Ffynnon Elen, Croesor, Llanfrothen

Ffynnon Elen, Croesor

One time, Elen was leading her army along Ffordd Elen to Snowdon, and passing through Cwm Croesor, she rested beside a roadside well. As she stopped a messenger caught up with her to announce the news that a son of hers had been slain with an arrow by the giant Cidwm, who dwelt in the rock eyrie that above Llyn Cwellyn, still bearing his name. She thereupon cried “Croes awr i mi!” ‘A bitter hour to me!’, and the place has ever since been called Croesawr or Croesor. This well is Ffynnon Elen.

The well today, remains by the side of the footpath, one of a number of routes through the are known as Sarn Elen.  We have previously encountered another Ffynnon Elen beside an old Roman road at Dolwyddelan.

Elen herself is shrouded in some degree of mystery, she has in the past been confused with St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and with Elen ferch Coel, a daughter of King Cole.

The most likely derivation however comes from the wife of Maximus who was proclaimed emperor by the army in Britain in 383 following a great victory over the Picts and Scots. He sought to extend his power base as a usurper invading Gaul and later Italy before being betrayed and finally killed in 388. He is supposed to have been stationed in Britain from around the 360s and at this time it is believed that he married Elen, daughter of Eudaf, a prince of Arfon. The name Elen and Helen are a little interchangeable here, there is a well named for Helen at Caernarfon. She is traditionally the mother of St Peblig to whom the church at Caernarfon is dedicated and of St Cystennin, to whom the church at Llangystennin near Llandudno Junction is dedicated. Since Maximus at one time set up his court at Treves, it is probably Elen is synonymous with Helena of Treves (Trier). Following the death of maximus in 388 it is thought she retired back to Arfon where she may have been honoured as a saint.

Ffynnon Elen Croesor

Elen becomes mythologised in the story of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” included within the Mabinogion, in which she becomes Elen Luyddog, “Elen of the Hosts”. Macsen, emperor in Rome sees Elen in a dream and sends out messengers in search of her.  They find her in Caernarfon and hail her as Empress of Rome. She demands that Macsen should travel to Caernarfon to find her, which he does making her his wife. She has Macsen build three strongholds for her, one in Caernarfon, one in Caerleon-on-Usk and one in Carmarthen and she has roads built across the countryside to link the three. 

From this legend, in later times, her name becomes synonymous with the old Roman roads and other early trackways crossing the area. These roads become known as Ffyrdd Elen Luyddog, and a number of old Roman roads and mountain tracks retain the name Sarn Elen, Ffordd Elen or Llwybr Elen  – Elen’s causeway, road or path.

Edward Lhuyd’s Parochialia written in the late 17th century records Ffordd Elen Lwyddog at Llandecwyn and Sarn Elen at Tal-y-Llyn, while the Royal Commission Inventory notes Llwybr Elen att Llanfacreth as “without doubt one of the earliest lines of communication across the parish.” Pennant, in the late 18th century described Sarn Helen in Trawsfynnydd – “now entirely covered in turf;… beneath are the stones which form it, and extend in all its course, to the breadth of eight yards.”

In recent years the mythology of Elen has continued to expand to imagine her as an ancient British goddess presiding over the lost track ways, roads and the lines of power of her country – Elen of the Ways.

Ffynnon Elen Croesor

The earliest written account that I have found of Ffynnon Elen at Croesor, and the story of Elen’s receiving bad news there comes from 1846, and it must be that the story significantly predates that. At this time portions of a very ancient, paved road could still be seen passing the well. At some short time later the spring feeding the well was diverted into a nearby tank to provide a water supply for the community of Croesor.

The Inspectors for the Royal Commission for Historic and Ancient Monuments visited the well in 1914 and found it to be supplying the village at that time. They considered there to be no genuine medieval tradition for the well. In the early years of the 19th century, however, hundreds of pins could be seen in the well, Eirlys Gruffydd recounts a particular tradition for curing warts at the well. The person seeking a cure would be required to kneel by the well and drink the water, they would then prick the wart with a pin until blood is drawn, turn their back on the well and through the pin over their shoulder into the well reciting some form of spell. At one time they suggest an old woman living by the well was responsible for its upkeep and for instructing those who visited how to obtain the cure.

Today, the well no longer supplies the village. The shape of the tank, underground to the east of the well can still be seen. The well basin itself is stone lined with two large flat stones partially covering the top. The basin is dry, the spring now flows down the slope to the side from where it had been diverted.

Peter Bartrum (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales

Eirlys Grufydd (1995) Ffynhonnau Cymru Volume 1. Carreg Gwalch

Graham Jones (2012) Wells of St Helen: A told and Untold Story. Paper given to the Wellsprings conference, Caerleon. September 2012.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic monuments in Wales(1921)  Inventory IV. Merioneth 

“Glaslyn” (1903) Cwm Croesor. Cymru Vol 25 pp14-18.

Archaeologia Cambrensis (1846) On the Roman Roads in Caernarvonshire and Merionethshire

Caroline Wise (ed) (2015) Finding Elen. The Quest for Elen of the Ways Eala Press.

Thomas Pennant Tours in Wales (1883 Edition H H Humphreys, Caernarfon)

Ffynnon Elen Croesor

Ffynnon Elen, Croesor. SH 6297 4485

Ffynnon Elen Croesor


    1. thanks, yes Elen has a fascinating history and her name is reflected in so many features in the landscape in this area. Not at all easy to unpick. – Much like the warts i expect

  1. Fascinating story. Best to step carefully in the area lest one catches a pin in the toe though.
    Tim Hopper (Anglesey)

    1. thanks Tim – so many wells seem to have had pins thrown into them in the past – certainly not places to go paddling. I hope your work in Rhoscolyn is going well.

      1. Ian, Yes, I’m fine thanks here in Rhoscolyn. The St Gwenfaen story is currently being revisited. Our local historian has published a new piece of hers in the ‘Rhoscolyn Herald’ history section a month or two ago, which I hope to copy and paste into my own little ring-binder file (with her permission). It’s just for visitors to the NCI lookout on the cliff-top. Nice place to be on sunny days, bit lonely sometimes in the winter.
        All best, Tim

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