The Semi-Mythical Maelgwn Gwynedd Pt 2

by JoHarrington

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.

Circa 520 CE, Maelgwn was living as a monk in caves.

He'd put aside his wife and child under the urging of St Illtyd. His solitary hermitage provided consolation in the glory of God, and repentance for having murdered his uncle. The monk Maelgwn vowed to devote his whole life to this existence.

But then his father Cadwallon, ruler of Gwynedd died, and Maelgwn instantly emerged from his cave to seize power. At least the whole monk thing had shut Illtyd up.

Maelgwn Hir the Dragon Ruler of Gwynedd

Tall Maelgwn was the gt-grandson of Cunedda Wledig, the Votadini warlord who had conquered Gwynedd in North Wales. He was ready to claim his birthright.

We do not know for certain which year Maelgwn Hir came to power.

Most records claim that his father Cadwallon Lawhir died in 517; others state 520, or push it as late as 534.

The Votadini chieftain had ruled an area stretching from the River Deifi in the West to the Conwy in the East. His brother Owain owned the territory from there until the Dee in Chester.

Maelgwn wasn't automatically the ruler upon his father's demise. Celtic society didn't work like that. The chieftain was the strongest person for the position, though in reality that tended to be the son - or a relative - of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, Maelgwn couldn't legally rule as an avowed monk. Then again, who was going to stand in the way of this military leader of proven prowess? As soon as Maelgwn renounced his monastic oath, we can be certain that it was game over for any other erstwhile chieftains.

Cadwallon had established the llys of Gwynedd in Aberffraw, on Ynys Mon. But Maelgwn disdained that for the fortress in which he was (probably) born - Deganwy. It dominated the entrance to the Conwy sea-port, but on the other side of the river. In short, Maelgwn made his base just over the border in Rhos.

This was the eastern territory of the Votadini ruled not by Maelgwn, but his uncle Owain Ddantwyn, then his cousin Cuneglas. From the very start, it seemed, the Gwynedd ruler was determined to become overlord of his great-grandfather's entire realm - Rhos and Gwynedd together. Lands which covered the whole of North Wales, taking in Chester too, all the way to the east. Curtailed at Ceredigion and Powys in the south.

In doing so, Maelgwn would become probably the most powerful Celtic chieftain in Britain. His prominence, and that of his territory, would append the suffix Gwynedd to his name. Even the Saxons would refer to him as 'the Great'.

And to signify his elevation, he took the title Pendragon and the symbol of a dragon became his emblem. Some historians relate it to the last banner of the local Roman legions, who had abandoned Gwynedd a century before. Others to the Celtic legend of a red dragon uniting the Britons. Arthurian scholars see it as a borrowing, taking on Arthur's position in the wake of Camlan. It may be all of the above.

Maelgwn Gwynedd's dragon would eventually evolve into Y Ddraig Goch, the icon of the Welsh.

Y Ddraig Goch - The Red Dragon of Wales, and Gwynedd

The Red Dragon of the Welsh is not just a symbol for a people. It's a defiant yell, a promise and a prophecy. Y Ddraig Goch is hope.
'The Red Dragon will rise again!' It sounds like a cry of defiance from the Welsh, but it's much, much more than that. It's a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled.

Maelgwn's Marriage to Nesta ferch Sawyl

She was the daughter of the ruler of Southern Elmet. Now a refugee, who'd fled for safety into Gwynedd.

One of Maelgwn's first acts, upon becoming ruler of Gwynedd, was to fetch his son Rhun. From now on, he would raise his boy.

His second was to get married.

By now, all trace of Gwallwen - Maelgwn's first wife and Rhun's mother - has disappeared from the historical record. St Gildas didn't even acknowledge the woman's existence, when he later penned a vitriolic diatribe about the ruler.

Did Gwallwen die? Was their marriage dissolved? Did Maelgwn conveniently forget about it? Had they never been married in the first place?

St Illtyd seemed not to care about the relationship, when he berated Maelgwn into putting her aside. Maybe Gwallwen isn't even a woman's name. It may have referred to a ritual - an initiation into manhood or a rite binding the young prince to his land - involving sex with a woman, who never was his legal wife.

Whatever the truth, the fact remains that Maelgwn felt free to marry now.

His bride was Nesta ferch Sawyl, a member of the Coritani dynastic family ruling Elmet. It was patently a diplomatic marriage. Her homeland, in the Southern Pennines, lay over the border of Gwynedd's eastern territory of Rhos. If the Votadini sought to expand in that direction, then this wedding constituted a good start.

It appeared to be ripe for the taking too. Nesta was the daughter of Sawyl, a ruler who apparently lost his Pennines territory. He became known as Sawyl Penuchel - the Arrogant - after becoming complacent about his ability as ruler. Elmet had been divided between two rulers, Sawyl and his brother Dunant Bwr. The fact that Dunant was known as 'the great', and seems to have ruled all of Elmet by the end of his life, is probably hint enough about who took Sawyl's land.

Sawyl fled with his family into Gwynedd, where he was awarded somewhere to stay in Tegeingl (now Flintshire). His father wasn't dead, and he was in Gwynedd too. The old ruler Pabo had found religion; carving up Elmet to bequeath to his sons, as a precursor to founding a monastic community on Ynys Mon. Maelgwn awarded him the land that became Llanabo. Pabo became St Pabo Post Prydein.

It made sense for Maelgwn to marry Nesta, ahead of a potential invasion of Elmet. It would strengthen his own future claim as its ruler. Yet he doesn't appear to have followed through. Unless Dunant proved too strong and history hasn't preserved the attempt.

Legend and historical gossip collude in telling us that this was not a marriage of love, at least not on Maelgwn's part. In fact, he could be downright cruel. Let's begin with the colorful clues of the legendary tale.

Books about Elmet: Celtic Territory in the Old North

Learn more about the people of Nesta ferch Sawyl from the Southern Pennines.

Nesta's Wedding Ring and the Fish of St Asaph

The primary Christian bishop in Tegeingl was Asaph, whose base still bears his name. He saved Nesta from the wrath of her spouse.

Nesta ferch Sawyl is generally described as a beautiful woman. But then she was the wife of a powerful 6th century Celtic ruler. They are ALL described as beautiful.

Nevertheless, it was with regard to this beauty that Maelgwn Gwynedd presented her with a golden ring upon their wedding day. It had belonged to his mother and all the wives of Gwynedd chieftains before her.

(Hence presumably nothing to do with her beauty, but her new status as wife of the ruler of Gwynedd...)

Nesta wore it as she went out bathing, in a freshwater pool fed by the River Elwy. But when she emerged, it was gone.

Nesta was terrified. She knew of her husband's fearsome reputation and her imagination did the rest. She was probably right, when you consider that even after marriage, she was still living with her father in Tegeingl, not in Deganwy with her husband.

The Coritani woman immediately rushed to see her brother Bishop Asaph, confessing all and pleading for his assistance. The saint prayed upon the matter and then sent a message to Maelgwn, inviting him to come for a meal.

At the table, Asaph explained to Maelgwn that the ring of Gwynedd had been lost in the River Elwy. As predicted by his wife, Maelgwn flew into a vicious rage. He turned upon Nesta, accusing her of giving away his gift to an impoverished lover. She tearfully denied it all.

St Asaph called for food to be served. Brought out on a platter was a large fish, caught fresh before cooking from the waters of the Elwy.  This was placed before Maelgwn, who furiously cut into it.

There, gleaming in the stomach of the fish, was the lost golden ring of Gwynedd.

Not that it did the hapless Nesta much good. As Gildas ranted in his sermon to Maelgwn, 'Your presumptive first marriage, after your vow to be a monk had come to nothing, was illegal --- but at least it was your own wife. You spurned it and sought another...'

Presumably he'd given up on taking Elmet by this point. Besides, Maelgwn had bigger fish to fry.

Discover More Welsh Myths and Legends

You will be absolutely amazed how often Maelgwn Gwynedd turns up in them.

Murder and Marriage with Sannan ferch Cyngen of Powys

Sannan was the daughter and sister of Powys rulers and Maelgwn's ticket to taking that realm. The only problem was she was already married to his nephew.

We do not know the name of Sannan's first husband. It's been wiped from the Welsh genealogies. But St Gildas ensured that we're certain he was the son of Maelgwn's brother.

It was potentially a powerful union, which explains why Maelgwn found it so threatening.

Powys in the 6th century was twice the size as it is today. It encompassed land that now makes up the English regions of Shropshire, Worcester and parts of Hereford, reaching as far west as to include the Black Country.

The fact that those are all now in England attests to the fierce struggle that occurred along its eastern border. But not during those three decades following the rout of the Saxons at Mount Badon. They wouldn't rise again until the mid-6th century, after three things played in their favor:

  • Roman Emperor Justinian I paid Saxon tribes to return to Britain, preferring the isles to be in Pagan hands than held by Celtic converts to Pelagianism;
  • Arthur (and/or some other warlord fitting Arthur's description) died at Camlan, signalling a death blow to the united defense of the Celts;
  • Yellow Plague ravaged Celtic Britain, but 'miraculously' hardly touched those in the remaining Germanic footholds of the extreme south and east.

When Maelgwn began his affair with Sannan none of these factors were in play. Powerful Gwynedd could look towards its southern neighbor, and covet the vast territory of Powys. But from its ruler's point of view, better him than his nephew.

Gildas blamed both parties equally for what happened next. Sannan was condemned for 'collusion and encouragement (when Maelgwn) lately entered on such masses of sin'. It would suggest that the couple were in a relationship while her husband was still alive, particularly since Gildas says that the 'sin' happened with 'the beloved wife of a living man'.

Maelgwn not only killed his nephew, but Nesta too. It left both Sannan and Maelgwn free to marry each other, with Sawyl and the royal family of southern Elmet now fleeing Gwynedd for Glamorgan. No-one in North Wales appears to have spoken out about it at the time. They really wouldn't have dared.

Powys never fell fully into the hands of Maelgwn Gwynedd. The genealogies list its rulers without any gaps, nor with the dragon chieftain's name inserted. It might be that his marriage to Sannan really was about love, not territory; or else, his proximity and marital links was enough to maintain good relationships with all of his neighbors to the south.

Books about Powys: Ancient Welsh Territory of the Celts

Discover more about the area which served as the homeland of both Sannan ferch Cyngen and myself.

Maelgwn's Marriage to the Queen of Strathclyde

Was there a fourth wedding to the sister of a Pictish ruler? Unlikely, but it's frequently reported as fact.

There is an undeniable link between the Votadini of Gwynedd and the Strathclyde Picts. Cunedda Wledig - Maelgwn's great-grandfather - was one of the latter, and links had always been maintained with the homeland.

Therefore few people give it a second glance, when they're told that Maelgwn Gwynedd was chosen to father children upon Waelgush ingen Girom, sister of the Pictish ruler.

It's generally explained that Pictish chieftains were chosen through the matriarchal line. The bloodline was less likely to be diluted, if it went via the ladies. Lies could be told about who fathered a child, but not about the identity of its mother.

Waelgush had great leeway in choosing her partners. Marriage wasn't required. She opted for the High King in Gwynedd because of his proven prowess, and as he was of her own royal bloodline.

Two children are cited as the result - Domelch verch Maelgwn, who married Áedán mac Gabráin, Rí na Dál Riata (King of the Dal Riata Scots); and Bridei mac Máelchú, ruler of the Strathclyde Picts.

There's even a title given for Waelgush. She's the Hagdwyn of the Picts, usually translated as 'Princess of the Picts', but which looks more like 'ugly white' to me. (Sudden shades of Maelgwn's first wife Gwallwen here...)  However, I'm translating via Welsh. Though the Pictish language was obviously mutually intelligible with that of the Brythonic Celts, it was not precisely the same.

All of this is repeated in various forms through many analyses of Maelgwn's reign. But they each trace their source to the same place, John Morris's best-selling book The Age of Arthur.

The author hasn't any primary evidence for this relationship, nor did he make many of the claims later built upon it. He merely noted that Bridei's father was Máelchú and apparently hunted in vain for a man of that name in Strathclyde. Reaching his own conclusion, he wrote, 'Bridei, son of Maelgwn, the mighty king of north Wales'. Everyone else just ran with the theme.

There's no evidence that Maelgwn was the father of Waelgush's children. That was apparently Máelchú, whoever he is.

As far as we can say with any certainty, Maelgwn remained with Sannan ferch Cyngen until his (or her) death. Though he did maintain ties with his ancestral lands in the Old North.

If the road to love was rocky, then Maelgwn's spiritual path was just as fraught with danger. He had to take on the vitriolic might not only of Welsh saints, but bards too. As we will uncover in the third part in this quest through the life of Maelgwn Gwynedd.

Maelgwn the Great, Pendragon of Gwynedd, was possibly THE most powerful ruler in 6th century Celtic Britain. Only priests and bards dared rile him, and they did.

Books about the Picts

They didn't call themselves Picts. The Romans used it for any Celtic tribe (usually north of Hadrian's Wall) with tattoos or war-paint. Maelgwn's own Votadini included.
Updated: 05/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/11/2014

That works for Pagans too, at least in my experience. I guess it all boils down to respect between religions, and within the marriage too.

I did once have a Sikh friend, who was legally married but unable to live with her husband. They were 'only' married in a registry office to get the lawful part out of the way, but the wedding in a Sikh Temple wasn't booked until a year hence. From their point of view (and family, friends etc) they weren't married at all yet!

frankbeswick on 04/11/2014

It is worth noting that most Christian groups regard non-Christian marriages as genuine marriages and binding on the couple [the Mormons disagree and think that only marriage in a Mormon temple is true.] Thus a pagan handfasting is just as binding as a Christian marriage; and infidelity just as wrong.

JoHarrington on 04/11/2014

Sorry, Frank, you were typing your comment as I was mine, hence we've crossed over.

I agree with the 'harem' thing. It was pretty much a status symbol for men to take many partners. You only have to look at the early Arthurian legends, where Arthur's many 'romantic' conquests have been clumsily air-brushed out by the 12th century writers. Or cross over into Ireland, where Cuchulainn's were left in.

Maelgwn's son Rhun Hir Gwynedd had a huge reputation for seducing every woman he fancied. Maelgwn himself attracted that legend about fathering children on the Pictish 'princess'.

It's not just the men too, though the women I can mention are either Goddesses of Sovereignty (famously promiscuous, as it was the nature of their 'job' to ritually mate with each successive chieftain of the land), or those subject to slander by Romans or Medieval priests. I'm thinking Gwenhwyfar or Maeve of Connaught for the deities, and Boudicca in history.

As for the Saxons, it comes down to which ones? Not all tribes left. Earthworks were thrown up to protect lands in the south and east of what's now England. Those Angle, Saxon and Jutes tribes holding them weren't going anywhere.

But Badon included a lot of Saxons only recently arrived, without any major foothold already, who were hoping to take territory from the Celts in the West Country. They were killed in droves and/or left afterwards. These were the ones who turned up on continental coastlines, where the Franks were busy fighting to expand their territories. Those homeless Saxons made ideal mercenaries for the time being.

Then, once the Frankish conquering was done, some settled there. But it wasn't a fabulous prospect for those Saxons looking for their own, self-governing land. The Franks were a bit too strong. That's when Justinian started throwing his wealth about, and boatloads of Saxons (presumably the sons and grandsons of those at Badon) returned to Britain.

I agree that Pictish and Brythonic Celtic were distinctly separate languages. But there's so much back and forth between the Lothian and Orkney Picts, and the tribes all over Wales, that there had to be common linguistic ground. Or translators working overtime. When Cunedda came to Gwynedd, he seemed to have no trouble communicating with the Decaengil. Though I shouldn't imagine the latter really wanted to hear what he had to say.

JoHarrington on 04/11/2014

Yes, it was, but not like this.

It was the norm to have large families, not least because any contraception was herbal. For example, Gildas was one of fifteen surviving children. Those who died in infancy weren't recorded. One in ten women died in childbirth. That was the risk taken every time they gave birth. The widower would then be anxious to remarry as quickly as possible, so someone would see to his kids.

Mind you, it happened the other way around too. In violent times, men are prone to die in battle not to mention while defending their settlements from invaders (frequent in the 6th century). There were also the trillion other accidents or illnesses that would prove fatal. Widows were just as keen to acquire a new husband to provide for her family.

But what marriage meant (and gender roles within it) depended greatly upon the tribe in question.

We're still several centuries away from the Christian church embracing marriage as an institution which fell under its remit. In general terms, Celtic weddings were just as legitimate if performed outside a church - greenwood marriages with only the couple present, or handfastings with or without witnesses - as they were with a priest officiating. But only if all due consent has been obtained (not all people were free to marry without their guardian or chieftain's say-so) and the union was publicly announced. Recognition, insofar as I can tell, conferred legitimacy.

However, it was then a binding contract between the couple. No-one could legally tear them asunder, just like with modern marriages. Maelgwn and Sannan were not at liberty to have an affair, and they certainly weren't supposed to kill their spouses. But Maelgwn was the highest authority in the land. Other than aggrieved parties raising a warband to depose/kill him, or turning to the clergy to apply some serious emotional blackmail, there was nothing much else that anyone could do about it.

Other than, perhaps, ignore their ensuing marriage when announced, thus robbing it of any legitimacy. But that would have been horrifically risky, when Maelgwn could respond to your silence with his sword.

You might not have heard of the Picts, but you've seen one. Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart' was pretty much dressed up as one, only about seven centuries out of date.

frankbeswick on 04/11/2014

Powerful men, Ember, tend to have harems including as many women as they can get. Kings have generally had harems. Even in historical times, polygamy of this kind was known.For example, Harold Godwinson had two wives, as did Macbeth. Macleod of Dunvegan in the sixteenth century had three wives and three mistresses in the same house. The women did not complain. It was not safe to complain about Macleod, especially in his hearing.

I am doubtful, though, about the idea that the Saxons were paid to come back to Britain by Justinian. Saxons settled here because they needed land, and so while going back might have been an option for mercenaries, others had made England their home, so there was no place in Germany to which many could return. By the end of the Roman period Saxons were here to stay.

Was Pictish mutually intelligible with Welsh? Well, Cumbric, spoken in Northern England and Southern Scotland was so close to Welsh that Bede did not distinguish the two. But Bede did say that the languages of Britain were Welsh, English, Gaelic and Pictish. He did not distinguish between varieties of English [Saxon and Angle] and Welsh/Cumbric, but he saw Pictsh as different from the others.

Ember on 04/11/2014

Was it normal for men in this time to marry multiple women like this?

I am not a historian, obviously, but this was the first time I'd heard of the Picts.

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