About The Last Pendragon - Sarah Woodbury

About The Last Pendragon

The ‘Dark Ages’—the era in which The Last Pendragon is set—were ‘dark’ only because we lack historical material about the period between 407 AD, when the Romans marched away from Britain, and 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England.

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 now Wales and England—for about five minutes.

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 from Europe. 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.

The rule of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon sits at the resting point between the Welsh retreat and the Saxon advance. As romanticized by Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last Pendragon, the last King of Wales before the Cymry fell irretrievably under a wave of Saxon invaders.

With Cadwaladr’s death, the battles began again, and continued through the Norman conquest, to the lonely death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 AD, thus ending, for the next 700 years, the dream of an independent Welsh people.

Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon

What little is known about Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon comes from a few texts. As I write in The Last Pendragon, upon the death of his father in his first year of life (634 AD), Cadwaladr was hidden from the man who usurped the throne of Gwynedd, Cadfael, only to return at the age of twenty-two and regain his father’s crown.

He is mentioned in the following sources:

The Harlaein Genealogies: a collection of old Welsh genealogies preserved in British Library, Harleian MS 3859. They’ve been dated to the reign of Hwyel Dda (10th century). Cadwaladr is mentioned as the son of Cadwallon and the father of Idwal, all Kings of Gwynedd.

Annales Cambriae (the Annals of Wales): A single line: 682 – A great plague in Britain, in which Cadwaladr son of Cadwallon dies.

Historia Brittonum: This text was composed sometime between 828 and 830, attributed to Nennius. Of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon, he states: “Catgualart (Cadwaladr) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest. He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.”

The Book of Taliesin: Taliesin was a Welsh poet born in the mid to late 6th century. Two poems that mention Cadwaladr are attributed to him. One is The Great Prophecy of Britain in which he rails against the Saxon incursions and praises the rule of Cadwaladr: “Cadwaladr is a spear at the side of his men; In the forest, in the field, in the vale, on the hill; Cadwaladr is a candle in the darkness walking with us; Gloriously he will come and the Welsh will rise …” (my interpretation). The second is the Prediction of Cadwaladr, which is incomplete. It speaks of Cadwaladr, not Arthur, as the one who sleeps in the mountains to return at the nation’s greatest need.

History of the Kings of Britain: This is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s romantic and fanciful tale, telling the supposed story of the history of Britain from its founding by Brutus to the death of Cadwaladr.

Myth and Religion

The blend of Christianity and paganism that I write into The Last Pendragon is my take on what it might have been like to have been religious in seventh century Wales. While many fictional accounts of the Dark Ages describe conflict between pagan religions and Christianity, that seems to be a product of the medieval mind, rather than an accurate analysis of Dark Age religion. For there to be conflict there must be a power relationship as well as organization, and for both the pagans and the Christians in Wales at this time, there was little of either.

When the Romans conquered Wales in 43 AD, although Rome was not Christian at the time (Emperor Constantine didn’t convert until 311 AD), the legions systematically wiped out the reigning religion of Wales at the time, which was druidism. Why did they do this? The Romans themselves were pagans, with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Why did they not simply associate the native gods with existing gods from their religion as they did in most other places, and as the Catholic Church did with its saints later throughout the world?

The difference was that the druids formed the basis of a nationalist movement in Britain—and throughout the Celtic world. To quell it, the Romans systematically destroyed the sacred sites and groves, particularly on the island of Anglesey, prompting Boudicca’s revolt in 61 AD. The Romans defeated her, and the end of the revolt spelled the end of organized druidism in Britain.

Thus, in the time between this momentous defeat and when the Roman empire became Christian, there was a lengthy vacuum, both in religious leadership and belief. Christianity came to Britain in the first century, not long after the death of Christ, but was no more organized than paganism without the druids. Wales was far from Rome and the seats of learning, and when the Roman legions left, the Christian religion was cut off from its roots. Christianity in the Dark Ages, then, was one of several available options in Wales. By the mid-600s, the time period of The Last Pendragon, Christianity was growing more organized, but it was a religion based around monasteries. There were cells of monks and hermitages, but few, if any, churches as we understand them. There were also strong pulls towards different sects within Christianity, and strong resistance to the Roman Church, with which the Welsh Church did not reconcile until 763 AD.

Even up until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282 AD, the Welsh Christians were unhappy with conformity to Rome, especially as the Church kept excommunicating their princes for not bowing to England. Welsh laws did not conform to the Church’s teachings well into the Middle Ages. Most notably, women in Wales had a higher status compared to the rest of Europe, divorce was easier, illegitimate children could inherit, lords levied fines instead of executing criminals as punishment for crimes, and the punitive forest laws of English/French feudalism were absent.

Religion in the Dark Ages was at the intersection of superstition and mythology. The old Welsh gods had not been vanquished, but were everyday participants in daily life. They were random and capricious, just like the weather. Jesus Christ brought a message of personal salvation and belief in heaven, rather than the Underworld. Christ allowed a believer control over his ultimate destiny.

Eventually, it was Christianity that associated the pagan Welsh gods with its pre-existing pantheon of saints, accommodating the old beliefs. In the Spoils of Annwn by Taliesin, a Christian, (a poem which I have adopted for The Last Pendragon) the final two stanzas of the poem rail against dissolute monks, comparing them to wolves or wild dogs and end with a prayer to the Lord and Christ. At the same time, the bulk of the poem describes Arthur’s descent to the Underworld and his battles in the world of the sidhe. This blend of pagan and Christian is the hallmark of Dark Age Wales.


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