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Rhodri Mawr

King of Wales

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Above: Dinefwr Castle in Carmarthenshire

Walker 1990; Davies 1990

ccording to legend, the first Dinefwr Castle (right) was built by Rhodri Mawr - King of Wales in the 9th century. It is unavoidable that attention should focus on those Welsh rulers who extended their power over much of Wales in the centuries prior to the Norman conquest. They foreshadowed the attempts by the princes of Gwynedd in the 13th century to create a unified Welsh state, and they matched contemporary developments in England, and similar, but later, developments in Scotland. So, Rhodri Mawr (844-78) is presented as one who set a pattern for the future. He either ruled or, by his personal qualities, dominated much of Wales.

Chroniclers of his generation hailed Rhodri ap Merfyn as Rhodri Mawr (Rhodri the Great), a distinction bestowed upon two other rulers in the same century - Charles the Great (Charlemagne, died 814) and Alfred the Great (died 899). The three tributes are of a similar nature - recognition of the achievements of men who contributed significantly to the growth of statehood among the nations of the Welsh, the Franks and the English. Unfortunately, the entire evidence relating to the life of Rhodri consists of a few sentences; yet he must have made a deep impression upon the Welsh, for in later centuries being of the line of Rhodri was a primary qualification for their rulers. Until his death, Rhodri was acknowledged as ruler of more than half of Wales, and that as much by diplomacy as by conquest.

Rhodri's fame sprang from his success as a warrior. That success was noted by The Ulster Chronicle and by Sedulius Scottus, an Irish scholar at the court of the Emperor Charles the Bald at Liege. It was his victory over the Vikings in 856 which brought him international acclaim. Wales was less richly provided with fertile land and with the navigable rivers that attracted the Vikings, and the Welsh kings had considerable success in resisting them. Anglesey bore the brunt of the attacks, and it was there in 856 that Rhodri won his great victory over Horn, the leader of the Danes, much to the delight of the Irish and the Franks.

It was not only from the west that the kingdom of Rhodri was threatened. By becoming the ruler of Powys, his mother's land, he inherited the old struggle with the kingdom of Mercia. Although Offa's Dyke had been constructed in order to define the territories of the Welsh and the English, this did not prevent the successors of Offa from attacking Wales. The pressure on Powys continued; after 855, Rhodri was its defender, and he and his son, Gwriad, were killed in battle against the English in 878.

 

Genealogy of Rhodri and the rulers of Gwynedd

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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas