The Vikings in Wales
Wales in the Early Middle Ages
Wales was not a single, united political entity in the early Middle Ages. The territory that we now know as Wales was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms. The names and extent of these kingdoms fluctuated throughout the period, and some kingdoms disappeared entirely as they were brought under the control of neighbouring kings. Dyfed in south-west Wales and Gwynedd in north Wales were the most politically dominant kingdoms in the early medieval period, and their kings tended to be the most successful in expanding their authority into neighbouring territories.
From the ninth century onwards, the politics of these Welsh kingdoms was dominated by a single dynasty known as the Merfynion, so named after its founder Merfyn Frych (d. 844). Merfyn Frych became king of Gwynedd in 825 and several sources suggest that he came originally from the Isle of Man. Merfyn’s probable Manx background is important to bear in mind as it illustrates the links between north Wales and other territories in the Irish Sea region in the early ninth century. The Merfynion dynasty dominated Gwynedd for the rest of the early medieval period, but also gained control of a number of other Welsh kingdoms. They seized the kingdom of Ceredigion in south-west Wales and the kingdom of Powys in mid-Wales in the ninth century, and gained authority over Dyfed in the tenth century. Crucially, this did not mean that these kingdoms were all united under a single king. Rather, different members of the Merfynion dynasty ruled the different kingdoms. For example, in the tenth century Hywel Dda (d. 950) ruled Dyfed whilst his cousin, Idwal Foel (d. 942), ruled Gwynedd (both were great-grandsons of Merfyn Frych).
Hywel Dda is an interesting case, as, on Idwal’s death in 942 he succeeded in seizing his cousin’s kingdom, ruling both Gwynedd and Dyfed until his death in 950. Nevertheless, this political situation was unusual, illustrated by the fact that Hywel’s broader hegemony crumbled on his death. His son, Owain (d. 988), only managed to maintain control over Dyfed. It is important to note, also, that relations between different members of the Merfynion dynasty were not always peaceful. The fight for political dominance involved significant conflict. This was especially the case in the second half of the tenth century, when the sons and grandsons of Idwal Foel fought for control of Gwynedd. To give an example, Iago ab Idwal imprisoned his brother, Ieuaf ab Idwal in 969, but Iago was subsequently expelled from Gwynedd by Hywel ab Ieuaf (the former Ieuaf’s son) in 974.
When thinking about the political history of early medieval Wales, it is important, also, not to assume that the events that had a significant impact on the history of England were equally important in a Welsh context. In particular, 1066 was not a major turning point in Welsh history. The Welsh annals, our main source for this period (this source is discussed further below) pay very little attention to the Normans in the period immediately after the Norman Conquest of England. In a Welsh context, the killing of Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth (the southern kingdom that replaced Dyfed from the tenth century onwards), by the Normans in 1093 is seen as an event of greater significance. The Welsh annals record that with Rhys’s death the kingdom of the Britons collapsed. It seems, then, that the period towards the end of the eleventh century, when the Normans start to make inroads into Welsh territory, was more significant for the Welsh than 1066.
The Political Impact of the Vikings
From this brief overview, it is clear that internal disunity was a key part of early medieval Welsh politics. However, external parties were also frequently involved, including the Vikings. To understand the involvement of the Vikings in Welsh politics, an appreciation of the geographical location of Wales as a territory situated in a broader Irish Sea region is important. North Wales in particular was closely connected to the Isle of Man and Ireland and presumably lay on one of the routes between the Viking kingdoms of Dublin and York. Considering this, it is unsurprising that the Vikings were a significant presence in Wales in the early Middle Ages.
The Welsh Latin annals commonly known as Annales Cambriae are the principal source for the political impact of the Vikings on Wales. These annals frequently refer to Viking raids on various parts of Wales, for example in 853 ‘Anglesey ravaged by the Black Heathen’. These annals refer to the Vikings as ‘Black Heathen’ or ‘Heathen’, labels that are also found in the Irish annals (where they are known as Dubgaill), and which reflect the annalists’ perception of the Vikings as pagans and foreigners. Certain raids may have focused on the taking of plunder, but others had significant political consequences. According to the Irish annals, for example, the Vikings forced Rhodri Mawr, king of Gwynedd, to flee to Ireland in 877.
Whilst such records present the Welsh as simply being on the receiving end of raids, other evidence illustrates their active engagement with the Vikings. Crucially, such interaction did not always involve conflict. There were a number of alliances between Welsh rulers and the Vikings in the early Middle Ages. Asser, a monk from St Davids who wrote a biography of King Alfred the Great in 893, tells us that Anarawd of Gwynedd had entered into an alliance with the ‘Northumbrians’. The Northumbrians in question were probably
the Vikings who had established themselves at York. Such alliances with the Vikings became more and more common in the eleventh century, and we see co-operation between the Welsh and different groups of Vikings, not simply those who had established themselves in Britain and Ireland. Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, king of Gwynedd (and subsequently also Deheubarth), for example, allied himself with Magnus II of Norway in 1058. As part of this pattern of increasing co-operation, from the end of the tenth century onwards Welsh kings frequently employed the Vikings as mercenaries to provide military support against internal and external foes. Maredudd ab Owain (king of Gwynedd and later also Deheubarth) was the first Welsh king known to have enlisted the support of the Vikings in this way. Although himself the victim of numerous raids during the 980s and 990s, Maredudd employed the Vikings to attack Glamorgan in 992.
The Vikings intervened in early medieval Welsh politics in many different ways, and it is important not to view them as a homogeneous group with a consistent policy towards Wales. There were different groups of Vikings, from Britain, Ireland, the Isles, and further afield, in co-operation and conflict with different Welsh political factions at different times during this period. Crucially, these groups did not support one Welsh political faction consistently. Thus, the Vikings captured Iago ab Idwal in 979, but his son, Custennin ab Iago, subsequently received their support for an attack on Gwynedd. It may be that different groups of Vikings aligned themselves with different Welsh political factions, but it is also possible that the Vikings were simply inconsistent with their support.
Finally, whilst the Vikings certainly profited economically from their raids on Wales, involvement with the Welsh was also of political value, a point that did not go unnoticed by certain Scandinavian kings. The most famous example is that of the Norwegian king Magnus Barelegs, who killed the Anglo-Norman earl, Hugh of Shrewsbury on Anglesey in 1098. Hugh of Shrewsbury had forced the king of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan, into exile, but through Magnus’s intervention Gruffudd was able to regain control of his kingdom. Magnus, however, appears to have gained overlordship over Anglesey as a consequence, receiving tribute in the form of timber from the island in 1102.
The Vikings did not follow a single consistent policy in their interaction with the Welsh in the early Middle Ages, but it is clear that they were an integral part of Welsh politics.
Nineteenth-century depiction of King Gruffudd ap Cynan escaping from Norman captivity. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
There has been much debate over whether the Vikings also came to Wales to stay. Some evidence for Viking settlement is provided by a number of Scandinavian place-names in Wales. Several small islands off the coast of south Wales, such as Ramsey and Skomer, bear Scandinavian names. There are further examples in north Wales, including Anglesey and Bardsey. However, it is difficult to interpret the significance of these place-names. Whilst they might be an indicator of Viking settlement, it is also possible that settlement was minimal and the islands were simply used as trading posts. In the latter case, the islands would have gained their Scandinavian names through contact but not settlement.
Archaeological evidence might help in identifying Scandinavian settlement in Wales. The recent excavation of a site at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey is interesting in this regard. This settlement was expanded significantly in the ninth and tenth centuries, including the construction of a wall enclosing the site in the second half of the ninth century, possibly reflecting a concern with Viking raids. Archaeologists have found a number of objects that are conventionally associated with the Vikings, such as hacksilver and arm-rings. Finds such as Anglo-Saxon pennies and glass beads also point to the presence of craftsmen and traders at the site. As with the place-names, there are problems interpreting this evidence. Objects do not necessarily signify ethnic identity; they may simply be evidence of contact in the form of trade. However, the density of objects found at Llanbedrgoch does raise the possibility of Viking settlement.
Even if we cannot be sure that there was significant Viking settlement in Wales, the evidence of place-names and archaeological points to significant interaction and cultural exchange between the Welsh and the Vikings. We see this also when we turn to look at the evidence of stone sculpture. The construction of stone monuments was popular in the early Middle Ages, and through comparing the monuments found in the different regions around the Irish Sea it is possible to identify patterns in their design. Maen Achwyfan (‘Cwyfan’s Stone’) in north-east Wales is a good example. It is a circle head cross, of which there are similar examples in Ireland and in other regions such as Cumbria, Cheshire, the Isle of Man, and North Yorkshire. Maen Achwyfan is particularly similar to the circle head crosses found in Cheshire. There are specific aspects of the stone’s design that may have been influenced by Scandinavian patterns, such as double ring knots. The stone cross is also decorated with human figures that might have been inspired by Norse mythology, although this is uncertain. In another interesting connection, Cwyfan is the Welsh name for Coemgen, the saint of Glendalough, Ireland (also known as Kevin of Glendalough). It is possible that Cwyfan and Coemgen are the same saint, with separate local cults on either side of the Irish Sea.
It is clear that Viking involvement in Wales went beyond raids and political alliances. The Welsh kingdoms were part of a wider Irish Sea region, in which objects, languages, and cultural practices crossed conventional borders. It is impossible to understand the Viking impact on Wales outside of this broader context.
Maen Achywfan (‘Cwyfan’s Stone’) in north-west Wales. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.