Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ (An Exhortation for Rhys ap Rhydderch of Tywyn)

sea eagle

Sea Eagle photographed by GerardM, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0. Sea eagles (=white-tailed eagles; fish-eagles) often nest in lowland trees.

Species Mentioned: Most importantly the sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

Source: ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ a praise poem justifying why Rhys should take the lordship of his father.

Date: c.1485-1500.

Highlights: This text contains what is almost certainly a reference to a sea eagle, and may be therefore one of the last references to a sea eagle in Wales for centuries. However the sea eagle is identified in an old phrase and the continued use of this phrase might post-date the extinction of the eagle.

CONTEXT

‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch’ was a praise poem by Dafydd Nanmor, written around the end of the fifteenth century (c.1485-1505). The text was written by Dafydd for Rhys as a young man, ostensibly to encourage him to take the lordship of Tywyn, but more probably to help bring him acceptance among his people.

Because we know who it was written for, by, and for what purpose, it’s possible to date it approximately. The poet probably lived c.1420-1485/90 (Williams, 2009). The lord’s father lived c.1430-1501, and Rhys himself lived c.1470-1519. The text must belong to c.1485-1505, but a more accurate date is not possible because the poet seems to have died before the man he is talking about became a lord. It seems strange for a lord to have his first children aged 40, but it also seems that the dates of Rhys and his father agree against those of Dafydd Nanmor. Perhaps the lord retired before he died (although the poem does not indicate this), or perhaps the poem was apocryphal.

Actually though, the exact date of composition does not matter. A late fifteenth century date would be more than adequate. The problem is that the poem defies even this exact a date, as we shall see.

TEXT

Here is how sea eagles are described in the poem:

Let tree know crest and blossoms
Let eagle nest in oak’s crest
On the crest of nobility
Are you, Rhys, like sea on shore. (Clancy, 2003, p.307)

The wordplay in the English translation is also found in the original Welsh. The crest (Welsh: ‘brig’) is something that an oak tree has which an eagle nests in, but also something which nobility has which Rhys can be found in. Rhys in his lordship is like an eagle at the top of an ancient oak tree.

This is ecologically reliable to a point. Sea eagles (H. albicilla) will nest in trees (Forrester et al., 2007; Evans et al., 2012). Eagles make nests on secure boughs, not the flimsy, swaying branches at the top of trees, but the identification is right at least. The fact the eagle is so high up probably reflects the idea that it is the most noble bird in the hierarchy.

Since this poem definitely describes an eagle rather than a hawk, and since it describes one nesting in an oak tree, not on a mountain it seems most likely to be describing a sea eagle rather than a golden eagle (A. chrysaetos). If this is the case it provides the latest evidence of sea eagles in Wales and some of the latest in Britain outside of Scotland until the recent recovery of the species (Yalden, 2009, p.149).

If we can trust this evidence it is very suggestive. If sea eagles were still widely known c.1500 enough to be included in popular poems, this suggests a very fast rate of extinction in south Britain c1500-1800. This could perhaps be attributed to the depredations of eighteenth century game-keepers or the ‘Grayne Laws’ of the sixteenth century, rather than a slow decline of the species over centuries. This would be supported by the eighteenth century Scottish sources mentioned by Lovegrove (2007, pp.63-4), which frequently mention the control of eagles.

The only question mark hanging over this interpretation is how old the text really is. Leaving aside the minor ambiguity about where the text should be placed c.1485-1505, some of the lines sound gnomic (like generic common sayings). Other lines are clearer:

The huntsman pursues the chase
To the wind the hawk rises
The stag’s eager in summer (Clancy, 2003, p.307)

The trouble is, if these lines are gnomes (common sayings) like they appear to be, they could be centuries old at time of writing. English speakers today still use phrases like: ‘spick and span’, ‘hue and cry’ and ‘just deserts’ without even knowing what the fossilised words within them mean. People didn’t choose to use archaic words in these phrases. The phrases are so old that they have outlived the words within them. The first reference to hue and cry in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1423 A.D., and that’s just the first time anyone bothered to write it out. If you still use that term it’s because someone taught it to you, just like someone taught it to them. The word was long dead when your great-great-great grandparents were alive. If they were fluent in English, they would have to have learn the phrase as a whole, just like you.

If phrases can last this long, the reference to the eagle need not be a fifteenth century one at all. It could be much older. If it is, Dafydd Nanmor might not have even understood the phrase when he wrote it. It could have just fitted with his rhyme scheme and contained an animal. Perhaps he never observed a sea-eagle nesting in an oak tree at all.

Swear-phrases (but not words) are almost always fossilised. For example, who uses ‘damn’ today as a noun instead of as an interjection or verb?

 

SUMMING-UP

‘Anogaeth I Rys ap Rhydderch’ contains a reference to what is most probably a sea eagle nesting in an oak tree. The fact this is in the sixteenth century makes it highly significant. This may be the last reference to a sea eagle in Wales before the bird was exterminated over the centuries afterwards.

However there is an important caveat. The reference is not necessarily trustworthy. The poem uses a series of gnomic phrases to make its point, and several of these have probably been in use for centuries. Only one phrase mentions an eagle and the reference may therefore be anachronistic. There is insufficient evidence to be sure that Dafydd Nanmor or his audience ever even saw a sea eagle in Wales.

 

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REFERENCES

Clancy T (2003) Medieval Welsh Poems. Four Courts Press, Dublin.

Evans RJ, O’Toole L & Whitfield P (2012) The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland. Bird Study 59:335-349.

Forrester, R. Andrews, I. (2007) The Birds of Scotland. Scottish Ornithologists Club, Edinburgh)

Intellectual Reserve (2011) Rhydderch ap Rhys, lord of Tywyn. Family Search. (accessed: 7/8/14)

Williams I (2009) Dafydd Nanmor. Welsh Biography Online. (accessed 7/8/14). Possibly originally published in (Roberts T & Williams I (1923) The Poetical Works of Dafydd Nanmor. University of Wales Press, Cardiff.)

Yalden D (2009) The History of British Birds. Oxford University Press.

 

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4 responses to “Sea Eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in ‘Anogaeth i Rys ap Rhydderch o’r Tywyn’ (An Exhortation for Rhys ap Rhydderch of Tywyn)

  1. Amurrcuns do. 🙂

    Actually, both “don’t give a damn” and “not worth a damn” remain pretty common phrases there, and far from fossilized. What they do seem to be becoming is less vulgar than they once were; now that’s a polite replacement for words that are still considered crude.

    This left me wondering about the Osprey as possibly the bird in question. I’ve heard them (not entirely accurately) referred to as sea eagles, and they do nest in trees quite often.

    I have a pair of White-tailed Eagles near my home, and they surprised me with a fledgling this year. I just keep holding my breath that their recovery continues.

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  2. That’s really interesting! Thanks! Maybe it is a thing that’s been forgotten in the UK. I get very confused about those two phrases. When someone says something’s “not worth a damn” they mean that it’s not worth anything at all. But how did “damn” come to mean “anything at all”? Is it because that thing is not worth even damning (=saying “damn”)? I understand the phrase in context but that’s not a meaning of the word which “damn” would ever have in my mind. I can’t think of a time I’d use “damn” anywhere else to mean “anything” except in those two phrases.

    I wonder why the word is becoming less taboo too. Maybe people don’t take heaven and hell so seriously anymore. The theory of euhemerisation says that as paganism lost all its power, pagan gods became adapted as myths and heroes. Some cynics have suggested that paganism lost all its power BECAUSE pagan gods became myths and heroes. Perhaps Christianity is going in that direction in the UK (13% drop in percentage of census Christians in UK 2001-2011, 6% rise in number of people with no religion).

    I did wonder for a while about the osprey. I think you’re right, it’s absolutely a possible translation but ospreys are more commonly classed as types of hawk/falcon (gwalch) that types of eagle (you can search words used for “osprey” using the second checkbox here: http://welsh-dictionary.ac.uk/gpc/gpc.html). The sea eagle is still the most likely translation, but I would have liked to have seen some more description to confirm it.

    I am very envious of your white-tailed eagles! I watched the ospreys fledge this year on the WWT webcam at Caerlaverock and that was amazing to see.

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    • As I understand it, the “damn” in both phrases is a shortening of “a tinker’s damn” — in other words, a tinker’s curse. Apparently, along with selling and fixing metalware, tinkers, who were often Gypsies, also sold charms and cures and curses…the value and effectiveness of which is expressed by the phrase. The phrase extended its life by dropping the reference to the traveling tinker as they ceased to exist.

      Sometimes language is just the best thing. 🙂

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  3. Oh wow I see, that makes much more sense than what I was thinking! But I am sad that door-to-door salespeople no longer sell charms and curses. That would have been a much less dull world! 🙂

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