Early medieval Powys and Pengwern

I am just beginning to think about book 3 of the Kith and Kin Trilogy and I have decided to set much of the action in Powys. However, as soon as I began researching locations, I hit an even bigger problem than usual for seventh century kingdoms. Powys and Pengwern, it would seem, are hard to pin down.

A suitably vague map showing approximate positions of sixth century polities. Wikimedia commons

I suppose that I have always envisaged early medieval kingdoms, whether under the lordship of Angles or Saxons or Britons, as a series of strong points in a landscape. AngloSaxon kings/lords moved from royal vil to royal vil eating the produce brought to those locations by the local inhabitants and dispensing justice/adjudicating disputes, while British chieftains/kings moved from llys to llys doing much the same thing.

The difficulties of early medieval transport of food etc., made this practically necessary, whilst the difficulties of early medieval communication made this politically necessary. Even with this perambulation around their kingdoms, it was not easy for kings to stay in touch with what was going on, or to maintain their vitally important personal links with local big men (and women).

So to understand the setting in the landscape of these kingdoms, I have done my best to identify the known or likely locations of such royal centres. In AngloSaxon-ruled areas, archaeology has proved a wonderful source of information on these so-called high status sites. But for Powys and Pengwern? Well, not so good.

In 2005, Nancy Edwards, Alan Lane, Ian Bapty and Mark Redknap published ‘Early medieval Wales: A framework for archaeological research’, Archaeology in Wales, 2005, vol 45, pp33-46. Their report confirmed that few high status sites have yet been identified in the area, let alone excavated, and the report’s first priority recommendation was the ‘identification of potential early medieval sites, particularly secular settlements.’ Things have moved along a little since then, but not much.

So back to the drawing board, so to speak, or these days – back to Professor Google. Several people, who should perhaps remain nameless, have speculated at length about the history of Pengwern and Powys in the seventh century. Most disagree with each other and also stretch the few known facts rather too far.

Carla Nayland produced a much more careful outline of the evidence and included some useful links to primary sources. http://www.carlanayland.org/essays/powys_early_medieval.htm

But the source that I have found most useful was written by Wendy Davies, historian extraordinaire, especially of the Llandaff Charters. In 1995, she published a chapter in the New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 1, 500-700. Refreshingly, there is little speculation and even less proliferation of possible early kingdoms.

Davies argues very simply that the Cadelling dynasty, (named for Cadell Ddyrnllwg, from whom later kings of Powys claimed descent), were based in Chester. Selyf ap Cynan, a member of this dynasty, was killed at the battle of Chester (probably 613).

Cynddylan, who we know from at least two (marvellously sad and evocative) poetic sources, Davies places south, rather than east, of the Cadellings. Davies argues that his lordship/kingdom, usually identified as Pengwern, was destroyed or collapsed as a consequence of the events recorded in the poems.

Subsequently, Davies argues, the Cadellings, ousted from Chester, moved in to this territory from the north. The heartland of what then became known as the kingdom of Powys was the area around Llangollen and Meifod.

So guess where I am going on my next visit to Wales? Yup. Lovely accommodation already booked near Llangollen.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Landscape, Original sources | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Review of Death in Elmet

There is a lovely review of Death in Elmet on Kindle:

‘Well done mystery history. I enjoyed the characters and their eventual successful interactions. Good development of story line and conclusion.’


Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | Leave a comment

The Nature of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of Britain

This post represents further musings on a topic that has interested me for many years. It was prompted by the posting of a couple of articles on a Facebook group – Anglo-Saxon History and Language – by Steve Sholl.

The articles in question are: Richard Coates, “Invisible Britons: the view from linguistics,” which was a paper presented at. conference in Manchester in 2004

and: Cristian Capelli et al, “A Y Chromosome Census of the British Isles,” published in Current Biology in May 2003.

Both articles are therefore more than a decade old and the fields of linguistics and genetic studies will no doubt have moved on a long way in the intervening period.


These two articles represent quite well two poles of a debate which has been going on for some time.

The linguistics argument is the older one and essentially proposes that there can have been very few Britons left in the south and east of England for so little of their language to have passed into English. There are, indisputably, very few Brittonic words in English. The lack of transfer is far less, for instance, than that into English from the First Nations of the United States, Canada and Australia, let alone India. Coates adds a few words to the accepted list of transfers but essentially confirms this old argument.

The genetic argument is more recent and I am not at all sure that a consensus has yet been reached. But essentially, the story from Capelli et al is that:

a) North German and Danish male DNA is treated as the same, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon and centuries later Danish (popularly and misleadingly ‘Viking’) invasions are indistinguishable in the genetic record. This appears throughout the north-east, east and midlands of England.

b) Migrants from Norway are distinct (less misleadingly ‘Viking’) and the DNA is prominent in the Orkneys, parts of Scotland and the Isles and, unsurprisingly, Dublin.

c) What they designate as indigenous DNA, similar to Basque, is dominant in parts of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, but is also a very significant feature of male DNA in central and southern England.

So if this is correct, the linguists are wrong. Britons remained a significant element of the population of central and southern England after the Anglo-Saxon conquest.

How do we reconcile this conflicting evidence?

Well, I don’t know. But I offer a thought. The areas where there is least evidence of British words, even for landscape features is, of course, the area where we know Anglo-Saxon invasions to have been early and thorough, especially Kent. But this is also the part of Britain that was arguable most Romanised and where the greatest proportion of the population were likely to have spoken Latin, not Brittonic (a point made elsewhere, I can’t remember by whom. Sorry! Lapse in scholarship). But it is also the area most likely to have had the greatest degree of urbanisation/concentration of population into centres. I know the timing is late for this argument, but what, exactly was the role of the Plague of Justinian in all of this? Death rates higher in towns; Anglo-Saxons notoriously avoiding towns, ruins of towns….

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Anglo-Saxon Settlement, Ethnogenesis | 3 Comments

Moss on Trees

I had an interesting conversation over Christmas, about finding direction using moss on trees.

The basic idea is that you can find your way in a forest by checking the moss – that it only grows on one side of the trees. Which side exactly is a matter for debate and clearly varies according to where you are – Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, jungles, temperate forest, etc.

Chiltern Woodland at Cholesbury Camp

This is an old story. I probably first heard it when I was a girl guide, back in the dim and distant past. I tried it out several times and it never seemed to work.  Even in a small area of a single British wood, the moss was not always on the same side of the trees.

Anyway, I put the idea in book 2 of the Kith and Kin Trilogy (out soon on Kindle and it will probably be called Bloodprice). My heroes also, of course, find that it doesn’t work and, of course, get lost.

It seems, courtesy of my holiday conversation and the wonders of Mr Google, that rather a lot of people out there on the web know the it doesn’t work.

So why does the myth persist?

Happy New Year.

Posted in Landscape | Leave a comment

Power in Medieval Gwynedd

I have just finished working my way through three books on medieval Wales, two of them about Gwynedd. The most general is Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales by Oliver Davies (University of Wales Press 1996). Essentially, if I understand him correctly, he links early medieval Christianity in Wales to the bardic traditions and even to the earlier Druidic practices.

Davies uses some of the early lives of the saints, among other sources, and I was particularly interested in his view of the life of Saint Beuno (who figures in Death in Elmet, the first book in my Kith and Kin Trilogy, available on Kindle). Beuno cursed to kill but also restored life to more than one person who was beheaded, including Gwenfrewy (Saint Winifred), a story that I incorporate into book two of my trilogy, Bloodprice. (Not yet available, but coming to Kindle early in the New Year.) Davies points out that the severed head tropes figure in pre-Christian Celtic beliefs.

Stone heads from Entremont. Source: Wikipedia

I have also just finished reading David Stephenson’s Political Power in Medieval Gwynedd (University of Wales Press). this was first published in 1984, but I got hold of the second edition from 2014. This is a dense and closely argued text and benefits from reading in conjunction with the essays in The Welsh King and his Court. (Thomas Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen and Paul Russell, eds, University of Wales Press, 2000). Stephenson has combed through a huge range of medieval documents from both sides of the border to put together a picture of which royal servant was doing what in the last century before Wales succumbed to English/Norman conquest.

There is a wealth of biographical material here on numerous royal servants, but it all relates to a period more than 500 years after the setting for my books. I can, of course, use some of it as a bit of a guide as I research book three of my trilogy, but that is hardly best practice for an historian!

The third volume that I have just finished is Kate Waddington’s The Settlements of Northwest Wales. (University of Wales Press – again!- 2013). In contrast to the Stephenson, this is a bit early, going back to the Bronze Age, but it is an excellent reference for the hill forts and other early settlements in the area. Good to have all that information in one place, rather than looking places up one by one. Lots of nice little maps, too.

So all in all, do these help with my research for book three of the trilogy? Well yes, possibly the Davies most of all. My bard, Tegfan, is going to put some Christian tropes into his music for book three of my Kith and Kin Trilogy.

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Ancient Welsh Law, Early Christianity, Historical characters, Original sources | Tagged | Leave a comment

Book 1 Published

Book 1 of the Kith and Kin Trilogy is now available to download from Amazon Kindle. It seems to be easier to find under the title:

Death in Elmet


than under my name

Sally Wilde

Kindle’s guide to self-publishing was straight forward to follow, although I missed the point that the cover had to be a tif or jpg file. Dominique originally sent it as a png file. Ho hum. Anyway, she sorted that in her normal efficient style – go Dominique.

All I am now waiting for is the book description (which I uploaded) to appear with the cover etc on the Kindle site. Soon, I hope!

Dominique Falla’s cover for Book 1 of the Kith and Kin trilogy

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | Leave a comment

Wales vs Scotland and the Games of Thrones

I have just returned home from a holiday in Europe which, among other things, included a few days in Scotland. The theme of the holiday was touring by train and, quite by accident, we began the Scottish phase of the journey with a night in Edinburgh in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival: pipers in kilts; milling hordes of visitors; and shops selling cashmere (half price if not made in Scotland), tweed, tartan and whiskey.

We went on by train to Inverness (more cashmere and tartan), the Kyle of Lochalsh, Skye (by road) and Fort William, before taking the Caledonian Sleeper to London.

It was a lovely trip. The local trains were especially good, the scenery was marvellous, even in the rain, the opera was fabulous (Don Giovanni in Edinburgh) and we ate in a couple of Michelin star-worthy restaurants. What’s not to like? Well…

I kept finding myself comparing all the tourist stuff to Wales and especially, I found myself comparing the high street book shop/gift shop history offerings to Wales.

When I travel to Britain, I collect books on history, the kind that are not available on the internet: local history; out of print dusty old tomes; obscure local journals; guide books to abbeys and castles etc. Whenever I visit Wales, the offerings seem to be thin. Indeed, in many a Welsh book shop it is impossible to find any books on Welsh history at all. But Scotland? Well, the tourist shops were full of them. Books on the clans; books on the highland clearances; books on Bonnie Prince Charlie…

So why, I ask myself, is there this imbalance?

I think that part of the problem is the way that Welsh history is often written. In particular, the standard trope of medieval political history seems to be a narrative of failure. As A.G. Little put it in his collected lectures on Medieval Wales, Wales failed to become a state.

Gruffudd ap Llewelyn notwithstanding, there never was a true kingdom of all Wales, but a series of small, warring kingdoms/principalities. (On Gruffudd see: Michael and Sean Davies, The Last King of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063; and for a fictional account: K.R. Hebdige, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, Son of Destiny, King of Wales.)

Partible inheritance between all acknowledged sons, whether ‘legitimate’ or not, ensured a depressingly long series of fratricidal conflicts. Rulers of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth all fought each other and they showed no particular tendency to unite against the West Saxons or Mercians or their successors, the Norman marcher barons.

But why is this not interesting? Why is this not exciting fodder for film and fable? Let’s face it, in real life, the kings and princes of Wales got up to all manner of devious and bloody behaviour worthy of any episode of Game of Thrones.

May favourite pick for the first block-buster movie about a medieval Welsh hero would be Princess Nest, married to a Norman and abducted by a Welshman. Kari Maund has written a biography of her. (Kari Maund, Princess Nest of Wales, Seductress of the English.) If I remember correctly, she was Gerald of Wales’ grandmother. Now there’s another story worthy of a film.

Anyway, just grumbling. No offence meant to the Scots!

Posted in Ancient Welsh History | Leave a comment

Death in Elmet

Well, the trilogy (Kith and Kin) about the life and loves of Godgifu of Deira is moving along. Book 1 (Death in Elmet) has been finished for some time, but I was waiting until I had completed Book 2 before putting Book 1 up on Kindle. That is all now about to happen. Death in Elmet should be available on Kindle by the beginning of August and the sequel (title yet to be decided) will follow by the end of the year.

Dominique Falla’s cover for Book 1 of the Kith and Kin trilogy

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History | Leave a comment

Geographical perspectives

I am in the middle of reading a biography of Oswald of Northumbria (otherwise known as St Oswald or Oswald Whiteblade): Max Adams, The King in the North, The life and times of Oswald of Northumbria, (Head of Zeus, 2013).

This has made me very much aware of the extent to which my perspective on Britain is limited by the places that I have lived. I was born in Kent and then spent time in South Wales, Sussex, Nottinghamshire and the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire borders, always on farms, before spending my secondary school years in Hertfordshire. Since then, I have lived in Sussex and Nottinghamshire (again) and my brother now lives very near where we went to secondary school, so that when I visit from Australia, I go to Hertfordshire (again).

Cholesbury Camp: view along one of the ditches

Throughout my childhood, as we moved from place to place, the constant homing point was my grandparents (and uncle and aunt and cousins) in South Wales, site of many family gatherings, especially at Christmas and during summer holidays. My cousins were learning Welsh, which I envied then and still envy now.

I realise that as I am writing these novels set in seventh-century Britain, I am forever steering the action towards these scenes of my childhood, landscapes that are more than loved; landscapes that are part of my mental framework.

The other book that is at the front of my mind at the moment is George Rebanks’ glorious memoir: The Shepherd’s Life, A Tale of the Lake District (Penguin, 2015). It is the work of a grounded man, someone with a lifetime relationship with a single area.

Envy strikes again, in a way. Well, perhaps not envy, but wistful ‘if only’s. In my peripatetic childhood, there were many fields and hedgerows and coppices; many farmyards and barns; memories of haymaking and blackberrying and collecting mushrooms with my father as he brought in the cows for morning milking. But there is no one place to which I belong. We were never anywhere long enough.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History | Leave a comment

More thoughts on Britons and Angles and Saxons in the 6th century

Two pieces of work have helped move my thoughts along on this. The first is Caitlin Green’s Oxford DPhil (2011) on Anglian/British interactions in the Lincoln region. (Find it under Thomas Green). Her 2012 book is called Britons and Anglo-Saxon Lincolnshire AD 400-650. The second is Susan Oosthuizen’s work on the Cambridgeshire Fens. Her book is called The Anglo-Saxon Fenlands, but it seems to be a bit hard to get hold of. However, out there in internet land are various articles/summaries of her conclusions.

Both authors add to the picture drawn for the Chilterns in providing evidence of continuity of land use from post-Roman Britain through the sixth century. Indeed, Green goes so far as to suggest that Anglian elites more or less simply took over the British kingdom based around Lincoln.

The Chilterns: Tring Gap, looking north east from the Icknield Way

I am reminded of my own work – back in the dim and distant past of the 1970s – on the sixteenth-century demographic impact of the Spanish conquest on the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes. Despite catastrophic decline in the population, the imposition of overtly exploitative colonial elites, Christianity and forced labour, there was continuity in a surprising number of pre-conquest characteristics. In particular, social institutions for the collection of tribute, tribal identities and elites and traditional methods of land use survived, especially in poorer areas, for many decades. And, of course, demographic collapse notwithstanding, it was indigenous peoples who continued to work the land.

Conquistadores were not, as a whole, interested in a life of manual labour. This was what many had left behind in Spain. They wanted to live like lords. And the women? Some did come out from Spain, of course, especially after the initial phase of conquest. But many conquistadores took indigenous women to their beds and the higher the woman’s status the better. The daughters and widows of chiefs – or even better – members of the Inca ruling families – offered the kind of noble pedigrees that the earliest waves of conquerors pretty much universally lacked.

Did something of the kind happen in Wessex in the sixth century, where British-sounding names crop up among the king lists? Or was this the result of the rather different process of intermarriage between the ruling families of neighbouring kingdoms, British and Saxon?


There is another, but perhaps not entirely convincing, work that has recently contributed to changes in my own views on what seventh-century Britain may have been like. Andrew Breeze has joined the ranks of those arguing that Arthur was a real person and not just a legend and he goes on to argue that Arthur was a king or war leader of Strathclyde. Breeze maintains that all the battles attributed to Arthur, except Mount Badon, took place in southern Scotland or Northumbria and that the victor of Mount Badon was Ambrosius Aurelianus. (The historical Arthur and sixth-century Scotland, Northern History, September 2015)

So if true (and this is a controversial proposition), this requires another major shift in perception. Not that Arthur was a man of the north. This is not a new idea, but that he was a Briton fighting Britons from the adjacent kingdoms of Rheged and Gododdin, rather than Angles (let alone Saxons.)

Posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Anglo-Saxon Settlement, Ethnogenesis, Landscape, Seventh-century agriculture | 4 Comments