02 December 2014

Legendary Heroes and Feats: Caradog Freichfras

By Ian Lipke

Caradog Freichfras: A Cymric Arthurian Hero, also known as Caradawc Vreichfras and Caradawc mab Llŷr Marini: Beloved Strong-arm

Caradog Freichfras' name is derived from the Cymric components car- (love), braich, and bras giving 'Beloved Strong-arm' as a translation. Caradog Freichfras is not the only character in Cymric history and mythos to bear this name. There is also Caradog mab Brân and the two characters may well have been confused especially as both, according to the genealogies at least, are descended from Llŷr (Caradog Freichfras being the son of Llŷr Marini and Caradog mab Brân being Llŷr's grandson. Whether these characters were once one and the same or became linked due to the similarities in their names may never be entangled from the extant sources (http://www.celtnet.org.uk/gods_c/caradog_llyr.html).

Much of the legend associated with this hero is to be found in the Trioedd Ynys Prydein where he features in four of the Triads. Some scholars argue that he is a true fifth century historical figure who founded the Morgannwg dynasty but this seems unlikely. The genealogies themselves are full of invented or mythological characters and often they borrow their material from the Trioedd Ynys Prydein. All that is certain is that anything recorded in legend can only be regarded as speculative but, in its own way, informative.

Caradog Feichfras has been named son of Llŷ Marini as one of Arthur's chief counsellors. The Life of St Collen gives the saint's descent as deriving from: Gwynoc ap Kydeboc ap Kowrda ap Kyriadoc Vyraichvyras. There is also a Karadawg in the ancestry of St Tatheus and they may well be the same person, based on the need for descent from an heroic ancestral figure. Another hagiography, the Life of St Padarn associates Caradog Freichfras with the colonization of Brittany, and there is speculation in the literature that a text, though written in French shows many Celtic properties and may well be based on a Breton version of the original Cymric mythos of Caradog.

So much for the tangled web that tell us snippets about this fellow, Caradog. There is a literature surrounding Caradog that is rich in myth. Following http://www.celtnet.org.uk/gods_c/caradog_llyr.html, the first part of a tale involves the 'beheading gamne' which occurs in the tale of Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight as well as the Irish tale of Bricriu's feast.

In Arthur's court, a knight on a grey horse gallops into the great hall and asks Arthur for the gift of a blow on the neck in exchange for another. The knight places his head on a table and stretches out his neck. Only Caradog steps forwards and, raising his sword, severs the knight's head from his body. But the body rises and, retrieving the head, places it back on his shoulders. Then he turns to the king and says that after receiving such a blow it is his turn to deliver another; though it would only be done a year hence. A year hence and the court gathers once again and Caradog prepares himself for the fateful blow. The knight raises his sword and halts. Caradog berates him for delaying and the queen comes in and asks the knight to spare Caradog. The knight brings his sword down but strikes Caradog's neck with the flat of his blade and announces that he is Caradog's father. Caradog does not believe him and wants to fight with him, for his mother would never have slept with a stranger.

But the knight insists that he is Caradog's father though the tale of his begetting would be far too tedious to relate. Yet, tedious or not, the tale is told.

Caradog, King of Vannes, came to Arthur's court at Quinilli and asked the king for a wife. The king gave him Ysave of Carahés, his niece. Unfortunately, a knight who was also the enchanter, Eliavrés, was at court and developed a passion for Ysave.  Eliavrés contrived it that he slept with her for the first three nights of her marriage, while his enchantments ensured that King Caradog slept successively with a greyhound, a sow and a mare, believing each to be his wife. From the liaison of Ysave and Eliavrés, Caradog was conceived. Again Caradog denies that the knight is his father and the knight turns on his heel and rides away. Caradog the Younger embarks on a number of adventures before he returns to Caradog the Elder's court where he reveals his father's cuckoldry. Humiliating vengeance is visited on Eliavrés. He is forced to lie down with farm animals. Thus is Eliavrés locked away from his mistress, Ysave.

Unfortunately, the wizard attempts escape and when Caradog attempts to stop him Eliavrés summons a serpent that entwines itself around Caradog's arm, crippling it and draining his life energy away. Thus was he called Caradog Breifbras (The epithet means 'Short-arm' in French and is an obvious corruption of the original Cymric Breichfras 'Strong-arm'). Nobody can remove the serpent until Caradog's friends, Sir Cador and his sister Guinier, come up with an answer. Caradog is to sit in a tub of vinegar whilst Guinier sits in a tub of milk with her breasts exposed. As the serpent loathes vinegar, it leaps towards Guinier and attaches itself to her breast. Cador kills it with a single blow from his sword but unfortunately, Guinier's nipple is sliced off in the process [this is later replaced with a magical gold one]. Thus is Caradog freed from the serpent though his arm is permanently damaged from that day forth. Caradog plans to marry Guinier and so, King Mangoun of Moraine sends him a drinking horn to expose any infidelity on the part of the wife of he who drinks from it. Caradog takes a draught from the horn and it shows Guinier to be faithful. In some of the stories the horn is replaced by a mantle.

As Wikipedia tells us:

Several versions of the Mantle of Chastity test involving Caradog's wife were translated into Norse during the reign of King Hakon Hakonarson, and a version of the chastity test from The Book of Caradog in the First Continuation of the Old French Perceval is found in the Norse Mottuls Saga. The story survives in the traditional English folk ballad The Boy and the Mantle, collected by Bishop Thomas Percy in Percy's Reliques. The chastity test involving the drinking horn was narrated in the Lai du Cor (1160) by the jongleur Robert Biket, who said that Cirencester was awarded to Caradog for winning the drinking horn through the fidelity of his wife, and that the horn was on display there.

The tales of Caradog are many and it is not too large a leap to suggest that there must have existed a much expanded canon written about Caradog Freichfras than has come down to us. A fascinating tale in any case.


Ian Lipke became a teacher of primary children in 1958, transferring to secondary schools in 1964. He has taught in schools in remote and metropolitan areas of Queensland, Australia. He left school teaching in 1977 to lecture at the University of Queensland and at Queensland University of Technology. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, he was a deputy principal at several high schools, before retiring to manage his own tutoring business. In 2006, he returned to postgraduate studies through research at the University of Queensland. His whole life has been devoted to academic studies, which he very much enjoys. He is the author of NARGUN.    

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