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.

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