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Maelgwn Hir of Gwynedd

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Maelgwn is known historically as one of the first kings of the North Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd in the 6th century A.D., the great-grandson of the founder of his dynasty, Cunedda. He comes across the centuries to us as a man larger than life, a well-educated prince who became a king, and whose great passions reflected both his sweeping generosity and abject ruthlessness.

Most of what is known about Maelgwn comes from swiss replica watches a scathing sermon by the 6th century British monk Gildas. Along with four other kings, Gildas harshly attacks Maelgwn in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain). Most of what is revealed is Gildas' vitriol, but he does give us a peek at the historical climate and events of this Dark Age era, as well as the man himself.

Born sometime in the beginning of the century, Maelgwn is described as big in many ways--tall, handsome, talented, courageous, generous--he is nicknamed Maelgwn Hir, or Maelgwn "the Tall" in Welsh. He was sent to St. Illtud's school and given a prestigious education.

But Maelgwn had a dark side. According to Gildas, to gain the kingship, he deposed his uncle from the throne, then fought and defeated other Welsh princes to whom he was most probably related. He ruthlessly sought to impose hegemony over the other Welsh kingdoms. And worst of rolex replica watches all, he allegedly had his queen and nephew murdered in order to marry his nephew's wife. Historians have tended to peel away some of the severity of these dire events, citing Gildas' fanatical diatribes as overzealous ranting.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Maelgwn was enormously generous to monasteries and established religious retreats. His royal courts were filled with musicians, poets, and bards, including the famed Dark Age bard Taliesin. He established strongholds across Gwynedd, the most well-known and most archaeologically provable being Castell Degannwy on the rocky outcropping east of the River Conwy.

Tradition also holds that Maelgwn established the dynastic seat of his kingdom at Aberffraw on the Isle of Anglesey, a royal establishment still recognized in the age of Llywelyn Fawr in the 13th century. Also, many ancient traditions that were established as law during his great-grandfather's reign were strengthened, becoming a legacy that lasted all the way to the end of Welsh independence in 1283.

Maelgwn even gave up his crown for a time to become a monk himself as penance for his crimes, an act that prompted other Celtic royalty to uk replica watches follow his pious example. However, these deeply religious moods never lasted. Maelgwn reversed his position before long, fighting and succeeding in taking his crown back.

Toward the end of Maelgwn's life, yellow plague swept across the European continent and eventually jumped the channel into Britain. Terrified of the disease, Maelgwn locked himself inside the church at Rhos, close by Degannwy, and posted guards to keep everyone else away. However, after some days, the guards heard no more noise inside the church. When they investigated, they found the king had died of the very plague he sought to avoid. His death, recorded in 547, became known as "the long sleep of Maelgwn in the church of Rhos."

In attempting to fill in some of the gaps of Maelgwn's life and reign, it is necessary to place him in an historical perspective. He lived in a time of great political change and was probably a contemporary of the historical King Arthur. His life span crossed the time from the general peace Arthur had wrought, to a few years past the factional upheavals which culminated in Arthur's death. It has been suggested that Maelgwn fought on the opposite side--against Arthur--in the fatal battle of Camlann. Britain in the 6th century was rapidly shifting from a nation of many small non-cohesive kingdoms to a polarization of Celtic vs. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Another great change was manifested in the sweeping growth of Christianity. Beginning with small inroads by evangelicals, it became far more popular by the late 5th and early 6th centuries. How heartfelt it was by the general population is unknown, but the old paganism had been discouraged, even outlawed by the Romans who had occupied the island for nearly four hundred years, ending around 410. In spite of a Celtic cultural revival, Christianity began to fill the religious void.

How Maelgwn treated his faith appears to have been influenced solely by how it suited his political and personal ambitions. If he was a superstitious man, his fear of spiritual retribution could explain his dramatic and sudden piety. Perhaps his decision to give up his crown and become a monk was spurred by some form of guilt over his ruthlessness to gain the kingship. By the same token, he may have spread his wealth to the monasteries to assuage the pain of his offenses.

However, when Maelgwn soon discovered that his faith did not bring him the control or wealth he truly desired, he quickly returned to relentless autocracy. The king's most basic flaw was greed.

These deep swings from piety to sin and back, from one political faction to another, probably reflect the age-old power struggle between church and state. Both have sought to control wealth: land, people, money, and the resources each can produce. Maelgwn may have expected that the church would be closely obligated to him after he endowed its monasteries with his generosity. That way, he could control its assets. However, the church leaders most assuredly balked, not willing to give him any control. Indeed, the church would have sought Maelgwn's cooperation, seeking to control his assets and power through him. Documented disagreements and reconciliations between Maelgwn and several of the Welsh saints of the day, Cybi, Tydecho, Padarn, Beynach, Cadog, demonstrate this constant power struggle.

Perhaps Maelgwn's fervent faith was real, but it was probably just another ploy for gain. In the end, neither faith nor cruelty could protect him from the plague. Nor could either save him from Gildas' venom that branded him with the historical notoriety that remains behind today.

This article first appeared in Keltic Fringe magazine, Winter 1996/97
© 1996 Kathleen Cunningham Guler