Person of the Week (PW): Selyf ‘Battle-Serpent’

Selyf (Solomon) ‘Serpent of Battle’ (Sarffgadau) son of Cynan Garwyn, King of Powys died in about 613 at the battle of the City of the Legions (Chester) fighting against King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Deira (Northumbria). His death is recorded in the Annals Cambriae and the Irish annals. According to Welsh poetry attributed to Taliesin, his father Cynan Garwyn had been a major over-king in Wales in the previous generation. The Battle of Chester took on a life of its own in Welsh legend and was elaborated in both Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Welsh triads.

The dragon or serpent has been associated with Welsh kings since the earliest post-Roman reports of Britain. Gildas refers to king Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwyn of Gwynedd) as the head serpent of the isles, ie. pendragon (literally pen = head, dragon) in c545. Selyf Sarffgadau (‘Serpent of Battle’ / Battle Serpent) is one of the best recorded of the dragon kings. Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Selyf’s reputed nephew, best known for killing Edwin of Deira, was also referred to as dragon of the isles in a fragmentary death song. Of course, in Welsh legend the ultimate Pendragon dynasty is that of Arthur son of Uther Pendragon.

In the Welsh Traids, Selyf is listed as one of the three “Battle-Leaders of the Isle of Britain”. In the Black Book of Carmarthen’s triad 43 he is the owner of one the three great pack horses, which may be an allusion to his ability to move a large army over great distances. However, this horse is credited to his father Cynan Garwyn in triad 39. In Taliesin’s poetry, Cynan Garwyn is credited with very wide ranging victories throughout what is today Wales. The name of Selyf’s bard, Arofan, is also remembered in the triads. Selyf ap Cynan is also mentioned as a companion of Owen ap Urien in the Arthurian tale the Dream of Rhanabwy. Bartrum notes that Selyf and Owen would have been contemporaries — both opponents of Æthelfrith– but not with the Arthurian setting or Arthur himself. In Welsh poetry, Arthur is usually outside of time, or almost in Welsh version of Valhalla where all the greatest heroes of all eras are part of his retinue. The poet Cynddelw also refers to Selyf in his poem Breineu Powys (Priviledges of Powys) in the line “Kananwon Selyf seirff cadeu” (Descendants of Selyf, serpents of battles).

According to the welsh pedigrees and hagiography, Selyf had four sons, none of whom succeeded him. The Life of St. Beuno claims that it was Beuno’s curse that prevented their succession. It seems just as likely that the utter destruction of Powys by Æthelfrith blocked his lineage from the throne. Under consistent Northumbrian pressure, Powys seems to have been ruled by multiple small dynasties in the early seventh century. Some of these dynasties appear to have allied themselves with Mercia against Northumbria. Most of the territory of Powys was probably annexed by Mercia to their immediate east. It seems likely that Selyf was the last Powysian king to rule over a large midlands kingdom that dominated the whole region, east and west. It is possible that the Brochwel/Brocmail who Bede reports abandoned the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed to Æthelfrith’s forces was one of Selyf’s kinsmen; Brochwel is a name common in his dynasty.

When a single dynasty emerges again in Powys it does claim descent from Selyf’s kindred. Most claims are to a brother Eiludd but other lineages claim descent from a Beli ap Selyf, Eiludd ap Selyf, or Beli ap Mael Myngan ap Selyf. It is possible that none of them were truly related to Selyf but felt the need to claim a link to his lineage. In the Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints), Selyf ap Cynan is claimed to be the father of St. Dona.

Selyf’s chief defended cities at the time are believed to have been Chester and the hill fort at the Wrekin above Wroxeter, probable namesake of the Wreconsaete of the tribal hinge. Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter) was the civitas capital for the Cornovii, Powys likely tribal orgins, while Chester had been a legionary base during the Roman occupation.

Selyf’s dominance in Wales is suggested by the role his main monastery, Bangor-Is-Coed, played in negotiations with Augustine of Canterbury. After the initial meeting at Augustine’s Oak, the Annals Cambriae records a Synod of City of the Legions (Chester) in 601 that may be the conference Bede refers to in between the first and second meeting with Augustine. The fact that the synod was held in Selyf’s primary city suggests that he was the dominant king who did not want to associate with the Canterbury mission. The slaughter of the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed, under Powy’s protection, was said by Bede to have been a fulfillment of Augustine’s prophecy.

For further information:

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Chapter 2.

See also the Annals Cambriae, years 601 and 613.

See also the Life of Beuno, link above.

Peter C Bartrum. (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000. National Library of Wales.

4 thoughts on “Person of the Week (PW): Selyf ‘Battle-Serpent’

  1. I must be one of quite a lot of people reading this blog keenly but without often having much to say, but on this occasion I do feel moved to say thankyou for pulling all this stuff together. Although I’ve read the Triads I come at this stuff mainly as an Anglo-Saxonist, and having the other side of the border with Æthelfrith laid out for one really helps with understanding what was going on at Chester.

    Did you see, by the way, that an archaeological dig recently turned up a battle grave that could possibly be associated with the Battle of Chester? The research project has a half-decent webpage, though not updated since 2004, but that seems to have most of the information that the Times Online article about it from 2006 does, and that gives a reference to a number of Current Archaeology should you want to follow it up in print.

  2. Thanks for the links. I heard about the excavations a while ago. I don’t know that I’m very convinced. It is from a battle in the late 6th-early 7th century but I don’t know about their explanations. I don’t think it is necessarily English dead or from Æthelfrith’s multi-ethnic army. It is likely that there were at least a few Britons in Æthelfrith’s army, from Elmet if no where else. Who would Æthelfrith have turned to for an explanation on what the ‘monks’ (who Bede says made their living with their hands) were doing? Some have thought that the ‘monks’ where actually workers attached to the monastery there serving the camp but not actual monks. It fits Bede’s agenda much better for them to be praying.

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