Heroic Age Logo The Heroic Age, Issue 2, Autumn/Winter 1999  

Rhydderch Hael


Tim Clarkson,
University of Manchester

On the northern bank of the estuary of the River Clyde, at a point some fourteen miles west of Glasgow, stands Dumbarton Castle, a medieval and early modern edifice built on an imposing "plug" of volcanic rock which dominates the estuary and the surrounding shorelands. During excavations on a small area near the summit, archaeologists unearthed traces of an earlier structure, which they believed to be the remains of Dun Breattann, the "Fortress of the Britons," from which the modern name Dumbarton arose (Alcock and Alcock 1990:113-119). This fortress was occupied throughout much of the Early Medieval period, during which time it appears to have served as an important citadel of the Britons of Strathclyde.1 The ancestors of these people were an ancient tribal group called by the Romans Damnonii, whose territory seems to have encompassed the lands around the Clyde estuary and whose leaders may have occupied the earliest dwelling at Dumbarton (MacQuarrie 1993:2). Nothing is known of the political structure of the Damnonii, but by c.450 their descendants, the Strathclyde Britons, were being ruled by kings.2 It was from one of these kings that Columba of Iona received an anxious request for information, as reported by Adomnan in his seventh century Life of the saint.3 Adomnan calls the king Roderc, son of Tothail, and describes him as ruling at Petra Cloithe. He describes how Roderc sent a messenger to Columba, asking if he would be "slaughtered by his enemies," to which the saint prophesied that the king "will die at home on his own pillow" (Adomnan 1.15; Sharpe 1995:123).

Adomnan's Petra Cloithe is a Latinisation of the native Brittonic name Alt Clut, "Clyde Rock," by which Dumbarton was known throughout the Early Medieval period. The king whom Adomnan calls Roderc, therefore, was a ruler of the Strathclyde Britons who, as a contemporary of Columba, must have reigned sometime during the saint's abbacy of Iona between his arrival from Ireland in 563 and his death in 597 (Anderson 1922:43, n.2). Adomnan has nothing more to say of Roderc, but the king appears in a variety of other sources, from whose testimony a biographical sketch of his career can be partially reconstructed.


Figure 1: Genealogy

These additional sources vary widely in reliability: some can be employed as valid historical texts, others are of doubtful provenance and cannot be used without a great deal of caution and suspicion. Among the latter group are several collections of genealogies or "pedigrees," purporting to show the kinships of various kings and saints of Northern Britain, collected and preserved in Welsh texts dating from the Late Medieval period but in some cases originating much earlier.4 Two of these collections, the Harleian and the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, preserved in manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries respectively, trace the descent of a king called Rhydderch Hael (See Fig. 1), whose epithet means "the Generous" and who appears in a variety of poems and stories relating to events in the North during the latter part of the sixth century.5 Another genealogy in the Harleian collection, its broad historical validity suggested by its correspondence at certain points with several independent sources, shows the descent of the kings of the Strathclyde Britons from c.400 to the ninth century (Miller 1975a:260-5). At first glance it may seem strange that this genealogy does not include the King Roderc whom Adomnan mentions. However, it traces all the Dumbarton kings from an ancestor called Dyfnwal Hen (See Fig. 1), "Donald the Old," from whom the genealogy of Rhydderch Hael also descends. It is therefore safe to identify Adomnan's Roderc and the Welsh texts' Rhydderch as the same man. His omission from the Strathclyde royal genealogy can be explained by identifying Rhydderch as a member of a collateral branch of the primary kindred, a branch whose leaders briefly held the kingship in the late sixth century.

Having identified Roderc as the Rhydderch Hael of the Welsh texts, what can we reconstruct of his life and career? We can be certain, at least, of his immediate parentage: his father, listed as Tudwal (See Fig. 1) in the genealogy, is named also by Adomnan and can therefore be regarded as a genuine historical figure. An eighth-century poem extolling the miracles of Nynia, a saint associated with the Britons of Strathclyde and Galloway, mentions a tyrannical king called Tuduael as a contemporary of Nynia.6 This tyrant may possibly be the same figure as Rhydderch's father, although textual uncertainties mean that the identification cannot be pressed too far. An extended cousinhood is provided for Rhydderch by other pedigrees, all of which descend from the common ancestor Dyfnwal Hen. Outside these pedigrees, Rhydderch's kinsmen appear only in Welsh texts of rather doubtful provenance, chiefly the heroic poetry and the fragments of saga preserved in the Welsh Triads. One such kinsman, Senyllt Hael, is credited in the poem Y Gododdin with presiding over a royal court famed for its liberality (ll. 493-4; Jarman 1988:34). Another, Senyllt's son Nudd Hael, appears with Rhydderch in the triad of the "Three Generous Men" (Bromwich 1961:5). In a curious but unprovenanced tale preserved in a twelfth century Welsh law code known as the Black Book of Chirk, Rhydderch is accompanied by Nudd Hael and the otherwise unknown Mordaf Hael on a military expedition to North Wales, to avenge the murder of their kinsman Elidir at the hands of King Rhun of Gwynedd (Bromwich 1961:501). The tale tells that their forces sailed to Wales and burned the territory of Arfon, thereby provoking Rhun to launch a counter-attack which saw his army advancing to the River Forth. In the sixth century the upper reaches of the Forth may have marked the northern frontier of the Strathclyde Britons, but its lower reaches seem to have lain within the territory of their fellow-Britons of Gododdin, who functioned as a political entity around the Forth estuary, with their principal centre apparently at Edinburgh (Jarman 1988:xviii). The political geography, which admittedly is somewhat uncertain, would seem to argue against our believing that the Forth would have offered any kind of meaningful strategic objective to a Welsh army seeking to attack Strathclyde. Needless to say, the textual uncertainties suggest that the story of the Arfon expedition and Rhun's response is likely to be apocryphal, its creation owing less to actual sixth century events than to later North Welsh propagandists who, in seeking to glorify their own kings, portrayed Rhun as an ancestor of those kings and as a mighty warlord who could wage war far beyond his own lands and against figures whose fame may already have become enshrined in Welsh tradition

Welsh tradition regarded Rhydderch as one of the northern British kings who fought against the embryonic Anglo-Saxon realm of Bernicia. The Historia Brittonum depicts him as an enemy of several Bernician kings of the late sixth century, but the theatre of the wars between them is not identified.7 In the relevant passage, Rhydderch appears with the epithet Hen, "Old," rather than with his usual epithet Hael, "Generous," either or both of which may once have conveyed some kind of dynastic significance (Bromwich 1961:504). Alternatively, the epithet "Hen" may be indicative of a tradition that Rhydderch was a king of advanced years when he fought against the Bernicians. The passage lists the reign-lengths of several Bernician kings and adds that:

Four kings fought against them, Urien and Rhydderch Hen and Gwallawg and Morcant. Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons. During that time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry were victorious, and Urien blockaded them for three days and three nights in the island of Lindisfarne. But during this campaign, Urien was assassinated on the instigation of Morcant, from jealousy, because his military skill and generalship surpassed that of all the other kings (Historia Brittonum, Chap. 63; Morris 1980:38).8

A common interpretation of this passage is that Urien, the ruler of the North British kingdom of Rheged, led an alliance or coalition of native kings in a military campaign which culminated in fighting near Lindisfarne and the subsequent assassination of Urien (Marsden 1992:46). This is not, however, what a literal reading of the passage seems to be saying, for only Urien is described as fighting at Lindisfarne: the other three kings are depicted as enemies of Bernicia but there is no real indication that they fought in alliance. Rhydderch, Gwallawg and Morcant were independent rulers and are unlikely to have combined in any kind of ethnic warfare: They are as likely to have fought against each other as against the Germanic kings of Bernicia. If the Historia's account represents a sequence of real events, then we should perhaps envisage Rhydderch as waging war against the Bernicians independently of Urien and the other British kings. The circumstances of such a war are impossible to reconstruct, although any conflict between Strathclyde and Bernicia implies some kind of interface or clash of interests, possibly arising from a period of raid and counter-raid along the upper reaches of the Tweed and Clyde Valleys or their tributary dales.

The war with Bernicia is one of only two military campaigns in which Rhydderch Hael is said to have been involved, the other being a raid on the Strathclyde court by Aedan mac Gabran, king of Dalriada and a fellow-contemporary of Columba. The sole source for this raid is a Welsh triad, the "Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Island of Britain," which refers to the "Third Unrestrained Ravaging, when Aedan the Wily came to the court of Rhydderch the Generous at Alclud; he left neither food nor drink nor beast alive" (Bromwich 1961:147). Neither the origin nor the historical validity of this alleged conflict between Strathclyde and Dalriada are easy to assess, for the events are not attested elsewhere and the Triads themselves exist only in texts which are late and largely unprovenanced. There is nothing outlandish, however, about the broad context for such hostilities: the two kingdoms were neighbors and warred many times during the Early Medieval period. Aedan, moreover, was a belligerent warleader with wide-ranging military ambitions which saw him fighting in both Pictland and Northumbria.9 Even without the triad's dubious testimony we should perhaps expect that he and Rhydderch would have clashed on at least one occasion, either during raids such as the one attributed to Aedan or in set-piece battles. The nature of the triads as bardic mnemonics, designed to assist oral poets in recalling and reciting a large repertoire of verse and saga, means that mutual hostility between Rhydderch and Aedan may have formed the subject of one or more heroic poems, the triadic reference to Aedan's raid representing a lone surviving fragment. It is tempting to ascribe the ultimate origin of such material to Strathclyde court-poets of Rhydderch's own time, but our limited knowledge of the origin of the triads precludes such speculation. One triad mentions Rhydderch's horse Rudlwyt, "Dun-Grey," while another poetical fragment names his sword Dyrnwyn, "White Hilt," as one of the "Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain" (Bromwich 1961:107, 241). It might be said that possession of a famous horse and sword implies that Rhydderch was a warrior-king, but swords may have been borne by peaceful rulers too, and in any case it is impossible to ascertain the antiquity or authenticity of such references.

Rhydderch makes several appearances in the group of Welsh poems attributed to Myrddin, the precursor of the Arthurian Merlin, and is portrayed as an oppressor of Myrddin whom he is seeking to hunt down and kill (Jarman 1960:16). The poems exist in a manuscript of c.1250 and their language is not deemed by philologists to be archaic,10 so any connection between the events they portray and actual sixth century history may be very tenuous. In the poems, Myrddin tells of his wretched existence, as he lives in hiding deep in the Caledonian forests after fleeing from the Battle of Arderydd, a historical event which probably took place at Arthuret near Carlisle in 573 (Skene 1876:94-5; Miller 1975b:97). He complains that, following the death of his lord Gwenddoleu at Arderydd, he is being pursued by "the fierce Rhydderch Hael" (Pennar 1989:87). There is, however, no indication in the Welsh Annals' entry for the battle that Rhydderch was among the protagonists, nor is he identified among them in the triads, so his involvement can probably be doubted.

Aside from the Welsh sources, the other main repository of information on Rhydderch Hael is the Latin hagiography surrounding Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow, whose most complete surviving Life was written in the late twelfth century by Joceline, a monk of Furness Abbey in modern Cumbria, on behalf of the Bishop of Glasgow (Macquarrie 1986:4). Another Life, written a generation earlier than Joceline's, is fragmentary and the author's name is unknown, although he was certainly a monk at Glasgow Cathedral (Macquarrie 1986:3).11 Attempts have been made to identify possible archaic elements in both Lives, and indeed it now seems likely that they drew together several strands of very early Strathclyde tradition, possibly originating among the ecclesiastical milieu of Glasgow in the seventh or eighth centuries (Macquarrie 1986:21). Rhydderch Hael appears as "King Rederech" and is portrayed as Kentigern's royal patron and benefactor, from whom the saint received land at Glasgow upon which to establish the principal bishopric of Strathclyde. The hagiographical and spurious elements are often transparent. The story of Rhydderch's queen and her gift of a ring to her lover, her attempt to conceal the affair from her husband, and Kentigern's timely intervention is an example of the kind of tale in which these elements are all too apparent. The episode is clearly based on the theme of the "cuckold king", variants of which appear in many tales, and must be regarded as fictional (Jackson 1958:322-6, 350-6). Equally spurious is the story of Rhydderch's subsuming of his kingdom's secular affairs to the ecclesiastical authority of Kentigern and all subsequent bishops of Glasgow, a notion which is plainly absurd and which undoubtedly represents a late and clumsy attempt to emphasise Glasgow's primacy in Southern Scotland (Macquarrie 1986:16). Like his patron, Kentigern is credited with being in contact with Columba of Iona, although Joceline's portrayal of a face-to-face meeting between the two clerics may be hagiographical fiction, designed to magnify Kentigern's ecclesiastical stature by associating him with the leading churchman of the North, or to give him a suitably "Scottish" connection (Macquarrie 1986:16). In this context it may be significant that Adomnan, who refers to communication between Columba and Rhydderch, makes no mention of Kentigern. Less spurious, and probably historical, is Joceline's reference to Rhydderch's estate at Pertnech, a name which looks like a genuine Brittonic name for Partick, near Glasgow, which was royal land under the later Scottish kings (Macquarrie 1986:18).12

Another possibly authentic early Brittonic name is Languoreth, the name of Rhydderch's queen according to Joceline (Joceline, Chap. 33; Macquarrie 1986:16). The Aberdeen Breviary, a sixteenth century collection which includes brief accounts of various Scottish saints, does not name Rhydderch's wife but calls her the Queen of Cadzow, a district corresponding roughly to the area around Hamilton to the south of Glasgow (Macquarrie 1986:16). The source of this information is unknown, but if it has any basis in historical reality then we can probably assume that Languoreth, like Rhydderch, was a Briton of the Clyde valley, or that Rhydderch maintained a royal centre at Cadzow. Rhydderch's son and successor is named by Joceline as Constantine, who afterwards enters the clergy (Joceline, Chap. 33). There is no record of this son outside the Kentigern hagiography, nor does a ruler or prince of this name appear in the Strathclyde royal pedigree, although since Rhydderch himself is absent from the latter the omission may not be unduly significant. Scholarly opinion regards Constantine as an ecclesiastical invention, probably originating at Glasgow, his creation arising from a need to identify a suitable local saint to explain the cult of the otherwise unknown "St. Constantine", to whom the early church at nearby Govan is dedicated (Jackson 1958:318-20). In the Welsh Triads Rhydderch is credited with a daughter, Angharad, who appears as one of the "Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain" and is given the epithet Ton Velen, meaning "Tawny Wave," possibly in the sense of "Blonde Curls," which implies the existence of traditional poems or stories in which she played some kind of role (Bromwich 1961:199). Angharad's absence from other sources means that her historical existence must remain an open question.

We do not know when Rhydderch died, although Joceline's Life of Kentigern places his death in the same year as the saint's which, according to the Welsh Annals, occurred in 612 (Joceline, Chap. 45; Morris 1980:46). This date does not appear outlandish, given that Adomnan refers to Rhydderch as a contemporary of Columba (d. 597). Adomnan's assertion that Rhydderch did not die in battle can probably be taken at face value: the fulfilment of Columba's prophecy was the important issue for Iona and there was nothing to be gained by producing a fictional end for a king whose life and death were presumably already recorded in Glasgow and Dumbarton traditions.

In summary, then, this brief survey of Rhydderch Hael shows that he was a genuine historical figure who flourished around the final decades of the sixth century. It is clear that the sources used by Adomnan a century later regarded him as a king of Strathclyde and believed that among his residences he used the royal citadel of Dumbarton. His omission from the Harleian genealogy of the Strathclyde kings suggests that the genealogy may be incomplete or inaccurate, a likely scenario given the possibility that its compilation was late and retrospective. The likelihood that some strands of the Kentigern hagiography may derive from very early Strathclyde traditions allows us to identify Rhydderch as a patron of the saint and as a benefactor of the church at Glasgow. However, the plethora of traditions preserved in the Welsh sources cannot, at present, be admitted as genuine history. That is not to say that they should be discarded outright, for some of them may indeed derive from real events, but until more is known of their provenance we must treat them with caution.13 Unfortunately, this effectively leaves us without a picture of Rhydderch's military forays and similar secular dealings, for the inadmissable Welsh material includes the references to Rhydderch's alleged involvement at the Battle of Arderydd, his wars against Bernicia and Aedan's raid. His communication with Iona, however, may hint at Rhydderch's status among his peers: He was acknowledged by the Church of Dalriada as the ruler of a powerful neighboring kingdom, which he administered from an imposing fortress, in an age where a king's status was measured by his prowess in war. It is therefore inconceivable that he would have been able to sustain his position at home and abroad without proving himself on the battlefield, and so we should probably acknowledge that both Dalriada and Bernicia, together with various British and Pictish neighbors, must indeed have been numbered among his adversaries.

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