Britain in the ‘Dark Ages’ was an untidy collection of kingdoms. Some – like Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and Gwynedd – are more well-known and significant than others in our understanding of that time period, yet some of the more forgotten kingdoms should not be overlooked. Each had their own stories, people and histories, who all ultimately paved the way for Britain to grow and morph into the place we know today.
In his new book ‘Lost Realms: Histories of Britain From the Romans to the Vikings’, Thomas Williams focuses on nine kingdoms representing every corner of the island of Britain – Elmet, Hwicce, Lindsey, Dumnonia, Essex, Rheged, Powys, Sussex and Fortriu – uncovering their forgotten life and untimely demise.
Powys in particular played a varied role in this period, from its role in Welsh history, its conflicts with England and later with the Normans. Here we take a look at just some of the events that make up its history.
The origins of Powys
The Romans left Wales around 383 AD, after which there was a gradual consolidation of power into increasingly hierarchical kingdoms up until the end of the early Middle Ages.
The Kingdom of Powys emerged (land originally known as Teyrnllwg), occupying what is now east-central Wales, bordering England. Its boundaries originally spanned west from what became Offa’s Dyke towards the Cambrian Mountains, and stretched from approximately Mold in the north to near the modern region of Montgomery in the south – encompassing a rugged landscape of valleys and mountains and swathes of modern day Brecon Beacons National Park.
Powys was an important early medieval kingdom, mentioned by name in several sources from the time including poems by 6th and 7th century poets Llywarch Hen and Taliesin, the Historia Brittonum (written around 828 AD), and an inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg, erected by a 9th century king of Powys in honour of his great-grandfather, King Elisedd ap Gwylog of Powys. Throughout the Early Middle Ages, Powys was ruled by the Gwertherion dynasty.
Archaeological evidence indicates that unusually, the Roman urban centre of Viroconium Cornoviorum (now Wroxeter in Shropshire) survived into the 6th century, and thus is thought to have been the original capital of Powys. The Historia Brittonum records the town as Caer Guricon, one of ’28 British Towns’ of Roman Britain.
In the following centuries, the Powys eastern border was encroached upon by English settlers from the Anglian territory of Mercia. This, combined with a plague in 549 AD that devastated Welsh communities (due to their trading contacts on the continent), prompted King Brochwel Ysgrithrog of Powys to move his court to Pengwern – variously identified as modern Shrewsbury or a site north of Baschurch.
The Battle of Chester
In 616 AD, the forces of Powys and other British kingdoms were defeated at the Battle of Chester by the Northumbrians under Æthelfrith, including Powys’s King Selyf ap Cynan.
The Battle of Chester’s outcome was once thought to have been the point at which the land connection between Wales and the kingdoms of the ‘Old North’ – the Brythonic-speaking regions of southern Scotland and northern England) – were severed. This was said to have helped define the modern British Isles, and have been a key conflict in establishing the Anglo-Saxon dominance of the British mainland. However, this view is now seen as incorrect, as the sea would have been the primary mode of travel in this period which would have disregarded such separation.
Campaigns against the English
As the easternmost of the major kingdoms of Wales, Powys came under the most pressure from the English in Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire – the Anglian territories of Mercia. Powys fought successful campaigns against the English in 655 AD, 705-707 AD and 722 AD, many under King Elisedd ap Gwylog, and these successes are seen as what prompted King Æthelbald of Mercia to build Wat’s Dyke.
Rather than being borne purely out of conflict, this may have marked an agreed border. The Dyke extends north from the Severn valley to the Dee estuary, which actually gave some territory (Oswestry) to the kingdom of Powys – hinting at some consultation between the two kingdoms.
King Offa of Mercia seems to have continued this collaborative approach to both Powys and Gwent when he created Offa’s Dyke, a larger earthwork, designed to mark the border between his kingdom and theirs. This new border moved Oswestry back to the English side, and King Offa later attacked Powys in 760 AD at Hereford, and again in 778 AD, 784 AD and 796 AD showing that that this new frontier between the Welsh and English was still not the key to peace.
Overcoming Vikings, and ties between Powys and Gwynedd
The Vikings never took control of Wales or overcame the powers of the Welsh kings. Rhodri ap Merfyn, ruler of Gwynedd, defeated the Danes in 856 – a victory which earned him the title ‘Rhodri The Great’.
Powys was united with Gwynedd when king Merfyn Frych of Gwynedd married princess Nest ferch Cadell, sister of king Cyngen of Powys. With the death of Cyngen in 855 Rhodri the Great, the ruler of Gwynedd, became king of Powys. This formed the basis of Gwynedd’s continued claims of overlordship over Powys for the next 443 years.
The Normans in Powys
After William the Conqueror secured England, he left the Welsh to his Norman barons to carve out lordships for themselves. Thus the Welsh Marches were formed along the Anglo-Welsh border. By 1086 the Norman Earl Roger de Montgomery of Shrewsbury had built Montgomery Castle at the Severn ford of Rhydwhiman. After Montgomery other Normans claimed land in Powys and by 1090, almost the whole of Powys was in Norman hands.
The three sons of the 11th century Welsh king, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, led resistance to this, and by 1096 they had retaken most of Powys, including Montgomery Castle.
Our August Book of the Month
Powys is just one of the nine forgotten realms of Dark Ages Britain that are covered by Thomas Williams’ book, ‘Lost Realms: Histories of Britain From the Romans to the Vikings‘ – History Hit’s Book of the Month in August 2022, published by William Collins (Harper Collins). The book paints a vivid portrait of the medieval world and examines how different the future map of Britain could have looked.
Thomas Williams was a curator of the major international exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend in 2014 and is now Curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum. He undertook doctoral research at University College London and has taught and lectured in history and archaeology at the University of Cambridge.