Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt, & the ‘Men of the North’


Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins, John Donald, 2016. Amazon US $22 PB, $8 Kindle.

Tim Clarkson’s new book, Scotland’s Merlin, was a lovely break from my usual plague reading. Merlin is one of the few Arthurian characters who can stand alone from the Arthurian corpus as the Welsh figure Myrddin. This is not totally surprising because he was constructed from several long free-standing figures of British history and legend.

My friend Tim strongly states that Arthur’s Merlin is a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s creative process (and I agree). Geoffrey drew on three legends to craft his Merlin Ambrosius (Emrys): the Dinas Emrys origin story, the Carmarthen origin story, and the prophetic wild man of the north legend. He named him well because the Merlin in Geoffrey’s History of the King of Britain is primarily a fusion of Ambrosius (Emrys) from the Historia Brittonum and a lost legend of Merlin from Carmarthen. Merlin’s interaction with Vortigern and the dragons completely comes from the Dinas Emrys story in the Historia Brittonum. The wild man Myrddin Wyllt primarily comes to the fore in Geoffrey’s last work the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin).


The young Emrys and King Vortigern, with the dragons below the floor, originally from the Historia Brittonum

Now, I suspect that the Carmarthen origin story may have been as well developed as the Dinas Emrys legend so it may have contributed a little more than Tim credits, but what that is, is complete conjecture. It must mean something though that Geoffrey is so consistent in localizing Merlin’s hereditary lands in Carmarthen/South Wales.  Geoffrey’s first work, the Prophecies of Merlin, makes up a significant portion of Merlin material in this History of the Kings. We often forget that Geoffrey restricts Merlin’s role in Arthur’s life to his conception. Geoffrey claims that fans wanted more on Merlin so he produced his last work the Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) that now begins to draw much more explicitly on the prophetic northern wild man of the woods motif. If this northern wild man, Myrddin Wyllt (the wild), is the only source of Merlin as a prophet, then he is indeed the primary source for the figure. Although Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin did not circulate nearly as much as his History, it never the less contributed to Merlin’s later development as a character, albeit without many direct textual references.

It is the northern figure, known as Myrddin Wyllt in medieval Welsh literature, that Tim traces to his origins in the Caledonian woods of southern Scotland. The name Myrddin comes from the Old Welsh word for Carmarthen, which was caer-fyrddin, a softened form of Caer-Myrddin.  The modern Carmarthen is the anglicized version of Caer-Fyrddin.screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-1-51-08-am Although linked to a place name that would usually support it being a person’s name, that is not true in this case. Caer-Fyrddin (Caer-Myrddin) is more likely derived from the Roman Moridunum, possibly meaning sea fortress, itself derived from the pre-Roman Brittonic name. Type Caerfyrddin into google translate and listen to its pronunciation. Looking at the map here we can see that Carmarthen is placed on a river leading to a wide three-pronged fork (trident?) shaped estuary. Although not on the coast today, it is possible that it was located at the safest area in an estuary wetland.  It has been the capital of the pre-Roman Demetae tribe, so indeed before the Roman period it is likely that a prince or ruler was seated at Mordunum or ‘the Sea Fortress’. Clarkson places the origins of the name as early as Caermyrddin as early as the sixth century when the Romans had been gone long enough for new placenames and origin stories to develop. Indeed, this may be a similar date and process to the Dinas Emrys story preserved first in the Historia Brittonum.

[On a side note, Merlin’s association with a ‘sea fortress’ may be the source of tales that Merlin has a glass house or glass isle (perhaps invisible house/fortress). Coupled with Mryddin Wyllt’s apple tree, it’s not a great fictional leap to associate Merlin with Avalon, the isle of apples.]

At some point before the ninth century the name Myrddin was transferred, or rather replaced, the name of a northern British mad prophet named Lailoken in tales told in Wales. Some of the texts of Lailoken’s northern exploits even mention that he is known to some as Myrddin. However, his name has mutated through storytelling there is a good reason to believe that a real man, Lailoken, is the historical nugget at the core of Myrddin Wyllt. Lailoken is the focus of the rest of Clarkson’s book.

The battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573 in the Annales Cambriae (AC), was one of the favorite topics of early Welsh bards. It has left its mark in the ninth century (?) Myrddin poetry, the Welsh triads (bardic memetic devices), Rhydderch Hael lore and St Kentigern legends.  It was mentioned in the oldest ninth century version of the Annals Cambriae listing the British leaders on both sides. A much later recension adds that “Myrddin went mad” to the entry. All sources claim that it was an especially ferocious battle even by Dark Age standards; no quarter was given, nor apparently expected. Lailoken/Myrddin is reputed to have been a sole survivor of the losing side who goes mad from the horror of battle becoming a recluse in the Caledonian woods. He is essentially suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome or shell shock. He retreats to the woods living with a pet pig and uttering prophecies or omens from the branches of an apple tree. One of the oldest sources for Lailoken (in his own name) is in his interactions with St Kentigern in hagiography.

Perhaps the most important contribution this book makes to early British history, beyond the evolution of Merlin, is Clarkson’s analysis of the sources for the battle of Arfderydd. I agree with him that there is enough to believe that the battle took place and probably it’s location, but practically nothing else is historically credible. It became a magnet to collect the heroes of the North, generally on the winning side (of course). There is nothing that we can draw about who was actually involved, beyond the brothers Peredur and Gwrgi who defeated Gwenddolau (listed in the AC). All of the other figures were drawn to the lore of this battle like moths to a flame. Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini even has Lailoken/ Myrddin/ Merlin change sides in the battle so he can side with the winners! (contra to all other sources)

Early Modern Antiquarians attempts to reconstruct the battle from clues primarily in the Welsh triads and Myrddin poetry jumped to the conclusion that it was a battle between pagans and Christians (for no reason whatsoever). Primarily based on this assumption, Merlin was rebranded a druid. Clarkson has a whole chapter on this that should be read by anyone who wants to claim that he was a druid! “Merlin’s underpants!” — Merlin’s reputed role as a druid or magician is based on a desire by fans of Celtic mythology and those who want to ‘enhance’ or reputedly make Arthurian lore more realistic. There is no medieval basis for any of this. Both Lailoken/Myrddin and Arthur are nothing but Christian in the medieval material.

From here Clarkson takes on a variety of topics related to the evolution of Merlin and Arthuriana particularly in northern Britain. It was all very interesting and is good material for novelists who want to use medieval lore. I really enjoyed the book and I think anyone who likes Merlin, Arthuriana, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s process,  or medieval lore will enjoy it, so I heartily recommend it.

Merlin and the details of the battle of Arfderydd are now firmly in the realm of literature. As fiction, authors are free to embellish and borrow from wherever they want. I suspect that any real Dark Age figures behind these figures would be just fine with becoming mythic heroes. They knew well that this was their best bet at gaining lasting fame and the details no longer mattered in the realpolitik of their land within just a few generations after their time. Our instance to know ‘what really happened’ would have been largely lost on them. They well understood Achilles’ choice to opt for fame over being grounded in the real world with a long mortal life but soon forgotten.



King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.


Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Heavenfield Round-up 7: June Links

I’m not sure where June went. I wish I had been more productive, but luckily some of my fellow bloggers have been  much busier.

Bamburgh Research Project has been out in the field for most of June. Various updates have been posted on their blog.

Curt Emanuel, the Medieval History Geek, has posts on late antique panegyrics and mixed feelings on studying human tragedies.

Guy Halsall, the Historian on the Edge, has posted a recent conference paper Feud, Vengeance, Politics and History in Early Medieval Europe.

Kristina Killgrove of Powered by Osteons has put her presentation from the Moving Romans conference in Holland on her blog: Etched in Bone: Uncovering information about immigrants to Rome.

Magistra et Mater writes about why medievalists write cultural history.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth Century Europe wrote on medieval gender studies and Vandals and archaeology.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus wrote about the Aberlady Cross and Medieval Archaeology goes online. At Heart of the Kingdom, Tim provides some background for a short story on a queen of Strathclyde.

Diane McIlmoyle of Esmeralda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore writes about the 9th century Kingmoor Ring.

Carl Pyrdum of Got Medieval finds reason to call fundamentalists medieval, dragging poor Nessie and St Columba into the fray.

Andy Gaunt of Archaeology and History of Sherwood Forest has posts on the Sherwood Forest Nature Reserve and Bothamsall Castle.

Clas Merdin has a series of posts this month on the foundation legends of London as New Troy, London as Mallory’s Winchester, and the London Stone. A little background for the coming Olympics in London in July.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words has been scouting her sites for her novel around Oakley and interpreting what a note about an Anglo-Saxon tent means.

Sally Wilde has posts on her research on the importance of male heirs, early Welsh research, on landscape research.

Here at Heavenfield, I have posts on secondary sources for the Britons and a review of Disney/Pixar’s Brave. also reviewed my Kalamazoo talk Famine and Pestilence in the Irish Sea Region, 500-800 AD.  On Contagions, I also have a post on plague at the siege of Caffa in 1346 that is reported to have started the Black Death in Europe.

The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?

St Oswald Hagiography & Literature

This post is a run down of existing hagiography and literature on St Oswald. I’m really concerned here more with literature than history. The works listed on the indented bullet under each work lists the known sources or influences in that work. I may also list a few key translations or secondary works on these pieces.  If diagrams worked better in blogs I would have done one with all the lines connecting the works, but this will have to do. This list is necessarily a work in progress.

As you will see the literature really forks in four directions:

  1. Historical directly from Bede through William of Malmesbury, Simeon of Durham, and others. Only the earliest historical works are listed here.
  2. Hagiographical from Bede and Adomnan through the various hagiographical versions that often derive directly from Bede.
  3. Matter of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth really does some interesting things with his last chapter that are usually completely overlooked because they contradict history (as with everything else he writes) and do not include Arthur. Yet this last chapter is key to understanding Geoffrey’s overall purpose.
  4. German Literature: Mostly falls into the bridal quest category. The Munich Oswalt holds an important place in the development of German courtly literature.

Original Sources: Oswald died August 5, 642.

  1. Iona Chronicle (lost) – no longer exists but the Annals of Ulster is usually considered to be the closest. The Iona Chronicle could have been contemporary with Oswald.
  2. Adomnan of Iona, Life of St Columba, Latin, c. 700. (earliest surviving source)
    1. Sources: Adomnan heard his account from his predecessor Failbe who as a child overheard it directly from King Oswald to Abbot Segene.
  3. Willibrord of Frisia, Calendar of Willibrord, Latin,  c. 702-5.
    1. Willibrord was educated at Ripon and had connections to Lindisfarne and Ireland.
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Latin,  c. 731.
    1. Sources: Acca of Hexham collected stories, oral tradition, local calendars and regnal lists.

Hagiography and Literature

  • Old English Martyrology, Mercian, Old English, 8th century, narrative martryology
    • Bede, History
  • Historia Brittonum, Gwynedd, Latin, 825
  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Old English. c. 900.
    • Bede, History
    • Historia Brittonum ?
  • Ælfric of Eysham, Life of St Oswald, Latin, c. 1000.
    • Bede, History
  • Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints), Welsh, 12th century (a blog post)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, historical fiction, Latin, 1130s?
    • Bede, History
  • Wace, Roman de Brut, Old French, Historical fiction
    • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History
  • Layamon, Brut , Middle English, c. 1190, historical fiction
    • Wace, Roman de Brut
    • oral history and local legend
  • Breton version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain has a particularly touching version of Oswald’s death.
  • Reginald of Durham, Life of St. Oswald, Latin, 1165
    • Bede, History
    • Adomnan, Life of Columba
    • oral history in Northumbria and Mercia
    • perhaps Symeon of Durham

  • Anonymous, Brut y Brenhydd (History of the Kings), Middle Welsh, 13th century. Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth with modifications including of Oswald material.
  • Munich Oswalt, Old High German, Bridal Quest., 15th century

    • Reginald of Durham, Life of St Oswald
    • Bede, History
    • Translation: JW Thomas. (1989) The ‘Strassburg Alexander’ and the ‘Munich Oswald’: Pre-courtly Adventure of the German Middle Ages.

    Wiener Oswald, 15th century, Bridal Quest

  • Dat Passionael “Oswald”Van Sunte Oswaldo, Deme Konninghe (About St. Oswald, King),  Low German, 1478
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • Osvald’s Saga, Middle Icelandic, Bridal Quest/Conversion/Martyr legends/miracles, c 1530
    • Translation and disucssion: Marianne Kalinke, St Oswald of Northumbria: Continental Metamorphosis, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renassiance Studies, 2005.
  • John Dryden,  ‘King Arthur, or The British Worthy’, English opera, 1691. (“Oswald of Kent” is Arthur’s English opponent!)

LKM: The Realm of Rheged

Finally getting back to my lost kingdoms series of posts, I’ve been putting off Rheged for some time now. Looking for Rheged is always risky. It is the epitome of the lost kingdoms. It appears just as it is about to be blotted out by a growing regional power, Bernicia. Not unlike Beowulf being the story of his kingdom’s demise and the end of the Geats, stories of Rheged’s demise and it’s heroes have survived among others longer than the original kingdom lasted. More than any other lost kingdom, Rheged excited the imagination of poets and it became a frequent site for heroic adventures, and some of its historic heroes became mythic superheroes; Arthurian worthies and perhaps equals as in the Dream of Rhonabwy. It is quite possible that at one time Owain ap Urien was a more popular hero and king than Arthur himself.

Finding Rheged

As near as we can tell, Rheged (or Reget) was actually fairly close to Heavenfield, somewhere in the Border Country (around Hadrian’s Wall and south of Scotland). It has been localized to the Carlisle area, Rhinns of Galloway, middle area of the Border Country (general region of Melrose) immediately to the west of the core of Bernicia, and in the middle of the Pennines (old Brigantia). In other words, it existed somewhere that Northumbria swallowed up, north more likely than south. The best clues we have are that Urien Rheged is said to be Lord of Catraeth, usually taken to be Catterick. Yet, Catraeth is the location of one of the most famous and most legendary battles in Old British history, so saying Urien in Lord of Catraeth may be metaphorical. Other locations in the Urien cycle of poetry seem to be just south of Carlisle in the Lake district and the mountains just to the east, which would indeed be just west of Catterick. The Carlisle region also fits with the Mabon imagery associated with Urien’s son Owain, given that the area just north of Carisle has the most placename and archaeological evidence for a cult of the Celtic god Mabon.

Urien Rheged and his dynasty

There really isn’t any evidence that the realm of Rheged existed separate from the dynasty of Urien Rheged. There are no placenames, or literary references to the land of Rheged.

Urien’s claim to historicity comes from the Historia Brittonum:

63. Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut [Lindisfarne]; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science. Eadfered Flesaurs reigned twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve others in Deira, and gave to his wife Bebba, the town of Dynguoaroy, which from her is called Bebbanburg [Bamburgh].96 Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and expelled Cerdic, its king. Eanfled, his daughter, received baptism, on the twelfth day after Pentecost, with all her followers, both men and women. The following Easter Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen [Rhun son of Urien]:97 he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed on Christ. (Historia Brittonum)

Rhun son of Urien is mentioned once more in some prefaces of the Historia Brittonum as a source for material in it. Oswiu of Bernicia’s first wife Rhianmellt daughter of Royth son of Rhun is usually accepted to be a great-grandaughter of Urien Rheged, equating her grandfather Rhun with Rhun ap Urien. After this brief historical mention in the Historia Brittonum, Rheged is not mentioned again. In fact, Rheged is not mentioned in the Historia Britonnum. Rheged must be inferred by consulting Old Welsh poetry. The mention of Rhianmellt’s marriage to Oswiu is the last mention of Rheged in the historical record, all other outcomes are spectulation.

Of Urien’s children, Rhun is the only one mentioned in historical texts (Historia Brittonum). The others sons, Owain, Pasgen, Rhiwallawn, and a daughter Morfudd are mentioned in literature and legend. The story of King Urien and Modron daughter of Avallach tells of the mythical origins of Urien’s family. Modron is the conversion of the celtic goddess Modron, the divine mother, into history. Avallach is the King of the Otherworld who produces daughters who are linked with British heroes as consorts or mothers.  Modron’s divine son Mabon is sometimes equated with Urien’s son Owain.

Urien is best known because his chief bard was Taliesin, known as the Chief Bard of Britain (of all time). Urien is the focus of several of his surviving songs, including: (unfortunately not the best translations)

The Superhero of Rheged

Owain son of Urien, the equal of Mabon ap Modron, left no mark on the ‘historical sources’ of Rheged. He is not listed with his father in the Historia Brittonum or in the Annals Cambriae. The opponent of Urien’s forces in ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ is an Englishman nick-named Flamdwyn (the Flame-bearer) and he is claimed to the slayer of Owain in his Death Song of Owain. Who is Flamdwyn? What a good question! No one knows for sure. He fought a battle against Urien and killed his son Owain, but Owain is inferred in his death song as a king in his own right. If so, then he probably died after his father, perhaps soon after. If that is so, then it must be Theodoric of Bernicia, the only northern English king who faced Urien and his successors. If Owain died before his father, then it could be Æthelric, brother of Theodoric and father of Æthelfrith (r. 592-616), who had a very short 4 year reign. Poetry does seem to give Owain a very short reign as king after his father, beset by all the British kings who viciously fall upon the princes of Rheged after Urien’s death, which suggests Urien may have created his realm amongst great British opposition. Its interesting that in some Welsh triads (and elsewhere) British men are claimed to be Owain’s killer. It really infers an ethnically mixed northern zone. Rheged is clearly said to oppose the Saxons (Bernicians) but they fight as many or more Britons. Its quite possible that early Bernicia was an Anglo-British kingdom in the 6th century. Y Gododdin may imply that as well.

Owain made the real leap into superherodom when he became incorporated in Arthur’s realm of heroes. He is the focus of two Welsh Arthurian stories: Dream of Rhonabwy and Owain, or the Lady at the Fountain. The Dream features Owain’s famous ravens in otherworldly, supernatural size. Owain’s ravens (war ravens) are often mentioned in short references in Welsh poetry as a reference to a successful warband or army. The story of the Lady at the Fountain may have some ties to the hagiographical legend that Owain is the father of St Kentigern, by the daughter of King Lot of Lothian. St Kentigern is the patron saint of Glasgow and the kingdom of Strathclyde. Owain is also the source behind Yvain in French Arthurian literature. He is sometimes said to be son of Morgan le Fay in Arthurian literature, which may be a late medieval version of the otherworldly Modron.

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.