A group of hauntingly beautiful Welsh poems lament the death of a leader named Cynddylan son of Cyndrwyn. On the internal evidence of the poems, he lived some time in the seventh century and was active in the areas that are now the north-west Midlands of England and the north-east of Wales. What do we know about him?
Marwnad Cynddylan (The Lament for Cynddylan)
the king of Dogfeiling, oppressor of the Cadelling.
I shall lament until I would be in my oaken silence
for the slaying of Cynddylan, grievous loss.
Grandeur in battle! So good was the destiny
that Cynddylan, the battle leader, got
seven hundred chosen soldiers in his retinue,
When the son of Pyd requested, he was so ready!
They used to drive back the spoils from the dales of Taff.
Captives lamented; lame, cattle bellowed.
Before Lichfield they fought,
There was gore under ravens and keen attack.
Limed shields broke before the sons of the Cyndrwynyn.
I shall lament until I would be in the land of my resting place
for the slaying of Cynddylan, famed among chieftains.
Canu Heledd (The Song of Heledd)
On the ground of Maes [C]ogwy, I saw
armies, battle affliction:
Cynddylan was an ally.
Come outside, maidens, and look at the land of Cynddylan.
The court of Pengwern is a raging fire:
Cynddylan, fiery supporter of the marches,
mail-wearing, stubborn in battle,
defending Tern, his patrimony.
Cynddylan Powys, you had a splendid purple cloak,
a storehouse to feed guests, like a lord;
the whelp of Cyndrwyn is mourned
Eglywsseu Bassa (Baschurch)
Baschurch is his resting place tonight.,--Canu Heledd
his final abode,
the support in battle, the heart of the people of Argoed.
Baschurch is crumbling tonight.
My tongue caused it.
It is red; my grief is too great.
Baschurch is confined tonight;
for the heir of the Cyndrwynin:
the land of the grave of Cynddylan the Fair.
Baschurch has lost its privilege,
after the English warriors slew
Cynddylan and Elfan Powys.
Three Gate-Keepers at the Action of Bangor Orchard:--Red Book of Hergest
Gwgon Red Sword, and Madawg son of Rhun, and Gwiawn son of Cyndrwyn. And three others on the side of Lloegr:
Hawystyl the Arrogant, and Gwaetcym Herwuden, and Gwiner.
The Action of Bangor Orchard may be another name for the Battle of Chester, on three grounds:
- there is a Bangor (Bangor is-y-Coed) only a few miles from Chester
- the Battle of Chester is known to have been a major engagement between at least one Brittonic king (Selyf ap Cynan of Powys) and at least one early English king (Aethelferth of Bernicia/Northumbria), which would explain the reference to Lloegr on the other side (Lloegr or Loegria was the medieval Welsh name for what is now England)
- Bede refers to the presence of a large contingent of monks from Bangor is-y-Coed at the Battle of Chester (Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch. 3), which is a direct link between the battle and Bangor
See my earlier post for the likely date range for the battle.
If the identification of the Battle of Chester as the Action of Bangor Orchard is correct, and if the Cyndrwyn in the Triad is the same as the man named as Cynddylan’s father in the Canu Heledd poetry, Cyndrwyn had a son of fighting age in 613/617. His other sons could have been older or younger than the Gwiawn in the Triad, but only within a couple of decades either side before biological possibility starts to get strained.
Maes Cogwy is the Battle of Cocboy, mentioned in Historia Brittonum as the battle in which Oswald of Northumbria was killed:
Penda, son of Pybba, reigned ten years; he first separated the kingdom of Mercia from that of the North-men, and slew by treachery Anna, king of the East Anglians, and St. Oswald, king of the North-men. He fought the battle of Cocboy, in which fell Eawa, son of Pybba, his brother, king of the Mercians, and Oswald, king of the North-men, and he gained the victory by diabolical agency.--Historia Brittonum ch. 65
Bede gives the date of Oswald’s death as 642 AD and names the location as Maserfelth (Book III, Ch. 9). Maserfelth/Maes Cogwy is not definitively located; Oswestry in Shropshire is the usual candidate, based on the name (Oswestry is from the Old English “Oswald’s Tree”), but there are other possibilities.
Wherever the location, the reference to Maes Cogwy indicates that Cynddylan was a contemporary of Penda of Mercia and was of fighting age in 642. The reference to the “son of Pyd” in the Lament for Cynddylan may refer to Penda, who was the son of a king named Pybba, and if so this would be consistent with Cynddylan as a contemporary and ally of Penda. If we take fighting age to be from 15 to 50, Cynddylan’s conjectural birth date would be in the range 592 – 627, and Gwiawn’s conjectural birth date would be in the range 563 – 601. There is enough overlap in these ranges for them to have been sons of the same father. If Gwiawn was in his 20s at the Action of Bangor Orchard and Cynddylan in his 40s at Maes Cogwy, they could have been approximate contemporaries, both born around the turn of the century.
The poetry gives Cynddylan the following territorial associations and titles:
- King of Dogfeiling
- Oppressor of the Cadelling
- Court of Pengwern
- Tren, his patrimony
- Cynddylan Powys
- Fought a battle at Maes Cogwy
- Fought a battle at Lichfield
- Buried at Baschurch
- Cattle raid on the dales of Taff
The dales of Taff refers to the River Taff, which flows through Cardiff in South Wales, but as the poem clearly describes it as a cattle raid it probably was not in Cynddylan’s own territory.
Dogfeiling was in what is now north-central Wales, somewhere in the valley of the River Elwy near modern Denbigh. Its associations are with Gwynedd, and it may have been a sub-kingdom of Gwynedd or an independent unit, or both at different times.
The Cadellings were the main royal dynasty of Powys, named after a founding figure called Cadell or Catell according to a story in Historia Brittonum. Appending the name of a territory to its ruler’s name was common practice, so “Cynddylan Powys” implies that Cynddylan was king of Powys. As he was also called “oppressor of the Cadelling”, this may indicate that he was either a king from a rival kingdom who had taken over Powys, or an internal rival from a different dynasty. The territory of medieval Powys was in the uplands of east-central Wales; early medieval Powys may well have been larger, but there’s no reason to assume it was in a different place altogether (more on this in a later post).
The location of Cynddylan’s court, Pengwern, is not known. There are several places called Pengwern in modern Wales (type “Pengwern” into Streetmap UK), and there may well have been others in the past whose names have since changed or been lost. The name is a topographical one, meaning something like “head of the swamp” or “head of the alder grove”. Gerald of Wales identifies Pengwern with Shrewsbury, but Gerald’s account was written in the 1190s, well over half a millennium after Cynddylan’s likely lifetime.
“Tren” has been argued to be a territory based on the catchment of the River Tern, the area surrounding Wroxeter (White and Barker 2002). One of the verses in Canu Heledd refers to “Dinlleu Vrecon” (the city of Wroxeter). Baschurch is in Shropshire, about 15 miles from Wroxeter on the other side of Shrewsbury, and Lichfield is about 40 miles away to the east. As mentioned above, the location of Maes Cogwy is not known, but if it is Oswestry it is also in Shropshire.
So, these associations indicate that Cynddylan was active in north Wales, in east-central Wales, in the Shropshire Plain around Wroxeter (and perhaps Shrewsbury), and as far east as Lichfield. If Gwiawn in the Triads was his brother, this may indicate the family also had connections with the area of Bangor is-y-Coed and Chester. All these places fall into a reasonably coherent area, covering the counties of what is now Cheshire and Shropshire and the uplands of eastern Wales.
This would be consistent with early medieval Powys having been a considerably larger kingdom than its medieval counterpart, including the lowlands of Cheshire and Shropshire in addition to the uplands of medieval Powys. However, I don’t think it necessarily proves the case. Cynddylan need not have inherited all of these areas, nor need he have ruled all of them for his whole career. He may have started as ruler of one region and expanded his influence, perhaps temporarily, into neighbouring areas. Bede’s pages are full of early medieval English kings doing just that. Taliesin’s poetry refers to a king of Powys in the previous generation, Cynan Garwyn (whose son Selyf was killed in 613/617 at the Battle of Chester), as fighting battles across the length and breadth of what is now Wales, from Gwynedd in the north-west to Gwent in the south-east. It seems likely that Cynddylan would have followed the same behaviour.
Since the poem specifies Tren as Cynddylan’s patrimony, I would take that as an indication that his original family lands were in the area near Wroxeter. This would be consistent with his burial at Baschurch, if family and/or friends retrieved his body from whatever battlefield he died on and brought him home for burial. He may have controlled the city of Wroxeter as well, or it may have been semi-independent. The titles of King of Dogfeiling and King of Powys could have been gained later in his career (perhaps temporarily), by marriage, inheritance or military force. The battle at Lichfield may have further added to his territory or may have been merely a raid on a neighbour.
The poetry refers to “Cynddylan and Elfan Powys”. This may indicate that Elfan was king of Powys at the time and Cynddylan was not, which would be consistent with the suggestion above that Cynddylan was only temporarily king of Powys. Or it may indicate a shared title, suggesting that Powys could have multiple kings (which was known among the West Saxons in the seventh century). Whether this represents a form of joint kingship, some kind of confederation, or reflected the partitioning of a territory among heirs, is open to question.
It is also possible that Tren has been misidentified, and that Cynddylan was a king or sub-king of Dogfeiling who conquered some or all of Powys, raiding as far as Lichfield and Cardiff, and perhaps being buried at Baschurch because it happened to be near his place of death rather than for family associations. And no doubt many other permutations can be argued.
It’s clear from the poetry that Cynddylan was killed in a disastrous battle, perhaps along with most of his adult male relatives, that the opposing side included English, and that his kingdom was lost to his surviving family.
There is not enough internal evidence from the poetry to identify the site of Cynddylan’s fatal battle definitively.
However, if Cynddylan is correctly identified as an ally of Penda of Mercia, the battle of Winwaed must be a likely candidate. Winwaed was fought at an unknown location between Oswy of Northumbria on one side and Penda of Mercia with thirty allies on the other (Bede, Book III Ch. 24). Bede doesn’t list the allies, but Historia Brittonum says that “kings of the Britons” were killed there along with Penda. The battle was a colossal disaster for Penda and his Brittonic allies. Bede says that Penda and almost all his thirty allied commanders were killed, and Historia Brittonum calls it “the slaughter of the field of Gai”. Cynddylan had fought with Penda of Mercia against Oswy’s brother Oswald at Maes Cogwy. It must be at least a strong possibility that he was among Penda’s allies at Winwaed and died there.
Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
White R, Barker P. Wroxeter: Life and death of a Roman city. Tempus, 2002, ISBN 0-7524-1409-7.
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Approximate location of Dogfeiling