Three British Chieftains of Bernicia and Deira

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

2 thoughts on “Three British Chieftains of Bernicia and Deira

  1. Cool. I’ll have to have a look at that Cessford paper. He was actually in my department the other day and I didn’t realise that’s who it was till he’d gone, or I’d have made sure I was introduced. The Triads are a marvellous source, but so frustrating through their intentional compression…

  2. Michelle, on your comment that dogs may have been important symbols in Lothian, without having any specific information about this I can give a general insight to how very important some dogs are in Celtic symbols, and in particular white hounds.

    Although I need not dwell on how important the symbol of the stag is in both Celtic mystery plays and Anglo-Saxon culture – as exemplified by it being found at the top of the sceptre of the 4th Anglo-Saxon High King in the 1938 Sutton Hoo excavation – the greatest prize of royalty seems to be “The White Stag”, which is often exemplified either as a symbol of Christ, or as a manifestation of Christ. The interesting thing about this is that a White Hound has the capacity to hunt down a white stag even in bleak white snow, although the white hound can’t see a white stag in the white snow, it can track it down because it can smell it, and the white hound’s chances of success are greater than all other colour of hound because the white stag also can’t see a white hound in the white snow! So in symbolic terms, a white hound was often prized, or signified something that was prized that had the capacity to secure the needs of royalty. Although this doesn’t raise any specific significance in Lothian, the inter-relationship of the symbol of a white hound being one’s only opportunity to catch a white stag in white snow, illustrates that in the Celtic sense, a white hound can almost be as important as a lion in other symbols.

    Curiously, the Royal Heralds of England used to issue the symbol of a Talbot’s Head (the head of a white hound) to princely houses with Celtic roots in Europe, so this raises the significance of dog heads having princely significance in some senses.

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