MEIRION - History and Pseudohistory

The Meirion story in Gŵyl Tân a Môr draws together strands from the history, literature and folklore of Meirionnydd and the surrounding area to create a modern myth. Here are some of the strands.

By Dr David Moore, author of The Welsh Wars of Independence

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 How Meirionnydd got its name

The land of Meirionnydd (‘associated with Meirion’) takes its name from the personal name Meirion. But who was Meirion? The story goes that Meirion’s grandfather, Cunedda ab Edern, led his sons - and also Meirion, whose father, Tybion, had died - in a migration from Manaw Gododdin (between the Forth and the Tyne) to the ‘western part of Britain’ and took all the lands between the Dee and the Teifi, removing the Irish from the area with great slaughter so that they never came back to settle. This migration of the Votadini tribe is said to have happened 146 years before the reign of Maelgwn Gwynedd (d. 547), or in other words around the year 400, a few years before the Romans left Britain. On Cunedda’s death, Meirion, as the son of the eldest son, divided his grandfather’s lands between his uncles. In this way, it is implied that the mediaeval names of many parts of north and west Wales came from the personal names of Meirion (Meirionnydd) and his uncles Osfael (Osfeilion), Rhufon (Rhufoniog), Dunod (Dunoding), Ceredig (Ceredigion), Afloeg (Afloegion), Dogfael (Dogfeiling) and Edern (Edeirnion). It’s a neat story, and there is no other story that explains the name of Meirionnydd, but unfortunately we cannot take it at face value.

The source of the Meirion story

The earliest text containing the story of Cunedda and Meirion is Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’), which dates from around 829 - more than 400 years after the supposed date of the Meirion story. It is a very problematic text for other reasons as well. It survives in dozens of manuscripts, but no two versions of the text are identical, and the oldest surviving manuscript containing it (British Library Harleian MS 3859) dates from about 250 years after its composition and also contains genealogies that contradict its own account of Meirion’s chronology and family relationships. Clearly, there has been some confusion in the transmission of the story, probably at a very early date. There is very little source material for the period around 400, but where Historia Brittonum can be compared with other sources it has been shown to be inaccurate and based to a large extent on unreliable evidence, much of which is fictional. It is not so much a dependable record as a clever literary confection, intended to convey a particular view of the past. It is not history, but pseudohistory. Meirion’s story is therefore open to question.

Meirion and Cunedda - were they real people?

The story of Meirion and Cunedda is superficially plausible. Western Britain came under great pressure from Irish invaders at the end of the Roman occupation, and the Romans sometimes employed local tribes as auxiliary troops (foederati) to defend the empire, often with associated migrations, so it is not impossible that there was a planned movement of Votadini from Manaw Gododdin to north Wales to deal with the Irish. Early mediaeval Welsh literature shows that there were close contacts between Wales and the ‘Old North’, including Manaw Gododdin, and we also know that the names of early kingdoms in Wales were primarily dynastic and only later became attached to territories, so the Meirion story appears to ring true in a number of ways.

However, there is no contemporary evidence for the migration or even for the existence of Meirion or Cunedda, and what evidence there is casts serious doubt on the story. The persistence of inscribed stones in northwest Wales with Irish names and the Irish ogam alphabet challenges the central theme of the story, because it suggests that Irish influence was not overthrown around 400 but in fact remained strong in the fifth century and probably even later. Nor is there any evidence that the Brittonic Ordovices were displaced at that time; indeed, the earliest known name of Meirionnydd is Cantref Orddwyf, which reflects their dominant presence there. Furthermore, the Roman foederati who were involved in migrations were usually barbarians migrating into the empire, not Romanised peoples like the Britons, so Cunedda would have been an exception to the rule, and it is suspicious that no source even hints at such a large political development for 400 years. Similarly, Meirion’s division of territories in Historia Brittonum appears to reflect the geopolitics of north and west Wales in the decades before it was composed, rather than any older arrangement, and the associated genealogies are confused and unconvincing. Only two of the descendants of Meirion in the genealogies are corroborated in the Welsh annals (is there any connection between the Idris who was strangled in around 632 and Cader Idris?), and Einion Yrth - the only one of Cunedda’s sons who did not give his name to any territory - is portrayed as the king of Gwynedd and the ancestor of the dynasty of Rhos, which appears from other sources to have emerged as a kingdom in the late eighth century. It may be that the whole Meirion and Cunedda story dates from that time. In any case, Meirion’s division of Cunedda’s lands reveals a lot about the political assumptions made in north Wales in the 820s, including the difference between the inheritance of land (which was partible) and kingship (which was not), and the principle of keeping the strategic core of Gwynedd under the king’s central control with lesser ranking rulers as satellites in the neighbouring territories.

It is impossible to say whether there is a kernel of truth in the story of Meirion and Cunedda, but however the kingdom of Gwynedd was founded, it seems likely that the reality was different from the story. Nevertheless, the story is simple and easy to believe, and that is one reason why it has lasted so long.

Meirion’s torc

The original Harlech torc was discovered in a garden in Harlech in 1692. It was made about 3,000 years ago from four metres of twisted gold wire, and is now in the National Museum of Wales. Torcs were usually made from precious metals, and they seem to have denoted high status, but they are difficult to interpret beyond that. Many of them have been found in Britain, dating up to the second century AD - more than 200 years before the supposed date of Meirion. However, it is possible that Meirion (if he was a real person) may have possessed a torc; Gerald of Wales saw a torc in Brycheiniog that was revered as a potent relic of St Cynog as late as 1188.

Meirion and the Morfeirch

These ‘sea stallions’ seem to be a maritime version of the Romano-Celtic horse goddess Epona, a fertility deity, who is often identified with Rhiannon in the mediaeval Welsh tales known as the Mabinogi. Being giants, they are also reminiscent of the Meirionnydd giant Idris who according to folklore gave his name to Cader Idris, and also the giant Bendigeidfran who lived at Harlech in the Mabinogi. The idea of foreign conquest reflects an important element in the traditional story of Meirion, and the invasion from the sea has echoes in literature, folklore and history. The late mediaeval story of the flooding of Maes Gwyddno (an unidentified location) when a well overflowed gave rise to the relatively modern story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, a kingdom that was dramatically swallowed up by the sea in Cardigan Bay, and although there is no archaeological evidence for a dramatic inundation in Cardigan Bay there was certainly a prehistoric rise in the sea level. There was also considerable Irish settlement in north Wales and south-west Wales at the end of the Roman occupation, although not in Meirionnydd, and Vikings based in Ireland and Man raided Wales regularly from the ninth century until the twelfth century. The English also sent fleets against the Welsh on occasion, and in 1064 this led to the death of one of the most powerful kings in mediaeval Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd. Similarly, the Mabinogi describes Matholwch, king of Ireland, sailing his fleet to Harlech. The Morfeirch combine elements of all of these stories, together with the environmental concerns of the present day.

Meirion’s exile and return

In mediaeval Welsh and Irish literature, principal characters - notably Pwyll in the Mabinogi, and also Fionn mac Cumhaill - could sometimes enter the Otherworld under enchantment, and this theme has often been repeated in more recent stories. One way of entering the Otherworld was by crossing the ninth wave, while in English-language cultures the seventh wave is often believed to be the strongest wave. The story of the Morfeirch encompasses all of these ideas, and Meirion’s exile at sea is also reminiscent of the folk song ‘Hiraeth am Feirion’:

Yn y môr y byddo’r mynydd / Sydd yn cuddio bro Meirionnydd

Na chawn unwaith olwg arni / Cyn i ‘nghalon dirion dorri

 

Gwynt ar fôr a haul ar fynydd / Cerrig llwydion yn lle coedydd

A gwylanod yn lle dynion / O, pa fodd na thorrai ‘nghalon?

Similarly, Meirion’s return echoes another theme in Welsh literature: from the ninth century onwards, there was a bardic tradition in which a great leader - the ‘son of prophecy’ (mab darogan) - would return to save his people, heralded by a sign. Owain Lawgoch, Owain Glyn Dŵr, Arthur, Henry Tudor and many others were all viewed in this way, and here we find Meirion in similar terms.

Meirion’s connection with Harlech

The rock of Harlech dominates the surrounding area, and the Mabinogi describes Bendigeidfran, king of the Island of the Mighty (or Britain), as holding court there, but no evidence has been found for fortification on the site before the present castle was built by Edward I in 1283. (Although the tales in the Mabinogi were old when they were written down, that is not necessarily true of every detail in the text, so it is interesting to note that the oldest surviving manuscripts containing the text were written more than 50 years after the castle was built.) Nor was Harlech a part of early medieval Meirionnydd, which lay to the south between the Mawddach and the Dyfi. Modern Meirionnydd took shape when Edward I added the cantrefi of Ardudwy and Penllyn to Meirionnydd in 1284 to create Merionethshire. If Meirion was a real person, he did not live at Harlech.

Meirion’s legacy

The story of Meirion and Cunedda is the origin story of Gwynedd, the most powerful kingdom in Wales until the end of native Welsh independence. From at least the early ninth century, it was believed that Cunedda had been the ancestor of the main royal lines of northwest Wales. Whether the belief was historically accurate or not, it followed that he should be portrayed as an important figure in the politics of north Wales after the Roman occupation. When a new dynasty came to power in Gwynedd in 825, it made sense for them to claim descent from Cunedda as well, and so the story of Cunedda and Meirion was perpetuated under Merfyn Frych and his descendants, including the two Llywelyns. With its origins lost in the mists of time, and now imbued with the associations of lost Welsh independence, the story has become very deeply rooted, so much so that it was not successfully challenged even in academic circles until the 1970s. Meirion’s story lives on in Gŵyl Tân a Môr …

All images Copyright Felix Cannadam

Owen Brown