting Gelert’s grave ever since. It may be a nineteenth century invention, however, nothing in the intervening two centuries has come to diminish the power of the tale.