Mountain of the Lost Princess

On Carnedd Gwenllian (thanks to the Geograph project)

The summer evening wind off the Menai waters presses in among the mountains whose slopes tower to over three thousand feet above the sea, the eternal rock unheeding of the events passing among fragile men beneath.  In a hall in Abergwyngregyn, crying rends the air.  The women of the household are weeping because a great lady lies dead, but through all the voices pierces the single cry of a newborn baby.

The lady who has given her all for new life is a queen, Eleanor de Montfort, Princess of Wales and King John’s granddaughter; the baby her first and only child, a daughter, Gwenllian.  The father simultaneously blessed and bereft is Llywelyn, known to history as Llywelyn the Last.

Before the year was out, the child was orphaned, her father overtaken and slain at Builth Wells.  Her uncle, Dafydd, took Gwenllian in hand until he in turn was captured and executed the next year for his rebellion, and so Gwenllian was just one year old when she passed into the power of her other uncle, the victorious King Edward I of England. Edward brought the child away safely, she who had the most dangerous womb in Wales, and placed her in a nunnery at Sempringham in Lincolnshire (a place which little remains today).

Gwenllian was not forgotten and Sempringham received gifts in honour of “the Lady Wencilian”, who lived out her life her as a nun, producing no heirs for the ancient House of Gwynedd.

Naming a mountain

Running across the midst of Caernarfonshire, Snowdonia is a long ridge of mountains with 15 peaks reaching over 3,000 feet, a height otherwise only reached in the Highlands and Cumberland.  The Princess Gwenllian Society noticed that in the group known as the Carneddau are mountains named “Carnedd Llywelyn”, “Yr Elen” and “Carnedd Dafydd”; here then (perhaps by coincidence) are the names of Gwenllian’s father, mother and uncle.  Beside them is a top which bore the dull name of “Y Garnedd Uchaf” (“highest cairn”), 3,038 feet at the head of a path leading down to Abergwyngregyn, and on this fell the gaze of a society of historians.

In 1996 The Princess Gwenllian Society was founded to perpetuate the memory of Gwenllian, and it is this society whose audacity has changed the name of that mountain.

How do you rename a mountain? The idea that vital piece of landscape can be relabelled at a whim rebels against the senses of a traditionalist. A mountain cannot sign a deed poll (and if a mountain were to speak its own name, it would speak a language more ancient than the imagination of man could grasp).  A name attached to a mountain by the men who crawl about it is its name; should any man presume to rename Snowdon then there would be outrage, and the mountain would still be known as Snowdon. The names on the landscape are not playthings. So, how does one change?

Determination is the key to success.  The Society found the landowners – the National Trust and a quarrying company – and lobbied them hard but kindly to have Y Garnedd Uchaf’s name changed. They spoke to the community councils, and had to speak to all with an interest in the mountains slopes, right down to farmers with grazing rights, and they kept at it despite all the obstacles.

Elsewhere, it has proven easier for a hill to sport a new name.  Amongst the Malvern Hill, the dramatic ridge which parts Herefordshire from Worcestershire, are summits called “Millennium Hill” and “Jubilee Hill”.  The names appearing in 2000 and 2002 respectively and this was the work of the Malvern Hills Conservators, who are a trust established by Act of Parliament to own the hills and maintain their wild beauty. If truth be told, Millennium Hill is just a secondary top of the Herefordshire Beacon and Jubilee Hill is Pinnacle Hill’s north top so they were unnamed summits (walkers would have stormed the heights had the Conservators tried to rename a main hill).  Here then, by simple decision of a landowner, two new hills appeared on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border.

In the wind-scoured heights of Caernarfonshire the game was harder fought, and a less determined team would have given up long since; the National Park Authority, the Snowdonia Society, climbers’ groups, councils, all had to be won over and had a single interested person objected, the effort would have been lost.  The Ordnance Survey began to be won over, seeing the unanimous consent of the landowners, farmers and the long list of those won over.  However the Mountain Rescue teams had an objection; how can a climber injured on the mountain with an old map call for help?

On 26 September 2009 at a ceremony across the water in Anglesey, a ceremony was held to confer the new name, and now the maps of Caernarfonshire show “Carnedd Gwenllian (formerly Garnedd Uchaf)”, on the hill overlooking her birthplace.

I have often bewailed the imposition of newly invented names on randomly devised areas, and the thieving of old, honourable names for dishonourable service, but here in Snowdonia something honest has been achieved and by an effort of will from which we should learn lessons.  The Association of British Counties seeks to honour the heritage of many generations across the land; the Princess Gwellian Society achieved something for the name of a single, lost princess.  I hope that such dedication and that achievement can be emulated in honouring our counties.

Rupert Barnes

(A version of this article first appeared in Our Counties; the magazine of the Association of British Counties in 2013.)