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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' (meaning '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 is claimed as being part of the large-scale reorganisations of British defences by Magnus Maximus, prior to his pursuit of an imperial title. This act has also been attributed to Vortigern, at least a generation later (if not two), and the probable dates for Cunedda do nothing to dispel this theory so, unless further evidence is uncovered, either version will have to be 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.

Gwynedd

In the west, in what would later be part of Wales, Cunedda governed most of the north (as his later medieval epithet, 'King of North Wales', describes), although the lands under his direct rule correspond pretty accurately to the later principality 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 northernmost Britons (the Picts) in terms of weaponry and battle tactics, thereby reducing the threat of Pictish attacks, in theory at least.

In true Celtic fashion, Cunedda could trace his lineage back to Beli Mawr, god of the sun and claimed as a high king of pre-Roman Britain, plus Beli's son, Ludd Llaw Ereint, the 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 overall ruler of Gwynedd.

Usually for Celtic kingdoms this was the start of crippling fragmentation 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 which were eventually fully re-merged back into the principality as a whole.

Ceredigion, along the Welsh west coast, 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 'Gwynedd' derives from one of two sources: either it was an adaptation of the Latin 'Venedotia', meaning 'beautiful land' (which seems to be a later Latin invention, and not, as some claim, the name of an Irish tribe), or it 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 the descent 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 territory 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 northern 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 ruling princes. This point of view tends to overlook the fact that almost all of Cunedda's sons ruled areas which 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 territories 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 circa 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, mid-sixth century king and also claimed as 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 Map of Gwynedd

 

 

Afflogion

A tiny territory on the Llŷn peninsula, founded by Afloyg ap Cunedda, Afflogion did not retain its semi-autonomous position after Afloyg's death. St Einion, ruler 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 Llŷn peninsula.

 

Ceredigion

Although not really one of the sub-kingdoms of Gwynedd, Ceredigion, situated along much of the western coast of Wales, was founded by Ceretic ap Cunedda. It bordered Dyfed and Powys, the former a Gaelic Déisi kingdom which was growing in strength, the latter the long border principality which was slowly being squeezed by the English.

The creation of this principality, which sealed the gap between Dyfed and Gwynedd, effectively secured the purpose of the Votadini migration and prevented any further Irish raids on the west. The name lives on today as the English 'Cardigan', although its original name is still used in Wales.

 

Dogfeilion

Dogfeilion (Dogfeiling to the later English) was a minor sub-kingdom which was based around Ruthin. It formed the eastern border of Gwynedd. In the short term, it did much better for itself than most of the other 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.

Around circa 642 Eludd ap Glas (who is probably the same person as Eiludd Powys), ruler of Dogfeilion, also became ruler 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 ruler, 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 map's (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, this 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. It later formed the eastern section of the pre-1974 county of Meirionydd.

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

 

Meirionnydd

Meirionnydd was one of the more powerful of the Gwyneddian offshoots. It was founded by Meirchion, a grandson of Cunedda (and who must have been the grandson who was 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 ruler, virtually the last of the great British leaders who, in the seventh century, so nearly destroyed the Northumbrians.

 

Osmaeliog

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

 

Rhos

Mistakenly, sometimes, attributed to the principality of Ceredigion in its earliest days, Rhos was created as a sub-kingdom of Gwynedd in the late fifth century by Einion Yrth. It was later merged back into Gwynedd.

Its first ruling prince was Owain Ddantgwyn ('White-Tooth'), the youngest son of Einion Yrth, who ruled from circa 480. Owain is sometimes acquainted with Arthur Pendragon, as their assumed 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. He ruled from his capital at Din Arth.

Later, under the rule of St Einon, Rhos absorbed Afflogion to become the principality 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 Caradog ap Meirchion, ruler 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. It was merged back into Gwynedd the mid-fifth century.

Maelgwyn Gwynedd seems to have been intent on directly ruling as much of the principality as possible, but Rhwfon's immediate descendants still enjoyed a degree of self-rule on Gwynedd's eastern border.

Map of Britain AD 450-600
This map of Britain concentrates on British territories and kingdoms which were established during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as the Saxons and Angles began their settlement of the east coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

 

 

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