The origins of the Welsh kingdoms


How did life in Wales change in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire?

Image: actor playing King Arthur in the 2002 documentary Arthur, King Of The Britons (BBC)

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The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

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More information about: The origins of the Welsh kingdoms

In Britain, something of the organisation of the Empire survived its collapse. The Romano-British of the cities and the tribal capitals sought to maintain the political structures they had inherited from Rome.

They had some success. It is likely that during the years 420 to 450 Vortigern (the Gwrtheyrn of the Welsh tradition) held authority over much of the former Roman province. Tradition suggests that he used the Roman method of using one invader against another. Thus, he may have arranged for some of the Votadini or Gododdin (the Brythonic-speaking people living on the banks of the Firth of Fourth) to settle in north-west Wales to resist the incursions of the Irish. He allowed Saxons to settle in exchange for their help against the invasions of the Picts.

Saxons may well have been numerous in Britain before the fall of the Empire. By about AD 490, they were establishing their own kingdoms on the island, in Kent, Sussex, Wessex and East Anglia.

Arthur and the British resistance

The great figure in the struggle between the British and the Saxons is Arthur. He may be an inheritor of a Roman tradition, for the Romans had an officer - the Dux Britanniarum (Duke of Britain) - who was leader of a mobile force charged with the duty of protecting the integrity of the Roman province.

The fact that places commemorating Arthur may be found in widely separated parts of Britain suggests that he held such an office. His greatest victory came in about 496 at Mons Badonicus, a place perhaps in Sussex or possibly near Bath. The victory halted the Saxon advance for at least half a century.

The emergence of English kingdoms

By AD 550 the Saxon advance resumed. A century later, most of what would become England was under Saxon control. Historians once believed their advance meant the British or Welsh population of England were either slaughtered or driven westwards. This is now considered to be untrue. The vast majority stayed where they were and adopted the language and the customs of their rulers.

Their language survives in place-names. Most of the rivers of England have Brythonic names: Avon for example is the Welsh afon (river). Saxon or English kingdoms were created, the strongest of which, by AD 700, were Northumbria, Kent, Wessex and Mercia.

The kingdoms of Wales

The early kingdoms of Wales have older roots than do those of England. Gwent, probably the earliest, emerged from Caerwent and probably represented the reassertion of the power of the ruling classes of the Silures. The rulers of Gwynedd traced their ancestors to Cunedda, traditionally believed to be the leader of the incursion of the Gododdin.

In south-west Wales, Dyfed, the land of the Demetae, came under the rule of Irish incomers, as did the kingdom of Brycheiniog. Powys, probably based on the Latin name pagus (hinterland), may have represented part of the territory of the tribe of the Cornovii.

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