THE GOVERNANCE OF GWYNEDD, 754 - 825
By Darrell Wolcott
When Rhodri Molwynog of the first
Gwynedd dynasty was killed in 754, very little is known about who held rule there until the second decade of the following
century. Nor do the sources clearly describe the circumstances which surround the shift of rule from the descendants
of Cunedda to Merfyn Frych. A look at the actual sources, together with the tales woven from them by our historians,
will preceed our analysis and conclusions:
Brut y Tywysogyon
754 - ...died Rhodri, king of the
798 - ...Saxons slew Caradog, king
813 - ...there was war between Hywel
and Cynan, and Hywel prevailed
814 - ...and then Hywel of the island
of Anglesey obtained the victory, and Cynan was driven into flight...
816 - ...Hywel was driven a second
time from Anglesey. And King Cynan died
825 - ...died Hywel
COMMENTS: How or when Caradog became king
of Gwynedd is not disclosed. The parentage of neither Hywel nor Cynan is identified. The number of battles is unclear;
the entries of 813 and 814 may refer to a single battle and there is no report of a first time when Hywel was the loser.
Possession of Anglesey seems to be the objective of both men. The identification of the combatants with the same Cynan
and Hywel whose obits appear here seems justified but is not certain.
Brut y Tywysogyon
754 - ...Rodri, king of the Britons...died
798 - ...the Saxons slew Caradog, king of
813 - ...there was a battle between Hywel
and Cynan, and Hywel prevailed
814 - ...and Hywel of Anglesey prevailed.
And he drove Cynan, his brother, out of Anglesey...
816 - ...and a second time Hywel was driven
from Anglesey. And king Cynan died
825 - ...and Hywel died
COMMENTS: This version is virtually
identical to the first, except it makes Cynan and Hywel brothers.
British Museum Ms Cleopatra B v
754 - ...Rodri Maelwynauc, king of the Britons,
798 - ...Caradauc, king of Gwynedd, was
slain by the Saxons
813 - ...there was a battle between Hywel
and Cynan, and Hywel prevailed
814 - ...and Hywel of Mon prevailed against
Cynan, his brother, and expelled him and his host
816 - ...Hywel was expelled from Manaw.
And King Cynan died
(Manaw is underlined in the text and Mon added in a later hand)
825 - ...Hywel, king of Manaw, died
COMMENTS: It may have been the incorrect
use of Manaw (the Isle of Man) for Mon (Anglesey) which led to the later claims that one of the expelled men fled there.
If we substitute Mon in this text, it reads essentially the same as the other two versions except the 816 loss is not called Hywel's
Dr. Powell's version
"Roderic Molwynoc...demanded the government
of this country as his right...but he did not long enjoy it; for he died in a short time, leaving behind him two sons, Conan
Tindaethwy and Howel...his son, Conan Tindaethwy took upon him the government and principality of Wales in the year 755.
"...a considerable battle was fought
at Rhuddlan between the Saxons and the Welsh, wherein Caradoc king of North Wales was killed...these great losses which the
Welsh sustained did not reconcile Prince Conan and his brother Hywel; for they quarreled with each other...Howel claimed the
isle of Anglesey as part of his father's inheritance, which Conan would by no means accede to...Howel would not suffer himself
to be cheated out of his paternal inheritance, and therefore he endeavoured to recover it by force of arms. Both armies being
engaged, the victory fell to Howel, who immediately thereupon possessed himself of the island...but Conan would not rest satisfied
with his brother's forcible possession of the Island of Anglesey...having drawn up all the forces he could raise together,
he marched to Anglesey to seek his brother Howel, who being too weak to encounter and face such a considerable number, was
compelled to make his escape to the Isle of Man...Conan, however, did not live long enough to reap the satisfaction of this
victory, but died in a short time, leaving issue only a daughter called Esylht, married to a nobleman of Wales named Merfyn
Frych. He was son to Gwyriad or Uriet, the son of Elidur...his mother was Nest, the daughter of Cadelh King of Powys,
the son of Brochwel Yscithroc...
"Conan being dead, Merfyn Frych and
his wife Esylht...took upon them the government and the principality of Wales. Howel escaped to the Island of Man and
was honourably and kindly received by Merfyn; in return...Howel had used such means...that Merfyn married Esylht, the daughter
and heir of his brother Conan. Howel...died about the year 825"
COMMENTS: This construction
makes Cynan and Hywel sons of Rhodri Molwynog and fighting over their father's inheritance some 60 years after his death.
If Cynan was old enough to succeed his father in 755, he must have been past 80 years of age when he battled his alleged brother.
Dr. Powell describes only two battles, with Hywel winning the first and losing the second, when he fled to the Isle of Man.
Curiously, he has Hywel as the man who sought refuge with Merfyn Frych but somehow Hywel arranged to give the daughter of
Cynan to Merfyn as a wife. And clearly the Brochwel cited as grandfather to Nest ferch Cadell was not the one known
as "Ysgithrog" who lived nearly 300 years earlier.
B.B. Woodward's version
"...the civil war between Hywel Vychan,
a younger son of Rhodri Maelwynawg, and his brother Cynan Tindaethwy who was prince of Gwynedd. It appears Hywel contended
for the extension of the customary division of the patrimonial estate...and claimed Anglesey as his lawful share. His
first attempt was successful; he defeated his brother and took possession of the island...it is not clear with whom the next
victory rested; but it is most likely that in the following year Hywel again defeated Cynan, and was afterwards completely
routed and compelled to fly from Anglesey. Two years later, either in 816 or 817...Hywel, repeating his efforts, was
completely overthrown and driven to the Isle of Man...In the same year...the victor died and the King of Man, Mervyn Vrych
(who had married Essyllt, Cynan's daughter)...succeeded; and thus the Isle of Man...was left under the rule of Hywel who died
there eight years afterwards."
COMMENTS: Borrowing heavily
from Dr. Powell, Woodward refers to four battles; his wording concerning the third is confused but he has Hywel losing the
last and being driven to the Isle of Man. He claims Hywel remained in Man, even became its king. He follows Dr.
Powell in marrying Merfyn Frych to a daughter of Cynan.
Jane Williams' version
"Rhodri Maelwynwg...left behind him at his
death in the year 755, two sons; Cynan surnamed Tindaethwy his heir, and Howel... throughout the long reign of Cynan, Howel
his brother insisted that Mona should be included in the portion of his father's lands to which...
he was entitled, and Cynan steadfastly refused to gratify his brother's wishes.
He had no son and Howel probably believed the possession of a place so renowned would insure his own succession to the sovereignty
of Cymru; for when both had become aged men, Howel... seized upon Mona by force of arms. Twice, with long intervals
between the periods, the royal brothers met in hostile array, and twice Howel worsted Cynan with much bloodshed. In
a third battle, Cynan put forth his strength, drove Howel out of Mona and forced him to take refuge in the Isle of Man, whence
he never returned. Within a year after this event, King Cynan died and...the chief branch of the race of Cunedda became
extinct in the male line.
"In or about the year 819, Essyllt,
the daughter of Cynan Tindaethwy, inherited the throne of Gwynedd and shared it with her husband, Merfyn".
COMMENTS: Miss Williams recognizes
the extreme age these men must have been if both were sons of Rhodri Molwynog, but plows ahead with a retelling of the story
first put forth by Dr. Powell. She writes of only three battles with Hywel winning the first two before losing the final one
and being forced to flee to the Isle of Man. Following both earlier writers, she says Esyllt was the daughter of Cynan
Tyndaethey and married Merfyn Frych.
John E. Lloyd's version
"The death of Rhodri Molwynog...is
recorded under the year 754 and the family passes out of sight until the early part of the ninth century when two sons of
Rhodri, Hywel and Cynan, are found battling each other for the lordship of Mon. In 816, the death of Cynan...left the
field clear for Hywel, who no doubt ruled over Anglesey until his death in 825. When Hywel died, the male line of Maelgwn
Gwynedd was at an end and its claims were transferred to another house by Ethyllt, the daughter of his brother Cynan.
"Upon the death of Hywel ap Rhodri
Molwynog in 825...a stranger possessed himself of the throne of Gwynedd...Merfyn Frych was descended from Llywarch Hen; his
father, Gwriad, had married a daughter of Cynan ap Rhodri, so that he was not altogether without a hereditary claim to the
crown, but it was a claim which would probably have been of little account had it not been backed by personal force and distinction...he
established himself firmly in Gwynedd and allied himself to the royal house of Powys by marrying Nest, daughter of Cadell
COMMENTS: Lloyd follows the
earlier historians in calling Cynan and Hywel sons of Rhodri Molwynog. However, he does not offer any conjecture as
to why these men were battling; he merely says the family "passes out of sight" for the space of about two generations. He
does not mention either man fleeing to the Isle of Man, and differs sharply with the others by stating that Esyllt ferch Cynan
was the mother of Merfyn Frych, not his wife. And says Nest was his wife, not his mother.
The foregoing excerpts
from original sources, and their use in the writing of secondary sources, reflects why our knowledge of this historic era
is so muddled. Dr. Powell, it would seem, has taken a button and sewed a vest on it. Perhaps he thought he was
writing a novel and it was necessary to construct an elaborate scenerio to explain the terse account found in his sources.
But it was not until the twentieth century that a scholarly work, that of Lloyd, rejected most of his conjecture.
It defies chronology to make
Cynan and Hywel sons of Rhodri Molwynog. That claim that two men, a least one surely past 80 years of age, battled over an
inheritance some 60 years after the death of their father does little to inspire confidence. If we give the Brut version found
in Peniarth Ms 20 it's acknowledged status as the most complete of the various extant manuscripts, Cynan and Hywel may not
have been brothers at all. The phrase "y vrawt" (his brother) is absent from that version, and may have been inserted
by copyists of the other versions simply because Welsh tradition held that belief by the time the extant copies were
The oldest Welsh
pedigrees, those found in Harleian Ms 3859, agree with Lloyd that Esyllt ferch Cynan was the mother of Merfyn Frych,
and do not name his wife at all. A pedigree from the 12th century reads "Rodri ap Ethil vz Cynan ap Idwal" but
since it omits the name of Cynan's father, it may well contain other omissions such as the father of Rhodri. But like
the earlier manuscript, it contains no mention of a Nest ferch Cadell. By the 13th century, however, pedigrees were
circulated citing Esyllt as both wife and mother of Merfyn Frych and introduced Nest as the mother of Merfyn in some
texts, but as the mother of Rhodri Mawr in others.
If Cynan Tyndaethwy followed
his father as king, he should be dated from c. 735 or earlier. His daughter Esyllt would then occur between 765/775
and would be far too old to be the mother of Rhodri Mawr and we believe the oldest citations are correct to make her Merfyn's
mother; Professor Lloyd was right to contradict the others on this point. We don't offer any opinion as to who might
have been the mother of Rhodri Mawr; as for Nest ferch Cadell, we would refer the reader to our discussion of that lady in
a separate paper.
Turning to the wars between
Cynan and Hywel, the Brut entry for the year 814 probably refers to the same battle mentioned in the 813 entry. The
ending of the 813 entry "and Hywel prevailed" is exactly the phrase which begins the 814 entry. If so, the 816 entry
might be only the second battle. The phrase "and a second time Hywel was driven from Anglesey" seems to be telling
us there was a first time, but no prior Hywel defeat is recorded. We think the proper translation of the Welsh text "ac
eilweith y gyrrwht Howel o Von" should read "and in a second battle Hywel was driven from Anglesey". We are left, then,
with an 813/814 battle won by Hywel and an 816 battle that Hywel lost. Not 3 or 4 battles, only two. And we note
the name of the victor is missing from the final battle; perhaps it wasn't Cynan at all.
The conjecture that Hywel fled
to the Isle of Man seems wholly based on the text of the Cotton Ms Cleopatra B where Manaw rather than Mon is used
in two of the three references to Hywel, one of which was later emended by an unknown hand. Absent that citation, there
is no evidence Hywel ever visited the Isle of Man, much less served as its king.
The sources all refer to Rhodri Molwynog
as King of the Britons, not king of Gwynedd. For many generations, the branch of the family of Cunedda seated in Anglesey
had not only ruled there, but had been considered the overking of all the Cymry in Britain. The identification of Caradog
as king of Gwynedd, we feel, denotes his lesser status as a local king. His pedigree places him in the mainland Gwynedd
territory of Rhos. Pedigrees of the principal family seated on the Isle of Man show an ancestor of Merfyn Frych
married into that family about the time it failed in the male line, so we believe that is where Merfyn resided before
becoming king in Gwynedd.
We offer the following scenerio
which, we believe, better accords with the ancient sources than any of the conjecture yet offered by historians:
When Rhodri Molwynog died in
754, he was, perhaps not immediately due to his young age, followed by his son Cynan Tyndaethwy, born c. 735. When
Cynan grew too old to effectively lead men into battle in the late 790's, the burden for the defense of north Wales fell to
a distant relative, Caradog of Rhos. Both men were of the family of Cunedda. We believe the Hywel who was the foe of
Cynan was not his brother, but the son of Caradog. When his father was killed in 798, Hywel ap Caradog now became
the primary defender of Gwynedd. Knowing that the aging Cynan had no sons and that his own ancestry made him a logical
successor, we believe Hywel became impatient when the old king kept living past his 80th year. Thus, in 813/814 Hywel
moved his army into Anglesey to claim the royal palace. It soon became obvious to Cynan that his warband was no match
for Hywel, so the old man fled to the Isle of Man. It would have been a logical sanctuary for him. Many years
earlier, his only daughter had married a leading man of that island and her son, Merfyn Frych, had now reached manhood.
When Cynan finally died on Man a couple years later, Merfyn took his army to Anglesey and chased Hywel back to his own patrimony
of Rhos. Merfyn then claimed the kingship for himself through his mother. Like Lloyd, however, we believe it was
the military might of Merfyn and not his mother's princess status which cowed the men of Gwynedd into accepting him as their
Hywel died some years
later; given the fierce warrior reputation ascribed to Merfyn Frych and later to his son Rhodri Mawr, it should not be hard
to see why no son of Hywel staked a claim to a kingdom which was never the patrimony of his family anyway. Thus, excepting
only the 11th century interruptions by Powys strongmen, the descendants of Merfyn Frych ruled over Gwynedd until Edward I
defeated Llewelyn the Last in 1282.
 Thomas Jones translation "Brut y Tywysygon: Peniarth Ms 20 version", 1952, Cardiff
 Thomas Jones translation "Brut y Tywysygon: Red Book of Hergest version", 1955, Cardiff
 Thomas Jones translation "Brenhinedd y Saesson: British Musuem Cotton Ms Cleopatra B v",
 David Powell "The History of Wales", 1832 edition, Shrewsbury. His first edition
was published in 1584
 B.B. Woodard "The History of Wales", 1853, London
 Jane Williams "A History of Wales", 1869, London
 John E. Lloyd "A History of Wales", 1912, London
 Arthur Jones translation "The History of Gruffudd ap Cynan", 1910, Manchester
 These include Jesus College Ms 20, Bonedd yr Arwyr, and Achau Brenhinoedd a Thywysogion
Cymru, all found in P.C. Bartrum's "Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts", 1966, Cardiff
 A marriage between the family of Merfyn Frych and a Powys heiress may have been invented
to bolster the medieval claim that Rhodri Mawr ruled that kingdom as well as Gwynedd. Refer to our paper entitled "Nest
ferch Cadell ap Brochwel" at the link below:
 ibid note , pp 6
 Harleian Ms 3859, 3
 JC 20, 19 and ABT 6(L)
 Harleian Ms 3959 cites Hywel ap Caradog in the Rhos family