Pengwern and Powys

Clawdd Offa
Offa’s Dyke
          between Mercia and Powys

Following response on the background to the previous Canu Heledd post about verses from a lost saga, here’s a broad sketch of what is known, and not known, about the historical context to the events related in the saga verses.  After the Romans left Britain, Viroconium, the town they established in the territory of the Cornovii, a few miles south of the town of Shrewsbury, continued to be occupied  up to some time early in the sixth century. It’s thought that by this time the sort of warfare being fought made a different sort of defensible site necessary and a new centre was established at Pengwern. There has been some confusion about where Pengwern was. In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales confidently asserted that it was Shrewsbury, but modern commentators generally doubt this. It may have been located on the hill fort known as ‘Berth’ near Baschurch in the marshy area to the north of Shrewsbury or at Dinlleu Vreconnon on the high ground of the Wrekin overlooking Viroconium.

It’s quite possible that the verses recording the destruction of Pengwern have survived because they formed a framework, as sort of memory aid, for the story-teller who would weave the story around them and that the saga itself may never have been written down. These verses are, anyway, not from the seventh century when the incidents they record happened, but two centuries later. It’s not uncommon that Brythonic written material is a lot later than the events described. They liked to remember their ancestors and tell stories about them – and they had very long memories!

In addition to the laments for Cynddylan and for Pengwern itself, these verses also include an address to the eagles that feed on the battlefield. From the fairly precise description they seem to be sea eagles. There are two of them The Eagle of Eli (possibly a river name) and the Eagle of Pengwern (are they, perhaps, some sort of battle spirits?):

The Eagle of Eli, I hear him tonight, bloodstained he is ……
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested, tonight his call is a loud screech …
Eagle of Pengwern, grey-crested tonight, his talon is lifted …

The history behind these stories is difficult to unravel as detailed evidence from the seventh century is sketchy, but we know that there had been an alliance between Powys under Cadwallon and Penda of Mercia against the Northumbrians. So it’s a lot more complex than the old ‘celt against saxon’ story suggests. Penda has been described as ‘the last of the great northern pagans’. Was this an issue at the time? Cadwallon was killed in 633 or 634 and the historian John Davies has suggested that the following year “denotes the extinction of the possibility of restoring Brythonic supremacy in Britain”.(*) But the alliance between Powys and Mercia continued and they defeated and killed Oswald of Northumbria at a battle near Oswestry (not far from Pengwern) in 642. The events recorded in the Canu Heledd verses apparently happened some years later following the death of Penda when a raiding party from Northumbria attacked Pengwern and killed all its defenders.

Was Cynddylan a king of Powys? And what was Powys at this time? Borders fluctuated and it seems that part of Powys became merged with Mercia for a while before being regained some time later. During the eighth century Mercia became a great power in central England and Offa of Mercia built the famous dyke separating England from what was becoming Wales. By the 9th century it possible that Powys as an identified area, had ceased to exist, although the Kingdom of Powys did become a powerful and distinct unit again in the 11th and 12th centuries. T.C. Charles-Edwards asserts that it is unlikely that anyone in the re-shaped 11th century Powys had any idea of the actual boundaries of the area in 850. He suggests that the earlier Powys might have formed as the ‘Pagenses’ (rural hinterland) of the urban centre based on Viroconium of the Cornovii, and then referred “primarily to the people rather than to a kingdom”. (**) John Koch elaborates this point, suggesting that there is some question as to whether places such as Pengwern, Eglwysseu Bassa, and Dinlleu Vreconn are names which have come down from earlier Brythonic habitation of the area, but are perhaps “a later Brythonicizing of an already English countryside, in effect a creative fiction”. (***) Alternatively he suggests that Cynddylan may have been a chieftain who ruled a linguistically mixed country in the 7th century which included Anglo-Saxons.

The question of Cynddylan’s status is confused because there appears to be an alternative lineage – the Cadellings – as rulers of Powys, and the verses of Cynddylan’s elegy regard the Cadellings as enemies. By the time of the 9th century Historia Brittonum it seems that only the Cadellings were remembered and the line of Cynddylan from Cyndrwyn was lost. History, creative history, remembrance, saga, poetry .. . , they all went into the ethos of the re-shaping of the Kingdom of Powys in the 11th century as a powerful political unit in medieval Wales. But what were the 9th century poets and story-tellers remembering of what went on the 7th century? Clearly the Cornovii as a distinct tribe did not survive the abandonment of their centre at Viroconium and the scattered people very likely occupied territories with shifting boundaries as alliances we’re formed and abandoned as the peoples of post-Roman Britain found their new identities. As the Normans took over England, Powys became strong again for a while within Wales, then being subsumed into Gwynedd before that fell to the Normans with the death of Llywelyn in 1282.

(*) John Davies History of Wales (1994)
(**) T.C. Charles-Edwards Wales and the Britons 350-1064 (2013)
(***) John Koch (ed) Historical Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture (2005)

3 thoughts on “Pengwern and Powys

  1. Thanks for sharing this summary of what is known and what is not known about Pengwern. I’m wondering what your opinion is on whether Viroconium, then Pengwern, were ruled by the Cadelling then usurped by Cynddylan of the Cyndrwynyn. You mentioned on Caer Feddwyd that Meifod was Brochwel’s (of the Cadelling’s centre of rule). However it says (on Wikipedia at least) this was his summer residence. Is there a possibility Brochwel’s centre could have been at Pengwern with Meifod as a ‘May abode’? Or do you think the Cyndrwynyn ruled at Pengwern all along? Can we know?

    1. As it appears that the relationship between the descendants of Cadell and the descendants of Cyndrwyn was that of enemies, it seems more likely that the Cyndrwyn line occupied land around the Virocomium/Pengwern territory and that the Cadell line had a larger territory to the north and the west (including Brochwel’s Mathrafal). I don’t think we can know definitively. But I have now come across an article in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies (No. 67, 2014) by Patrick Sims-Williams that seems to support that view. He suggests that Cynddylan may have joined the alliance of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia against the Northumbrians in the hope that they would support him in his conflict with the Cadellings. He also says that, while the line of Cyndrwyn was once a great dynasty they had declined so that “…when [later] the poet Cynddelw listed the fourteen tribes of Powys, he put the Cyndrwynyn in last place, whereas the Cadellings were in second place. The elegiac tone of Canu Heledd may reflect the Cyndrwynyn’s sense of loss more than that of Powys as a whole.” This makes Powys not a single entity but a looser confederation, with dispersed power-bases across the area. I think this is particularly likely to be true of the area which is now the borderland between England and Wales, where holding on to power would have been more difficult than in the mountainous country further west and north-west.

      1. Thanks for this, immensely helpful. It makes sense that there were a number of different ‘tribes’ with different seats of power and that the Pengwern was ruled by the Cyndrwynyn. Interesting idea about Cynddylan allying with Penda against the Northumbrians in the hope the Mercians would support him against the Cadelling, particularly after Selyf of the Cadelling and Cadawal of Rhos plus others failed fighting against the Northumbrians at the battle of Chester. Very complicated – lots of different shifting political allegiances. And I bet there was loads more going down that was not written down!

What do you think?