Maelgwn Gwynedd (DNB00)


MAELGWN GWYNEDD (d. 550?), British king, although a prominent figure in the legendary history of the sixth century, is not mythical, but may be safely identified with the ‘Maglocune’ of Gildas. According to genealogies which there is no reason to question, he was the son of Cadwallon Law Hir ab Einion Yrth ap Cunedda Wledig (Harl. MS. 3859, as printed in Y Cymmrodor, ix. 170; Jesus Coll. MS. 20, as printed in Y Cymmrodor, viii. 87). To Cunedda is attributed by tradition the first onslaught upon the Irish of Gwynedd (Nennius), and to his grandson Cadwallon (wrongly called Caswallon) their final overthrow in their stronghold of Anglesey (Iolo MSS. Liverpool reprint, pp. 78, 81, 82). Thus Maelgwn belongs to the age immediately succeeding that of Brythonic conquest in Wales, reaping the benefit of that conquest in a reign of prosperity and power. It would appear from Gildas that he became king by overthrowing his uncle, whose name is not given, that his arms were afterwards successfully turned against many other British princes, and that the position he finally achieved was one of great consequence in the island. Tradition and Gildas agree in representing him as a strenuous, wilful ruler, wielding great power over his subjects. The catalogue of crimes laid to his charge by the monk includes the overthrow of his uncle and other princes, the murder of his nephew and of his first wife (both steps towards a second marriage with the nephew's wife), and the disgraceful abandonment of monastic vows solemnly and deliberately taken. Legends tell us of the craft of Maelgwn in procuring himself a ‘white chair of waxed wings’ on which to ride the rising flood tide when the men of Wales met to choose an overlord on the sands of Dyfi (ib. pp. 73–4), of his imprisonment of Prince Elphin ap Gwyddno in a prison of thirteen locks (ib. p. 73), and of the Yellow Monster which at last put an end to his wickedness (ib. p. 78; Bustl y Beirdd as given in Myvyrian Archaiology, 2nd edit. p. 29). Gildas calls him ‘cunctis pene Britanniæ ducibus … status liniamento editiorem’ (§ 33 in Stevenson's edit.), and he was known to later tradition as Maelgwn Hir (i.e. the Tall).

Maelgwn's better-known epithet connects him with Gwynedd, or North-west Wales. The rock of Degannwy, near Llandudno, is said to have been his principal stronghold (‘Hanes Taliesin’ in Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion, iii. 329), and a Bryn Maelgwn in the immediate neighbourhood favours the statement. So he is said by some authorities (e.g. by Rowlands in Mona Antiqua, and by Rees in the Essay on the Welsh Saints) to have founded the bishopric of Gwynedd, establishing Deiniol at Bangor Fawr yn Arfon. This is a little difficult to reconcile with the date of Deiniol (whose father, Dunawd, died about 597), but, the invectives of Gildas notwithstanding, there is every reason to suppose that Maelgwn, like the rest of his house, gave official countenance to Christianity. It was his father, Cadwallon, who, according to one tradition (Iolo MSS. Liverpool reprint, p. 82), set the saints in Anglesey to teach the faith of Christ, and his daughter Eurgain founded the church of Northop (Myv. Arch. 2nd edit. p. 424). Hence Professor Rhys conjectures that the contest between Maelgwn and his bards on the one hand and Elphin and Taliesin on the other represents the antagonism between court Christianity and the dying paganism of the older bardic society (‘Hanes Taliesin’ in Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion; Hibbert Lectures for 1886, p. 547). That Maelgwn had minstrels attached to his court we know, not only from tradition (Iolo MSS. p. 73), but also from Gildas (§ 34 in Stevenson's edition, sentence beginning ‘Arrecto aurium’).

Tradition makes Maelgwn die a victim to the avenging wrath of the Fad Felen or Yellow Monster. He saw it, says one account, through the keyhole of the church at Eglwys Rhos, where he had taken refuge, and forthwith perished (Iolo MSS. p. 78). This is but a lively way of putting the fact, testified to by some early though not contemporary authorities (Chronicle in Harl. MS. 3859, printed in Cymmrodor, ix. 155; Liber Landavensis, 1840 edit. p. 101), that he met his death by the ‘yellow pestilence,’ a plague also mentioned by Irish annalists, and fixed by them at about A.D. 550. The chronicle of Geoffrey of Monmouth (who otherwise follows Gildas almost entirely) and an old proverb, ‘Long sleeps Maelgwn in Eglwys Rhos’ (Transactions of the Liverpool Eisteddfod, p. 560; Myv. Arch. p. 849; Annales Cambriæ, sub anno 547, has ‘llis’ for ‘eglwys’), confirm the story that the king died in the little church of Eglwys Rhos, the nearest to his castle of Degannwy. The date 547 given in the tenth-century chronicle in Harleian MS. 3859 was for some time a stumbling-block to historians, since Gildas speaks of Maelgwn as alive in a work long believed to have been written in 560. But M. de la Borderie has recently shown that there is no reason for assigning the ‘Epistola’ to the latter date, an earlier year in the century being in fact what one would expect (Revue Celtique, 1883, vi. 1–13).

[Gildas, ed. Stevenson, 1838; Iolo MSS. Liverpool reprint; Hanes Taliesin in Lady Charlotte Guest's Mabinogion, vol. iii.]

J. E. L.