Monday, 30 January 2012

What was the Ceffyl Pren?

There may be some ancient memories in the Ceffyl Pren tradition of medieval customs involving a horse's head or hobby horse....

Ceffyl Pren

The ceffyl pren was strictly a “wooden horse” but was in most cases a ladder or frame used for the transport and humiliation of a person around the district so as to expose him for some great sin or disgraceful act.  The tradition is said to have been derived from an ancient Welsh law abolished during Tudor times. Punished wrongdoers were generally those whose misconduct offended the strong rural sense of morality and justice: wife beaters, adulterers, young men refusing to marry girls made pregnant by them, or else neglecting to support their illegitimate children. The punishment was also much used during the Rebecca Riots on informants and tollgate keepers, and I have built the ceffyl pren into several sections of Martha’s story.

The ceffyl pren tradition was widespread throughout West Wales in the early part of the 19th century.  In part it was a reflection of the inadequacy of the formal justice system of the day, and in part it reflected the desire which exists in all communities for good behaviour to be maintained.    So in a sense it upheld the civil law, and left the enforcement of the criminal law to the Petty Sessions and other courts.  The phrase “kangaroo court”  might be appropriate, since the person charged with an offence had little opportunity to defend himself;  but some formalities were followed by each self-selecting jury of good men and true who carried with them the ceffyl pren, captured the offender and then dispensed other punishment if necessary.  Sometimes that punishment would involve the use of the ducking stool.

One of the key features of the ceffyl pren ceremonial was that the men of the jury would always be disguised, using women’s clothes and blackened faces. Since their operations were strictly outside the law there was a good deal of secrecy involved, and they often worked at night, carrying flaming torches.  If there were no constables around to cause concern, they might also operate during daylight hours.  In some towns and village is there would be a regular foreman of the jury, and elsewhere the foreman might be elected on the date chosen for some public humiliation. The trial and punishment of a captured offender would generally be accompanied by  a mock trial and by  music and laughter.  So there is no doubt that entertainment as well as Justice was a feature of ceffyl pren operations.  But sometimes things got out of hand, especially if the men who made up the jury had been drinking beforehand, or is the offender decided to resist arrest.  In 1844 one poor fellow was killed in Llanbadarn Trefegwys when he foolishly tried to resist those who sought to parade him around the parish for beating his wife.

Historians agree that the traditions of the ceffyl pren were incorporated into the Rebecca Riots, for many observers of the time noted that music and good humour, women’s clothes and blackened faces, and charades and “pantomine performances” were common to both. And in both, deep beneath the frothy surface, there was a serious and steadfast intent.

(This is a brief extract from the book "Martha Morgan's Little World.")

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