Cadafael son of Cynfeddw was King of Gwynedd (a powerful Brittonic kingdom in what is now north-west Wales) in 655 AD. What do we know about him?
64. Oswy, son of Ethelfrid, reigned twenty-eight years and six months. During his reign, there was a dreadful mortality among his subjects, when Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest. He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.--Historia Brittonum
65. Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is, Atbert Judeu. But Catgabail alone, king of Guenedot, rising up in the night, escaped together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed.
The ‘field of Gai’ is the Brittonic name for the battle that Bede calls Winwaed, where Penda was killed by Oswy (Oswiu) of Northumbria on 15 November 655. Guenedot is a variant spelling of Gwynedd. “Catguommed” translates roughly as “Battle Shirker”.
Three Kings who were (sprung) from Villeins:--Red Book of Hergest
Gwriad son of Gwrian in the North, and Cadafel son of Cynfeddw in Gwynedd, and Hyfaidd son of Bleiddig in Deheubarth.
Cadafel, Catgabail and Cadafael are all variant spellings of the same name. Assuming the Cadafel King of Gwynedd in the Triads and the Catgabail King of Gwynedd in Historia Brittonum are the same, what can we say about him?
First, he was not part of the same lineage as the kings of Gwynedd whose genealogy is recorded in the Harleian Manuscript and the Jesus College Manuscript (see earlier post). This may underlie the claim in the Triads that he was “sprung from villeins”. As a villein is an unfree peasant or serf, this is unlikely to be literally true. If Cadafael became King of Gwynedd after 634 when Catwallaun (Cadwallon, Cadwalla) of Gwynedd was killed at Hefenfelth, and was still king in 655 when he departed before the Battle of Winwaed, he must surely have been an effective leader or acceptable to the Gwynedd nobility or both, which is unlikely if he was not of royal or noble stock.
I can think of three explanations for the “villein” claim in the Triads:
- Baseless invention intended to insult Cadafael. Perhaps coined by the same person or faction as gave him the unflattering nickname Catguommed (“Battle Shirker”) in Historia Brittonum, who evidently had a low opinion of Cadafael.
- Non-royal descent on his father’s side, exaggerated into the claim in the Triad. If Cadafael’s mother was of the Gwynedd royal family, but married to a non-royal, perhaps minor, noble, Cadafael may have been acceptable as king to at least some of the Gwynedd nobility in the absence of a suitable candidate in the direct line.
- Low social status on his mother’s side. Perhaps Cadafael was the offspring of a royal male (brother or nephew of one of the kings in the direct line) and a woman of low rank, thus he could have been of “villein” stock on his mother’s side. Later medieval Welsh princes acknowledged and provided for illegitimate offspring, so Cadafael could have been the son of either a wife or a mistress. The latter is perhaps more likely, since a formal marriage contract might be expected to involve a woman who could bring riches or noble birth or both to the union, whereas a love affair might be expected to be subject to fewer controls. (For a later analogy, consider Duke William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, who was the illegitimate son of the duke by a woman of comparatively low rank, sometimes described as a tanner’s daughter). Cadafael might thus have had a rival claim to the throne of Gwynedd, which could have made him acceptable to at least some of the nobility in the absence of a suitable candidate from the direct line. It could also explain the hostility recorded in the Triads and Historia Brittonum, if those derive from a rival faction.
I daresay there are others. Insults tend to stick most effectively if there is a grain of truth in them that can be exaggerated, so I personally would favour either the second or third explanation over the first, but this is a matter of opinion.
Since neither Cadafael nor Cynfeddw appear in the genealogy of the Kings of Gwynedd, it is not known how they were related to the direct line, if at all. Clutching at straws, one could note that the Cad- name element in Cadafael’s name is shared with three contemporary kings in the direct line (Cadfan, Cadwallon, Cadwaladr), which may indicate that Cadafael’s family was an offshoot of the ruling dynasty of Gwynedd. On the other hand, it should be noted that the element “cad” means “battle” and might therefore be expected to be a common name element among the warrior class. As a second straw, the Cyn- name element in Cynfeddw is also shared with Cynddylan, hero of the Canu Heledd poetry, and Cynddylan’s father Cyndrwn. According to the poetry, Cynddylan held power in what is now eastern Wales or what is now the West Midlands or both and was roughly contemporary with Penda and Cadafael (more about Cynddylan in a later post). Could Cadafael’s father have had connections with Cynddylan’s family?
Age and career
Second, Cadafael was ruler of Gwynedd in 655, and was of fighting age at the time (since he led his army away from a battle he was supposed to fight in). He was therefore probably born not much before 600 (which would make him 55 at Winwaed), or he would have been too old to fight, and probably not much after 625 (which would make him 30 at Winwaed), or he would have been too young to be the leader.
It is not known when Cadafael became king. Catwallaun of Gwynedd was killed in 633 or 634 according to Bede (631 according to Annales Cambriae), and Catwallaun’s son Cadwaladr lived to 682 and must therefore have been quite young when Catwallaun was killed, perhaps only a child. The death of Gwynedd’s powerful warrior king on a distant battlefield, leaving only a child as heir, would be a plausible context for the reign of a king from a different lineage. This must therefore be a plausible candidate for the beginning of Cadafael’s reign, although he could have emerged at any time between then and 655. If we say that Cadafael became king in 634 or so, this tends to push his birth date back to the earlier end of the range. If he was born in 600, he would have been 34 when he became king, experienced enough to have some chance of restoring Gwynedd’s fortunes after the trauma of Catwallaun’s defeat.
Nor is it known when, or how, Cadwaladr replaced Cadafael as King. If Cadafael’s departure on the eve of Winwaed exposed him to ridicule as a coward, as his nickname in Historia Brittonum suggests, it may have provided Cadwaladr with an opportunity to depose him. Or Cadafael may have voluntarily handed over power, or died of natural causes.
Catguommed “Battle Shirker”
Cadafael’s motivation for – as it turned out – the defining event of his life, his decision to march home the night before the battle of Winwaed, is also unknown. I can think of several motivations:
- Cowardice and/or incompetence, as implied by the derisory opinion of him in the Triads and Historia Brittonum.
- Pragmatism. Given that Winwaed was an unmitigated disaster for Penda and his Brittonic allies, among whom Cadafael would presumably have been numbered, perhaps Cadafael recognised that and chose to save his army rather than repeat Catwallaun’s away defeat in the previous generation.
- Treachery, although if Cadafael was bought off by somebody he doesn’t appear to have profited much from it.
- Incompatibility. Perhaps Cadafael quarrelled with Penda or one of the other leaders, with our without cause, and left in a huff.
- Revenge. The previous alliance between Mercia and Gwynedd had resulted in the death of Gwynedd’s King (Catwallaun), far away in Northumbria. Bede does not mention Penda in his account of Catwallaun’s defeat and death (HE Book III, Ch. 1-2), which may indicate that Penda had already gone home and left Catwallaun in possession of Northumbria. Perhaps Cadafael believed, with or without cause, that Penda’s departure had contributed to Catwallaun’s defeat and death, and was meting out similar treatment.
- Chance and unlucky circumstance. Perhaps the Mercian and Brittonic allied armies were dispersing to their homes at the end of the campaigning season (Bede gives the date as 15 November) and Oswy sprang a surprise attack the day after Cadafael departed.
These aren’t mutually exclusive, and I daresay there are more. You can take your choice, as ever. I personally suspect that there is considerably more to Cadafael’s story than a jumped-up peasant who ran away from a battle; but what it might be is open to interpretation.
Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Trivia: King Cadafael achieved lasting fame as the origin of the name chosen by novelist Ellis Peters for her sleuthing monk, Brother Cadfael. So his name does live on in popular culture, even if he is no longer attached to it :-)