History Files
 

 

Later Celtic Britain

The Sub-Kingdoms of Gwynedd

 by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 27 September 2009

 

 

According to long-established tradition based on generally accepted fact, a group of Votadini Picts under Cunedda (Cunedag) Wledig (the Imperator) were transferred from the area around Stirling and the mouth of the Firth of Forth to secure western Britain from Irish raiders.

The move was part of the large scale reorganisations of British defences by Magnus Maximus, prior to his pursuit of the Imperial purple. This act has also been attributed to Vortigern, a generation later, and the probable dates for Cunedda do nothing to dispel this theory, so unless further evidence is uncovered, either version seems acceptable.

Whomever the motivator of this tribal migration, Cunedda himself was said to have been ruler of the Manau Guotodin (which was a sub-division, forming the westernmost part of the Guotodin territory in modern Lothian) and was induced to migrate south with eight sons and one grandson.

In Wales, he governed most of the north (as his epithet, King of North Wales, describes), although the lands under his direct rule correspond pretty accurately to the later kingdom of Gwynedd. His father and grandfather bore Roman names so it is very likely that they were Roman confederate allies.

Late Roman authority in Britain sought to soften the potential of Pictish attacks by effectively Romanising the far northern British tribes beyond Hadrian's Wall without actually conquering them, so that they enjoyed many of the benefits of trade with Roman Britain, and were also more advanced than the more isolated Picts in terms of weaponry and battle tactics, thus reducing the threat of Pictish attacks, in theory at least.

In true Celtic fashion, Cunedda could trace his lineage back to Beli Mawr, the God of the Sun, his son Ludd Llaw Ereint, God of Healing, and Afallach, God of the Underworld. Following Celtic tradition, upon Cunedda's death, the lands under his control were divided amongst his sons, the seventh (but apparently the strongest), Einion Yrth, assuming the title of king of Gwynedd. Usually, this was the start of crippling fragmentation for Celtic kingdoms which ultimately doomed them in the face of unifying Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but in this case, Gwynedd seems to have remained politically whole, with most of these Gwyneddian territories remaining sub-kingdoms that were eventually fully re-merged into the kingdom.

Ceredigion, along the west coast of Wales, remained independent for much longer. Einion added to this patchwork by leaving the former Roman cantref of Rhos to his own younger son. The name of Gwynedd derives from one of two sources: either it was an adaptation of the Latin Venedotia, beautiful land (which seems to be a later Latin invention, and not, as some claim, the name of an Irish tribe), or it more probably derived from Cunedda, being distorted or adapted into Weneda and then Gwynedd.

Cunedda's direct line of descent died out with Cynan Tyndaethwy in 816. Although this was prolonged by the marriage of Cynan's daughter, Essylt, to Gwriad ap Elidyr, Heir to South Rheged, who ruled until 825, the couple had no children to take over and the Houses of Rheged and Gwynedd ended with them.

Merfyn Vrych ap Erthil, of the Northern Britons (in essence from Alt Clut, the only remaining British kingdom in the north by this time), was invited to rule. He may have had familial links with Gwynedd anyway, and under him and his son, Rhodri Mawr (the Great), Gwynedd came to rule large areas of North Wales, and at times unified the whole of Wales, especially in the face of later Norman invasions.

It has been suggested that as the Gwyneddian dynasty began to merge with other Welsh ruling houses, either through intermarriage or conquest, the stories of Cunedda's many sons were concocted to explain new place names and justify the reigns of new kings. This point of view tends to overlook the fact that almost all of Cunedda's sons ruled areas that were still part of Gwynedd four centuries later, before Rhodri Mawr's expansion into the rest of Wales.

It was a well-established post-Roman Celtic tradition to name kingdoms in one of three ways: after their founders, or to base the name on the description of a location or the survival of a Pre-Roman Celtic tribal name. The re-labelling of Ceredigion as Seisyllwg in c.720 continued the first of these methods.

Despite, or because of, the very fringe involvement with Rome of the Votadini British, Gwynedd looked very heavily to Roman influences until well into the sixth century. It is in Gwynedd that one of the last signs of the concept of Roman citizenship can be found, on a gravestone where a "cousin" of Maelgwn Fawr (Maelgwn Gwynedd, High King) proudly proclaims himself a Venedotis Cives, a citizen of Gwynedd.

 

To select a sub-kingdom for further information, click within its borders.

Map of Gwynedd

 

 

Afflogion

A tiny territory on the Lleyn Peninsula, founded by Afloyg ap Cunedda, it did not retain its semi-autonomous position after Afloyg's death. St Einion, King of Rhos, was allowed by his cousin and over-king, Maelgwyn Gwynedd, to absorb it. The enlarged sub-kingdom was rename Lleyn, as Einion now controlled eastern Gwynedd and the whole of the Lleyn Peninsula.

 

Ceredigion

Although not really one of the sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd, Ceredigion, situated along much of the western coast of Cymru, was founded by Ceretic ap Cunedda. It bordered Dyfed and Powys, the former a Gaelic Deisi kingdom growing in strength, the latter the long border kingdom slowly being squeezed by the English. The creation of this kingdom, sealing the gap between Dyfed and Gwynedd, effectively secured the purpose of the Votadini migration and prevented any further Irish raids on Wales. The name lives on today as the English Cardigan, although its original name is still used in Cymru.

 

Dogfeilion

Dogfeilion (Dogfeiling to the later English) was a minor sub-kingdom based around Ruthin that formed the eastern border of Gwynedd. In the short term, it did much better for itself than most of the sub-kingdoms, expanding far into Britain's mainland, first in Dumnonia, and then into the Midlands, in Pengwern.

Upon the death of Cunedda, his youngest (eighth) son, Dogfael, gained his inheritance and the land (in light blue on the north-eastern edge of the map, above) was named in his honour. Dogfael's own son, Elnaw, gained the Dumnonian sub-kingdom of Glastenning. During the following generation, under Cyndrwyn, the eastern Pengwernian city of Caer Luit Coyt was secured for one son (whose own son ruled all of Pengwern), while the other continued to rule in Glastenning.

In around circa 642 Eludd ap Glas (who is probably the same person as Eiludd Powys), King of Dogfeilion, also became king of Powys when Selyf Sarffgadau died at the battle of Caer Legion, leaving an infant son on the throne. Unfortunately, that branch of the family died out and Powys reverted to Selyf's son for its king, while Pengwern fell to Oswiu of Northumbria in 656.

Glastenning also fell, its security greatly compromised by the West Saxon breakthrough in 577, so that perhaps by no more than twenty years afterwards it no longer existed. By 700 the main Dogfeilion branch, now reduced to its original holdings inside Gwynedd, ended with Meurig ap Eliad, so Dogfeilion was very likely merged back into Gwynedd.

The (non-coloured) lands to the east of Dogfeilion (in the region of Wroxeter, now roughly the eastern half of the  modern county of Clwyd) seems also to have been part of the territory of Gwynedd as a whole at this time, lending credence to Cunedda's "North Wales" title. During the period in which the House of Dogfeilion ruled Pengwern, its kings were able to pass from Pengwern to Dogfeilion without crossing any borders. Powys must have gained the territory somewhere around 650 - 700, as the Dogfeilion rulers were weakening, and Gwynedd generally was subdued after the loss of Cadwaladr in 664.

 

Dunoding

Based on the area around Porthmadog and Harlech, Dunoding, named after Cunedda's fourth son, Dynod, apparently existed until well into the tenth century. There seems to be few records of its rulers, who surely would have provided a ruler for Gwynedd when the main line died out in the ninth century.

 

Edeyrnion

Obscure to the point of non-existence, the large sub-kingdom was situated near Bala. Virtually nothing is known of this realm aside from the name of its founder, Edeyrn ap Cunedda. By the twelfth century, the process of merging and dividing Wales between divisions of Gwynedd's later rulers meant that Edeyrnion had passed to North Powys.

Edward Dawson adds that the name of Edeyrn is the Roman Aeturnus, which probably confirms that there were Roman influences at work in the kingdom, and is normally seen spelled Edern by the Britons/Welsh.

 

Meirionydd

Meirionydd was one of the more powerful of the Gwyneddian offshoots. It was founded by Meirchion, a grandson of Cunedda (who must have been the grandson included in the original migration from the north). His father, Typaun, was Cunedda's eldest son who apparently died before the migration from Manau Guotodin. This branch of the family included in its descendants one Cadwaladr, who should not be confused with Gwynedd's later king, virtually the last of the great British leaders who, in the seventh century, so nearly expelled the Northumbrians.

 

Osmaeliog

The territory governed by Osfael ap Cunedda was confined to Holyhead island, and must have been remote and short-lived.

 

Rhos

Initially likely to have been part of the Kingdom of Ceredigion, Rhos seems to have carried its former Roman cantref name unchanged. Created as a sub-kingdom of Gwynedd in the late fifth century by Einion Yrth, it later merged back into Gwynedd.

Its first king was Owain Ddantgwyn (White-Tooth), the youngest son of Einion Yrth, who ruled from circa 480. Owain is sometimes acquainted with High King Arthur Pendragon, as their reignal dates are similar. The argument is supplemented by Owain's father's name, as "Yrth" could be the root of "Uther".

Owain's son, Cynlas Goch (the Red), or Cuneglassus in a more Romanised form, was mentioned as one of Gildas' five tyrants, and ruled from his capital at Din Arth. Under the rule of St Einon, Rhos absorbed Afflogion to become the Kingdom of Lleyn, although this was strictly on the say-so of the tough over-king, Maelgwyn Gwynedd.

Rhos was apparently drawn back under the direct control of Gwynedd after Einion's death, probably during the reign of Rhun Hir. Einion's family appear to have remained important lords in eastern Gwynedd after they had ceased to be kings, and a ninth generation descendant of Cynlas became King Caradog ap Meirchion of Gwynedd.

 

Rhufoniog

Founded by Rhwfon (apparently also known as Brochwel), Cunedda's third son, Rhufoniog in the area of Denbigh seems to have been, like some of the others, a short-lived wonder, and was merged back into Gwynedd the mid-fifth century. Maelgwyn Gwynedd seems to have been intent on directly ruling as much of the kingdom as possible, but Rhwfon's immediate descendants still enjoyed a degree of self-rule on Gwynedd's eastern border.

 

 

     
Images and text copyright P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.