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5: The Welsh Kings

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The spirit of Rome remained, though Rome itself had fallen. And Welsh kings rose to take the place of the Roman ruler, trying to force the tribes of Walesóof different races and tonguesóto become one people.

The chief Roman ruler, at any rate during the later wars against the invaders, was called Dux Britanniae, "the ruler of Britain." It became the aim of the ablest kings to restore the power of this officer, and to carry on his work, to rule and defend a united country. And I will tell you briefly how the kings ruled and defended Wales for more than five hundred yearsóhow Maelgwn tried to unite it, how Rhodri tried to prevent the attacks of Saxon and Dane, how Howel gave it laws, and how Griffith tried to defend it against England.

Between 400 and 450 Rome left Wales to look after itself. An able family, called the House of Cunedda, took the power of the Dux Britanniae, and they translated the title into Gwledigó"the ruler of a gwlad (country)." Of this family Maelgwn Gwynedd is the most famous. It was his work to try to unite all the smaller kings or chiefs of Wales under his own power as "the island dragon." It was a difficult thing to persuade them; they all wanted to be independent. A legend shows that Maelgwn tried guile as well as force. The kings met him at Aberdovey, and they all sat in their royal chairs on the sands. And Maelgwn said: "Let him be king over all who can sit longest on his chair as the tide comes in." But he had made his own chair of birds' wings, and it floated erect when all the other chairs had been thrown down. Before Maelgwn died of the yellow plague in 547, his strong arm had made Wales one united country, and had made every corner of it Christian.

The new wave of nations, coming on as surely as the tide, began to beat against Wales. The Picts came from the northern parts of Britain, and Teutonic tribes swarmed across the eastern sea. The Angles came to the Humber, and spread over the plains of the north and the midlands of Roman Britain; the Saxons came to the Thames, and won the plains and the downs of the south-east. In 577 the Saxons, after the battle of Deorham, pierced to the western sea at the mouth of the Severn; they crept up along the valley of the Severn, burning the great Roman towns. Before they reached Chester and the Dee, however, they were defeated at the battle of Fethanlea in 584. But the Angles soon appeared, from the north; and after their victory at Chester in 613, they won the plains right to the Irish Sea.

Wales was now surrounded on the land side by a people who spoke strange languages, and who worshipped different gods, for the Angles and the Saxons were heathens. From the sea also it was open to attack. Sometimes the Irish came. But the most feared of all were the Danes, whose sudden appearance and quick movements and desperate onslaughts were the terror of the age. The "black Danes" came from the fords of Norway, the "white Danes" from the plains of Sweden and Denmark. The Danes settled on the south coast: Tenby is a Danish name. Offa, the king of the Mercian Angles, took the rich lands between the Severn and the Wye; but Offa's Dyke (Clawdd Offa) is probably the work of some earlier people whose history has been lost. It was only by incessant fighting that the enemy could be kept at bay.

Of all the kings who tried to defend his country against the enemies which now stood round it, the greatest is Rhodri, called Rhodri Mawr- -"the Great." From 844 to 877, by battles on sea and land, he broke the spell of Danish and Saxon victories; and his might and wisdom enabled him to lead his country in those dark days. Like Alfred of Wessex, who lived at the same time and faced the same task, he stemmed the torrent of Danish invasion and beat the sea-rovers on their own element. Like Alfred, he left warlike children and grandchildren. One of the grandsons was Howel the Good, who put the laws of Wales down in a book.

Wales and England were now, both of them in their own way, trying to become one country. It was seen by many that strength and peace were better than division and war. In England, the Earls of Mercia and Wessex tried to rise into supreme power. In Wales Llywelyn ab Seisyll, victorious in many battles and wishing for peace, made the country rich and happy. Still, when he died in 1022, the princes said they would not obey another over-king.

But the long ships full of Danes came again; the Angles crossed the Severn: war and misery took the place of peace and plenty. Griffith, the son of Llywelyn, came to renew his father's work. In the battle of Rhyd y Groes on the Severn, in 1039, he drove the Mercians back; in the battle of Pencader, in 1041, he crushed the opponents of Welsh unity; in 1044 he defeated the sea-rovers at Aber Towy. At the same time Harold, Earl of Wessex, was making himself king of England. A war broke out between Griffith and Harold; and, during it, in 1063, the great Welsh kingó"the head and the shield of the Britons"ówas slain by traitors.

So far I have told you about a few, only the greatest, kings of the House of Cunedda. I know that you are wondering where Arthur comes in. I am not quite sure that Arthur ever really lived, except in the mind of many ages. He is the spirit of Roman rule, the true Dux Britanniae, and he has all the greatness and ability of all the race of Cunedda. I have been shown mountains under which he sleeps, with his knights around him, waiting for the time when his country is to be delivered. Let us hope that what Arthur representsócourage and wisdom, love of country and love of rightólives in the hearts of his people.


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