The Semi-Mythical Maelgwn Gwynedd Pt 3

by JoHarrington

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.

Maelgwn Gwynedd was the first of his Votadini line to rule over a relatively stable North Wales.

His great-grandfather Cunedda Wledig had arrived from Goddodin (near Edinburgh), to wrestle control of the region from two Brythonic Celtic tribes, the Venedoti and Ordovices.

Maelgwn's grandfather Einion Yrth chased the (probably) Irish Deceangli from their colony in Rhos - now Flintshire. His father Cadwallon Lawhir succeeded in ousting the remaining Irish Gaels from Ynys Mon (Anglesey), taking their lands to add to his own expanded Gwynedd.

By the time Maelgwn Gwynedd came to power, circa 520, he could enjoy unchallenged the spoils of all that conquest. A man of noted military prowess, with vast reserves of fighting men to back it up, his self-advancing will exerted an influence far beyond his borders. Even the British chieftains of other territories balked at clashing with him.

Only holy men and mystics found the righteous courage to thwart him. Two of the most (in)famous rebukes in Celtic history were leveled at Maelgwn Gwynedd; one from a priestly monk and the other orchestrated by a Bard.

The Religion of Maelgwn Gwynedd

Catholicism was the faith of the Gwynedd Votadini, for its ruler too. Many North Welsh towns and cities owe their existence to his legendary Church donations.

If we could travel back to Deganwy, during the reign of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and we asked him to name his religion, I have absolutely no doubt that he'd answer, "Catholic."

The lives of the Welsh saints - as recorded in the late Medieval Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae - provide seemingly endless examples of Maelgwn supplying them with land and funds. They were all Catholic.

Bangor, now a thriving North Welsh city, was founded in 525 as a wattled enclosure monastery from which rose the first Bangor Cathedral. This was made possible only because Maelgwn welcomed St Deiniol into Gwynedd - after the refugee royal had fled his native Elmet, then been ordained in Glamorgan by St Cadoc - and simply handed over that piece of prime real estate, along with the necessary finance and materials.

Mind you, it could have been guilt talking. Maelgwn had only recently murdered his wife,  and Deiniol's cousin, Nesta ferch Sawyl.

St Cybi was another beneficiary of Maelgwn's spiritual largesse. When he sailed onto the shores of Anglesey, after a journey that had taken him through Rome, Brittany and Eire, the ruler was happy to bestow upon him the crumbling ruins of a Segontium outpost.

Cybi quickly resurrected the small Roman fortress to something approaching its former glory, then turned it into one of the most important monasteries of the Celtic world. They called it Caer Gybi. We know it as Holyhead.

Other Catholic land bequests reveal just how powerful Maelgwn had become in North Wales. When Saint Kentigern (aka Mungo) arrived in 545, he was presented with a land donation alongside the River Elwy. It was signed, sealed and witnessed, with the grant surviving into the present day.

The large monastery of Llanelwy, thus founded there, held a community several hundred strong. Within their ranks was a boy called Asaph, who grew to be its bishop and the saint that gave us Llanelwy's modern name - St Asaph.  (It's details like this which prove the historical inaccuracy of fish and golden ring legend recounted in part two. Asaph wasn't even born when Nesta ferch Sawyl was killed. Nor had Llanelwy been founded.)

Yet St Asaph is a city in Flintshire. It would have been in Rhos in 545, therefore part of the territory ruled over by Cunglas. But it's not his name on that ancient grant. It's Maelgwn Gwynedd, who appeared to be at liberty to give away his cousin's land, merrily supported by all those important people who signed their names as witnesses.

Among the signatories was Sanctus Gwrst. The same St Gwrst who lent his name to today's Llanrwst, in Denbighshire, and another who founded his monastery through Maelgwn's generosity.

His witness on the grant nestles alongside the signature of St Trillo, whose eponymous monastery later lent its name to the town where it sat - Llandrillo-yn-Rhos (Welsh) or Rhos-on-Sea (English). Both of which give clues to where these neighboring monasteries were situated. It was Maelgwn once again donating land belonging to his chieftain cousin Cunglas ap Owain.

The final saintly signatory was St Deiniol, whose Bangor sanctuary was at least in Gwynedd proper!

These were just some of the Christian holy people provided with a living. Most weren't even saints. Some were simply sustained as hermits, or clustered in tiny communes, or acting as the guardians of ancient shrines made Christian because the locals wouldn't abandon those blessed sites.

Books about Early Celtic Christianity in Wales

At times it seems that you couldn't swing a cat in 6th century Wales without it hitting a saint. Discover more about the Celtic Catholicism that attracted so many to the faith.

Maelgwn Gwynedd: Catholic or Clever?

There are many reasons why someone might want to surround themselves with saints and become known for their 'charitable works'.

On the surface it seems that Maelgwn Gwynedd was an ostentatious Catholic ruler, whose deep pockets were ever in the service of his faith.

But there's another interpretation too, which is that such things constituted a perfect display of wealth. That he was flashing his cash as a way of showing off before all Christendom. Clerics all wrote to one another. They would be spreading word of his prestige far and wide.

A mighty reputation, power and showy wealth mattered in Celtic Britain, perhaps even more than they do today.

Chieftains competed to give away precious gems, golden torcs, whole herds of cattle, and anything else which came to mind, simply because they could. It wasn't necessarily generosity. It was displaying their greatness and the bounty of their rule.

In an age where the notion of the sacral king was not yet fully consigned to memory, it might even be a matter of life and death. Proof that they were the source of their tribe's prosperity, and still Sovereignty's foremost champion.

The fact that so many of Maelgwn's bequests occurred in Rhos territory plays into this consideration. He was basically saying - so loud and clear that we still get the message now - that his power was such that he was able to distribute another chieftain's wealth without censure. 

There's also something rather suspect in the fact that he was the benefactor of so many saints, clerics and monasteries, yet the recipient record is silent.

By their very nature, monasteries were where the great works of literature were created, copied and preserved. Monks were the literate ones of the Medieval period. We should be swimming in eulogies singing Maelgwn's praises; sanitized biographies of their benefactor; prayer books, which name him in glowing terms in their dedications or prologues. But we're not.

The majority of documents didn't survive the centuries, but only because no-one wished to copy tattered manuscripts, or they were lost. St Deiniol's Library preserved a great deal of literature. His monastery - so close to Maelgwn's home at Deganwy - remained, developed into a massive cathedral and created the whole city of Bangor today.  Documents there tended to survive.

Such silence therefore speaks volumes.

What too are we to make of the fabled donations to Welsh saints nowhere near Gwynedd's borders?  They're often quoted as examples of the ruler's pious generosity, with wealth so vast that he could afford to support monks as far afield as Dyfed and Glamorgan in South Wales.

It might be true. Such high-profile bequests would be the ultimate testimony to the chieftain's riches and reach. But it might indicate too that the boot was on the other foot. Two could play the game of using another man's mighty reputation to boost their own, and so could several.

Maelgwn self-aggrandizement may well have backfired, as evidenced by a close look at the legends that spring up in the lives of far-flung saints.

Histories of the Early Medieval Welsh Church

Monks wrote and copied manuscripts. Those documents and books became the source for much of what we know about 6th century Britain.

Maelgwn and St Brynach

This occurred in Nevern Abbey, Pembrokeshire, South Wales.

One day, Maelgwn Gwynedd galloped into the grounds of St Brynach's monastery, at the head of a large warband. He arrogantly demanded that a feast be laid on to feed them all.

Brynach refused point blank, so Maelgwn ordered that one of the monks' cows be captured and slaughtered. This the warband did, chopping up the beef to make a stew. But when they came to cook it, the water wouldn't boil.

Maelgwn and St Padarn

This occurred in Llanbadarn, Ceredigion, Mid Wales.

Padarn was the bishop of the monastic settlement that still bears his name - Llanbadarn. One day, he received a group of messengers from the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd. They bore a heavy sack, which they said was filled with gold and silver. Maelgwn hoped that the bishop would hold it for safe-keeping on his behalf.

But it was a trap! Maelgwn had heard that a vast wealth lay in storage in Llanbadarn. His sack contained only stones and grass, as was revealed when Padarn was asked to bring it back. The ruler accused the bishop of theft, demanding the wealth of the monastery in compensation.

St Padarn claimed his ancient right of Trial by Ordeal, in order to prove his innocence. Before witnesses, and calling upon the Grace of God to help him, Padarn plunged his arm into a surging cauldron of boiling water. Maelgwn's messengers did the same.

The Gwynedd men screamed in agony, as their skin was desperately scalded. But St Padarn's arm was withdrawn without blemish. He was not touched by guilt. God had saved him in his innocence.

Thwarted by the truth, Maelgwn was forced to confess his attempted subterfuge and awarded all the land between 'the Clorach and the Rheidol' to St Padarn's monastery. But the saint was not appeased. He prayed again! And Maelgwn was struck by blindness.

Padarn's curse was only lifted after Maelgwn Gwynedd traveled all the way to Llanbadarn on his knees, then begged forgiveness at the saint's altar. Then God, in His mercy, restored the ruler's sight.

Maelgwn realized immediately that God had intervened on Brynach's behalf. He begged the saint for forgiveness and it was granted.

Brynach's prayers caused the carcass to reassemble. The cow was restored to life.

However, the Celtic Laws of Hospitality were still honored, when the monks produced a glorious feast for the now humbled Maelgwn and his men.

As he saw it, the ruler proclaimed, "In the Name of God and our Lord Jesus Christ, I will exempt thee for ever from all royal tribute."

Welsh Cross Pewter Necklaces by St Justin

Maelgwn and St Cadoc

This occured in Gwynllwg (Newport) in South Wales.

The people were terrified. Maelgwn and his war-band were camped near the Fountain of Brutrou, close to the town of Gwynllwg. There was no doubt that tomorrow the tyrant would ride down upon them, slaughter all the men and take their land.

St Cadoc heard the plea for assistance from his steward in Gwynllwg, and immediately began to pray. As he did so, a heavy mist began to form, shielding the town from view. St Cadoc waited until the fog was at its thickest, then walked on through it to the enemy camp.

Maelgwn cowered in terror, perceiving at once that the mists came from God. As Cadoc appeared before him, the ruler begged forgiveness, asking leave to return home to Gwynedd with his men. Upon his oath that he would never again bother Gwynllwg, St Cadoc raised the fog.

In thankfulness, Maelgwn Gwynedd announced that Cadoc was blessed amongst all the men of South Wales. Furthermore, in his capacity as Pendragon of all Britain, Maelgwn ruled that Cadoc was now the region's foremost holy leader.

Books about the Miraculous Saints of Wales

The saints of 6th century Wales were often warriors too. They could be vindictive and dangerous when crossed, which makes for some hair-raising legends.

Maelgwn Gwynedd and St Gildas

This was the Mother of All Clashes between the ruler of Gwynedd and a Catholic monk. It created THE major written source surviving from the 6th century.

No history of the sixth century is complete without reference to Gildas.

In circa 540, he penned a furious diatribe from his monastic cell in Brittany. His sweeping sermon took a long overview of the state of Britain, since the departing of the Roman legions. Thus it's full of references, short descriptions and intriguing hints relating to real events, as known by someone who lived through them.

For a historian, it's as valuable as it is frustrating. It offers glimpses to be interpreted, but rarely a complete picture. But then, Gildas wasn't writing for us.

De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) was a highly public, scathing polemic on the fall of British society from its Roman inspired glory days of unity and reason; plus the corruption of Christianity and its clerics in Britain.

However, these were largely just side-notes. Gildas's main attack zoned in on five British rulers, addressing them as the point of the whole fiery manuscript. Chief amongst these targets, and the focus of Gildas's greatest expressions of ire, was Maelgwn Gwynedd.

What of you, dragon of the island, you who have removed many of these despots from their country and even their life? You are last on my list, but first in evil, mightier than almost all in both power and malice, more profuse in giving, more extravagant in sin, strong in arms but stronger still in what destroys a soul, Maglocunus.'

Maglocunus is the contemporary Latin name for Maelgwn. It's here, and in other writings of Welsh saints, that we learn for certain that the ruler of Gwynedd was the Celtic Pendragon, or High King of Britain, by 540 CE.

'The King of all kings has made you higher than almost all the generals of Britain, in your kingdom as in your physique: why do you not show yourself to him better than the others in character, instead of worse?'

Gildas then cherry picks various sins to level against Maelgwn - killing his uncle; leaving the monastery after taking holy orders; committing adultery with Sannan; killing her husband and his own wife Nesta etc. Laced with plenty more insults comes what must be seen as the main message and therefore the impetus behind Gildas's venomous tract, 'Do not, I beseech you, reject the unspeakable mercy of God.'

It should be noted about now that Gildas and Maelgwn did know each other. In fact, the monk's family owed a great deal to Gwynedd.

Gildas was born in the Old North, possibly somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Glasgow. His father Caw, or Caunus, was the chieftain of the Alt Clut, whose lands were over-run by Scotti or Picts, causing them to flee.

Caw and his family arrived in Gwynedd as refugees. Cadwallon Lawhir welcomed them into his protection, allocating land on Ynys Mon (Anglesey) for them to build a settlement.

Gildas would have met Maelgwn for the first time then.

If the usually ascribed dating is correct, then Maelgwn (born circa 480) was in his twenties, while Gildas (born circa 500) was just a child. Living on the same relatively small island, their paths would have frequently crossed.

There are two versions of Gildas's life, which contradict each other. But they both keep bringing him together with Maelgwn.

In one, Gildas is sent as a child to study under St Illtyd in his monastery. It's the same establishment which received Maelgwn during his own ill-fated period of living under holy orders. Therefore, Gildas and Maelgwn were briefly fellow monks.

No doubt the son of Gwynedd's ruler was invaluable in facilitating any messages passing between the child and his Mum and Dad, back home on Ynys Mon. Could the sudden severing of that channel, when Maelgwn left the monastery, have left a lingering bitterness on the part of Gildas?

In the second version, Gildas didn't become a monk until he was in his thirties. He spent his childhood and young adult life on Ynys Mon, getting married and having children.

Except during Maelgwn's sojourn in the monastery, the two would have continued to live as neighbors. Gildas would have sworn fealty to Maelgwn, when the latter became ruler of Gwynedd and Ynys Mon, perhaps a decade or two before Gildas left to become a monk upon his wife's death.

Both versions explain how Gildas knew so much about Maelgwn's life, which he utilized to such searing effect in his sermon. He must also have been fully aware of the ruler's reputation, as a fierce and brutal warrior, used to enforcing his will.  Being so far away in Brittany, the monk must have reasoned that he was safely out of reach from any retribution.

But Gildas was one of twenty-three children. Many of his siblings had established deep roots on Ynys Mon, raising their own families there, still under the protection of Maelgwn Gwynedd.

The eldest brother, Huail ap Caw, was dragged to Ruthin where he was beheaded over a large stone (Maen Huail), which can still be seen in the town's St Peter's Square.

The most commonly told version of the legend is that King Arthur executed him in a fight over a woman. Gerald of Wales wrote that Gildas then destroyed every document in Britain that mentioned Arthur, which is why none of them exist to verify his existence now. The lesser told story is that Maelgwn Gwynedd decapitated Huail - who had succeeded his father, upon the latter's death, as the head of his people - in lieu of his younger brother, following the publication of Gildas's sermon.

It's believed that another brother was captured by a band of Maelgwn's men and killed outright. They didn't deem it necessary to take him before their ruler for judgment.

Meanwhile, at least two more brothers were forced to flee Ynys Mon, with their families and any possessions that they could carry.  Though history hasn't recorded any further details, I think we can assume that no descendant of Caw remained in Gwynedd in the aftermath of that.

Gildas's attack on Maelgwn Gwynedd made refugees of them all once more.

The Self-Preserving Properties of Gildas's Rant

Given that this is the source that proves that Maelgwn Gwynedd lived - and cemented his reputation in notoriety - it's worth briefly exploring why we know about it.

There's absolutely no doubt that Gildas was distressed.

Rage runs as an underscore throughout the manuscript. In some sections, it's given full rein; unleashed with such venom that it's easy to picture its author frothing at the mouth, as he penned his most poisonous lines.

In fact, this is why Gildas's sermon has survived intact, as the only contemporary written document penned from a British point of view. It was dynamite; it was juicy gossip.

It was like the WikiLeaks of the Age, exposing the sins of a superpower with apparent impunity. Just as that site was rapidly mirrored in hundreds of versions across the internet, in order to stop it being taken down, so too was Gildas's rant. Any Celt with the resources to get it copied would have added it to their collection.

The more copies there are, the higher the chance that a Medieval document will survive. It lessens the likelihood of a sole remaining version being destroyed by fire, washed away in a deluge, captured and trampled into the mud by a conqueror or disintegrating into dusty air through the passage of the centuries.

Moreover, the fury of the piece meant that it continued to be copied, long after Gildas and his chief protagonists were dead and buried.

The Celts didn't win. The Saxons did. 

Germanic Pagan chieftains might not get much out of the vicious ramblings of a Catholic monk, but they could certainly appreciate the implied compliment to their military prowess. A Celtic holy man had practically stated outright that a) the Celts couldn't defend their territory against Saxon might; and b) the Christian God was so awed by Woden, that He'd simply abandon His people to the All-Father for the asking.

Even when Anglo-Saxon England became Christian, there was still much to enjoy in the work of St Gildas. Monks like the Venerable Bede went out of their way to castigate the subjugated Celts, ignoring their historic victories in the struggle for Britain, and denigrating their faith.

They might have been Christians, but Gildas proved that they were corrupt ones. Plus they hadn't even attempted to evangelize the Pagans over-running their lands. Weak, morally suspect and emotionally childlike, the Celts couldn't be trusted with governing Britain when they held it. They certainly shouldn't have influence now.

Hence Gildas's On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain continued to be copied; preserved by those who used it to justify the oppression of all things Celtic in an Anglo-Saxon country. 

All this because Maelgwn Gwynedd and friends had seriously upset a fellow Briton and monk. But what had they actually done?

Histories of Britain and England Influenced by St Gildas

Bede (Anglo-Saxon), Nennius (Celt) and Geoffrey (Norman) all heavily referenced Gildas's sermon in their own work.

Interpreting St Gildas's Sermon Against Maelgwn Gwynedd

Normally those publishing a written rebuke, especially one so long, start with the reason as to why they're so upset. Gildas never quite gets round to it.

The lists of crimes and sin leveled against Maelgwn and the others are obviously mere aperitifs, added in to underpin and/or demonstrate symptoms of an over-arching degeneracy. Gildas wouldn't have bothered recalling the history of the entire Celtic nation, nor bringing in his issues with its clerics, if he was just trying to condemn Maelgwn for murdering his wife.

The trouble is that Gildas never tells us or them. He manages to waffle on through thousands of words without once clarifying what precisely triggered his ire.

We can only assume that the context would have been obvious to those reading at the time. For the rest of us, there are two main ways that historians interpret Gildas's tirade:

Theory One:

It's a warning against civil and/or tribal warfare, which severely undermined the Celtic unity that had repelled the Saxons in the past.

The territorial wrangling that had now resurfaced was making Britain vulnerable again, as the Saxons could easily exploit the resultant disunity. Divide and conquer being a tried and tested method for successful domination.

All that talk of rejecting God is as much metaphor, as a commentary upon actual sins. It charges Maelgwn and co. with the potential crime of betraying Christianity by weakening Britain, so that it could be conquered by Pagans.

In this scenario: Maelgwn Gwynedd is the primary self-serving, power-hungry ruler, whose selfish actions will condemn a whole people. The coming of the Pagans is the likely outcome.

Theory Two:

It is a blistering sermon against the ideas of Pelagius, which undoubtedly held much sway upon the British faithful during this period.

That would certainly fit neatly in the third section, wherein Gildas just generally rants at those preaching in Britain at the time.

As Pelagainism was condemned as a heresy by the Catholic Church, this would explain how - from Gildas's point of view - adherents had rejected God. 

The historical unity was being used as an example of how powerful the Celts could be, while unified under one leader and one church. Their previous destruction had only come when Vortigern turned his back on Christianity and divided them all.

In this scenario: Maelgwn Gwynedd is the most powerful of a cohort of five chieftains known to have converted to Pelagianism. The coming of the Pagans will be divine retribution.

Of course, it could have been a mixture of the two, as they're not mutually incompatible. Though most Arthurian scholars opt for the former, while the majority of historians - in general terms - subscribe to the latter.

This might seem strange. After all, Pelagius and his teachings are not mentioned, nor does Gildas make any statements that blatantly lead us back to that particular Catholic heresy. However it's the most obvious conclusion reached by reading what he does say, and applying it within the wider context of Christianity at the time.

Gildas refers constantly to God and the teachings of the Catholic Church. He's a monk, so that's only to be expected. But the emphasis is not on correcting sinful behavior in Christian men, but those sins being evidence of something much greater - the denial of God Himself.

The crux of Gildas's address to Maelgwn Gwynedd lies in the plea, 'Do not, I beseech you, reject the unspeakable mercy of God.' This is a theme running through the saint's condemnation of the other rulers too.

  • Constantinus in Dumnonia is accused of killing two young princes and their guardians, while wearing the robes of a holy abbot. He's called upon to answer this charge under the auspices of the Church.
  • Aurelius Caninus, in Gildas's view, is 'shutting the gates of heavenly peace and consolation to your soul' alongside his constant war-mongering.
  • Vortiporius of the Demetians is never actually charged with rejecting God, just committing a host of sins against Him (rape of his own daughter; murdering people to advance his power etc);
  • Cuneglasus of Rhos most certainly is though. To Gildas, Maelgwn's cousin is a 'despiser of God and oppressor of his lot', who wages 'war against men and God', the latter with 'infinite sins'.

Inherent in the sermon is the threat that this rejection of God will be answered by divine retribution, in the form of Saxon invaders. Though he never makes explicit why the Christian deity would seek to enact His almighty revenge by sending in a Pagan horde.

Presumably there are sound theological reasons - at least in the tortured mind of St Gildas - allowing for such a possibility. That God might be so enraged by the sins of a Christian land, that He would deem it irretrievable, and hand it over wholesale to Woden. Perhaps He was all out of floods. Or Hell was full.

Maelgwn Gwynedd Merchandise

I have absolutely no idea why HeritageWear have assigned this as Maelgwn Gwynedd's Welsh Coat of Arms. It doesn't match any of the known facts.

A Third Theory: Gildas versus the Dragon

I do wonder if we're not over-thinking what Gildas actually wrote. It would be much simpler to merely read it as written.

There is another interpretation to be read into all of this, reached by taking all that's said at face value.

It's a theory which checks against all of the points already raised above, while also chiming with other elements highlighted in the sermon; all without the need to impose an external context onto the narrative.

Moreover, it renders null and void the apparently bizarre theology ascribed to St Gildas, which implies God's preference for Paganism over Pelagianism. 

Only if we read Gildas's work as an anti-Pelagian diatribe does that view become inherent, as that pits two Christian schools of thought against each other in a head on clash. With their Divine Judge ruling in favor of Paganism.

How about if Pelagianism isn't named, because Gildas was reacting to the resurgence of another religion?  God might not be induced to turn a Christian nation over to the Pagans, but what if He no longer viewed it as a Christian nation?

Those five British rulers, with Maelgwn Gwynedd at their helm, were already Pagans. Each one rejecting Christianity - quite literally - by reaching for the old religion of Druidism. They needn't even have converted in reality, or may have merely flirted with some parts of it. As long as Gildas thought that they had disdained God for the Celtic deities, then his sermon would still have been written.

Read in that context, it would render Maelgwn Gwynedd public enemy number one to the Welsh saints. They could thwart him in their legends, with the ruler filling the antagonistic position that later Christians might ascribe to the devil.

Accusations of Druidry would make him equally suspect in the view of clerics closer to home, who we would otherwise expect to be sympathetic towards him. It would account for the dearth of praise filled prologues and biographies. People like St Deiniol, St Cybi and St Gwrst might even have felt justified in quietly disposing of anything fitting that description, once Maelgwn Gwynedd was dead.

But only if there was some basis in fact. Those saints with churches and monasteries in Gwynedd were ideally located to know precisely what was happening. They didn't need a distant ex-pat to fill in the blanks.

In the fourth part of this Maelgwn Gwynedd series, we examine what accusations Gildas was actually making against the North Welsh chieftain, and explore some startling conclusions based on references made by the saint.

St Gildas certainly thought that Maelgwn Gwynedd had turned his back on God. But was the saint actually saying that the 6th century Welsh chieftain was a Druid?

Fiction Books Featuring Maelgwn Gwynedd

The 6th century Welsh ruler was perfectly placed to turn up in a lot of novels, spanning genres including legends, sci-fi, fantasy, historical, romance and Arthurian.
Updated: 05/10/2014, JoHarrington
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Rob on 01/28/2016

hi, was just wondering if you had a reference for me to read up on the 'lesser told story that Maelgwn Gwynedd beheaded Huail'? Really enjoying reading all this, thanks.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

I'm always here to answer 6th century questions (unless I'm utterly side-tracked into the 19th, which may or may not have happened today... ok, it did).

I also think it's sad. It's even more sad, because I don't want to feel compassionate about a document destroying megalomaniac, who has thwarted so many generations of historians with his nearly telling us something, then veering off into a rant. I want him to suffer in perpetuity. Apart from that moment dying alone. Then I feel sorry for him.

You contribute a lot more than you think! You let me bounce ideas off you, and come to me with new perspectives. I love it. And yes, I'm indebted to Frank for his insights too. I really look forward to his comments!

Ember on 04/28/2014

I definitely had another question, but I can't remember it now.

That's actually quite sad that Gildas was so alone and disliked when he died.

Also, it is very apparent that I actually haven't got much of a clue about everything that was actually going on- I'm learning as I go reading these XD But, I'm also learning a lot from your disussions with Frank, which are very interesting to read. Like little bonuses at the bottom of the article.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

The Romans had got this mix and match cultures (but with ours on top) thing down to a fine art by then. And they passed the tactics onto the Church. But, as you said, just because it was streamlined, tried, tested and good to go, it doesn't mean that religions haven't been nicking bits off each other for time immemorial.

They're all catering to human spirituality, and we've historically tended to always be worrying about, and looking for, the same things. Ergo, 'hold on, I'm going to have to DIE! And my parents too?!' Which is encountered in mid-childhood, and takes longer time than we've got to fully accept.

frankbeswick on 04/28/2014

So that explains things: my right hand never itches!

It is correct that no religion is comes completely new into the world, it always borrows from its predecessors. It is no coincidence that the cultus of Mary, to which you allude, developed at Ephesus and spread like wild fire across Europe. Ephesus was the site of the cultus of Diana [Artemis] of the Ephesians, so it is clear how the two culti are connected. Another reason for the spread is that it met a need for the divine feminine.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

Powys is a different kettle of fish though. It seems reasonably well documented that Vortigern (whatever his real name is, as that's a title) was Pagan. That's why St Germanus went after him during his first Anti Pelagianism Tour of Britain. Plus Vortigern married Hengist's daughter Rowena, so there was Saxon Paganism in the mix too.

As for the Saxons reinstating, you're right. I should have worded that better. They came, they saw, they conquered, they plonked a layer of Norse/Germanic religion over the top of the Druidic and/or Christian spirituality already current in their lands. Note I'm talking about the British who stayed here. The conquering tribes naturally stuck with their own Gods.

That's why Bede was kicking up a few centuries on, about how the British are obviously worthless subhumans, because the Christians amongst them didn't attempt to convert their Germanic overlords.

Even if we had nothing else at all, we could see that British Paganism went on. My auntie and I had a conversation last week, which went along the lines of 'well, that's the third thing to go wrong, it's all good now.' It's the 21st century, and both of us - to the core of our being - believe that things come in threes. We didn't pick THAT up from the Christian Trinity, nor from our school curriculum.

I also believe that I'm going to get rich if my right hand itches, but if it's my left one, I panic drop everything to rub the itch on wood. No-one here even questions why they do that, it's so embedded into our consciousness. (The answer: It stops the Tylwyth Teg paying attention.)

We have a bank holiday on May Day, wherein Queens are bedecked with flowers and paraded with their kings. Good Christians here are planning it right now without once checking to see if that's mentioned in the Bible. We're doing it while munching on our left-over Easter Eggs - a remnant of Saxon religion and homage to the goddess Eostre - while somehow convincing ourselves that it's something to do with the crucifixion.

Religions adapt, incorporate and merge. Personally I think that's fabulous, if the alternative is obliteration of one by another.

frankbeswick on 04/28/2014

I am not sure that the Saxons reinstated paganism, as it never went away. Early Christianity was an urban phenomenon. The country dwellers remained with the old gods. The Latin for country dweller was paganus [feminine pagana] hence pagans were the country folk. As Britain's cities collapsed, so did the tenuous Christian structure across England, and paganism simply carried on. Even in Powys, which had lands snatched by Mercia, there seemed to be no remaining Christianity in the areas taken over.

You are right about your theory that Gildas was unpopular. Fellow monks would normally ask why someone had not turned up at eucharist or shared offices.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

Frank - I'm glad that my theory holds credence for you. I have got loads of research in progress to finally finish this series, that will highlight all we know for certain (and the direct legends) regarding Maelgwn's possible Paganism. It's by no means proved, and you may still claim him as one of your own for all the evidence that we've got. The best I'm going to do is hang a huge question mark over his spirituality.

Mind you, I know plenty of people who combine Paganism and Christianity with no bother at all. Maybe he did the same.

Did Druidry survive Christianity? You realise that my MA dissertation was this very question, if you were to substitute witchcraft for Druidry. In short, I can waffle on for hours. But I'll try to keep it short here:

* Druidry today is reconstructed. It's not the same as Druidry then, just the closest approximation that can be achieved.
* Elements of Druidry undoubtedly survived, but as an organized religion with an unbroken, full heritage leading straight back to that practiced on Mona in 59 CE? I highly doubt it. Which doesn't mean to say that individuals didn't keep the flame burning.
* The 20th century wasn't the first time that Druidry was reconstructed. For example, Iolo Morgannwy's efforts were a double edged sword, that saved as much as it muddied.

Personally, I think that the Druids post-Mona and during the Christian conversion were VERY clever. As soon as they realised that a battle was being lost here, they sought myriad ways to preserve as much as possible. Gods became saints; legends were imbued with ritual; and sacred places still manage to remain sacred places - though that was as much a part of the Christian conversion strategy as the Druids conserving things.

But biggest one of all - the Druids became Christians, at least nominally, and really did insert a lot of stuff into early Celtic Christianity. Have you read Thomas Cahill's book 'How the Irish Saved Civilization'? If even a fraction of that is true, then bravo druids! I'd be interested in your book review of it though.

JoHarrington on 04/28/2014

Ember - Yes, you're interpreting the saintly tales as I did! To my mind, it demonstrates how powerful Maelgwn was by now, that he's the one chosen to feature in all of these stories. Ripple effect ftw!

Gildas is sooo passive-aggressive. He stops frequently to tell us how humble and worthless he is, then kicks off again in the next sentences. To my mind, if you have to tell someone that you're humble, then you probably aren't. We can get another insight into Gildas, in that he died alone aged 93. It was several weeks before anyone thought to check on him and found his body. Ok, he liked his hermitage cell, but aged 93? You have to be a fairly disliked individual for FELLOW MONKS not to check on you at 93.

Britain was Pagan pre-Christian. But that conversion happened from about four centuries before Maelgwn, then slowly spread. Gwynedd, by the 6th century, was Catholic. However, we're talking about the British. The Saxons, English, Jutes and Viking were still Pagan. When they invaded - gaining ground from the late 6th century onwards - they reinstated Paganism.

But British Paganism = Druidism. Germanic Paganism = what's now called Heathenism, Odinism, Ásatrú etc. Plus the Saxons never got Gwynedd.

Gildas is said to have destroyed any written text which mentioned Arthur. You also have the situation six hundred years later, when Edward I (and his successors) spent a lot of time throwing Welsh princes into the Tower of London. They would languish there, sometimes for years, sometimes for life, and would send home for their books.

Eventually, over time, pretty much the entire Welsh written sources were with those nobles, not in Wales. And they were seized and burnt. Plus the British had a strong oral tradition, so much wasn't written down until at least the 13th centuries.

frankbeswick on 04/28/2014

The theory about these rulers reverting to paganism is probably right. The rulers of Britain were probably Christian for convenience, as the empire was officially Christian. But when the empire went, so did Christianity in their rulers, though the Celtic church survived in Wales. Pelagianism survived in West Britain and Ireland for a long time, so this may also have been a factor in Gildas' raging.

However, it is interesting that the rulers may have turned to druidism, as the official histories say that druidism was exterminated by Rome. I disagree, as there were druids in Ireland and Scotland long into the first millenium. I could see druids returning from Ireland at the first opportunity.

One question that I would like to raise is one that has always fascinated me: where did the druids go: if they died it, when did they die out, or did they go at all? Certainly when Tolan in the eighteenth century summoned all druids to meet him on a particular day, druids came from all over England. Have the druids been an unknown factor in British history?

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