The Mabinogi is made up of four Branches which tell the stories of three Kindreds. This page is a retelling of the Second Branch.
These names for the Branches are not in the mediaeval manuscripts, but they have been in use for over 150 years since 19thC Guest. Branwen is less justified than the others, as her name does not begin the Branch, but is as well established now as the others.
The king of Britain, Bendigeidfran has a beautiful sister, Branwem, the highest lady in Britain. They also have a brother Manawydan, and two half brothers by another mother. The King of Ireland arrives in thirteen ships at Bendigeidfran's court at Harlech rock, asking for alliance by marriage with Branwen. After feasting British and Irish together, the Council of Britain agreed that Branwen Lady of Britain and Matholwuch King of Ireland would be married.
The wedding feast was held at Aberffraw in pavilion tents, for Bendigeidfran had never been contained in a house. All was well, Branwen and Matholwch slept together that night, and the feast continued.
But Efnysien, one of Branwen's half brothers, was a quarrelsome man. He objected to his sister's wedding feeling that he had not been properly consulted. To show his anger at being insulted he mutilated Matholwch's fine horses most horribly, cutting their lips, ears, eyelids and tails.
When Matholwch heard of it he was amazed that he had been given the peerless Branwen and then insulted. He left for his ships. However Bendigeidfran sent two noble messengers to overtake them who listened to Matholwch's anger. Bendigeidfran then sent his own brother Manawydan to offer the highest honour payment that can be paid: all the horses would be replaced and as well a silver rod, and a gold plate the size of a face. For Bendigeidfran wished it to be clear the insult was not his making.
On his side Matholwch's Council felt that they would not get a better offer and to refuse would bring shame. So it was agreed and the two kings once more joined their companies in feasting. But Bendigeidfran felt Matholwch was not truly happy so he offered to add to the huge compensation already being paid. He gave Matholwch a Cauldron of enchantment which revived any dead man placed inside it, except he would be voiceless.
As the kings conversed Matholwch asked after the Cauldron's provenance and Bendigeidfran recounted the tale. It had come from Ireland with two refugees, Llassar and Cymidei, who fled the white hot Iron House. Matholwch gave their tale from Ireland. He himself had been sitting a hill by a lake, when an enormous, evil looking man with red blond hair came up from the water with a cauldron on his back. With him came his even more monstrous wife. They told the Irish king she would birth a boy who in sex weeks would be a fully armed warrior.
Matholwch took them on and for a year it was well but then they became insulting and hated. They would not leave so the Council decided to kill them. An iron house was built and the problem family persuaded to go inside it with much food and drink. Once they were drunk the iron was heated with brush fires but the couple forced their way out and fled - to Britain.
After the feast was done the Irish sailed home in their thirteen ships. Branwen distributed rich gifts among great rejoicing, and in due course she bore a son who they named Gwern. But gradually the insult done to Matholwch by the British arose again and there was resentment. Matholwch's kindred mocked him until he and his advisers took revenge, on Branwen.
She was forced to live in the kitchens, do the baking, and endure a daily blow to her ears by the butcher all bloody from his work. It was kept secret by stopping trade with Britain, and imprisoning anyone who came from there.
The Assembly of Bran.
Over three years Branwen reared a starling, teaching it to bear a written message at the base of its wing. She taught it human speech and described her brother. In this way she sent her brother Bendigeidfran a message about her suffering.
Bendigeidfran called a muster to arms of his seven-score and fourteen districts. In Council the attack on Ireland was planned and seven left as regents of Britain, led by Bendigeidfran's son, Caradawg. When Bendigeidfran went to Ireland he waded across the sea. Swineherds on the shore who saw it, took the story of a 'forest in the sea' to Matholwch.
He sent to Branwen to ask her counsel. She explained the mountain beside the forest was her brother wasing the sea and the forest was ships' masts. So there was a mustering of the forces of Ireland. But the Council advised retreat, to go beyond the river Llinon and destroy its bridge. When Bendigeidfran came there he famously said 'He who would be leader must be a bridge'. So he lay down across the river and his warbands crossed by way of his body.
When all had passed the messengers of Matholwch came offering compensation. Matholwch offered to give the kingship of Ireland to the little boy Gweir and do it in Bendigeidfran's presence. But Bendigeidfran was not pleased and they had to return to Matholwch.
His Council advised him to build a mighty house big enough to contain the massive Bendigeidfran who had never been in a building before. Not only that but it would hold the two peoples to meet together. Branwen the peaceweaver counselled to accept this and so her brother's Council did so.
But the Irish laid a trap. On every one of the hundred pillars of the house was a hook, where hung a bag with a hidden warrior in it. Dfnysien the angry man came in first, and he asked the Irish what was in the bag? 'Flour' they answered. Efnysien felt the bag, found the man's head and crushed the skull with his hands. He repeated the dialogue with each one, killing them while singing an englyn song punning about grinding flour.
Then the two great companies entered and held their peace meeting, making the little boy Gweir the sovereign. Bendigeidfran called the boy to him, then the child went happily to his uncle Manawydan, and to Nysien the quiet uncle. Efnysien was angered that the boy did not go to him, and complained of it. Bendigeidfran sent the child to Efnysien.
In his mind Efnysien thought of the terrible crime he would now do to his kindred. Then he picked up the boy and flung him into the heart of the fire. Branwen leapt after him but Bendigeidfran held her back. There was uproar and everyone reached for their weapons, and fighting broke out.
The Irish fired up the Cauldron and filled it with their dead, reviving them endlessly. Efnysien saw at last the shame of what he had done. He crawled in among the Irish corpses, so he was thrown with them into the Cauldron. He stretched himself out until the Cauldron broke into four pieces, and his heart broke too.
The Assembly of the Head.
It was a strange victory for the Britons for few were left alive, only seven men, and Bendigeidfran mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Among the Seven Survivors there was Pryderi of Dyfed, and Manawydan the king's brother.
Then Bendigeidfran ordered the severing of his head.
He gave a long speech to his companions directing them to take the Head to London, to bury it at the White Tower, facing France. He prophesied they would be many years on the way but his Head would remain uncorrupted, and companion them as well as it had in life. They would be seven years feasting with Adar Rhiannon, the Birds of Rhiannon, and another eighty years on Gwales island. Until they opened the door facing Cornwall they would not remember anything that had gone before. Then they would have to depart and complete the journey to London.
So the Seven obeyed and cut off the king's head, taking it with them to return to Britain. Arriving on the shore Branwen looked across at Ireland and at the coast of Britain, and she mourned the day she was born. For she saw that two good islands had been ruined because of her.
With a great sigh her heart broke and she was buried there by the ocean.
The Singing of the Birds of Rhiannon
The Seven journeyed to Harlech, and met a crowd of men and women on the road. Manawydan asked them for news but they said there was none, at least nothing new since Caswallawn took over Britain and ruled it from London. The Seven asked questions and learned that Caswallawn had murdered the regents Bendigeidfran had left in charge. He had used a cloak of invisibility and Caradawg, Bendigeidfran's son, died of shock to see it.
Then the Seven came to Harlech and feasted in abundance. There came three Birds who sang a song to them; so that when they heard the song, every other sound seemed unlovely compared to this. The Birds appeared as a distant sighting, far above the ocean, yet the song was as clear as if they were right beside them.
At the end of seven years they made their way to Gwales in Pembrokeshire, where a great, royal hall above the ocean was prepared for them. All the grief that they had known from this world was gone from memory. Manawydan reminded them that of the four doors of the hall the one facing Cornwall must not be opened.
So passed eighty years with no cares or awareness of time.
But Heilyn ap Gwyn rose up and swore upon his beard that he would find out what happened if that fourth door was opened. So he did it, and suddenly they all thought of their loved ones, of the sad things that they had known, and of their king. Now they had to complete his mission, so they journeyed to London with the Head and buried it there. According to tradition no oppression could come upon the land while the Head was hdden there.
In Ireland there were none left except five pregnant women from whom that land was repopulated. There are five regions in Ireland because of it.