There was a curious custom in the far olden times of Wales. At the banqueting hall, the king of the country would sit with his feet in the lap of a…
Whenever His Majesty sat down to dinner, this official person would be under the table holding the royal feet. This was also the case while all sat around the evening fire in the middle of the hall. This footholding person was one of the king’s staff and every castle must have a human footstool as part of its furniture.
By and by, it became the fashion for pretty maidens to seek this task, or to be chosen for the office. Their names in English sounded like Foot-Ease, Orthopede, or Foot Lights. When she was a plump and petite maid, they nicknamed her Twelve Inches, or when unusually soothing in her caresses of the soft royal toes. It was considered a high honor to be the King’s Foot Holder. In after centuries, it was often boasted of that such and such an ancestor had held this honorable service.
One picture of castle life, as given in one of the old books tells how Kaim, the king’s officer, went to the mead cellar with a golden cup, to get a drink that would keep them all wide awake. He also brought a handful of skewers on which they were to broil the collops, or bits of meat at the fire.
While they were doing this, the King sat on a seat of green rushes, over which was spread a flame-colored satin cover, with a cushion like it, for his elbow to rest upon.
In the evening, the harpers and singers made music, the bards recited poetry, or the good story tellers told tales of heroes and wonders. During all this time, one or more maidens held the king’s feet, or took turns at it, when tired; for often the revels or songs and tales lasted far into the night. At intervals, if the story was dull, or he had either too much dinner, or had been out hunting and got tired, His Majesty took a nap, with his feet resting upon the lap of a pretty maiden. This happened often in the late hours, while they were getting the liquid refreshments ready.
Then the king’s chamberlain gently nudged him, to be wideawake, and he again enjoyed the music, and the stories, while his feet were held.
For, altogether, it was great fun.
Now there was once a Prince of Gwynedd, in Wales, named Math, who was so fond of having his feet held, that he neglected to govern his people properly. He spent all his time lounging in an easy chair, while a pretty maiden held his heels and toes. He committed all public cares to two of his nephews. These were named for short, Gily and Gwyd.
The one whom the king loved best to have her hold his feet was the fairest maiden in all the land, and she was named Goewen.
By and by, the prince grew so fond of having his feet held, and stroked and patted and played with, by Goewen, that he declared that he could not live, unless Goewen held his feet. And, she said, that if she did not hold the king’s feet, she would die.
Now this Gily, one of the king’s nephews, son of Don, whom he had appointed to look day by day after public affairs, would often be in the hall at night. He listened to the music and stories, and seeing Goewen, the king’s foot holder, he fell in love with her. His eye usually wandered from the story teller to the lovely girl holding the king’s feet, and he thought her as beautiful as an angel.
Soon he became so lovesick, that he felt he would risk or give his life to get and have her for his own. But what would the king say?
Besides, he soon found out that the maiden Goewen cared nothing for him.
Nevertheless the passion of the love-lorn youth burned hotly and kept increasing. He confided his secret to his brother Gwyd, and asked his aid, which was promised. So, one day, the brother went to King Math, and begged for leave to go to Pryderi. In the king’s name, he would ask from him the gift of a herd of swine of famous breed; which, in the quality of the pork they furnished, excelled all other pigs known. They were finer than any seen in the land, or ever heard of before. Their flesh was said to be sweeter, juicier, and more tender than the best beef. Even their manners were better than those of some men.
In fact, these famous pigs were a present from the King of Fairyland. So highly were they prized, that King Math doubted much whether his nephew could get them at any price.
In ancient Wales the bards and poet singers were welcomed, and trusted above all men; and this, whether in the palace or the cottage.
So Gwyd, the brother of the love-sick one, in order to get the herd of surpassing swine, took ten companions, all young men and strong, dressed as bards, and pretending by their actions to be such. Then they all started out together to seek the palace of Pryderi.
Having arrived, they were entertained at a great feast, in the castle hall. There Pryderi sat on his throne-chair, with his feet in a maiden’s lap.
The dinner over, Gwyd was asked to tell a story.
This he did, delighting everyone so much, that he was voted a jolly good fellow by all. In fact, Pryderi felt ready to give him anything he might demand, excepting always his foot holder.
At once, Gwyd made request to give him the herd of swine.
At this, the countenance of Pryderi fell, for he had made a promise to his people, that he would not sell or give away the swine, until they had produced double their number in the land; for there were no pigs and no pork like theirs, to be bought anywhere.
Now this Gwyd was not very cunning, but he had the power of using magic arts. By these, he could draw the veil of illusion over both the mind and the eyes of the people.
So he made answer to Pryderi’s objections thus:
“Keep your promise to your people, oh, most honored Pryderi, and only exchange them for the gift I make thee,” said Gwyd.
Thereupon, exerting his powers of magic, he created the illusion of twelve superb horses. These were all saddled, bridled, and magnificently caparisoned. But, after twenty-four hours, they would vanish from sight. The illusion would be over.
With these steeds, so well fitted for hunting, were twelve sleek, fleet hounds. Taken altogether, here was a sight to make a hunter’s eyes dance with delight.
So Pryderi gave Gwyd the swine, and he quickly drove them off.
“For,” he whispered to his companion fellows in knavery, “the illusion will only last until the same hour to-morrow.”
And so it happened. For when Pryderi’s men went to the stables, to groom the horses and feed the hounds, there was nothing in either the stables or the kennels.
When they told this to Pryderi, he at once blew his horn and assembled his knights, to invade the country of Gwynedd, to recover his swine. Hearing of his coming, King Math went out to meet Pryderi in battle.
But while he was away with his army, Gily, the lover, seized the beautiful maiden Goewen, who held the king’s feet in her lap.
She was not willing to marry Gily, but he eloped with her, and carried her off to his cottage.
The war which now raged was finally decided by single combat, as was the custom in old days. By this, the burning of the peasants’ houses, and the ruin which threatened the whole country, ended, and peace came.
It was not alone by the strength and fierceness of King Math, but also by the magic spells of Gwyd, that Pryderi was slain.
After burying the hero, King Math came back to his palace and found out what Gily had done. Then he took Goewen away from Gily, and to make amends for her trouble, in being thus torn from his palace, King Math made her his queen. Then the lovely Goewen shared his throne covered with the flame colored satin. One of the most beautiful maidens of the court was chosen to hold his feet, until such time as a permanent choice was made.
As for the two nephews, who had fled from the wrath of their princely uncle, they were put under bans, as outlaws, and had to live on the borders of the kingdoms. No one of the king’s people was allowed to give them food or drink. Yet they would not obey the summons of the king, to come and receive their punishment.
But at last, tired of being deserted by all good men and women, they repented in sorrow. Hungry, ragged and forlorn, they came to their uncle, the king to submit themselves to be punished.
When they appeared, Math spoke roughly to them, and said:
“You cannot make amends for the shame you have brought upon me. Yet, since you obey and are sorry, I shall punish you for a time and then pardon you. You are to do penance for three years at least.”
Then they were changed into wild deer, and he told them to come back after twelve months.
At the end of the year they returned, bringing with them a young fawn.
As this creature was entirely innocent, it was given a human form and baptized in the church.
But the two brothers were changed into wild swine, and driven off to find their food in the forest.
At the end of the year, they came back with a young pig.
The king had the little animal changed into a human being, which, like every mother’s child in that time, received baptism.
Again the brothers were transformed into animal shape. This time, as wolves, and were driven out to the hills.
At the end of a twelve months’ period, they came back, three in number, for one was a cub.
By this time, the penance of the naughty nephews was over, and they were now to be delivered from all magic spells.
So their human nature was restored to them, but they must be washed thoroughly. In the first place, it took much hot water and lye, made from the wood ashes, and then a great deal of scrubbing, to make them presentable.
Then they were anointed with sweet smelling oil, and the king ordered them to be arrayed in elegant apparel. They were appointed to hold honorable office at court, and from time to time to go out through the country, to call the officers to attend to public business.
When the time came that the king sought for one of the most beautiful maidens, who should hold his feet, Gwyd nominated to the prince’s notice his sister Arianrod. The king was gracious, and thereafter she held his feet at all the banquets. She was looked up to with reverence by all, and held the office for many years. Thus King Math’s reputation for grace and mercy was confirmed.
Welsh Fairy Tales
By WILLIAM ELLIOT GRIFFIS