An Island Coronation
Jon Gower commemorates a time when Ynys Enlli had its own king and coronations.
Ynys Enlli, Bardsey island – which lies like an apple just out of reach of the rocky arm of Llŷn – used to be its own kingdom with its own ruler.
Enlli was once owned by Lord Newborough, and he and his wife Maria Stella would graciously visit and distribute gifts of ribbon for islanders to wear in their hats.
The same largesse led to them bestowing the place with a crown – albeit not one of solid gold but of baser metal. Lord Newborough was a king maker, on the island he owned.
The full origins of the tradition are lost in the fog of time, but a letter from one of Lord Newborough’s workers suggests that one king died in 1826.
The first named incumbent of the title King of Bardsey was one John Williams, who drifted from this life in 1841, the day after his son John Williams II was born, too young to inherit the title.
Crowning ceremonies – the crown itself was made of tin – were reputedly held at the Narrows, the little isthmus between the two principal parts of the island.
They apparently involved a little silver snuff box, with the man-who-would-be-king standing on a chair for the ceremony. This is how William Bingley described the rituals in his book called North Wales, published in 1804:
Curiosity induces many persons to visit this island almost every summer; but the grandest sight the present inhabitants ever witnessed, was a visit of the proprietor, Lord Newborough, about eight years ago, accompanied by Lady Newborough, and several persons of distinction, in the whole to the number of about forty.
This company embarked in fishing smaks from Porthor, near Carreg Hall, in the parish of Aberdaron. On their arrival in the island, marquees were immediately pitched. The whole company dined in the open air; and, at the conclusion of their repast, all the inhabitants were assembled.
The ensuing scene reminded a gentleman of my acquaintance, who was present, of what he had read respecting the inhabitants of some of the South Sea Islands. They were drawn up in a circle, and the Lady Newborough adorned the heads of the females with caps and ribbons, whilst Lord Newborough distributed hats among the men.
The nominal king and queen of the island were distinguished from the rest by an additional ribbon.
The most famous member of the royal succession was Love Pritchard, whose reign over the island included the great, sad exodus of 1926, when he himself took pictures of a little flotilla of boats taking people away from their Bardsey, at a time when other islands, such as the Arans, were similarly being depopulated.
By that time the lack of young men on Enlli was a matter of concern, for as the King told the Daily Sketch for an article called ‘Life Too Dull: Why Bardsey is being deserted’: ‘We have not enough men to row boats off for us and look after the cattle.’
The mainland attractions of cinema and wireless seduced the young men, who couldn’t wait to leave. Love Pritchard looked every inch the king, with his flowing Neptune beard and bardic locks of hair.
Artist Brenda Chamberlain, in her haunting memoir of island life, Tide-race penned a briny vignette as she recalled her first regal encounter:
He had a light metal crown chased with a design of seahorses and shells, worn slightly side-ways on his head, and in his crab-like fingers he held a plug of twist from which he was cutting thin wafers of tobacco. By his side lay an empty rum bottle. He was gross with majesty, and must have been a good trencherman and a heroic drinker. He reeked of fish and salt and tarry ropes.
Another writer, the south African poet Roy Campbell, became the King’s ‘chief adviser concerning his home policy: and cheating the tax collector’, and recalled him as a strong man who, even in his eighties ‘could pick up a sack of flour with one hand and lay it over his shoulder as if he was a feather.’
The king is long gone, the island now the realm of seals and shearwaters.
This account of the king of Ynys Enlli is based on a chapter in The Turning Tide: A Biography of the Irish Sea by Jon Gower.
It is published by Harper North and is available from all good bookshops.
You can also find out more about the various kings and their histories and indeed much more about this magical island itself by visiting Ymddiriedolaeth Enlli/ Bardsey Island Trust’s website.
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