British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

Novels I Classical Literature I (Pseudo)-Scientific I Children's Books I Comics I Music & Movies I Various stuff
What's New I Sitemap I Arthurian articles I History of Britain, 407-597 I View guestbook I Sign guestbook I Poll I About me I Links I Search

  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book I > chapter 1.5

Faces of Arthur Index

Vortigen Studies Index

The Arthurian Collection is a part of Vortigern Studies



British History
click here

Chapter 1.5: The five tyrants: Maglocunus and the north

Fabio P. Barbieri


Maglocunus deserves a section apart, not only because he is by far the most outstanding of the five tyrants, but also because he is the only one who has demonstrably left a mark on later history. And while I have been able to discuss Constantine, Aurelius, Cuneglasus and Vortiporius purely from Gildas' own text, the problems connected with Maglocunus will need a more wide-ranging treatment.

Maglocunus was, without a doubt, a man of uncommon gifts. Physically, he was gigantic, and Gildas dwelled on his size and strength. But he was also mentally unusual. Gildas mentions his education with the magister elegans and throws more Biblical texts at him than to all the other tyrants put together; clearly he expects him to know his way around the Good Book. With all his faults, he had flashes of sensitive conscience, and once had seriously taken monastic vows; but he was also eager, passionate - Gildas compares him to a hot-headed young colt - and imperious, with a temper to want everything and get what he wanted. It may not have been only for the reward that so many bards flocked to sing his praises, although rewards were certainly abundant; Gildas mentions his open-handedness; but his was the sort of personality to which the likes of the historical Taliesin would respond, big in word and deed, magnanimous yet violent, brave and to some extent even romantic. He was a man, I think, to catch fire at heroic poetry and tales of great heroes of old; no doubt it was the impression of great men and great deeds that lured him out of his vows, just as the beauty of the monastic ideal of self-sanctification had drawn him in.

According to Gildas, Maglocunus was the mightiest of all the five. He had driven many of them from their thrones and killed some similar tyrants - not out of any passion for justice, but because he was even worse than the rest. Despite the benefit of teaching by the magister elegans, he was barely adult when he rebelled against his uncle, who was king before him, and killed him ense, hasta, igni, with sword and spear and fire. The fact that it was his uncle suggests a disputed succession, perhaps from Maglocunus' father, or perhaps - as we will see - from the mother's side. Mention of fire implies either a siege ending in a fire, or a trap and a burning house; at any rate, a revoltingly cruel end to a feud - Gildas is quite properly outraged - and doubly horrible because it was between family members. As if that wasn't enough, Gildas says, Maglocunus destroyed his uncle's royal guard, who were among the country's best soldiers; and Gildas implies that their destruction had been followed by one or more episodes of plunder remarkable even by the age's standards[1] - Maglocunus, in fact, had run amuck.

Having stepped to the throne over his kinsman's body and the plundered and bloodied lands of his kingdom, he seems to have repented. After long thought on the beauty of the monastic ideal, he publicly took vows - to Gildas' great joy. But it did not last: still young, he threw off the habit, married, and resumed conquest and slaughter. Gildas' Latin speaks of the devil entering the sheepfold like a wolf, to carry off God's new-made sheep to be a wolf like itself; which reminds me strongly of his threats against Aurelius Caninus, where mention of the King of Heaven seemed to conceal, or rather to imply, an earthly sovereign. In the same way, I think that the Devil who reached into the holy sheepfold and subverted the young royal monk had two legs, two arms, and a human voice. I believe a real person, perhaps named after a wolf, who wanted the tall young monarch to "become a wolf like himself", going back to the life of a raider[2], was given far too free a run in Maglocunus' monastic establishment.

It was not a matter of a kingdom left without a king. Even if Maglocunus and his subjects considered his murderously conquered rule legitimate, there was no contradiction between being a king and taking monastic vows. We know of at least one early Welsh prince, St.Cadog, who lived as a monk while remaining the full king of his country, and even the commander of a body of professional soldiers. The point was not therefore that Maglocunus had returned to his royal status; he had never lost it. If worldly advisers had free access to him, monastic discipline can hardly have been so severe as not to allow him to rule; in a modern monastery, the very idea of a new-made monk being allowed uncontrolled and unmonitored access to non-religious friends would be absurd. What he had done was to break the restraints that a religious discipline, however gentle, would have placed upon his freedom of action: he could not have married, he could not have started aggressive wars, he could not have indulged in the more gross kinds of public cruelty and violence. He did not regain his crown, for he had never lost it: he regained the right to do as he pleased, without the burden of conscience.

Since then he had become the insularis draco, the dragon of the island. What island? Britain, common sense tells us; as Gildas says, he was the biggest, the fiercest, the most armour-plated beast of prey in the land, contained not by God, conscience, or enemy, but only by the seas. Anglesey, insist later Welsh tradition and some modern scholars, who say that Maelgwn - to give him his Welsh name - was king of Gwynedd, descended from a conqueror called Cunedda Wledig who had come to Wales from Manaw Gododdin (between Stirlingshire and Lothian) and driven the Irish out "with immense slaughter".

That word Gwynedd, attached to Maelgwn's name in Welsh sources, has, in my view, played merry Hell with the evidence. Let's start from the Father Brown principle "I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable": the notion that a prince of Gwynedd, Gwynedd mind you, might be a permanent terror to the whole of Britain, is so unlikely as to be off the scale. Insularis draco? The bane of kings and kinglets by the dozen, killer of many, banisher of more, greater - as Gildas admits - than any other British war-leader? Even granting him the most eminent military qualities: where would he find the men? It is physically impossible for large armies to be raised in such a small and circumscribed area; or to be victualled, armed, and safely trained without fear of reprisal. Gwynedd, historically, has always been a refuge, not a headquarters of conquest.

I will state my views in two sentences: it is certain that descendants of Cunedda and Maelgwn did rule in North Wales from the seventh century; but to assume that Maelgwn did is to assume that Savoy is a suburb of Rome, that Orange is somewhere near the Hague (or Belfast), that Hohenzollern is a Prussian town (perhaps sporting, now, the name of a Russian general), and that Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is a pretty English village with a square Norman bell tower and cricket in the village green. Dynasties migrate; the twentieth century saw a direct descendant of the Byzantine Paleologoi emperors, Prince Antonio de Curtis, become the great Neapolitan comedian TotÚ.

Maelgwn's claim to have ruled North Wales is inseparable from the claim that his ancestor Cunedda (or, to give him his archaic name, Cunedag) came there with his seven sons from Manaw Gododdin, later followed by his grandson Meiriaun, that he or his son Ceredig had something to do with the expulsion of the Irish from Wales, and that he shared the land out between his heirs: a puzzling, unconvincing story that received many even less convincing modern explanations. Scholars have suggested that Cunedda was allowed or even forced to move from central Scotland to Gwyned by an order from the Roman empire or from Vortigern, king of the country after the end of Roman power (a difference based on different reckonings of Cunedda's date); but there is little to be said for the one suggestion, and not much more for the other. The Romans could sometimes draft a turbulent tribe by force into the Roman army, moving it as far as possible from its previous haunts[3], but they would hardly settle it in the same island and only a few days' march, as Roman feet marched, from the area of their previous depredations.

The Vortigern theory is marginally more credible, since Vortigern was probably unable to exile a turbulent tribe overseas, and since an original link with Vortigern would not have been anything to be proud of and might, in theory, have been concealed; but in actual fact, some Welsh dynasties claimed with pride such otherwise reviled ancestors as Maxen and Vortigern. As long as the ancestor was sufficiently famous, it mattered little whether he was a villain. It is probably from one such dynasty that comes the singularly positive account of Maxen in The dream of Maxen Gwledig, while in the rest of Welsh tradition, down to and including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Maxen is a disastrous and despised figure. In other words, there is no reason why Cunedda's descendants should not have claimed to have been settled where they were by Roman authorities, as the Thuringians, according to Procopius[4], claimed to have been settled in their homeland by Augustus the first Emperor. The claim's historical value would probably be the same in both cases, but my point is that there was no shame in Welsh legend about the name of Rome, nor any reason to hide or forget original relationships of Cunedda with Roman or even post-Roman authorities.

In fact, Cunedda's pedigree is in existence and makes him the son and grandson of lords of Roman name and presumably allegiance - Aeternus, Paternus. But if we are to believe the legend of Cunedda driving the Irish from Wales, then we should also believe its implications: that is that Cunedda and his eight sons achieved it unaided for the benefit of Wales, from whom they removed the Irish yoke "with immense slaughter". Neither Rome nor Vortigern had anything to do with it. One eloquent chronological fiction makes the point unmistakably: Nennius dates the arrival of Cunedag to Wales to 388 - the year in which Magnus Maximus fell. Nennius and Welsh annalistic believed Maximus to have been the last Roman emperor in Britain. As the brilliant historian Molly Miller pointed out[5], this means that Cunedag came to Wales to replace the failed Romans. In other words, this date has to be a learned invention - or what she calls "systematic" - to claim for Cunedda some sort of succession to "Maxen".

But there is more. Five different versions of Cunedda's story exist, not one of which agrees with the others; and Dr.Thomas Charles-Edwards[6] has shown that the variations in the four earliest are so fundamental as to question whether a credible single original ever existed. I would add that he has not even taken into account Geoffrey of Monmouth's, in which - apart from Geoffrey's peculiar way with dates, which places Cunedagius about a thousand years too soon - Meiriaun, renamed Manganus[7], is not Cunedda's descendant, but his estranged cousin, and they are assigned a variant of the Contending Brothers legend which we shall examine in more depth when we get to Hengist. Manganus' revolts against Cunedagius because of dissatisfaction with the way the land had been shared and with family relationships. Representing a quite alternative version of events, but using the archaic spelling Cunedag, this has some common ground with the genealogy which mentions Meiriaun, in which he is a late-comer, coming to claim his father's share and therefore in something of a contentious position with respect to family relationships and the sharing of the land.

Without paying attention to this, Dr.Charles-Edwards also identified problems of succession and land-sharing as the core of his four versions of the legend; but, although I disagree with him on some points[8], his general conclusions are eloquent. "There is no consistent relationship between the location of a ninth- or tenth-century kingdom and the location of the land-taking activities of Cunedda and his sons. To regard the story, in all its versions, as essentially an origin legend justifying the position of the Second Dynasty of Gwynedd [i.e. the descendants of King Mervyn, patron of Nennius] is to ignore the layout, geographical and chronological, of the evidence... [which] gives the impression of an old but muddled tradition, not propaganda newly minted on behalf of an intrusive dynasty." In other words, the story of Cunedda was an ancient legend, old enough both to have been localized in many different parts of Wales (different accounts make the wars with the Irish happen in Gower, Kidwelly, Cardigan, and all Wales north of the Teifi!) and to have developed many variants. There is nothing to place a historical Cunedag in any particular place in Wales at all.

A number of facts point to a completely different location for both Maelgwn and Cunedag. Point one: it seems that two passages in a poem attributed to (but not by) Taliesin describe Cunedda threatening Carlisle and Caer Weir - Durham[9]. Even though Durham was founded much later, this indicates that tales of Cunedda's deeds in the North were still known at some point in the Middle Ages, and that the areas he threatened were immediately south of the Wall of Hadrian. Point two: Brude, king of the Picts, was probably another son of Maelgwn: he is called mac Maelchon in later Scottish historical writing, and the dates fit – he was king in the days of St.Columba, who died in 597. Would a Pictish dynastic alliance be practicable, desirable, or possible, to a dynasty from far-away Gwynedd - as opposed to one from, say, Gododdin or Britain north of the Humber? Point three: an ancient text speaks of Elidyr, son-in-law of Maelgwn, trying to claim the inheritance and being beaten by Rhun - Maelgwn's possibly illegitimate son and heir; after which Rhun invaded Scotland, where Elidyr had been based. John Morris implausibly imagines that his army was peacefully allowed to cross all Yorkshire or Lancashire for this invasion. Point four: Elidyr could never have claimed Maelgwn's kingdom through his wife, Maelgwn's daughter, unless Pictish law, that included succession through the female line, applied in his kingdoms - and it never applied in Wales[10]. Point five: one firm fact is that Cunedag came from Manaw Gododdin - the northern half of the tribe, sharing a border with the Picts. If Cunedda existed at all, then his ancestral lands were in the North. Point six: Cunedda's improbable great ride from the north to Gwynedd, across several probable Celtic states or at least one Roman province, and yet to all appearances unhindered and victorious, has an exact parallel in the equally unchallenged and equally victorious ride of Rhun from (supposedly) Gwynedd to the North. Cunedda going south to Gwynedd, Rhun going north to Scotland to defeat Elidyr, move as if the map had folded and Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and the Borders did not exist. Let's call things by their names: both stories would make a lot more sense if Cunedda and his descendant Rhun were held to have lived, not in Anglesey, but somewhere near Edinburgh.

The seventh and final point is that Cunedda's wife in the genealogies is Gwawl - Wall - daughter of Coel Hen[11] (another great patriarch) and of Coel’s supposed wife Stradwawl - Roman-Road-Wall. To the best of my knowledge, the Gwawl is never anything else in Welsh but the Wall of Hadrian. The king is the land's bridegroom; and the imagination of their successors married off Coel and Cunedag, as patriarchs, in the standard Celtic way, to the goddess of the land they ruled - and which their successors inherited.

This is the central issue: patriarchs were remembered in terms of what later generations had inherited from them. It would have made no odds to the tribe that claimed descent from Cunedag whether or not Cunedag ruled (="was married to") the region around the Wall, unless they had inherited it in his name. Which means that for an appreciable number of generations, the dynasty of Cunedda ruled not in Gwynedd but around the Wall of Hadrian (while Coel was married to a Roman Road particularly connected with the Wall). This particular land remained the chief dynastic possession long enough for his successors to regard the "marriage" as permanent and place it in the creative age of the patriarchs. In fact, we cannot even be sure that Cunedag held the Wall, but we can be sure that his descendants over several generations did - long enough for the tradition to standardise and be written down in Welsh-language genealogies. (Much later in this study, we will find that Welsh was in all likelihood not yet in existence by the date we can suggest for Cunedag.)

The Irish whom Cunedda is said to have driven out with great slaughter, if we take that to be historical, may be raiders on Strathclyde, or possibly the little settler community that history does not record though archaeology and place-names do, in west Wigtownshire and the Rhinns of Galloway. This colony certainly existed[12], but it was wiped out or Cambrian-ized out of existence before any historical record; even so, it had Irish-type monastic enclosures, unimaginable before the beginnings of the sixth century, which suggests that its expulsion took place, if it did, long after the age of Cunedda. It might be however associated with Maglocunus (or - as we will see - with Urien of Rheged). Great deeds of kings who changed the landscape may have tended to be backdated to their ancestors, since actual changes in the political map would need to be validated by an illustrious precedent or predecessor. F.J.Byrne, for instance, has suggested that the most important achievement of Niall of the Nine Hostages may have been the establishment of Airgialla - the kingdom of the "hostage-givers" - in land taken from the Ulaid, his enemies; and that this had been backdated a century or more, under a thoroughly legendary group of heroes (sort of) called the Three Collas. It is therefore possible that aggressive action against the Irish of whatever settlement may have been attributed to the great ancestor of the tribe, Cunedda.

Indeed, Cunedda may or may not have extended his reach southwards; but we certainly know one member of his dynasty, on unimpeachable evidence, to have conquered many kingdoms, exiled or killed many kings, and shown no respect for man or God or devil. Let us suppose that the young Maglocunus had started from a northern lordship, however defined. (It must still have been rooted in its Gododdin past, to judge from the extent to which the name survived.) The natural target of his expansion would have to be what is today England north of the Humber, and in particular the sizeable mouthful of York with its fertile vale and splendid Roman fortification. Had he ever managed to take over the fortress, along with the great kingdom of Brigantia which it dominated, then Maglocunus would truly have had the resources and power to become what Gildas called him: the dragon of the island, the most powerful robber-king in the north, able to make war at will and at the same time impress the whole island with a truly splendid court to which bards flocked.

Brigantia was the Roman name for a vast pre-Roman kingdom, occupying modern Yorkshire and Lancashire - possibly even extending north across the Wall - and critical for the security of Roman Britain. There is evidence that its name, at the very least, had survived the end of Roman power, since the word *Brigantinos has given us the most widespread modern Welsh word for King, Brenhin. *Brigantinos is built on Brigantia in the same way as *tigernos, lord of the house, is built on *teg, house: the *Brigantinos is the Lord of Brigantia. And the survival in modern Welsh of this highly territorial title, when the very memory of Brigantia has been thoroughly and elaborately lost, argues that it was taken to the country in token of a lasting claim to the lost kingdom, and that the dynasty that bore it was so important in later history that its title, like that of Caesar, became a universal word for "king". One dynasty fits the description: the house of Cunedda, with whose arrival, says a textbook13], "Welsh history is generally believed to begin". Historians of the Welsh language might want to investigate whether the term brenhin originated in North Wales, in Gwynedd. I suggest that Maelgwn's descendants, driven from the North by the English of Northumbria, took it there with them and held on to it as a token of their claim; held on the more tightly, perhaps, since Cunedda's dynasty was not originally from Brigantia at all, but from the Votadinian far north, and had won the country by conquest.

I am disposed to believe that Maelgwn's activities represent in effect an invasion of midland and lowland Britain from the north, by a Christian but barbarous Votadinian lord with something of the Pictish enemy about him, and without even the commitment to the existing order that the kings of more settled lands had. Britain's governance was long a precarious balancing act between the fertile lowlands, turned geographically and spiritually towards the continent and interested in trade and stability, and the various highland regions, more isolated, naturally tribal and unstable, not very fertile, and looking towards nowhere in particular except the warmer and more productive south; Culloden was the ghastly end of a very long quarrel. As a lord of the Gododdin, Maglocunus would be the natural focus for every northern ambition; he would have drawn to himself, by the fame of his prowess and strength, warriors from every part of the north.

He and the house of Aurelius Caninus, between them, must have done a lot to disembowel whatever order existed in Gildasian Britain; the Aurelii from the centre, which they wanted to subvert for their own dynastic advantage, and Maglocunus from the remote, impoverished, ever-warlike North, pushed up hard against the Pictish enemy, and still inevitably a part of the British world, a member of the British kingdom, operating within a political system in which he could only get ahead by war. But the most interesting thing he may have taken from the North is bards: for it is a fact that we have almost no evidence for Celtic-language poetry in post-Roman Britain before Gildas unleashed the bolts of his rhetoric against the screaming flatterers of Maglocunus. And even among the desolate moral landscape of Gildas, these "flatterers" are something special, from which no other court suffers.[14] To Gildas, they are alien things - and special to Maglocunus.

Few other groups in Gildas’ work are treated so ferociously. They are furciferi, equal in abjection with the Saxons and Cuneglasus' corrupt paramour: comparable, that is, to the worst kind of pagan murderer, or to someone who breaks her vows to God to entice a king. He describes them as the very instruments of the Devil (zabuli organum), perverting together the gift of God that is music, whose proper use is to praise the Lord, into the most horrible Pagan ritual (ritu bacchantium concrepante). What they do is not only a seduction into violence and sin: it is itself a sin, an orgy of musical lust, as violent in itself as it encourages kings and their entourages to war and cruelty; it does not only turn the mind from God, but provide a rebellious, forbidden pleasure. They are, no doubt, nominally Christian; but he smells in their performances and their attitudes the untamed, unbaptized, unredeemed spirit of the heathen warrior's praise-singer.

(It is perhaps worth pointing out that nothing that Gildas says actually has a bearing on the aesthetic value of the bards' performances. He calls them violent, he calls them diabolical; but he does not call them ugly - though he does call the performances of church choirs beautiful. From his point of view, matters of artistic success were irrelevant; the better the bards' performance, the worse the result would be. But he does implicitly acknowledge their effectiveness.)

Yet these bootlickers, who make their living by enticing the king to more and more violence, have themselves ended up, caught up in the infernal cycle of unleashed desire and lust, having to celebrate things that revolted them. Maglocunus murders his wife, murders his nephew, "marries" his nephew's wife - and his parasites have to celebrate as "legitimate" the marriage of the "widowed" Maglocunus with a "widow"! Fallaces parasitorum linguae tuorum conclamant, summis tamen labiis, non ex intimo cordis... "The lying tongues of your parasites all scream together, but from the height of their lips, not from the deep of their hearts..." (One has a picture of a shame-faced bard saying something like "really, reverend, I agree with you, but what could I do? I mean, it's my job to praise him, isn't it? And it's more than my job's worth to get in his way when he's in one of those moods. He's a terrific guy most of the time..." - of course, if such an exchange ever took place, it would not have improved Gildas' view of the bardic caste's morals.) But whatever their moral cowardice, it seems that even they have their limits; which argues that in fact they stand for a different set of morals - they are disposed and willing to encourage war, but murder and treachery don't please them. They are, in fact, the bearers of a primitive, barbaric, but probably quite straightforward warrior morality.

Tradition tells us that Maglocunus died of the plague; and the Annales Kambriae place his death at the famous Yellow Plague of 547, the one that swept the whole Roman world. I have already claimed that my dating of The Ruin of Britain to 561 “blows this date to bits, unless of course we decide that Gildas had aimed his pained, severe and personal attack at a man fifteen years dead”; and as our enquiry goes on, we will find plenty of reason why it is makes a great deal of difference whether Maglocunus/Maelgwn died in 547 or some time after 561. Now, the 547 date has already come under attack by that master of skepticism, David Dumville[15]. He pointed out that Kathleen Hughes and John Morris had both found the source for many early eantries of the Annales Kambriae in an Irish annal of the so-called Clonmacnoise group, copied often word for word; and that the entry for Maelgwn’s death is simply constructed on the parallel Irish entry for the Yellow Plague. Irish annal: Mortalitas magna in qua pausant isti: Finno moccu Teldub, etc. Welsh annal: Mortalitas magna, in qua pausat Mailcunus rex Genedotae. As the Irish annal was able to ascribe the fall of so many illustrious names - Finnian of Moville, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, etc. - to the plague, there was some pressure, conscious or unconscious, on the Welsh transcriber, to find at least one equally illustrious British victim. Dumville then points out that the Irish annal was certainly drawn up after 911, and the Welsh one some time between 954 and 977; thus placing its account of Maelgwn much closer to the legendary figure of the Welsh laws and the legend of Taliesin than the historical bandit king of Gildas. It is the legendary Maelgwn whom the Welsh annalist was thinking of, and there is no evidence that any date for his death was known before 954.

Let us accept that Maglocunus, that gigantic, youthful, muscular conqueror, actually died of the plague - a death tragic and ironic enough, and with enough of God’s wrath about it, to be remembered down the centuries. The point is that there are plenty of later outbursts he could have died of: after 547, the plague rooted itself in the population and recurred frequently. Professor Dumville has discovered one instance in which Nennius made a chronological mistake by confusing the plague which killed Cadwaladr of Gwynedd in the early 680s with an earlier and much larger outbreak in 664. This is an age in which we can already count on written records - Bede's and Ireland's at least; if Nennius could go wrong in the light of well-established time reckonings, how much more so could the redactor of the Annales Kambriae in such an obscure date as Maelgwn's? In fact, Marius of Avenches, a chronicler from present-day Switzerland, mentions an outburst that afflicted both Gaul and Italy in 570; if it also reached Britain (a country quite unknown to Marius) it might well have accounted for both Gildas and Maelgwn.

I have no doubt that succeeding dynasts of Cunedda and Maelgwn’s line made use of Maelgwn’s reputation, and, in particular, that this accounts for his being identified with the monarchy of Gwynedd: the fact that an ultimately intrusive dynasty from the Votadinian north should possess this territory, so far from their ancestral lands, needed justification, and the great name of Maelgwn provided it.  This is, in my view, quite independent from the notoriety granted him by Gildas, and depends in all likelihood on his support of bards. I have already argued that he was unique among Gildas’ villains in supporting these barbarous singers of heroes; and we will encounter, time and again, the extraordinary effect that the poetry of a truly great bard can have on the memory even of an insignificant kinglet. What, then, of the Dragon of the Island, fighter and conqueror with few peers - what, indeed, if it was he that set up the institution itself of bardism south of the Wall, or at least placed it at the centre of his court - giving bards a huge incentive to remember his name and identify their fortunes with his for ever? In the caste legend of bardism, come down to us in a half-dozen very similar variants, it is always at Maelgwn’s court that Taliesin, the spirit of bardism incarnate, becomes manifest to dictate the laws of bardism; and we must remember that, in spite of the elements of conflict and even of humiliation in the story, his appearance is a blessing. What this tells me is that, in spite of Gildas’ anger, it was not his majestic invective but the praise of bards that kept Maelgwn’s name alive. Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona/ Multi; sed omnes inlacrimabiles/ Urgentur ignotique longa/ Nocte, carent quia uate sacro

Two or three generations after Maelgwn, his descendant Cadwallon of Gwynedd ravaged Northumbria (634-35) with a ferocity that was still indignantly remembered in Bede's time, over a century later. It is clear that he was bent on the complete destruction of the English north of the Humber; and yet he cared so little for the rest of England that he made a deal with Penda of Mercia, not only an Englishman but a heathen. Was he trying to re-establish an ancestral lordship at the expense of the intruding English? It might have been a recent claim: the English did not completely subdue the North until 616, when the recently baptized Edwin of Northumbria destroyed the British kingdom of Elmet, a state that, to judge from Taliesin's poems to its lord Gwallawg, must have been among the most powerful in the island[16]. Did he regard it as his right to act to the English just as the Romans of his own national legend[17] had acted to the treacherous and rebellious British, on the presumption that the English, too, were guilty of "rebellion after acceptance" and therefore deserved enslavement or destruction? And in that case, why the alliance with Penda? Was it because his claim was to Northumbria alone? And is this in any way related with the demonstrably British origin of one or two dioceses in Mercia[18]? Did Penda, while refusing the Roman Christianity of his English neighbours, deliberately allow the schismatic Britons, connected with his ally Cadwallon, to re-establish their own episcopal organization among the Christians who were surely among his subjects?[19]


[1]Quid pro hoc solo retributionis a iusto iudice sperares, etsi non talia sequerentur quae secuta sunt, itidem dicente per prophetam - "uae tibi qui praedaris, nonne et ipse praedaberis? et qui occidis, nonne et ipse occideris? et cum desiueris praedari, tunc cades." (33.5) "What would you hope of reward from the Just Judge, for this thing alone [his uncle's destruction], even had it not been followed by what did follow it, as the Same Authority said through the prophet: Woe to you who plunder, will you not be plundered too? and woe to you who slay, will you not be slain as well? And when you cease to plunder, you will fall."

[2]The much later legend of Maelgwn Gwynedd includes a faithful adviser, one Maeldav the Elder, who designs the stratagem by which Maelgwn will become high king over all the other kings of Britain. This is totally unhistorical, but it is possible that the figure or name of an adviser of Maglocunus was remembered. He would indeed have to be an "elder", since Maglocunus himself can hardly have been more than in his mid-twenties; any adviser would be older than himself.

[3]This has been suggested as a reason for the sudden vanishing from history of the Attecotti, a Northern tribe which, in conjunction with the Picts, made a great deal of trouble for Roman Britain until Theodosius the elder's expedition in 367. Some of them are apparently next heard from on the Danube, but, other than that, nobody ever mentions them again. The suggestion is that they were drafted by force and sent to the Continent.

[4]The wars 5.12.9-11

[5]MOLLY MILLER, Historicity and the pedigrees of the Northcountrymen, in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 26 (1975) p.272f. Molly Miller’s death deprived the field of much badly-needed incisive brilliance. I never met the lady, but I admire her work as much as any historical research I ever read.

[6]Language and society among the Insular Celts, 400-1000, in MIRANDA J. GREEN, The Celtic world, Routledge, London 1995, pp.706-710.

[7]A king called Merianus turns up a few generations later; but that is typical of the methods of Geoffrey, who never lets a name go to waste when he can put in a useful alternative, so as to stuff the nooks and crannies of chronology full of Welsh names. For instance, in Welsh tradition Beli was the brother or cousin of Bran, and the father of Casswallawn. Geoffrey’s account identified Bran with the Brennius who sacked Rome in 390BC (with some instinct, since the names are the same; see below, bk.8 ch.7 and appendix I); but this prevented him from making Brennius’ brother "Belinus" the father of the Cassivellaunus who opposed Caesar three centuries later. Instead of duplicating them into a Belinus I and II, Geoffrey called up a new Welsh name and made "Heli" father of Cassivellaunus. He had the decency not to attribute him any legends, and Merianus likewise is only a name. GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH, The history of the kings of Britain, Harmondsworth 1966, 105f.

[8]In particular, his extraordinary remark that Mervyn could not have been called "most courageous privileged lineage of the brenhins of Manaw" to trace him to Manaw Gododdin - because Manaw Gododdin had been lost a century and a half before! Dynastic and legal claims tend to last a bit longer than that. The king of England kept the style of "King of France" until 1802, though English tails had been well and truly chased out of France by 1453; the house of Savoy called themselves "Kings of Cyprus and Jerusalem" until 1946, and, for all I know, do so still. What is more, the use of the word Brenhin for "King" might imply a claim to Brigantia as well as Manaw Gododdin.

[9]Book of Taliesin 69.11-12, 70.5-6, 11-12.

[10] This, by the way, ties up with Brude's Pictish connection. Elidyr may have held that the house of Maelgwn could not say that what was sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander, that Brude could succeed by the female line but Rhun through the male. Or he may have been a Pict himself. Or both It is also possible that the conflict between Maglocunus and his uncle for the throne may have resulted from a disputed succession through the female line, Pictish fashion.

[11]MOLLY MILLER, op.cit. 267f., argues that while the pedigree we have goes back only to the 1100, the comparison between the pedigrees of Coel and of Cunedag in the same collection - including evidence of errors and alterations that show that a common genealogical fiction existed much earlier - indicate that "this marriage [of Cunedag and Gwawl daughter of Coel] is quite likely to be older than our text... [it] may be quite some time older." She does not seem to realize the significance of the marriage of a patriarch to a geographical region such as the Wall. Incidentally, since Coel himself, married to Stradwawl, was a patriarch of the Gododdin (settled between Lothian and the mouth of the Tyne), then the "Roman road of the Wall" he married was the one that headed north from Newcastle to Paisley and Lothian.

[12]CHARLES THOMAS, Britain and Ireland in early Christian times, London 1971, page 56 and 57 (map), quoting the work of Professor Nicolaisen - otherwise unknown to me.

[13]NORA CHADWICK, Celtic Britain, London 1964, p.66

[14]St.Patrick speaks of the crowd of "flatterers" that support Coroticus in his aggressive "ambitions" for an "earthly kingdom". Coroticus was himself a northern lord, and if by any chance the Saint meant that he had bards around him to sing his praises, that might mean that the British church already had a specific word of disapproval for them, and that Gildas' onslaught on the "flatterers" of Maglocunus belonged in a tradition. The more interesting, then, that he does not attack any other lord's court in similar terms.

[15] Gildas and Maelgwn: problems of dating, in LAPIDGE & DUMVILLE, Gildas op.cit.

[16]I think the fall of Elmet was far more than the footnote to which it is relegated in most history books: it was probably the decisive moment in which the area between the Humber and the Wall passed to what had previously been a not particularly large English minority. And if that was the case, the exterminating work of Cadwallon are not only credible but understandable: if the conquest of the north had been a good deal later than the conquest of the south, then he must have thought that he stood a good chance to reverse it altogether. English settlement was very thin: in the time of St.Wilfrid (after 665, thirty years after Cadwallon) there still were vast estates in Northumbria that were known to have belonged to Welsh monks who had fled the English, and which the imperious bishop appropriated to pay for a big new church in Ripon (EDDIUS STEPHANUS, Life of St.Wilfrid, 16).

[17]In which he may have been very instructed. Kings of the Maelgwn dynasty seem to have shared a bent towards learning and education: not only was Maglocunus at home both with the Latin Bible and with British bards, but Cadwallon's father Catamanus or Cadfan is recorded on his own grave inscription as sapientissimus, opinatissimus omnium regum - the most learned, the most respected of all kings. Whether or not the hidden slight to his memory identified by CHARLES THOMAS, Christian Celts: messages and images, 162-68, exists, there is no doubt that this was how his children or grandchildren wanted him remembered: as a highly respected lord notable for his learning.

[18]STEVEN BASSETT, Church and diocese in the West Midlands: the transition from British to Anglo-Saxon control, in J.BLAIR & R.SHARPE, Pastoral care before the parish, Leicester 1993.

[19] These questions will find their answers, even if provisional and hypothetical, once we have examined all the available materials. We shall return to Cadwallon in Bk.6 ch. 7, and to the Mercian dioceses when we discuss, towards the end of this study, the return of organized Christianity to English-conquered Britain - bk.9 ch.2.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved