Until very recently I had never heard of Maelor, despite it being just over an hour’s drive from my home in Manchester. I’ve now become slightly obsessed with its curious history, as an exclave of Welshness jutting into the English countryside. For a small geographical space, it is complex, with two roughly equal parts: ‘Saxon’ Maelor and ‘Welsh’ Maelor, divided by the river Dee. Yet despite being on the English side of the Dee, the traditional border between England and North Wales, Saxon (or Saesneg) Maelor has only quite briefly been formally part of England. Maelor was not a principality itself, just a key component of the principality of Powys Fadog, the northern half of the ancient kingdom of Powys.
I wasn’t sure whether to include the Welsh princes in my blog site, since they are often considered to be royalty, not dukes and princes (which is always a blurred division anyway). But although earlier rulers of medieval Wales used the term king (brenin or ri), after the division of Powys in 1160 into smaller subdivisions, its rulers preferred to use the word tywysog (and in Latin princeps), and their principality a tywysogaeth, in line with the other Welsh territorial lords, perhaps to distance themselves from the challenges and defeats of the previous generation. And since there are no dukedoms based in Wales (except the anomaly of the Herberts—see my previous post on that family), I wanted to be able to explore that country on my site too, especially as a place I love to visit on days out.
The various Welsh principalities have histories that stretch back into the Iron Age, long before the Romans arrived on Britannia’s shores. A Welsh united kingdom was attempted several times after the Romans left in the 5th century, but was always plagued with disunity and internal dissension (like most regions of Europe in this era, to be fair). Powys emerged as an independent kingdom or principality in the 6th century. It is thought the name came from pagus, the Latin word for ‘countryside’—this countryside had been organised by the Romans into a province for those living in the rich lands of the foothills east of the Cambrian Mountains, the Cornovii. They built a new capital called Viroconium Cornoviorum, an important Roman centre located southeast of the town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire (today known as Wroxeter). Viroconium took its name from the nearby older fortified hill settlement of the Wrekin—still today one of the most arresting sights of this part of the world—a rock jutting up right in the middle of a plain. In Welsh Viroconium became known as Caerwrygion (or Caer Guricon). They also established a capital at Pengwern, which is thought to be modern Shrewsbury, but no one is certain.
Just to the north, Maelor emerges to play a part in this early history, with one of the chief religious centres in the region being built at Bangor-on-Dee in about 560. Bangor was the scene of one of the more brutal massacres of early medieval history, when a pagan Northumbrian king, Æthelfrith, attacked the king of Powys, Selyf ap Cynan or Selyf ‘Sarffgadau’ (‘battle serpent’), in about 615, at what is called the Battle of Chester, though it took place several miles to the south, in Bangor. The King was killed, as were hundreds of monks (or even more than a thousand, if we believe Bede)—and in particular, the Northumbrian king is said to have ordered the attack on the praying monks before starting the battle against the Welsh soldiers. We don’t know exactly where the monastery at Bangor was, but its memory was evoked in poetry and song many centuries later: Walter Scott wrote ‘The Monks of Bangor’s March’, which was then set to music by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven in about 1810. As strange coincidences go, I recorded this piece with a men’s choir in Washington DC back in the ‘90s, though I’m sure I had no idea that it didn’t refer to the more famous Bangor on the northwest coast of Wales, and probably assumed it had something to do with the well-known battles of Edward I in north Wales (and I don’t even think it registered that it was a tune by Beethoven). This is the last verse:
Bangor! o’er the murder wail!
Long thy ruins told the tale,
Shattered towers and broken arch
Long recalled the woful march:
On thy shrine no tapers burn,
Never shall thy priests return;
The pilgrim sighs and sings for thee,
O miserere, Domine!
[Believe it or not, this ancient recording of mine is on YouTube! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcwfZmtxHHU ]
Back in the 7th century, as Saxon settlements began to encroach further and further into the northwest of Britain, the Welsh principality of Powys shifted its centre to the more hilly (and defensible) lands to the west and incorporated the lands of the Ordovices, notably making their ancient hill fortress in the deep valley of the Dee as it cuts through the mountains at Llagollen, Dinas Brân, as one of their capitals (see below). Another fortified capital was Mathrafal, near the town of Welshpool (the later capital of southern Powys). Near Mathrafal, in Meifod, a church was built to honour one of the members of the dynasty who became a saint, Tysilio (d. 640). This became the dynastic mausoleum.
The dynasty was known as the Gwerthrynion, who claimed descent from the semi-legendary Vortigern, king of the Britons, and from a daughter of Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus (proclaimed in 383 while in Britain). A mid-9th-century stone pillar, the Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen, displays a carved royal line of descent from this union (using the Welsh spelling ‘Guarthigern’, from which they drew their dynastic name) to Prince Eliseg.
‘Eliseg’ is a corruption of Elisedd ap Gwylog (d. c755), considered the re-founder of the medieval kingdom of Powys. He retook the lands from the Saxons and re-established Welsh rule in the area. But very little is known about him. Lands around Caerwrygion and Pengwern were incorporated into the Kingdom of Mercia and gradually formed the English county of Shropshire. This is the era of Offa’s Dyke, built in the late 8th century to divide Mercia from Powys.
The last of this original house, King Cyngen, died in 855. His sister has married the King of Gwynedd, the powerful kingdom to the west, and for a time the two kingdoms were ruled together by their son, Rhodri the Great. Over the next two centuries, Powys and Gwynedd were ruled together then separately, again and again, by various members of the House of Gwynedd. Almost all of Wales was joined together under the leadership of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, but broke apart again on his death in 1063, just when unity was needed following the Norman Conquest. Instead, Powys went separately to Gruffydd’s maternal half-brother, Bleddyn ap Cynfyn (supposedly of the house of Dinefwr, a cadet branch of the House of Gwynedd who ruled in South Wales), who founded a new dynasty for Powys that took its name from the castle at Mathrafal.
Norman lords swiftly took over parts of this border territory, and built mighty castles, notably Montgomery (named after its builder’s homeland in Normandy). By 1090, they had taken over much of the region. But in 1096, Bleddyn’s sons unified and drove them back. Over the next half-century, the joint rule of these sons and grandsons struggled to find its place between an often aggressive Gwynedd, the Norman marcher lords, and the Crown of England. By about 1100, the lords of Powys were vassals of the earl of Shrewsbury. A few years later, by 1116, the principality was centralised once more under the control of Prince Maredudd. Other branches of the dynasty faded into the local gentry—notably the lords of Nannau (in Merioneth to the west of Powys), and continuing as Welsh families today with surnames Nanney and Vaughan.
Prince Maredudd’s son Madog re-asserted some of the dynasty’s power in the region through an alliance with King Henry II against Gwynedd. By the 1140s he’d added the Norman baronies of Oswestry and Whittington (in Shropshire) to his territory. But when he died in 1160, the old practice of dividing the realm between sons once more prevailed, and Powys was divided into five pieces, though eventually these were consolidated into two: Owain received the lands to the south of the Rhaeadr river, while Gruffydd Maelor received the lands to the north. The southern principality eventually took the name of Powys Wenwynwyn; while the northern principality was Powys Fadog.
The Principality of Powys Fadog included initially the lands of Maelor and the lordship of Iâl (Yale), to the west, in the foothills of the Clwyd mountains. The first prince later added Nanheudwy, the deep dales of the river Dee as it passes through the mountains, and Cynllaith, the river valley a bit further to the south. The name Maelor in fact comes from mael (another word for ‘prince’) and llawr (‘land of’). It had been separated from Wales since the construction of Offa’s Dyke, but was reclaimed in the earlier part of this century.
Prince Gruffydd Maelor I died in 1191, and his sons Madog and Owain took over as joint rulers (though the younger son died soon after). It may be that the name of the Principality of Powys Fadog comes from the name of the elder son (Welsh gender rules changing the M to an F). His mother was Princess Angharad of Gwynedd so he maintained good relations with the more powerful Welsh kingdom to the northwest. By 1200, however, Prince Madog was in the pay of King John. At about this time, he founded the Abbey of Valle Crucis, outside Llangollen and thus not far from his fortress capital of Dinas Brân. Dinas Brân—known commonly in English as ‘Crow Castle’, probably as a mistranslation of ‘the fortress of Bran’ a local chieftain (or even simply ‘the fortress on the hill’, bryn)—had been a hill fortress of the Ordovices since long before the arrival of the Romans, and re-fortified with a wooden palisade by earlier kings of Powys. A stone castle was built in the 1260s by Madog’s heirs.
To the west, further up the valley, was the lordship of Glyndyfrdwy in the region Edeirnion. It is spelled many ways, including Glyn Dyfrdwy, which makes its meaning clearer, the glen of the river Dee (afon Dyfrdwy). There was a castle here, built by the Normans in the 12th century to command the upper Dee Valley, but it was in Welsh hands by the 13th century. Today it is just a mound, the castle having been pulled down following Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion (see below).
Valle Crucis was a Cistercian foundation, like many in the deep valleys of Wales (most famously, Tintern). It took its name from Croes Elisedd, Eliseg’s Cross noted above, and became the family mausoleum for this branch of the Mathrafal Dynasty. At its height, it housed up to 60 monks and servants, and became known as a favoured residence of Welsh poets. The Abbey was dissolved in the 1530s, and today it is a ruin.
Prince Madog ap Gruffydd switched sides in 1215, abandoning King John to support his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd. He died in 1236 and was succeeded by his five sons: Gruffydd Maelor II, Gruffydd Iâl, Maredudd, Hawel and Madog Fychan. It seems the latter was the most active in this period, leading Welsh raids on English possessions in the 1240s-50s. In contrast, the eldest, Gruffydd Maelor II, married one of them: Emma de Audley, daughter of an English baron who served as sheriff of neighbouring Shropshire.
In the next generation, the sons of Gruffydd Maelor II (d. 1269) fought, then divided the principality: Madog II ruled Maelor; Gruffydd Fychan ruled Iâl and Glyndyfrdwy; while Llywelyn and Owain ruled Cynllaith and Nanheudwy. Madog II allied with the Prince of Gwynedd and became his vassal by the Treaty of Montgomery (1267) which aimed to re-unite the Welsh principalities under one leader, and to establish peace with King Henry III at the same time. This peace was broken in 1277 and Madog was killed in an English invasion.
His brother Prince Gruffydd Fychan (fychan means ‘of the same name’, like ‘junior’, rather than saying ‘Gruffydd ap Gruffydd’—it is the origin of the surname Vaughan) soon made peace with the English, and by the Treaty of Aberconwy was released from any fealty to Gwynedd. Yet he fought alongside Gwynedd’s prince, Llywelyn (later called ‘Llywelyn the Last’) again in 1282. With Prince Llywelyn’s defeat and death in December of that year, his ally the Prince of Powys Fadog was defeated too and his lands taken over by the English Crown. They were then re-granted to him as fiefs, though some parts were given to English marcher lords, like Roger Mortimer who founded a new castle and barony on the river Ceiriog (taking an Anglicised spelling, Chirk). The castle at Dinas Brân was dismantled, and was replaced in its role of defending the Middle Dee valley by a new English castle at Holt, northeast of Wrexham, by John de Warenne, earl of Surrey.
In the new order after 1282, Maelor was divided—the names we encountered at the start of this post now appear, with Maelor Saesneg, east of the Dee, added to English Crownlands as an exclave of the newly developed Flintshire (part of the new Principality of Wales); and Maelor Gymraeg (‘Welsh Maelor’), west of the river, becoming part of the marcher lordship of Bromfield and Yale, granted to the Earl of Surrey. Both parts remained Welsh in language and culture—the eastern parts (centred on Bangor) were called ‘English’ mostly because they became part of the diocese of Chester, while the western part (centred on the town of Wrexham, or Wrecsam in Welsh) was part of the diocese of St. Asaph. The barony of Bromfield passed to the Fitzalans of Arundel in 1347, who became extinct in 1415 and their lands divided between female heirs. In the reorganisation of the administration of Wales by Henry VIII in 1536, Welsh Maelor was added to the county of Denbighshire. English Maelor was formally attached to Cheshire in 1397 (though it remained personal property of the Crown) until 1536 when it was again attached to Flintshire. In 1974, both Maelors were joined together to form the district of ‘Wrexham Maelor’ within the new County of Clywd. But in 1996, the area was re-shuffled again, and today there is an independent ‘County Borough’ of Wrexham which includes the two Maelors plus some lands to the southwest, the Ceiriog Valley and the Berwyn Hills—in other words, much of the old Powys Fadog.
The southern principality, Powys Wenwynwyn, also surrendered to Edward I in 1283, and was re-granted as a barony—the ruling family took on a new surname, ‘de la Pole’ (from Welshpool, the capital). The barony passed by marriage to the Charleton family in 1309, and then in 1421 to the Greys, who were created Baron Grey of Powis in 1481. In 1535, feudal rights were abolished, and the lands of the former principality were incorporated into Montgomeryshire. In 1587 the barony was sold to the Herberts (cousins) and it followed the path of that family (see Herberts of Powis).
After 1282, both former ruling dynasties of Powys were considered uchelwyr, ordinary nobles descended from previously royal dynasties. The former Prince Guffydd Fychan’s son, Madog Crypl (aka Madog III) was a child when he succeeded his father in 1289, so his lands were administered by King Edward’s men. He eventually reclaimed the lordship of Glyndyfrdwy and half of Cynllaith (called ‘Cynllaith Owain’), with a castle at Sycharth, an old motte and bailey built by the Normans in the late 11th century.
Madog Crypl died in 1304 or 1306 and was succeeded by his son Gruffydd of Rhuddallt (a manor near Glyndyfrdwy), who was the ward, then son-in-law, of Baron Le Strange of Knockyn. He added some lands to the east in Shropshire, notably the castle of Ellesmere, in 1332, then died in 1343. His son, Gruffydd Fychan II married a sister of Marged ferch Tomos, the wife of Tudur ap Goronwy, whose grandson Owen Tudor would found a very famous new royal dynasty.
Before this great glory for Wales, however, lay one last burst of Welsh independence, led by a prince of the House of Powys. Gruffydd Fychan II’s sons Owain and Tudur, born at Sycharth Castle, were each given a family lordship in the region of Edeirnion: Owain at Glyndyfrdwy and Tudur at Gwyddelwern (further up the valley, north of the town of Corwen). English and French sources give them the surname ‘de Glendore’ or ‘Glendower’, but modern Welsh spells it Glyndŵr.
In 1400, Owain, who had served in English armies for twenty years (notably in the Scottish borders), began a rebellion against English rule in Wales, with his brother as a commander, and support given by Edmund Mortimer and Henry Percy (they drew up a plan to split England and Wales into three pieces when victorious). Joining them in this fight were their maternal cousins, the sons of Tudur ap Goronwy (who hailed from Gwynedd, on the isle of Anglesey). France and Scotland supported the rebellion as well, though not very well. Owain was crowned Prince of Wales in 1404, and convened an all-Welsh parliament at Machynlleth (near the coast, where the ancient kingdoms of Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion come together). His brother Tudur was killed in May 1405 at the battle of Pwll Melyn, near Usk in Monmouthshire (South Wales), and two years later, in 1407, the tide turned against the Welsh and their allies. Wales was mostly re-occupied and by 1409 a last stand was made at Harlech Castle. Owain Glyndŵr escaped and lead guerrilla warfare for another three years or so, though his exact date of death is unknown.
The last members of the House of Powys Fadog were the sons of Owain Glyndŵr. The elder, Gruffydd, was captured in 1405 at Pwll Melyn, and was eventually taken to the Tower of London, where he died in about 1412. The younger, Maredudd, accepted an English pardon, and (it seems, but is uncertain) served Henry V in France in 1422, then vanished from history. His sister Alys inherited the lands in Glyndyfrdwy and Cynllaith Owain, and the claims to the title of Hereditary Tywysog of Powys Fadog (if they were ever used—maybe in secret?), and transmitted them to her children by Sir John Scudamore, sheriff of Herefordshire. Some of their modern descendants in South Wales, the Skidmores, claim to know where Owain Glyndŵr’s burial is, though it remains a closely guarded family secret! It is hoped that he will rise again, with Arthur, and reclaim the island of Britannia once more for its native people. Which side of the Saesneg / Gymraeg border would you want to be on?
(a big thank you to my colleague Dr Kathryn Hurlock for giving this the once over to make sure I didn’t commit any atrocious gaffs in my attempts at understanding the Welsh language!)