Glamorgan Folklore: Warnings of Death

Many of the Glamorgan folk held the belief that if a certain sound, light or animal was seen in or around the area death was on its way.  They were known as ‘Warnings of Death’. At one point in the parish of  Llangynwyd, near Maesteg  there were nine different ways of predicting someone’s last days and death. All of the warnings of death were terrifying to those who had witnessed them.

Canwyll Corff (Corpse Candle[s])

It is thought that Corpse Candles only appeared in the Glamorgan and Gwent areas of Wales. These Corpse Candles would appear in various shapes, sizes and colours depending on the age, size and social status of the person whose death it is predicting.
For example:

  • Son: Red flamed candles.
  • Daughter: A candle giving off a greyish light.
  • Adult: Large candle.
  • Child: Small candle.

“A man in the prime of life, mentally alert and still strong and powerful, would learn of his impending death by the appearance of a bright flame. Whereas a sick old man/woman would be told of their end by poor and pale lights of an average size.”

It was thought that the Corpse Candle would appear in the room of the person who was predicted to die, it would move in an irregular fashion and then make its way to the church yard.

In other parts of Wales Corpse Candles are "fairy fires" held by a small goblin by the name of Pwca. This goblin who is thought to be part of the Tylwyth Teg ("the Fair Folk"), leads lone travellers "off the beaten track", the traveller is then led to a marsh and the light is extinguished leaving the traveller lost.

The Cyhiraeth 

The Cyhiraeth, a loud shrieking noise, is supposed to predict a disaster at sea. This loud shrieking noise would sometimes be accompanied by a dismal light that would hover over the waves.

Although the Cyhiraeth is known for foretelling disaster at sea, it was a frequent visitor to many of the villages in the area of Glamorgan.

“It would pass through the village in the middle of the night terrifying the inhabitants with it’s fearful moans.”

This many have also been accompanied with the flying open of doors and “trembling windows”. 

The arrival of the Cyhiraeth could mean one of three things:

  • A catastrophe was soon to hit the village.
  • The death of a sick or mentally ill person.
  • That an epidemic i.e. small pox was on its way.

The Tolaeth 

There were three forms of the Tolaeth:

  • Tolaeth before the coffin.
  • Tolaeth before death.
  • Tolaeth before burying.

It is said that a few early nineteenth century carpenters have heard the Tolaeth even before being asked to make the coffin.

The Tolaeth before death took several forms including groans, footsteps and knocking. All of these were heard while the person close to death was lying ill in bed.

The more common of the three; the Tolaeth before burying was heard/seen on its way to the Church Yard.

Parson Evans stated that he himself had seen the Tolaeth before the burying.

“He had been coming home with is horse round about midnight when the horse suddenly ‘bolted off the road into the ditch, and there drooped and trembled as a very Christian might, for fear.’ Parson tried first to force the horse and then to coax him when suddenly….

‘A loud band of psalm singers broke upon my ear. They were pealing forth the old Hundredth Psalm, which is the one always used at funerals. Nothing could be more distinct or solemn. And presently I heard the slow, regular tram of the whole procession, with the groans and sobs of the mourners. 
I knew it must be a Tolaeth; and recollecting what I had heard the old people say, I stooped forward in the horse’s neck, and looking along the ground, saw them all advancing towards me. There were the psalm singers first, two abreast, wit their hats off, and their mouths open, as in the act of singing.

There followed the coffin, borne on the shoulders of four men, who held their hats by the side of their head. Next came he mourners, the women holding up their handkerchiefs, and the men pale and solemn with their hatbands streaming behind. And then followed the usual train of friends and neighbours. 
All passed, distinct and close before me, but now, while I saw them perfectly silent. There was not now the slightest sound, of a foot, nor even of the psalm singersm although their mouths were open. As soon as they passed, I drew myself up, and then it all broke upon me ear again, as first. So true is that the Tolaeth touches only one sense at a time; that while you hear it, you cannot see it; and if you can see it, you will hear nothing.’”

The Cwn Annwn or ‘Hounds of Hell’

Animals play a huge part in the folklore and beliefs of the Glamorgan people.

The Cwn Annwn is said to have haunted the valleys of South Wales and could also been seen in the Taff Valley, Rhondda Valley and the Vale of Neath. They were also a common sight in and around Fforest Fawr and Castell Coch.

They were accompanied by Matilda of the Night, who was a Norman lady that came to Glamorgan with Robert FitzHamon, the Norman conqueror of that area.

“She loved hunting so much that she once said if there no hunting in Heaven she would prefer not to go there” - her wish was granted, she was then condemned to hunt with the ‘Hounds of Hell’ for all eternity.

She would appear on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve and is seen wearing a red cloak and appears to be riding a black horse. She is often heard “bitterly bemoaning her fate”.

People were convinced the sound of hounds bark was a sure sign of death and that the soul of the person who had met there end would be dragged through the air, before being taken to a place of complete misery.

Phantom Funerals

Like the Tolaeth the Phantom Funeral was a feared sign of death.

Below is the story of the ‘Phantom Funerals of Porthcawl’ by Alun Morgan.

According to legend St. David once asked that his favourite people, the Welsh, should be given a warning of impending death so that they could prepare for it. His wish was granted with the result that the warning came in various guises, the most well known being the Canwyll Corff or Corpse Candle. This event, believed in throughout Wales until very recent times, was not only ominous but frightening, taking the shape of a ghostly light seen in the house of the doomed person. Sometimes the light pervaded just one room; other times the whole house. It had various colours: reddish for a man, bluish for a women and yellowish for a child. Frequently the candle itself could be seen, travelling through the air over the route of the impending funeral, or hovering over the coffin itself. If many were seen they indicated a coming epidemic: such as at Bridgend last century just before an outbreak of smallpox killed many people. Old mineworkers used to fear the Corpse Candles. Seen above a pit they foretold certain disaster, and their presence was noted above the shaft just before the Glyncorrwg explosion near Bridgend.

But equally feared and well known was the phantom funeral. These stories, widely believed throughout Glamorgan up to the end of the last century, always had the same ingredients: a ghostly procession in which the figures were only vaguely seen; one figure of a person or a coffin more distinctly seen; and invariably the route led to the house of the man about to die. What is not generally known is that three of these events took place in Porthcawl. Here is an account of them.

Round about 1850, when the old tram road from Maesteg to Porthcawl docks was active, a farmer from Llangynwyd was in the habit of travelling to th port to collect lime for the fertilization of his fields. Part of his route lay along this tram road but part was on the toll road of the day; and, as there was a rule that farmers were excused some tolls if they returned the same day, the journey was commenced very early in the morning.

One day the farmer set off at four o’clock -- well before dawn -- and with the horses pulling the empty cart on a route that was largely down hill, made very good time. He entered Porthcawl while it was still dark.

Just as he neared the cross roads at the entrance of the town the horses stopped dead and refused to go any further. In the gloom the farmer saw a crowd of people coming towards him he could not see the figures properly but he heard the tramp and shuffle if feet. A coffin was carried past followed by a man on a white horse. The procession wound its way out of the town and the farmer, in his curiosity, forgot about the lime and followed the cortege at a safe distance. To his surprise he found himself being led back to his own village. There the coffin, the white horse and the people vanished.
Several weeks later a friend of the farmer died and the funeral took place on exactly the same route as the ghostly procession had taken. In the middle of the mourners was a man on a white horse. The farmer had seen the phantom funeral of his friend weeks before it actually happened.

A similar story is told about a Newton man who one day was enjoying his cwrw da in an old inn in the village (it might if been the ’Ancient Mariner’ or the ‘Jolly Sailor’) when he saw a similar procession, only this time the distinct figure was a man in bright red hunting habit. No doubt the onlooker blamed the strong beer at first, but he was even more astonished when the procession, instead of making for Newton Church, came straight for the inn. Then it disappeared.
 The man spoke about his experiences to the landlord who refused to believe the story. A few years passed and one day, without warning, the landlord died suddenly in Neath. His body was brought back by road to the inn where it rested prior to the burial in Newton churchyard. In the funeral procession next day the most prominent mourner was a man dressed in bright hunting pink.
The third story of a Phantom Funeral in Porthcawl was told to Marie Trevelyan by the man who actually witnessed the event. It went like this:

Early this century (20th century), on a September evening, a Porthcawl man was returning from Sker. It was a bright moonlit night and, shining out at sea, was the wreck of a huge vessel. A group of men were busily engaged in wading out to the ship and carrying something ashore. The man could not see exactly what their burden was but summarised that it must have been a coffin.
The men formed up on the beach, shouldered the object and made off towards the town. The man followed at a safe distance and then received a shock when the small procession halted outside the door of his own house. He hurried his footsteps to catch up with the men but just as he reached them they and their burden vanished. Shaken, he went indoors and told his father but thought it was best to   say nothing to his mother.

A week later a large vessel was wrecked off Sker. Among the drowned was the man’s own brother who had been away on a two years’ voyage.

The corpse was borne in the moonlight to the man’s house along exactly the same route as the Phantom Funeral had taken.

Since writing of the above the author (Alun Morgan) has had the good fortune to interview an old lady of 84 who witnessed a Phantom Funeral as recently as 1948. This lady who is deeply religious, does not wish to be named, but she lives on a farm not far from Porthcawl; and this is her story, taken down exactly as she told it.

One summer night she was unaccountably wakened at midnight and, being unable to resume her sleep, went to the bedroom window. The countryside was swathed in bright moonlight and there, in the lane just outside the farmhouse, she saw shadowy outlines of a funeral procession. As she watched, the cortege stopped and she clearly saw the me ‘change hands’ (i.e. a fresh team of pall-bearers relieved the carriers of the coffin). She continued to watch as the procession wended its way down the lane in the direction of Maudlam Church. One week later a neighbor was taken ill at the exact spot whew the change of hands had taken place. The lady rushed out to give him aid, but he had obviously had a heart attack. She took him to his home by motor car but he died soon afterwards. A few days later he was buried at Maudlam churchyard, the funeral procession taking exactly the same route she had previously witnessed.

Illustration by Margaret Wooding

Author: Alan Roderick 

Images: Candle Graves -My Own

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