Teyrnllwg: A Bright Kingdom Slips Away Like Dust

A couple of weeks ago something immensely exciting happened: I received a response to queries on my blog regarding the black hole in the post-Roman history of Lancashire. A Penwortham resident called Ozrico told me the area between the Ribble and the Dee was known as Theyrnllwg. It belonged to the Britons until the Battle of Chester in 613 where its king, Brocmail, took on the Saxon king, Aethelfrith (and lost).

Therynllwg! I thought I had finally found the lost name of the kingdom to which south Lancashire belonged. Not only that, I had the name of its king!

Searching the internet, I found two sources for Theyrnllwg. The first was Charles Onam’s England Before the Norman Conquest (1921). Onam said ‘the lands between the Ribble and the Dee’ were ‘originally known as Therynllwg, of which the later Powys was the surviving remnant. It then extended from the Ribble to the Upper Wye, and from the Clwyd to Cannock Chase, and had been for a century a connecting link between the Britons of the North and those of the West.’

Onam’s words extended the territory of Theyrnllwg into Wales and were doubly exciting because for the first time I had found scholarship stating the area we now know as Lancashire formed a link between Wales and the Old North. This would have meant people had a connecting route (or routes) by which to trade and on their travels would have shared myths and stories. In relation to my on-going quest to uncover Gwyn ap Nudd’s forgotten connections with the Old North, if he was known in Wales and by the Strathclyde Britons this would have made it likely he was known in Lancashire too.

Through a reference in the footnotes, I traced Onam’s words back to William Stubbs’ Origines Celticae (1883) where I found within a list of Welsh names of districts ‘Theyrnllwg from Aerfen to Argoed Derwenydd’ (the river Arfon in Gwynedd and the woodland of the river Derwent in Cumbria?). This extended Theyrnllwg further and led to more sources. Stubbs said the list originated from the ‘Iolo MSS’ and this was ‘taken from a MS belonging to Mr Cobb of Cardiff, and is a mere fragment, a page of the MS having been torn out.’

Having obtained as much information as I could on the internet, I contacted Heron (who lives in Wales and is knowledgeable on such matters) and asked if he knew anything about Theyrnllwg. When I received his answer I was greatly disappointed.

Heron replied saying the name Theyrnllwg derives from Teyrnllwg and sent me an extract from Peter Bartrum’s A Welsh Classical Dictionary (1994). Bartrum stated Teyrnllwg was an ‘imaginary territory’ derived from the name of Cadell Ddyrnllug, a prince of Powys mistakenly taken to be its ruler.

I found out Cadell Ddyrnllug first appeared in Nennius’ History of the Britons (830) as Catel Durnluc, a servant of the tyrannical king of Powys, Benlli. When St Germanus arrived to remonstrate Benlli, Castel offered him hospitality. After Benlli, his city and his subjects had been burned by fire from heaven, Germanus rewarded Castel for his hospitality by making him king. This fulfilled ‘the prophecy of the Psalmist: “He raiseth up the poor from dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill”.’

Bartrum said in modern Welsh Durnluc would take ‘the form Ddyrnlluch or Ddyrnllug, meaning ‘gleaming hilt’, from dwrn, ‘hilt’ and lluch, ‘gleaming’ or llug, ‘bright’. The meaning evidently became obscure very early, and was perhaps interpreted as derived from teyrn, ‘prince’ and llwch, ‘dust’. This may have been the basis of the legend which derived Cadell from a humble origin, the author actually quoting Psalm 113 vv.7.8.’

The name Teyrnllwg was later and erroneously identified as Teyrnllwg’s kingdom. When I looked it up on the internet, I found a pamphlet titled The Fictitious Kingdom of Teyrnllwg (1960) by Melville Richards reprinted for Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society which provided further explanation.

The Fictitious Kingdom of TeyrnllwgIn its two pages Richards criticises an earlier article by Dr. J . D. Bu’Lock which ‘recreates the history of ‘The lost kingdom of Teyrnllwg’’ saying he has been misled by ‘the comparative validity and authenticity of the Welsh material’ (ie. the Iolo MS). ‘Dyrnllug is an epithet which can be readily analysed as dwrn (‘fist’) and llug (‘bright’), referring to some (?) physical characteristic of Cadell… By the fifteenth century Dyrnllug had become Deyrnllug in the genealogical lists.’

Teyrnllwg became accepted as a ‘territorial designation’ firstly because teyrn means ‘king, ruler’ and secondly because -wg was a common territorial suffix (ie. Morgannwg ‘country of Morgan’). Whilst Richards accepted the possible existence of a kingdom in the area of Cheshire and Lancashire he stated adamantly ‘its name was not Teyrnllwg’.

The existence of Teyrnllwg, kingdom of a prince with a bright and gleaming hilt or fist who rose from dust was well and truly refuted. (Although it continues to exist in the gleaming brightness of the name. The glamoury of a bright kingdom slipping away like dust…)

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However a loose end remained to be tied up. If Teyrnllwg was fictitious what about Brocmail, its king? Oman said Brocmail is the son of Cincen, a descendant of Cadell. I discovered this was backed up by the Harleian MS 3859: The Genealogies, where he appears in the lineage of the rulers of Powys ‘[S]elim map Cinan map Brocmayl map Cincen map Maucanu map Pascent map Cattegirn map Catel dunlurc.’

It was also likely Brocmail was present in the Battle of Chester. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (8th C) Brocmail was the guard of 1200 monks from Bangor who had come to pray for the Welsh army. When the Saxon ruler Aethelfrith commanded his army to slaughter them, Brocmail fled, escaping with fifty.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (9th C) stated Scromail (a mis-spelling of Brocmail?) was the leader of the Welsh. After Aethelfrith slew ‘countless Welsh’ and ‘200 priests’ ‘he escaped as one of fifty.’ In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) Brocmail was Earl of Leicester and the battle took place in Leicester. Brocmail made a stand against Aethelfrith, in spite of having less soldiers, and only fled after he had ‘inflicted exceeding great slaughter upon the enemy.’ This version also mentioned ‘one thousand two hundred monks’ were killed.

As Brocmail is listed as a king of Powys, it seems more likely he was a leader in the battle than a guard. Nick Higham notes Bede is unreliable because he is more concerned about writing ‘providential history’ than military reality and is dubious about the slaughter of the monks. This makes it possible Brocmail’s deposition from a British king who faced the Saxons to a cowardly guard reflects his bias. (However it is equally possible Monmouth’s glorification of him as a British king is biased too…).

Archaeological evidence from Heronbridge, near Chester (a group of skeletons with clear signs of violent injury buried in a pit, believed to be the dead of the Saxon victors) demonstrates the battle took place in Chester and not Leicester. From this we can derive that the Battle of Chester really took place, Brocmail took part in it, and at this pivotal point Cheshire, and perhaps south Lancashire, first became subject to Saxon rule.

Brocmail’s involvement in the Battle of Chester also demonstrates these areas had real political links with Powys. This is supported by the fact when the Mercian Saxons took rule, they formed an alliance with the rulers of Gwynedd and Powys to take on Oswald and the Saxons of Northumbria at Maserfelth (Makerfield in Lancashire). It seems likely they were drawing on a pre-existing alliance.

Whilst the kingdom of Terynllwg may be dismissed as fictitious, the name provides important clues to links between rulers of Powys and the Britons of Cheshire and Lancashire.

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A more realistic picture of these post-Roman British territories is drawn by Denise Kenyon in The Origins of Lancashire (1991). Kenyon notes attempts to locate Teyrnllwg in north-west England are not widely accepted. She goes on to suggest that concentrations of British place-names may be used to identify areas of lordship.

She posits three main territories. The first centres around Makerfield and Wigan and extends into the Leyland and Newton hundreds down to the Mersey (I assume its northern limit is the Ribble). The second includes the Fylde and centres on ‘Preese and Preesall, Greater and Little Eccleston and Inskip.’ There are two groups in Greater Manchester; around Manchester itself and ‘on the edge of the Rossendale forest’.

A further possibility is that ‘iuxta Rippel was in origin a small British kingdom or lordship encompassing the west Lancashire lowlands on either side of the Ribble, as far south as Makerfield, and extending into the Pennine foothills above Whalley’. These British lordships would have formed the basis for later Anglo-Saxon territorial units.

Kenyon identifies my home town of Penwortham as a ‘central place’ occupying a nodal position in the communication network on a crossing of the Ribble. She says its name is of interest as a hybrid of British and English: ‘Pen’ is British and means ‘hill’ whilst ‘ham’ is English and means ‘safe place’.

‘Ham’ names are indicative of ‘central places’ connected with ‘Roman military and industrial settlements’ (in Penwortham’s case Walton-le-dale) and are often seats of ancient parishes. The construction of the name reflects the acculturation of an important British ‘central place’ by the English.

Thus we have a picture of post-Roman Penwortham lying either on the northern edge of a British lordship centring around Makerfield or in the midst of iuxta Rippel. Differences between the dialects north and south of the Ribble (ie. ‘chester’ to the south and ‘caster’ to the north) make the former seem more probable. This lordship would have been taken over by the Saxons some time after the Battle of Chester. The ‘wahl’ element of Walton-le-dale suggests a strong British presence remained in this town, adjacent to Penwortham.

Kenyon’s identification of Penwortham as a central place on the communication network re-opens the possibility of it linking Wales and the North. Whilst most historians are dubious about connection by road due to boggy ground, the river Ribble was no doubt used for transport and communication with Penwortham as a look-out point and possible port.

Is there any way of making a case that the Britons of the lordship centring on Makerfield once shared a pagan mythology and told similar stories to those further north and in Wales?

The only evidence of native British pagan worship in the vicinity comes from Romano-British altars, statues and inscriptions to deities such as Deae Matronae (the mother goddesses), Apollo-Maponus (Maponos was a Brythonic god of youth) and Mars-Nodontis (Nodens was a Brythonic god of hunting and healing and is cognate with Nudd, Gwyn’s father). These are not in our Makerfield lordship but north of the Ribble in the Fylde.

That Kenyon believes the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical divisions are likely to have been founded on earlier British ones (drawing on the etymology of Eccles from eglys ‘church’) and monks from Bangor were praying for the Welsh army suggests the Britons had been Christian before the English arrived in 613.

How and when they were converted (or chose to convert) remains a matter for further investigation. Insights in this direction may throw light on how the ancient British gods and goddesses slipped from the consciousness of the people of my locality like the bright dust of Terynllwg.

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.