Hawarden, pronounced “Harden,” sits on the edge of Wales. Walk along the River Dee for an hour and you’ll cross into England. This is borderland. Once these fields, rivers, and trees were contested territory. In the 13th and 17th centuries, blood was spilled and fires were set. Yet in the village’s small post office, war seems distant. Standing among the brown and white envelopes, it is hard to imagine anything but peace.
To create such peace, in 1205 Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Wales, married King John of England’s illegitimate daughter. Along with the daughter, Llywelyn received a greyhound. Legend says that he adored the dog. One day, when he returned from hunting, he found the baby’s cradle overturned and the greyhound’s mouth red with blood. Immediately, he cut the dog’s throat. As soon as the dog was dead, Llywelyn heard the child’s cries. Lifting the cradle, he found the body of a wolf. It was wolf blood that covered the dog’s mouth. The greyhound had saved the child.
Into Hawarden’s post office walks a greyhound. The dog’s gait is so smooth, it takes a moment to notice that she’s missing a limb. She’s a grey greyhound. Just behind her comes a second dog. This one is brown. The brownhound has all its legs. Both dogs are petite. They don’t look able to kill a wolf. They keep their long mouths shut. Their neat steps are short. They have delicate ears and a self-effacing hunch to their shoulders.
Perhaps Llewelyn’s greyhound was larger. The breed predates any pedigree society with rules about length of limb. They’ve had centuries to grow and shrink, and yet their narrow form is recognizable. There’s a Roman sarcophagus in the Metropolitan Museum on which a greyhound dances. And a piece of unflattering 15th-century doggerel describes greyhounds:
The head of a snake
The neck of a drake
A back like a beam
A side like a bream
The tail of a rat
And the foot of cat.
The word “greyhound” is so old that its origins are obscure. Some think it might have once meant Greek hound, not grey hound.
After leaving the post office, the two dogs and their owner cross the street to the castle walls. The village has no bank, no grocery store, no Starbucks. But it has two castles, both of which are behind these walls. The locals call the Old Castle old because it is older than the 18th-century castle a short distance away, where the descendants of a British Prime Minister live. The doors to the castle park are set between turrets. The wood is thick and ferociously studded. As you approach, however, you see that the studs are not the stern iron they first seem, but squares of wood painted black. In places, they have peeled to show a soft grain. The red of the door is fading to pink.
Greyhounds may be famous racers, but these two trot slowly and stick to the dirt path. The trees twiddle new leaves, turning the green this way and that in the wind. A yellow-bellied bird smaller than a tennis ball bobs through the air.
The path turns and the Old Castle comes into view. It is not a castle so much as a great stone cup built on a hill. There is no roof and no hall—only this circle of stone. Daffodils besiege the hill in yellow and gold.
The Old Castle was once the new castle. The hill has borne many walls. In 1265, the grandson of Llywelyn the Great came to Hawarden and to the old Old Castle, at that time held by the English king’s supporters. This dispossessed grandson, also called Llywelyn, besieged the castle, took it, and razed it to the ground.
The battle continued for two years. In peace negotiations with King Edward, Llywelyn returned the land on the condition that no castle be built there for thirty years. Nevertheless, a second castle was built. In 1282, one of Llywelyn’s allies pillaged and burned that castle too.
Did the first Llewelyn’s dog father children? How many narrow-faced dogs lay sleeping in those castle walls? And how many curled at the feet of the besiegers? Could the dogs on either side smell each other? Had they, like the first Llewelyn and his wife, forged pups across national divides?
The Old Castle was eventually rebuilt, only to become a target during the English Civil War. It is the ruins of that castle that the dogs walk toward. Their paws make tiny scuffmarks in the dirt. The three-legged dog walks as gracefully as any other. She is perhaps more beautiful because her neat gait seems so impossible. The castle rests above us, blue sky visible through the windows in the broken wall. Back then there must have been days like this, when people walked with their dogs and hoped that war would never come again.