The Welsh did not exist before the arrival in Britain of the Anglo-Saxons![*] It was these Germanic incomers who called the native Britons Wealas or Walas, which translates into modern English as ‘Welsh’ – and from the same root comes the country-name ‘Wales’.[*]
The history of early medieval Wales is poorly documented. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing at the end of the 12th century, provides the nearest insight into the character and attitudes of the Welsh of that time.[*]
This people is light and active, hardy rather than strong, and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles, but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm, the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court … They anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty; for these they fight, for these they undergo hardships, and for these willingly sacrifice their lives; they esteem it a disgrace to die in bed, an honour to die in the field of battle … No one of this nation ever begs, for the houses of all are common to all; and they consider liberality and hospitality amongst the first virtues. So much does hospitality here rejoice in communication, that it is neither offered nor requested by travellers, who, on entering any house, only deliver up their arms.… The young men move about in troops and families under the direction of a chosen leader. Attached only to arms and ease, and ever ready to stand forth in defence of their country, they have free admittance into every house as if it were their own.… The Welsh esteem noble birth and generous descent above all things, and are, therefore, more desirous of marrying into noble than rich families. Even the common people retain their genealogy, and can not only readily recount the names of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but even refer back to the sixth or seventh generation, or beyond them … Being particularly attached to family descent, they revenge with vehemence the injuries which may tend to the disgrace of their blood; and being naturally of a vindictive and passionate disposition, they are ever ready to avenge not only recent but ancient affronts …Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Cambriae I, 8, 10 & 17
Wales was not, however, a single political entity. It was divided into a number – which varied over time – of separate kingdoms.
The foundation of Gwynedd is traditionally associated with a certain Cunedda, who, according to the Historia Brittonum, travelled from the British kingdom of Gododdin, in what is now south-eastern Scotland, to what would become north-west Wales, with his eight sons, in order to expel Scots (i.e. Irish) invaders, round about the year 400.
The Harleian Genealogies (§§32–33) represent Cunedda’s sons, and a grandson, as the eponymous founders of various sub-divisions of Gwynedd (for example: Meirionydd named from his grandson Meirion).[*][*] Ceredigion, too, is given a son of Cunedda, Ceredig, as its eponymous founder.[*]
In his diatribe, De Excidio Britanniae (On the Ruin of Britain), written around 545(?), the British cleric Gildas picked out five contemporary kings for particular criticism.[*] Glildas’ Cuneglasus is usually equated with Cynlas (Cinglas), who appears in the Harleian Genealogies (§3 – a pedigree associated with the Rhos sub-division of Gwynedd) as great-grandson of Cunedda, grandson of Einion Yrth, son of Owain Danwyn (White-Tooth), and may, therefore, have been king of Rhos.[*]
Another of the kings singled out by Gildas, Maglocunus “the island dragon”, is almost universally equated with Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd (the island being Anglesey). Maelgwn is also shown as Cunedda’s great-grandson and Einion Yrth’s grandson in the Harleian Genealogies (§1 – showing the descent Owain ap Hywel Dda from the kings of Gwynedd), but his father is named as Cadwallon Lawhir (Long-Hand). According to Gildas (§33), Maelgwn – “exceeding many in power and at the same time in malice … superior to almost all the kings of Britain, both in kingdom and in the form of thy stature” – had become king as a young man, after he had defeated the incumbent king, his unnamed uncle, in battle.[*] The Annales Cambriae, indicating a date of 547, report: “The great death [i.e. plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died.”
In south-west Wales, the tribal area of the Demetae evolved into the kingdom of Dyfed. According to an ancient Irish tale, the area was settled by a displaced Irish people, the Déisi, led by one Eochaid. The first ruling dynasty of Dyfed does, indeed, appear to have Irish roots. Vortipor, “tyrant of the Demetae” (as he is addressed by Gildas), is said to be great-great-great-grandson of Eochaid in genealogical material attached to the Irish tale. Vortipor also features in the Harleian Genealogies (§2 – showing the descent Owain ap Hywel Dda from the kings of Dyfed) along with two previous and nine subsequent generations that match the Irish genealogy. This same Vortipor may be commemorated on a memorial stone (which originally stood at Castell Dwyran – some 5 miles north-west of Carmarthen, where it is now on display in the County Museum) which is inscribed in both Latin and Irish ogham.
The kingdom of Brycheiniog is attested in the mid-8th century (Llandaff charters). Traditionally, its eponymous founder, Brychan, also has Irish links, indeed, he is said to have been born there – son of a Welsh princess and an Irish king.[*] The Irish connection is substantiated by a cluster of ogham inscribed stones, of around the 5th and 6th centuries, that have been found in the area.
According to ‘The Brychan Documents’, before he became king, Brychan had been given, by his father, to the king of Powys, one Benadel, as a hostage. Brychan raped Benadel’s daughter, as a result of which she gave birth to a son: Cynog, later St Cynog. Actually, the name of Powys does not appear in the historical record until the start of the 9th century, when the Annales Cambriae announce the death of “Cadell king of Powys[*]” (808). The Annales, however, record the death of “Selyf son of Cynan”, at the battle of Chester (613x616), and Selyf ap Cynan is the subject of §22 of the Harleian Genealogies – a pedigree which belongs to Powys.
The Annales Cambriae don’t actually say who Selyf’s opponent at Chester was, but evidently it was, the Anglo-Saxon king, Æthelfrith of Northumbria. Bede (HE II, 2) mentions the battle, but he doesn’t mention Selyf. Indeed, Bede’s interest is not in the battle proper, but in a preliminary attack that Æthelfrith, a pagan, made on a band of monks from Bangor Is-coed (Bangor-on-Dee) who had assembled to pray for a Welsh victory. Bede reports that a certain Brocmail (i.e. Brochfael), whose duty it was to protect the praying monks, promptly fled the scene. As a result: “About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only 50 to have escaped by flight.” Irish annals record the battle of Chester, the slaughter of the monks and Selyf’s death – Selyf is titled: “king of the Britons”. The Annals of Tigernach additionally report the death of another king, Cetula (who is otherwise unknown), in the battle, and that Æthelfrith was the victor, but that he died soon after. In fact, Æthelfrith was killed in battle, in 616, by forces supporting his exiled rival, Edwin. In the fullness of time, Edwin secured: “the overlordship over all the nations who inhabit Britain, both English and British, except only the people of Kent; and he reduced also under the dominion of the English, the Mevanian Islands of the Britons [Anglesey and the Isle of Man], lying between Ireland and Britain” (HE II, 5).
The A-text of the Annales Cambriae tags onto its notice of the battle of Chester, and Selyf’s death in it: “And Iago son of Beli slept [i.e. died].” Iago ap Beli features as the great-grandson of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, in Harleian Genealogies §1. It would seem that he passed away peacefully in the same year as Chester.[*] However, in the B-text of the Annales both Selyf and Iago are said to have been killed at Chester, whilst according to a Welsh Triad that records “Three Hatchet-Blows” (Triad 33W): “And the third, one of his own men struck upon Iago, son of Beli, with a hatchet, on the head.” The circumstances of Iago’s death, then, remain obscure. Iago’s son, King Cadfan (Catamanus rex), is commemorated as “the wisest and most renowned of all kings” in the Latin inscription on his memorial stone, which is now built into the church wall at Llangadwaladr, Anglesey. Cadfan’s son, Cadwallon, is Bede’s “Cædwalla, king of the Britons” who, apparently after a period of protracted, indecisive, warfare, enlisted the support of Penda of Mercia, to defeat and kill Edwin, king of Northumbria, at Hatfield Chase (near Doncaster) on the 12th of October 633[*]. Cadwallon “occupied the provinces of the Northumbrians for a whole year, not ruling them like a victorious king, but ravaging them like a furious tyrant” (HE III, 1), before being killed by Edwin’s eventual successor, Oswald.
In their rhymed songs and set speeches they [the Welsh] are so subtle and ingenious, that they produce, in their native tongue, ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in the words and sentences. Hence arise those poets whom they call Bards, of whom you will find many in this nation, endowed with the above faculty …Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Cambriae I, 12
The pedigree of Selyf ap Cynan (Harleian Genealogies §22) presents Cadell Ddyrnllug, i.e. Cadell Gleaming-Hilt, as the dynasty’s founder – hence the dynasty is known as the Cadelling. A yarn in the Historia Brittonum purports to tell how Cadell became a king[*]. Cynan, Selyf’s father, is featured in a poem attributed to Taliesin (fl. late-6th century): Trawsganu Cynan Garwyn mab Brochfael (Eulogy[?] for Cynan Garwyn son of Brochfael). From its record of Cynan’s activities, his homeland seems to have been north-east Wales[*].
Another Powysian leader, Cynddylan, features in two pieces of Welsh poetry. Generally dated to the 9th or 10th century is Canu Heledd (Song of Heledd) – the 113 verses are presented as the laments of Heledd, Cynddylan’s sister – in which the destruction of “Pengwern’s court” and the death of “Cynddylan of Powys”, son of Cyndrwyn, at the hands of the English, are mourned:
|11||Stand outside, maidens, and look on
The land of Cynddylan.
Pengwern’s court is a blazing fire.
Woe to the young who'll beg for a cloak.
|12||Cynddylan of Powys, cloaked in purple,
Guests’ hostel, lordly life,
For Cyndrwyn’s cub there’s keening.
|31||The hall of Cynddylan, dark is its roof,
Since they were slain by the English,
Cynddylan and Elfan [Cynddylan’s brother] of Powys.[*]
From the places mentioned during the work, it is apparent that Cynddylan’s domain included Shropshire, in, what is now, England. Indeed, Giraldus Cambrensis (Descriptio Cambriae I, 4) asserts: “For the country now called Shropshire formerly belonged to Powys, and the place where the castle of Shrewsbury stands bore the name of Pengwern, or the Head of the Alder Grove.”[*]
Marwnad Cynddylan (Death-song of Cynddylan) is widely held to have 7th century origins.[*] According to one interpretation, the poem is addressed to the king of Gwynedd (which is somewhat odd, since Cynddylan was a Powysian chieftain), whom it does not name, but calls “Dogfeiling’s prince, scourge of Cadell’s line” – Dogfeiling being the sub-division of Gwynedd purportedly founded by Cunedda’s son, Dogfael – and implies that Cynddylan belonged to a dynasty that rivalled the Cadelling. Other interpretations, though, suggest that Cynddylan himself was the ruler of Dogfeiling, and that he belonged to the Cadelling. The poem also seems to suggest that Cynddylan was a willing ally of Penda of Mercia[*]. Further, a reference in Canu Heledd indicates that Cynddylan fought alongside Penda at Maes Cogwy:
|111||I saw on the ground of Maes Cogwy
Hosts, and strife of battle.
Cynddylan gave assistance.[*]
Maes Cogwy is the Welsh name for the battle site that Bede calls Maserfelth – generally, though not with absolute certainty, identified with Oswestry, Shropshire – where Oswald, king of Northumbria, was defeated and killed by Penda on 5th August 642. Eventually, on 15th November 655, Penda himself was defeated and killed by Oswiu, Oswald’s brother, in a battle near an unidentified river, the Winwæd, evidently in the vicinity of Leeds, Yorkshire. Bede notes that: “the 30 royal commanders, who had come to Penda’s assistance, were almost all of them slain” (HE III, 24). Perhaps Cynddylan was one of them – indeed, the Historia Brittonum (§§64–65) refers to “the kings of the Britons” who accompanied Penda on his final campaign against Oswiu, and indicates that all but one of them, the king of Gwynedd, were killed in the battle at the Winwæd (called “the slaughter of Gai Campi [the Field of Gai]” by the Historia). For the next three years, Oswiu ruled Mercia. It seems reasonable to suppose that he would mount retaliatory attacks on the territory of Penda’s erstwhile supporters: “Pengwern’s court is a blazing fire.” According to Marwnad Cynddylan, Cynddylan “died unwed”, so there were no heirs to continue his line. In due course, possibly during the reign in Mercia of Penda’s son, Wulfhere, the land that would become Shropshire came under Anglo-Saxon control.
Cadwallon, the king of Gwynedd who had been killed by Oswald in 634, had a son, Cadwaladr, but for some reason – maybe he was simply too young – he had apparently not succeeded his father. Instead, one Cadafael ap Cynfeddw became king. Welsh Triad 68 names “Cadafael son of Cynfeddw in Gwynedd” as the second of “Three Kings who were [sprung] from Villeins”. As already mentioned, the Historia Brittonum intimates that only one of the British kings who were with Penda on his last campaign wasn’t killed at the Winwæd: “Cadafael, king of the region of Gwynedd, was the only one to escape with his army, by rising up in the night” (§65). As a consequence of which, Cadafael received the derogatory epithet ‘Cadomedd’ (Battle-Dodger). At some stage Cadwaladr succeeded Cadafael. The A-text of the Annales Cambriae, indicating the year 682, reports: “A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.”[*] However, according to the Historia Brittonum (§64), the plague in which Cadwaladr died happened during Oswiu’s reign (Oswiu died in 670) – almost certainly a reference to the “sudden pestilence” of 664, reported by Bede (HE III, 27), that raged in Britain and Ireland with great loss of life.
The Vita Sancti Samsonis (Life of St Samson – of Dol, Brittany), possibly dating from the early-7th century, written by an anonymous author, relates that:
Saint Samson, then, was of the country of Demetia [i.e. Dyfed], and as regards worldly rank was born of distinguished and noble parents.… The father of the same St Samson was, as I have said, of Demetian stock, Amon by name, and his mother, of Gwent, the next province to Demetia, Anna by name. In the providence of Almighty God they were honourably married by mutual agreement and with the common consent of their fathers, who were of the same station in life. Moreover, we certainly know that the parents of the same married couple were court officials of the kings of their respective provinces …Vita Sancti Samsonis I, 1
The year of Samson’s birth is not known for certain, though c.485 is widely suggested. Gwent takes its name from Venta Silurum (Caerwent) – Roman civitas capital of the Silures tribe. Charters in the Book of Llandaff place one Iddon, king of Gwent, “in the very late sixth century”, according to Wendy Davies, who is well known for her analysis of the Llandaff charters: “the same charters reveal the existence of a kingdom of Ergyng (Ercic[g]) for at least two generations in the late sixth century, and further west a minor royal enclave – unnamed – in the region of Cardiff, and another in Gower in the seventh century. Other kings are named but they cannot be precisely located.”[*] It would appear that by the second quarter of the 8th century these minor south-eastern kingdoms had been absorbed into Glywysing, the influence of which, under the direction of one Meurig ap Tewdrig (early-to-mid-7th century[*]) and his descendants, gradually spread from the vicinity of the mouth of the River Wye. A tale incorporated into one of the charters tells how Tewdrig (St Tewdrig) abdicated and became a hermit at Tintern. Later, however, he came to his son Meurig’s assistance, and they repelled the invading English at “the battle on the banks of the Wye, near the ford of Tintern”. Tewdrig, though, was fatally wounded. Meurig erected an oratory on the site where he died (Mathern), and granted the surrounding territory to the bishops of Llandaff.[*]
It would appear that at the time the Historia Brittonum was composed (c.829), one Ffernfael was ruling a kingdom, Builth (Buellt), which also incorporated the district called Gwrtheyrnion – said to be named from Gwrtheyrn, i.e. Vortigern. The Historia asserts that Builth and Gwrtheyrnion had been given to Vortigern’s son, Pascent (from whom Ffernfael is said to be descended), to rule after his father’s death.[*] Nothing further is known of the kings of Builth.
Not addicted to gluttony or drunkenness, this people [i.e. the Welsh] who incur no expense in food or dress, and whose minds are always bent upon the defence of their country, and on the means of plunder, are wholly employed in the care of their horses and arms. Accustomed to fast from morning till evening, and trusting to the care of Providence, they dedicate the whole day to business, and in the evening partake of a moderate meal; and even if they have none, or only a very scanty one, they patiently wait till the next evening; and, neither deterred by cold nor hunger, they employ the dark and stormy nights in watching the hostile motions of their enemies.Descriptio Cambriae I, 9
This nation [the Welsh] conceives it right to commit acts of plunder, theft, and robbery, not only against foreigners and hostile nations, but even against their own countrymen. When an opportunity of attacking the enemy with advantage occurs, they respect not the leagues of peace and friendship, preferring base lucre to the solemn obligations of oaths and good faith … In war this nation is very severe in the first attack, terrible by their clamour and looks, filling the air with horrid shouts and the deep-toned clangour of very long trumpets; swift and rapid in their advances and frequent throwing of darts. Bold in the first onset, they cannot bear a repulse, being easily thrown into confusion as soon as they turn their backs; and they trust to flight for safety, without attempting to rally … Their courage manifests itself chiefly in the retreat, when they frequently return, and, like the Parthians, shoot their arrows behind them; and, as after success and victory in battle, even cowards boast of their courage, so, after a reverse of fortune, even the bravest men are not allowed their due claims of merit. Their mode of fighting consists in chasing the enemy or in retreating. This light-armed people, relying more on their activity than on their strength, cannot struggle for the field of battle, enter into close engagement, or endure long and severe actions … Though defeated and put to flight on one day, they are ready to resume the combat on the next, neither dejected by their loss, nor by their dishonour; and although, perhaps, they do not display great fortitude in open engagements and regular conflicts, yet they harass the enemy by ambuscades and nightly sallies. Hence, neither oppressed by hunger or cold, nor fatigued by martial labours, nor despondent in adversity, but ready, after a defeat, to return immediately to action, and again endure the dangers of war; they are as easy to overcome in a single battle, as difficult to subdue in a protracted war.Descriptio Cambriae II, 2–3
Felix, author of a Vita of St Guthlac (a Mercian hermit who died in 714), seemingly writing around 730–740, notes that, during the reign of Cenred, king of the Mercians (704–709): “the Britons, the implacable enemies of the Saxon race, were troubling the English with their attacks, their pillaging and their devastations of the people[*]” (§34). The Annales Cambriae, indicating the year 722, record three battles: “the battle of Hehil among the Cornish, the battle of Garth Maelog, the battle of Pencon among the south Britons, and the Britons were the victors in those three battles.” The site of none of the battles is known with certainty, but, clearly, the English were the defeated enemy. Since it was the Cornish Britons who were the victors at Hehil, it would have been the West Saxons who were the losers. The “south Britons” are the southern Welsh, and the English beaten at Pencon and Garth Maelog would have been the Mercians – at the time ruled by Æthelbald.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that, in 743, Æthelbald, together with the West Saxon king, Cuthred: “fought against the Welsh.” South-east Wales, i.e. Glywysing, was ruled by the descendants of Meurig ap Tewdrig. King at this time was Ithel ap Morgan (c.715–45).[*] One of the Llandaff charters talks of “great tribulations and plunderings” during Ithel’s reign: “which were committed by the most treacherous Saxon nation, and principally on the borders of Wales [Britannia] and England, towards Hereford, so that all the border country of Wales was nearly destroyed, and much beyond the borders in both England and Wales, and especially about the river Wye, on account of the frequent diurnal and nocturnal encounters which took place between both countries. After a time, peace being established, the land was restored to its owners and its former authority”[*]. Ithel restored a number of properties in Ergyng to his bishop, Berthwyn. Another charter refers to a parcel of land, purchased “in the presence of King Ithel and the principal seniors of Ergyng”, at a cost of: “24 [cows?], a Saxon woman, a valuable sword, and a powerful horse”[*]. Following the reign of Ithel, the kingship appears to have been shared by his sons.
The 9th century king of Powys, Cyngen ap Cadell, of whom more later, erected a cross (the surviving remnant of which is known as Eliseg’s Pillar), to the north-west of Llangollen, in memory of his great-grandfather, Elise. Elise probably flourished in the mid-8th century. His military successes against “the English” (i.e. the Mercians), in which he evidently made territorial gains, were recorded in an inscription on the cross. Presumably it was such Welsh advances that prompted Offa, king of Mercia (757–796), to build the massive frontier earthwork that bears his name: Offa’s Dyke.
The Annales Cambriae record:
|||A battle between the Britons and the Saxons, that is the battle of Hereford …|
|||The devastation of the South Britons by Offa.|
|||The devastation of the Britons by Offa in the summer.|
|||[In C-text only] The devastation of Rheinwg by Offa.[*]|
Land-grants made in Ergyng under Welsh kings, end during the time of Ithel’s son, Ffernfael – whose death the Annales Cambriae indicate occurred in 775. Eventually, perhaps by the end of Offa’s reign (796), Ergyng came under English control – known in English as Archenfield, it is now in south-western Herefordshire. The Annales Cambriae (A-text) concludes the annal in which it records Offa’s death with the somewhat enigmatic remark: “and the battle of Rhuddlan [in Gwynedd].” And then two years later (i.e. in 798) the Annales note that: “Caradog king of Gwynedd is killed by the Saxons.” The ‘Saxons’ would be the Mercians under Cenwulf, who, after a short hiatus, had succeeded Offa.
This nation [the Welsh] is, above all others, addicted to the digging up of boundary ditches, removing the limits, transgressing landmarks, and extending their territory by every possible means. So great is their disposition towards this common violence, that they scruple not to claim as their hereditary right, those lands which are held under lease, or at will, on condition of planting, or by any other title, even although indemnity had been publicly secured on oath to the tenant by the lord proprietor of the soil. Hence arise suits and contentions, murders and conflagrations, and frequent fratricides, increased, perhaps, by the ancient national custom of brothers dividing their property amongst each other. Another heavy grievance also prevails; the princes entrust the education of their children to the care of the principal men of their country, each of whom, after the death of his [i.e. the child’s] father, endeavours, by every possible means, to exalt his own charge above his neighbours. From which cause great disturbances have frequently arisen amongst brothers, and terminated in the most cruel and unjust murders; and on which account friendships are found to be more sincere between foster-brothers, than between those who are connected by the natural ties of brotherhood. It is also remarkable, that brothers shew more affection to one another when dead, than when living; for they persecute the living even unto death, but revenge the deceased with all their power.Giraldus Cambrensis Descriptio Cambriae II, 4
The early-9th century saw a power struggle for control of the north-western kingdom of Gwynedd. The Annales Cambriae:
|||Battle between Hywel and Cynan. Hywel was the victor.[*]|
|||Hywel triumphed over the island of Môn [Anglesey] and he drove Cynan from there with a great loss of his own army.|
|||Hywel was again expelled from Môn. King Cynan dies.[*] Saxons invaded the mountains of Eryri [Snowdonia] and the kingdom of Rhufoniog.[*]|
|||The battle of Llan-faes [on Anglesey].|
Who fought at Llan-faes is nowhere recorded. Perhaps it is most likely to have been the men of Gwynedd and the ‘Saxons’ (i.e. the Mercians, ruled at this time by Cenwulf), but a continuation of Hywel’s campaign to take power is also a possibility – seemingly he did succeed in acquiring the throne after Cynan’s death.
Apparently there was also a family feud in Powys during this period – the Annales Cambriae noting:  “Gruffudd son of Cyngen is killed by treachery by his brother Elise”. Now, a Cyngen, the son of Cadell (the Annales indicate that “Cadell of Powys” died in 808), became king of Powys at some stage, but, since he died in 854, it is, perhaps, unlikely (he would have been about eighty years-old when he died) that he was the father of Gruffudd and the murderous Elise. A possible scenario is that Gruffudd, son of some other Cyngen, succeeded Cadell in 808, and was then murdered by Elise, so that he could be king, in 814 – Cyngen ap Cadell becoming king some time later.
The Annales B-text reports that:  “Cenwulf devastated the regions of Dyfed.” Cenwulf may well have been planning further action against the Welsh when, in 821, he died at Basingwerk, on the Dee estuary, at the northern end of, the less well-known relative of Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke. The Annales indicate that in the following year, 822: “The fortress of Degannwy [near Conwy, in Gwynedd] is destroyed by the Saxons and they took the kingdom of Powys into their own control.”[*] Powys probably wasn’t under Mercian control for very long. In 825 the Mercian army was roundly defeated by the West Saxon forces of King Egbert, which precipitated a chain of events that would see two Mercian kings killed in action and their successor expelled from his kingdom.
The Annales Cambriae:  “Hywel dies.” It is assumed that this is the Hywel who contended with Cynan for the rule of Gwynedd. Hywel’s successor was one Merfyn. He is the “King Merfyn” in whose fourth year the principal text of the Historia Brittonum was evidently compiled. Merfyn was an intruder – he was not directly descended from Cunedda. In Harleian Genealogies §1 it is claimed that he was the son of Esyllt, who was the daughter of, Hywel’s opponent, Cynan. The Jesus College MS 20 genealogies (§22) also present Esyllt as Merfyn’s mother, but additionally (§§17&19) name his father: Gwriad. In §17 Merfyn is given the epithet by which he is usually distinguished, ‘Frych’ (the Freckled), and his descent is traced back along the direct male line, via Gwriad and, the 6th century hero of 9th/10th century Welsh poetry, Llywarch Hen, of the erstwhile north-British kingdom of Rheged, to Coel Hen.
A poem found in the Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest, c.1400), Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei Chwaer (Colloquy of Myrddin and Gwenddydd his Sister), refers to “Merfyn Frych from the land of Manaw”. The ‘land of Manaw’ could be Manaw Gododdin, a region on the south bank of the Forth (purported homeland of Cunedda), or it could be the Isle of Man. A piece of evidence came to light in 1894, however, which certainly tips the balance in favour of the latter possibility. A short inscription was noticed on the edge of a fallen stone monument near Ramsey on the Isle of Man: crux guriat (the cross of Gwriad). Even if this Gwriad was not actually Merfyn’s father, he was clearly someone of importance, and could well be a member of the same family (Merfyn had a son or grandson also called Gwriad).
For a short time, 829–830, Egbert, king of the West Saxons, ruled Mercia directly. In 830: “King Egbert led an army against the North Welsh”, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by which the Welsh proper, rather than the Cornish Britons, are meant: “and he reduced them to humble obedience.”[*] Also in 830, Wiglaf, the Mercian king expelled by Egbert, recovered his throne.
The Annales Cambriae:  “Merfyn dies. The battle of Cetill.” The location of the battle is unidentified, and whether it is linked to Merfyn’s death is unclear. According to the genealogies in Jesus College MS 20 (§18), Merfyn had married Nest, sister of Cyngen, king of Powys. Their son, Rhodri, succeeded Merfyn in Gwynedd.[*]
Cyngen had acceded to the throne of Powys sometime after the death of his father, Cadell, in 808. Cyngen erected a cross, to the north-west of Llangollen, in memory of his great-grandfather, Elise. An inscription on the cross commemorated Elise’s reclamation of Powysian territory from the English. In the inscription, which is no longer legible, Elise’s name apparently took the form Eliseg, hence what remains of the cross is known as Eliseg’s Pillar.
The rule of Glywysing, which incorporated Gwent, was apparently shared by multiple kings, all descended from one Meurig ap Tewdrig (early-7th century). With their usual less-than-illuminating terseness, the Annales Cambriae record:  “Ithel king of Gwent was killed by the men of Brycheiniog.” The following year:  “Meurig was killed by Saxons.”
The Annales announce:  “Cyngen is killed by the gentiles.” Who this particular Cyngen was is not known, but the ‘gentiles’, i.e. heathens, are the Vikings. This is the first notice of Viking activity in Wales, which does not mean it was actually the first Viking raid on Wales. By this time, the British Isles had been subject to Viking predation for more than half-a-century – the Annals of Ulster, s.a. 794, had recorded: “Devastation of all the islands of Britain by gentiles.” At any rate, the next report of Vikings by the Annales Cambriae states:  “Môn [Anglesey] laid waste by Black Gentiles.” Anglesey was, of course, the heartland of Gwynedd.
Asser reports that, in 853:
… Burgred, king of the Mercians, sent messengers to beseech Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, to come and help him in reducing to his sway the inland British [Welsh], who dwell between Mercia and the western sea, and who were struggling against him beyond measure. So without delay, King Æthelwulf, on receipt of the embassy, moved his army, and advanced with King Burgred against Britain [i.e. Wales], and immediately upon his entrance he ravaged it, and reduced it under subjection to Burgred. This being done, he returned home.Vita Alfredi §7
The Annales Cambriae indicate that in the following year, i.e. in 854: “Cyngen king of Powys died in Rome.” It is entirely possible that Cyngen had simply decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome – which is what Æthelwulf did in 855. Cyngen, however, was apparently the last king of the ancient ruling dynasty of Powys, the Cadelling. It is possible that he was ousted and exiled by his purported nephew, Rhodri ap Merfyn, king of Gwynedd. The means by which it was achieved is not clear, but if it was not Rhodri himself who gained control of Powys, then it was his sons.
The Annals of Ulster report that, in 856, Rhodri ap Merfyn, who is referred to as “king of the Britons”, succeeded in killing one Horm “chief of the Black Gentiles”. But in 865: “The Britons were driven from their land by the Saxons and were placed in bondage in Maen Chonain.” Another Irish source, the Three Fragments (§315), describes what is evidently the same event: “the Saxons came into British Gwynedd, and the Saxons drove the Britons out of the country.” The ‘Saxons’ would have been Burgred’s Mercians, and Maen Chonain is widely supposed to be Anglesey.[*]
The Annales Cambriae indicate that in 872 the king of Ceredigion, Gwgon, drowned – the circumstances are unrecorded. Like Cyngen ap Cadell is to Powys, Gwgon is the last known king of the ancient ruling dynasty of Ceredigion. The Jesus College MS 20 genealogies claim (§18) that Rhodri ap Merfyn’s mother was Nest, sister of Cyngen ap Cadell, king of Powys, and also (§42) that he was married to Angharad, sister of Gwgon, king of Ceredigion. In these genealogies Rhodri is given the epithet by which he is usually distinguished, ‘Mawr’ (the Great). Like Powys after Cyngen’s departure, control of Ceredigion was acquired by Rhodri or his sons at some stage after Gwgon’s death.[*]
The autumn of 865 had seen the arrival of a large Viking force in East Anglia. After a sojourn in East Anglia, they moved to Northumbria, where a civil war was taking place between two rival kings. The rivals joined forces, but in March 867 the Vikings killed both kings at York, and took control of Northumbria. In late-869 they killed the king of East Anglia (St Edmund), and took control there also. In 874 they conquered Mercia. King Burgred having been driven into exile (he died in Rome soon after), they appointed one Ceolwulf – “a foolish king’s thegn”, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – to rule, on their terms, in his stead. (In fact, other evidence suggests that Ceolwulf was not simply the Viking puppet he appears to be in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.)
Indicating the year 877, the Annales Cambriae record: “The battle of Sunday in Môn.” It seems likely that this was an encounter with the Vikings that Rhodri lost, since the Annals of Ulster note, s.a. 877, that: “Rhodri son of Merfyn, king of the Britons, came in flight from the Black Foreigners to Ireland.” Evidently, Rhodri soon returned to Wales. In the next year (878), the Annals of Ulster announce that: “Rhodri son of Merfyn, king of the Britons, was killed by the Saxons.” Whilst the Annales Cambriae state: “Rhodri and his son Gwriad are killed by the Saxons.[*]” In 877 the Vikings had partitioned Mercia – roughly speaking, they settled in the east, whilst the west was left to Ceolwulf. Presumably it was Ceolwulf who was responsible for Rhodri’s death.[*] Rhodri was survived by a number of sons, the senior of whom was called Anarawd.
Also in 878, reported by Asser:
… the brother of Ivar and Halfdan, with 23 ships, came, after many massacres of the Christians, from Dyfed, where he had wintered, and sailed to Devon, where with 1,200 others he met with a miserable death, being slain, while committing his misdeeds, by the king’s thegns [the king in question being Alfred, king of Wessex], before the fortress of Cynuit, in which many of the king’s thegns, with their followers, had shut themselves up for safety.[*]Vita Alfredi §54
At this time, King Alfred (Alfred the Great) himself was on the run from a Viking army that had invaded Wessex at the beginning of 878. He managed to rally his forces and inflicted a decisive defeat on the Vikings in the May of that year. In the autumn, the Viking army withdrew to Mercia, and a year later moved to East Anglia, where it settled – the army’s leader, Guthrum, establishing himself as king of East Anglia.
The Annales Cambriae:  “The battle of Conwy. Vengeance for Rhodri at God’s hand.” By now, Ceolwulf has disappeared from history. There is some, but not compelling, evidence to suggest he ceased to rule in 879. The next ruler of English (i.e. western) Mercia was not a king, but an ealdorman, Æthelred ‘lord of the Mercians’, who was certainly in place in 883, and who ruled with Alfred as his overlord. It would perhaps seem likely, then, that it was Æthelred whose defeat at Conwy was seen as revenge for the killing of Rhodri.
Asser, biographer of Alfred the Great, writes:
At that time [c.885], and long before, all the regions of the right-hand [i.e. southern] part of Wales [Britannia] belonged to King Alfred, and still [in 893] belong to him. For instance, King Hyfaidd, with all the inhabitants of the region of Dyfed,[*] restrained by the violence of the six sons of Rhodri,[*] had submitted to the dominion of the king. Hywel also, son of Rhys, king of Glywysing, and Brochfael and Ffernfael, sons of Meurig, kings of Gwent, compelled by the violence and tyranny of Ealdorman Æthelred and of the Mercians,[*] of their own accord sought out the same king, that they might enjoy rule and protection from him against their enemies. Elise, also, son of Tewdwr, king of Brycheiniog, compelled by the violence of the same sons of Rhodri, of his own accord sought the lordship of the aforesaid king; and Anarawd, son of Rhodri, with his brothers, at length [by 893] abandoning the friendship of the Northumbrians [i.e. the Vikings of York], from whom he had received no good, but rather harm, came into King Alfred’s presence, and eagerly sought his friendship. The king received him with honour, adopted him as his son by confirmation from the bishop’s hand, and bestowed many gifts upon him. Thus he became subject to the king with all his people, on condition that he should be obedient to the king’s will in all respects, in the same way as Æthelred and the Mercians. Nor was it in vain that they all gained the friendship of the king. For those who desired to augment their worldly power obtained power; those who desired money gained money; those who desired his friendship acquired his friendship; those who wished more than one secured more than one. But all of them had his love and guardianship and defence from every quarter, so far as the king, with all his men, could defend himself.Vita Alfredi §§80–81
Asser’s failure to mention Powys and Ceredigion would seem to imply that by c.885 they were under the control of Gwynedd, i.e. Rhodri’s sons.
In 892 two new Viking armies arrived in England[*]. In 893, combined Viking forces – comprising the new arrivals, augmented by Vikings already resident in Northumbria and East Anglia – were besieged on an island in the Severn, by an alliance of English and Welsh forces. Eventually, the Vikings broke out, and in the ensuing battle many of them were killed, whilst the remainder fled to Essex. Before the end of the year the Vikings had rebuilt their numbers. They made a nonstop dash to Chester, and ensconced themselves inside the old Roman walls before English forces could catch them. The English employed a scorched-earth policy – clearing the surrounding area of all sources of food. Early in 894, the Vikings were obliged to abandon Chester. They crossed into Wales. Later the same year, laden with booty, they left Wales, and returned to Essex, minimizing their exposure to English forces by travelling through Viking held Northumbria and East Anglia. At harvest-time 895, Alfred flushed the Vikings from a fortress they had built on the river Lea (possibly at Hertford). They made another cross-country dash – to Bridgnorth, on the Severn, where they built another fortification. English forces had chased after them, and the Vikings spent the winter of 895/6 and spring 896 at Bridgnorth, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has no record of what transpired. In the summer of 896, the Viking band disbanded and dispersed: “some to East Anglia, some to Northumbria; and they who were moneyless got themselves ships, and went south over sea to the Seine.”
The Annales Cambriae has a couple of significant entries to slot into the period 892–896, but its dating apparatus is not conducive to precision.[*] One entry states: “The Northmen came and laid waste Lloegr [England] and Brycheiniog and Gwent and Gwynllwg [all in south-eastern Wales].” There seems to be little consensus amongst scholars whether this comment should be placed in 894, when Viking forces are certainly known to have raided in Wales (though they evidently entered and left at the northern end), or in 896, during the time when Viking forces were based at Bridgnorth (in reasonable proximity to the south-eastern quarter of Wales).[*] The entry for the preceding year, i.e. 893 or 895, notes that: “Anarawd came with the Angles and laid waste Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi.[*]”
Why Anarawd and his English allies ravaged Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi (Vale of Towy, to the south of Ceredigion) is not clear – indeed, the status of Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi is not clear. Such evidence as there is (circumstantial only) is conventionally interpreted as indicating that Ceredigion was already in the hands of the sons of Rhodri Mawr – having been acquired by Rhodri soon after the death of Gwgon, the last known king of Ceredigion in 872. (The Annales say Gwgon “was drowned”, which might suggest warfare.) Later tradition implies that the region of Ystrad Tywi had been added to Ceredigion by Gwgon’s great-great-grandfather, Seisyll, around the mid-8th century, and that the enlarged realm was called Seisyllwg in his honour.[*] Another later tradition has it that Rhodri’s realm had been divided on geographical lines between his sons. The earliest extant appearance of this claim is in the Descriptio Cambriae of Giraldus Cambrensis. In an error-strewn story (I, 2–3), Giraldus says that Rhodri ruled all Wales and that he divided it between his three sons: Anarawd, who got Powys, Merfyn, who got Gwynedd, and Cadell, who got the South. Taking these two traditions on board has led to the idea that Cadell ruled Seisyllwg and that it was he who was the target of Anarawd and his English colleagues. There is, however, no corroboration for this notion in 9th century sources:
- The Annales call Gwgon “king of Ceredigion” in 872, and Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi are named separately in 893/5.
- Asser says that the kings of “all the regions” of south Wales had sought an alliance with Alfred by c.885 and that nothing had changed by 893. Ystrad Tywi is not excluded, which tends to suggest it was part of Dyfed at this time. He presents Rhodri’s sons operating in unison over a wide area, not as individuals within a particular region.
According to the Annales Cambriae, Hyfaidd, king of Dyfed, died two years before the attack of Anarawd and his English associates on Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi (which adds weight to placing the attack in 895, since Asser, evidently writing in 893, was seemingly unaware of Hyfaidd’s death). Presumably he was succeeded by his son, Llywarch, whose death the Annales indicate occurred in 903. In the same year, Merfyn, Rhodri’s son, was killed by Vikings.[*]
In the previous year, i.e. in 902, the Irish had succeeded in driving the Vikings out of Dublin. One of the displaced chieftains, Ingimund, attempted to establish a base in Anglesey. The Annales Cambriae report: “Ingimund [Igmunt] came to Môn [Anglesey] and took Maes Osfeilion.”
It would seem likely that Merfyn ap Rhodri was killed battling against Ingimund. According to a story told in the Three Fragments, Ingimund (Hingamund) was eventually ejected from Wales, and was allowed to settle near Chester – by Æthelflæd, wife of Ealdorman Æthelred (who was at the time, say the Fragments, on his deathbed) – but then hatched a plan to capture the city[*].
Meanwhile, it appears that Rhodri Mawr’s remaining sons, Anarawd and Cadell, took advantage of the death of Llywarch ap Hyfaidd to invade Dyfed. Llywarch’s brother, Rhodri, seems to have opposed them, but after a year (i.e. in 904) he was, say the Annales Cambriae, “beheaded in Arwystli”, and there ends Dyfed’s royal line. It seems likely that at this stage Anarawd and Cadell divided their extensive territories: Anarawd ruling Gwynedd and Powys; Cadell ruling Ceredigion/Seisyllwg and Dyfed, which would become known as Deheubarth (literally: ‘southern part’). Cadell’s son, Hywel, married Elen, Llywarch’s daughter (Harleian Genealogies §1).
Annales Cambriae A-text:  “The battle of Dinmeir and Mynyw was broken.”[*] Mynyw (Latin: Menevia), in Dyfed, is now St Davids. It might well be assumed that this typically terse annal is referring to a Viking raid, but that isn’t necessarily the case.[*]
Annales Cambriae A-text:  “King Cadell dies.”[*] Rule of the ‘southern part’ evidently passed to two of Cadell’s sons, Hywel and Clydog.
Alfred the Great had died in 899, and been succeeded by his son, Edward. In 914, as reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a large Viking force sailed from Brittany: “and went west about until they arrived in the mouth of the Severn; and they harried on the Welsh everywhere by the sea, where it pleased them; and took Bishop Cameleac [Cyfeilliog] in Archenfield [i.e. Ergyng; now south-western Herefordshire], and led him with them to the ships; and then King Edward afterwards ransomed him with 40 pounds.[*]” The Viking force suffered heavy losses at the hands of English forces. Edward was determined they should not get a foothold, and, eventually, they: “went to Dyfed, and then out to Ireland”.
Ealdorman Æthelred, ‘lord of the Mercians’, had died in 911, and been succeeded by his wife, the daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, ‘lady of the Mercians’. Æthelflæd was a formidable leader, working in tandem with her brother, King Edward, to bring the Scandinavian occupants of south-Humbrian England to submission. The, so called, Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, on 16th June 916, a certain “guiltless” Abbot Egbert was killed, along with his companions. The culprits were evidently Welshmen, since: “three nights after, Æthelflæd sent a force into Wales, and broke down Brecenanmere, and there captured the king’s wife as one of four-and-thirty.” This annal is believed to refer to the destruction of royal buildings standing on the crannog (artificial island) that still exists in Llangorse Lake, near Brecon.[*] The king of Brycheiniog whose wife was captured may have been Tewdwr, son of the Elise who had submitted to Alfred in the early 880s.[*]
Annales Cambriae:  “King Anarawd of the Britons dies.[*]” Anarawd was evidently succeeded by his son, Idwal, who is distinguished by the epithet ‘Foel’ (the Bald).
Dublin had been reoccupied by Vikings in 917. The Brut y Tywysogion reports that: “Ireland and Môn were devastated by the people of Dublin.” The same annal then announces the death of “Queen Æthelflæd”.[*] Æthelflæd, not ‘queen’, but ‘lady’ of the Mercians, died in June 918, at Tamworth. “And then he [King Edward] took possession of the burh [stronghold] at Tamworth; and all the people in the Mercian’s land, who had before been subject to Æthelflæd, submitted to him; and the kings of the Welsh, Hywel, and Clydog, and Idwal, and all the Welsh race,[*] sought him for lord.” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript A).
Annales Cambriae A-text:  “King Clydog was killed.” The Annales Cambriae give no further detail, but the Brut y Tywysogion, says that he: “was killed by his brother Meurig.” This could be the Meurig that the Annales indicate died in 938. There is no evidence to suggest that he was a king, however, nor Clydog’s son, Hyfaidd, who died in the same year – neither are said to have been killed. It seems that, after Clydog’s death, Hywel (remembered by posterity as Hywel Dda, i.e. Hywel the Good) became sole ruler of Deheubarth.
By the end of 918 King Edward had secured control south of the Humber, and could turn his attention to Northumbria, where the situation had been complicated by the arrival of Vikings from Ireland.