Maelgwn’s Bards

To understand Gildas we have to understand Justinian, and the way in which he conducted his Roman restoration. The onset of the Gothic war is particularly illustrative.

Justinian’s excuse for this assault on the Italian Goths, who had materially assisted the Roman attack on the Vandals, was a violent dispute within the Gothic royal family. Until 534 Queen Amalasuntha, daughter of Theodoric the Great, ruled the Gothic kingdom as regent for her son Athalaric. The boy’s unfortunate demise in that year brought her cousin Theodahad to the throne and doomed her cause; deprived of power, she was assassinated. Justinian affected outrage: dismissing Theodahad’s claims of innocence he declared that war was now inevitable. But Procopius admits he had already entered into secret negotiations separately with each of the royal cousins, offering an honourable and wealthy exile in Byzantium in return for their surrender of the territories they each controlled. War was indeed inevitable, because Justinian’s plan for a bloodless conquest of Italy was thwarted by Theodahad’s accession.

The Gothic war began in the summer of 535. The Roman forces were set on Italy from two directions. On land Mundus, the magister militum of Illyria in the Balkans, was ordered to “make trial” of Salona, the capital of Gothic Dalmatia, which he soon captured. Belisarius was to approach by sea, landing his forces in Sicily. But Justinian instructed him to disguise his intention, pretending his destination was North Africa, and to land on Sicily under some pretext. Once there he was to assess if the island could be easily taken (with a force considerably smaller than that which he had commanded against the Vandals). If he believed it could not, he was to sail on to Africa as if he had never had any other goal in mind. Belisarius took Sicily by December 31st, 535 AD. Meanwhile Justinian sent the Frankish king Theudebert a present of gold, and the promise of more to come, along with a letter which Procopius quotes:

The Goths, having seized by violence Italy, which was ours, have not only refused absolutely to give it back, but have committed further acts of injustice against us which are unendurable and pass beyond all bounds. For this reason we have been compelled to take the field against them, and it is proper that you should join with us in waging this war, which is rendered yours as well as ours not only by the orthodox faith, which rejects the opinion of the Arians, but also by the enmity we both feel towards the Goths.1

With the Gothic kingdom now encompassed, Justinian renewed his diplomatic assault. His ambassador was Peter, whom Procopius describes as a trained speaker, and one “fitted by nature to persuade men”.2 He did an excellent job on Theodahad, returning to Justinian with two varieties of submission. The first ceded Sicily to the Emperor and promised essentially that the Gothic king would henceforth rule Italy as Justinian’s clear subordinate. The second, to be produced only if the first failed to buy peace from the Empire, was a straightforward surrender - the entire Gothic kingdom in return for a pension. Procopius reports the conversation which elicited this cave-in, and though he clearly wasn’t present at least one historian believes he had his information from someone who was, namely Peter himself.3 Theodahad, enquiring what would happen if the Emperor rejected his first offer, was informed, simply, he would then have to fight. He protested this was unjust, and Peter replied it was perfectly just and proper for each man to be true to his nature. For Theodahad, a philosopher who had espoused the teachings of Plato, of course it was unholy and unseemly to be engaged in bloodshed, and to bring about the deaths of so many men, but for Justinian, whose intention was to be a worthy emperor of the Romans, it was “not at all inappropriate to seek to acquire a land which has belonged from of old to the realm which is his own.”4

Of course Justinian rejected the first submission and settled on the second. But by the time Peter returned to Theodahad with this reply, the war in Dalmatia had taken a turn in the Goths’ favour and the philosopher king had had a change of heart. Accusing the ambassador of treachery, he put Peter and his party under guard. When the news reached Byzantium the order was given for Belisarius to invade Italy.

The written record reveals Justinian as a devious, implacable and obsessive opponent, but not necessarily a bloodthirsty one. At the onset of the Gothic war, he twice came within an inch of regaining Italy without fighting a single battle on Italian soil. Which demonstrates that, determined though he was to restore Roman rule to the lost western provinces of the Empire, war was not his only, nor indeed his preferred method.

Britain was in Justinian’s sights but not within his grasp. Operating this far north he would need to use proxies. Gildas and Procopius, between them, tell us what plans were laid for the reconquest in 540, but we have no evidence that a Vandal or Ostrogothic fleet ever set sail for Britain, or that a Frankish army ever crossed the channel to make good the Frank king’s claim to rule the island. However, military invasion was not the only option open to Justinian, nor the only possibility Gildas presented to the Pelagian tyrants. If they wished to escape the coming crisis, they could simply surrender in advance.

Gildas sought to inspire, in the five men he addresses by name, the same terror which ambassador Peter inspired in King Theodahad, with the same threats: War was coming, defeat was inevitable, utter ruin was staring them in the face. And he offered them the same way out, wrapped up in his usual, biblical metaphors:

Look back, I pray you, and come back to Christ ... Come to him who does not want the death of a sinner, but rather his conversion and life.

... shake yourself free of your stinking dust, and turn with all your heart to your creator, so that ‘when his anger shortly blazes forth you may be blessed, hoping in him’ ...

... for the eyes of the Lord will be on you as you do good things and his ears will go out to your prayers, and he will not destroy your memory from the land of the living.

‘ Wash your heart clean of wickedness, Jerusalem’, as it is said, ‘and be saved’. Do not reject, I beseech you, the unspeakable mercy of God, who by his prophet thus calls the wicked to leave their sins: ‘I shall speak suddenly to the people and to the kingdom, to uproot and scatter and destroy and ruin’. This is how he vehemently encourages the sinner to repent: ‘And if that people repents its sin, I shall repent of doing the evil thing I said I should do to them.’

‘ If your sins are like scarlet dye, they shall become white as snow. If they are red like vermilion, they shall be white as wool. If you are willing and hear me, you shall eat the good things of the earth. But if you are unwilling and provoke me to anger, the sword will devour you.’

In Gildas’ ‘sermon’, God and Rome are indissolubly united, rebellion against one is rebellion against the other, heresy and political independence are the same thing. When Gildas advises Constantine of Dumnonia to return to Christ, he means convert to Rome. When he informs Maglocunus that God’s wrath may be turned aside, that God might ‘repent’ and show mercy, he means Justinian might. When he informs the five tyrants that they must be washed clean of their ‘sins’ he means they must renounce Pelagianism, and when he tells them the alternative is to be ‘devoured by the sword’, he is not referring to some punishment in the afterlife. He means war, a mundane physical attack by their fellow men in the here and now. It is surprising that historians of Dark Age Britain have missed this point, given the context in which Gildas’ biblical threats are uttered:

What will our ill-starred commanders do now, then? The few who have found the narrow path and left the broad behind are prevented by God from pouring forth prayers on your behalf as you persevere in evil and so grievously provoke him. On the other hand, if you had gone back to God genuinely (for God does not want the soul of a man to perish, and pulls a man back when he is cast out in case he is utterly destroyed), they could not have brought punishment upon you: after all the prophet Jonah himself could not on the Ninevites, for all his desire to.6

The lost Roman province of Britannia was a long way from Byzantium. Operating at this distance, Justinian would have had to use proxies, not only to retake the island but to hold it for Rome. And what cheaper option could there be than the conversion of the current incumbent?

Maglocunus, Maelgwn of Gwynedd, that “dragon of the island” as Gildas names him, “mightier than many both in power and malice, more profuse in giving, more extravagant in sin”, “higher than almost all the generals of Britain, in your kingdom as in your physique”, the last of the tyrants whom Gildas condemns is the primary object of his assault. Gildas devotes as much space to this man as to all the other four combined. Understandably, for on Gildas’ evidence Maelgwn is not only the chief of the Pelagian tyrants, he is the one most likely to convert to Rome. For Maelgwn had done this once already:

After your dream of rule by force had gone according to plan, were you not seized by the desire to return to the right road? Perhaps remorseful in the knowledge of your sins, you ... vowed to be a monk for ever ... what would be the joy of the church our mother if the enemy of all mankind had not somehow stolen you, to her grief, from her very bosom.7

If Maelgwn could convert once he could do so again, and I believe we have evidence that indeed he did. Among the sins of this tyrant which Gildas lists, beside the warmongering, the kin murders and the illicit sex, there is this:

Your excited ears hear not the praises of God from the sweet voices of the tuneful recruits of Christ, not the melodious music of the church, but empty praises of yourself from the mouths of criminals who grate on the hearing like raging hucksters - mouths stuffed with lies and liable to bedew bystanders with their foaming phlegm.8

Maelgwn of Gwynedd had, wickedly, revived the Celtic tradition of praise-singing bards at his court. This tradition was to last, as we have seen, into the twelfth century and beyond. The rights and duties of these court bards were regulated by a law code said to be compiled in the tenth century, but containing laws from a much earlier period. Among them is the following: “When the king wishes to listen to songs, let the chief poet sing two songs to him in the upper hall, one of God and another of the kings”.9 This looks like a precise response to Gildas’ condemnation.

These Welsh court bards, as said,10 came under the power of the Church from an early period. In consequence, their tradition ossified. By the twelfth century their privileged position at court came under threat from ‘vulgar rhymesters’ whose tradition did not preclude them from telling stories. The court poet Phylip Brydydd, defending the privileges of his caste against these intruders, pointedly associates that caste, and the origin of its privileges, with Maelgwn. The medieval Taliesin, in his attack on the court bards, likewise associates them with Maelgwn. John Rhys holds that the quarrel between these two classes of bard did indeed date back to the days of Maelgwn, and suggests it may have somehow combined with the Pelagian controversy. Maelgwn, in his view, genuinely was the patron of the more Christian orthodox bardic school.11 This, again, would suggest that Gildas’ reproof did not fall on deaf ears.

Even if we exclude all this late, legendary Welsh material from the equation, there is still convincing evidence for Maelgwn’s reconversion to Rome in the contemporary written record. The Dark Age British were literate. Gildas’ ‘sermon’ is the only document to have survived from the sixth century, for the survival of documents from this era relies on the deliberate intention to preserve. Not so stone inscriptions. A considerable number of commemorative texts, carved in stone, have been discovered in Britain dating to the fifth and sixth centuries. Hilbert Chiu describes them as an “underutilised historical source” in his The political function of ‘early Christian’ inscriptions in Wales,12 which article makes a study of the inscriptions found in north-west Wales - Maelgwn’s territory. There are over fifty of these, and Chiu points out that, in contrast to those in the rest of Britain, they “exhibit a surprising degree of Romanitas on the part of the people they commemorate.” Chiu argues that they are a claim to legitimate authority: Gwynedd’s ruling elite, actually a military aristocracy, sought to present itself as both Christian and Roman, and thus owing its power to something other than brute force. Why this should have been an issue in this region of Britain, rather than any other, is a question Gildas helps to answer. He presents Maelgwn as one tyrant who ought to have known better, having received a properly Roman education, and as exercising some sort of supremacy over the other British kings. Legitimate power, for Gildas, is Roman. It would seem the Gwynedd elite came to share his opinion. Chiu considers it relevant that Gwynedd’s claim to supremacy continued into the medieval period, that the Historia Brittonum - a Gwynedd based text - portrays post-Roman Britain as a united state resisting foreign invasion, and the Welsh Annals title early kings of Gwynedd rex Brittonum. The kings of Gwynedd were presenting themselves as the rightful rulers of all Britain, and clearly felt Romanitas was a necessary part of that claim.

Hilbert Chiu suggests that, in the light of this elite preoccupation, “the possibility of direct diplomatic contacts between Britain and the Roman empire of Justinian merits reconsideration”. I would go further. The contemporary Gwynedd inscriptions and the later bardic tradition, taken together, indicate that Justinian’s threats, issued through Gildas, produced the desired effect in Maelgwn, just as they had earlier with Theodahad. In this case the tyrant’s resignation was not required. Justinian could not have imposed direct Roman rule in Britain, he could not even do so in Gaul. A king in the Frankish mould, striving to prove his Romanitas and his religious orthodoxy, the kind of ruler who could never feel secure unless the Emperor ratified his title, is the best that Justinian could have hoped for and this, according to the surviving evidence, is exactly what he got in Maelgwn.

But if Maelgwn’s submission bought off Justinian’s assaults in his own period, it conveyed no long term benefit to his dynasty. In contrast to the Cerdingas, the royal house of Gwynedd achieved no lasting dominion over Britain, only their empty claim rang through the centuries. The Roman/Christian inscriptions ceased to be carved by the seventh century. By that time Rome had selected a new sword-arm for the island. British imperium was deemed to be safer in the hands of English rulers, first Aethelbert of Kent, then his son-in-law Edwin of Northumbria who, Bede tells us, had a Roman standard known as a tufa carried before him whenever he walked abroad, and who married a descendant of Clovis. His rule lasted until 633, when the wicked British king Caedwalla rebelled against his righteous rule, and slew him. This, according to orthodox British history, was the last gasp of independent Britain.

If it had been left up to Bede, we would never know that the rebel king Caedwalla was a direct descendant of the British tyrant whom Gildas called the dragon of the island. If it had been left up to Bede’s contemporaries we would never have known of his successful rebellion, if we are to believe what Bede himself tells us.

According to The History of the English Church and People, after the death of the glorious King Edwin who had reigned over English and Britons alike, Northumbria dissolved back into its constituent kingdoms. The kingship of Deira was inherited by Osric, a cousin of Edwin’s, but in Bernicia the old dynasty was restored. Eanfrid, eldest son of Aethelferth, regained his father’s throne. Both these kings were baptised Christians, but both apostatised and returned to the faith or their ancestors - with inevitable consequences, as Bede sees it. They were both slaughtered by the godless Caedwalla, who then ruled Northumbria for a full year. In consequence "this year remains accursed and hateful to all good men, not only on account of the apostasy of the English kings, by which they divested themselves of the sacraments of the Faith, but also because of the savage tyranny of the British king. Hence all those calculating the reigns of kings have agreed to expunge the memory of these apostate kings and to assign this year to the reign of their successor King Oswald, a man beloved of God.”13 So, a decision was taken among Bede's faction to conceal the real history of this year, 633-4, from posterity. The reigns of two pagan English kings were to be expunged from the record, along with the brief recovery of the British imperium. If Bede had actually stuck to this agreement hatched among “all good men”, instead of telling us about it, the last gasp of independent Britain could have been put back to the previous century, perhaps back to the time of Maelgwn himself.

Geoffrey of Monmouth brings it forward by 56 years, to 689, when King Cadwallader, the last British king of Britain, abandoned his warlike preparations for regaining his lost kingdom on the instructions of an Angelic Voice, and journeyed from his uncle’s court in Brittany to Rome, where he died of a sudden illness on the twelfth day of the Kalends of May,

It has been suggested that there is some confusion here between Caedwalla of Wessex and Cadwaladr the Blessed of Gwynedd, the son of Edwin's nemesis, who, according to the Welsh Annals, died of the plague in 682. But if Geoffrey has here confounded two historical characters it is not by accident. Geoffrey, as usual, reworks his source material and he intends us to observe that, in this case, his source is Bede. Bede's Caedwalla, like Geoffrey’s Cadwallader, dies on the twelfth day of the Kalends of May (20th April) in the year 689 AD. Both receive a sacrament from Pope Sergius just prior to their deaths, for Bede's Caedwalla, Baptism, for Geoffrey's Cadwallader, Confirmation. Bede's Caedwalla brings "mystic gifts", i.e. relics, to Rome, Geoffrey's Cadwallader is informed by the Angelic Voice that the Britons cannot regain their land until the relics taken from Britain to Rome are returned. To make absolutely sure we get the point, Geoffrey begins his tale of Cadwallader with the statement "This is the youth whom Bede called Cliedvalla" - and Bede, of course, first introduces Caedwalla as "a daring young man of the Gewissae". Geoffrey even ties the Gewissae lineage into his tale - Cadwallader's maternal grandmother is of that people. No, there is no accident, this is Geoffrey’s usual method.

It is Bede’s Caedwalla whom Geoffrey presents as the last king of Britain, a Saxon ruler with a British name and no English forebears or English descendants anywhere in Bede’s account. Geoffrey is not confused, and he is not out to confuse us. We should always bear in mind that he is not addressing himself to the credulous. His intention is always to open his readers’ eyes to the historical evidence, to the source documents from which his opponents constructed their monkish, anti-British histories. When he directs us to Bede’s valiant young Saxon exile, St. Wilfrid’s pagan patron who, in the space of two years and with immense slaughter, made himself master of the West and South Saxons and then took himself off to Rome to die of piety, he is not asking us to baldly accept either his account, or Bede’s. He is inviting us to read between the lines.

Heretic Emperor: The Lost History of King Arthur
Copyright © V M Pickin 2009

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1 Procopius, History of the Wars V.3.30

2 Procopius, History of the Wars V.5.8-10

3 J B Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, footnote to p173

4 Procopius, History of the Wars V.6.10

5 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 29.2, 30.3, 31.2, 36.2, 42.5

6 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 50.1

7 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 34.1-3

8 Gildas, The Ruin of Britain, 34.6

9 from the law code of Hywel Dda, see Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin, p41

10 see above, Book 2, Chapter 8.5 Taliesin’s Secret

11 John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, p547

12 In the Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, Volume 2, 2006

13 Bede, A History of the English Church and People, III.2.