Madoc: the legend of the Prince of Wales who discovered America. True or false?7 min read
History books tells that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506 AD) is the official discoverer of the New World. However, he has already been dethroned, in fact most historians now agree that the first known Europeans in the New World were the Vikings led by Leif Erikson around 1000 AD. There is, however, another European who is also claimed to have reached the New World before 1492, the Welsh Prince Madoc. According to the legend, around 1.170, Madoc, sailed with his fleet to the West, to the American continent, three hundred years before Columbus’s story. It seems that Madoc was the illegitimate son of Owain Gwynedd the Great, ruler of the kingdom of Gwynedd, one of the medieval kingdoms of Wales, and was born in one of the most tumultuous periods in British history. Court intrigues, wars, rebellions and political unrest characterized the beginnings of the Welsh Middle Ages, when It was not rare the death of a monarch or a prince in that continuous dynastic struggle for the conquest of power. Following the departure of his father, to escape this brutal fraternal rivalry, Madoc made a decision: leaving behind the violence of his country and go to the west, to the unknown. No conclusive evidence has been found for this idea so far, but it is an intriguing possibility.
But what really happened? According to some he really managed to arrive in America, according to others he died in the fighting for the succession.
The bard Cynddelw, his contemporary, in his elegy for Owain’s family, tells that the prince was killed by his family. The dedicated verses were, however, initially misunderstood, perhaps intentionally, in order to give some credibility to the legend of his journey. Several poets of the twelfth century spoke of a certain murdered Madoc, but it was a very common name in Wales. So, It is sure that everyone is talking about the same person? The translators and posthumous writers, all following the beginning of the modern age, in addition to adapting the texts to their prejudices, tended to refer only to the verses they were interested in, depriving them of important parts for their understanding, and in certain cases to add entire parts completely invented, being unmasked, however, by the grammar and writing style of their time.
For example, a manuscript attributed to a medieval writer speak about Madoc, son of Owen, who took off with three hundred men divided into ten ships, whose destination is unknown. This manuscript, however, according to spelling, seems to have been written in the sixteenth century, then well four hundred years after the alleged facts narrated. William Owen, around 1800, will talk about Madoc in his work “Cambrian Biography” where he tells the story of the prince “left to the western sea, where he discovered a new land, as told by the fifteenth-century bard Ieuan Brechva”. Several scholars took it for granted that Brechva, with “western sea” meant the ocean, but on the other hand it might very well be the Irish Sea, or even the most likely hypothesis was put forward that the legend was drawn up the following century. In a 16th century work, a certain Humphrey Llwyd asserted that the lands discovered by Madoc corresponded to New Spain and Florida, at that time owned by Spain; the prince returned home and gathered men and women, eager to escape the massacre that was perpetrating in the kingdom, and took them with him to the new continent. According to this story, the New World was inhabited for centuries by the descendants of the Welsh royal, who also worshiped the cross, and spoke a mixture of Welsh and native language. It was thought that the Welshmen arrived in Mexico, a hypothesis supported by the myth of the origin of the Aztec people, who came from a distant and unknown land. Reference was made to alleged words, used by the natives, similar to the Welsh ones.
Thomas Herbert, in the seventeenth century, claimed that Madoc prepared ships and provisions, he enlisted men and women and took the sea from Abergwelly in 1.170 to escape the dynastic war. So, after a few weeks of sailing westward he threw anchor near the coast of a new land. Found a good place founded a settlement there. He rested with his companions, reinforced the camp and left, leaving 120 men in place. Thanks to providence, he returned home safe and sound. He told of his journey, of the fecundity of the soil, of the simplicity of the natives, of the riches, and of how it could be easily flourished. After a few months he returned to the colony. There he found, however, only desolation and a few survivors. Others died of illness, climate or the betrayal of the natives (curious parallelism with the journeys of Christopher Columbus). With the help of two brothers, Madoc put things back in order and stood there waiting in vain for the arrival of other compatriots. When he realized that they would not arrive, perhaps because they were called into war (a conflict that ended with the English subjugation of Wales), he was very disappointed. Although after their death the memory of that enterprise was fading, they remained track of their passage thanks to the language of the natives, their worship of the crucifixes, the use of beads and other elements.
A mention was made of the meeting between Cortes and Montezuma, during which the Aztec king spoke of a people who had come from afar, led by a nobleman, during the era of his ancestors, who welcomed them and from whom they learned the Christian rites. Evidently Herbert did not consider that the words, the crucifixes and all the rest could be explained with the European influence on the American peoples, to whom they imposed the adoption of the evangelical cult, with which they swapped objects of little value, such as beads, which were then sold to other populations. It must also be said that despite the expeditions they were under the protection and command of the crown of Spain, the sailors were not all Spaniards, but they had the most diverse origins, even English and Welsh. This could be a possible explanation, but we must take into account the possibility that these stories are only the result of the imagination of the writers, especially on the basis of the scarcity of the chronicles of the period, written by those who actually lived them.
James Howell, around 1650, in the “Epistolae Ho-Elianae” talks about the discoveries reported by sailors about the contact between Welsh and Americans, stating that the British crown could use these to legitimize their claim to lands overseas. The writers treated Madoc’s journey without citing sources and without bringing tangible evidence. They spoke of it as a secular chronicle, which does not need concrete foundations. It exists, so must be accepted. His descendants were identified primarily in the Tuscarores or Delaware peoples. At one point it even revealed the prince’s tomb with a lot of inscription.
It turned out that he was the commander of the royal fleet but, none of this, to date, is proven by reliable sources, and especially by the time in which he lived. Modern texts were often discordant about the year of departure, the number of ships and were enriched with new elements, such as the lineage of Montezuma, whose progenitor was supposed to be Madoc himself….
Some recalled the discovery of Cortes, in 1519, on the island of Cozumel, of a temple with a stone cross and ten tall palms. The conquistadores saw in the rites indios similarities with Christian and Jewish traditions; similar traditions found, of course, also in Virginia, where British interests were aimed, whose populations adored Madoc as a hero.
Later was Manco Capac, the first Inca emperor, to be identified with Madoc. There was an alleged finding of European ceramics in Kentucky, which do not constitute a sure archaeological proof, as they could very well have been put there on purpose to accredit the theory, or even brought there by Europeans or natives, who moved continuously and had constant contacts with each other. Someone tells that North Americans spoke a “perfect Welsh”, some had Welsh origins, such as the aforementioned Delaware and Tuscaroras, the Padoucas and the Pawnees. In any case, a certain fact is that around 1170 nobody talks about the alleged shipment of Madoc. It therefore seems to be an invention of the modern age.
Thus, this legend was probably born following the discovery of Columbus, based on the true story of Madoc, sung by the bards of the twelfth century. The prince fisherman, initially dead during the civil war, is found in modern tales as the founder of a settlement in the New World. The English initially used the legend to assert their right of possession on the lands recently discovered by the Spaniards. But, over time, it will contribute, in its own way, to the exploration of the continent and the study of the American peoples, starting the search (which still lasts today) of the descendants of those Welshs who landed in an unspecified point of America, before the famous Genoese navigator. In conclusion no one can say with absolute certainty that a group of Welshmen has arrived in the New Continent and, of course, no one can even say otherwise. Many stories, testimonies and sources have been lost, and the mystery behind this legend will remains unknown over the centuries.