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Sabrina: Fair Goddess of the Severn

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

"Sabrina fair, listen where thou art sitting"

"Sabrina fair, listen where thou art sitting"

About the River Severn

The River Severn is well known as being the longest river in Great Britain. With its source at Plynlimon, in the Cambrian Mountains of Mid Wales, the Severn extends itself for roughly 220 miles. It travels through the landscapes of Wales and England before finally meeting the sea in the Bristol Channel.

Known as the Afon Hafren to the Welsh, the river travels through the region of Powys before making its way into England at Shropshire, where it turns southwards to flow through Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

The waters meander through the lands of many different cultures of the British Isles, so it is no wonder that the Severn features in so many legends and stories. The river is mighty, and she is sentient. From water nymph to deity, the Severn has been a muse for storytellers and poets for centuries and, in times long gone, was worshipped as a goddess.

In this article, we explore some of the legends from Wales and England about the River Severn.

Water-nymph of the River Severn

Water-nymph of the River Severn

Sabrina's Song

By the rushy-fringéd bank,

Where grows the willow and the osier dank,

My sliding chariot stays,

Thick set with agate, and the azurn sheen

Of turkis blue, and emerald green,

That in the channel strays;

Whilst from off the waters fleet

Thus I set my printless feet

O’er the cowslip’s velvet head,

That bends not as I tread.

Gentle swain, at thy request

I am here!

— John Milton, Comus (1634) [1]

The River Severn at its source

The River Severn at its source

The Three Sisters

Bill Gwilliam records how the rivers Wye, Ystwyth, and Severn chose their routes to the sea [2], for all three of these rivers have their sources in the high Welsh plateau known as the Elenydd.

The three sisters, all water spirits, met on the slopes of Mount Plynlimon to discuss how best to reach the sea as they greatly desired to meet the great waters of the Celtic Sea and beyond.

The first of the sisters, and the least patient, decided that she would take the shortest and most direct route. She made her way down the mountains in a westerly direction. Reaching the sea before the others, she became known as Ystwyth.

The second sister was not so hasty as Ystwyth. She enjoyed the landscape, and journeyed through the Welsh valleys and forested vales of Herefordshire. She came second, dipping her toes in the salty waters of the sea after her sister, and became known as Wye.

The third sister had no desire to rush. She had Ystwyth's taste for exploring the landscape around her, but she also wished to visit the fairest cities of the kingdom and see the wonders of men. She became known as Severn.

The infant River Severn, three miles from source, in the Hafren Forest, Powys, Wales

The infant River Severn, three miles from source, in the Hafren Forest, Powys, Wales

"Sabrina descends, and the Lady rises out of her seat"

"Sabrina descends, and the Lady rises out of her seat"

Song to Sabrina

Sabrina fair,

Listen where thou art sitting

Under the glassy, 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!

Listen, and appear to us,

In name of great Oceanus.

By the earth-shaking Neptune’s mace,

And Tethys’ grave majestic pace;

By hoary Nereus’ wrinkled look,

And the Carpathian wizard’s hook;

By scaly Triton’s winding shell,

And old soothsaying Glaucus’ spell;

By Leucothea’s lovely hands,

And her son that rules the strands;

By Thetis’ tinsel-slippered feet,

And the songs of Sirens sweet;

By dead Parthenope’s dear tomb,

And fair Ligea’s golden comb,

Wherewith she sits on diamond rocks

Sleeking her soft alluring locks;

By all the Nymphs that nightly dance

Upon thy streams with wily glance;

Rise, rise, and heave thy rosy head

From thy coral-paven bed,

And bridle in thy headlong wave,

Till thou our summons answered have.

Listen and save!

— John Milton, Comus (1634)

"The water-nymphs, that in the bottom played, held up their pearled wrists, and took her in"

"The water-nymphs, that in the bottom played, held up their pearled wrists, and took her in"

The Legend of Hafren

To the Welsh, the River Severn is known as the Hafren, from Old Welsh, Habren.

Habren, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth [3], was the daughter of king Locrin of the Brythonic-speaking Britons and his Germanic lover, Estrildis. This account, written in 1136, seems muddled in parts, and whilst we see names used for peoples that are different to what we know them as today, Geoffrey's work provided an insight into the history and legends of Britain prior to the Norman invasion of 1066.

After Troy was sacked, the survivors led by Brutus, went in search of somewhere new to call home. They found Britain, which they considered to be the perfect place to found "New Troy". Unfortunately for them, Britain was inhabited by giants.

Corineus, one of Brutus' champions, was able to defeat the giants and Britain was carved into three lands by Brutus to be ruled by his three sons. Albanactus was granted Scotland. Camber became the ruler of Wales. Locrinus was gifted England, and in honour of his brave deeds, Brutus and his sons gave Cornwall on the south west tip of England to Corineus.

On Brutus' death, the sons decided that it would be honourable for one of them to wed Corineus' daughter, the fair Gwendolen, and Locrinus would be that man. Whilst wedding preparations were under way, peril came from the north.

The Huns, led by Humber, had landed and were eager to make Britain theirs. Albanactus led his men to fight and was slaughtered.

The wedding had to be placed on hold whilst Locrinus made his way north to join the defending forces where a fierce battle took place in modern Lincolnshire. Victory was secured and the Huns fled. Humber fell in a northern river and drowned; the waters still bear his name.

Humber's daughter Estrildis was taken captive and led to Locrinus. Tall and blonde, Locrinus could not help himself as he fell in love with the beauty. He decided that this was the woman he wanted to marry.

Of course, Corineus found out all about it. He was furious. He marched from Cornwall to London with his army, and burst into the halls of Locrinus, where he petitioned his dismay with much vigour. Tables were smashed, Locrinus was lifted in the air, and Corineus told him exactly what he thought about the proposed change of plans as he held his knife to Locrinus' throat.

Realising the error of his plans, Locrinus agreed that he would after all marry the fair Gwendolen, and would sell the beautiful Estrildis as a slave. Whilst he kept his promise and married the Cornish maid, he hid Estrildis in one of his many underground chambers beneath London as his lover. After a while, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter.

Knowing the danger this child was in, he kept her hidden with her mother, never to see daylight. Their dwellings were comfortable, but the poor child never ventured out.

Seven years into his marriage to Gwendolen, Corenius died. Locrinus believed this to be the moment that he could live openly with the woman he loved, and banished Gwendolen, whilst Estrildis and her daughter were brought to live above ground. The pale child was at first blinded by the daylight, and frightened by the sun, but soon she came to love the world around her and spent each day joyfully exploring it.

"By all the Nymphs that nightly dance Upon thy streams with wily glance"

"By all the Nymphs that nightly dance Upon thy streams with wily glance"

Gwendolen was naturally enraged. She made her way to Cornwall, and sent word to Wales that the Hun had conquered Britain through the wiles of the bedroom. Britain must be saved! Locrinus found out about the plan and knew that his only hope was to meet the Cornish army before it merged with the Welsh. There was no chance that his smaller host could stand and win against a larger force if they came together.

Estrildis convinced Locrinus to take her and their daughter with him, as it was no secret that the British folk had no love for her.

Locrinus set out with his army, urgency upon him to reach the Cornish. The weather was not on their side, and with constant rain, the ground churned beneath their feet, fords became swollen and impossible to pass, and it became obvious that they would not make it in time.

Finally, he met with Gwendolen's army at the settlement now known as Stourport-on-Severn. His own forces were depleted, and he knew there was no way to win. An honourable death was all he could ask for, and with a war-cry on his lips, Locrinus and his men charged to meet their enemies as Estrildis and the girl watched on.

When all was done, Gwendolen's men captured the girl and her mother, and led them to Gwendolen. No mercy was to be found here, and the pair were thrown into the river.

It is said that the spirits of the place pitied the innocent child, and accepted her as one of their own. As the girl sank into the depths, they took her in their arms and gave her a kiss that would transform her to a creature of legend.

The River Severn at Worcester

The River Severn at Worcester

"Sabrina rises, attended by water-nymphs"

"Sabrina rises, attended by water-nymphs"

Sabrina's Transformation

There is a gentle nymph not far 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 sceptre from his father Brute.

She, guiltless damsel, flying the mad pursuit

Of her enragéd stepdame, Guendolen,

Commended her fair innocence to the flood

That stayed her flight with his cross-flowing course.

The water-nymphs, that in the bottom played,

Held up their pearled wrists, and took her in,

Bearing her straight to aged Nereus’ hall;

Who, piteous of her woes, reared her lank head,

And gave her to his daughters to imbathe

In nectared lavers strewed with asphodel,

And through the porch and inlet of each sense

Dropt in ambrosial oils, till she revived,

And underwent a quick immortal change,

Made Goddess of the river. Still she retains

"Her maiden gentleness, and oft at eve

Visits the herds along the twilight meadows,

Helping all urchin blasts, and ill-luck signs

That the shrewd meddling elf delights to make,

Which she with precious vialed liquors heals:

For which the shepherds, at their festivals,

Carol her goodness loud in rustic lays,

And throw sweet garland wreaths into her stream

Of pansies, pinks, and gaudy daffodils.

And, as the old swain said, she can unlock

The clasping charm, and thaw the numbing spell,

If she be right invoked in warbled song;

For maidenhood she loves, and will be swift

To aid a virgin, such as was herself,

In hard-besetting need. This will I try,

And add the power of some adjuring verse.

— John Milton, Comus (1634) [1]

Statue of Sabrina, in the town of Shrewsbury. Made by Peter Hollins of Birmingham in 1846 and donated by The Earl of Bradford to the people of Shrewsbury in 1879.

Statue of Sabrina, in the town of Shrewsbury. Made by Peter Hollins of Birmingham in 1846 and donated by The Earl of Bradford to the people of Shrewsbury in 1879.

The Legacy of a Goddess

It is thought that her name among the Britons was Habrenna, whilst to the Welsh she was Hafren. It was the Romans that gave her the name, Sabrina; and it is Sabrina that came to be known as the goddess of the River Severn.

Sabrina is one of the earliest recorded goddesses of British rivers, and appears as early as the 2nd Century in Roman accounts where she rides in a chariot through the river, with dolphins and salmon swimming alongside her. The waters reflect Sabrina's mood; and frequently the waters flood the low lying fertile lands along its banks, despite the best efforts of modern flood defences.

Folklore describes how Sabrina's presence is most strongly felt on those misty mornings, when the sunlight catches the light in the water meadows of the Severn Valley. Her spirit ventures outward from the river with the dewy mist at dawn, before returning to the waters when her veil of mist is lifted by the sun. It is to she, that young maidens make offerings of flowers to the water, petitioning her with their pleas and wishes.

The river personified by Sabrina also served a protective purpose; she seemed to create a boundary between the Brythonic Britons and the Anglo-Saxons when worlds collided in the 6th Century. The Saxons gave the river a name of their own; Unla.

On this day Unla Water probably received its name from the Saxons, for Unla is a contraction of the Saxon word for misfortune. Here many a Saxon saw the river for the first time and plunged in only to be drowned. As they saw the Britons running across Priding's Point to the safety of the Silurian shore, it must have seemed a simple matter to the Saxons to cut off this retreat by swimming the narrow main channel of the river. But Unla Water as it runs under the north bank of Arlingham is the most dangerous reach of the Severn and even at low tide is a maze of currents and whirlpools. [5]

Whatever name we know her by, Sabrina continues her meander from the lands of her birth in the high places of Wales to the wide Bristol Channel. Her eyes watch on as we rush by, our cities rising and falling. Whatever names we give her, she will always be the one taking her time to reach the sea.

Sunset over the Severn Estuary

Sunset over the Severn Estuary


[1] Comus. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham – Primary Source Edition, John Milton – ISBN 978-1295804894

[2] Worcestershire's Hidden Past. Bill Gwilliam – ISBN 978-1899062058

[3] Historia regum Britanniae. Geoffrey of Monmouth – ISBN 978-0140441703

[4] Worcestershire Folk Tales. David Phelps – ISBN 978-0752485805

[5] Severn Tide. Brian Waters (1947, out of print)

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones


Sabrina Vogelzang on June 26, 2016:

Now I understand why GB attracts me so much eversince my childhood......I have been born in the wrong country....

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on February 05, 2015:

I'd love to see that, Snakesmum. There are specific legends associated just with the Severn Bore. I'll have to write them up too!

Snakesmum on February 05, 2015:

Used to live in Gloucester, and have seen the Severn Bore come up the river. Have to admit I hadn't heard this legend before though.

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on November 30, 2014:

Thanks Carolyn! Grab a copy of Comus if you can, they're all in there. As you know, I'm a big fan of Rackham and fairy-tale illustrations of this period too. Thank you for sharing!

Carolyn Emerick on November 30, 2014:

I had never heard this tale before! And the illustrations are stunning. Also hadn't seen these particular Rackham pieces and I just adore them! It was a golden age of illustration. Sharing on FB :-)

Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on October 18, 2014:

Thank you Mel92114! There will be more on a similar theme as I am researching British river deities and nymphs at the moment.

Mel92114 on October 18, 2014:

Such an interesting article...I just loved it.