29 August, 2009

August recipe: Courgette tian

A friend gave us this recipe with the recommendation, “It uses loads of courgettes!”. Anyone who has ever grown courgettes will recognise the sentiment. Given some warm weather and a bit of sunshine, two or three healthy plants can produce more courgettes than you would think possible. Even if you don’t grow your own, if you wander down country lanes in many parts of rural England you’re very likely to come across impromptu roadside stalls where people sell their surplus garden produce on the honesty box system, and in August they will most likely feature sparkling fresh courgettes at absurdly low prices.

This is a very good way to use them. We grow yellow courgettes, but it works just as well with the green variety.

Courgette* tian

1.25 lb (approx 550 g) courgettes
2 oz (approx 50 g) spinach or chard
Half an onion, or two or three shallots
1 Tablespoon (approx 15 ml) olive oil
1 clove garlic
1-2 oz (approx 25-50 g) smoked bacon
2 oz (approx 50 g) long-grain rice
1 oz (approx 25 g) Parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten
Fresh basil and/or parsley, lots of (probably about 2 tablespoons or so when chopped)

Cut the ends off the courgettes and boil whole (or halved if they won’t fit in the pan whole) in salted water until soft. This usually takes about 15 minutes. Drain, then mash the courgettes with a potato masher. Beware the jets of hot water they try to spit up your arm. Put the mashed courgette in a sieve and leave to drain for a few minutes.

Cook the rice in boiling salted water until tender. How long this takes depends on the rice (follow the instructions on the packet). Brown rice usually takes about 30 minutes, white rice around 15 minutes.

Peel and chop the onion or shallots. Peel and crush the garlic. Chop the bacon. Fry the onion, bacon and garlic in the olive oil over a medium heat for 5-10 minutes until starting to brown. Remove from the heat.

Shred the spinach or chard leaves. Grate the cheese.

Mix the mashed and drained courgette, the shredded spinach, the cooked rice and the grated cheese into the bacon, onions and garlic. Stir in the chopped basil and/or parsley and the beaten egg. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Grease a shallow ovenproof dish. I use a round heatproof glass baking dish about 8” (approx 20 cm) in diameter. Press the mixture evenly into the dish and level the surface.

Bake at approx 170 C for approx 35 minutes until set and starting to go golden-brown on top.

Serve hot with a green vegetable or salad of your choice. This quantity serves 2. You can double it up and use a bigger dish to feed more people. I have no idea if it keeps, because there are never any leftovers. I don’t think it would freeze, but I’ve never tried it.

*I believe the American for courgette is zucchini

25 August, 2009

The Forgotten Legion, by Ben Kane. Book review

Preface Random House, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84809-010-1. 603 pages.

The Forgotten Legion is set in 70 BC – 53 BC, in Rome, Gaul, Parthia (roughly modern Iran and Iraq) and Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan). The Roman politicians of the First Triumvirate, Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar, play secondary roles, as does the military officer Decimus Brutus*. All the main characters are fictional.

In the hills near Rome in 70 BC, Tarquinius, a slave proud of his Etruscan heritage and trained as the last Etruscan haruspex (soothsayer), leaves the estate when his mentor is killed on the orders of a Roman noble. In Rome at the same time, a slave girl is raped in the street by a Roman nobleman, identified only as “the lean man” and later gives birth to twins, a boy and girl named Romulus and Fabiola. In 61 BC, in Gaul, the mighty warrior Brennus witnesses the destruction of his tribe the Allobroges by Roman armies and is himself captured and sold into slavery as a gladiator. All four slaves are, in their different ways, determined to gain their freedom and exact revenge on Rome. Fabiola, sold into prostitution in a brothel that caters for the rich and powerful, has to learn to navigate the turbulent world of high politics and street violence in Rome. Tarquinius, Brennus and Romulus face a journey to the ends of the known world, as Crassus launches his invasion of Parthia. Can the four survive against overwhelming odds?

All the time I was reading The Forgotten Legion, I had the theme tune Nobody Does It Better from the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me running in my head. All four lead characters are gifted with innate, exceptional talents. Fabiola, a household slave sold to a brothel aged 13, quickly becomes the establishment’s star attraction and highest earner, and a mean street fighter into the bargain. Her twin brother Romulus, sold to a gladiator school also aged 13, is a champion gladiator within months. Brennus, who mows down legionaries despite being outnumbered a dozen to one, must be the mightiest Gaulish warrior since Asterix and Obelix (no, magic potion isn’t involved). Tarquinius has a supernatural ability that means he really can read the future in a chicken’s entrails and is an expert military strategist who invents in months a technique to withstand horse archery that the Parthians have never thought of, despite having been fighting enemy horse archer cultures from the steppes for years and having a ready supply of the requisite raw materials. Nothing wrong with this; it establishes The Forgotten Legion as a Romance in the old sense of the word, full of exceptional characters doing extraordinary things in exotic locations.

And are the locations exotic. One of the things I enjoyed most about The Forgotten Legion was its enormous geographical canvas. Most of the Roman-set fiction I’ve read tends to be set in Europe (the Roman invasion/occupation of Britain seems to be especially popular) or in Rome itself, so seeing the world beyond the eastern frontiers of the Empire makes an interesting change. Crassus’ soldiers march through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to the vast deserts of Parthia, then over mountains to the green hills and valleys of Margiana, giving the reader a sort of whistle-stop tour of Central Asia. The sketch map provided at the beginning of the paperback is invaluable here, especially if used in conjunction with a modern atlas. The Parthian Empire occupied approximately the area of modern Iraq and Iran, and at the time of the Late Republic it was Rome’s chief rival for power in the region. Crassus really did invade Parthia, and anyone who doesn’t already know the historical outcome can find out by Googling for the Battle of Carrhae (insert modern parallel of your choice).

The Forgotten Legion features lots of action. As well as the Battle of Carrhae itself, which is one set-piece among several battles in the Parthian campaign, we also have gladiator contests in the arena and bar-room brawls, street fights and murder attempts in Rome itself. The narrative cuts back and forth between the different characters, always stopping on a cliffhanger (although there is not actually that much suspense, because Tarquinius predicts practically everything before it happens). Paradoxically, the sheer amount of action both speeds and slows the pace. On the one hand there’s hardly a chance to draw breath as the tale ricochets from one mortal peril to another. On the other, it gives the narrative a rather rambling quality; for example, it takes 350 pages before our three heroes finally come together in the legion of the title. This is perhaps because the novel is clearly only the first part of a much longer tale, and the “end” isn’t really an ending at all but more of a brief pause between volumes.

Tarquinius has magical powers to foretell the future that really work. It’s made quite plain that this isn’t just belief or coincidence; he really can predict the future accurately from clouds and animal innards. This makes the foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed for my taste, but conversely it does mean that the book is an easy read. If I had to stop reading for a lengthy period I never had to back-track to remind myself what was going on because so much is effectively told twice, once in prophecies and once in the action.

The aristocratic rapist who fathered Romulus and Fabiola seemed oddly contradictory to me. He is apparently so overcome with drink and lust that he rapes a random slave girl in a back alley, oblivious to dirt or the possibility of disease, yet so cool-headed that as soon as he has finished he mentally reviews a potted history of his entire political career to date. Although he is at this point identified only as “the lean man”, his identity could hardly be more obvious; and I suspect that I don’t need Tarquinius’ powers of soothsaying to predict where the story is eventually going to end up.

A preface and author’s note explain the history behind the Forgotten Legion’s remarkable journey, and a glossary explains the numerous Latin terms scattered through the text. I rarely referred to it because I found I could work them out from context, but it is helpful to know it’s there if needed.

Entertaining all-action blockbuster in book form.

*The Brutus everyone has heard of, of “Et tu Brute” fame in Shakespeare, is Marcus Junius Brutus. Decimus Brutus was a contemporary, who served as an officer in Caesar’s army in Gaul, and he is the Brutus who appears in The Forgotten Legion. I guess they were probably related, but I don’t know how closely.

19 August, 2009

Cearl, King of the Mercians

Mercia was an early medieval kingdom in what is now the Midland region of England. In the mid-seventh century under King Penda and again in the eighth under King Offa, it was among the most powerful kingdoms in Britain. Cearl is the first king of Mercia recorded in the surviving sources. What can we say about him?



Among these were Osfrid and Eadfrid, sons of King Edwin, who were both born to him in exile of Coenburg, daughter of Cearl, King of the Mercians
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book II Ch. 14]


The line quoted above is the sole mention of Cearl in any historical source, which is not a lot to go on, even by the standards of early medieval history. However, a few things can be inferred.

Cearl had a daughter, Coenburh, who had borne two sons before 617 AD. Even if Coenburh was married young, say at age 15, and conceived her first child straight away, she can hardly have been born much after 600 AD and a few years before is more likely. By extension, her father Cearl cannot have been born much after 580, and some years before is more likely.

Or, possibly, lack thereof. Cearl is not mentioned in the genealogy of the Mercian kings in the Anglian Collection or Historia Brittonum Ch 60. Either he was not in the direct line of ancestry of the later kings, perhaps belonging to a different branch of the royal family, or he belonged to a different dynasty altogether. There is a group of three C- names in the Anglian Collection genealogy (Creoda, Cynewald, Cnebba), placed in the generations immediately before Penda’s father Pybba. Alliteration was popular, though by no means universal, in Old English naming conventions, so these may indicate that Cearl belonged to a branch of the dynasty that claimed descent from one or other of these figures. But this is essentially speculation.

Political influence and power
Cearl married his daughter to a political exile from Deira who was on the run from Aethelferth of Bernicia/Northumbria at the time. Aethelferth’s military power is well documented. Bede describes him as very powerful and ambitious and credits him with military success over much Brittonic territory (Ecclesiastical History Book I Ch. 34). Aethelferth had won a major victory over the Irish of Dal Riada (roughly modern Argyll) in 603, and would win another over King Selyf of Powys at the Battle of Chester in 613/617, both kingdoms well removed from his core territory of Bernicia (approximate location map for Bernicia, Dal Riada and Powys on my website). Evidently Aethelferth was well capable of projecting his military power over considerable distances, with disastrous consequences for those on the receiving end. And Cearl of Mercia chose to form a marriage alliance with Aethelferth’s sworn enemy. Assuming he did it knowingly and was not stupid, this implies the following things to me:

  • Cearl was presumably confident of his power and his ability to withstand Aethelferth in battle. Either he had delusions of grandeur, or he presumably controlled considerable military resources of his own, as ruler of a substantial kingdom and/or as part of a powerful group of allies and/or client kings

  • Cearl could hardly have thought Aethelferth would not find out, so presumably he was prepared to challenge Aethelferth. Perhaps Aethelferth’s power was on the wane (or Cearl thought it was), and Cearl’s purpose with the marriage alliance was to pick a fight and claim Aethelferth’s dominions, or some of them, for himself. (A sort of early medieval equivalent of, “Come on, punk, make my day”).

If correct, this further implies that Cearl was ambitious, that he fancied expanding his power to the north (at least into Eadwine’s ancestral territory of Deira, and perhaps beyond that into Aethelferth’s own kingdom), and that he thought he had the means to do so.

Date of death
Cearl’s reign was certainly over by 633 AD, when Penda son of Pybba was ruling Mercia (Bede Book II Ch. 20). The date and circumstances of the end of Cearl’s reign are not known.

It is known that Cearl’s son-in-law Eadwine had changed his place of exile to the court of Raedwald of East Anglia before 617 (Bede, Book II Ch. 12). This may indicate that Cearl had simply changed his mind, perhaps having been threatened by Aethelferth (as we know Raedwald was) and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, or perhaps having decided that Eadwine was no longer a good bet or having taken a dislike to him.

Or it may indicate that Cearl had died or been deposed before 617, and his successor no longer wanted Eadwine in Mercia. The next king of the Mercians mentioned by Bede is Penda son of Pybba, who was ruling in Mercia by 633 AD. If the change of initial letter in the names of the Mercian kings from C- to P- is indicative of a change of dynasty, and if Eadwine’s departure indicates a change of political policy (very likely, since it is clear from Bede’s account that Penda and Eadwine were enemies), it is possible that Cearl was deposed as King of the Mercians by Penda or Penda’s predecessor at some time before 617.

It is not clear whether Penda was Cearl’s direct successor, or if there were one or more kings in between. Bede describes Penda in 633 as “a warrior of the Mercian royal house” and says that “from this time on” he ruled the Mercians, which would suggest that Penda became king in or around 633. If this is the case, it suggests that if Cearl was deposed before 617, it was by Penda’s predecessor(s) rather than by Penda himself.

Even if Cearl was deposed by a rival, his family may not have vanished entirely from Mercian history. A later king of the Mercians, Coenred, who reigned in 704-709 (Bede Book V Ch. 24), had the same first name element as Cearl’s daughter Coenburh. This may be pure coincidence, or it may indicate a connection with Cearl’s family.

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.

13 August, 2009

Editor's Choice

Paths of Exile has been selected as Editor's Choice in the August 2009 edition of Historical Novels Review magazine. Here's what the reviewer had to say:

Carla Nayland, Quaestor2000, 2009, £9.99, pb, 221pp, 9781906836092
Paths of Exile is a wonderful story, one that conjures up this long-gone age in extraordinary detail and reveals a profound understanding of its politics, cultures, and religions based on extensive research. It may be true, as Nayland admits, that “solid facts are rare indeed in 7th-century Britain”, but these characters—some real, others pure fiction—are so solid and credible that they will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

There will, I’m sure, be more to come, as this is just the first stage of Eadwine of Deira’s story. He and his loyal companions—Lilla, Ashere, and Drust—escape after the disastrous battle outside Eboracum (modern York) at which Aethelferth the Twister, a powerful ruler from the northern kingdom of Bernicia, routs the army led by Eadwine’s father, Aelle, contemptuously known as “Ox Brains.” Who else would relinquish a stronghold like Eboracum? Eadwine flees south, but as he knows well, there is no a safe haven if you have a price on your head—particularly when loyalty demands that he first solve the mystery of his brother Eadric’s death and then avenge it.

Nayland is an author who confidently weaves together an intricate and thrilling series of subplots, revealing more about the individuals whom Eadwine meets while in exile and the widely diverse groups that occupied areas now so familiar to us. Severa, a keenly intelligent young Christian woman and a healer whose skill exposes her to accusations of witchcraft, is a particularly unforgettable character. One controversial hurdle that Nayland has, to my mind, cleared in every respect is her wholly convincing dialogue that satisfies the modern ear while also distinguishing between the various accents and languages then in use. In all, a compelling tale and an authoritative new voice: one to watch. --Lucinda Byatt

Posted on the Historical Novel Society site (scroll down)

Needless to say, I am delighted! My thanks to the Historical Novel Society and to the reviewer.

11 August, 2009

Hugh and Bess, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4022-1527-8. 276 pages.

Set in 1341–1350, with flashbacks to 1326, Hugh and Bess tells the story of Hugh le Despenser (son of the notorious Hugh le Despenser who was the favourite of Edward II and was horribly executed for treason in 1326) and his wife Elizabeth (Bess) de Montacute. Hugh’s mistress Emma and the faithful laundress Alice are fictional; all the other major characters are historical figures.

Bess de Montacute is nearly fourteen, pretty, sharp, wilful and very aware of her status as the eldest daughter of William de Montacute, trusted advisor to King Edward III. So when she is told to she is to marry Sir Hugh le Despenser, who is not only aged 32 but also the son and grandson of disgraced traitors, she is not at all pleased about it, despite his riches. For his part, Hugh has mixed feelings too; he knows he has to make a grand marriage, but he is already in love with his mistress of ten years’ standing, a knight’s daughter named Emma. Bess soon comes to enjoy her role as a rich man’s wife, but on a personal level all Hugh’s kindness and consideration can win from her is a grudging tolerance. Only when Hugh is sent abroad to fight in a war that puts him in mortal danger does Bess realise how much he has come to mean to her – but is it too late?

Susan Higginbotham’s previous novel The Traitor’s Wife told the story of Eleanor de Clare, niece of Edward II, and her husband Hugh le Despenser (the notorious one, who used his position as Edward II’s favourite and homosexual lover to extort money from practically everyone in England, thereby achieving the remarkable feat of uniting the English nobility, at least until they had got rid of him). Hugh and Bess continues the story of the Despenser family into the next generation. This Hugh le Despenser was an attractive character towards the end of The Traitor’s Wife, as he patiently tried to live down his father’s appalling reputation by exemplary behaviour and loyal military service, so it was a pleasure to see him get a novel to himself.

Hugh and Bess is subtitled “A Love Story” in some editions, and that’s an accurate description. Although politics and warfare play a part in the story, and there is a harrowing portrayal of the Black Death, the focus of the novel is the relationship between Hugh and Bess. Bess is an immature and rather self-centred teenager at the start of the novel, which is fair enough considering her age, and becomes more engaging as she grows up. I found Hugh the most attractive and interesting character. He has to come to terms with the fact that the father he loved was also (deservedly) one of the most hated men in England, and imprisonment for four years in harsh conditions bordering on solitary confinement has taken a heavy toll. Somehow Hugh has to learn to cope with society again – not easy when everyone looks at him askance as the son of an extortionist and sodomite – as well as to face the gargantuan task of redeeming his family’s reputation. Hugh meets the challenge with pragmatism, courage, and a wry sense of humour. For example: musing on his relationship with the king, “…they would never be intimates; in any case, his father had been so close to his king that this would probably have to suffice for whole generations of Despensers”; when the Black Death arrives at his manor causing unwelcome guests to depart in a precipitous hurry, “That was one way of chasing off Lady Thornton, you have to admit”.

The narrative style has a similar light touch and occasional shaft of dry wit, which I found appealing. I like a novel that can make me smile. For example, the description of the dowager queen Isabella “…carefully dressed so as not to outshine the younger Queen, but somehow managing to give the impression that she could certainly still do so if she pleased”; Bess, as a flighty teenager on the day before her wedding, feeling that it would be disrespectful to pray for something to prevent her marriage and frivolous (not to mention impractical) to pray for her bosom to develop overnight; Elizabeth de Burgh, commenting on Bess’s desire for a sign from heaven about her marriage, “What, a lightning bolt?”.

Hugh and Bess is quite a short book, somewhere between a novel and a novella, and makes for a quick, easy read. Details of domestic life among the fourteenth-century aristocracy are well covered, including the ever-changing fashions (Queen Isabella on Bess’s attempt to dress demurely, “That gown and wimple are fit only for a soggy day in Wales”). The effects of the Black Death, known at the time and in the novel simply as “the pestilence” are also well described, covering not only the disease itself but also the remarkable stoicism with which the survivors picked themselves up and rebuilt their lives in the aftermath. A helpful Author’s Note sets out what happened to some of the characters after the end of the novel, and the history underlying the story.

Charming, uncomplicated short tale of domestic life and love in fourteenth-century England.

06 August, 2009

Powys: the early medieval kingdom

Powys was an important early medieval Brittonic kingdom. It’s mentioned by name in several sources, including the poetry attributed to Llywarch Hen and Taliesin, (legendary?) bards of the sixth or seventh century, the Historia Brittonum (written in the early ninth century according to its prologue), and an inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg, erected (according to its inscription) by a ninth century king of Powys.

The medieval Welsh territory of Powys occupied what is now east-central Wales, approximately west of Offa’s Dyke and stretching from approximately Mold in the north to somewhere in the region of modern Montgomery in the south (see map on Wikipedia). What about the early medieval kingdom?


Historia Brittonum

Historia Brittonum, written in the early ninth century according to its prologue, associates the founding of the kingdom of Powys with a visit to Britain by St Germanus of Auxerre and claims a continuous line of dynastic descent up to the chronicler’s own time.

32. At that time St. Germanus, distinguished for his numerous virtues, came to preach in Britain: by his ministry many were saved; but many likewise died unconverted. Of the various miracles which God enabled him to perform, I shall here mention only a few: I shall first advert to that concerning an iniquitous and tyrannical king, named Bennlli.
35. The following day, the hospitable man who had been converted by the preaching of St. Germanus, was baptized, with his sons, and all the inhabitants of that part of the country; and St Germanus blessed him, saying, "a king shall not be wanting of thy seed for ever." The name of this person is Catel Drunluc: "from henceforward thou shalt be a king all the days of thy life." Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the Psalmist: "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill." And agreeably to the prediction of St. Germanus, from a servant he became a king: all his sons were kings, and from their offspring the whole country of Powys has been governed to this day.
--Historia Brittonum

St Germanus visited Britain on two occasions, dated by Bede to 429 AD and 438 AD (Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 17 and Ch. 21), and the visits are known from a hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon in 480 AD.

Whether the story of the wicked king, etc, is literally true or not, it indicates that the kingdom of Powys was considered in the ninth century to have had a long history.

The name of the wicked king, Benlli, occurs in the name of Foel Fenlli hill fort between Mold and Ruthin, which suggests that the territory of early medieval Powys included some of north-east Wales. The location is consistent with the later medieval territory of the same name.

Pillar of Eliseg

The Pillar or Cross of Eliseg stands near Llangollen in what is now central Wales. Click on the grid reference in the Wikipedia article cited below for the precise location.

The inscription reads:
Concenn son of Catell, Catell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
† And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
† The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys . . . throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
† Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
† This is that Concenn who captured with his hand eleven hundred acres [4.5 km²] which used to belong to his kingdom of Powys . . . and which . . . . . . the mountain
[the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost]
. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus. . . of Britain . . . Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan.
† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
† Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
† The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement.
-- Wikipedia

The same genealogy from Catell to Eliseg, with Vortigern (spelled Gwrtheyrn) as a founder figure, is also found in Jesus College manuscript 20 (see below), but the Jesus College manuscript does not mention Britu. Concenn, Pascent and Maun feature in the Harleian genealogy (see below), there traced back to a founder called Catel Dunlurc (presumably the Catel Drunluc of Historia Brittonum), but there is no mention in the Harleian genealogy of Vortigern or Britu.

Whether St Germanus blessed two dynastic founders, one called Britu commemorated on the pillar and one called Catell mentioned in Historia Brittonum, or a single person bore both names, or one or other source is mistaken, is open to interpretation. Given that Historia Brittonum has a great deal to say about Vortigern, it seems to me likely that it would have mentioned a connection between Catell and Vortigern if such a tradition was widely accepted, so on the whole I think it more likely that two individuals, and by extension perhaps two (or more) interlinked dynasties, are concerned. But this is a matter for interpretation; arguing from absence of evidence should always be approached with caution (!). The location of the pillar is consistent with the medieval territory of Powys.

Annales Cambriae

613 The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan.
--Annales Cambriae

Selyf map Cynan can be identified in the genealogies of the kings of Powys (Selim map Cinan at the beginning of the Harleian entry, and Seliph M Kynan in the middle of the Jesus College entry):

[S]elim map CĂ­nan map Brocmayl map Cincen map Maucanu map Pascent map Cattegirn map Catel dunlurc.
--Harleian Genealogy
Rodri ma6r mab nest merch Cadell Pywys brenhin Pywys.
Cadell M Brochuael M Elisse M Coleda6c M Beli M Seliph M Kynan garwin M Brochuael yscithra6c M manogan M Pascen M Cadell deyrlloch M Cadern M G6rtheyrn g6rtheu
--Jesus College manuscript 20

Selyf also appears in the Welsh Triads as a great military leader:

Three Battle-Leaders of the Island of Britain:
Selyf son of Cynan Garrwyn, and Urien son of Cynfarch, and Afaon son of Taliesin. This is why they were called battle-leaders: because they avenged their wrongs from their graves. [?]
--Hergest Triads

Since Selyf of Powys was killed fighting at Chester in the seventh century, this may indicate that the territory of seventh-century Powys included Chester. It doesn’t guarantee it, as battles were sometimes fought well outside the core territories of the antagonists. For example, according to Bede the Battle of the Idle was fought in Mercian territory between Aethelferth of Bernicia/Northumbria and Raedwald of East Anglia in 616 (Bede, Ecclesiastical History Book II Ch 12). However, presumably Selyf had a reason to be fighting a battle at Chester, and this may have been a territorial interest.

Gerald of Wales

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) was a distinguished Norman-Welsh clergyman who wrote a Description of Wales in the 1190s. He clearly states that Shropshire had previously been part of the kingdom of Powys:

For the country now called Shropshire formerly belonged to Powys, and the place where the castle of Shrewsbury stands bore the name of Pengwern, or the head of the Alder Grove.
--Description of Wales (full text translation at Project Gutenberg)

Pengwern features in the poem Canu Heledd as the court of a leader called Cynddylan. References elsewhere in the poem place Cynddylan in the seventh century and link him to other places in what is now Shropshire (see earlier post), which is all consistent with Gerald’s account. However, Gerald’s account was written down a good five centuries after the events of the seventh century, which gives ample time for traditions and locations to become confused, so should be interpreted with caution.

Life of St Beuno

The fourteenth-century Life of St Beuno says of Beuno’s father:

There was once a man of lineage in Powys in the place that is called Banhenic, near to the river which was known then as Sabrina and now as Hafren.
--Life of St Beuno (available on Google Books)

Later on in the Life, St Beuno is granted land by King Cynan son of Brochwel (who appears in the Harleian genealogies as the father of Selyf ap Cynan, see above), and rebukes the sons of Selyf, prophesying that they and their kingdom will be destroyed.

Sabrina is the Latin name of the River Severn, and Hafren is its modern Welsh name.

Accepting that a fourteenth-century source should be interpreted with caution in regard to events in the seventh century, this suggests that St Beuno was an approximate contemporary of Selyf ap Cynan, and that at that period Powys extended to somewhere on the banks of the Severn. If Banhenic has ever been identified, I don’t know of it.

The Severn is a very long river, rising in Mid-Wales on the slopes of Plynlimon, and flowing roughly west through the hills of Powys to Welshpool and then out into the Shropshire Plain, where it describes a leisurely arc round modern Shrewsbury and Wroxeter and then starts flowing south on its way to the Bristol Channel (Severn Sea). See map links at the bottom of the post for locations. In the upper part of its course (roughly, upstream of Welshpool), the Severn flows through the territory of medieval Powys. St Beuno’s childhood home may therefore not extend the boundaries of early medieval Powys beyond its medieval counterpart, or it may indicate that early medieval Powys included some of the middle Severn on the Shropshire Plain, as stated by Gerald of Wales.

The Cornovii

Ptolemy’s second-century geography lists a tribe in west-central Britain called the Cornovii. Their territory included Viroconium (modern Wroxeter), and the fort of Deva Victrix (modern Chester):

From these toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns:
Deva, Legio XX Victrix
-- Ptolemy Book 2

If one speculates that the death of King Selyf of Powys at the Battle of Chester indicates that the territory of seventh-century Powys included Chester (see above), and if Gerald of Wales is correct that seventh-century Powys included Shropshire, then this would be consistent with the early medieval kingdom of Powys covering some or all of the lowland territory of the Cornovii as well as the uplands of medieval Powys.

Llywarch Hen

One of the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen in the Red Book of Hergest calls Powys “the paradise of Wales”, a name that has, not surprisingly, been adopted as the motto of the modern county (which does not, by the way, follow the boundaries of its medieval counterpart).

Of Powys, the paradise of the Cymry.
Llywarch Hen, Red Book of Hergest

This is consistent with a territory that included fertile lowland country as well as uplands, although it may reflect polite poetic convention. It’s fair to say that describing your patron’s country as “paradise” might be a safer bet for a repeat commission than calling it “barren moorland” or even “wild and beautiful uplands”, regardless of topographical accuracy.

Place name

The place name Powys, which is from the Latin “pagenses” meaning something like “country dwellers”, might be considered as evidence against the notion of including the Cornovii and their two towns in the kingdom’s territory. It would seem to be more consistent with the rural uplands of the medieval territory of Powys. However, it may be that Powys had multiple rulers (see post on Cynddylan) and that the towns were to some extent self-governing for a while (possibly under the control of urban bishops, see earlier post), leaving the rural areas of the Cornovii territory to be governed by the rulers of early medieval Powys. In this scenario, the place name could be interpreted as indicating that the towns were treated as separate entities, at least when the kingdom acquired its name.


I think it’s a reasonable conclusion that early medieval Powys included roughly the territory of its medieval counterpart in east-central Wales. Historia Brittonum’s story of Benlli, the location of the Pillar of Eliseg, and the birthplace of St Beuno according to the medieval Life, are all consistent with this.

Early medieval Powys may also have extended into the adjacent lowlands of Shropshire if Gerald of Wales is correct, if St Beuno’s birthplace was on the middle Severn, and if the territories associated with Cynddylan in his praise-poetry were part of the kingdom of Powys. If Chester was in King Selyf’s territory, the kingdom may also have included Cheshire in his time.

Powys was evidently a powerful and aggressive kingdom, at least at times. In poetry attributed to Taliesin, Cynan Garwyn (the king who preceded Selyf) is credited with having fought battles in Mona (modern Anglesey), on the River Wye (Gwent, south-east Wales), and “on the hill of Dyved”, which could be the territory of Dyfed around what is now St David’s in south-west Wales. A king who could fight battles across the length and breadth of what is now Wales, even if they were only raids, presumably controlled considerable resources. This would be consistent with early medieval Powys having controlled the lowlands of Shropshire and/or Cheshire as well as the uplands of its medieval counterpart.

It is worth noting that Gerald of Wales does not say that Powys once included Chester. Caveats about the lateness of the source accepted, this may be an indication that the territory of the Cornovii was at some point divided into two (or more) distinct regions that went politically separate ways.

Trying to define a geographic and political entity that can be labelled ‘early medieval Powys’ is probably to some extent chasing a chimera. The princes of medieval Wales were forever in territorial dispute with each other, each lord trying to extend his power over his neighbours by military force and/or marriage alliance. There’s no reason to imagine that early medieval kingdoms were any more pacific or any less dynamic. It seems likely that the boundaries of early medieval Powys fluctuated considerably over time, depending on the relative military and/or political strength of the relevant rulers. The inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg is consistent with this, referring to two kings who had (re)conquered territory that they claimed to have previously been part of their kingdom.

In which case, the lowlands of Cheshire and/or Shropshire and the towns of Wroxeter and/or Chester might have been part of Powys at some times and independent entities, or part of other kingdoms, at other times, and may have changed hands more than once. Whether such regions were regarded as independent entities that co-operated from time to time (voluntarily or by force) in some sort of confederation called Powys, or as parts of a unified kingdom called Powys that were separated off from time to time (voluntarily or by force), may be a distinction without a practical difference.

For what it’s worth, I would identify at least three distinct regions: the upland territory that became medieval Powys; lowland Shropshire; lowland Cheshire. The towns of Wroxeter and Chester may have been independent, or may have been part of the relevant lowland regions. Various combinations of these regions, at various times, under various dynasties, could be called the kingdom of Powys.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.

Map links

Foel Fenlli hill fort Streetmap link because Google Maps doesn’t show topographic features such as hill forts, or at least I haven’t figured out how to persuade it to. You can zoom in and out to place the location in context.





Source of the River Severn

Welshpool Zoom in and out to trace the course of the River Severn


St David’s


Map showing the county boundaries before the assorted local government reorganisations since the 1960s. Cheshire and Shropshire are numbers 14 and 15. The old county boundaries give a better idea of the approximate location of the Cornovii territories; the modern administrative structure separates out some urban areas as enclaves and can be confusing.