The myths and legends of Britain’s counties have been handed down from past generations by word of mouth. Many were nature legends. Some legends had a certain amount of foundation in historical fact, especially those about folk, but as time went on these myths about these folk became embroidered. Ancients in the County fused history and myth together, seeing as they did, history as myth working through time. This blog, will explore the myth and history surrounding the Goddess Sabrina, Sabrina of the Severn.
Sabrina is the Celtic Goddess of the River Severn, which flows from its source in Wales through England emptying into the Bristol Channel and then on into the Celtic Sea. The River is named for Sabrina, whose original Welsh name was Havren or Habren; Sabrina is deemed the Romanised version.
She appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. The legend of how the Severn got its name begins with Brutus of Troy. He led a band of Trojan exiles to Britain, and the land was named for him. On Brutus’s death, the land was divided into four parts and given to his three sons, Locrine, Camber, and Albanact, and his good friend Corineus. To cement the alliance, Corineus’s daughter Guendolen was promised to Locrine in marriage. Before they were to be married, Britain was invaded by the Huns, and Locrine led the fight against the invaders. A princess named Estrildis was one of those captured, and Locrine fell in love with her. He asked Corineus to let him out of his engagement to Guendolen, but Corineus would not hear of it. Locrine married Guendolen, but he had secret rooms built under the castle where he hid Estrildis away. For the next seven years, Locrine continued to see his true love, using the excuse that he was making offerings to the Gods. After a time, Estrildis gave birth to Locrine’s daughter, Havren.
When Corineus died, Locrine divorced Guendolen, sent her back to her father’s kingdom, and acknowledged Estrildis and Havren as his family. The jilted Guendolen raised an army of her father’s men against Locrine, and he was killed in battle. Guendolen ordered that Estrildis and Havren be thrown into the mighty river that ran through Locrine’s kingdom. She then declared that the river would be henceforth named after Havren, so that Locrine’s infidelity would be forever remembered. When the Romans invaded, they changed the name to their own version, Sabrina, which means “from the boundary”.
Geoffrey of Monmouth also tells the story of three sisters, who were water spirits, meeting on the windswept slopes of Plynlimon to discuss the problem of finding the best way to the sea.
The first decided to take the most direct route, and headed westward, becoming the river Ystwyth. The second loved the landscape and made her way through hills and valleys, becoming the river Wye. The third decided against short cuts and took 180 miles to reach the sea passing through many cities and never being far from people. She became the river Severn.
Milton writes of Sabrina in Comus, in which the water-nymph is conjured and rescues the Lady from her plight because she is pure of heart. As agent of freedom, then, Sabrina is seen as powerful, mystical, and sympathetic to women who fall victim to a patriarchal system which undervalues and confines them. Milton’s description of Sabrina is worth quoting here:
There is a gentle Nymph not farr from hence,
That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream,
Sabrina is her name, a Virgin pure,
Whilom she was the daughter of Locrine,
That had the Scepter from his father Brute.
The guiltless damsell flying the mad pursuit
Here in the Shire, sits Sabrina in the Quarry Park Dingle. The statue was the work of Birmingham sculptor Peter Hollins (1800-1886), and made for Shropshire worthy, the Earl of Bradford in 1846 (Owner Of Weston Park infamous for stories about the Holy Graal). She looks as though she is carved from stone, but the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association National Recording Project thinks she may be cast in some sort of metal and then covered with plaster. They also say she is afflicted with a biological growth.
The scarcely legible quotation underneath her comes from John Milton’s Comus , a mask in which Sabrina is one of the main characters. This work also has Shropshire connections having had its premier showing at Ludlow Castle in 1634, presented before another worthy, ‘the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales.’
listen where thou art sitting
under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
in twisted braids of lilies knitting
the loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
listen for dear honour’s sake,
goddess of the silver lake,
listen and save.