Sixth and Seventh-Century Welsh Saints

The heyday of the early Celtic saints was the sixth century, but a few were also active in the early seventh century. There are several sources of information on their lives, all of them problematic from the point of view of the historian. Never the less, glimpses of this aspect of Welsh history offer an important corrective to Bede’s prejudices against British Christianity.

The Bonhed y Seint, or Genealogies of the Welsh Saints, consists of a list of the names of saints usually followed by the names of their fathers and grandfathers. Several copies of this survive, with variations, but I understand that none are earlier than the thirteenth century. Who ever compiled these lists seems to have been at pains to link most of the saints to a handful of ruling families.

The Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Triads of the Island of Britain, also exist in several versions from around the same date. This is a much richer source of information than the Bonhed y Saint and consists of 97 (I think) groupings of three things or people.

Rachel Bromwich did a marvellous job editing them in their various versions. I am the proud owner of the third edition of her work and it is one of my favourite books – Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006).

To give you a flavour of the Triads, here is number 9:

Three chieftains of Arthur’s Court: Gobrwy son of Echel Mighty-Thigh; Cadreith (‘Fine-Speech’) son of Porthawr Gadw; and Ffleudur Fflam (‘Flame’). [p17 Bromwich].

The great thing about the Triads is that they offer a window on a poetic world that is all interlinked. Whether fact or fiction or fantasy, they relate to each other and, at many points, to information recorded elsewhere. This is a whole universe of connected stories and, fortunately for us, Rachel Bromwich has traced these connections. Her appendices take up most of the book and her notes to personal names in particular draw together the linkages, including about some of the saints.

A third source of information on the saints are the various saints’ lives. These suffer from the same problems as all ancient saints’ lives, but they do follow their own peculiarly Celtic/Welsh patterns. Oliver Davies has written the book on this: Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales, (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1996).

I am writing a trilogy set in the early seventh century and so the saints that interest me most are Beuno, Gwenfrewy (Winifred) and Tysilio, all of whom were around in the 630s (the setting for my novels). The two men feature in the Bonhed y Seint and in addition, Beuno has his own ‘Life’. This is also our main source of information for Gwenfrewy. She was his niece and he was there to put her back together, so to speak, when her head was chopped off.

In addition to the information about individuals, there is also considerable information about religious institutions in this era, particularly monasteries. Several were apparently quite large, especially St Asaph’s/Llanelwy, associated with Saint Cyndeyrn/Kentigern, as well as Saint Asaph, and Bangor is y Coed, associated with Saint Deniol.

Excavations of the cemetery at Llandough have thrown light on  the wealth and diversity of early medieval monastic life. (Neil Holbrook and Alan Thomas, ‘An Early-medieval Monastic Cemetery at Llandough, Glamorgan: Excavations in 1994.’ (published online 2013:×54044

Other well known monasteries of the period include Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr) associated with St Illtud, Llancarfan, associated with Saint Cadoc, Tywyn, associated with Saint Cadfan, Llanbadarn Fawr, associated with Saint Padarn, Beuno’s community at Clynnog Fawr, Bardsey Island and, of course, Mynyw, associated with Dewi Sant (Saint David).

Chris Samuels’ photo of the medieval painting of Saint George in Llancarfan Church

Many of these monasteries had a reputation as centres of learning as well as of worship. There were books and readers and writers.  Gildas was surely not alone?

Faced with this list of people and places, almost all pre-dating the arrival of Roman Christianity in Kent, I have to admit that I am inclined to scratch my head about Bede’s prejudices. But there you go. This is not the only era of Welsh history to be neglected by the English.

See also: Owain Edwards, ‘Welsh Saints’ Lives as Legendary Propaganda,’ Oral Tradition 23/1 2008; Ian Richards, ‘The Welsh female saint: Patterns within a social framework,’ The Student Researcher, University of Wales,Vol 2, No 1, September 2012;

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Bede’s legacy and the real games of thrones

I have just finished reading Annie Whitehead’s historical novel: Cometh the Hour. This is not a long book but all the same, it has the scope of saga. It deals with the seventh-century life and death of King Penda of Mercia, his family feuds and his battles with surrounding kings. Whitehead makes women among the strongest characters in her story.

Many of the characters and incidents in this book will be familiar to those of you who have read the works of the Venerable Bede, although not the women. Bede was not good on women. Often, he does not even tell us their names, although he does praise them if they (were believed to have) remained virgins (!)

For those of you who have not read Bede I should explain that he lived around 1200 years ago in a monastery in the north-east of England in what was then the Kingdom of Bernicia. He was one of those astonishing scholars who pop up now and then, like Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein, and he wrote on a wide range of topics. But he is most famous for his history of the first century or so of the Roman version of Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain. (The British and Irish versions of Christianity were already well established.)

The setting for Bede’s work will be broadly familiar to those of you who are fans of R.R. Martin: an island longer than it is wide; cold in the north and warmer in the south with a wall from sea to sea somewhere up by the cold bits; divided into multiple little kingdoms with ruthless, not to say murderous, ruling families; and a large adjacent continent with an equally violent set of squabbling warlords (and ladies).

Martin Carver has described the people who emerge from the pages of Bede as ‘predatory, extravagant and fiercely opinionated.’ (‘Why that? Why there? Why then? The politics of early medieval monumentality’ in: Helena Hamerow and Arthur MacGregor, eds., Image and Power in the Archaeology of Early Medieval Britain. This volume reminds us, if we needed reminding, of the importance of archaeology to this story.)

Not surprisingly, Whitehead is not the only author to have drawn on this marvellous source for writing historical fiction. Trawling through books that I have read on Kindle in the last seven years, I came up with the following list of carefully-researched historical novels set in seventh-century Britain. Bede’s ‘predatory, extravagant and fiercely opinionated’ kings, priests, queens, saints and murder victims feature in them all.

Carla Nayland’s, Paths of Exile, is set in the early seventh century. Edwin is exiled from his kingdom of Deira because Aethelfrith of Bernicia has married his sister and taken the throne. There is some wonderfully evocative writing here, set in the wilds of the Pennines.

Nicola Griffith’s Hild is a fictionalised biography of the youth of the woman known to history as St Hilda of Whitby. Bede tells us quite a lot about St Hilda. She was one of his heroines, but he does not tell us that she was a virgin, so I strongly suspect that she was not. Griffith does not think Hilda was a virgin either. Griffith is a powerful story teller and I sincerely hope that she has not stopped writing.

Edoardo Albert wrote what are essentially fictionalised biographies of two of Bede’s favourite kings: Edwin, High King of Britain and Oswald, Return of the King. This is assured writing in the tradition of Bernard Cornwell, with plenty of battles.

Fighting also features strongly in Matthew Harffey’s first book in his Bernician Chronicles: The Serpent Sword. This is an engaging coming of age adventure within a historical framework provided by Bede.

And then there is my own Death in Elmet which is set in the months leading up to the battle of Haethfeld in 633. This is a sort of medieval ‘whodunnit’, which sets out to discover who poisoned St Hilda’s father when he was in exile in the kingdom of Elmet. (Yes, Bede tells us he was poisoned.)

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

All of these authors know their Bede and all take their history seriously, so it is perhaps surprising how much they differ in their interpretations. For instance, were King Edwin of Deira, King Ceretic of Elmet, King Penda of Mercia, King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Oswald of Bernicia ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’?

Well, it seems that an author who knows her history and is careful with the facts can make a decision either way, in each case. After all, we are writing fiction. Even with Bede to guide us, we still have to make stuff up.

Posted in Anglo-Saxon History, Early Christianity, Elmet | 2 Comments

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.

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.

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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.’

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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 | 5 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.

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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

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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!

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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

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