History Files


Post-Roman Britain

Owain Ddantgwyn and the Identity of 'King' Arthur

by Mick Baker, 27 October 2003

1  Owain Ddantgwyn ruled Rhôs and Gwynedd in the last decade of the fifth century AD. Arthur is said to have flourished at precisely the same time (Historia Brittonum).

2  Owain Ddantgwyn was the youngest son of one of the ruling princes of Gwynedd, Enniaun Yrth. This line of princes were known as the head dragons.

Founded by Cunedda Wledig, Gwynedd was almost certainly the most important principality of the age and, as borders were extremely fluid, it is entirely plausible that the influence of Cunedda's progeny spread into Powys as well as the Gwyneddian sub-kingdoms. (as witnessed in the name 'Cunorix' which was found at Viroconium). Uther Pendragon - meaning Terrible Head Dragon - was father to Arthur. Could Enniaun Yrth have been the Yrthyr-pen-dragon?

3  Owain Ddantgwyn, it is theorised, was ruler both of Gwynedd and Rhôs, succeeding to his brother Cadwallon Lawhir's overlordship (in Gwynedd proper) circa 517 [this theory is not supported by the History Files, as can be noted in the Gwyneddian king list for these territories - Ed].

This line of kings therefore provided the most powerful rulers in Britain at the time of the Battle of Badon [at the end of the fifth century]. 'Arthur' led the British to victory in this siege.

4  Owain Ddantgwyn was probably the father of Cuneglasus (Cynglas), whose predecessor was called the Bear. Gildas refers to Cuneglasus as the charioteer of the Bear's stronghold (Din Arth).

If Cuneglasus himself were the Bear then why does Gildas use the third person? Bear, in its Latin form - Artorius - is almost certainly the origin of the name 'Arthur'. This is quite in keeping in a land which was very recently under the dominion of Rome.

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)

  At the death of Owain Ddantgwyn, the territories of Gwynedd and Rhôs were again ruled separately by his successors - Maglocunus (Maelgwyn) in Gwynedd and Cuneglasus in Rhôs.

It is a distinct possibility that any final internecine battle which may have preceded these accessions would have been fought somewhere on the borderlands between the two territories. In the borderlands of Meirionnydd near Dolgellau lies the valley of Camlan.

Arthur's final battle was fought at a site called Camlann. Surely it is more than just mere coincidence that the only locations - three of them - in Great Britain ever known to have been called Camlan are precisely and strategically situated in the border area of the territories and principalities of Gwynedd, Meirionnydd, and Powys, as they existed in the early sixth century?

6  Owain Ddantgwyn was succeeded (overthrown?) in Gwynedd by his nephew, Maelgwyn.

David H R Sims presents the case both lucidly and plausibly for the weaknesses in this proposition. He argues that, since Owain held Rhôs, his removal would have little bearing on the succession within Gwynedd. However, as stated above, the suggestion is that the ruler of Gwynedd, Cadwallon Lawhir, died circa 517, thereby allowing the major principality to revert to the suzerainty of Rhôs, and leaving Maelgwn disinherited.

Sims argues that if this were the case, there could be no explanation for Maelgwn's failure also to annexe Rhôs following the death of Owain. The fact that he made no such move, however, actually supports the Owain theory. One would have expected, in light of his father's assassination, that Cuneglasus (Cynglas) of Rhôs would have sought reprisals against his father's killer, his cousin.

The apparent fact that he did not do this, coupled with the equally apparent fact that he was allowed to keep his holdings, suggests a certain amount of complicity in his father's death.

Perhaps the cousins planned that Owain should die and that the principality would be split between them (after all, if Owain was Arthur, Britain's famous battle leader, then there would have been much jealousy involved and a prize worth killing for). This provides an equally plausible explanation as to why Maelgwn allowed his cousin to keep the throne of Rhôs.

Map of Gwynedd
Despite, or because of, the very fringe involvement with Rome of the Votadini British, Venedotia looked very heavily to Roman influences until well into the sixth century, with it being here that one of the last signs of the concept of Roman citizenship could be found, on a gravestone where a 'cousin' of Maelgwn Gwynedd proudly proclaimed himself a 'Venedotis Cives', a citizen of Venedotia

Sims goes on to say 'From the dates calculated and the absence of any known ruler between Cadwallon and Maelgwn, it must be surmised that any intervening reign was of some brevity. It is more likely the uncle (a possible unnamed maternal uncle) seized the throne'.

If control of Gwynedd passed to Rhôs upon the death of Cadwallon then we need look no farther than Owain for an uncle whose reign over Gwynedd was no more than two years in length. Pretty brief! (Sims bases his theory regarding the uncle on Gildas' use of the word 'avunculus' when referring to the deposed uncle).

According to legend, Arthur was mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann while attempting to quash a revolt which was being led by his nephew, Mordred (Medraut). It seems likely that Mordred may well have been based on Maelgwyn (for more detail, see the rebuttal of August Hunt's theory, below).

7  The Roman city of Viroconium (modern Wroxeter) was fortified about the same time as the foregoing events.

Roman Viroconium
The old Roman fort at Viroconium, one of their largest settlements, was substantially and skilfully rebuilt in timber between about 530-570, and then mostly dismantled by 600, during the period in which Pengwern may have achieved a semblance of independent Romano-British rule

An inscription which bears the name of a former ruling prince - Cunorix - indicates that the city was occupied by the Cunedda family of the Votadini. The 'CUN' prefix indicates this as indeed the 'RIX' suffix is a variant of -'REX' ('king'). The inscription says Cunorix macus Maquicoline ('King Cuno, son of Maquicoline[?]', although this last name is damaged).

The stone has been dated to the period around AD 480, indicating that Viroconium was flourishing at the time in which Arthur is generally presumed to have been active. Other evidence dates the abandonment of Viroconium to circa AD 520 - an entirely plausible date for the battle of Camlan(n).

The evidence points to Viroconium as the capital of early Powys. Archaeology proves that the city reassumed a considerable level of importance during the last years of imperial rule, and was massively reorganised shortly after the Roman withdrawal.

As no archaeological evidence has yet been discovered to support the fifth century rebuilding and fortifying of other major cities, such as London, Lincoln, or York, it is a distinct possibility that Viroconium could have been the national capital at this time. This mysterious transformation of a post-Roman city tallies precisely with the time of Vortigern's own ascendancy - founder of the Paganes territory, part of which formed the later principality of Powys (according to the 'Pillar of Eliseg' in Llangollen, which has been dated to 850).

Bearing in mind the importance of Owain Ddantgwyn, and the fact that many of the borders of early medieval British principalities and territories were often in a fairly fluid state, it does not require too great a leap of faith to propose that Viroconium may have been his power base also. Camelot perhaps?



Images and text copyright © Mick Baker. An original feature for the History Files.