In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ Gwyn speaks of attending the death of Gwenddolau ap Ceidio:
‘I was there when Gwenddolau was slain,
Ceidio’s son, a pillar of poetry,
When ravens croaked on gore.’
Gwenddolau was one of four northern British warlords whose souls Gwyn gathered from the battlefield. The root of his name, ‘Gwen’, like ‘Gwyn’, means ‘White, Blessed, Holy’. His descent from Ceidio places him in the lineage of Coel Hen amongst the ‘Men of the North’.
Gwenddolau’s brother was Nudd Hael/Llawhael, ‘The Generous/Generous Hand’. It seems possible he was named after Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Silver Hand’. Connections have been made between Nudd Hael and a stone in Yarrow Kirk commemorating ‘the illustrious Nudus and Dumongenus… sons of Liberalis’. Nudus is a Latinisation of Nudd.
It may be suggested that Nudd and Gwyn were ancestral deities to the Coeling. The other northern men whose souls Gwyn gathered: Bran ap Ywerydd, Meurig ap Careian, and Gwallog ap Lleenog were also descendants of Coel Hen.
Gwenddolau’s fortress, Caer Gwenddolau, stood on present-day Liddel Strength beside Liddel Water. It is likely his rule extended from there throughout the modern parish of Arthuret, which was then known as Arfderydd, and perhaps more widely.
The nearby Roman settlement Castra Exploratum ‘Fortress of the Scouts’ supplies generous evidence of pagan worship including altars to Roman and British deities and a striking ram-horned head.
In ‘Greetings’ Myrddin speaks of Gwenddolau as ‘a glorious prince, / Gathering booty from every border… Chief of the kings of the North, greatest in generosity.’ This shows that, like his kinsmen, he was fond of raiding his enemies and endowing wealth on his subjects and bards (hence the epithet ‘pillar of poetry’). He may even have held the position of ‘High King’.
In Triad 6 Gwenddolau is named as one of three ‘Bull Protectors’ of the Island of Britain. Anne Ross notes Tarw, ‘Bull’, is a ‘title’ for ‘eminent warriors in a society which at one stage likened its tribal god… to a great horned bull.’ Gwyn is addressed by Gwyddno as a ‘Bull of Battle’. Gwenddolau’s title of Bull Protector might derive from his likening to Gwyn. Bulls were held especially sacred by the cattle-raiding kingdoms of the North.
The word used for ‘Protector’ is Caduc. Rachel Bromwich notes it has several meanings: ‘fog, gloom, darkness, covering, armour’ which she links to ‘the battle-fog of the host of Gwenddolau’ (Triad 44) describing it as ‘the rising vapour or cloud of dust or steam which rose from an army under stress of battle’.
This battle-fog may have been caused by combat. Another explanation is that Gwenddolau, like certain Druids, had the ability to summon a protective fog around his host. This could be rooted in his relationship with Gwyn, whose father is Nudd, ‘Mist’. The term nuden refers to a ‘condensed floating white cloud’ said ‘to claw ones vitals’ which serves as a garment for Gwyn.
Gwenddolau was the owner of two birds who ‘had a yoke of gold on them. Two corpses of the Cymry they ate for their dinner, and two for their supper’ (Triad 33). There is a longstanding tradition of corpse-eating birds in Welsh literature. Dead warriors are said to feed the ravens or eagles and Gwyn gathers the souls of the dead accompanied by ravens who ‘croak over gore’.
Gwenddolau’s ownership of these birds could suggest their excarnation of corpses was part of his funerary practice. By ‘the Cymry’ it is unclear whether they eat the corpses of his tribe, his Cymric enemies, (or both!). Birds yoked together in pairs by gold or silver chains appear in Irish literature and are often transformed humans. On the Papil Stone, from West Burra, Shetland, we find the image of two bird-headed figures with a small human head between their beaks. Could Gwenddolau’s birds have been shapeshifting corpse-eaters?
Gwenddolau also possessed a magical chessboard that appears as one of ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’. ‘The Chessboard of Gwenddolau son of Ceidio: if the pieces were set, they would play themselves. The board was of gold and the men were of silver’.
In Peredur the protagonist finds a gwyllbwyll board similar to the Gwyddbwyll Gwenddolau in the Castle of Wonders. The two sides play each other by themselves. When one side loses the other shout ‘as if they were men’. These chessboards, like the other treasures, are alive, animate, endowed with a life and spirit of their own.
Gwenddolau was killed at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. This is recorded in The Annales Cambriae: ‘The Battle of Arderydd between the sons of Elifer and Gwenddolau the son of Ceidio; in which battle Gwenddolau fell; Merlin became mad’.
Triad 84 ‘Three Futile Battles’ refers to ‘the Contest of Arfderyd, which was brought about because of the lark’s nest’*. Robert Vaughan speaks of a tradition wherein the shepherds of Rhydderch of Alt Clut (Strathclyde) and Aeddan of Dal Riada fell out over a lark’s nest and Aeddan sided with Gwenddolau against Rhydderch. The poems attributed to Myrddin/Merlin also suggest Rhydderch fought against Gwenddolau.
It seems possible Gwrgi and Peredur allied with Rhydderch against Gwenddolau and perhaps Aeddan. Gwrgi and Peredur were Gwenddolau’s cousins and ruled Eboracum (York). To add to the confusion they were supported by Dunawd the Stout of Dununtinga (Dent?), Cynfelyn the Leprous (location unknown) and Cynan Garwyn of Powys.
Many warlords had it in for Gwenddolau! This is unsurprising considering his raiding and overlording as ‘Chief of the kings of the North’. It has been suggested that Gwenddolau was targeted because, unlike his Christian kinsmen he maintained his pagan beliefs and practices. Perhaps he was attacked for a mixture of these reasons and more.
Gwenddolau was supported by his nephew Dreon ap Nudd. In Triad 31 he is referred to as Dreon the Brave whose ‘Noble Retinue’ fought at the Dyke of Arfderydd. After Gwenddolau fell, his ‘Faithful Warband’ ‘continued the battle for a fortnight and a month’ (Triad 29).
After the Battle of Arfderydd, Myrddin, a warrior who fought for Gwenddolau, became wyllt, ‘mad’. The Life of St Kentigern records his** vision of a ‘brightness too great for human senses to endure’ with martial battalions in the skies. It seems likely this was Gwyn and his host arriving to gather Gwenddolau’s soul and the souls of the other warriors from the battlefield.
Was Gwenddolau taken by Gwyn to Annwn to be re-united with his ancestors? Or, like other bullish warlords such as Gwidawl, Llyr Marini, and Gyrthmwl Wledig, did he become a ‘Bull Spectre’ (Tarw Ellyll) haunting Arfderydd with his corpse-eating birds and chessmen who go on playing by themselves?…
*This may have been Caer Laverock, ‘The Lark’s Fort’.
**Here he is named Lailoken, deriving from Llallogan, ‘other’.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
J. Gwengobyrn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Pwllhelli, 1907)
Greg Hill (transl) ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’
Meirion Pennar (transl.), The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1989)
Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, (Sceptre, 1985)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Tim Clarke, The Men of the North: The Britons of Southern Scotland, (John Donald, 2010)
Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin, (Berlinn, 2016)