Tag Archives: dark ages


Halloween in Wales

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As I sit here munching candy corn (which my 11 year old declares ‘the best candy’–even better than chocolate), I’m thinking about one of the chapters in Daughter of Time. Near the end of the book, Meg experiences Halloween in Wales.  Except that during the Middle Ages, it was called ‘All Hallow’s Eve’, the day before All Saint’s Day, and it was less about candy and more about a belief in actual spirits.

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, has its roots in an older, pagan tradition, called Nos Calan Gaeaf , Welsh for Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End’.  This is the most well-known Halloween tradition in Wales.   http://www.controverscial.com/Samhain.htm  The Welsh translation, interestingly, is ‘the first of winter’.

From the National Museum of Wales:  “A pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, Samhain was considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain. Many parts of this festival are echoed in our modern Halloween parties.

Jack O lanterns were originally made from turnips and used to guide the dead back to earth, and the Celts also dressed in costumes much as we do today, but they would use animal skins!  The Romans believed that monsters, gods and magic spells were all around them.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/whatson/?event_id=3734

“November 1 was considered the end of the summer period, the date on which the herds were returned from pasture and land tenures were renewed. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death. When the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century ad, they added their own festivals of Feralia, commemorating the passing of the dead, and of Pomona, the goddess of the harvest.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween

“November was also the month of death in the Celtic calendar, where animals were slaughtered to provide meat for winter. Indeed, the Modern Welsh for November Tachwedd literally means ‘The Month of Slaughter’. This often began with a feast on November 1st where pigs were slaughtered (part of this folklore is preserved in the Cymric (Welsh) legend of Arawn and Hafgan, as told in the Mabinogi of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed.”  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/halloween-recipes.php

With the coming of Christianity, these traditions were converted to blend in more with the Christian calendar and Christian sensibilities. “In 601AD, Pope Gregory made an important directive. He announced that Christian missionaries were to take a new tack when attempting to convert pagans to the Christian religion. Christian missionaries he said, where possible, should incorporate the beliefs, festivals and sacred sites of pagan beliefs into the Christian religion. This directive meant that the important Celtic festival of Samhain had to be marked in a Christian manner.

In the year 609 AD, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835 AD. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead on an important holy day. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than ever.

In the eleventh century, a further festival was added to the church calendar; All Souls Day on 2 November. The three festivals of All-Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls were together known as Hallowmas.” http://suite101.com/article/halloween-in-medieval-times-a71922

“Despite the Church’s success in establishing a Christian foundation for the autumn celebrations, many of the ancient customs and traditions associated with them were still practiced by the population. The carving of gourds and the wearing of costumes and masks to scare away malevolent spirits are typical of the superstitions carried over from these celebrations into the All Hallows Eve observance.

The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives thought to visit on this night. This practice evolved during the Middle Ages, when beggars would travel from village to village and beg for “soul cakes”. Villagers would offer prayers along with the cakes to those who had died in the past year for their transition to heaven.”  http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/all_hallows_eve.html


Offa’s Dyke

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In 780 AD, King Offa of Mercia was at the height of his authority.  Prior to his rule, in 750 AD, King Eliseg (immortalized by Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen) had swept the Saxons out of the plains of Powys.  Offa, in turn, attacked Powys in 778 and 784, and tradition states that he built the dyke, sometime (or throughout) his reign.  Prior to this, Aelthelbald, King of Mercia, had built ‘Wat’s Dyke’, which extends from the Severn Valley northwards towards the estuary of the Dee (A History of Wales, John Davies p. 62).

There is a quote from George Borrow, from Wild Wales, that “it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it”.  This is potentially apocryphal, but indicates the significance of this man-made border between the two countries.

One of the biggest mysteries about Offa’s Dyke, in addition to when it was built, is why?  It was a huge undertaking to construct the earthwork, 150 miles in length, up to 65 feet wide and 8 feet high in places, along the entire length of the border between what is now England and Wales.  It clearly wasn’t made to keep the Welsh out of England, or to protect the Saxons in Mercia–since it was never defended.  Both English and Welsh kingdoms appeared to have a hand in determining where to build it, since it runs to the east of Wat’s Dyke when they are parallel, and in Gwent in particular, leaves lowlands to Wales to the east of natural features it might normally have followed.  It was dug, however, “with the displaced soil piled into a bank on the Mercian (eastern) side. Where the earthwork encounters hills, it goes to the west of them, constantly providing an open view from Mercia into Wales.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa’s_Dyke  The prevailing opinion to date was that Offa built it as a sign of authority and power–as a means of saying, to a certain extent, ‘after this wall, here be dragons.’

I, personally, like the theory that Offa’s Dyke is a Roman construction:

The Roman historian Eutropius in his book, Historiae Romanae Breviarium, written around 369, mentions the Wall of Severus, a structure built by Septimius Severus who was Roman Emperor between 193 and 211:

Novissimum bellum in Britannia habuit, utque receptas provincias omni securitate muniret, vallum per CXXXIII passuum milia a mari ad mare deduxit. Decessit Eboraci admodum senex, imperii anno sexto decimo, mense tertio. Historiae Romanae Breviarium, viii 19.1

He had his most recent war in Britain, and to fortify the conquered provinces with all security, he built a wall for 133 miles from sea to sea. He died at York, a reasonably old man, in the sixteenth year and third month of his reign.

However, this site, http://www.cpat.org.uk/news/oldnews/offaro.htm explains why this is unlikely. “The evident dislocation of Offa’s Dyke from the currently recognised pattern of early 3rd century military sites in the Welsh borders. This includes the legionary fortresses at Chester in the north and Caerleon in the south, other forts such as those at Leintwardine, Caersws and Forden Gaer, and a road system of which some elements are still in use today as parts of the modern, A5, A39 and A41 routes. The alignment of Offa’s Dyke shows no tangible geographical association or functional integration with this network. Indeed, it is in any case very hard to see what possible purpose such an undertaking could have served in Roman occupied western Britain, especially when the surviving Dyke is actually not a 130 mile complete frontier but is only spread discontinuously over that approximate length with extensive unexplained gaps (80 miles of earthwork are known).”

Furthermore, Ian Bapty, Offa’s Dyke Archaeological Management Officer with CPAT states:  “the attribution of the Dyke to Offa by Asser in his late 9th century ‘Life of Alfred’, echoed by the tradition of the ‘Offa’s Dyke’ name itself which can be documented back as far as the 13th century, has been accepted as correct by Anglo-Saxon scholars. ‘Offa’s Dyke is an extraordinary survival from our Anglo-Saxon past’ says Ian Bapty ‘and extraordinary exactly because it is Anglo-Saxon and as such sheds crucial light on a key period of our history when the modern political geography of Britain was beginning to appear. While we can perhaps associate descriptions of the ‘missing’ wall of Severus with somewhat confused and secondarily derived later accounts of Hadrian’s Wall – which was much rebuilt in the time of Severus – we surely cannot backdate Offa’s Dyke to Roman times, and to do so would be to miss the real significance and historical impact of this amazing earthwork’.

‘Ultimately I’d be ready to wager my granny on the fact that Offa’s Dyke is Anglo-Saxon and not Roman!’ says Ian ‘although I’d also have to be say that I’d be keeping granny firmly out of the stakes when it comes to betting on most other aspects of our understanding of the Dyke, including key issues such as exactly why it was built, how it was built, and what it’s original appearance and total extent was. I think it is the process of trying to answer these questions which may throw up some real and lasting revelations concerning not just Offa’s Dyke itself, but the very origins of Welsh and English culture and society’.”  http://www.cpat.org.uk/news/oldnews/offaro.htm


Caer Fawr (Iron Age Hill Fort)

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tpq cover blogCaer Fawr, or ‘The Great Fort’, is the scene of the final battle in The Pendragon’s Quest.  It is an iron age hill fort with extensive fortifications, most of which are hidden now by vegetation.  The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales did a study of Caer Fawr and if you’re interested in the topic, it’s worth downloading:  http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/LO/ENG/Publications/Electronic+Publications/Gaer+Fawr/

It “occupies a prominent hill 1.4 kilometres to the north of Guilsfield (Cegidfa) and 5.4 kilometres north of Welshpool in the old county of Montgomeryshire, now Powys. The topography of this area is dominated by the River Severn, 4.7 kilometres to the east (Fig. 2). The hills flanking its wide river plain rise gently to the west and more steeply to the east and are cut by the tributary rivers which feed the Severn. A series of prominent hills rises above the general topography, most distinctively the Breidden, at 403 metres above sea level . . .

The site lies in the northern half of a dense band of large?and medium?sized hillforts extending along the border between England and Wales: from the Wye Valley and tributaries of the Severn into the central Marches, and on by way of the Clwydian Range to the North Wales coast . . .

“‘The construction covered at least two main phases. The original hillfort, enclosing about 3 acres, was probably univallate with entrances at the NW and SW ends. The second phase consisted of enlarging the original fort by enclosing a further 3½ acres to the NW side at a lower level. The new outer defences were bivallate and included very complicated entrances on the NE and SW, probably on the sites of the original entrances’ (NMRW: OS 495 Card SJ 21 SW 1). . . .

“The most likely date for this phase of construction is the early Iron Age, between the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the period in which hillfort building took off in the Marches . . . The ‘developed’ form of Gaer Fawr is likely to belong to the middle Iron Age, 400-150  BC. . . .

“One of the most noticeable features of Gaer Fawr is its defences; the scale is huge in contrast to the size of the area enclosed. Useable space totals just over 2 hectares, whereas the hillfort as a whole encompasses just over 6 hectares. As defensive features these would certainly have been imposing and would have been visible for miles, with entrance arrangements clearly designed to control the movement of people, managing both how and who approached.”  In short, Caer Fawr provided the perfect place for Cade, Rhiann, andn their friends to defend Wales against a Saxon advance!

For more about the fort, see the report (again):  http://www.rcahmw.gov.uk/LO/ENG/Publications/Electronic+Publications/Gaer+Fawr/

For a cool video from the BBC:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/localhistory/hidden_histories/episode_2_hillfort.shtml


Ynys Mon (Anglesey) in the Dark and Middle Ages

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Of all the places in north Wales/Gwynedd, the name for Ynys Mon was deliberately changed by the English/Norman invaders, but it belies the fact that Ynys Mon remains resolutely Welsh, with 7 out of 10 residents speaking Welsh.  Because of its location, the populace suffered greatly over the millenia from foreign invaders, culminating with the wars of 1277 and 1282, when it was conquered as a stepping stone to Eryri, the stronghold of the Welsh princes.  After this last war, Edward deliberately razed much that was Welsh to the ground, including Llanfaes Abbey, the gravesite of Princesses Joanna and Elinor and built Beaumaris over the top of it.  In the process, hundreds of Welsh were ‘resettled’ elsewhere and English people brought in.

“Ethnic cleansing is not a new concept. When Edward I reached Llanfaes, he forced all the Welsh people to move to a new village called Newborough. However, the worst effects were felt in the towns of Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris. No Welsh people were permitted in the towns and they were mostly inhabited by the English with a few people from Ireland, Gascony and Savoy. 1,500 hectares around those towns was also cleared of Welsh people in order that the colonists had fields for crops and livestock. The villages of Aberystwyth and Lleweni were similarly cleared of Welsh people.”  http://www.princesofgwynedd.com/drivingtour.asp?pid=3

The name ‘Anglesey’ is in fact a Viking word from the 10th century, indicating that the Vikings were successful enough in their sacking of the island for a place-name to stick, and be adopted later by the English/Normans.


Anglesey has some of the best farmland in Wales, is one of the flatter areas, and is also the driest region of Wales.  Thus, settlement has existed on Anglesey as long as people have lived in Wales.  Prehistoric megaliths scatter the island:  http://www.megalithia.com/overview/anglesey.html

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Romans conquered Anglesey in 61 AD but only after defeating Boudica elsewhere:  “The Romans vehemently opposed the Celtic druids, whom they did not see as pious priests, but as ferocious freedom fighters – terrorists. The druids continuously tried to rally the local population to take up the arms against the Romans. The Roman invasion of Britain had set these men on the run, with the centre of the druid cult becoming, or possibly always being Anglesey, which thus, in the first century AD, was the centre of the Celtic religion in Britain.

This situation is confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus and Emperor Nero, who specifically identified Anglesey as an island that needed to be conquered. Many troops were relocated from other British locations towards Wales in an effort to do so. However, this power vacuum elsewhere resulted in certain insurrections, such as that of Queen Boudica.

Realising the Roman troops could not maintain order and attack Anglesey at the same time, the Empire forsook a final attack on Anglesey – the conquest of Anglesey was insignificant against the loss of London and the rest of Britain. Hence, it is claimed that the Roman general Paulinus tore up Nero’s orders, returned to London via the newly constructed Watling Street, to meet the army that had been scrambled by Queen Boudica, which had left London, in search of a Roman army they could fight. In the end, the battle occurred in Atherstone, Warwickshire, where the Romans attained an easy victory. Enthusiasm lost against well-oiled organisation.

The fact that “druid terrorists” lived in Anglesey meant that in 61 AD, Suetonius Paulinus managed to get his army across the Menai Strait and massacred the druids and burnt their sacred groves. The Romans remained aware, however, that the druids might continue to pose a problem and hence they constructed the fortress of Segontium, present Caernarfon, on the edge of the Menai Strait, to make sure that what little remained of an intact Celtic culture remained on Anglesey – and did not try to seed dissent in “Roman Britain”.

Tacitus wrote how the battle occurred on the coastline of the Menai Strait: “On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralysed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed.””


After the Romans, came the Irish, the Vikings, the Scots, and the Danes (briefly), but it was strong enough defensibly for the Kings of Gwynedd to seat their court on the west coast at Aberffraw from c.860 AD until c.1170 AD.  No trace remains of that court as the llys was dismantled for the building and maintenance of Edward I’s castle at Beaumaris.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aberffraw


The Beginning of the Dark Ages in Britain

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The ‘Dark Ages’ were ‘dark’ only because we lack extensive (or in some instances, any) historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

TLP blog“Initially, this era took on the term “dark” . . . due to the backward ways and practices that seemed to prevail during this time. Future historians used the term “dark” simply to denote the fact that little was known about this period; there was a paucity of written history. Recent discoveries have apparently altered this perception as many new facts about this time have been uncovered.

The Italian Scholar, Francesco Petrarca called Petrarch, was the first to coin the phrase. He used it to denounce Latin literature of that time; others expanded on this idea to express frustration with the lack of Latin literature during this time or other cultural achievements. While the term dark ages is no longer widely used, it may best be described as Early Middle Ages — the period following the decline of Romein the Western World. The Middle Ages is loosely considered to extend from 400 to 1000 AD.”  http://www.allabouthistory.org/the-dark-ages.htm

For Wales, the time was no more or less bright than any other.  The relative peace the Romans brought was predicated on the brutal subjugation of the British people.  When the Romans left, the Britons faced the Irish from the west, the Scots from the northwest, the Picts from the northeast and ‘Saxons’ (who were Angles and Jutes too, not just ‘Saxons’) from the east.  To a certain degree, it was just more of the same.  The Britons had their lands back—the whole expanse of what is nowWales andEngland—for about five minutes.

From Gildas:

As the Romans went back home, there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea-valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts. … They were more confident than usual now that they had learnt of the departure ofthe Romans and the denial of any prospect of their return. So they seized the whole north of the island from its inhabitants, right up to (i.e. as far south as) the wall (presumably Hadrian’s). A force was stationed on the high towers to oppose them, but it was too lazy to fight, and too unwieldy to flee. Meanwhile there was no respite from the barbed spears flung by their naked opponents, which tore our wretched countrymen from the walls and dashed them to the ground.

From contemporary accounts in 411:


They (the barbarians) reduced the inhabitants of Britainand some parts of Gaul to such straits that they revolted from the Roman Empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, but reverted to their native customs. The Britons, therefore, armed themselves and ran many risks to ensure their own safety and free their cities from the attacking barbarians. The whole of Armorica, [Emap (7)] and other Gallic provinces, in imitation of the Britons, freed themselves in the same way, by expelling the Roman magistrates and establishing the government they wanted. The revolt of the provinces ofBritain and Gaul occurred during Constantine’s tyranny because the barbarians took advantage of his careless government. …

Fastidius — letter to a widow in Britain

We see before us many instances of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are being judged at the present moment, and denied this present life no less than the life to come. This is not hard to understand, for in changing times we expect the deaths of magistrates who have lived criminally, for the greater their power, the bolder their sins. … Those who have freely shed the blood of others are now forced to shed their own. … Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others have been individually torn limb from limb. Their judgements killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children, leaving them bare and beggared … for they plundered the property of the men they killed. But now it is their wives who are widowed, their sons who are orphaned, begging their daily bread from strangers.


It does seem that a ruler named Vortigern invited some Germanic ‘Saxon’ tribes to settle in eastern England, in hopes of creating a buffer zone between the Britons and the relentless invasions fromEurope.  This plan backfired, however, and resulted in the pushing westward of successive waves of ‘Saxon’ groups.  Ultimately, the Britons retreated into Wales, the only portion of land the Saxons were unable to conquer.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

445:  In the fourth year of Vortigern’s reign, the English came to Britain.


449:  The British consulted what was to be done and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations. They all agreed with their king Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation. … The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

449:  Martian and Valentinian assumed the Roman empire(actually in 450) and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed inBritainin a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; at first to help the Britons, but later they fought against them.


453:  But Hengest was an experienced man, shrewd and skilful. Sizing up the king’s incompetence, and the military weakness of his people, he held a council, and said to the British king “We are a few; if you wish, we can send home and invite warriors from the fighting men of our country, that the number that fight for you and your people may be larger.” The king ordered it be done, and envoys were sent across the sea, and came back with sixteen keels, with picked warriors in them. In one of the keels came Hengest’s daughter, a beautiful and very handsome girl. When the keels had arrived, Hengest held a banquet for Vortigern, and his men and his interpreter, whose name was Ceretic, and told the girl to serve their wine and spirits. They all got exceedingly drunk. When they were drinking Satan entered Vortigern’s heart and made him love the girl. Through his interpreter he asked her father for her hand, saying “Ask of me what you will, even to the half of my kingdom”.


It’s important to point out that Welsh literature, language, and culture flourished during the Dark Ages.  Much of the material in the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, and the Black Book of Camarthen date to this time.



Was King Arthur real?

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cmh blogWhether or not King Arthur was a real person is an either/or query.  He either was or he wasn’t.  Many scholars, researchers, and Arthurophile’s have strong opinions on this topic, both for and against.  Because of the paucity of written records (most notably, Gildas fails to mention him), much of the academic work has come down on the side of ‘wasn’t’–or at least if Arthur was a real person, his name was not ‘Arthur’ and he possible wasn’t even a king.  In another blog (here), I list the original sources that posit the existence of King Arthur.

Obviously, since I’ve written a novel about King Arthur, he’s very real to me!

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough analysis of the subject:

For now, I’d like to point to two aspects of the ‘wasn’t’ camp that I find particularly interesting, as they have to do with the development of Welsh myth and the transformation of Wales from a pagan culture to a Christian one.

One theory about King Arthur was that his stories were originally not about him at all, but about Gwydion, one of the sons of Don and a chief character in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi.  In these tales, Gwydion, while evident through much of the Mabinogi, is completely absent from the stories that include Arthur, implying that the ancient poet did a global ‘find and replace’. This theory was originally posited by Sir John Rhys, writing at the end of the 19th century.

The second curious aspect of the development of Arthur, which parallels the Gwydion relationship, is the way in which the character adopted not only the characteristics of Gwydion, but of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, the last ‘King’ of Wales (died 682 AD).  Included in the books of Taliesin are not only poems about Arthur, but also about Cadwaladr.  It is Cadwaladr whom the Welsh tales describe as sleeping in a cave on Mount Snowdon, and whose return the Welsh await (see my post on The Great Prophecy of Britain).

I would love for Arthur to have been a ‘real’ person, but I find the discovery of the way in which myth becomes ‘real’, as well as the ‘real’ becomes myth fascinating.  It is almost a parallel process:  many scholars of celtic myth believe that the stories of the Don or Tuatha de Dannan (in Ireland) were once ‘real’ to the people who told them, but with the coming of Christianity, their tales were either adopted and transformed into Christian parable, or faded into the realm of fable.  Similarly, Gwydion (a mythic character) or Cadwaladr (a ‘real’ one) might have had their stories blended into the tale of King Arthur–for Gywdion, the stories were sanitized and made palatable for Christian audiences, and for Cadwaladr, his story was submerged into the tale of an already more famous and reknowned hero and thus made more ‘mythic’.


The British (Welsh/Cymry) High Council

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What passes for the British government in 2011 (as in, the word ‘British’ is a misnomer since ‘British’ should refer to the original inhabitants of Britain, who are now called ‘Welsh’) has formed a coalition so it can govern.  Within British (and by that I mean Welsh/Cymry/Celtic) legend, a High Council–a Parliament of a sort–existed in the Dark Ages to choose a “high king”.  One of these high kings, according to legend, was King Arthur.  Later, during Arthur’s reign, he instituted his ’round table’, a gathering of equals, to discuss the troubles in his realm.  Or so the story goes.

But did this High Council ever exist?

The answer is ‘yes’–certainly during the reign of the last Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  In 1282 when Edward I of England wrote his letters to Llywelyn and Dafydd, demanding that they concede defeat, he also wrote a letter to the ‘Council of Wales’, laying out his case.  To this they responded:

“The people of Snowdonia for their part state that even if the prince desired to give the king seisin of them, they themselves would not do homage to any stranger, of whose language, customs and laws they are utterly ignorant. For by doing so they could be brought into perpetual captivity and barbarously treated . . .”  http://garthcelyn.com/letters_14.html

Our evidence for a council of ‘Britain’ (which in the post-Roman occupation period did include all of what is now England and Wales) is first and foremost, Gildas.  He writes:  “Then all the council members, together with that proud tyrant [theoretically, Vortigern], were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them (like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nation.”

From Robert Vermaat:  “What Gildas does not do is describe Vortigern as a sole ruler, or a ‘High King’ if you will. He rules as a king, but together with a Council, the members of which are rulers of their own territory. Gildas sees this as a logical but reprehensible evolution from the usurpation of Magnus Maximus, which has seen the progressive disintegration of the British territory from one single state (diocese) into several smaller kingdoms without overlord in Gildas’ day.

Though in the days of Vortigern this was clearly not the case, and Vortigern’s decisions seem to be obeyed in the whole diocese. Dumville has proposed that there is nothing to suggest that Vortigern’s rule did not encompass the whole diocese. But Vortigern is not ruling alone, as observed above. He has power over magistrates, who later evolve into sub-kings or provincial rulers, but that power may have been wielded by the Council as a whole, for Gildas puts the blame with all of them. Gildas does not mention the Council in this function elsewhere, or so it seems. Gildas does seem to indicate, however, that the members of the council in the days of Vortigern had become the warring princes of his own days.”  http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artsou/gildvort.htm

That a council of Britain existed appears to have been a common understanding throughout the subsequent centuries, as Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century mentions it often.  He states that Britains ‘flocked together from all parts and in a council held at Silchester,’ and crowned Constantine High King;  furthermore, Aurelius holds a council in chapter 7 and 8 of book 6; and Arthur in chapter 1 and 16 of book 9.

Additional mention of some kind of council is found in the Chronicle of the Princes (Red Book of Hergest).  From 1096:  “And the Britons, having retreated to their strongest places, according to their usual custom, agreed in council to save Mona.”

Chronicle of the Princes (Ystrad Fflur).  From 1220:  “Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, gathered to him the princes and leading men of all Wales. . .”

1258:  “In this year all the Welsh made a pact together, and they gave an oath to maintain loyalty and agreement together, under pain of excommunication upon whomsoever of them broke it.”

Certainly the power of the Council was not constant, and in part depended upon the unity of Wales as a whole and the individual authority of the ruling high king, and later Prince.

As to whether King Arthur was ever high king?  At this point, we just don’t know.


The Evolution of Welsh

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The first thing you learn in linguistics is that languages evolve.  The second is that they are arbitrary.   This does not mean language isn’t important, or that it isn’t integral to culture. (see this article on Quebec’s policing of language).  It does mean that there is nothing inherent in the word ‘spoon’ that denotes the rounded tool with which you cook or eat.

Medieval Welsh, or Middle Welsh, was the language spoken in the 12th to 14th centuries.  Like when a modern English-speaker attempts to read Chaucer in English, it is possible for a modern Welsh speaker to read middle Welsh, which is the language of much of the Welsh literature (Four Tales of the Mabinogi, for example) that we have, although the tales themselves are much older.  You can find out about learning it here:


The root of the changes between medieval and modern Welsh lie in what linguists call ‘mutations’, mostly in initial consonents.  This site (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~klausner/MUT.html) can help with that.

Old Welsh, on the other hand, is different yet again and not readily intelligible to Welsh readers.  This language dates from around 800 AD to the 12th century.   It is important to point out, however, that it is very hard to know if the pronunciation of words changed as much as the writing changed.  We cannot hear people reading these ancient documents out loud.  They may have pronounced words similarly to modern Welsh, but simply spelled the words differently.

Primitive Welsh dates to 550 AD, and derives from what linguists call British, or Brythonic, one of the Celtic insular languges which also includes Breton and Cornish.


This language borrowed heavily from Latin, not surprising since Rome ruled Britain from 43 to 411 AD.   An easy example of this is the Latin word, ‘draco’, which becomes ‘draig’ in Welsh and ‘dragon’ in English.  Many of these words with Latin roots have to do with religion, again not surprising given the use of Latin in the Christian Church:  “Sacramentum” has become sacrafen; “episcopus”, esgob; “ecclesia”, eglwys; “altar”, allor; “Caresima”, Carawys; and so on.”


The language spoken by the earliest Britains can only be guessed at as some proto-Brythonic, pre-Celtic language.  The people of Britain, prior to the coming of the Romans, were not literate, so there is no record of them or their history, beyond the material remains uncovered by archaeologists.


Laws of Hywel Dda

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Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) ruled Wales in the early 900s, one of the few Welsh kings to control the entire country. He maintained peace with Wessex, to the point of minting coins in the English city of Chester. His laws were codifications and a consolidation of the common law in Wales at the time (meaning he didn’t create them out of whole cloth), and provided the foundation for Welsh law until the Norman conquest, when many were abrogated by Edward I. A surviving manuscript (from the thirteenth century) is in the National Library of Wales. It was a ‘pocket’ book, designed for lawyers to carry around in their scrip, rather than left on a library shelf.

You can view it here: http://www.llgc.org.uk/?id=lawsofhyweldda

The laws are divisible into several categories:

Laws of the Court
These laws set down the rights of the king and rulers of Wales, their order of precedence, ranks, titles, and obligations. It introduces the concepts of insults and fines, according to whom an offence was given. The law used payment as a form of punishment, rather than death, dismemberment, etc., which the Normans instituted in England in 1066. In that respect, Welsh law was similar to Anglo-Saxon law and it is the system of Saxon and Welsh lawyers, infighting, and suing one another that provided the precedence for the modern English/American system, rather than the feudal Norman one.

Laws of the Country

This category was further divided into laws of women, land law, and surety and contracts. Women had more rights and were of higher status than in many European groups (e.g. Norman). For example, a woman was entitled to compensation if her husband beat her for anything other than: “giving away something which she was not entitled to give away, for being found with another man, or for wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard.” (the final article indicates cultural differences between then and now) She also had the right to divorce him under certain circumstances, including if he was unfaithful to her.  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/laws_hywel_dda.html

Hywel Dda laws

  • Marriage was considered an agreement, not a holy sacrament.
  • Divorce was permitted by common consent.
  • There was no punishment for theft – if the sole purpose was to stay alive.
  • Illegitimate children received the same rights as legitimate sons and daughters.
  • You were allowed to pick up three things if you found them in the road – a horseshoe, a nail and a penny.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18784782

Further laws include the consequences for homicide, theft, and fire (usually involving payments to the victim) and setting the ‘value’ of animals, both wild and tame, and for trees, equipment and parts of the human body. “The value of a part of the body was fixed, thus a person causing the king to lose an eye would pay the same as if he had caused a villein to lose an eye.” He would also have to pay sarhad, however, meaning “the payment that was due to a person in the event of an insult or injury, and this varied according to the status of the person concerned, for example the queen or the edling’s sarhad was one third that of the king.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyfraith_Hywel

Welsh law was far more humane than Norman law, which was undoubtedly the reason the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Pecham, told Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales, that the laws were inspired by the devil. He was referring, in particular, to the Welsh law that allowed illegimitate sons to inherit land from their father, provided he acknowledged them.


King Offa of Mercia

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Offa of Mercia ruled much of England from 757 AD to 29 July 796.  He was known primarily to history as the man who built–or organized the building of–‘Offa’s Dyke’ the earthenwork wall that stretches the length of the border between England and Wales. Unfortunately, though we know the dates of his rule, some of what happened before and after, and the wars we fought, we know little of Offa as a man.

The date that he ruled is very exact for that time period because of the wall and the history surrounding it. He was buried in Bedford and succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith, whom Offa had consecrated as his heir before his death. “According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgfrith died after a reign of only 141 days. A letter written by Alcuin in 797 to a Mercian ealdorman named Osbert makes it apparent that Offa had gone to great lengths to ensure that his son Ecgfrith would succeed him. Alcuin’s opinion is that Ecgfrith “has not died for his own sins; but the vengeance for the blood his father shed to secure the kingdom has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son.”

It is apparent that in addition to Ecgfrith’s consecration in 787, Offa had systematically gone about eliminating his dynastic rivals. This seems to have backfired, in that with Ecgfrith’s death, no close male relatives of Offa or Ecgfrith are recorded, and Coenwulf, Ecgfrith’s successor, was only distantly related to Offa’s line. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa_of_Mercia

Offa’s rule began as a result of violence:  “Æthelbald, who had ruled Mercia since 716, was assassinated in 757. According to a later continuation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (written anonymously after Bede’s death) the king was “treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards”, though the reason why is unrecorded. Æthelbald was initially succeeded by Beornred, about whom little is known. The continuation of Bede comments that Beornred “ruled for a little while, and unhappily”, and adds that “the same year, Offa, having put Beornred to flight, sought to gain the kingdom of the Mercians by bloodshed.” It is possible that Offa did not gain the throne until 758, however, since a charter of 789 describes Offa as being in the thirty-first year of his reign.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Offa_of_Mercia

“After he gained power, he consolidated bordering the kingdoms Hwicce and Magonsæte into Mercia. Offa was opportunistic, as when the neighboring kingdom of Kent began to experience some political instability, he enforced himself as overlord of Kent and soon ruled the kingdom of Sussex as well. Offa’s kingdom began to threaten the Welsh kingdoms nearby and Offa soon went to war.

Offa built a series of earthen barriers, or dykes, as fortifications for his units in their war against Wales. It was built in such a way that the Welsh kingdoms would have to charge through a ditch, and then up a hill to gain access to the Mercian soldiers. This put the Welsh soldiers at a severe disadvantage and the Mercians at a tactical advantage. Today, Offa’s Wall makes up some of the border between Wales and England.”  http://yourdailyhistorylesson.tumblr.com/post/685845808/offa-of-mercia

We have no contemporary Mercian source that chronicles his reign.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has been accused of being biased towards the West Saxons, who wrote it, and in light of the future reign of Alfred the Great.   Nennius, although he died during the reign of Offa’s son, only mentions him in the geneologies.  This could be because of Offa’s conflicts with the Church, either over the split in Archbishoprics between Canterbury and Lichfield (at Offa’s request) or the new date of Easter.  http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nennius_(DNB00)


Daily Living in the Middle Ages

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The tapestry to the right is The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates, a Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520), located now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Depected are the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. This is the third subject in Petrarch’s poem The Triumphs. First, Love triumphs; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity.

Pretty gloomy, eh?

From a modern perspective, life in the Middle Ages appears not to have a lot to recommend it.  For example, for the majority of women, their lives consisted of unceasing labor, hand-to-mouth existence, a total lack of political representation (although that was not much different than for the majority of men, if they were landless), restrictions of the Catholic Church, societal acceptance of physical abuse, and the very real possibility in dying in childbirth at a young age.

For men, it wasn’t much different, substituting dying in battle for childbirth and you aren’t far off.  Both men and women died of illness and infection, such that the median lifespan during this time was in the middle forties.

But people did live then.  They raised their children, they cared for one another, and it does seem from what has been passed down to us, that they found beauty and pleasure in their lives.

Digging deeper into history, there is far more going on there than simply than the Hobbesian  “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  (This quote, by the way, has been taken out of context for most of its life.  Hobbes wasn’t describing life in the Middle Ages; he was explaining what life would be life without a strong monarchy.  In his opinion, absolute monarchy was a way to avoid the war of ‘man against man’.)

While a strong central government in England, led by Edward I in the 13th century, did have some affect on averting war within the nation, it led to more wars against other nations, and in Wales in particular, a far less free and materially wealthy existence.

In fact, if you look at the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, the lives of average people, in terms of nutrition, longevity, cleanliness, etc. were on the whole far, far worse, than their lives would have been as peasants in the Middle Ages.

http://www.medieval-life.net/ has a good series of descriptions about different aspects of life in the Middle Ages. For example:

“Medieval villages consisted of a population comprised of mostly of farmers. Houses, barns sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village, which was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures. Medieval society depended on the village for protection and a majority of people during these centuries called a village home. Most were born, toiled, married, had children and later died within the village, rarely venturing beyond its boundaries.

Common enterprise was the key to a village’s survival. Some villages were temporary, and the society would move on if the land proved infertile or weather made life too difficult. Other villages continued to exist for centuries. Every village had a lord, even if he didn’t make it his permanent residence, and after the 1100’s castles often dominated the village landscape. Medieval Europeans may have been unclear of their country’s boundaries, but they knew every stone, tree, road and stream of their village. Neighboring villages would parley to set boundaries that would be set out in village charters.

Medieval peasants were either classified as free men or as “villeins,” those who owed heavy labor service to a lord, were bound to the land, and subject to feudal dues. Village life was busy for both classes, and for women as well as men. Much of this harsh life was lived outdoors, wearing simple dress and subsisting on a meager diet.

Village life would change from outside influences with market pressures and new landlords. As the centuries passed, more and more found themselves drawn to larger cities. Yet modern Europe owes much to these early medieval villages.”

http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/feudal.html is another good site. Much of this is oversimplified and specifically related to the Feudal system, which was not uniform across Europe. The differences between what went on in France verses Wales, for example, are very great.

Welsh people were not farmers but herders, had fewer villages, and land ownership was more egalitarian:

“Wales in the Age of the Princes was not a primitive society.

There were three main social groups: the uchelwyr – the upper class, thebonheddwyr – the freemen and the taeogion – the unfree peasants. Each group had its role in society.

The taeogion (villeins) lived in compact villages in the fertile lowlands. Organised by the maer y biswail (the mayor of the dunghill), they supplied the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year. Tied to the land, they could not leave their own village. Their arable crops were vital for Wales. Edward I realised this and, in his 1277 invasion, his forces quickly took Anglesey and seized the grain harvest.

The lowlands were linked to the hills economically. Farming communities moved from the hendref, their main settlement in the lowlands, to the hafodwith its upland pastures each summer. The upland farmers were generally bonheddwyr (freemen) who lived in kinship groups, each looking after its owngwely (clan land). They performed military service for the prince, but did not do menial tasks like the taeogion. The upland farms were also vital to Wales. They enabled the Welsh to keep their economic and political independence when the Marcher lords occupied the fertile lowlands.

While the traditional view is that the Welsh were not an urban people, over 80 towns were established in the period 1100-1300. Towns did develop more in the Marcher lordships because these areas were richer, but the Welsh princes also encouraged the development of towns, often near their castles. Trade increased in tandem with these new towns and Wales exported primary goods like cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. Imports included necessities like salt, wheat and iron, but reliance on these imports would be a weakness against an aggressive King of England.”  http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/medieval_exhibition/life_in_wales.htm



The Irish in Wales

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The Irish, Welsh, and Scots all have a Celtic ancestry, but they settled their respective regions before the Roman conquest of Britain.  There is an amazing amount of debate as to the origin of the Celts:  were they Phoenician?  stocky and dark?  tall and blonde?  as culturally cohesive as the label suggests?   The standard theory is that the Celts were an Indo-European group that gradually migrated across Europe and Asia, with an identifiable, distinct culture by 750 BC.  As a group, they were well-known to the Greeks and Romans.


The Celts had arrived in Britain and Ireland by 400 BC, super-imposing upon whatever native peoples were already there.  The Celts in these regions, then, were on the fringes of Celtic culture, not their heart, which was centered in Northern Europe, particularly in what is now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.


The links between Wales and Ireland continued to hold through the Roman conquest and the years after.  There is strong evidence of a continued Irish presence in Wales, particularly on the west coast of Wales.  The rulers of Dyfed were of Irish descent into the 7th century–and there is also evidence of repeated raids from Ireland to Wales.

According to Thomas:

“… both Irish and Welsh sources portrayed it as a tribal migration of the Irish Dessi or Deisi headed by their own king and, from the Irish viewpoint, a suitable ‘expulsion’ saga was adduced. The direct line of Irish rulers of Welsh Dyfed went on into the 7th and 8th centuries. An interesting mix arose; by 400 Irish and British were fully differing languages, and additionally Christians from both nations used different scripts (Latin and Ogham) for their memorials. Irish never replaced British in Wales the way it did in Scotland, but relative numerical strengths do not necessarily explain why; less obvious factors could be involved.”


Within Welsh mythology, the Irish play a significant role as well.  Taliesin sings of himself:  I have been with Bran in Ireland.  This is in reference to the tale of Bran the Blessed who obtains a magical cauldron from Cerridwen (in disguise as a giantess).  She had been expelled from a lake in Ireland. The cauldron can resurrect the corpse of dead warriors placed inside it (this scene is believed to be depicted on the  Gundestrup cauldron):


Bran gives his sister Branwen and her new husband Matholwch — the King of Ireland, and not to be confused with Math ap Mathonwy, the King of Gwynedd — the cauldron as a wedding gift, but when war breaks out Bran sets out to take the valuable gift back. He is accompanied by a band of a loyal knights with him, but only seven return home.   A similar tale is told in Taliesin’s poem, the Spoils of Annwn about King Arthur’s descent to the Underworld.

In the Middle Ages, there was much back and forth between the rulers of Wales and the rulers of Ireland.   Not only did they share ancestry and blood, but retreated one to the other at various times when they were driven out of their own kingdom (in the case of Gwynedd, due to usurpers or the Normans). In one specific case, Owain Gwynedd’s father, Gruffydd ap Cynan, claimed ancestry to both the Norse kingdom of Dublin and to the Celtic High Kings of Ireland:

“According to the Life of Gruffudd ap Cynan, Gruffudd was born in Dublin and reared near Swords, County Dublin in Ireland. He was the son of a Welsh Prince, Cynan ap Iago, who was a claimant to the Kingship of Gwynedd but was probably never king of Gwynedd, though his father, Gruffudd’s grandfather, Iago ab Idwal ap Meurig had ruled Gwynedd from 1023 to 1039. When Gruffudd first appeared on the scene in Wales the Welsh annals several times refer to him as “grandson of Iago” rather than the more usual “son of Cynan”, indicating that his father was little known in Wales. Cynan ap Iago seems to have died while Gruffudd was still young, since the History describes his mother telling him who his father was.

Gruffudd’s mother Ragnhild was the daughter of Olaf of Dublin, son of King Sigtrygg Silkbeard and a member of the Hiberno-Norse Uí Ímhair dynasty.[1] Through his mother, who appears in the list of the fair women of Ireland in the Book of Leinster, Gruffudd claimed relationships with many of the leading septs in Ireland. His great-great grandparents on his mother’s side include the High King of Ireland, Brian Bóruma, and the King of Dublin and King of Northumbria, Olaf Cuarán, and Gormflaith.[1]

During his many struggles to gain the kingship of Gwynedd, Gruffudd received considerable aid from Ireland, both from the Hiberno-Norse at Dublin, but also those at Wexford, and also from Muircheartach Ua Briain.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruffudd_ap_Cynan

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