The Merlin Files 8 – The Immortal

Merlin appears to be immortal. Whether or not he is still lives, imprisoned beneath Merlin’s Hill (as discussed in last week’s episode), his spirit certainly lives on in Carmarthen, the place of his birth.

His name is everywhere in the town and most noticeably in the Merlin’s Way shopping precinct, whose focal point is a mighty wood sculpture of the man himself.

But there are more esoteric and almost unfathomable connections between Merlin and Carmarthen – mostly associated with the tree known as Merlin’s Oak, which once stood at the junction of Old Oak Lane and Priory Street.

Legend has it that when Merlin was a boy – this would be some 1,600 years ago – a local tree that he played in was threatened with being chopped down. His reaction was the prophetic warning: “When Merlin’s Tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen town.”

The last tree that came to be known as Merlin’s Oak – but was also known as Priory’s Oak (I told you this wasn’t going to be straightforward) – stood in Carmarthen from 1659 to 1978. 

But there may well have been another tree or trees on that spot going back as far as the first century AD. In those early centuries of the Christian Era trees were often planted to mark the graves of important leaders or chiefs.

The priory that became associated with the Carmarthen tree was the medieval St John’s Priory, which evolved from an early Christian community dedicated to St Teulyddog.

In the early 1800s, the tree planted 200 years earlier (by a master at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School), was allegedly poisoned by a local man who was fed up with its being used as a place for noisy socialising.

The badly damaged tree survived into the 20th century, propped up by stone and concrete, and protected by iron railings. Enough local people seemed to give credence to Merlin’s prophecy that they ensured it survived for several decades when others wanted to get rid of it. The latter saw it as an eyesore and an obstacle to road improvements, and eventually they won the day and it was taken down.

Carmarthen did not fall with the oak – but perhaps that is because pieces of it were preserved and given prominence in both the County Museum and in the town council’s Civic Hall.

Normally, these relics would be on public display, but as a result of the pandemic, they have remained off limits.

However, thanks to the kind folk at the town council, I was allowed into the Civic Hall for an exclusive peek at the large fragment of the tree which is kept there in a glass case, complete with an inscription of a version of the old prophecy.

Standing in front of this battered and abused relic, with its perhaps tenuous connections to the ultimate boy wonder, prophet, magician, sorcerer, wild man and immortal legend, seemed like a good place to end this trip through the tangled lives and times of Merlin… It may have produced as many questions as answers, but I hope, like me, you have enjoyed the journey.

© Nigel Summerley

Click here to see all the previous episodes of THE MERLIN FILES

A vintage picture of Merlin’s Oak… before it was finally taken down

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at www.nigel-summerley.blogspot.com.

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