The Semi-Mythical Maelgwn Gwynedd

by JoHarrington

Occasionally a name leaps out of the annals of history with such force, that you just have to run with it. Maelgwn, ruler of Gwynedd, tested the patience of two saints.

Maelgwn Gwynedd existed. He turns up with firm regularity in the Welsh genealogies - which doesn't mean anything much at all, when we're looking at the 6th century.

More compelling is the fact that St Gildas devoted a good portion of his famous work to ranting about Maelgwn. 'De Excidio et Conquest Britanniae' is probably the most important written document of the era. It's picked over endlessly by historians, as the only reliable source describing the Britons at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion; plus, of course, it's the Age of Arthur.

And the entire written sermon is basically St Gildas handing Maelgwn his backside on a plate. Ready to find out why?

The Early Life of Maelgwn ap Cadwallon, Prince of Gwynedd

There was probably no hope for the boy anyway. He came from a long line of blood-thirsty, opportunistic Celtic chieftains.

Image: Castell DeganwyMaelgwn (pron. Mile-Goon) was born in North Wales circa 480 CE. 

This was probably in the Celtic fortress of Deganwy, close to Conwy.  The ruins of which are pictured left, towering above its modern day town. Alternatively, it was at Bodysgollen, in nearby Llanrhos.

Due to the Welsh patronymics, he would first have been known as Maelgwn ap Cadwallon (Maelgwn son of Cadwallon).  His mother was named Meddyf. The family were the ruling dynasty over Gwynedd, but they weren't originally from Wales.

Cadwallon's grandfather, Cunedda, was a chieftain from Manau Goddodin - generally located by historians in Lowland Scotland, possibly the Firth of the Forth. He'd achieved great fame in repelling Gaelic Scotti tribes from his lands, so was apparently invited by the chieftain in Gwynedd to help out with a slight problem. In short, the Irish were over-running Anglesey. Could he get rid of them?

Cunedda didn't seem to have too much success at that. But he did take Gwynedd from the chieftain, who had happily advertized that he couldn't cope with invaders.

It was actually Cadwallon (Cunedda's grandson and Maelgwn's father) who finally expelled the Irish colonists from Anglesey. It left the island free for a new ruler, which Cadwallon was happy to add to his own lands in central Gwynedd (his brother had inherited the rest).

Cadwallon relocated his family to a llys (court) on the banks of the River Ffraw, in Aberffraw, Anglesey. It became the seat of Gwynedd's rulers - the capital city of the realm - until Edward conquered Wales in the 13th century, and tore it down for building materials for Beaumaris Castle.

But first, Maelgwn stood to inherit it all, and that's where things went a bit pear-shaped.

Deganwy Sunset Canvas Print

I've watched sunsets myself from Deganwy. I can attest that they really are spectacular.

The Youth of Maelgwn Hir

'Hir' means 'tall'. It's a suffix that he picked up as he grew older, suggesting his height was remarkable. His father was called 'lawhir' - long hand - hence it was genetic.

Image: Britain in 540CEIt's at this point that myth and/or half-remembered history merge, into a tale that's latched onto the Arthurian legends.

Cadwallon Lawhir (aka King Cradelmant of Norgales in the later stories) didn't take kindly to the rise of Arthur as Pendragon (chief warlord; unless you're French and Late Medieval, in which case 'king'). He formed a warband, which included his son Maelgwn (aka Maglocune, Malaguin or Margon, depending on who's telling the story), and set out to battle Arthur for supremacy over the Celts.

They joined forces with the rulers of Lothian and Orkney (the legendary King Lot and his wife Morgan Le Fey) and Rheged (Urien, also the husband of Morgan Le Fey, again depending on the telling). Then rode out to engage Arthur in a fierce clash. (Some versions involve elves.)

It seems to have ended in a draw, because both sides have to gear up for round two.

That's when the Saxons strike en mass, marching towards the epic confrontation - confirmed as historical fact by Gildas - known to us as the Battle of Mount Badon. Suddenly several armies of warring Celts have to urgently sort out their priorities.

Legend tells us that Arthur has a dream, on the eve of Badon (or Bedegrain, if you're Thomas Malory, but I'm yet to find anything that he got right). The King of a Hundred Knights arrives unexpectedly to save the day. The Celts would prevail on the battlefield of Mount Badon.

Once we sift through centuries worth of additions and romanticizing, a distinct impression can be formed.

Arthur did go to Badon.  Cadwallon went home.  He didn't participate in that famous battle, but he also refused to join forces with Lot and Urien during their proposed second rebellion. That caused the war between the Celts to fizzle out harmlessly.

Meanwhile, Maelgwn switched sides. Aged either 2, 12, 17, 20 or 34 (one day we will categorically date it), he led a large body of Gwynedd men into the alliance of Celtic tribes that did prevail at Badon. The victory was so decisive that many Saxons simply went home afterwards, abandoning all attempts at conquest. Those who remained were very much weakened and no longer posed a threat while Arthur remained as Pendragon.

The legends tell it, and the historical record seems to confirm it. Things did go rather quiet after Badon, but not for Maelgwn.

This was apparently the moment when he went home and killed his uncle.

Britain at the Time of Maelgwn Gwynedd (and Possibly Arthur too!)

The Romans had gone. The Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Irish and Scots were invading. The Cymric Celts were fighting amongst themselves. Not hours of fun.

"Your Dreams of Rule by Force... Gone According to Plan"

Of all the long list of things that Gildas later kicked up about, this was a biggie.

In 6th century Welsh society, the quickest way to advance was to kill the opposition. Petty chiefdoms rose and fell; larger ones were rarer.

Those of us used to democracy, or stable nations enjoying the long leadership of its head of government, would find this a very different world indeed.

Strong rulers gained support and recognition. Territorial squabbles were constant. Those deemed unfit to lead their people soon found themselves assassinated - quietly in their caers or openly on the battlefield.

Great realms may be bloodily amassed in one generation, only to be lost by the next. Not just the title itself, but the land that made it up.  Boundaries were in a perpetual state of flux, often not even vaguely conforming to those making up the counties of Wales today.

Historian Roger Turvey estimated that, between the years of 949 and 1066 alone, thirty-five Welsh rulers were killed in office.

This might explain why themes of Sovereignty abound in the Mabinogi and Arthurian legends, which date from this period. It might also go some way towards contextualizing not only Maelgwn's actions, but why such a crime hasn't sent shock-waves through the centuries. With the exception of St Gildas's condemnation, of course, and that was in relation to something else.

'Did you not, in the first years of your youth, use sword and spear and flame in the cruel dispatch of the king your uncle and nearly his bravest soldiers ...?

Little did you heed the words of the prophet: "Men of blood and craft will not live out half their days".'

- St Gildas addressing Maelgwn Gwynedd

No-one is certain which uncle was murdered in battle by Maelgwn. Though it is one of the most debated moments in Medieval history.

Maelgwn's most powerful known uncle was Owain Ddantgwyn (aka Owain Danwyn), a major contender to be the real King Arthur. Gildas calls Maelgwn the Pendragon; the battle sounds like Camlann. It leads tantalizingly to one big conclusion.

Maelgwn was Modred.

The Battle of Camlann from The Knights of the Round Table

This is a 1953 Hollywood creation, based on Thomas Malory's 15th century version. Historically inaccurate in every way, but still the most famous telling of all.

Why Maelgwn Gwynedd isn't Modred

The legendary Modred killed his uncle, King Arthur, at the Battle of Camlann. It led to the ruin of Celtic Britain.

I want Maelgwn Gynwedd to be Modred. It's not only such a neat juxtaposition of fact and fantasy, that it renders the whole Arthurian legend semi-historical, but it categorically places the story in a certain time and place.

But the time-line doesn't fit as perfectly as some commentators make out. Nor do the known facts.

  • The Battle of Camlan is thought to have occurred in 539 (Annals Cambria), which some have adjusted from the Celtic calendar into either 537 or 574 by modern reckoning.
  • According to the Welsh genealogies, Maelgwn was born in 480. Fifty-seven doesn't sound like 'the first years of your youth'. Plus Gildas lists a series of other events in Maelgwn's life, following the murder of his uncle, which there simply wouldn't have been time to live in just one to three years.
  • Medraut/Modred also fell at the Battle of Camlan. But Maelgwn was still knocking around in 547. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles tell us about King Maelgwn the Great among the British rulers for that year. Plus the Annals Cambria note his death in 549, and it wasn't on a battlefield.
  • Gildas was writing to a patently alive Maelgwn in 540. So why would he obliquely reference Camlan, if Modred fell there and Maelgwn was Modred?

Moreover, there's a local legend recounted in Laurence Main's Arthur's Camlan, which places Maelgwn there as Arthur's erstwhile ally.  His strategy was a lot like that famously undertaken by Lord Stanley at the Battle of Bosworth. Maelgwn remained on the sidelines with his men, not intervening while Arthur's rule was so bloodily ended.

Then Maelgwn stepped into the carnage and took the title of Pendragon. That latter legend fits very well into the historical record too. One or two years after Camlan, Gildas referred to Maelgwn as 'dragon of the island', while the Anglo-Saxons register his elevation enough to note his name as 'great' during the following decade.

Of course, dating anything in this period is notoriously unreliable. If Maelgwn was born later (and thus wasn't at Badon), and Modred wasn't actually killed at Camlan (it just said 'fell'), possibilities open up again.

And if he was Modred, then the facts of his first marriage suddenly make a lot more sense.

Books Which Name Maelgwn Gwynedd as Modred

This is a very common conjecture! Maelgwn Hir really is the main suspect as a truly historical Medraut, so this constitutes just a small sample saying so.

Maelgwn Hir Married Who?!

It seems that the universe rewarded Maelgwn's murderous rampage with a divine bride and child.

Following the murder of his uncle, Maelgwn apparently married Gwallwen ferch Afallach. They had a son named Rhun.

It's only when you look very closely at those names, that it all becomes a little strange. For a start, Afallach is a Celtic God, while Gwallwen is a terrible name to saddle upon a daughter. Clearly there's more going on than meets the eye.

Not every person bearing a divine name is a deity. I have a friend named Freya, who I'm reasonably certain isn't actually the Norse Goddess. Footballer Jesús Navas González isn't Christ. Muhammad Ali wasn't the Prophet.

However, the appearance of Celtic Gods in early Welsh genealogies can be treated as highly suspect. They were often shoved in there to bolster a ruler's leadership credentials. A predecessor to the Divine Right to Rule.

The Battle of Camlan is usually blamed upon Medraut abducting Arthur's wife Gwenhwyfar, or else the lady embarking upon an adulterous affair with her husband's nephew. Either way, it involves power struggles, with Gwenhwyfar representing the Goddess of Sovereignty.

Moreover, Gwenhwyfar is often named as the daughter of Afallach. The same one listed as Maelgwn's father-in-law now.  In the later legends, Afallach became Avalon. In the interwoven nature of Celtic spirituality, it's unclear whether we're talking about a God or a holy place, or if the two are one and the same.

Either way, Afallach indicates territorial gains and/or an embracing of Druid principles, linking a ruler with the land. If Maelgwn's bride had been called Gwenhwyfar, then it would have confirmed it.

Instead she's called Gwallwen.  Oh dear. 'Gwen', 'wen' and 'gwyn' all mean 'white', while 'gwall' indicates 'loss' or 'madness'. Gwallwen's name therefore means 'insane whiteness' or 'white want'.

As white is generally the color associated with the Goddess of Sovereignty, in Her maiden aspect, then there's a potential divine link there too. It's certainly the case in Gwenhwyfar's name - Large White Phantom. There may also be a hint in the name of his territory, Gwynedd, though that remains unproven.

White is also the color linked with Druidism. White ladies were Druidic priestesses, and Maelgwn's father ruled Anglesey.  As Ynys Mon, that isle had once been to Druidism what Vatican City is now to the Catholic faithful.

Had Maelgwn turned his back on Catholicism? Gwallwen disappears from the story just as suddenly as she arrives. Could she have been a Druid priestess?  If so, she'd be one of the last remnants of the contemporary faith. But the clues are there.

Alternatively, and just as equally hinted towards, Maelgwn might have embraced Pelagianism. It was a brand of Christianity which enjoyed a strong following in Britain at the time, and a severe backlash from the Catholic Church.

Pelagius was a religious thinker who clashed with Augustine and had his history written by his enemies, quite unfairly it seems.

Books about Welsh Saints

Maelgwn as a Monk

One thing we can say with certainty is that St Illtyd wasted no time in rushing to Gwynedd.

The Welsh saint was the grand-nephew of St Germanus, who'd previously come on a mission to stamp out Pelagianism. That might be key to explaining Illtyd's willingness to undertake that long journey from South Wales.

Illtyd seemed to make it priority number one to rein in the errant prince, besieging him night and day until Maelgwn did three things:

  1. put his wife aside;
  2. placed their son Rhun into Illtyd's care;
  3. became a monk himself.

Maelgwn did comply.

Later, St Gildas painted a picture of a young prince filled with remorse over the murder of his uncle. After much pondering, Maelgwn 'vowed to be a monk for ever', taking to the caves of hermitage for consolation in his sin and grief.

Gildas didn't even reference Gwallwen when listing Maelgwn's wives. We can only be sure that she existed, because Rhun was born.

In short, neither Illtyd nor Gildas saw anything wrong in trashing the sanctity of this particular marriage. Which strongly suggests that they saw much wrong with Gwallwen herself - the insanity of the white.

A Sense of the Young Maelgwn Gwynedd

Not even yet a ruler, Maelgwn had already forged quite a reputation for himself.

Image: Maelgwn GwyneddAs we leave Maelgwn entering those remote monastic caves, a vivid picture of the young man can be formed.

We know that he was well educated. Gildas makes a point of saying so, stating too that Maelgwn's schooling was Roman in nature.

Archaeologically, Gwynedd has been proved to be a bastion of Romano-British society during this time. Monuments continued to be erected, as they were during the Roman Occupation.

St Illtyd wouldn't have bothered intervening, if Maelgwn didn't matter. That the saint traveled such a distance suggests he considered Maelgwn's actions - and religious affiliation - to be of utmost consequence to the whole of Britain.

Of course, Maelgwn came from a powerful family. As the son of Cadwallon Lawhir, and the nephew of Owain Danwen, he was part of an important dynasty, ruling over large territories in Celtic Britain. He could (and would) one day be chieftain himself. That made him influential, either indirectly via his family, or directly due to his own demonstrable strengths as a person.

Maelgwn was undoubtedly a great military leader, even as a youth. Three times, in a mix of history and myth, his intervention as a warrior is tied to the outcome of a battle.

  1. As the King of a Hundred Knights, in the Arthurian legend, he's credited with ensuring victory for the Celts at Badon.
  2. As the murderer of his uncle, Maelgwn's warband defeated that of a king.
  3. As an erstwhile ally at Camlan, the fact that he sat on the sidelines was seen as the reason that Arthur was killed.

There's also the fact that Maelgwn COULD raise enough men to fight under his command, at least in Badon and against his uncle. The young man wasn't a ruler then. Those men riding under his banner must have been answerable to his father instead. Yet they came anyway.

Charismatic and intelligent, there's one last facet to apply, which allows a glimpse into his mind.

Maelgwn seems highly sensitive to spiritual concerns. If he did switch to Pelagianism or Druidism, then he cared about religion enough to question his conscience and convert. Moreover, he listened to St Illtyd.  He didn't have to. He could have laughed in his face, like Vortigern did when St Germanus came to preach against a similar faith conversion. Or he could have had Illtyd kicked from Gwynedd - it's not like Maelgwn didn't have the manpower to enforce such a banishment.

Instead, Maelgwn heard what Illtyd had to say, considered it long and hard, then vowed to enter a monastery. That wasn't lightly given. By taking holy orders, he effectively removed himself as ruler of whichever territory he'd gained by killing his uncle; cut himself out of the running as future ruler of his father's lands; gave up his wife; and denied himself the right to raise his own infant son.

Mind you, it didn't last. The instant that his father died, Maelgwn was out of the monastery and seizing control of Gwynedd. Bigger, meaner, stronger and self-advancing as ever.

But those are stories that will be told in part two.

In the tumultuous, blood-thirsty Age of Arthur, Maelgwn Hir still stood out as the wild boy of the Celtic nobility. Then, as Maelgwn Gwynedd, he rose to power.

History Books about Gwynedd and Wales

Delve further in the Celtic world of Maelgwn Gwynedd and his compatriots. Discover the true historical Wales that inspired so many myths and legends.
Gwynedd: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales (Guides to Ancient and Historic Wales)

Part of the "Ancient and Historic Wales" series, this guidebook takes the reader on a tour of the history of Gwynedd. The 150 sites covered range from the monumental tombs of th...

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Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd: Governance and the Welsh Princes (University of Wales Press ...

Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd investigates the governance exercised by the princes of Gwynedd on that independent kingdom that existed until the thirteenth century in what...

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Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 (History of Wales)

This, the first volume in the History of Wales, provides a detailed history of Wales in the period in which it was created out of the remnants of Roman Britain. It thus begins i...

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A History of Wales

Stretching from the Ice Ages to the present day, this masterful account traces the political, social and cultural history of the land that has come to be called Wales. Spanning ...

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The Welsh Kings: Warriors, Warlords, and Princes

In the early middle ages Wales was composed of a variety of independent kingdoms with varying degrees of power, influence, and stability, each ruled by proud and obdurate lineag...

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Land of My Fathers: 2000 Years of Welsh History

A uniquely comprehensive, illustrated history of Wales which became an immediate best-seller when it was first published in Welsh. It has proved to be a classic: 500 pages that ...

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Updated: 05/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/27/2015

Jon - Thank you very much! That one was puzzling me.

jon on 01/25/2015

Gwall wen= white hair

jon on 01/25/2015

Gwall gwyn= white hair

JoHarrington on 04/10/2014

I always assumed that Maelgwn only went into the monastery to escape Illtyd.

I didn't realize that you were actually in a monastery too. I knew that you were nearly ordained as a priest, but not that you were a monk.

JoHarrington on 04/10/2014

I totally agree re Gildas. He's all we have for certain things, but he's also the REASON that he's all we have. And that sermon is horrific, when you look at it. Plus you notice that he's not upsetting anyone on his side of the Channel, only the five rulers who can't get to him.

frankbeswick on 04/10/2014

Can you blame Maelgwyn for coming out of the monastery? I left,, and have never regretted it. Catholicism does not blame anyone who levaves before ordination.

frankbeswick on 04/10/2014

Gildas is a historical disaster. His historical account was primarily theological, and a great untruth ensued.

JoHarrington on 04/10/2014

It's the Arthurian legend and 6th century Celtic history, we're all missing 99% of the details. Some of that is down to Gildas, who did a lot of destroying manuscripts in various places, if he didn't like the people mentioned. Incidentally, he apparently hated Arthur, which is one reason that some think we have little contemporary information about him.

Ember on 04/10/2014

I'm feel like I'm missing 99% of the details >.> Even in that super detailed one you wrote.

JoHarrington on 04/10/2014

Agreed on all counts, hence me ensuring that I only wrote Saxons during that battle. But thanks for spelling it out for those who come afterwards. I sometimes get so caught up in the nitty-gritty, that I forget that the majority of people don't know every available detail of Badon!

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