The early Post-Roman era of Britain is rightfully known as the Dark Ages. This murky period of British history is the foundation of the Arthurian legends, where we find a fascinating clash of history and myth. Some of the characters from the legends are recognized as historical figures of the period. Others are considered to be folkloric or even mythical. One figure from this period who is accepted by virtually all scholars as a historical person is a king named Tewdrig. He is fondly remembered in the Welsh tradition as a saint and a martyr.
Who Was King Tewdrig? Figure From the Arthurian Legends
King Tewdrig was a monarch who ruled over parts of southeast Wales. He appears in the earliest surviving king list of the Welsh kingdoms (the Harleian 3859) at the head of the kings of Glywysing. This was a kingdom that roughly corresponds to modern-day Glamorgan. His dynasty continued ruling southeast Wales for hundreds of years, until his descendant Iestyn son of Gwrgan was overthrown by the Normans.
Tewdrig was allegedly a powerful king. As per the Arthurian legends, Britain was in a state of crisis at this time. There were ongoing wars between the Britons and the Saxons, who were trying to push further and further to the west. The contemporary writer Gildas shows that they reached the western side of Britain from an early stage, at least in the form of raids. Inevitably, they came into contact with Tewdrig. How did Tewdrig deal with these Saxon incursions?
A twelfth-century source from Wales known as the Book of Llandaff provides us with some information. Incidentally, this is the earliest record which tells us anything substantial about Tewdrig. According to this document:
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“While he possessed the kingdom, he was never overcome, but was always victorious; so that when his face was seen in battle, the enemy immediately were turned to flight.”
So according to the earliest information available, King Tewdrig was a powerful monarch who was very successful in battle. Admittedly, this document was written hundreds of years after Tewdrig lived. For this reason, we cannot be sure of its accuracy. Nonetheless, scholars generally consider the Book of Llandaff to be a valuable source for the period. Although not perfect, it is the best available source.
The idea that Tewdrig was a powerful king is supported by a different tradition, seemingly completely independent of the Book of Llandaff. This tradition, which comes from Cornwall, reports that Tewdrig defeated a king of Brittany called Maxentius and forced him to relinquish his lands. Tewdrig must have been powerful indeed to extend his might so far outside his base in southeast Wales.
When Did Tewdrig Live?
To see what role Tewdrig may have played in the Arthurian legends, we need to know when he lived. It is widely accepted that he can be broadly placed in the sixth century. However, there is considerable debate as to whether he ruled in the early sixth century or the late sixth century. Historians such as Timothy Venning, David Farmer, and Brian Davies support an early date. On the other hand, historians such as Patrick Sims-Williams and Wendy Davies (whose work has been taken as authoritative) support the late date.
The bishops recorded as contemporaries of Tewdrig and his descendants support the early date. The Book of Llandaff and other records show that a bishop called Oudoceus received his position in the reign of Tewdrig’s son Meurig. He continued to serve as bishop until the time of Meurig’s great-grandchildren, so he must have been young when he was first appointed bishop.
Oudoceus was the son of a king of Brittany named Budic. Since Budic was born in about the year 500, Oudoceus was probably not born later than about 540. As we saw, Budic must have been quite young when he became bishop, so his appointment cannot have been much later than about 570. At the time of his appointment, Meurig had some adult sons, so Meurig was almost certainly in his forties or older. This would place Meurig’s birth in about 530 at the latest, placing Tewdrig’s birth near the very beginning of the sixth century at the latest.
More significantly, a twelfth-century record called the Life of St Cadoc records the fact that Tewdrig was the great-great-grandfather of the titular Cadoc. Since it is widely accepted that Cadoc was born in the early sixth century, his great-great-grandfather Tewdrig must have been born nearly a century before that. This would accommodate the evidence concerning Oudoceus if we suppose that Meurig was a very old king at the time of Oudoceus’ appointment as bishop in c. 570.
Expelling the Irish
In the Arthurian legends, the Irish attacked Wales in the reign of Ambrosius, which would be the late fifth century. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the Irish landed in Dyfed, the southwest portion of Wales. Ambrosius, the high king, then sent out his brother Uther to deal with this incursion. Uther successfully defeated the Irish (and their Saxon allies), driving them out of the country. This happened right at the end of Ambrosius’ life, which would have been near the year 500 (going by Bede’s placement of Ambrosius’ floruit).
The source for this account is not considered historically reliable by the vast majority of scholars. Nonetheless, it is known that the Irish really did control Dyfed for a while in the post-Roman era. In fact, this dominance seems to have started from shortly before the end of Roman Britain. Notably, in king lists concerning this period, the Irish names suddenly end around the year 500.
The names that follow the Irish ones are very Roman in style. As some scholars believe, there was evidently a campaign that expelled the Irish dynasty and replaced it with a line of Romano-British kings. Who led this campaign? There is no way of knowing for sure. A very late document states that Tewdrig “drove the Irish out of the country,” although it does not say which part of Wales he drove them from. But the only substantial Irish presence in Wales in his time was in Dyfed, at least insofar as the sources tell us. Additionally, the date of the evident expulsion of the Irish from Dyfed (about the year 500) falls within the likely reign of King Tewdrig. For these reasons, Tewdrig is the best candidate for the king who overthrew the Irish dynasty that ruled Dyfed. It is quite possible that the story in the Arthurian legends of Uther Pendragon expelling the Irish from Dyfed actually comes from this historical event.
Contribution to the Arthurian Legends
Tewdrig’s contribution to the Arthurian legends may well go further than this. The Book of Llandaff contains a relatively detailed account of Tewdrig’s death. First, it explains that he abdicated in favor of his son, Meurig, and went off to live as a hermit. However, Meurig experienced considerable difficulties in his wars against the Saxons. Therefore, he sent for Tewdrig to help him. As an elderly king, Tewdrig led the Britons into battle against the Saxons one last time. He led them to victory, but during the battle, he was mortally wounded. He was thereafter carried in a cart, and then a short time later, he passed away just next to a spring.
An almost identical story appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of Uther. He was said to have entrusted the kingdom to his son-in-law, Lot. But this new leader struggled in fighting against the Saxons, so the elderly Uther returned to lead the Britons one last time. He was victorious, but his condition severely weakened after the battle. Being carried in a cart, Uther died a short time later after drinking from a spring.
King Tewdrig and the Arthurian Legends
From the available evidence, which admittedly is not contemporary, we learn that Tewdrig was a powerful king who ruled in the time of the Arthurian legends. He was a founding figure in a dynasty that lasted until the Norman era. He was a mighty war leader who allegedly engaged in military exploits as far away as Brittany, deposing a king there. Although there is debate about when he ruled, he can definitely be placed at least partially in the sixth century. The weight of evidence indicates that he was born in the first half of the fifth century and died in probably the first quarter of the sixth.
Given this chronology and his power, it would be surprising if he did not feature in some way in the Arthurian legends. It may be that some of the legendary exploits of the famous Uther Pendragon actually came from the historical activities of King Tewdrig. In particular, his apparent expulsion of the Irish dynasty from Dyfed may be the origin behind the legend of Uther driving out the Irish from that territory. But even more convincingly, it appears that the story of Uther’s death in the Arthurian legends may have been taken from accounts of the death of Tewdrig.