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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Pengwern (Eastern Paganes) (Romano-Britons)
Incorporating Caer Guricon, Caer Luit Coyt, & Caer Magnis

FeatureWith the expulsion of Roman officials in AD 409 (see feature link), Britain again became independent of Rome and was not re-occupied. The fragmentation which had begun to emerge towards the end of the fourth century now appears to have accelerated, with minor princes, newly declared kings, and Roman-style magistrates all vying for power and influence while also facing the threat of extinction at the hands of the various barbarian tribes which were encroaching from all sides.

Located on the eastern border of the early Welsh principality of Powys, Pengwern stretched deep into the Midlands. For much of its approximately two centuries of existence it was part of Powys in its original form, the territory of Paganes, being indivisible from it and bearing the same name as it. It apparently remained so until the last quarter of the sixth century (although some opinion maintains that it always remained a constituent territory of Paganes/Powys).

During at least some of that time one of its chief cities (and possible capital) was Caer Guricon (the former tribal capital of the Cornovii tribe, Roman Viroconium, modern Wroxeter). There is evidence to suggest the abandonment of Viroconium around 600 or a little later, perhaps in exchange for a more defendable location. There is also evidence to suggest occupation by a Cunorix around AD 480, possibly Irish, potentially a raider, and therefore unlikely to be under the control of the ruler of Paganes (see that page for details).

While the territory itself is usually known as Pengwern, it is uncertain whether this name was applied to all of it, being as it was the name of just one fort. It may just as well have been named after its last ruling dynasty, the Dogfeilion kings. However, 'Pengwern' would have been a powerful name: 'gwern' would have been pronounced 'wern' by the Romans, and would have been spelled 'vern' by them if it had been written down (unlikely, as it was local slang usage). The river which runs through the area, the Sabrina (modern Severn), probably had the letter 'b' mangled into a 'v' and then a 'w' by the local Cornovii Britons. Then they dropped the 'Se' from the front of Severn, turning Severn into 'Vern', which they pronounced 'Wern', and then that later altered into 'Gwern' as was the case with any word beginning in 'w'.

Also note that the original British name for the Severn was Habren - the 's' at the start was a Roman addition - so this would explain how the 's' was removed from the name - to the Britons it had not been there in the first place. That sort of mixed progression would occur only at places which had been inhabited by Romans in numbers which were sufficient enough to influence the name. Such a concentration of Romans would have to be at the town of Viroconium. Then, when the locals in that town fled up the river to Pengwern, they took their odd pronunciation with them (not even knowing that 'wern/gwern' was the same word as 'Hefren').

Pen means 'head' or 'source', so the local name became 'Pengwern', headwaters of the Severn, a strong and commanding name. An alternative explanation has been provided by Mak Wilson, who still gives 'pen' as 'head', but provides 'gwern' as the meaning of 'alder swamp'. This does though seem to rob the kingdom of some of the power and glory surrounding its name.

FeatureAlthough its exact origins cannot be proven, Pengwern as an independent kingdom, or at least semi-autonomous subdivision of Paganes, does appear to have been formed only in the sixth century (see feature link), well after the collapse of the post-Roman central administration. It contained all of Paganes' eastern territories.

By AD 600 it seems to have been made up of three sub-kingdoms which were based around the cities of Caer Luit Coyt (now known as Wall, in Lichfield), Caer Magnis, and Caer Guricon (Viroconium, the probable early capital of Powys) and the first two certainly had their own sub-kings. Originally, these would have been tributary to Paganes, and then subsequently to the ruler of Pengwern itself.

Caer Luit Coyt (probably a later misspelling of the more valid Caer Luit Coit/Coed or Luitcoit) came from the Latin 'Lutocetum'. Two interpretations of the name are possible, although they are very close in meaning anyway. The first translates as 'half-wooded' (in essence, lightly-wooded). In the proto-Celtic word lists, 'letos' is a combining form which can be taken to mean 'half-', while 'coit/coed' means 'wood' or 'forest'.

The second takes an alternative meaning from 'letos' to produce 'breadth, width, broadness' in the sense of a wide forest, the outcome being that the region was not 'half-forested' but heavily forested. The modern name of this location, Wall, is either a descendant of the Old English 'weald', meaning a wood or forest, or 'wealas', meaning 'Welsh'. It could be both, with the locals making a pun of it at the expense of any native Britons living there.

The first ruler of a potentially independent Pengwern was a son of Brochfael Ysgythrog of Powys, the probable defender of Caer Legion (Chester) around 613. Thanks to this name being provided, it becomes more likely that Powys had been divided, and that such a division was based upon the traditional Celtic practice of providing an inheritance for all sons, not just the eldest.

FeatureThen, according to what little source material remains, in the early seventh century Morfael ap Glast, king of Glastenning, secured the eastern capital of Caer Luit Coyt during his lifetime. His younger brother secured the remainder of the territory upon the death of their father. The capital was moved to Llys Pengwern (the 'court of Pengwern'), perhaps for security reasons - giving the territory its name and perhaps defining any independent existence it may have had. The territory survived as a bulwark against Anglian expansion in the Midlands until the mid-seventh century - although the Angles of the Midlands appear to have been allies anyway (see feature link).

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information by Mak Wilson, from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe, from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, from the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), Nennius, from De Excidio Brittaniae et Conquestu (On the Ruin of Britain), Gildas (both J A Giles, Ed & Trans, 1841, published as part of Six Old English Chronicles (Henry G Bohn, London, 1848)), from Marwnad Cynddylan (The Lament for Cynddylan), from the Annales Cambriae, James Ingram (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912), from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Anne Savage (translator and collator, Guild Publishing, 1983), and from External Link: English Heritage.)

c.570 - 613

Mawn or Iago ap Brochfael?

First 'king' (?). Sons of Brochfael Ysgythrog of Paganes.

from 577

Pengwern's southern border comes under some pressure from the Hwicce, as the British kingdoms which are focussed on Caer Baddan, Caer Ceri, and Caer Gloui now fall to a West Seaxe defeat. The defeat is a disaster for all Britons of the west of the country, as it also divides Pengwern and Gwent from Dumnonia and Caer Celemion.

584

Viroconium (Caer Guricon) is sacked by the West Seaxe. The city had suffered some decline until around 520 or so, when considerable building in wood had taken place. Following this attack, though, it is largely abandoned by the nobility by around AD 600, with the capital being moved to a more defendable location.

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

603

Following a successful first meeting between the Roman Church which has a new base at Canterbury and the Celtic Church (the descendant of the former British Church of the Roman period), a second meeting is quickly arranged.

This takes place at Abberley in Worcestershire, probably close to the border between the Hwicce and Pengwern. It is attended by seven bishops of the Celtic church, along with many learned monks, mainly from Bangor-is-Coed (in Pengwern). The Britons are not impressed with Augustine's imperious manner and the meeting ends in disappointment for the Roman envoy.

c.612

This point marks the first appearance of the Dogfeilion of Gwynedd in Powys and Pengwern although, according to Edward Dawson, Pengwern remains part of Powys, and the courts of Pengwern and Caer Luit Coyt (sometimes expressed as Luitcoyt) are Powysian courts.

Gwynedd
The mountains of North Wales provided a powerful refuge for the rulers of Gwynedd in times of trouble and a wonderfully scenic backdrop to Cunedda's victories over the Irish raiders who were plaguing the region in the late fourth century

Given Welsh emphasis on ancestry to qualify for a throne, it seems likely that a Dogfeilion leader (probably Cyndrwyn Glas) had previously married a daughter of the king of Powys, qualifying his descendants to govern Powys by the rules of descent of Gwynedd (which had been inherited from their ancestors, the Pictish Venicones).

Romans and Romano-Britons use primogeniture, but the Pictish rules mean that any descendant, regardless of the form of that descent, is qualified to inherit (meaning that even bastard sons of wayward daughters can show up and claim a piece of a territory or even kingship). The fact that the Dogfeilion are accepted as rulers of Powys (and that part of Powys which is known as Pengwern) is very telling. There has to be a valid claim of descent.

c.612

Morfael ap Glast

King of Caer Luit Coyt (Eastern Pengwern) & Glastenning.

613?

In one of the bloodiest and hardest fought battles of its time, several British kings form a coalition to halt Æthelfrith of Bernicia at the Battle of Caer Legion (Chester). Cearl of the Mercians could also be involved on the British side (according to scholarly theory).

Map of Britain AD 550-600
At the start of this period, the Angle and Saxon kingdoms on the east and south coasts were firmly established. Many of the rapidly-formed Romano-British territories in those areas had been swept away in the late fifth century (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Iago of Gwynedd and Selyf of Powys are both killed, and the battle is a disastrous British defeat. However, Æthelfrith does not occupy the territory around Chester. Just who does is unknown, and the entire history of this region from the post-Roman period to the tenth century is extremely sketchy.

One possibility is that the line of the River Dee is successfully defended by the people living just to the west of it - the Dogfeilion - who are able to claim great prestige from being the victorious defenders of the western Britons. Another possibility is that groups of Angles who are not under Bernicia's control settle the region to the east of the Dee, and are later subsumed within Mercia.

Bledric ap Custennin, king of Dumnonia, dies at the Battle of Bangor-is-Coed, which follows very soon afterwards. A certain Brochfael is named as the commander of Caer Legion at this time, and may be one of the sons of Powys' Brochfael, also the theoretical first king of Pengwern named above.

Caer Luit Coyt
The British fort at Caer Luit Coyt (Wall by Lichfield in modern Staffordshire) had been an important staging point on Watling Street, the Roman military road into North Wales, and was inherited and used as a regional capital by the Romano-Britons

FeatureAfter this, the Dogfeilion kings appear to move in on Pengwern (perhaps due to their theoretical defence of the Dee). The monks of Bangor-is-Coed are present at the battle to pray for divine support, but they too are slaughtered (the act is seen as divine retribution for their refusal to help evangelise the English in 603 - and see one of Geoffrey of Monmouth's more accurate entries about this campaign via the feature link).

613? - c.620?

Cyndrwyn Fawr

King of Pengwern. Perhaps also the ruler of Glastenning?

613?

Cyndrwyn Fawr would seem to be the Cyndrwyn Glas of Dogfeilion. 'Glas' means 'blue', a typical Welsh naming pun for a redhead. Is this pun the origin of the name Glastenning, a sub-kingdom which is already held by Cyndrwyn? 'Fawr' means 'great' in Brythonic/Welsh, suggesting that, if it is indeed Cyndrwyn Glas, then he has built a reputation for himself (again, perhaps through defending the Dee). Could he also be Cyndrwyn 'the Stubborn' of South Powys?

? - 613 or c.620

Constantine

King of Caer Magnis. Brother of Cyndrwyn Fawr?

617

The fall of Elmet to the Bernicians of Edwin suddenly exposes the entire length of the northern border of both Pengwern and Mercia, making them likely next targets in the aggressive policy of Northumbrian expansion.

Map of Elmet
A map showing Elmet's probable borders during its greatest extent, with the grey areas being lost first, and the deep pink area last, in 617 (click or tap on map to view full size)

c.620 - 656

Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn

Son of Cyndrwyn Fawr. Mentioned in 642. Defeated.

654/655

Pengwern's staunch ally, Penda of Mercia, defeats the East Engle at Blytheburgh, but is later killed by Oswiu of Northumbria at the Battle of Winwaed. Northern Mercia is annexed by Northumbria, leaving Pengwern vulnerable on the front line against an aggressive Anglian kingdom.

656

Caranfael ap Cynddylan

Son. May not have ruled.

656

Overrun by Oswiu of Northumbria, the royal family is destroyed and the kingdom terminated. Apparently this battle, at or near Caer Luit Coyt (Lichfield), is fought by Cynddylan as king of Powys (and potential overlord of Pengwern), although he and his retinue of seven hundred warriors is defeated.

Relatives of the royal family survive now only in Dogfeilion itself, it having also recently lost Glastenning and perhaps Powys. The disastrous loss of Pengwern further exposes the border of Gwent and fully exposes Powys for perhaps the first time.

Tessellated pavement at Kenchester (Magnis)
These remains of a tessellated pavement were uncovered at Kenchester (formerly Caer Magnis), which provided a capital of sorts for the Magonset 'kingdom' of the seventh century

Saxons migrate into the territory from the south to form the minor kingdoms of the Wrocenset (based around Caer Guricon) and Magonset (based around Caer Magnis). These in turn are absorbed by Mercia by the eighth century, by which time it has already adopted Caer Luit Coyt as its original bishopric of Lichfield (in 669).

 
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