I was browsing through Rachel Bromwich’s Triodd Ynys Prydein (The Welsh Triads) today and I came across the triad of the Three Chieftains of “Deiuyr a Brennych”, Deira and Bernicia, that reminds me of some of the usual nearly lost material among the ‘Men of the North’ lore. The variant triad 10W combines it with the three fortunate slayings and is a glimpse at the stories these fleshed out triads contain.
Triad 10W: Three Chieftains of Deira and Bernicia, and they were three bards, and three sons of Dissynyndawd, who performed the Three Fortunate Slayings;
- Diffeidell son of Dissynyndawd, who slew Gwrgi Garwlwyd (Rough-Grey). That man used to slay every day one of the Cymry, and two every Saturday so as not to slay one on the Sunday;
- Snagfnell son of Dissynyndawd who slew Edelfled Ffleisawg (‘Twister’) king of Lloegr;
- Gall son of Dissnyndawd who slew the two Birds of Gwenddolau, who were guarding his gold and silver: two men they used to eat for dinner, and as much again for supper. (p. 10-11)
Another variant of the triad calls them all three the sons of a bard, suggesting that Dissynyndawd was the bard. It is possible that we have an old bard singing songs about his ‘sons’ who fell heroically. There are stories behind all these victims though not much is found among the chieftains.
I understand that Gwrgi Garwlwyd means Rough-Grey Dog and it has been speculated that he was a werewolf, or someone disliked so much that werewolf stories grew up around him. He may reappear in these lines from the Arthurian poem Pa Gur:
On the heights of Eidyn
He fought with champions [or dog-heads].
By the hundreds they fell
To Bedwyr’s four-pronged spear [or Bedwyr the Perfect],
On the shores of Tryfrwyd,
Combating with Garwlwyd
Furious was his nature
Both with sword and shield.
Eidyn here would be Caer Eidyn, or Edenburgh. Tryfrwyd is usually interpreted as one of several rivers in Lothian. Dogs may have been important symbols in Lothian.
The second victim, Edelfled Ffleisawg king of Lloegr is Æthelfrith of Bernicia. His epithet ffleisawg (or sometimes flesaur) is based off of the Latin word for flexible. The translation ‘twister’ was made long ago, and though I’ve never particularly liked that translation it does seem to have stuck. Personally I’d like something like flexar or flexor. What exactly it means has also been controverisal. Pro-British interpretations have always claimed this meant he could twist out of the British grasp. This really seems at odds with the historical record of Æthelfrith being a dominating king who conquored more Britons than any previous king. It could also mean cleaver or a flexible stratagist. Lloegr is a general British name for the English that means something like borders. It is the typical word used for the English in Arthurian literature.
[On a side note, it just occurred to me looking at the British Edelfled for Æthelfrith that the female name element -fled/-flæd found in names like Eanflæd could be the feminine version of the male -frith names. Consider that Eanflæd had two brothers named Osfrith and Eadfrith. Likewise three of Oswiu’s sons have -frith names Ecgfrith, Alchfrith, and Aldfrith and one of his daughters is Ælfflæd.]
The third victim is some kind of watchman or watch animal for Gwenddolau who fell at the battle (or seige) of Arthuret (Arfderydd) listed in the Annals Cambriae in 573. It may be one of a couple stories about what provoked the battle. Archaeological investigations at the Mote of Liddel which is were the siege is believed to have taken place near Carwannok (Caer Gwenddolau) showed signs of high status metal working. This is the battle where Mryddin (Merlin) went mad.
One of the interesting things about this triad and a few others like it is that some events can be dated to within a reasonable lifespan of brothers. The battle of Arfderydd is dated to 573, Æthelfrith died in 616 and Edenburgh was in British hands during this period. Craig Cessford wrote a paper some time ago exploring the possibility that a British chieftain from the north was part of Edwin’s retinue when he slew Æthelfrith. I suppose that safest interpretation is that these events would be within the lifetime of one bard and it is not unusual in British poetry for a bard to use exploits of a reputed son as a device (also used in the Llywarch Hen cycle).
Rachel Bromwich, trans. (1978) Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Criag Cessford (1994) ‘The Death of Aethelfrith of Lloegr’ Northern History 30: 179-183