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By Deborah Fisher
University of Wales PressCopyright © 2010 Deborah Fisher
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Kings of Wales
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We cannot go back far enough in written history to find out much about the pre-Roman rulers of Wales. The earliest Welsh leader whose name we know is the man called Caradog by the Welsh and Caratacus by the Romans, and he did not originate from the region we now call Wales. A son of King Cunobelinos of the Catuvellauni, who ruled the area around Colchester, Caratacus fled westward before the Roman invaders, after the defeat of his own people, and joined forces with the Silures, the tribe native to south-east Wales. After a further defeat, he retreated north to ally himself with the Ordovices. The Iron Age earth-work at Llanymynech, known as Caer Caradoc, is traditionally believed to have been his stronghold, and there is no reason this should not be true.
With their new leader, the western tribes struggled to resist the might of the Roman army, but in ad 51 Caratacus was captured and taken to Rome. The Roman historian Tacitus, in book 12 of his Annals, records how the Emperor Claudius, impressed with the dignified manner of the Celtic leader, spared his life. In referring to the procession of captives and battle spoils, Tacitus uses the Latin adjective equivalent to 'regal', implying recognition of Caratacus as a king. Nevertheless, Cassius Dio, a later Roman writer, in his Epitome, puts these words into the mouth of the British leader as he is shown around the city of Rome: 'How can you, who have such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?' Either Caratacus was playing down his own standard of living, or Tacitus was exaggerating his status so as to enhance the Roman achievement in defeating the Celts.
Whatever the truth, Caradog is a name which, from the earliest days of recorded history, has been associated with certain qualities: not merely courage and defiance, but the dignity and regal bearing associated with kings. Caratacus certainly did not make the magnificent speeches attributed to him by ancient historians; they wrote for a public who were as eager for drama and sensation as today's readers, and they did not hesitate to invent suitably stirring speeches to add to their narrative. What presumably happened in real life is that the British leader somehow impressed his captors, either with words or deeds. The general impression conveyed to those who witnessed Caratacus's visit to Rome (which did not include either Tacitus or Cassius Dio) was one of a man used to leading and commanding others and to being obeyed, a man who did not cower before the emperor.
These are the qualities for which Caratacus is remembered, and these are the qualities to which Welsh leaders aspired when they gave or took the name 'Caradog'. Their eagerness to identify with him has sometimes led to confusion. For example, Caradog ap Ynyr, sometimes called Caradog Freichfras ('Caradog Strong-Arm'), a fifth-century king of Gwent mentioned in the Life of St Tathyw and associated with the Roman sites of Caerwent and Caerleon, has also been linked with Caer Caradoc, which is of quite the wrong archaeological period. We have to take great care not to place too much credence in the words of medieval historians, whilst recognizing that there may be a grain of truth behind the stories they tell. They are even more inclined to romance and invention than their predecessors in Roman times.
Somewhere into this morass of legend and fact fits King Arthur, the ultimate Christian hero, who is mentioned in the early British pseudo-histories, but whose origins are not entirely clear. Despite the knowledge that Wales as an entity did not exist in the early post-Roman period, the idea that Arthur himself was Welsh will not go away. We will see, in subsequent chapters, the far-reaching influence of this perception.
From the time the Roman legions deserted Britannia in the late fourth century ad, we know the names of many Welsh rulers and quite a lot about some individuals. This is largely due to the preservation of the Celtic Christian tradition in Wales, carrying along with it the tradition of monastic learning. The De Excidio Britanniae, a work by the sixth century 'saint' Gildas, begins with a brief history of Roman Britain, and goes on to criticize contemporary rulers such as Maelgwn Gwynedd (who is believed to have reigned during the 520s) for failing to live up to the moral standards expected of a king. According to Gildas, Maelgwn committed treason, murder and adultery. The same ruler is mentioned in several other medieval manuscripts, where, though recognized as a wicked man, he is accorded some degree of respect for his achievements. Gildas explains this by pointing out that Maelgwn was a patron of many bards, whose sole purpose in life was to praise him.
Among the other sources for early British history are the Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. The Historia Brittonum was written in the ninth century, and is attributed to a monk named Nennius, whose exact identity is doubtful. The Annales Cambriae is believed to have been produced in the tenth century, but covers the years 447–954. It was written at the command of Owain ap Hywel (d.987), king of Deheubarth, a son of Hywel Dda. Finally, of course, we have the Bruty Tywysogion, which deals with Welsh royal doings from the year 682 right up to 1332. The date of its original composition is uncertain, as it is thought to be a translation of a lost Latin work entitled Cronica Principium Wallie, which was in turn based on the annals kept by Christian monasteries, specifically the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida in Ceredigion.
RULING MEDIEVAL WALES
The Welsh rulers whose names are recorded by history tend to be those who stood out among their peers in some way. Most Welshmen, even princes, were known by patronymics, a practice that does not assist the historian in attempting to differentiate between them. Rhodri Mawr ('the great') and his grandson, Hywel Dda ('the good'), are among the few who were given nicknames that reflected their achievements. Rhodri's father, Merfyn Frych ('the freckled') (d.844) is thought to have originated from the Isle of Man, another Celtic kingdom. Rhodri himself had the task of seeing off the Viking marauders who threatened the coast of Wales throughout the ninth and tenth centuries.
Rhodri was a true warrior-king, who met his death in battle. Hywel Dda, on the other hand, gained much of his territorial advantage by shrewd allegiances. Hywel's success as a ruler manifests itself in the coins of his reign that survive. He had them minted at Chester, which demonstrates the absence of any fear of the English on his part.
Morgan Hen ('the old'), a king of Morgannwg (d.975) can be assumed to have gained his nickname as a result of his longevity, and longevity was a prized thing at a time when life expectancy in Britain was around thirty. Staying alive might in itself have been enough to enable a ruler to stay on his throne, but the nickname may have an additional connotation of wisdom and experience.
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (c.1007–63) is perhaps an exception to the rule that the most successful Welsh kings acquired nicknames. Gruffydd overcame several military setbacks to maintain and extend his hold on power. His reputation for aggression eclipsed even his reputation as a king, yet he remains known by a patronymic. This seems to demonstrate that a warlike nature was then, as it is now, far from being the only quality the Welsh admired in a ruler.
Owain Gwynedd (c.1100–70), a direct descendant of Rhodri Mawr, was one of the most successful all-round rulers Wales has ever known, so much so that his 'nickname' is the name of his kingdom. Owain personified Gwynedd, at a time when it was strong enough to take the greatest aggression the Normans could offer and retain its independence. Without his presence, Wales might quickly have disappeared from the map altogether.
If there is a more prestigious epithet than Owain's, it is the one applied to his nephew, Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132–97), known to the Welsh simply as 'Yr Arglwydd Rhys' and to the English as 'The Lord Rhys'. Rhys established himself firmly in Deheubarth after the death of his mother, Gwenllian, and two of his brothers, during the 1136 rebellion centred in Ceredigion.
THE ROYAL CHARACTER
The term 'royal', in the English language, means 'relating to a king'. In the Welsh language, the equivalent term is 'brenhinol', which has exactly the same connotation. What does this mean? What does it take to be kingly?
It was important to the Welsh to have leaders whose power was absolute and unquestioned. Hence the Roman emperor Magnus Maximus (d.388) passed into folklore as 'Macsen Wledig' ('Wledig' meaning 'land-owning') through the Mabinogion. The real-life Maximus was a Celt from the Iberian peninsula, making him all the more interesting to those who recognized his ethnic connection with Wales. The grain of truth that no doubt lies within the folk tale of Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The Dream of Macsen Wledig) was emphasized by its author because it was seen as a subject for pride that an emperor, immigrant though he was, should have taken a bride from among the native people. That a Welsh princess should have become consort of such a huge empire was viewed as an achievement for Wales as a whole.
What had been tribes in Celtic times gradually developed into self-governing regions. Their rulers were known by various titles, including 'brenin' (king) and 'tywysog' (prince). 'Tywysog' has its roots in the verb 'tywys' ('to lead') and words of similar origin appear in other Celtic languages, notably 'Taoiseach', the title given to the prime minister of Ireland. 'Brenin' seems to have replaced another Welsh word, 'rhi', derived from the Latin 'rex', and to be etymologically connected with the name of the tribe dominant in the region in pre-Roman times, the Brigantes.
The most prominent of these petty kingdoms were Powys, Gwynedd, Seisyllwg, Dyfed, Brycheiniog, Morgannwg and Gwent. Who were these early Welsh royal families and how did they arrive at their positions of absolute, if territorially limited, power? It seems clear from the use of the word 'tywysog' that leadership was one of the main things the people sought from their rulers; but there was much more to it than that.
The Normans did not invent the feudal system, any more than the English invented the class system. Since Roman times, or perhaps even earlier, Welsh society had been developing its own pecking order, founded primarily on the ownership of land; this was the only kind of wealth and power that endured. Wales being a small country, its sub-kingdoms and principalities even smaller and its agricultural land poorer, the hierarchy was correspondingly reduced. Whilst it may seem to have been a society of near-equals, compared with today's experience, this was not really the case. The 'uchelwr' (a word which carries the combined connotations of 'landowner', 'nobleman' and 'administrator') was the wielder of power on a day-to-day basis. These were the people who ran Wales in the Middle Ages. If the land could be kept in the family, they might retain their power for many generations.
The correspondence between material possessions and earthly power is self-evident, but the rulers of Wales were also strongly associated with its religious life. Kings and queens were often regarded as saints, and vice versa. When Magnus Maximus was deposed and killed in 388, his Welsh widow, Elen, is said to have returned to Wales with her two sons, Cystennin and Publicius, and all three became regarded as saints. It seems fairly certain that there was confusion over their identity; it is easy to see how Elen may have become conflated with St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine. For some, Magnus Maximus himself, an orthodox Christian emperor who persecuted the Pelagian heretics, acquired the image of a martyr.
This view of kings as religious leaders as well as political and military ones is especially common in the early Middle Ages. Even St David seems to have played a part in politics. David (or Dewi Sant as he is known in Welsh) was one of the most vociferous opponents of the Pelagian heresy which swept Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries. At Llanddewibrefi, legend has it that he called a synod to refute the heresy, which rejected the concept of original sin. In the course of his keynote speech, it is said that the ground beneath his feet formed itself into a small hill in order that the crowd might be able to see and hear him better, and a white dove descended on his shoulder. Dewi's efforts to maintain the authority of the church help to explain why this 'miracle' is recorded and why he was officially canonized by the pope in 1123. The irony is that Pelagius, the originator of the heresy he so condemned, was also a Celt, and probably British.
Dewi Sant was himself of royal blood, albeit illegitimate. According to his eleventh-century biographer, Rhigyfarch, Dewi's father was a king of Ceredigion. He is described by Rhigyfarch as 'Sanctus rex ceredigionis', which may equally well mean 'Sanctus, the king of Ceredigion' or 'the holy king of Ceredigion'. There does not seem to have been anything very holy about Dewi's father, at least not to begin with. Dewi's mother, Non, was a nun or religious recluse, who was raped by the king of Ceredigion, and it was from this most unsanctified union that the saint was conceived. Whether this ancestry was invented, either in order to give the saint royal status or the other way round, will never be known. It is said that Non later married the king, but probably only after she had given birth to her son. The delivery is said to have taken place on top of a cliff in the middle of a storm, and the spot is marked by a much later building known as St Non's Chapel.
Dewi Sant is almost the only one of the leading figures of the period of Welsh history sometimes called the Age of the Saints to have been genuinely canonized. Other royal families of Wales also claimed descent from 'saints' or holy men, but few of them are in the same class. Brychan, who gave his name to the kingdom of Brycheiniog, lived in the fifth century. He was of Irish origin and is commemorated by place names throughout the Celtic world, in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales and Brittany. Like Dewi Sant's father, 'Saint' Brychan was a rapist, not to mention a polygamist, and fathered an estimated sixty-three children. His descendants form one of the three so-called 'tribes of the saints', the other two being those of Caw and Cunedda.
By far the most notable of these early rulers was Cunedda (d.c. 460), and his reputation rests on his military successes, not on his devotion to God. Like Magnus Maximus before him, he was given the epithet 'Wledig', in recognition of the extent of the territories over which he ruled. It has been postulated that it was Magnus Maximus himself who invited Cunedda to Wales, in order that the stable regime maintained by the Romans should be sustained, at least in this western region, relatively safe from the depredations of Saxon invaders.
The eagerness shown by later rulers to trace their ancestry back to Cunedda is indicative of the respect in which his name continued to be held throughout the Middle Ages. The astonishing thing about Cunedda (for us in the twenty-first century, that is) is that he began his career in what is now Scotland. There being no significant ethnic difference between the Celtic tribes of mainland Britain at this time, he had no hesitation in relocating his power base when the Irish threatened to invade, despite the distances involved.
The land and people of Manaw Gododdin, immortalized in a poem (one of the earliest in the Welsh language) attributed to the bard Aneirin, is thought to have been located in the region of modern-day Clackmannanshire. In around 6oo, its leaders fought the Angles at a place referred to as 'Catraeth' in the north of England, tentatively identified as Catterick in North Yorkshire. Aneirin's poem influenced later royal bards, such as the prince-poet Owain Cyfeiliog (c.1130–97), not to mention Dafydd Benfras, whose works in praise of Llywelyn Fawr (c.1173–1240) draw heavily on the same tradition.
Excerpted from Royal Wales by Deborah Fisher. Copyright © 2010 Deborah Fisher. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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