The development of the Welsh kingdoms


How unity within the disparate Welsh kingdoms became key to their rulers' struggles against invaders.

Image: Offa's Dyke in winter, Springhill, Shropshire

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The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

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More information about: The development of the Welsh kingdoms

The defining of Wales

Between AD 650 and 750, Britain's lowland zone became firmly English. Even in southern Scotland, most of the Brythonic or Welsh kingdoms came under English or Anglian control. Yet before that happened, those kingdoms produced the first surviving body of literature in the Welsh language, in particular the Gododdin of Aneirin.

The English advance pressed particularly hard on Powys. The Heledd poems are a magnificent lament on that kingdom's misfortunes.

On reaching the Welsh mountains, English expansion became a spent force, a fact which Offa, King of Mercia, recognised. There is evidence that, in about 780, he ordered the building of a dyke from sea to sea. Offa's Dyke, the most remarkable monument constructed in Britain in the second half of the first Christian millennium, went a long way in defining the territory of Wales.

The urge to unity

The existence of Offa's Dyke perhaps deepened the self-awareness of the Welsh people. Within a generation of its construction, the greater part of the country's inhabitants had become the subjects of a single ruler.

Rhodri, king of Gwynedd, had by his death in 877 added Powys and Seisyllwg (essentially the later counties of Cardigan and Carmarthen) to his kingdom. The union between the North and Seisyllwg ceased with Rhodri's death. It was revived by his grandson, Hywel (died 950), who also ruled over Dyfed and Brycheiniog.

Dyfed, Seisyllwg and Brycheiniog were henceforth known as Deheubarth. The process of unity came to a climax under Hywel's great-great-grandson, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, who by 1057 had united the whole of Wales under his authority.

The Viking challenge

Rhodri won the epithet Mawr (the Great) largely because of his victory over the Vikings in 856. The Vikings began attacking the coasts of Britain and Ireland in the 780s. Their attacks on rich and defenceless monasteries help to explain the decline in the vitality of the 'Celtic' Church.

In Wales, there is little evidence of Viking settlements, although some places, among them Anglesey, Swansea and Fishguard, were given Scandinavian names. In England, Scotland and Ireland, the Vikings established settlements and even kingdoms. They would, from the 780s until 1100, be a significant factor in the politics of all four countries.

The law of Wales

Like his grandfather, Hywel was given an epithet. He became Hywel Dda (the Good), probably because tradition associated him with the codification of the Law of Wales. According to latter accounts, the codification took place at Hendy-gwyn (Whitland) probably around the year 940.

The law of Wales was traditional and not king-made law and its emphasis was upon ensuring reconciliation between kin groups rather than upon the keeping of order through punishment. The lawbooks contain fascinating details about life in early medieval Wales. For centuries to come, living under the Law of Hywel would be one of the definitions of the Welsh people.

Relations with England

The Viking invasions smashed the state system of the English. Wessex survived and, in the reign of King Alfred (died AD 899), a campaign began to bring the whole of England under the rule of the Wessex dynasty.

Rhodri Mawr died in battle against the English. Hywel Dda followed a more conciliatory policy. He attended the English court and recognised the English king as overlord.

Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, conversely, was more aggressive. As part of his campaign to unite Wales, he seized extensive territories, long lost by the Welsh, to the east of Offa's Dyke. Harold, Earl of Wessex, invaded Wales in 1063 and Gruffudd was hunted down and killed. Three years later William, Duke of Normandy, seized the throne of England.