Caradoc 4. Snake and Vinegar

View over Callington, site of King Aurthur's Court

Caradoc grew in strength and skill, and fought many battles by Arthur's side.

“When he rushed into battle it was like the tearing onset of a woodland boar, The bull of combat in the field of slaughter, He attracted the wild dogs by the motion of his hand.”

He was nicknamed Caradoc Freichfras – Caradoc strong in the arm. He was strong in the arm, but troubled in the mind by the thought that his father was really the Evil Enchanter, and that his mother, Ysave, Arthur’s niece, had betrayed both her husband and son.

King Caradoc senior had his faithless wife locked in a tower when he discovered her deceit. There she led the life of Riley with frequent visits from the Evil Enchanter, who brought with him harpers to play the harp, minstrels to play the violin, dancers to dance and acrobats to tumble. King Caradoc heard rumours of the partying in the tower, but every time he came to visit his errant wife all was quiet. He sent word to Caradoc.

Caradoc set sail for France. He left Tegan behind with Cador, safe in Cornwall. It is said that men marry women like their mothers, but in this was not the case with Caradoc and Tegan: she was honest and loyal, as well as beautiful. Honesty, loyalty, or love were not part of Ysave’s make up. When she heard Caradoc was coming she plotted with the Evil Enchanter to kill their son.

The Enchanter had misgivings about this, but she had none. So the Enchanter found an enchanted snake, and Ysave hid it in her wardrobe.

The next day Caradoc came to visit his mother.

“Dear son,” she said, “May the good Lord protect you. I wasn't expecting you and I look a fright. Please will you get my comb from the wardrobe?”

Caradoc opened the wardrobe door, and reached inside to get the comb. The snake opened its mouth wide, bared its teeth, fastened them round Caradoc's wrist then curled its body round his arm – and squeezed, tighter and tighter. Caradoc thought he could easily defend himself from the snake, and shook his arm, but the more he shook the tighter the snake squeezed. Caradoc went pale with pain, he sweated, he trembled - and still the snake squeezed, tighter and tighter. His mother feigned innocence, and told her son to pray for forgiveness – he must have committed a great sin to deserve such a fate.

King Caradoc, however, knew who was to blame – he had to be restrained from killing his wife. Fourteen knights came and carried Caradoc from the tower, and took him to a luxurious room in the king’s palace. But nothing anyone could do would loosen the snake, and all the silk sheets and soft covers in the castle could not make a comfortable resting place for the prince - the snake’s venom made him restless and agitated, the snake’s squeezing caused him constant pain. His was not a happy lot. News of his predicament soon reached Cornwall.

Cador and Tegan set sail. But Caradoc did not want any visitors. He felt so wretched he wanted to be alone. He certainly didn't want his friend, and even worse his girlfriend, to see him in such a state. He was convinced Tegan wouldn't love him any more if she saw him pale and ill, with a great snake wrapped round his arm. Caradoc wished for a place to hide and remembered an old hermit who lived alone deep in the woods. He dug a tunnel under the castle wall and travelled the back roads through the dark forest until he reached the hermit's cottage. Caradoc told the old man his tale and the hermit allowed him to stay with him, living a holy life of prayer, penance and fasting. His mind grew calmer, his spirits brighter but his strength did not return; the snake was fixed firm as ever round his arm, draining his life away.

Cador and Tegan turned up at King Caradoc’s castle, looking for Caradoc, but the door to his room remained firmly shut. Tegan hammered on the door and implored him to open it. Cador had less patience. He kicked open the door – to find an empty room, and an open window. They followed the trail through the walled garden and saw the tunnel to the woods but there the trail went cold. Cador vowed to find his friend and searched high and low. He searched England, Ireland, Wales and Northumberland, and came back to Brittany via Spain... but no sight of the missing knight.

At last he found Caradoc, nothing but skin and bones, with the snake still squeezing. Cador vowed to rescue his friend, and rode to Ysave to ask if anything could be done. She consulted with the Evil Enchanter, and came up with a plan to free her son – a plan she was sure would fail. “Find a maid equal to Caradoc in rank and beauty who loves him as much as she loves herself. Then, in the light of the full moon, place two tubs three feet apart. Fill one with milk, one with vinegar. Caradoc needs to sit in the tub of vinegar, the maid in the tub of milk with her arm resting on the rim. Then she must enchant the snake to come to her.” Cador didn’t have to look too far for the maiden – his sister fitted the bill perfectly. He found the tubs, milk and vinegar easily too. Now all they needed was Caradoc to agree to the plan.

Cador and Tegan went to the hermitage to find Caradoc. He looked terrible - gaunt and haggard, skin and bones, his matted beard reaching to his knees - but Tegan didn’t flinch when she saw him. Caradoc couldn’t believe Tegan was willing to give up her life for him, but she didn’t want to live without him and would rather die for him – she was a brave as well as beautiful maid. They jumped into the tubs, Caradoc up to his neck in vinegar, Tegan up to hers in milk, Cador standing between, sword raised. The snake did not like being immersed in sharp vinegar; its eyes stung, its scales burnt… “Come and bathe in my soothing milk,” sang Tegan, “wrap yourself round my smooth white arm.”

The snake thought this was a good idea, and leapt from one vat to the other – and quick as a flash, Cador brought down his sword and sliced the snake in two, then he chopped it into a thousand pieces. Caradoc was overjoyed to be free, and recovered from his ordeal in less than a month. Well, his arm was never quite the same again and he became Caradoc Brisebras, or short arm. Some say as this happened in France, it didn't happen at all, and he remained strong armed to the last. Long or short armed he became Arthur's chief advisor.

He married Tegan, (Teg is Cornish for beautiful.) Some say their daughter was called Caradon, but that’s another story. In time Cador died in battle, and his best friend claimed the throne of Gelliwig – Caradoc the King. His name lives on Craddock Moor, on Caradon Hill, in Caradon District Council; but his stories are almost forgotten, as are the stories of Arthur’s court at Gelliwig. Let us remember them again.


retold by Sue Field


'A Book of Cornwall',S Baring Gould

Bullfinches Mythology

Three Arthurian Romances

  • Callington