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Mist or Smoke or Warriors in Battle . . .

Early Medieval Powys & The Heledd Poetry

copyright © by Susan Mayse

Long before the age of castles, in the centuries after Rome abandoned Britain, the British (Welsh) kingdoms and their Anglian and Saxon (English) neighbours fought frequent wars. Territorial disputes ignited as many early wars as racial conflict; British and English kingdoms fought their own kind as often as they fought each other. Kingdom boundaries were largely settled by the early 8th century, but local wars smouldered on. One hot spot remained the border between Anglian Mercia and British Powys.

Three survivals from the 9th century illuminate this troubled region: an enigmatic inscription on Elise's Pillar, a memorial cross in Powys; Offa's Dyke (below), a puzzling 150-mile earthwork defining the border between Powys and Mercia; and a fragmentary unhistorical poetry cycle of 113 surviving stanzas, Canu Heledd or The Heledd Poetry.

Some historians now believe the English expanded westward by peaceful settlement. But the 9th century Canu Heledd laments the defeat of the 7th century king Cynddylan and the fall of Powys; it describes a ruined land, a slaughtered royal house and the rich Powys lowlands lost forever to Mercia. Later, from the mid-8th century reign of Elisedd through the 9th century reign of his great-grandson Cyngen, Powys was certainly an enemy of Mercia and sometimes actively at war. Several major battles recorded for this region between 760 and 823 probably involved Mercia and Powys.

Clawdd Offa + Offa's Dyke

Offa of Mercia (757-96), depicted on a coin at right, one of the greatest but least-known English kings, did everything possible to secure his ecclesiastical and political power among the English kingdoms by means of war, invasion or assassination. Mercia's most dangerous British enemy required a different approach. Offa, perhaps having already failed at invasion and conquest, instead found a way to contain Powys.

Offa constructed the monumental border earthwork that still carries his name. The ditch and wall of Offa's Dyke indelibly marked a border "from sea to sea" between the English and British kingdoms, most notably between Mercia and Powys. The westward-looking placement of the dyke through hilly country that generally slopes eastward makes it clear that this border was built to protect Mercians from British attack. Offa's Dyke is more imposing and more complete along the old Mercia-Powys border than in other stretches to the south, where perhaps it was less needed.

Historians disagree on whether the border was negotiated by both countries or unilaterally imposed by Mercia; either way, it effectively separated the two peoples and may have created relative peace on the troubled border. But war again engulfed the borderland, claims the Elise's Pillar text, written around 830 AD, and transformed it to a "swordland . . . by fire."

Croes Elisedd + Elise's Pillar

Elise's Pillar (below) dates from the early 9th century. The pillar is a four-metre standing cross, an impressive monument marking the boundary of two Powys cantrefi (regions), not far east of the Mercian border. Its striking surroundings, especially Horseshoe Pass and Eglwyseg Mountain, were then remote and wild.

The monument is surprising in several ways. Its cylindrical shaft is Mercian in style. Its text, now too weathered to read, is extremely long and descriptive for a memorial cross. It gives an unusual genealogy for Cyngen Powys, apparently refuting the Gwynedd monk Nennius's claim that Cyngen's line was incestuous and heretical. The text is colourful, even poetic, in narrating the deeds of Elisedd and Cyngen.

The poet or historian who wrote the text added his own name - Cynfarch, a name famous two centuries earlier in Rheged (based in Carlisle) before its destruction - and was apparently a man of importance in Powys.

 Below: several photographs of Elise's Pillar




Canu Heledd + The Heledd Poetry

Heledd's story, unrecorded in early history, might be lost altogether but for the poetry that makes her the emblem and the speaker for her tormented country.

Canu Heledd still speaks across the centuries in images and ideas relevant to an unimaginably changed world. This was an era of male-dominated heroic poetry praising warriors. Yet Heledd, the young woman who narrates the stanzas, speaks of the consequences of war, the fragility of peace, personal responsibility and ethics, and war's particular costs to women.

Heledd means "place of salt" or "salt pit" in Welsh. This name seems surprisingly appropriate - evoking sorrow, preciousness, payment, blood, perhaps Lot's wife turning to a pillar of salt - for a tragic heroine from the past. Perhaps Canu Heledd is an early work of historical fiction which the poet created for some political purpose. The passions and events that gave rise to the cycle are long forgotten; even the poet's name is long forgotten. Only its timeless themes survive.

The Canu Heledd's poet spoke of war, territory laid waste, farming, herding, natural history, the rich life of the court, the poverty of a homeless wanderer, and a ruler's privilege and obligation. He may have gleaned his scant knowledge of lost eastern Powys from tradition or travellers' tales. Most remarkably, he portrayed a woman as a thinking and feeling person whose actions could destroy - but instead could have preserved - peace. His attitudes to women were shaped and limited by his cultural perceptions, however; for this reason among others, this poet was almost certainly a man and not a woman, but a man with a radical vision for his time.

Canu Heledd's metre, diction, consonance and imagery are masterful and effective in the surviving stanzas. At several points in the cycle the poet uses disciplined understatement; elsewhere he applies a relentless layering of remorse and grief. The images are so neatly turned and are contained in so few words that they are difficult to translate briefly. Consider this sample:

Stauell gyndylan ys tywyll heno
Cynddylan's hall is dark tonight.

heb dan heb wely.
without fire, without a bed.

wylaf wers. tawaf wedy.
I will weep a while, be silent later.

Stauell gyndylan ys tywyll y nenn.
Cynddylan's hall, dark its roof

gwedy gwen gyweithyd.
after its fair company.

gwae ny wna da ae dyuyd.
Alas not to do good as it comes.

Highly skilled in the Welsh poetic tradition, fond of contrast and irony, a keen observer, compassionate, acknowledging women within his cultural limits, a man who loved Powys: who and what was the poet?

An educated man of his era was almost certainly a trained bard, a churchman or a member of the ruling elite. It may be that the Canu Heledd poet was of privileged rank, associated with a royal house of Powys in the ninth century and formally trained as a professional poet. It is not impossible that he was Cyngen's historian and the writer of the Elise's Pillar text, Cynfarch.

Powys existed as an independent kingdom for only a few centuries. As a border state under long, relentless military and cultural assault, it was warlike, hardy, flamboyant, high-spirited. As a keeper of ancient traditions, it produced many native saints and famous poets. Powys was always jealous of its rights and honours, changeable in its alliances, sometimes treacherous.

Today the ancient Powys landscape still shows clearly between the towns: sweeping hills and valleys, hard moorland, forest and farmland, alive with wild creatures, bounded by clear upland streams. Our most lasting relic of early medieval Powys, though, remains the broken, brilliant poetry cycle Canu Heledd.

Susan Mayse


This item is partly adapted from the historical afterword to my novel Awen (Eastern Washington University Press, 1997), which is set in 8th century Powys and Mercia. Awen is the Welsh word for poetic inspiration; the book's main character is Cynfarch.

If you would like to know more about Canu Heledd or early medieval Britain, you can read:

Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein,
University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1978.

K.R. Dark, Civitas to Kingdom,
Leicester University Press: Leicester, 1994.

Wendy Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages,
Leicester University Press: Leicester, 1982.

Wendy Davies, Patterns of Power in Early Wales,
Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1990.

Ann Dornier, ed., Mercian Studies,
University of Leicester Press: Leicester, 1977.

Peter Berresford Ellis, Celt and Saxon,
Constable: London, 1995.

Patrick Ford, The Mabinogi,
University of California Press: Berkeley, 1977.

Patrick Ford, The Poetry of Llywarch Hen,
University of California Press: Berkeley, 1974.

J.E. Lloyd, A History of Wales (2 vols.),
Longmans Green and Co.: London, 1967.

Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales,
Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 1986.

Jenny Rowland, Early Welsh Saga Poetry,
D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 1990.

Sir Ifor Williams, The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry,
University of Wales Press: Cardiff, 1972.

Syr Ifor Williams, Canu Llywarch Hen (in Welsh)
Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru: Caerdydd, 1978.

See also the juvenile and adult historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, especially The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset and Dawn Wind; The Deepest Sea by Charles Barnitz; and my historical novel Awen. Edith Pargeter and Sharon Penman have written adult historical novels set somewhat later, in 12th century Wales.

Susan Mayse


Genealogy of Powys: main line, southern kingdom
Genealogy of Powys: northern kingdom, line of Madog ap Maredudd & Owain Glyndwr

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas