Two chapters ago the military, political, and economic situation that forced the creation of British kingships were explored and explained. In the last chapter the author laid out the new economic and social reality, demonstrating the delicate balance between kings, bards, warriors, and peasants in every kingdom. Together, they should have provided a solid foundation for understanding the context of British kingdoms in the late fifth century.
But the above essays have only given us a broad look at how the kingdoms came into existence and functioned. We know little more about specific kingdoms, and much of that information is based on outdated information. Most of our knowledge comes from Gildas and his perceptions of British history up until the battle of Badon. But as we have seen in Chapter 3, Gildas could not have known what was happening much before the rise of Ambrosius.
His statements about a single person, his tyrant, ruling post-Roman Britain were based on the assumption that the foederati came to Britain after Rome had left and during that hazy period before he was born; he needed a vehicle to explain how the Germanic people had come to be settled on the island and why they had attacked and his superbus tyrannus served that purpose. If he had known the foederati were already on the island by 410 he would have had no need to include his tyrant. And if Gildas had omitted him then Historia Brittonum, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and all later histories that based their fifth-century history on him would have had no reason to add him.
Gildas is clearly not a reliable guide for early British kingships. We do know the names of several kings who were active during the fifth and early sixth centuries and even a few about whom we know more than their names and their patronymics. Those few – British, Irish, Pictish, and Germanic – will be examined in the following pages to see if they might throw more light on the nature of early kingships in Britain. They will be listed by region and culture first and only then by chronology. With any luck the essay below will help to provide a better perspective on how kingship developed in post-Roman Britain.
Y Hen Ogled
The Pictish kings and many of the northern British lived in regions which had been under little or no Roman rule. It seems reasonable that many of the kings from this area already had a working kingship tradition by the late fifth century.
Cunedda is traditionally credited with establishing the kingdom of Gwynedd after a migration from Gododdin. As his son Einion has traditionally been generally dated to about 500 (see below), Cunedda has been placed in the last last third of the fifth century.
Between Molly Miller’s genealogical work and John Koch’s examination of Marwnad Cunedda, there is little doubt now that Cunedda probably never left the north. That the poem does not mention his ancestors suggests that the bardic tradition may not have been fully developed at the time of his death. If so it would push Cunedda’s floruit back to the range of 410 to 470.
Meirchion is best known as the grandfather of Urien and Llywarch. In fact, that is all that is known about him – no battles or place-names are connected to him anywhere in British literature. The period does not have too many sources, so that fact would not normally seem too unusual but Urien had the most famous bard of the period on his payroll. And as the court bard it would have been Taliesin’s duty to record every praiseworthy act of his patron and his patron’s ancestry.
It would have also been his obligation to extend Urien’s family history back artificially with locally famous kings when Urien’s ancestors were no longer remembered. With such short lifespans it is possible that Urien never knew his grandfather (mathematically there is a 50/50 chance he knew his father as an adult), so that Meirchion might have been unrelated chieftain from the same area who was attached to Urien’s family tree to make it more prestigious.
The same argument could be made about Meirchion’s “sons” sons Cynfarch and Elidyr, but the triads do mention that Llywarch son of Elidyr was one of the chieftains who never reclaimed their inheritance, which indicates his father held lands and lost them. If Cynfarch was a king it is extremely unlikely that he ruled a different area than his brother, so that Cynfarch would have ruled the same kingdom first. Following that line of reasoning, Urien gained his kingdom by conquering it from whoever had taken it from his uncle.
Meirchion and his sons point out the uncertainty of kingship during the period. Urien, one of the most famous kings of this era, may not have been the son of a king and there is no way of knowing who his historical grandfather actually was.
According to both versions of the Vita Kentigerni, Lleudun was a king of Dun Pelder, a hill-fort in Medieval Lleuddinyawn and modern Lothian. Lleudun does not appear in any genealogies or king-lists, but as we’ve seen these vitae are some of our oldest sources. Both report that he was Kentigern’s (born 483×519) grandfather and Cynan Colledawc’s (465×521) father. That would put Lleudun’s floruit anywhere from the middle of the fifth to the early part of the sixth century, which meshes well with what we already know about other rulers of Lleuddinyawn; outside of the vitae Ymellyrn is the next known chieftain of the region and he was active in the early to mid-sixth century.
The vitae also tell us something about the geography of Lleudun’s kingdom. He is only associated with sites located within a few miles of Dun Pelder. When he is pursuing his daughter and grandson he stops as soon as they cross the Firth of Forth. Lleudun disappears from the story after that. Both these details suggest that Lleudun ruled over a fairly small area.
In Arthurian stories there is a Loth of Lothian who is Arthur’s brother-in-law. Lleudun was probably the inspiration for his character. Arthur lived during the same era, so it is even possible that the two were contemporaries.
Arthur was already a popular figure in British lore before 1136, but it is because of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his translators that he became the most popular figure of the period. By the end of the Middle Ages, regions throughout the island and people from as far away as Cornwall and the Highlands were connected to him in legends and folk tales. His legend spread in time too; mythological figures and people living as late as the twelfth century were eventually connected to him.
We know a great deal less about the historical Arthur. Most of his early stories involve raiding or defending against raids. Hueil’s attack has been mentioned above. The Welsh Triads say he attempted a raid on Drystan son of Tallwch. The Vita Cadoci claims Arthur helped Gwynllyw in the abduction of Gwladys daughter of Brychan, though the Life of Saint Gwynllyw is clear that the marriage was peaceful and Arthur was not present.
Where he lived has been debated as well. Local legends focus on Wales, but that was where the last independent British kingdoms were. As the author has shown, the most credible evidence is to be found in other areas. Personal name data is useful; Pelles, Pellinore, Pellam, and several other names are forms of Belatacudros, who was a British god closely connected to Hadrian’s Wall. Of the other warriors associated with Arthur in the earliest materials, most of those that have any geographical connections are linked to Cumbria and Galloway. Once their bias is accounted for, for several native sources mention Carlisle or something that might be a confused form of Carlisle. The romances, too, seem to point to Carlisle.
Carlisle might just have been the legionary fortress of Luguvalium, which would have given Arthur a pre-existing base along with a connection to Rome. We do know that Carlisle was inhabited during the late sixth century and that at that point its Roman structures were still visible.
How much power did Arthur have? Medieval legends have him conquering much of Europe. The earliest literature makes him a simple raider and assigns him a handful of men. What has been seen above suggests many active kings in the late fifth century, each controlling small areas of land. It is reasonable to think of Arthur being one of them.
Ceredig, the next northern king under study here, was never put in an extant saint’s life. What we know of him comes from two sources. In the genealogies he is given the title gwledig, which means at least dynastic founder, but has been interpreted as “emperor”. Strathclyde was located above Hadrian’s Wall, and as we have seen the Romans abandoned that area decades before they lost control of Britain. In the Late Roman period, it was common for the Romans to create buffer states between themselves and a potential threat to Rome. It has often been suggested they did so in northern Britain too. If they did, which would have been useful in protecting the northern borders against the Picts, it is very likely that the region would have went through the process of several competing chieftainships into a united kingdom as early as the mid-fifth century. As the first king of the region gwledig would have been a legitimate title.
The second source is Patrick’s Epistola, where he is called Coroticus. E.A. Thompson suggested that Patrick could have been speaking to an Irish king because the context of the letter is that Ceredig had remained near to Patrick, and because Patrick was able to excommunicate him. However, Ceredig could have remained in the area days later if he had set up a camp and was conducting several village raids in the area. As Dumville once pointed out, we have no idea what the politics of the fifth century were. We have no idea about the religious politics either. Patrick might have had the authority to excommunicate any ruler acting in his area of influence. He might not and might have done it anyway. That would explain the writing of his Confessio.
A second possibility has been the Ceredig who was the eponymous ruler of Ceredigion. Now that Ceredig has been dissociated from the Gwynedd lineage, there are only dates that can be associated with members of the dynasty – a Ceredig’s death in 616 and his descendant’s obit in 807. Allowing for a three-year window on either side of both dates we are given Ceredig’s birth year in the mid- to late-sixth century. Even if Ceredig’s obit is thrown out, it is only possible that Ceredig Patrick’s nemesis if Ceredigion managed 35-year generations, Ceredig was a young man, and Patrick very near his death at the time of the Epistola. All these conditions are feasible but unlikely, especially when we keep in mind that Patrick’s area of activity was northeast Ireland, which was easiest to access from Stathclyde.
As Charles-Edwards recently pointed out, the way Patrick addresses Coroticus only makes sense if his kingdom had a consisten history as a Roman client. Strathclyde would have from the second century, Ireland could not have and Ceredigion could only have been a client kingdom sporadically over the last century or so of Roman occupation.
This means that Patrick, an ecclesiastic with little or no political knowledge, probably just got it wrong when he called Ceredig a chieftain. Actually, his assumption speaks more to his own background. If he assumed that Ceredig was a simple chieftain who ruled a hall and nearby villages, then that might have been the norm in the area where he completed his training. The evidence suggests that this area was transitioning into kingships during his early adulthood.
Cynfelyn has the same problem as Cynfarch above, the actions of his son Clydno Eiddin, and even grandson Cynon, are known but we have nothing on Cynfelyn himself. So, starting with what we know, the Black Book of Chirk gives Clydno the epithet Eydin. As Eydin was Late Medieval Welsh for modern Edinburgh, it is reasonable to assume that Edinburgh was his central location. And, as the body of Welsh literature suggests no British conquest of Edinburgh, it is reasonable to assume that if Cynfelyn was a chieftain he probably ruled from there too.
Cynfelyn’s grandson Cynon participated at Catraeth in the late sixth century, while Clydno was active a few years later during Run son of Maelgwn’s reign, placing Cynfelyn’s floruit in the early part of the sixth century.
Cynfelyn and his “son” and “grandson” are interesting because we already know that Dunpelder, a second hill-fort in Lothian, was also occupied during the early sixth century. Lleudun, of Dunpelder, may have been Cynfelyn’s contemporary.
Coel should also be mentioned in any kings of the Old North list. The genealogies say he fathered several dynasties, but work by Dr. Miller showed that to be chronologically unlikely if not impossible. She proposed instead the same sort of bardic intervention we have come across already; Coel was a popular early British hero whose name was added to several dynasties to enhance their traditions.
We can be certain that Coel was a famous king in his time and that his name was remembered. However, since no credible historical source mentions him that could give us any idea when he lived we have no idea if he was active in 410 or 510.
We cannot even know where he was active. Our only clues are in the genealogies themselves and oral tradition. Tradition is easy; it says that the Kyle area in what was Pictland is named after him and that he was buried in Coylton, what would become Strathclyde but was not near the capital of Dumbarton. Of course one of oral tradition’s big flaws is that it is passed down by word of mouth, in this case for millennia.
The family trees give more difficult results because in them he is the ancestor of kings from Reged (Cumbria), Edinburgh, somewhere in the Pennines Mountains, Elmet, and around Arthuret. The logical conclusion is that Coel controlled all these regions but as we have seen the theme during the early Middle Ages was of small kingdoms absorbing one another, not of large kingdoms breaking up. More frustrating, none of his “descendants” are located anywhere near either Kyle or Coylton. If there is any useable data here it is the association of Coel with Kyle, suggesting that Coel was actually a Pict.
The Anglo-Saxon Shore
As has been seen, Germanic chieftains were being settled along the southern and eastern shore of Britain as foederati during the fourth century. A careful examination of known early chieftains should reveal something about the nature and development of their kingship tradition.
The first named chieftains to appear are Fraomar and Ansehis. According to Ammianus Marcellinus the first was sent to Britain in 372 with the title of Tribune. The Ravenna Cosmography tells us Ansehis came to Britain as a foederati at about the same time. Linguistic and folkloric studies have connected Ansehis with the legendary section of Kent’s royal geneology. More will be said about him below.
Neither Ammianus nor the cosmography provide us with any further information and no other source names either chieftain, leaving us with nothing specific about either man’s career. However, the fact that they are mentioned does tell us something about Britannia as a whole. In the middle of the fourth century, the most important Germanic chieftains were two simple tribal leaders who were totally insignificant to the rest of the empire.
The next leader in the records is Soemil, a Northumbrian figure who only appears in the Historia Brittonum. There it is claimed that he separated Deira from Bernicia, suggesting he was the first king of the region. The comment is made in the genealogies, where he is listed as the five-generation ancestor of Edwin, placing his birth-range in the second quarter of the fifth century and suggesting he was active at just about the time of the 441 Germanic revolt. But as has been seen, neither the archeology nor the literature supports a Germanic kingship so early. It is possible that Soemil led a contingent of foederati, but not probable. No other region managed to remember the names of their leaders, and Deira had no better recordkeeping than anywhere else. In fact Northumbria only took an interest in recording history decades after Kent. It seems slightly more likely that Soemil was active during the Late Roman period, like Ansehis. This scholar, however, taking note of the claim that he separated Deira from Bernicia, would like to suggest that he was one of the first kings in Deira, perhaps the founder of the Deiran dynasty in the middle sixth century.
At first that might seem highly unlikely; our sources for that time frame have proven to be unreliable at best. However, several scholars have also noted that medieval historians had a tendency to gather contemporary or near contemporary local kings and telescope them into a sequence of prehistoric rulers for the surviving dynasty (one of the bard’s duties). It seems reasonable that Soemil was a victim of just such manipulation. It will be seen that a British alliance controlled much of Northumbria in the middle sixth century; perhaps Soemil separating Deira from Bernicia was in fact Soemil making his small kingdom free of British rule.
What is really interesting here is that Soemil is credited with leading a rebellion against the British at all. According to all other sources the Kentish heroes Hengest and Horsa led the uprising against the Romano-British and led all the Germanic peoples during the entire struggle. Whatever his dates, Soemil’s connection with the separation from Berneich is likely historical, and if he can be safely placed in the range 533×567 he is not called a king. This is very informative about the political situation at the time.
Dr. Miller once suggested that a Padarn Peisrud, “red tunic”, traveled south from Gododdin into Gwynedd (northwestern Wales) at some time between Maximus departure in 383 and the last Romano-British emperor elections in 406-407. However, she never was able to provide evidence of that happening. What we do know about Padarn is that he is unknown outside of Gwynedd and that red tunic was a well known badge of office in the Late Roman army. That suggests that Padarn was from the area originally. He may or may not have been a Roman officer, or Roman official, or wealthy Roman who transitioned into a chieftain during the early fifth century. He could just as easily been a Romano-Briton who used “Peisrud” to connect himself to the stability and credibility of the Roman past in the late fifth century. We may never know which possibility is historical fact.
Up until around 1970, Einion Yrth was believed to be just another member of Maelgwn’s dynasty – the man who initiated the conquest of Môn which turned out to be the last region of medieval Gwynedd to be conquered.
Things have changed a lot since then. The discovery of Aberffraw, the medieval capital of Gwynedd, on Môn demonstrated that Gwynedd was centered on the island. Dr. Miller’s work showed that the dynasty may have begun with the conquest of the island around 500; the conquest was not just another addition to the kingdom. More recently, Professor Koch has eliminated Einion Yrth’s “father” Cunedda from the Gwynedd lineage leaving Einion as the founder. We now know that when he came to power he controlled only part of an island off the coast of Gwynedd and that at the time of his death around 500 Môn was not entirely in his possession.
Ambrosius is a unique character in British history. He is not connected to any specific dynasty or region in the early materials and yet he is the only British figure of the fifth century mentioned by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae. Gildas places him after the Germanic attack of 441 and before (and possibly including) the Battle of Badon. As Badon has now been securely placed in the range 478×491, meaning that for the British ecclesiastic Ambrosius was active somewhere between 441 and 491.
Gildas is vague on where Ambrosius was active. His only real clue is that De Excidio Britanniae focuses on people in modern Wales and Cornwall and Ambrosius seems to be the holy man’s ideal of a lay-hero.
The Historia Brittonum would connect Ambrosius with two sites. The more memorable is Arfon in Gwynedd, where his presence would bring about Vortigern’s downfall. However, the author has already demonstrated that Vortigern’s character developed in that history to suit Dyfed’s tenth-century political needs The second notice is the Battle of Wallop, against Guitolin. It has generally been placed near Nether Wallop in Hampshire.
Wallop is a stroke of luck because it has no clear motivation and yet tells us where Ambrosius was active directly through the battle site and indirectly through Ambrosius’ connection to Guitolin, a member of the same pedigree as Gwrtheyrn and Gloiu. The latter name is important here because it is the eponym for Gloucester; he and his brothers Bonus, Paul, and Mauron are even named as the city’s builders. It would seem that Ambrosius was active near Gloucester/Wallop.
As outlined above, kingships in the South only formed as a result of the Germanic rebellion and the raiding and invasions that followed. It has also been suggested that the first generation of kings would have had little or no tradition to rely on for continuing a person’s royal line. At first glance at least, it looks like Ambrosius was a victim of that developing convention; either his entire family was gone before he died or his bards had not yet re-established the basic tenets of Celtic kingship and his personal credentials by that time.
Guitolin, participant at Wallop and son of Gloiu, also gives us some useful information because he is not connected to a region or a kingdom, like the figures from other dynasties, instead he is linked with a single city. That suggests he ruled a very small area. It also suggests that, as he was Ambrosius’ rival, either they rose to prominence at roughly the same time or that Ambrosius was never more than a locally important leader. Chronologically, Ambrosius was active between 448 and 491, and intersected with Guitolin’s career at some point making the Gloucester chieftain a figure of the late fifth century as well. As we have seen above, his kingdom was centered on Gloucester.
Cadell first appears in the Historia Brittonum, where he is the central figure in Powys’ foundation story. Dr. Miller’s work with the genealogies has demonstrated that he was active in the first decades of the sixth century, while Professor Koch has suggested Powys might not have been a unified kingdom until the 700s based on linguistic evidence and an historical confusion over the ruling dynasty. The consequences of these realizations are that Cadell may or may not have been the first ruler of his dynasty, but he was definitely only a chieftain with control over a limited number of villages.
Cadell’s name is also interesting; it derives from a shortened form of Roman Catellinius – Catell. The personal name Cadell would be used throughout the Middle Ages, but this is the first time it was used in Britain after Rome left. Its presence suggests a continuing respect for Roman culture and possibly a lingering sense of Romanitas among the native population.
Gwynllyw is known from the Vita Cadoci and the Vita Gundleus as the father of Cadoc and the husband of Gwladys. These connections place his floruit in the early sixth century, a calculation confirmed through less direct calculations.
Both vitae also claim that Gwynllyw and his six brothers inherited a portion of their father’s kingdom, with Gwynllyw acting as overlord for the group. That sounds a lot like the traditional Gwynedd origin legend. As we have seen above, Cunedda was not part of the Gwynedd dynastic family and his “sons” were actually kings of separate kingdoms who were only connected to the ruling family when the royal dynasty tried to solidify its control by making all of the conquered kingdoms a part of the foundation legend. Probably, the similarity means the same thing here as it did for Gwynedd; Gwynllyw’s brothers were not chieftains with their own kingdoms and Gwynllyw probably only controlled a small kingdom himself.
Like Ceredig, Caw was also from the north. The Vita Cadoci has Caw saying he was from a place “beyond Bannawc”, which probably means Pictland. One of Caw’s sons was Gildas, while a second son Hueil raided Arthur, putting Caw’s birth-year at roughly the middle of the fifth century.
In the Vita Cadoci, Caw also says that he spent his life raiding. In the context of a saint’s life the commentary makes sense; it would not do for a chieftain to boast about how wide an area he controlled or how many battles he had been in. However, the information is there for the taking anyway.
If Caw was a Pict then the region he controlled had never been under Roman control. That probably also means that Caw was a king and not the simple raider he is called. If he was, then Caw was one independent Pictish ruler from the later fifth century.
Caw’s son Hueil is also placed “beyond Bannawc” in Caradoc’s Vita Gildae. According to the story he came south as a raider into Arthur’s kingdom, making him a contemporary and therefore active somewhere in the two decades on either side of 500.
Drystan son of Tallwch is found in The Welsh Triads, Culhwch ac Olwen, and an obscure poem in The Black Book of Carmarthen. The Welsh Triads are the only source that say anything about him though. Triad 26 names him as the only chieftain Arthur ever failed to steal from.
Drystan’s short entry gives us two facts to work with. The first is his name and the name of his father. Drystan is a form of Drust. Drust is found all over Britain but most of the time in Pictland. Tallwch is the Welsh version of Pictish Talorcan and is only found in Pictland. More than likely that means that Drystan, too, was Pictish.
The second is the fact that Drystan was a chieftain whom other chieftains tried to raid. Among the Briton and Germanic kingdoms cattle raiding disappeared as soon as larger kingdoms developed and stabilized enough to form empires and make alliances; it just was not practical. If the fifth and sixth century Pictish kingdoms were stable and of a comparable size they should have stopped cattle raiding as well. That cattle raiding continued in Drystan’s time suggests one of two things. Either Drystan lived in a different period than Arthur or the Pictish kingdoms were still not very large or stable in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. Drystan was active in Arthur’s time, he is mentioned with Arthur in the earliest stratum of the triads, meaning Drystan must have lived during the British Heroic Age (late fifth century until about 650).
Medrawt, or Modred, is another northern figure associated with Arthur early on; he appears in the Annales Cambriae as well as in three separate triads. The annals record that both men fought at Camlann. And, since warriors are generally ignored there it is safe to assume that Medrawt was a king. His association with Arthur suggests that, like him, he was active between the late fifth and the early sixth century, then so was Medrawt.
Now whether the two were friends or foes is hard to determine; the sources are ambiguous. The worst is Annales Cambriae, which says only that the two fought at Camlann. The entry could easily be interpreted as the two men fought against each other, but the more natural reading is that they fought on the same side.
The triads are of no help either. Triad 58 says that two of the great ravages of Britain were when Medrawt went to Arthur’s court and ate everything and when Arthur returned the favor. Those do not seem like the acts of allies, but then again a king would not normally play host to his enemy either.
Eochaid Allmuir is only listed in one Dyfed genealogy, the Expulsion of the Déisi. Normally, that would make him highly suspect as an historical figure. In this case, however, it is the more believable genealogy; it is the oldest and the only one that does not claim the family was descended from Emperor Maximus’ daughter Anna. Maximus, we will remember, was the the general who had left for the continent in 383 to claim the emperor’s crown in Rome. In 383 Britannia had been relatively stable, still reasonably capable of keeping its enemies at bay. The reasoning for adding Maximus to the lineage is simple, though; he would have given the family prestige because of his heritage. Just as obvious is the reason Eochaid was eliminated; he was the original Irish settler of a dynasty that would claim to be of British origin during the later Middle Ages.
Tradition says that he settled in Britain during the late third century, but a closer examination of the genealogy by Dr. Miller has demonstrated he was active in the early fifth century. Miller’s conclusions make better sense with what we know of Roman Britain, too, it included Dyfed until well into the fourth century.
Tradition has it that the Irish were eventually forced out of Dyfed. The Historia Brittonum claims Cunedda and his sons accomplished it, and elsewhere Urien and his sons were given credit. However, some detective work by Dr. Miller long ago showed that Clydwyn, who was active in the middle of the fifth century, was the local hero. Instead of beating the Irish back though, Clydwyn’s daughter Gwledyr married Aed Brosc, son of Eochaid. It seems that the two dynasties intermarried.
What does that mean for a study of British history? First of all, it shows that there were at least two kingdoms in mid-fifth century Dyfed. Secondly, it suggests that though the Irish dynasty continued thought the fifth century it hid or buried its Irish origins in favor of its native ancestors.
Aed Brosc, son of Corath and grandson of Eochaid Allmuir, was active in the last third of the fifth century. All we know about him comes from the Vita Carantoci, which says that he invaded Ceredigion during Carantoc’s youth. That little tidbit is valuable information though. Ceredigion and Dyfed have a natural border in the Teifi River; there would have been no reason to invade Ceredigion until Aed was in control of Dyfed. And if he was, then we have a good idea of when Dyfed was first brought under one king.
Taken in conjunction with his father and grandfather a little more can be learned about Dyfed’s development in particular and the maturation of kingdoms in general during the fifth century. His grandfather had settled in Dyfed early in the century but only controlled a portion of what would become medieval Dyfed. His father successfully expanded the kingdom, eventually marrying a local princess in order to assimilate a second kingdom. Either Corath or Aed Brosc (son or grandson) managed to conquer the entire area, and only then did Aed attempt a foreign invasion. Within two generations and under ideal conditions, petty chieftainships could have grown into the recognizable kingdoms of the Middle Ages.
Domangart son of Nisse was an independent Irish chieftain or pirate who controlled Kintyre in Dal Riata during the years around 500. Domangart was not the ruler of Dal Riata, but one of many chieftain/pirates operating from the region. Domangart’s son Comgall probably only controlled Kintyre too. As has been seen, the shallow waters and innumerable islands in Dal Riata would have made it an ideal spot for that kind of activity.
Several vitae tell us about the legendary first ruler of Brycheiniog, Brychan. They also say he was the son of Anlach and the grandson of Coronac (possibly Cormac), an Irish king, which by Celtic law would have made him a prince. British genealogies claim he was the father of dozens of sons and daughters, which makes it hard to believe any of them were his children. Only Rhain Dremrud and Glwadys were connected to the same area and are mentioned independently of him. Using them as reference points Brychan would be a figure of the late fifth century; but those are uncertain points of reference. What we can be sure of is that the Irish had been mainly driven out of Britain by 500. It is safe to assume that Brychan had established the kingdom by then and either he or a successor had assimilated it into British culture. From the Vita Cadoci we also know that the capital of Brycheiniog was Talgarth.
Separating the earliest kings by culture and then ordering them by chronology has shown us several useful aspects of post-Roman kingship. The earliest kings came from the non-Roman areas of Britain, areas that had kings before the Romans left like the Picts, or that may have been developing them in the Late Roman era like Strathclyde and Lothian. These were followed by the Irish colonists who were already settling the western coast in the early fifth century. The Britons themselves established chieftainships during the late-fifth century, likely as a response to the Irish settlements in the West and Germanic expansion from the East. Germanic kingships, as we will see below began in the middle of the sixth century.
The above study has been useful from the perspective of size as well. Most of the British and Irish chieftains discussed above have left no evidence of their kingdom’s size. Those who did, though, seem to have ruled over very small areas. For instance, Coel is remembered as a great king in Welsh history, but only the territory of Kintyre is named after him. The early kingdom of Gwynedd began as one of at least two kingdoms on Anglesey and only managed to conquer the whole island around 500. Together, all the above evidence suggests that the earliest kingdoms were very small – maybe a hall and all the villages within sight at first.
The exception to this rule seems to have been the kingdoms that were already in existence or developing before Rome left – the Picts and the north British regions. Regardless of size, though, all the kingdoms of early Post-Roman Britain seem to have been more interested in simple raids than conquests. In the context of the heroic age and as a political tool this makes perfect sense. Raiding made for good stories and praise poetry which could be used to spread a king’s reputation. It was also not decisive; if a king failed to make a successful raid he had not lost a battle. He probably had not lost any men. On the other hand, a king who was regularly the victim of raids and had a hard time making them himself would lose his reputation and the confidence of his villages.
The size of the original petty kingdoms would grow in time. Poor raiding, a chieftain’s death without heirs, or even the rare loss in a battle would weaken many kingships enough to be absorbed by their more competitive neighbors. Other kingdoms would grow through military successes, good harvests, and access to natural resources, assimilating those regions that were less fortunate along the way. Wise rulers would add individual villages to their kingdoms at opportune times. By as early as 520, the surviving kingdoms all over Britain were already developing into the sizes they would become during the medieval period.
Power does not equate to fame, however. While Urien’s rise to control all of Reged is an extant historical record, his accomplishments are the result of Taliesin’s work. Not all widespread conquerors had the good fortune of having Taliesin on their payroll. The man who consolidated all of Kent remains obscured by time, as are the historical activities of Æthelberht before 597, the Pictish and Germanic leaders of 367, and most of the wealthy kings of Tintagel during the late fifth and early sixth centuries.
Gwrtheyrn was likely the most powerful person in southern England during most of his floruit in the middle of the sixth century, and yet many modern scholars still place him in the wrong century. Further, he was blamed for the Anglo-Saxons presence in England because of a misunderstanding of De Excidio Britanniae’s manuscript history and a misinterpretation about one of his more obscure titles. This confusion was undoubtedly helped along by the fortune of Gwrtheyrn’s name among his descendants. The political motivations of Kent made use of both strokes of luck to give themselves validation for their land and their presence in Britain. Gwrtheyrn was not a victim, however; he courted his own disaster. If he had hired a bard of Taliesin’s caliber, the ravages of time and the machinations of the Germanic kingdoms would have had no effect on how his activities came down to us. From Historia Brittonum on he would have been known as one of the most powerful and crafty kings of British history instead of as the fool who lost Britain for the Britons.