Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dark Ages Gwynedd

by Richard Denning

The Kingdom of Gwynedd along the north Wales coast is associated with the mighty Llywelyn ap Gruffydd who in effect unified Wales in the 13th Century and opposed England expansion. Today, though, I am not looking at the High Middle Ages but the origins of this great Welsh kingdom. For that we go back in time to the years after the Romans abandoned Britannia and the centuries thereafter.

Gwynedd covers most of North Wales and the Isle of Anglesey. The name might mean 'Desirable Land' or 'Warrior Land' or may related to the names of Irish tribes who settled it before the Romans.

It seems that before the Romans came to Britain an Irish presence existed in north Wales. Tribes from Leinster traveled across the Irish sea in  the 1st century BC and settled in Ynys Mon (Angelsey) and along the north coast as far as the Llyn (or Llelyn) peninsular. Ancestors of the Welsh known as the Ordovices may also have lived in the area. The Romans who arrived in the vicinity in the 70s AD called the region Venedotia in Latin.

Venedotia remained under Roman control until around 380 when the Roman legions  withdrew from the region.  Nennius, a 9th century monk, recorded that after this time the region was defenseless and became victim to increasing raids from Ireland.

So, soon after the Romans left the Northwest of Wales was in effect an Irish province. The expanding Irish domains in South and North Wales along with the Picts raiding down the east coast and the Saxons along the east and south created a crisis that required action.

In the Mid 5th century  a certain Cunedda led his sons and their followers in a migration from Manau Goddodin (around Edinburgh) to the North Welsh coast. It is possible that this was at the instigation or suggestion of Vortigern who also (according to tradition) invited the Saxons Hengest and Horsa to settled in Kent. The suggestion is that Vortigern was high king of the British and was responding to Irish raids in the Gwynedd area as well as Pictish raids down the east coast.

Cunnedda was married to the daughter of Coel Hen the powerful King of the whole of the north -the man immortalized by the children's rhyme "Old King Cole". Cunneda's sons would rule not just Gwynedd but also huge chunks of the north and west of Britain.

Nennius’ Historia Brittonum 

The same monk, Nennius records how Cunedda fought the Irish in north Wales and drove them out. He then established the kingdom of Gwynedd. His was a dynasty that would last 800 years until the English finally occupied the region in the 13th century.


The period I am most interested in at present is the early 7th century. Gwynedd played a pivotal role in the history of the English of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Around 604 AD the King of Bernicia (the northern half of Northumbria) had taken over Deira (the southern half) probably in battle or possibly by political means. The heirs to the throne of Deira were young princes in their teens - Edwin and Hereric. These boys were forced to flee into exile. One of the places that at least Edwin spent a good deal of time was Gwynedd. We do not know exactly how and when he got there or exactly in what circumstances.

What is laid down in traditions is that Edwin became the adopted son of King Cadfan of Gwynedd and became baptized at some stage (although he later was baptized again when king in Northumbria so this may well have been a political step).

It is probable that as a result of their sponsorship of Edwin that Gwynedd became one of the targets of Aethelfrith who attacked the City of Chester which was possibly in the hands of Gwynedd (or Powys - another allied Welsh Kingdom.) around 612 to 614 AD.

This battle was a disaster for the Welsh and probably forced Edwin to go on the road again looking for shelter and protection. He eventually ends up in East Anglia where he is able to persuade King Redwald  to support him in battle. This battle in 616 at the River Idle led to the death of Aethelfrith and to Edwin regaining his throne.

Meanwhile back in Gwynedd Cadfan was soon afterwards succeed by Cadwallon. Cadwallon and Edwin would have been step brothers but at some point any affection they had turned sour for Edwin invaded and attacked Gwynedd and managed to occupy almost all of it. 

Cadwallon was a friend of the Saxon King Penda of Mercia.  He was able to forge an alliance with Penda and then counter attack. So in 632 they killed King Edwin of Northumbria and conquered his kingdom.

With Northumbria at his feet it is possible that Cadwallon could have reestablished a powerful Welsh kingdom in the North - an echo of the kingdoms of Coel Hen himself, Cadwallon's  illustrious grand sire  But it was not to be. In 633 Oswald a son of Aethelfrith - who had spent 16 years in exile himself like Edwin, returned to Northumbria and with Pictish help defeated and killed Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield near Hadrian's Wall.

The Kings of Gwynedd retreated to their own boundaries where their power and strength would wax and wane over the years. This mountain fastness would provide a stubborn opponent to  the English for centuries to come.

The events of the early to mid 7th century feature in my Northern Crown series (starting with Book III Princes in Exile due out this spring)


  1. Oh, I did some research for a presentation on the Early Welsh Kingdoms last year fo University, I recall encountering figures like Cadfan and knew a bit about Cadwallon (by reputation) from Bede.

    Actually, even though Bede is strongly anti- Welsh his account is closer in time to the events than Nennius', and even though some people tend to discount some of what he says, if you do some subtraction sums, it is not impossible to deduce that his parents or grandparents might have lived through this time.

  2. How nice to read a post on early Wales. Very informative. Two of my books are set here, Peaceweaver featuring Gruffydd ap llewellyn, and The Song of Heledd is set around the time of Heavenfield. I shall certainly be looking out for Princes in Exile.
    Great post, thank you.

  3. Lovely to read this! The early history of Gwynedd features in my upcoming historical fantasy about King Arthur and Guinevere. Good to know I got it right! Thank you for this great post!

  4. This is all new facts for me so I found it fascinating. Thanks!


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