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THE WELSH WLEDIG
By Darrell Wolcott
No extant manuscripts define
the office called Wledig which was held by various men in the late-4th to early 6th centuries. Some historians have
equated it with "king" or "ruler" yet men known to have ruled the various Celtic tribal territories are not called Wledig,
but brenin. We suspect it was a military title as opposed to a civilian admistrator, and was probably based on a Roman model.
Some early writers incorrectly equated Wledig with Imperator, a title which had long since been limited to the Emperor himself.
In 4th century Britain, Rome had established
four provinces; each had both a governor to oversee civil-service functions and a Magister Militum who was a regional military
commander. The latter answered directly to the Dux Britianniarum, the top commander for the entire diocese of Britain.
We suggest that when Rome withdrew from the island and it became self-governing, the indigenous Celts duplicated that model
and called these regional military commanders "Wledig" or "rural commanders" from the Welsh "gwledig" meaning "rural ".
By the 6th century, new forms of organization designed to combat the Saxon threat made the Wledig obsolete. The Celts
no longer controlled the lands which had constituted two of the four Roman provinces.
The names of all the men appointed
as Wledig are not known, only a handful being so identified in extant manuscripts and primarily in pedigree material.
The total required number would have changed as territory was lost to the Saxons, while the largest (Britannia Prima, which
had comprised the far west) was likely divided after the Irish were expelled from north wales.
We don't know exactly when the Roman
title for the office was changed to its Welsh form, but probably not until the era of Vortigern since his predecessors as
"overking" were the remnant family of the usurping Roman emperor, Magnus Maximus. Prior to his elevation to the purple
in 383, he had been Magister Militum for one of the provinces if Britain, probably Britannia Secunda in the far north.
The Welsh remember him as Maxen Wledig although that title still lay a couple generations in his future.
When Maxen was raised to the purple
in 383, we don't think it was simply the Roman troops who "elected" him but would include, among those who approved his elevation,
the civilian civitas (the city-based network of administrators and bureaucrats) and the Celtic tribal leaders (mostly in the
north of the island, but also those in lands later called Gwent, Gloucester, Hereford, Shropshire and Cheshire).
Whether the Demaetae in southwest Wales were also included is open to question, but north Wales was then controlled by invading
Irish and were almost certainly not considered legitimate Britians. We should pause a moment to posit two entirely different
groups of native Celts had evolved by this era.
In the flatlands of middle,
eastern and southern Britain, the old tribal system was gone, its families now living in the Roman style in cities and its
wealthy class in sumptuous stone manors on gardened estates. But in the rugged high country of north and west Britain,
the family kindreds had remained tribal in nature and were little changed from pre-Roman times. Forbidden to make war,
their leaders had retained their skills with weapons by hunting game in their thick forestlands. Their lands were unsuited
for grand Roman cities and the coming of Rome had affected their daily lives little more than bringing a new lord to collect
his taxation and recruit men for his army. There was little social contact between the two groups of Britains; the former
considered themselves "civilized" and thought the latter "barbarians".
Accordingly, Maxen Wledig would have appointed
his regional commanders from the "barbarian" tribes; he needed men with military skills, not desk jockies. We suspect
two of his appointments were men not called "Wledig" in pedigrees, but each was a tribal leader from widely separated
areas and each is said to have married ladies related to him. In Gwent, Tudwal ap Turmwr was married to Gratiana, daughter
of Maxen. In Gododdin, Edern ap Padern was married to Gwawl ferch Coel Hen. We think Maxen had married Elen
ferch Coel Hen, so Gwawl was his sister-in-law. Both of these ladies would have been about 13 years old in 383 and
we doubt the marriages were simply a coincidence. While Edern's tribal lands were neighboring those of Coel Hen, Gwent
lay far to the south of either. We suggest that Maxen was following the example of other Roman emperors by requiring
his "Caesars" to marry into the emperor's family. Maxen likely appointed at least one other Wledig, perhaps two, for
the other provinces, but neither names nor marriages are recorded.
When Maxen was finally slain
in 388, the Roman General Stilicho was sent to Britain to restore Roman authority and assist in stopping the raids by the
northern Picts. He likely made use of the military forces led by the Wledigs since they still considered themselves
Roman citizens subject to whoever the Emperor may have been. It was only when Stilicho withdrew in 405 for more urgent
business on the continent that Britain expressed concern for their island's defense. They asked Honorius for replacement
troops but were told none were available and they should "look to themselves" for their defense. After two abortive
attempts to select a new "Emperor" for themselves, they finally found, in 407, a man up to the task. Of unknown ancestry,
Constantine III apparently had made Britain secure from outside invaders and felt his next step should be to force his recognition
as a legitimate Emperor of the West. He succeeded for a short time, but was arrested and slain in 411; he had made his
son Constans a "Caesar" but he was killed even before his father was captured.
Back in Britian, a coup swept out
of office all the official bureaucracy of the Romans. Zosimus, writing abbout 498, tells us "the Britons took up arms
and, fighting for themselves, freed the cities from the barbarian pressure" and that they "no longer obeyed Roman laws". Our
view of this purge of all things Roman in Britain is that the Celtic tribal leaders, those "barbarians" of the mountains,
decided to take matters into their own hands. They had cooperated with the city folks in their retention of the Roman-style
civilization when they'd help establish two emperors, given their military assistance to those Romans and undoubtedly lost
sons on the battlefields. All while the "civilized" group of Britains luxurated in their baths and attended concerts,
begrudging their single contribution to the effort...paying taxes.
It was the Celtic form of government
that was put in place of the Roman bureaucracy; the selection of a king from the royal family by the land owners of the
kingdom. The designation of a "royal family", since none previously existed in Britain, was their first order
of business. They turned to the most senior of the tribal leaders, Coel Hen, now past 70 years of age. The
man he nominated seems to have been intended to appease both groups of Britains, including the now minority element who
had been staunchly Roman royalists: Custinnen son of Maxen Wledig. The young man, now in his 30's, had trained
as a cleric and is often called Blessed Custinnen. And he was the grandson of Coel Hen and probably brother-in-law of
Constantine III. Having no military experience of his own, he appointed regional commanders to serve under the
overall leadership of Coel's son Garbanian as dux. These may have been the initial corps of men called Wledig.
For the northern province, he selected Cunedda
ap Edern. The marriage cited for Cunedda is a lady from Penllyn in Wales, but that marriage must have occurred many
years later when he transferred from the far north to Gwynedd. In 411, he was a man in his late 20's; by the
time he moved to Wales he had several sons and must have taken a wife about the time Custinnen was installed as overking.
A daughter of Custinnen not only fits chronologically, but follows the pattern of requiring the Wledig to marry into the king's
For the western provences,
he probably chose Cadell ap Cadeyrn of Ddrynllwg, the region which now comprises Cheshire and and the portion of Shropshire
north of the Severn. His marriage is not recorded, but a daughter of Custinnen's daughter Seferus would fit chronologically.
Our identifying him as a Wledig is based on his role of evicting the Irish from northeast Wales in 427, a date suggested by
the Ninnius story. We doubt such a mission would have been undertaken by an independent tribal leader at this point
without the consent, and probably at the direction of, the British overking. It seems clear, however, that new lands
subdued by the Wledigs eventually became a part of their tribal lands after the office of overking no longer was a ruling
Finally, we think Gwrtheyrn
ap Gwydol was named Wledig for the southwest; Tudwal ap Turmwr was now about 55 and ready to retire from active soldiering.
While the 9th century inscription on Eliseg's Pillar says Gwrtheyrn (later to be called Vortigern) married Seferus
ferch Maxen Wledig, we suspect the men of Powys in 825 simply confused her with the daughter of Custinnen ap Maxen, also named
Seferus. A daughter of Maxen could not have been born later than 389, and more likely nearer to 380. But a daughter
of Custinnen should occur c. 405; we date Vortigern to c. 390 and his known sons to c. 420-425 and don't think a wife older
than himself would have been anyone's choice nor become a mother in her 40's. However, we would date his appointment
as Wledig near 418, not 411 when Custinnen first took office. By that time, Seferys ferch Custinnen would have been
about 13/14 years old, the time when young ladies were typically married off.
Custinnen seems to have been
an effective leader, keeping Britain safe from outside invaders. The Roman Empire was under attack from hordes
of Goths, Vandals and others swarming into Gaul and Spain and made no move to enter Britain to reestablish their authority.
When he died about 525, his eldest son Ambrosius was yet a teenager. The tribal leaders named Gwrtheyrn as the interim
king. We doubt he had been instrumental in the death of the king as related by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but if he were
it was for reasons having wide support among the leading men of the island. Historians know the man primarily by his
title "Vortigern" from "gor" meaning "over" and "tigern", a variation of "teyrn" meaning "sovereign".
We suspect he retained both
Cunedda and Cadell as Wledig of their respective regions, replacing himself with Cynfawr ap Tudwal of Gwent. That man
was a grandson of Maxen Wledig and required no special marriage to be connected to the royal family. Around 435/440,
Vortigern moved to dislodge the Irish from northwest Wales as Cadell had done in the lands east of the Clwyd. We suspect
he did not assign the job to Cadell on the grounds he didn't wish a single man to control the entire west. He shifted
Cunedda to Gwenydd as a new provincial territoiry, replacing him in the far north with Ceretic ap Cynloyp. We have no
record of his marriage, but he may also have been given a lady from the lineage of Maxen.
Earlier in Vortigern's reign, about
428, he had reacted to growing fears that Rome might be in position to reclaim Britain. A germanic tribe from across
the Channel was being evicted from their lands by the barbarians pressing westwards, appealed to Vortigern for a new home
and were settled on the Isle of Thanet in northeast Kent. In return, these men agreed to protect that coast from incoming
invaders, i.e. returning Roman armies.
About 437, Ambrosius son of Custinnen attained
full-age to assume a kingship and asked Vortigern to step down. The overking refused to resign, either because the power
had gone to his head or because he didn't believe it wise to change leaders while the island was threatened by both Picts
in the north and both Roman and barbarian hordes across the Channel to the east. A battle between the two men failed
to dislodge Vortigern, but the claim of Ambrosius was supported by most of the leading men of Britain.
To shore up his position, Vortigern asked
his Saxon mercenaries on Thanet to send for more men from their native lands. Thousands of Saxons, Angles and Jutes
accepted the invitation and sailed to Britain. His domestic opponents backed down in the face of this army of men serving
Vortigern, but sent an appeal to Consul Aetius for military help. None was offered. Instead, Vortigern's opponents
withheld their tax revenues so he could no longer feed his army of mercenaries. They began looting the countryside,
burning towns, seizing livestock, grain and other foodstuffs.
War with the Saxons raged for several
years, requiring all Britains to unite behind Vortigern against a common enemy. Each won and lost various battles, neither
side able to strike a fatal blow to the other. Meanwhile, he raised Amlawdd ap Cynwal to Wledig status, marrying him
to Gwen ap Cunedda. When Cunedda retired from military activity, his son Einion Arth "the bear" was named to his Wledig
post. Already a maternal descendant of the "royal family", Einion was given to wife the daughter of the king of Picts
in a move to make peace with them during the Saxon wars.
Around 452, a truce was finally
struck between Vortigern and Hergest, leader of the Saxons. Both had lost close relatives in the fighting; Hergest lost
his brother Horsa while Vortigern had lost a son, Cadeyrn. Under the terms of the peace agreement, the Saxons would
receive all of Kent as their home and a son of Vortigern would marry a daughter of Hergest.