15 April, 2009

Chronology of the Kings of Gwynedd in the seventh century

Evidence

Genealogies

[O]uen map [H]iguel map catell map Rotri map mermin map etthil merch cinnan map rotri map Iutguaul map Catgualart map Catgollaun map Catman map Iacob map Beli map Run map Mailcun map Catgolaun Iauhir map Eniaun girt map Cuneda
-- Harleian genealogy

Rodri M Meruyn M Ethellt Merch Cynan tintaeth6y M Rodri mol6yna6c M Idwal I6rch M Kadwaladyr vendigeit M Katwalla6n M Kad6ga6n M Iago M Beli M Run hir M Maelg6n g6yned M Kadwalla6n lla6hir M Einya6n yrth M Kuneda wledic
--Jesus College MS 20

Apart from variations in the spelling, the two geneaologies are identical (the Harleian genealogy has three more generations than the Jesus College manuscript; the two coincide from Rodri back to Cunedda). ‘M’ and ‘map’ mean ‘son of’, ‘merch’ means ‘daughter of’.

Annales Cambriae

547 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died.
613 The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
629 The beseiging of king Cadwallon in the island of Glannauc.
631 The battle of Cantscaul in which Cadwallon fell.
656 The slaughter of Campus Gaius.
657 Penda died.
682 A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.
--Annales Cambriae


Welsh Triads

Three Fair Princes of the Island of Britain:
Owain son of Urien, Rhun son of Maelgwn, Rhufawn the Radiant son of Dewrarth Wledig.

Three Frivolous Bards of the Island of Britain:
Arthur, and Cadwallawn son of Cadfan, and Rahawd son of Morgant.

And that was one of the Three Hatchet-Blows. The second (was) a woodcutter of Aberffraw who struck Golydan with a hatchet, on the head. And the third, one of his own men struck upon Iago, son of Beli, with a hatchet, on the head.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads

Historia Brittonum
62. The great king, Mailcun, reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota, because his great-great-grandfather, Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come before from the left-hand part, i.e. from the country which is called Manau Gustodin, one hundred and forty-six years before Mailcun reigned, and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries, and they never returned again to inhabit them.
64. Oswald son of Ethelfrid, reigned nine years; the same is Oswald Llauiguin; he slew Catgublaun (Cadwalla), king of Guenedot, in the battle of Catscaul, with much loss to his own army. 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.
--Historia Brittonum

Mailcun is a variant spelling of Maelgwn.

Bede

Cadwallon King of Gwynedd was killed by Oswald of Northumbria at the battle of Hefenfelth in 633 or 634 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book III Ch. 1.

Gildas

Maelgwn is usually considered to be the same as the “Maglocune” who was one of the kings denounced by Gildas in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, written around 540 AD. Maelgwn/Maglocune was evidently still alive at the time of writing, after a vigorous, colourful and (by Gildas’ lights) not entirely honourable career (ch. 33-36).

Archaeology

“Catamanus rex sapientisimus opinatisimus omnium regum”
--Inscription on a memorial stone at the church of Llangadwaladr in Anglesey

This translates as “King Catman wisest and most renowned of all kings”.

Interpretation

The kings of interest for the purposes of this post are those from Maelgwn Gwynedd to Cadwalader, i.e. the kings who reigned in the seventh century and their immediate ancestors.

The first point to note is that all of them are also mentioned in sources other than the genealogies. Maelgwn Gwynedd is in Gildas, Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae and the Triads. Rhun ap Maelgwn is in the Triads. Beli is given as the patronymic of Iago ap Beli (in the Triads and Annales Cambriae). Iago ap Beli is in the Triads and Annales Cambriae. Cadfan is given as the patronymic of Cadwallon in the Triads, and (uniquely) his name is recorded in a surviving stone inscription. Cadwallon ap Cadfan is in Bede, Historia Brittonum, the Triads and Annales Cambriae. Cadwaladr ap Cadfan is in the Annales Cambriae and Historia Brittonum.

It’s worth remembering the caveat that the geneaologies are late, constructed no earlier than the time of Rhodri King of Gwynedd in the ninth century. The relationships between the seventh-century kings may have been more complex than the unbroken father-to-son succession claimed by the genealogies, or the genealogists may have borrowed unrelated names from earlier sources to construct a suitable pedigree. Historia Brittonum is supposed to have been written in around 829, and the Triads survive in medieval manuscripts. So these are not necessarily independent sources, and it is possible that the agreement between them is because they all copied from each other. Nevertheless, it is impressive to find a near-complete set of corroboration like this, and I would hesitate to dismiss it out of hand.

Annales Cambriae and Bede between them helpfully contribute some dates. Moreover, there are two events dated in both sources:

Cadwallon’s death (633 or 634 in Bede, 631 in Annales Cambriae)
Penda’s death (655 in Bede, 657 in Annales Cambriae)


They agree within 2–3 years, which is easily within the margin of error for a much-copied manuscript. This being so, I would be inclined to take the dates that occur in only one of the two sources seriously too, with the same sort of margin of error.

From Maelgwn’s death in 547 to Iago’s death in 613 is 66 years, give or take a few. As Iago was Maelgwn’s great-grandson according to the genealogy, this spans 3 generations, thus averaging about 22 years per generation.

From Iago’s death in 613 to Cadwaladr’s death in 682 is 69 years. This also spans 3 generations, as Cadwaladr was Iago’s great-grandson, and averages 23 years per generation.

For comparison, Bede tells us that Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria was a grandfather when he was killed at the age of 48 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 20), which works out to a maximum of 24 years per generation if the grandson was born in the same year Eadwine died, and possibly rather less if the grandson was a few years old. So this is consistent with the generational span implied by the Gwynedd genealogy.

Dating by counting generations is a highly inexact process in any case, as human males are capable of fathering offspring from puberty to old age. For example, Eadwine of Deira had children by his second marriage who were of comparable age with his grandson from his son by his first marriage, and his great-niece was of comparable age with his sons by his first marriage. This sort of thing is not uncommon, and can make a terrible mix-up of the generations. So the most that can be said is that the number of generations in the Gwynedd genealogy and the dates in Annales Cambriae are not incompatible.

From Iago’s death in 613 to Cadwallon’s death in 631 to 634 is 18–21 years. This is a bit more problematic, as it spans two generations (Cadwallon was Iago’s grandson). However, as argued above, dating by counting generations is far from exact. If Iago lived to a ripe old age (which is consistent with Annales Cambriae’s phrase ‘slept’ to describe his death), his grandson Cadwallon may already have been adult when Iago died. Furthermore, the sources agree that Cadwallon was killed in battle, and therefore he may have been only middle-aged when he died.

Cadwaladr died in 682, according to Annales Cambriae. This is about 50 years after his father Cadwallon was killed in battle, and may indicate that Cadwaladr was quite young, perhaps only a child, when his father was killed. In turn, this would be consistent with the statement in Historia Brittonum that the King of Gwynedd in 655 was a man called Cadafael ap Cynfeddw (more about Cadafael in a separate post), who is not part of the genealogy of the Gwynedd kings. Whether Cadafael was a caretaker or a usurper is not known, but the temporary presence of a king from a different lineage is consistent with Cadwaladr being too young to rule when his father was killed. If he was born in, say, 625, he would have been aged only 5–9 when Cadwallon was killed, and aged 57 at his own death in 682, neither of which is unreasonable.

Conjectural dates for the kings of Gwynedd (bold text indicates documented dates, plain text indicates my conjecture):

  • Maelgwn Gwynedd. Born c. 487, died 547 (aged 60)

  • Rhun ap Maelgwn. Born c. 507, died c. 565

  • Beli ap Rhun. Born c. 527, died c. 585

  • Iago ap Beli. Born c. 547, died 613 (aged 68)

  • Cadfan ap Iago. Born c. 567, died c. 625

  • Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Born c. 587, died in battle 631–634 (aged 44-47)

  • Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon. Born c. 625, died 682 (aged 57)



It should go without saying that these conjectural dates are highly approximate, and several different schemes can be constructed to fit the scanty available evidence. It is also entirely possible that the genealogies contain mistakes, misinterpretations or downright fictions invented to support the claims of an incoming dynasty. However, I think it is fair to say that the genealogy as extant is not incompatible with the other dates and events in the sources.

References
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

17 comments:

Rick said...

The bolding didn't work on the list at the end. (At least it doesn't show up in my Firefox.)

More substantive comment when I've had a chance to mull!

tenthmedieval said...

Very judicious, and at least gives you a structure to work with. `Caretaker' kings always bother me as an idea though; it seems so consensual compared to a lot of the other successions we see that I'm always inclined to suspect usurpation, or some situation like Odo and Charles the Simple in ninth-century Francia where one side claimed necessity and the other usurpation and a lot of negotiation had to be gone through finally to resolve the conflict...

Carla said...

Rick - Thanks for pointing that out - I've fixed it now.

Tenthmedieval - Quite so. I put it in as a reminder of the range of possibilities, because we don't know how Cadafael got to be king (even if usurpation in one form or another is the usual method). Cadwaladr got his throne back at some point, since he died as King of Gwynedd in 682, so if Cadafael was a usurper he wasn't also a murderer (or at least, not a successful one). A situation not unlike the one you describe, somewhere between usurpation and regency depending on one's point of view (and perhaps also changing over time, as a 'regency' can be a credible clam when the direct heir is under-age but looks more like a usurpation when the heir has grown up) may be quite likely. More on Cadafael in a later post.

Gabriele C. said...

Could there have been two kings with the same name? I mean, look at all those Heinrichs and Ottos I have to deal with. ;)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Possible. Some Welsh names seem to have been popular, e.g. Catwallaun ap Cadfan shares a name with the father of Maelgwn Gwynedd according to the genealogies. However, the Gwynedd genealogies aren't full of Heinrich son of Heinrich son of Heinrich son of Heinrich, and most "X son of Y" patronymics have two different names in the pair, so there doesn't seem to have been the same habit of recycling the same name over and over in successive generations. For which one may be almighty thankful :-) So the potential problem isn't as acute as yours. Nevertheless, there's no proof that Gildas' Maglocune is actually the same man as the Maelgwn in the genealogies. There might have been two kings with the same name and that could cause all sorts of problems (as with the two Aethelrics in Deira and Bernicia discussed a while ago). If you Google around you'll find various theories arguing that there were actually two (or more) different lines of Gwynedd kings. On the whole I tend to stick with the genealogies unless there's a good reason not to, on my usual principle that however late and flawed the sources are, whoever wrote them was a thousand years nearer the events than I am.

Rick said...

Regent or usurper? I imagine it all depends on what else we know about Cadafael. We expect regencies to end with the regent on the throne and the rightful heir under a stairwell, but that needn't be the case. Look at late medieval and 16th c. Scotland. Hardly the most law abiding country, but the Stewarts were never usurped in spite of repeated child heirs and long regencies.

On counting by generations, it has the odd trait of becoming a more reliable yardstick over long periods, the longs and shorts tending to cancel out. The rule of thumb I've read (in reconstructing archaic Greek genealogies) is 30 years to a generation or three to a century.

A handy familiar test case is the English succession since 1066. I count 40 monarchs, of whom 6 were siblings of the previous monarch, while 8 got to the throne other than by regular dynastic succession. That gives an average reign length of 23.5 years. If you take siblings as same-generation (even if born years apart like Mary I and Elizabeth I), and for simplicity allow half a generation for each 'irregular' accession, you get 30 generations in 943 years, or 31.5 years per generation - a very rough sort of figure to be sure!

Which doesn't really say anything about the Gwynedd list!

Carla said...

Rick - counting generations is fine as a dating rule of thumb when there isn't anything else. There's always the caveat that genealogies written down long after the event (like these) may be partly derived from king-lists with "successor of" altered or misinterpreted to "son of". This would tend to artificially increase the number of generations and shorten the generation length, and that may well have happened to the Gwynedd genealogy. However, since the Gwynedd genealogy tallies up fairly well with the other sources (Beli ap Rhun being the only individual who doesn't appear elsewhere except as a patronymic) this leads one into a merry dance of deciding which bits of the genealogy to ignore. My preference is to take the genealogy in its entirety and assume a short generation length, rather than to delete one or two names to bring the generation length in line with the rule of thumb. Especially when the only dates available seem to be death dates, which are subject to variations in age at death.

One big difference between the post-1066 monarchs and the early medieval period is that few of the post-1066 monarchs died in battle. Richard III did, and Richard I was killed by an arrow wound at a siege so he can count as well. That's 2/40. We could also add in William Rufus and Charles I as they are known to have died by violence, 4/40. If you stretch a point, we can also add Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI and Edward V, who all died or disappeared in murky circumstances and might have been murdered. At most, this is 8/40, with the others being natural deaths. Contrast that with the kings of Northumbria mentioned by Bede in the 7th century - Aethelferth (killed in battle), Eadwine (killed in battle), Oswald (killed in battle), Oswy (natural death) and Ecgfrith (killed in battle). I haven't included joint rulers and sub-kings. Northumbria may have been an extreme case (!) but it's an indication that death in battle was commoner for early medieval kings than post-1066 kings. That might be expected to lead to a higher proportion of sibling or 'irregular' successions. That might alter the generation count in either direction or have no net effect; although one logical response might well be for dynasts or would-be dynasts to try to produce the heir and spare as soon as possible! This is pure conjecture and I don't press the point, except to say that the post-1066 monarchs may not necessarily reflect their early medieval counterparts.

We don't know very much about Cadafael, but I'll summarise what we do know in a later post. He certainly differs from Richard III in two important respects: the direct heir survived and got the throne back; and Cadafael probably lasted a lot longer than Richard did. Those might not be unrelated :-) Although actually I suspect that what did for Richard III was not so much the disappearance of his nephews as the execution of Hastings without trial and at two minutes' notice. I cannot think of anything more likely to make all the other lords, of all the factions, go "There but for the grace of god go I..." and start plotting to get rid of Richard before it's their turn next. Nobody seems to have minded Henry VII keeping George of Clarence's son in prison for years on end and then executing him when he tried to escape. Richard might well have got away with doing the same with his nephews, but Hastings' execution made every nobleman in the country feel immediately and personally threatened. My 2d-worth of Ricardian theory :-)

Rick said...

King of Northumbria sounds like a lousy job! My comment on generation length is purely for general interest, the English king list from 1066 being nearly a thousand years, and probably familiar to most of the people who hang out here.

I certainly wouldn't toss the Gwynedd list merely because its generations are on the short side, though I'd be less than shocked if a sibling succession was later assumed to be father to son. Or maybe they just had good luck in choosing queens who were efficient royal brood mares.

For real efficiency, just let the prince/king play the field, and the first girl who bears him a son gets to be queen. White wedding dresses are out, but you're not wasting time on princesses till the main job has been handled. This would have saved a certain Welsh-descended king no end of hassles. :-)

Whatever the truth about Richard III, the standard version has colored our expectations about regencies. But the Stewart experience shows that even in insecure times regencies needn't become usurpations. So I don't have trouble with a 'caretaker king'.

But good point about the execution of Lord Hastings - not exactly a confidence builder with the nobility, was it?

Carla said...

Rick - it certainly ought to have attracted danger money :-) I sometimes wonder why they all wanted the job.

Your suggestion for breeding efficiency is not so very far removed from the practice in later medieval Wales, where it was acceptable for kings (and noblemen) to have mistresses and illegitimate children had the same rights as legitimate ones provided they were acknowledged by the father. An illegitimate son could be considered for heir just as much as a legitimate son. The Church didn't much like this, of course, but they couldn't do anything about it until Edward I. Llewellyn the Last was the son of an illegitimate son of Llewellyn Fawr, and Owain Gwynedd's illegitimate sons were part of the struggle for inheritance after his death (can't remember who was the last man standing in that one).
It had the useful effect of meaning that very few medieval Welsh princes didn't have a male heir (their usual problem was a surfeit of quarrelsome ones). If it had been retained it might have made Henry VIII's life a lot easier (and several other people's a lot longer...).

Making the first successful girl queen has its drawbacks in an era of high infant mortality (the first son might not necessarily be the one that survives to adulthood), and the job of queen involved quite a lot of diplomatic and administrative responsibility as well as the brood-mare aspect. So there's a logic in picking a professional for queen, someone with the right training and connections, rather than just the first girl to bear a son, especially if there are all the mistresses' children to fall back on.

Some modern historians sometimes assert that pagan English kings "must" have been polygamous before the conversion to Chrisianity, but as far as I know there's absolutely no evidence either way except for the occasional later king who claims to be descended from a mistress of a founder king (e.g. the eighth-century kings of Northumbria who claimed to be descended from Ida of Bernicia (c. 550) and one of his concubines). But that seems to me to be at least as likely to arise from a system like the Welsh one, even if it isn't pure fiction invented to bolster a dubious claim.

I've never managed to come up with a convincing justification for Richard's murder of Hastings, which is what it amounted to. It seems so utterly self-defeating, quite apart from any moral considerations (!) The nearest I've got is the infamous Plantagenet temper. Even if Hastings was really up to his ears in some nefarious plot, surely it would have been more sensible to set up a rigged trial to maintain at least the illusion of judicial process, which is the usual approach.

Rick said...

I sort of had later Welsh practice, or what I remembered of it, in mind. There are the complications you mention about child mortality and the responsibilities of queens beyond heir-bearing, but there are also workarounds. If bastards have equal standing to inherit, you've effectively split the brood mare and consort functions.

On a different note, it struck me just last night that the where the age at death is listed it is not particularly young by medieval standards. Not all the kings have an age at death listed, but for the ones that do, the figures are 60, 68, 43-47, and 57. And the oldest of the bunch is Iago, who supposedly had to be dispatched with a hatchet! Sounds like a sturdy bunch of Welshmen.

Richard III and Rivers - Plantagenet temper may have helped, but as I recall the thing sounded planned. Perhaps Rivers wouldn't get with the program. He'd been Edward's personal friend, and might have been more loyal to his son. Perhaps he also knew, or had good reason to believe, that the Eleanor Butler precontract story was not the case.

This fits in with my overall slippery-slope picture of Richard as someone for whom events spun out of control, leading him to a course he never originally intended.

Carla said...

Rick - separating the functions probably had a lot going for it in terms of practicality.

The ages at death are my conjectures (hence in light type), so don't read to much into them. We know the year of death for some of the kings (bold type), but not their ages. I jotted down the conjectural ages at death as a sort of reality check on the conjectural birth dates, just to check I hadn't got somebody living to 130!

However, the very short average life expectancy figures you see bandied around include infant mortality, so the mean is heavily skewed downwards by all the babies who don't make it through infancy. My understanding is that those who made it to adulthood had a life expectancy not much different to life expectancy in the pre-modern-medicine era, say about 1930. I.e. you had a reasonable chance of seeing the threescore years and ten if injury, violence, childbirth or acute infection didn't intervene.

The hatchet-blow for Iago's death in the Triads is a bit of a puzzle, since Annales Cambriae uses the word "slept" for his death, which would be a slightly odd choice of words if the scribe writing the Annales knew of the hatchet story! It may not mean anything, and in any case both sources were written down centuries after the events. I shall have to make an authorial decision on that one when I get to 613/616.

Hastings or Rivers or both? The slippery-slope theory for Richard's career has a lot going for it, in part because many (most?) political careers are shaped at least as much by "events, dear boy" as by intention.

Rick said...

Very good point about 'average' life expectancies being skewed downward by high infant mortality. My own perception of royal 'natural' lifespans may be skewed downward a bit by the ones like Edward IV and Henry VIII who died of good old fashioned royal excess. Early medieval kings might have had less opportunity for that!

'Slept' for death does sound more like natural death, not the term you'd naturally use for someone who got hatcheted!

I meant Hastings, not Rivers, but the whole sequence of events was not calculated to build confidence.

Carla said...

The frequency with which early medieval kings died in battle does suggest they spent a fair amount of their lives on campaign, and it seems to have been expected that the king would continue to fight in person even well into middle age. Eadwine of Deira was 48 in his last battle, and Penda of Mercia was (probably) 50 in his. Which no doubt would have helped keep them fit :-)

Rex Icelingas said...

Nice reading Carla! think you have done a great job with the dating

Interesting that the village of Caerhun(Fort of Rhun) in the Conwy Valley is associated with Rhun Hir.The Former Roman Auxillary fort of Kanovium at Caerhun was later gifted to the Church(where a 13th Century one now stands)interesting that his father is credited with donating Caer Gybi(Holyhead) another Roman fort to the Church.

I certainly do believe the Iago ap Beli who died in 613AD to have abdicated to spend his last years in the service of the Church.Im wondering if maybe Cadfan did the same? He may have even returned as a puppet ruler during Eadwine`s apparent overrunning of Gwynedd? conjecture of course.
But certainly Gildas remarked about Maelgwn entering the church only to return to his Kingdom.So could we take it Maelgwn was 50+ when Gildas was writing? and who was `caretaker King` in his Monastic abscence? Gildas speaks of Maelgwn`s love of Civil war so a close relative would be a sound bet.

Carla said...

Rex Icelingas - the Church seems to have had a liking for ex-Roman sites and buildings, doesn't it? Do you suppose it was the Roman connection, the (usual) existence of a boundary wall that could be used to separate the sacred from the profane, the practical value of having a ready supply of recyclable building stone to hand, or a combination of all of them?

Curious that we have a Caer Rhun but that Degannwy isn't Caer Maelgwn - one might think that it would be the other way round given Maelgwn's dominance in legend.

I can see several points of logic for an elderly king retiring to a monastery: (a) start repenting in good time and hopefully shorten one's time in purgatory and/or the other place; (b) hand over to a grown-up son when the son is in his prime, before he gets fed up and bitter with waiting; (c) even a fit man in good health is going to slow down physically with advancing age and may no longer be quite up to military command, at least on the battlefield. If Iago did live to an advanced age it's quite possible that he handed over to Cadfan and retired to spend his last years in a monastery. This isn't incompatible with death in battle, as he might have come out of retirement to join his army in a key battle, perhaps for moral support. Sigebert of East Anglia did this in the 630s (and was duly killed, by your namesake as it happens). Possibly some scenario like this could explain the wording in the Annales. If the scribe who wrote them down, possibly at a much later date, knew that Iago had retired and knew the date of his death but didn't know the circumstances and hadn't heard the hatchet story, it would be a reasonable supposition to assume it had been a natural death and write "slept". Conjecture!

We don't unfortunately know how old Maelgwn was when he entered the monastery, or why he did it and why he changed his mind. A plausible scenario is that he was getting on, but it's also possible that he had suffered some serious injury or illness that he didn't expect to recover from, or even that he had some sort of religious impulse. We know he had an adult nephew, but given how easily generations get mixed up that may not tell us much about Maelgwn's age.

When Maelgwn was in his monastery the most obvious candidates for (acting) king of Gwynedd would surely be Maelgwn's son Rhun Hir, or the nephew whom Maelgwn later murdered (or some other close relative unknown to us). Gildas doesn't mention Rhun so we have no idea of what he was doing at the time (if he was old enough to be playing any active role) or of his attitude to his father's shenanigans. How did he react to his father murdering his cousin, I wonder? Thereby must hang a tale; pity it hasn't come down to us. Maybe Maelgwn was not exactly remembered with unmixed joy (!), and that might answer my query above about why Caer Rhun has his son's name and not his.

Cadfan might well have handed over to Catwallaun, especially if Cadfan didn't like warfare and Catwallaun did. Cadfan's epitaph "wisest and most renowned of kings" doesn't sound overtly military, and I know of no tradition that makes him a warrior hero. Whereas Catwallaun is famous as a warrior. Perhaps Cadfan decided quite early on that he didn't like (or had no talent for) the warrior aspect of the job, handed over to Catwallaun and went to live quietly in a monastery on the site of what's now Llangadwaladr. Whether he could have returned as ruler (or sub-ruler) under Eadwine depends on the date of Eadwine's campaign and the date of Cadfan's death, neither of which are known. It's certainly possible.

Rick said...

In early Venice it was customary for the doge to retire to a convent when he was more or less at death's door - could that have been the case for these early medieval kings?

It did cross my mind that so long as they weren't killed in battle, a continued active lifestyle of campaigning would be healthier than eating like an athlete but no longer exercising like one.

Carla said...

Rick - Good question. It certainly isn't unheard of, especially for Christian kings. Caedwalla of Wessex (whose name is a variant spelling of the Brittonic Cadwallon/Catwallaun - make what you will of that!) abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome at the end of the 7th century. He died there and there's a theory that he had been severely injured in battle and knew he wasn't going to recover, hence his decision to abdicate. There's a certain heroic quality about abdicating to Rome rather than just to the local monastery! I rather doubt the pagan kings had the same option, though we don't know. It's worth bearing in mind that the Gwynedd kings were all Christian (the sources tell us this explicitly for Maelgwn and Cadwallon, and it's a fair guess that it also applied in between), so they probably had a slightly different set of options compared with the pagan English kings of the same period.

Which is another point worth noting. Later Ango-Norse warriors were said to despise and fear a "straw death", i.e. a natural death from old age or sickness, and there's a famous story of one of the Northumbrian Earls in the 11th century (it might be the Earl Siward who features in Macbeth) demanding that his family prop him upright and hold his sword in his hand when he was dying so that he could die on his feet and with a sword in his hand. If that belief was shared by the early English kings, which is quite plausible especially while they were pagan as the Norse gods are cognate with the English ones, then they may have actively sought death in battle, and carrying on campaigning til you drop is a liable to be an effective way of ensuring that.