Futuristic Folklore Friday: The Once and Future Kings…Cadwaladr and Cynan

Thinking of yesterday’s post on Hengest and Horsa and the Armes Prydain Fawr (The Great Prophecy of Britain), it reminded me that up through the writing of the prophecy/poem the once and future king, the savior of the Britons was not Arthur but a little known pair of hero kings, Cadwaladr and Cynan. How many of you have ever heard of Cadwaladr and Cynan?

We can be reasonably sure that Cadwaladr was King of Gwynedd and reputed to be the son of Cadwallon (d. 634) who was slain by Oswald at Denisesburna (the morning after the Heavenfield events). You can see the fullest surviving development of his legend in the last chapter of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Indeed, Geoffrey ends with Cadwaladr being the once and future king who must return to return Britain to the Britons!

The medieval Welsh may have known exactly who Cynan was but he is a bit of a mystery to us because Cynan is just such a popular Welsh name. There are probably a dozen kings named Cynan before the time of Aethelstan. It is generally believed that he is Cynan Garwen of Powys. He is the father of Selyf Battle Serpent who was the person of the week a while back.

It would also fit that these two great kings would each represent a major Welsh kingdom; some of the rare medieval unity that the Armes Prydain Fawr is trying to generate against the English.

So what does the Prophecy actually say about them?

The armies of Cadwaladr, gloriously they will come, the Welsh will arise, they will do battle. They have sought out inevitable death. At the end of their taxes they will know death. Others, who were wise enough to bide their time, have struck. For ever and ever, they will not raise their taxes. (lines 81-86)

In the forest, in the field, in the vale, on the hill, a candle in the darkness walks with us. Cynan is at the head of the troop in every attack, the English sing a song of woe before the Britons. Cadwaladr is a spear at the side of his men, having picked them with wisdom. … (lines 87-92)

As for Cynan and Cadwaladr, glorious in their armies, the fate of which is destined for their part to be celebrated forever. Two steadfast rulers, whose counsel is wise. Two tramplers on the English in God’s name. Two generous men, two gift-giving cattle-raiders. Two brave, ready men, of one fate, of one faith. Two guardians of Britain, splendid armies. Two bears, daily battle does not put them to shame. (lines 163-170)

The men of Wessex in every fleet, there will be conflict, and an alliance of Cynan with his comrades. The heathens will not be called warriors, but rather slaves of Cadwaladr and his traders. (lines 181-184)

And you thought you hated the taxman! It occurs to me that we know so little of seventh century Wales history, it is possible that Cynan was a contemporary ruler of Powys. He seems subordinate to Cadwaladr, doing Cadwaladr’s bidding in alliance. According to the Historia Brittonum (admittedly a product of Gwynedd), Cadwaladr was an overking of Wales, as his father had been. There may have been a remembrance that under Cynan Garwen and his son Selyf, and then in the next generation under Cadwallon and his son Cadwaladr, the kingdoms of Powys and Gwynedd were in alliance against the English and did great things. No matter what you think of Cadwallon, killing three Northumbrian kings and driving as far north as Hadrian’s wall was quite an accomplishment. It is also possible that Powys under Cynan and Selyf had been major power brokers in the sixth century until that power was broken by Aethelfrith at Chester. It may also explain why Aethelfrith struck at out-of-the-way Chester.

I am focusing more on Cadwaladr because in time Cynan drops away as one who will return. This narrowing to one great king occurs elsewhere also, most notably in Arthur himself. It is interesting to note that as with other hero stories, indeed with Hengest and Horsa, that the once and future kings were also a duo — Cynan and Cadwaladr. In this case, brother kings, bound in alliance and not blood.

As late as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Cadwaladr’s legend was quite strong. It makes up the last half of the last book of the History of the Kings of Britain. One of the innovations that survives best in Geoffrey’s work (though I’m not convinced that he originated it) is the conflation of Cadwaladr’s exile with the pilgrimage of Caedwalla of Wessex to Rome. They both were exact contemporaries and their obits sometimes get mixed up. Geoffrey has an angel tell Cadwaladr that he is destined to die in Rome and be numbered among the blessed (hence his name Cadwaladr the Blessed) and that the Britons will not rule in Britain again until his relics and those of the other saints (of Brittany?) are discovered and brought back to their homeland.

The influence of the poem the Armes Prydain Fawr was greater than you might imagine. Even at the end of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain, reference again is made to Aethelstan. It may have also supported the notion of St David as the patron saint of Wales, but that is a topic for another day.


G.R. Issac. “Armes Prydain Fawr and St David” p. 161-181 (including translation) in St David of Wales: Cult, Church, and Nation. Edited by JW Evans and JM Wooding. Boydell, 2007.

Goeffrey of Monmouth. History of the Kings of Britain.


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