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The Welsh Wars of Independence c.410 â" c.1415
By David Moore
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David Moore
All rights reserved.
The Origins and Growth of Welsh Kingdoms c. 410–1063
Roman and Sub-Roman Britain
THE END OF ROMAN RULE
Britain was conquered and ruled by the Roman empire for three-and-a-half centuries after the emperor Claudius invaded in AD 43. It was apparently during this period that 'Britain' – by which was meant the Roman diocese of Britannia, separated from the rest of the island by Hadrian's wall in the north – was first envisaged as a single unit, and much of the south and east of the island became heavily romanised. But it was always a frontier outpost, and it came under regular attack from Irish, Pictish, Frankish and especially Saxon raiders from the third century onwards, especially after the empire began to collapse in the late fourth century. It was now only a matter of time until the Romano-Britons were left to their own devices. Power was increasingly devolved as central authority weakened, and many of the frontline Roman troops were removed in 383, when Magnus Maximus, a Spanish leader of the army in Britain, invaded Gaul and overthrew the emperor Gratian, seizing much of the western empire for himself. The missing legions were never properly replaced, although Stilicho may have brought reinforcements for a campaign against the barbarian raiders in 398, only to take them away again in order to counter an invasion of Italy by the Goths in 401. Defensive responsibilities now lay firmly on the shoulders of local officials, many of whom were native tribal leaders. As a result, many parts of Britain seem to have enjoyed a considerable degree of self-determination by the turn of the fifth century. The Britons were recovering their de facto independence by default.
In the winter of 406 and 407, a huge Germanic force comprising Vandals, Suebi, Alans, Alemanni and others crossed the frozen river Rhine into the Roman diocese of Gaul, causing such chaos that the very name of the Vandals became synonymous with wanton destruction. Determined to resist this potentially mortal threat to the western empire, the Roman authorities responded over the next few years by withdrawing most of their remaining troops from Britain to the continent. The Britons asked for imperial help against barbarian attacks, and their alarm at the deteriorating situation both at home and in Gaul contributed to the emergence of three usurpers in quick succession from the army in Britain. The last of them, Constantine, imposed himself in Gaul, but his removal of troops from Britain weakened the defences still further. It did not help that Britain was now ruled at a distance, from Arles, or that Irish and Saxon attacks were renewed in 408. Frustrated with increasingly ineffectual Roman government, the Romano-British upper classes revolted against Constantine in 409. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410, and in the same year the emperor Honorius, now resident at Ravenna, advised the Britons that they would have to fend for themselves, at least for the time being. The Romans never came back.
In many ways, the Britons were already well used to managing their own affairs. They maintained trade and other contacts with the continent, and much of the economic prosperity, social sophistication and cultural vitality that had characterised Roman rule remained. For centuries to come, even the barbarian invaders of Britain lived in a world which was recognisably sub-Roman. But the collapse of the empire was inevitably accompanied by considerable political and administrative dislocation. Very little is known about the politics of fifth- and sixth-century Britain – a fact which in itself speaks volumes about the levels of disruption – but most of the vast and complex structure of Roman financial, judicial and urban administration was no longer in place, and defence was now a priority. The most striking symptom of the new political climate was the reoccupation of Iron Age hillforts across Britain between the fifth and the seventh centuries.
IRISH AND SAXON SETTLEMENT
Barbarian raids continued unabated, and in many cases they were accompanied by colonisation. The Irish, in particular, seem to have settled in several parts of what later became Wales. Memorial stones bearing inscriptions in the Irish writing system known as ogam indicate a strong Irish influence in Dyfed, Brycheiniog and Gwynedd, and the ninth-century Historia Brittonum recounts a tradition that the Irish were expelled from Gwynedd by a certain Cunedda, apparently in the fifth century. Llyn may even owe its name to an Irish tribe, the Uí Liatháin, who are said to have had a fort in Britain. The dynasties of Dyfed and Brycheiniog claimed Irish ancestry by the tenth century, and further weight is added to the likelihood of Irish settlement in Dyfed by place-name evidence, and moreover by the Expulsion of the Déisi, an Irish account which was composed by the ninth century. According to this source, a group known as the Déisi were expelled from Meath to Leinster and thence to Demed, where they made themselves kings, probably during the fifth century. Their first leader in Wales is named as Eochaid mac Artchorp, and a Tewdos ap Rhain of Dyfed is claimed as an eighth-century descendant of the Déisi; this ties in neatly with the later Welsh genealogical tradition of Dyfed. Taken together with the erection of memorial stones upon which Latin was inscribed as well as ogam, this would appear to suggest that an intrusive Irish aristocratic elite took power in Dyfed during the fifth century, retaining the memory of their origins, but also imitating Roman practices, apparently in an effort to gain prestige by identifying themselves with the memory of Roman rule. Furthermore, Welsh interest in Ireland was not restricted to contacts with settlers. The early Welsh annals all exhibit a particular interest in Ireland, and British missionaries travelled there in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. Irish monks later visited Wales, and the story of Branwen in Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi also reveals close connections with Ireland, perhaps dating from much earlier times.
At the same time as Irish influence was increasing in western Britain, unprecedented numbers of Saxons were invading and settling in the south and east. Despite the twelfth-century protestations of Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, there is no evidence of a significant British exodus from these areas, or of widespread genocide, although there was certainly conflict, which could occasionally be very bloody. The Britons were led to a victory in 429 by the Gaulish bishop Germanus of Auxerre, and later accounts in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tell of Saxon advances in Kent and the south, including numerous fights from which the Britons fled as from fire. Nevertheless, despite the violence, and despite a well-attested migration from the south and west of Britain to Gaul – and especially to Armorica (later known as Brittany) – archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that most of the existing population in the conquered and settled areas remained where it was, gradually assimilating with the newcomers, who do not seem to have overwhelmed it numerically.
The British political reaction to these developments appears to have been mixed, not least because neither the 'Saxons' nor the 'Britons' were homogeneous peoples, either culturally or – more markedly – politically. Infighting appears to have been widespread between factions on both sides. Some Romano-Britons in the fifth century seem to have continued a policy established by the Romans as early as the third century, whereby Germanic tribes were allowed to settle in Britain in return for military service as foederati, and these mercenaries could prove useful against both barbarian attacks and rival British leaders, as well as against any attempt to reassert Roman authority from the continent. The British monk Gildas, writing in the middle of the sixth century, describes a fifth-century alliance between a certain proud tyrant and the Saxons, who later revolted against him, and in the eighth century the Northumbrian monk Bede named this man as Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn) and the Saxon leaders as Hengist and Horsa. Other British leaders resisted the invaders. One of them, Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys Wledig), is described by Gildas as a Roman dignitary, and he may have been responsible for a British victory at Badon Hill. By the ninth century, this battle was described by Historia Brittonum as the last of twelve won against the Saxons by a certain Arthur, who is also said to have met his death fighting Medrawd at Camlann in 537.
These are all semi-legendary figures, and there is no compelling reason to associate any of them specifically with Wales. Many of their deeds are consistent with what is known from reliable historical and archaeological evidence, but it is impossible to be certain about their real identities, roles or importance, or even the fact of their existence. They cannot be placed geographically with any precision, and most of the material relating to them is either very vague and confused or consists of literary, legendary and mythical accretions dating from centuries after their deaths. The all-conquering Arthur, for example, is mentioned in passing in poetry which may date from as early as the turn of the seventh century, but he does not emerge as the chief battle leader (dux bellorum) of the Britons until the ninth century, when Historia Brittonum claimed that he was personally responsible for every one of 960 Saxon casualties at Badon Hill. Such literary devices were embellished further by the tenth-century Annales Cambriae, which say that Arthur carried the cross of Jesus Christ on his shoulders at Badon Hill for three days and three nights. Gildas, however, does not mention Arthur at all – a very surprising omission given that his De Excidio Britanniae ('On the Ruin of Britain'), written in the 540s, was particularly concerned with the prowess and Christian virtues of prominent contemporary and recent British leaders in the context of Saxon invasion. Even more significantly, neither Arthur nor Ambrosius was claimed as an ancestor by early medieval Welsh dynasties – another strange omission, since genealogy was one of the most effective tools for legitimising political authority in early Wales. Genealogists were all too ready to claim descent from Magnus Maximus, Brutus, Adam and even God, but none of them mentioned Arthur until he became established as a literary icon in the later Middle Ages.
Whether or not these British leaders were real people, composite creations or entirely fictional characters, there is no doubt that various groups of Saxons had established control of large parts of southern and eastern Britain by the late fifth century. By that time, almost the whole of the western Roman empire had fallen to barbarian invasion. The only exception was Britain, where independent Romano-British rule remained in the north and west; and that, too, would have been considered 'barbarian' by Roman standards. The British kingdoms in what was later northern England and southern Scotland retained their independence until the demise of Strathclyde/Cumbria in the later ninth century, and sixth-century figures such as Urien ap Cynfarch ('Urien Rheged') and Rhydderch ap Tudwal ('Rhydderch Hen/Hael') were fondly remembered in Welsh literature as heroes of yr Hen Ogledd ('the Old North'). The earliest surviving Welsh poetry, Aneirin's Gododdin, concerns the defeat of the warband of Mynyddog Mwynfawr of Manaw Gododdin (in the region later known as Lothian) at the turn of the seventh century, in an attempt to recover the Roman fort at Catraeth (Catterick) from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Deira, which in turn was annexed by its neighbour Bernicia in 604 to form Northumbria. Autonomous British rule also persisted in Cornwall until the tenth century, but the longest survival was in Wales, where Gwynedd remained independent until the thirteenth century.
The Emergence of Independent Welsh Kingdoms
CIVITATES INTO KINGDOMS
In the late Roman period, the region which was to become Wales had been part of the province of Britannia Prima, which was probably based on a capital (caput) at Cirencester. Provinces were normally divided into civitates, the territorial extent of which usually corresponded with tribal areas. There were two of them in Wales: that of the Silures in the relatively romanised south-east, and that of the Demetae in the southwest, with capitals at Caerwent and Carmarthen respectively. North and central Wales, the land of the Ordovices, may have been rural districts (pagi), or perhaps a military zone administered from York. After the Romans left, and perhaps even before, political authority seems to have gravitated towards the inhabitants of the hillforts in many areas, to the extent that Degannwy and Dinas Emrys were given strong political associations in early Welsh literature. Britain was no longer a colony of an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Sahara and the Euphrates; it was now a patchwork of small independent units. The civitates were becoming kingdoms.
The establishment of native kingdoms in Britain was helped by the relative independence of provinces and civitates from centralised control, in comparison with the situation elsewhere in the Roman empire. British tribal leadership and identities survived through the Roman period in many areas, with the result that political units were less integrated, more self-sufficient and therefore more durable than many of their continental counterparts. This was particularly true in the less romanised west and north, where the survival of native rule was aided further by remoteness from Saxon incursions, as well as by terrain which was both economically unattractive and militarily difficult in comparison with southern and eastern Britain. Archaeological evidence suggests Romano-British continuity at sites such as Dinas Emrys and possibly Degannwy, and many of the first Welsh kings were probably the heirs of late Roman provincial administration. Continuity from the Roman administrative past is also suggested by the fact that the first Welsh kingdoms were defined primarily by territory rather than by population groups.
GWYNEDD AND DYFED
By the time Gildas wrote in the 540s, several Welsh kingdoms were experiencing at least the second generation of native kingship. Maglocunus (Maelgwn) is said to have seized Gwynedd from his uncle, killing many kings in doing so, and Vortepor (Gwrthefyr), king of the Demetae, is described as the bad son of a good father. Most of these new Welsh dynasties seem to have been home-grown. The dynasty of Gwynedd, for instance, probably originated in Môn, although later tradition relates that Cunedda, the ruler of the Votadini in Manaw Gododdin, introduced himself into Gwynedd and brought with him sons whose names (and those of their sons) – including Meirion, Rhufen, Dunod, Ceredig, Dogfael and Edern – matched those of the later kingdoms and cantrefi of Meirionnydd, Rhufoniog, Dunoding, Ceredigion, Dogfaeling (Dyffryn Clwyd) and Edeirnion. There is archaeological evidence for a connection between Gwynedd and northern Britain, notably Pictland, in this period, but there is no conclusive evidence to substantiate the Cunedda story, which seems to represent part of a ninth-century attempt to legitimate the rule of the family of Merfyn Frych. Merfyn, like Cunedda, was an outsider, and the rest of the story bears the hallmarks of onomastic tradition – the sons were very likely invented to explain the place names, and moreover to create an impression of unity in Gwynedd and its ninth-century satellites. Nevertheless, it remains that there were significant numbers of incomers, and they may well have affected existing polities in Wales and possibly created new ones. Vortepor was probably a member of an Irish dynasty which established itself in Dyfed, and it is entirely plausible that there may also have been some British migration into Wales as the Saxons asserted themselves in the east. This was a time of flux and change and, although there was a considerable degree of continuity and stability, it is not even safe to assume that every part of Wales had become part of a kingdom by the end of the seventh century.
It is significant that the only two indisputably Welsh kings mentioned by Gildas were those of Gwynedd and Dyfed. It was only ever the rulers of these kingdoms whom the chroniclers styled 'kings of the Britons', and they played a central role in Welsh political life until the thirteenth century, especially after they were brought together dynastically in the ninth century. Maelgwn Gwynedd died of yellow plague around 547, and his successors in the seventh century included Cadwallon ap Cadfan, who extended the power of Gwynedd into Northumbria for a time in the 630s, and Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, who died in Rome in 682 and was remembered by the native Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogyon as the last British king to contest with the Saxons for supremacy in Britain. This dynasty continued to rule Gwynedd until the death of Hywel ap Rhodri in 825. Hywel was replaced by Merfyn Frych ap Gwriad, who probably came from Man, and who founded a dynasty which was to dominate Welsh politics for centuries. When Merfyn died in 844, he was succeeded by his son, Rhodri Mawr, who extended the power of Gwynedd into Powys and Ceredigion. Rhodri was the offspring of a marriage between Merfyn and Nest of Powys, and as a result he was able to take Powys when its king, Cyngen, died in 856; similarly, Rhodri married the sister of Gwgan ap Meurig of Ceredigion and seized the kingdom when Gwgan drowned in 872. These successes, together with a victory over the Vikings in 856, ensured that Gwynedd became more powerful under Rhodri than it had been for two centuries. Moreover, in dissolving both Powys and Ceredigion as autonomous political entities, Rhodri demonstrated that there was no greater threat to the independence of Welsh kingdoms than aggression from other Welsh kingdoms. The end of Rhodri's reign was marked by defeat at the hands of the Vikings in 877 and death in battle with the English (probably the Mercians) in 878, but his son, Anarawd, restored the power of Gwynedd. Anarawd defeated the English in 881 and raided south, where Hyfaidd ap Bledri of Dyfed and Elise ap Tewdwr of Brycheiniog were driven to seek English protection from him, only for Anarawd himself to make terms with Wessex, whose military support he occasionally used in his campaigns. When he died in 916, Anarawd was hailed by the Brut as 'king of the Britons'.
Excerpted from The Welsh Wars of Independence c.410 â" c.1415 by David Moore. Copyright © 2013 David Moore. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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