MAELGWN GWYNEDD, THE DRAGON OF ANGLESEY
The casual student of early
Welsh History will recognize this man, sometimes called Maelgwn Hir, as a powerful 6th century ruler of Gwynedd. He
was one of 5 contemporary rulers singled out for scorn by Gildas in his c. 540 The Ruin of Britain. Much has
been written about him by later men, some probably accurate but much clearly fables. Leaving aside the preachy condemnation
directed at him by Gildas, he tells us several specific things about his life:
a. As a youth, he "dispatched
his uncle the king with sword and spear".
b. Soon afterward,
he repented his wickedness and entered a monastery, vowing to remain a monk forever.
c. Later, he violated
that oath and returned to his evil ways.
d. After leaving the monastery,
he took a wife.
e. After enjoying his
wife "for some little time", he spurned her and sought another.
f. The object of his affections
was a young lady already married to his nephew.
g. To have that lady, he
killed her husband and his own lawful wife.
To learn who this Maelgwn was,
we must turn to the early pedigree manuscripts...none written before c. 970. Here, we learn that he was a son of Cadwallon
Lawhir ap Einion Yrth ap Cunedda. His mother was Meddyf ferch Maeldaf ap Dylan Traws of Nant Conwy.
His father had cleared the last of the Irish squatters from the island of Anglesey, a task begun by Cadwallon's grandfather,
father and uncles about 435/440AD. Cadwallon had an elder brother, Owain Ddantgwyn, who seems to have succeeded their
father as king of Gwynedd.
Marriages cited for Maelgwn include
an unknown Gwallen ferch Affleth; while she was the mother of his eldest son, Rhun, most sources say she was merely a mistress
of young Maelgwn, but the boy was acknowledged by his father and became his heir. Maelgwn did marry a lady named
Nest ferch Samuel Penisel ap Pappo ap Ceneu ap Coel Hen, by whom he had a son Einion and a daughter Eurgain. The
other lady cited as his wife was Sanan ferch Cyngen Glodrydd, a sister of Brochwel Ysgithrog of Powys.
Our chart of his family, together
with probable birthdates looks like this:
415 Einion Yrth
447 Owain Ddantgwyn 450 Cadwallon Lawhir==Meddyf
480 Maelgwn Gwynedd
assigned to Maelgwn and mothers of his children are:
450 Samuel Penisel
? Afallach 475 Cyngen Glodrydd
Nest ? Gwallwen
Einion and Eurgain
Rhun, c. 505 no issue known
*This is NOT Pabo Post Prydain
whose son was Sawl Penuchel; the Samuel Penisel line is cited in Harleian Ms 3859, 19. See APPENDIX II
The "king, his uncle" whom Maelgwn
slew in his youth is nowhere named. Gildas referred to him as "avunculus" or "mother's brother", so this seems to rule
out Owain Ddantgwyn... his father's brother. Thus, the deposed king must have been a son of Maeldaf ap Dylan Traws of
Nant Conwy. We suggest some of the men Gildas called "kings" were merely rulers of appanages of larger kingships.
This man likely ruled Nant Conway, a part of Gwynedd subject to its king. Likewise, Cadwallon Lawhir ruled only Anglesey
(and possibly Arfon) while his brother was overall king of Gwynedd.
Since Gildas first took
notice of Maelgwn when he was in his youth, i.e. early 20's, we should describe his world as he might have seen it in
the period AD500-505. The battle of Baden had recently defeated the main Saxon army and Wales was no longer threatened
by outside invaders. It is quite likely that Maelgwn, and his cousins, had been among Arthur's warriors at Baden. His
father and uncle were in their 50's, probably still capable of leading a warband to defend their own lands, but a bit old
to be active on the battlefield far from home. Flush with victory in his first campaign, Maelgwn may have chafed under
the constraints imposed back home. He would not step into his father's shoes until Cadwallon Lawhir either died or retired
to a monastery in his old age, but he had a following of noble youths that had fought with him; they saw him as a born leader
and powerful warrior and gladly joined him in an attempt to unseat the neighboring ruler in Nant Conwy. The coup was
successful, his mother's brother fell to their swords and spears as the band of youths despoiled his lands, taking loot and
young maidens. Maelgwn took over the Lord's manor and took to his bed a young lady, Gwallwen ferch Afallach. It
was about the year 505 when she bore a son, Rhun, whom Maelgwn saw as a mirror image of himself (and indeed the boy did grow
up to be taller and stronger than the average man). In seeking to identify this lady, we note that Maelgwn's mother would
have been born c. 465 and her brother perhaps c. 460. A daughter of that brother would have occurred c. 490 and thus
be of child-bearing age in 505. The timeline is wholly consistent with identifying the slain Lord of Nant Conwy as Afallach
ap Maeldaf and Gwallwen as his daughter. We further suggest that family was among the descendants of Eudaf Hen
who had ruled Gwynedd prior to the arrival of Cunedda. Dylan Traws fits as a younger son of Tudwal ap Turmwr Morfawr
ap Gaedon ap Cynan ap Eudaf Hen, and may have received the Lordship of Nant Conwy when his brother, Cynfawr, succeeded to
the overall kingship.
Probably never his
intent to rule these conquered lands to the benefit of their occupants, he and his rowdy group of friends simply took what
they wanted from the people of Nant Conway. We suggest these people
appealed to the clergy to assist them in their woes, and asked St. Illtud to intercede with Maelgwn. Illtud was then
the most respected bishop in Wales, a first-cousin of Arthur and probably maternally related to Maelgwn[APPENDIX I].
Early writers identify Illtud (born c. 460/465) as the "teacher" of Maelgwn, so we think he is the holy man who convinced
Maelgwn to renounce his selfish and evil past and enter a monastery to train for a peaceful life as a spiritual leader.
Maelgwn was wholly won over and Illtud promised to see that the infant Rhun was cared for and raised to be a fine man of whom
a father could be proud.
After some few years
as a monk, during which time he ministered to the weak and poor and comforted the ill, and indeed led an exemplary life, his
father finally died near age 65. When it became evident that other male kinfolks were prepared to assume rule over his
own paternal lands, Maelgwn renounced his vows and left the monastery. He returned to become Lord of Anglesey, was reunited
with his young son, and took a wife. Gildas called this marriage "illegal", but we aren't sure if he meant Maelgwn already
had a "wife" in the eyes of the church...the mother of Rhun...or he meant Maelgwn had taken the celibacy oath of a monk.
We suggest this wife was Nest, a lady about 10 years younger than himself. Maelgwn was now about 35 years old, so Nest
likely was a 25 year old widow or divorcee.
By this lady, Maelgwn had a
son Einion and a daughter Eurgain, probably in the years 516/520. We suggest he did not emerge from the monastary and
immediately resume the evil ways of his youth. But an event around the year 525 changed him forever; he was selected
to be the interim king of all Gwynedd.
His cousin, the king of
Gwynedd, had fallen in battle that year...a man in his mid-40's. The king's eldest son was but a teenager
so the leading men of the realm gathered to select an interim king to rule until the legal heir came of his full age.
There were several eligible candidates, but it was Maelgwn who received the nod. He moved from Anglesey to occupy
the royal manor at Degannwy, and all the trappings of power went to his head. Becoming as ruthless as when a youth,
but with all the authority and power of kingship, Maelgwn indeed returned to iniquities "like a sick dog returns to his vomit".
Disdaining his wife, now in her 30's, he became enamored of a much younger lady whom we would identify as the 16 year old
wife of his own nephew...Sanan ferch Cyngen Glodrydd.
Unable to induce the lady
to leave her husband and come to his bed, he killed that man leaving her a widow. Apparently his wife Nest objected
to having the younger woman take her place in Maelgwn's bed, so she too was slain. Maelgwn was a man near age 41 at
the time he wed the pretty teenage widow. By the account of Gildas, he went downhill from there so far as decency and
honor were concerned. It is known, however, that he made many generous gifts and landgrants to various churches throughout
Wales. Whether these were proof that he had a strong spiritual nature, or were simply bribes he offered the holy men
to offset the offenses he committed against them and his fellow men, is anyone's guess.
But his heady ride as
the most powerful man in north Wales ended, we suggest, about 545. The rightful heir was now of full
age and the "regency" of Maelgwn was declared over. Nearing age 65, Maelgwn reverted to simply Lord of Anglesey.
Rather than accept this demotion, he installed his son Rhun, now about 40, in his manor of Afferfraw and retired back to monastic
life. He was still there in 547 when the ''yellow plague" swept over Gwynedd, and he died as he sought shelter from
it in the nearby church.