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Chapter III
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Celtic Britain

by Nora K. Chadwick

published by Frederick A. Praeger
New York

The text and engravings are in the public domain.


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Chapter V

 p65  Chapter IV

The Foundation of the Kingdom of Wales

We would gladly know more of the relations of the Britons of the North with the Britons of Wales. In the Welsh poem Armes Prydein1 ('The Prophecy of Britain'), probably composed early in the ninth century, the Gwyr Gogled (l. 15), 'the Men of the North', are distinguished from the Gwyr Deheu (l. 78), 'the Men of the South', i.e. the Welsh of Wales. The terms probably originated in the North Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd, and imply a close unity between the Britons of southern Scotland and those of Wales. The term Deheubarth2 (from Latin dextralis pars) is used of the south of Wales proper by Asser in his Life of King Alfred (ch. 80), and also by later writers.

The natural route from Cumbria to North Wales must always have been by the Irish Sea. A story is told in an early North Welsh version of the Laws of visits by the Men of the North across Morecambe Bay to Gwynedd, and a famous medieval bard, Hywel ap Owain (d. 1170), prince of Gwynedd, claims to have ridden from North Wales to Rheged — possibly in one day:

Today I love the open north land loathed by England . . .

I mounted my bay steed and from Maelienydd​3

To the land of Rheged I rode both night and day.​4

It is true that in Roman times Manchester, Ribchester, and Carlisle were connected by road; but unless this route was kept open, communication from the North through Lancashire must have become impracticable for large bodies of men, even light bodies of horsemen. All the rivers flow from east to west,  p66 and are not easily fordable in their lower courses. Moorland covered large tracts of country, such as Rossendale Forest in the medieval parish of Whalley in the north, while lakes such as Martin's Mere in the centre, and bog such as Chat Moss in the south, and forest — Macclesfield, Delamere, or Mondrum — offered serious obstacles to transit throughout the route. We may suspect that the early Saxon place-names in Lancashire represent settlements from the east of the Pennines rather than an organised network of communications in the west.

Welsh history is generally believed to begin with the arrival of a certain Cunedag (later Welsh Cunedda) and his sons, as related by Nennius in the Historia Brittonum (ch. 62, cf. p40 above). This account tells us that Cunedag and eight of his sons and one grandson came from Manau Guotodin 146 years before the reign of Maelgwn, prince of Gwynedd (cf. p45 above), in the time of his great-grandfather, and that they had 'expelled the Irish for ever from those lands'. The form of the name Cunedag and the context of the story indicate that the story is not later than the seventh century.​5 In one text of the royal genealogies appended to the Historia a list of Cunedag's sons is given in a tenth-century orthography, and at the conclusion the eldest son Typiaun is said to have died in Manau Guotodin and his son Meriaun to have divided his share of the Welsh inheritance with his brothers:​6 'This is their boundary, from the River Dee to the River Teifi, and they held very many districts in the western parts of Britain.' There is no hint of a migration or of any large-scale movement from Manau, and Cunedag is never referred to as rex, or, for that matter, by any title.

There is nothing inherently impossible in the early tradition of the movement of Cunedag and his sons into Wales, as Nennius claims, save their expulsion of the Irish, which was certainly not completed so early. Elsewhere also he states (ch. 14) that they drove the Irish out of Dyfed, Gower, and Kidwely,  p67 but there is no authority in the genealogies for sons of Cunedag south of Cardigan, and the statement is generally discredited.​7 In any case the additional tradition which gives the names of the sons may well be later in origin, and merely a  p68 piece of antiquarian speculation based on the names of the later divisions of the north and west of Wales, with which they are identical. The list is arbitrary and has gaps, and not all the kingdoms are on the coast or where Irish concentration might be looked for, e.g. Anglesey. The early text represented by Nennius makes no claim to these identifications, which have doubtless been supplied from the later pedigrees claiming to trace the origins of the ruling princes to the sons of Cunedag. All Welsh genealogies come to a halt at the close of the Roman period, and the story fills a gap. The names of the sons are possibly based on some old mnemonic list, like that of Arthur's battles. This concentration of genealogies on a fifth-century ancestor is closely analogous to those of the kings of Ireland, where the systematic scheme is attributed to medieval antiquarianism. Similar antiquarian speculative schemes were created for the sons of Erc in Dálriada, and for the sons of the eponymous Cruithne among the Picts.

Welsh tradition, then, presents us with the political map of Wales at the close of the Roman period as a mosaic of little kingdoms, each ruled by its own dynasty, each represented by its own carefully preserved genealogy, and each inheriting from father to son. Five of these genealogies claim that the dynasty which it represents was descended from Cunedag, of which four belonged to Gwynedd and a fifth to Ceredigion (Cardigan). By no means all the Welsh dynasties claimed descent from Cunedag. Dyfed (which included the modern Pembrokeshire) in the south-west kept the name of the pre-Roman kingdom Demetia, and was ruled by a dynasty which lasted from the fifth to the tenth century and claimed to be of Irish origin (cf. pp41 f. above). It has always had a special interest for us because here in the valley of Hodnant was the church of Mynyw, the monastic foundation, and later the cathedral, dedicated to St David, or Dewi Sant, the patron saint of Wales.

[image ALT: A political map of Wales in the early Middle Ages, showing the various kingdoms, and Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke.]
Fig. 11. Wales in the seventh and eighth centuries (after Rees)

 p69  The little mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog (Brecknock) in south central Wales was never conquered, and its dynasty, which claimed descent from a native princess and an Irishman, lasted till the tenth century.​8 The royal line of Builth on the upper Wye claimed descent from Vortigern, and the claim was never disputed. According to Nennius (ch. 48) both Builth and Gwerthrynion (a name derived from an older form of Vortigern) were, when he was writing, ruled by Fernmail, and it is certain that the early chieftains of Gwerthrynion, like those of Builth, traced their descent from Vortigern. The kingdoms of south-eastern Wales claimed to be derived from the Roman province of the Silures, and to have a dynasty descended from Caratacus. This was always the most Romanised part of Wales, and the name Caerwent has survived from the ancient tribal centre, Venta (Silurum).

The kingdom of Powys — beautiful, fertile Powys, 'the Paradise of Wales' as the Llywarch Hen poet calls it — doubtless arose from the old kingdom of the Cornovii, with its capital at Viroconium (Wroxeter) and its sentinel the Wrekin. It was always the gateway to Wales and had to guard its fords jealously. The name of the ford of Rhyd-y‑Groes ('Ford of the Cross') at Buttington on the Severn, a few miles north of Welshpool, is reminiscent of the great medieval abbey ruin of Strata Marcella also close by the Severn, and the entire setting is immortalised in the medieval Welsh story of the Dream of Rhonabwy as Arthur's camp during his negotiations with the Saxons. The origin of the Powys dynasty is obscure (cf. pp42 f. above), but the death of Cyngen, the last king of the old native line, is entered in the Annales Cambriae for 852.

As we trace the separate dynasties of these little independent Welsh kingdoms from their origin in the fifth century to the gradual unification of Wales in the ninth and tenth and their final union with England under Athelstan, we cannot fail to be impressed by their stability, for they remained intact  p70 for many centuries. Some of the ruling families had a life of more than eight hundred years, and the eventual unification of the country seems to have been brought about by intermarriage rather than by armed conflict.

The leading dynasty in the history of Wales from the fifth to the ninth century is descended from Maelgwn Gwynedd, whose ancestry traces him to Cunedag in the fourth generation, and who is to be identified with the Maglocunus, the 'Island Dragon' of Gildas. Maglocunus had won high approval from Gildas by spending some time in youth in a monastic retreat; but he had belied his early promise and become a powerful and ruthless warrior, renouncing his early vows and religious chants for the panegyrics of his court minstrels. We are still in the Heroic Age of Wales, and all that Gildas tells us of the splendid and imposing figure of Maelgwn and his career is typical of a heroic prince; but this is also the Age of the Saints, and it is characteristic of the period that warrior princes in all the Celtic countries of Britain may leave the world to enter monastic retreats, and often emerge again, whether temporarily or permanently, to take up arms as warrior kings.

Both Maelgwn and his son Rhyn are known to us chiefly through the wealth of traditions which became attached to them in later times, such as the medieval story of Taliesin, and the Dream of Rhonabwy, and the brief narratives incorporated in the Welsh Laws. Two generations later we enter a different world with King Cadfan, whose famous inscription with its inscribed cross in the Church of Llangadwaladr, speaks to us directly. The family seat at Aberffraw is a stone's throw away over a sandy flat which must have been ideal for the exercise of their members' horses. The inscription reads, Catamanus rex, sapientisimus, opinatisimus omnium regum, 'King Cadfan, most cultured and renowned of all kings.' Both inscription and lettering are in the most up-to-date form of Continental script,  p71 and the little court of Aberffraw on the west coast of Anglesey​9 was probably in direct touch with Continental culture. The inscription suggests that Cadfan himself was an educated man — sapiens means an educated man, and therefore a cleric at this period; and the ambitious and high-toned epitaph with its inscribed cross was doubtless set up by his son Cadwallon or his grandson Cadwaladr, the traditional founder of the church in which the inscription stands, the Westminster Abbey of the family.

From first to last this was a brilliant dynasty. Cadfan's son, the great Cadwallon, ally of Penda of Mercia, was the most powerful enemy of the English in the north. He was killed in battle near Hexham in 633 after his defeat by the Northumbrian king Oswald. The kingdom of Northumbria may well owe its survival to the deaths of Urien or Rheged and Cadwallon, killed within a few years of one another after carrying victory into the very heart of enemy territory.

We now enter upon the most momentous phase of Welsh history, leading to the control of North Wales by the line of Rhodri Mawr ('the Great'), who was killed in 878, and under whose grandson, Hywel Dda ('the Good') the union with England took place. This was the period during which, in the course of a few generations, the Welsh kingdoms became largely united by a series of royal marriage alliances. Hardly less important is the part played in Welsh politics by the royal House of Wessex, especially by Alfred the Great. His influential relations with a pro-English party in South Wales paved the way for the union with England, cemented only a generation later by Hywel Dda and Athelstan. The importance of Alfred's policy to the west of Offa's Dyke, and the part played by his Celtic sympathies and influence, are a much neglected element of much importance in the history of the British struggle against the Vikings.

 p72  Early in the ninth century a break took place in the military patrilinear succession in Gwynedd. The throne was occupied by a certain Merfyn Frych (d. 844), the father of Rhodri Mawr. He is generally regarded as a stranger, and as inheriting through his mother Ethyllt, who was in the direct line of descent from the 'Island Dragon', Maeglwn, and whose father and grandfather were important enough to be mentioned in the Irish annals. King Cadfan of the famous inscription was one of Merfyn's ancestors of his mother's side, and so also was the great Cadwallon, enemy and slayer of King Edwin of Northumbria. On his mother's side Merfyn's credentials could not be better. But what do we know about the origins of his father?

Poetry and genealogies alike point to the Men of the North — both the great Dumbarton dynasty, and the families descended from Coel Hen, who had policed our northern frontiers for centuries at the close of the Roman period, and more recently had distinguished themselves in warfare against the powerful kingdom of Antrim in Ireland. The annals of this period, both Irish and Northumbrian, suggest that the westward thrust and expansion of Northumbria was causing a movement of the Britons of Strathclyde and Cumbria across the Narrow Seas from Galloway to seek territory in Ireland and the Isle of Man, and among them the paternal ancestors of Merfyn of Gwynedd. Again, the names Elidyr and Gwriad, not common elsewhere in Wales, but prominent in Merfyn's family, also point to an ultimate origin in the North, probably through Manx intermediaries. Further, the Irish Annals record the death in 657 of Guret (Gwriad), king of Dumbarton, while the famous Manx cross, inscribed Crux Guriat, of ninth-century date (cf. p121 below), suggests Merfyn's more immediate origin. Finally, we may point to references to the family in Welsh bardic poetry, and in a Triad to 'Merfyn Frych from the land of Manau'.

 p73  Merfyn's court in Gwynedd was a centre of some culture, and a meeting-place for Irish scholars en route from Ireland to western courts on the Continent. The earliest Welsh letter extant contains a greeting for 'Mermin (Merfyn) rex' to a certain Concenn, probably Cyngen the last king of Powys, who died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 855, and whose sister, Nest, Merfyn married. The letter was eventually forwarded to an Irish teacher Colgu, and refers to certain Irish scholars, pupils of Colgu, who were at the time sojourning at the 'arx (citadel) of Mermin gloriosus', apparently on their way to the Continent, and it has been happily preserved for us by a Continental scholar Dufthach into whose hand it had come.​10 Like Cadfan's inscription a century earlier, it sheds an interesting side-light on the Continental communications and external culture of the west Welsh seaboard.

The marriage of Merfyn to Nest,​11 the sister of Cyngen, king of Powys, was one of the diplomatic marriages between the royal houses of the Welsh kingdoms. On Merfyn's death in 844 he was succeeded by his son Rhodri Mawr, and on Cyngen's death in 855 Rhodri seems to have inherited Powys through his mother. He ruled till 878, but his reign was a continuous struggle against external aggression from Mercia in the east, and the Danes in the west. This is the period to which Sir Ifor Williams​12 assigns the composition of the tragic poems which claim to be by a seventh-century Welsh poet Llywarch Hen, lamenting an English raid on Pengwern (Shrewsbury) that had left it a smoking ruin, and its princes slain (cf. pp106 f. below).

By a marriage with the sister of the king of Cardigan, Rhodri acquired the whole of south-west Wales except Dyfed, which was thus isolated. The dynasty of Gwynedd was a remarkable one. Within three generations, by a series of diplomatic marriages with Welsh princesses of the original ruling lines of the small kingdoms, they had made themselves masters of  p74 more than half of Wales, apparently without striking a blow. The greater part of Wales had passed from a series of small independent kingdoms to something approaching a centralised monarchy, and Rhodri was now the greatest power in Wales. Henceforth the real struggle in the power politics of Wales was between Rhodri and North Wales on the one hand, and Alfred the Great and Wessex in close alliance with South Wales on the other. The two greatest personalities in Britain faced one another across Offa's Dyke.

Meanwhile, like Alfred himself, Rhodri concentrated all his best energies to retain Wales intact against the Danes. Anglesey had been devastated in 854 by the 'Black Gentiles', and though the Irish annals record the death of their leader, Gorm, by 'Ruaidhri [i.e. Rhodri], son of Mermin [i.e. Merfyn], king of the Britons' in 877, Rhodri himself had been forced to flee to Ireland after another severe attack by the 'Black Gentiles' on Anglesey. He had, in fact, a double front to defend; and the next year evidently found him back in Wales, for the Annales Cambriae record the death of both Rhodri and his son Gwriad at the hand of the Saxons. This was the consummation of the struggle for power between Gwynedd and Wessex. No Life of Rhodri has come down to us, but he is mentioned three times in the Annals of Ulster, and his court at Gwynedd, like that of his father Merfyn, was apparently still in touch with the Continent, for two poems by Sedulius Scotus, one a panegyric of a certain Roricus (this name is a Latinisation of Rhodri), and another a carmen celebrating a victory over the Norsemen, have been thought to have reference to Rhodri Mawr.​13 Charles the Bald, king of the Western Franks, was suffering heavily at hands of the Danes at this time, and it would be natural for his court poets to extol the Welsh king who had slain their most formidable leader, and whose name, like that of his father, was in all probability already familiar to the Frankish court.

 p75  On Rhodri's death his realm was divided among his sons, and Asser tells us in his Life of Alfred the Great (ch. 80) that they terrorised the rest of the South Welsh kings, who appealed, one by one, in panic to Alfred for protection. The passage is full of interest, giving us an inventory of the reigning South Welsh kings of Alfred's day. The kingdoms had apparently changed little since their establishment at the close of the Roman period. Moreover, Alfred himself, no less than Rhodri, had built up a solid realm out of what had been virtually independent units. It is interesting to speculate to what extent the death of Rhodri, by removing the fear of an attack from Gwynedd, contributed to lighten Alfred's task. From now on his most serious danger was from the east, and he was free to concentrate on the military measures against his eastern enemies to which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ascribes his whole success.

Nevertheless Alfred was evidently well aware that his military efforts against the Danes would have had little chance of success if he had been attacked simultaneously by enemies in his rear, whether from Wales or Ireland, and his relations with both were evidently close. Asser tells us that he contributed annually a part of his income to the Irish Church, and the Parker Text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (annal 891) relates the arrival of three Irish pilgrims at his court, naming them by name, and adding incidentally a notice of the death of a famous Irish scholar. With Wales Alfred's relations were closer, and by a master-stroke of diplomacy he persuaded Asser, the Welsh scholar of St David's, to spend his time alternately at Alfred's court and at his own home in Dyfed, the most Irish, and therefore the most vulnerable part of Wales. In this way Asser was able to keep Alfred fully informed on South Welsh politics.

From a rousing contemporary particular Welsh poem, the Armes Prydein (cf. pp65 f. above), it is clear that Wales was now sharply divided between a strong anti-English party,  p76 chiefly in the north, led by the sons of Rhodri, and a South Welsh party which favoured union with England. Their leader in the first part of the tenth century was Hywel Dda, grandson of Rhodri,​14 who had added south-west Wales to his domain and ensured the friendship of the ruler of Dyfed by marrying his daughter. From 942 onwards he seems to have been almost the sole ruler of Wales under the English king Athelstan, with whom he associated himself closely, witnessing Athelstan's grants of lands and charters.​15 The British Museum possesses a charter, believed to be an original document, recording a grant of land by Athelstan at Luton in 931, which bears the testimony:

Ego Howael subregulus consensi et subscripsi.

The Museum also possesses what is believed to be the first pre-Conquest silver penny current under a Welsh king. On the obverse it bears the legend Howael rex, and on the reverse the name of the moneyer Gillys. It is thought that probably our silver penny was struck at Chester during the last years of Hywel's reign.​16 It should be added that Hywel's epithet Dda ('the Good') is given to no other Welsh king, and it was probably first given to him by the party in South Wales which favoured the union with Athelstan; the epithet Mawr ('Great'), applied to Rhodri, probably arose as an expression of the traditional North Welsh more exclusive nationalist policy.

 p160  The Author's Notes:

1 The best text is that of Sir Ifor Williams, Armes Prydein (Cardiff, 1955). An early and less satisfactory text and translation are given under the name of Skene, F. A. B. W. I, 436; II, 123.

2 According to Lloyd (H. W. I, 256, n. 155) it was used in later times in a restricted sense, exclusive of Gwent and Morgannwg. See also the note in Stevenson's edition of Asser's Life of King Alfred, 233‑4.

3 A district between the Wye and the Severn.

4 The translation is that of Lloyd-Jones. See 'The Court Poets of the Welsh Princes', P. B. A. XXXIV (1948), 23.

5 See Jackson, 'The Britons in southern Scotland', Antiquity XXIX (1955), 77.

6 Meriaun filius eius divisit possessiones inter fratres suos.

7 Lloyd, (H. W. I, 118), following Zimmer, regards this statement as an arbitrary treatment of the source, and not in itself likely to be correct.

8 See the pedigrees edited by Wade-Evans, V. S., 315, and cf. the Life of St Cadoc, edited and translated ibid., ch. 46.

9 The precise position of the palace of Aberffraw has not been identified. For some recent notes on the subject see Hague, 'Some Light on the Site of the Palace of Aberffraw', and also Professor Glanville R. J. Jones, 'The Site of Llys Aberffraw', both in the T. A. A. S., 1957.

10 For the text and commentary of the letter see Derolez, L'Antiquité Classique XXI (1952), no. 2, 359; ibid., Runica Manuscripta (Bruges, 1954), 97. For further references and details see N. K. Chadwick, S. E. B. C., 94.

11 On this subject see Lloyd, H. W. I, 324.

12 I. Williams, W. P., 48.

 p161  13 For references and some discussion of this identification, see N. K. Chadwick, S. E. B. C., 75.

14 See the genealogical table in Lloyd, H. W. II, 765.

15 See the list of these charters and attestations in Lloyd, H. W. I, 353.

16 Brooke, English Coins from the Seventh Century to the Present Day (3rd ed., London, 1950), 57, 60; Pl. XV, 1. Mr Michael Dolley has pointed out to me that the coins of Gillys, of Eadred, Eadwig, and Eadgar which do not have a mint signature are of a style which can be associated with the immediate vicinity of Chester, and the coin of Hywel is of this style also.

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