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Early Medieval Wales

Walker 1990; Cadw 1990

owards the end of the 6th century the Angles and Saxons in eastern Britain began to entertain designs on the western lands. The inability of the independent western peoples to unify against this threat left the most powerful kingdom, Gwynedd, as the center of cultural and political resistance, a position it has retained until today. The weaker groups were unable to hold the invaders and after the Battle of Dyrham, near Gloucester in 577, the Britons in Cornwall were separated from those in Wales who became similarly cut off from their northern kin in Cumbria after the Battle of Chester in 616.

Though still geographically in a state of change, Wales could now be said to exist. At this point, the racial mix in Wales was probably little different from that to the east, where Saxon numbers were small, but Wales was held together by the people's resistance to the Saxons. The Welsh started to refer to themselves as Cymry (fellow countrymen), not by the Saxon term used by English-speakers today, which is generally thought to mean either foreigners or Romanized people.

Wales, like England in the Dark Ages, was a land of multiple kingships. The rugged terrain, with impenetrable mountain massifs and inhospitable upland ranges, broken by river valleys, did not make for a unified control or a unified development. The boundary with England was not marked by natural defences, and productive lowland areas as well as profitable upland pastures were open to frequent attacks. Not until Offa of Mercia built his dyke in the second half of the 8th century was there a definable frontier, and that was designed mainly to deter Welsh attacks and control trade across the new border. It was much the longest as well as the most striking man-made boundary in the whole of western medieval Europe, and clearly came to play an important role in shaping the perception of the extent and identity of Wales. Small local communities acknowledged a ruler whose principal function might seem at times to wage war on his neighbors and to plunder their lands. In general, war made them defensive.

 

The principal divisions of Wales (left) were the four major kingdoms or principalities. Gwynedd was based on the Snowdonia massif and on Anglesey. Powys stretched from the borders of Mercia into central Wales. Dyfed, in the south-west, has been thought to represent the survival of very early traditions, some pre-Roman, some linked with the settlement of those who spoke the Goedelic form of Celtic. Deheubarth was a general name for the whole of south Wales, but in later centuries, certainly by the 11th century, it was a recognizable kingdom extending from Ceredigion on the west coast to Brycheiniog on the English border. As Dyfed declined Deheubarth absorbed parts of south-west Wales. In the 11th and 12th centuries, under pressure of Norman attacks and settlement, that part of Deheubarth which remained independent grew smaller.

In the ninth century the political order which had emerged among the peoples west of Offa's Dyke broke down. The ruling Dynasty of Dyfed-Deheubarth ran out in 814, that of Gwynedd in 825, and of Powys in 855. Into the vacuum stepped a new breed, the High Kings of all Wales. The first of them took over all Wales outside Glywysing by 878; he fought Vikings and English and although he was cut down in battle, he set a precedent and created a dynasty, grounded in Gwynedd, which took all Wales as its patrimony. He was Rhodri Mawr, the only king in Welsh history called Great. The second set up the dynasty in Dyfed-Deheubarth and by 950 ruled all Wales outside Morgannwg. He presided over a great codification of the laws of Wales, which henceforth bore his name. One Wales was to have one law. He was Hywel Dda the only king in Welsh history to be called good.

It would be difficult to characterize these early ruling Welsh princes as a group, but certain characteristics may be identified. They were, in general, rulers of a single kingdom. An individual who established his authority over several areas, or over Wales as a whole, was an exceptional figure. The king was usually drawn from the royal kin, though some of the most vigorous rulers were intruders. Even when these are taken into account, there was a clear tendency to return to the ancient stock of the ruling dynasty. In early centuries much depended on the reputation of an outstanding ruler.

From the 9th to 11th centuries, a threatening cloud lowered over Welsh and Saxon alike, in the shape of the Vikings - insatiable in their lust for adventure, battle, and the spoils of war. The shores of Britain were terrorized by these warriors, who plundered not only the coastline but deep inland, disrupting entire communities. Some success was achieved against the raiders by Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), ruler of Gwynedd, who won a victory over the Danish in 856 but was eventually forced into exile in Ireland. It is surprising, therefore that, despite their undoubted influence, apart from the place-names (such as Bardsey, Fishguard, Milford, Skomer, Swansea), the Vikings have left little in the way of monuments in the landscape. Indeed, perhaps the most notable signs are those upon the style of decoration used on the great crosses of the 10th and 11th centuries, like those at Carew (below) and Nevern.

 

 

The unity established by Rhodri Mawr in the 9th century was to prove short-lived. Aggravated by Anglo-Saxon intervention and the Viking raids, the country remained politically feeble and divided. Again, although his laws long outlived his death, the cohesiveness brought about by Hywel Dda (Howell the Good), the grandson of Rhodri Mawr, was too fragile to extend beyond the reign in which it was achieved.

One last powerful ruler managed to bring a measure of unity prior to the Norman conquest. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from his initial seizure of power in Gwynedd in 1039, became a dominant figure in Wales. During the last eight years of his life (1055-63), he held the whole country under his sway; a position founded on military might and personal dependence. Once again, though, his downfall and death left a vacuum of authority and strength. Within a decade, the Welsh were facing a new and very real threat, more powerful than anything they had ever faced before - the Normans.

 

Learn more about Medieval Welsh rulers by exploring the links below.

Learn more about the early Welsh kingdoms

  • Gwent & Glamorgan
  • Gwynedd: main line of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
  • Powys: main line, southern kingdom
  • Powys: northern kingdom, line of Madog ap Maredudd & Owain Glyndwr
  • Deheubarth: line of Rhys ap Gruffydd

     


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    Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

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