Following the ‘advent’ of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, it took the invaders (if that is what they really were) over two centuries of battles, victories, squabbles and setbacks to finally conquer much, though not all, of what is now England. The ‘English’ subjugated most of the native Britons, slaughtered thousands and pushed back British rule to the remoter, hilly regions of the island: Wales, Cumbria, Cornwall and Scotland. Yet resistance continued for centuries more.

Britain circa 600

Britain circa 600

In what is now the ‘borderland’ between England and Wales, and particularly in Shropshire, the English didn’t start to make any real impression until the seventh century. One native prince (or king) of Powys was called Cynddylan son of Cyndrwyn. His rule probably extended over most of present Shropshire, southern Cheshire and Powys. It was sometimes called the land of Pengwern. There is a whole series of poems in Old Welsh telling of Cynddylan’s deeds. We know from these as well as from Anglo-Saxon sources that Cynddylan was at first able to keep the English at bay.

The ‘English’ Mercians had already pushed into Staffordshire, while their Northumbrian cousins were trying to extend their rule south. On the 5th August 641/2, the Mercian king Penda, together with many allies, including, it is generally believed, Cynddylan, the Prince of Powys, faced the Northumbrian king Oswald at a place called Maserfield in English or Maes Cogwy in Welsh. Oswald was defeated, killed, dismembered and his head and hands ‘hung’ on a tree, an incident giving rise to the name of the Shropshire town of Oswestry (‘Oswald’s Tree’). Penda for a time became the most powerful English warlord. But it wasn’t to last. After Penda had raided deep in Northumbria and even besieged Bamburgh, in 653/4 Oswald’s brother Oswy, who had become king of the northern part of Northumbria called Bernicia, pursued Penda south to exact his revenge. Penda, once again probably  accompanied by Cynddylan, met Oswy’s army at ‘Winwaed’, a place not yet identified with certainty.

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

The Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede gives the most detailed description of the Battle of Winwaed. Under the year 655 he wrote:

At this time King Oswy was exposed to the fierce and intolerable irruptions of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom we have so often mentioned, and who had slain his brother; at length, necessity compelling him, he promised to give him greater gifts than can be imagined, to purchase peace; provided that the king would return home, and cease to destroy the provinces of his kingdom. That perfidious king refused to grant his request, and resolved to extirpate all his nation, from the highest to the lowest; whereupon he had recourse to the protection of the Divine goodness for deliverance from his barbarous and impious foes, and binding himself by a vow, said, ‘If the pagan will not accept of our gifts, let us offer them to Him that will, the Lord our God.’ He then vowed, that if he should come off victorious, he would dedicate his daughter to our Lord in holy virginity, and give twelve farms to build monasteries. After this he gave battle with a very small army against superior forces: indeed, it is reported that the pagans had three times the number of men; for they had thirty legions, led on by most noted commanders. King Oswy and his son Alfrid met them with a very small army, as has been said, but confiding in the conduct of Christ; his other son, Egfrid, was then kept a hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians. King Oswald’s son Ethelwald, who ought to have assisted them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and uncle; though, during the battle, he withdrew, and awaited the event in a place of safety. The engagement beginning, the pagans were defeated, the thirty commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain; among whom was Ethelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers. The battle was fought near the river Winwed, which then, with the great rains, had not only filled its channel, but overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword.

The Song of Heledd

The Song of Heledd

As you will have seen Bede tells us nothing about Penda’s Welsh allies, for him this was purely an English thing. Who was to be top dog among the English? Penda had been killed but so had Cynddylan, together with most of his kinsmen and followers. The eighth-century historian Nennius does however mention Penda’a British allies at Winwaed: ‘He (Oswy) slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.’ The Welsh poets rightly saw this as a disaster for the British. One cycle of poems they sang is called Canu Heledd – the Song of Heledd. Heledd was Cynddylan’s sister, she laments his death and the court, her brother’s hall that was attacked and destroyed, and also mourns the death of her sister Ffreuer. Here is the part dealing with the destruction of Cynddylan’s Hall, I find it very beautiful, it must be more so in Old Welsh.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a bed.
I will weep for a while; then I will be silent.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without candle.
Save God, who will give me sanity?

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without light.
Grief for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the blest assembly.
Woe the good that does not come to it.

The hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless,
Your shield is in the grave.
While he was alive, there were no breached gates.

The hall of Cynddylan is forlorn tonight,
After the one who owned it.
Alas death, why does it spare me?

The hall of Cynddylan is not comfortable tonight,
On the top of the enduring rock,
Without lord, without host, without protection.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without songs.
My cheeks are worn away by tears.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a warband.
Abundant my tears where it falls.

The hall of Cynddylan, it wounds me to see it,
Without roof, without fire.
My lord is dead, but I am alive.

The hall of Cynddylan lies waste tonight,
After steadfast warriors,
Elfan, and gold-wearing Cynddylan.

The hall of Cynddylan is desolate tonight,
After the respect which was mine,
Without men, without women who cared for it.

The hall of Cynddylan is quiet tonight,
After losing its lord.
Great merciful God, what shall I do?

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the English destroyed
Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
After the race of the Cyndrwyn,
Cynon and Gwion and Gwyn.

The hall of Cynddylan, it is a wound to me each hour,
After the great company
That I saw on your hearth.

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

In telling this brief history I have skipped vast amounts of Welsh and English scholarship, as well as avoided many on-going historical debates. One such debate is whether Cynddylan was killed alongside Penda in 655 at Winwaed or whether he and his family perished the next year when Oswy destroyed his ‘court’ at Pengwern. Whatever the truth, the point here is simply to show that the defeat and death of Cynddylan in 655/6 was just the beginning of the process whereby the Welsh of ‘Shropshire’ started to lose their land and their identity. For now Shropshire remained Welsh, but it was not too long before a resurgent Mercia would annex this part of Powys to the English lands, to England. That is for another time.

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Comments
  1. badonicus says:

    If you haven’t read John Koch’s latest book, which covers Marwnad Cynddylan, do so as it is very interesting. This poem is the only one thought to have been written at the time, whereas the Heledd Cycle are all though much later.

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