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Yr Hen Iaith part twenty one: A Dynasty of Rulers and a Dynasty of Poets.

21 Aug 2023 10 minute read
Williams, Hugh; Owain Gwynedd (c.1100-1170); Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales.

Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode twenty one.

Jerry Hunter

How do we begin to tackle the large body of work left to us by ‘the Poets of the Princes’? One way is to concentrate on poetry associated with one prince, Owain Gwynedd (c.1100-1170). The first ruler to style himself ‘Prince of Wales’, Owain was also known as ‘King of Gwynedd’.

Second of Gruffudd ap Cynan’s sons, he helped his father expand his lands and strengthen his rule. Upon Gruffudd’s death in 1137, Owain became king of Gwynedd. He fought successfully against the kings of England and other Welsh princes and reworked the nature of Welsh rule making it more similar to successful feudal rulers elsewhere in Europe.

Great poet

One of the poets who composed or ‘sang’ praise to Owain Gwynedd was Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr. The name itself stakes a claim for this bard’s status in the history of Welsh literature, translating as ‘Cynddelw the Great Poet’.

Three poems which he addressed to Owain Gwynedd belong to a specific sub-category of praise, arwyrain. This can be translated as ‘elevating [in/with/by] praise’, and while all praise poetry can be said to lift up the prince to whom it is addressed, these poems are structured around verbal representations of the act of elevating. Here are the opening lines of one of them:

Arddwyreaf hael hwyl gyfrgain – yng nghad
Hwrdd fleiniad feiddiad, flaidd cyfwyrain

‘I elevate a generous man, splendid his rush in battle,
The attack of a bold one leading the charge, a wolf rising up to fight.’


Just like Aneirin’s role as suggested in the Gododdin, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr describes himself as an active poet, one who went to battle and can thus now sing of things which he saw with his own eyes: Gwelais barau rhudd rhag rhuthr Owain (‘I saw red spears in the face of Owain’s charge’).

The audience is invited to revel in gory details – Gwelais wedi cad coludd ar ddrain (‘I saw, after battle, guts on thorns’) – as Cynddelw’s celebration of Owain’s battle-field victory swells like a bloody wave which lifting up the king of Gwynedd.

I use the word ‘audience’, for, while these poems come to us in writing, we can’t help but imagine the poet performing his praise in front of the king or prince and the assembled court.

Scholars have postulated that these arwyrainor ‘lifting up’ poems belonged to specific socio-political context and were performed during a ceremony when a ruler was installed – for example, in 1137 when Owain was made King of Gwynedd following the death of his father – or when his rule was re-confirmed.


Whatever the original context, these texts contain a definite sense of the poet as an active player, praising his patron in a way which also draws attention to the one constructing that praise.

Verbs are conjugated in the first person (‘I elevate in praise’, ‘I saw’). There is action in these compositions, and if the deeds of the patron are described colourfully, we also marvel at the poet’s agency.

Another poet who addressed an arwyrain to Owain Gwynedd was Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, son of the one who composed an elegy to Owain’s father (see the previous episode). Here are two parallel dynasties interacting, one political and one bardic. Of course, the bards are intensely political as well, and the way in which they emphasise their own agency as active supporters of the ruler is a charged link between the two.

One poem by Gwalchmai, while still containing praise to Owain Gwynedd, focuses more on the poet himself. This kind of composition is called a gorhoffedd, a word which can be translated as ‘boast’, ‘conceit’ or ‘delight’.

All of those translations are applicable here, for the poet struts in these lines, describing the things he delights in and giving us the sense that he delights above all else in his own prowess when it comes to making war, making love and making poetry.

Llachar fy nghleddyf, lluch ei annwyd – yng nghad,
Llewychedig aur ar fy ysgwyd.
Lliaws a’m golwch ni’m gwelsant ermoed
O rianedd Gwent gwyllt i’m crybwyllaid.
Gwelais rhag Owain Eingl yn addoed

‘Bright [is] my sword, shining its nature in battle,
Glittering gold on my shield,
Many seek me who never even saw me,
Famous among the passionate women of Gwent.
I saw Angles [or the English] in death before Owain[.]’

Recounting exploits

Like a rap artist announcing his name and tagging his own artistic identity firmly to the composition, this poet ensures that he is known to his audience: Gwalchmai y’m gelwir, gelyn y Saeson (‘I am called Gwalchmai, the Englishmen’s enemy’). We imagine him strutting playfully before the assembled court, recounting his own exploits while also referring to those of King Owain.

There is also a gorhoffedd attributed to one of Owain Gwynedd’s sons. Unlike contemporaries who composed praise to princes, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd composed poetry for purely artistic purposes.

He did not need to earn a living this way, and thus might be seen as providing a striking medieval Welsh example of a person indulging in ‘art for art’s sake’.  The centrality of love and nature in his work makes him a predecessor of the 14th-century master, Dafydd ap Gwilym.  In his gorhoffedd, Hywel masterfully blends a personal amorous vignette with a loving description of his native land.

Ton wen orewyn wychr wrth drefydd,
Gyliw ag arien, awr yg gynnydd.
Caraf y morfa ym Meirionnydd,
Men y’m bu fraich wen yn obennydd.

‘A roaring white wave beats by dwelling-places,
Colour of frost as it spreads [over the beach].
I love the sea marsh in Merionnydd
Where a [woman’s] white arm was a pillow for me.’

Unlike Gwlachmai’s boasting poem, we might take Hywel’s gorhoffedd more as a lyrical list of the things which he ‘likes’ (hoffi) or ‘loves.’ We are in the present, the poet waking with his lover by the seaside in Meirionnydd and revelling in all that he loves.

After first stating ‘Caraf, trachas Lloegr, lleudir Gogledd heddiw’ (‘I love the North’s [or North Wales’] open land today, England’s great hate’), he goes on to say that he ‘loves’ his land’s people and places of habitation, as well as its sea-side and mountains, its woods and its fortification.

Like Gwalchmai in his boast, Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd describes himself as a warrior, lover and poet, and he lists his land’s ‘warriors’ (milwyr) and ‘horses’ (meirch) among his favourite things.

If grounded in the present of the poet’s experience of ‘today’ (heddiw) and the geographical immediacy of north-west Wales, a reference to the ancient Roman love poet Ovid (Ofydd) places his verse in a wider European context as well.

In his gorhoffedd Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd delights in love, landscape and the human society which makes that landscape meaningful.


If an example of ‘art for art’s sake’ which foregrounds a delight in love and nature, this poem also belongs to a definite political context; he is describing the land ruled by his father and the poem’s martial references index the warfare which helped ensure the success of that realm and in which the poet himself took an active part.

Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd would in fact die in combat, but not while leading his father’s armies against foreign invaders. When Owain Gwynedd died in 1170, some of his many sons formed factions and battled each other for supremacy.

The poet Hywel was killed in Pentraeth, Anglesey, in combat against his half-brothers Dafydd and Rhodri. (See part seven in this series for a suggestion about how this kind of family violence is treated in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi).

High-born children were often fostered with other families (a way of distributing royal patronage and strengthening political ties), and thus it comes as no surprise to learn that Hywel’s foster brothers stood beside him in his last fight.

There were seven of them, apparently, sons of Cedifor Wyddel or ‘Cedifor the Irishman’. Given the fact that Hywel’s mother was Irish as well, and in light of the many Irish loanwords in Welsh, we can imagine bilingual communities or at least households in north-west Wales, were both Welsh and Irish were spoken (and multilingual members of these communities could’ve spoken some English, Norse and/or Norman French as well).

Four of Hywel’s foster brothers died with him in Pentraeth in 1170. One of the three who survived that fratricidal conflict, Peryf ap Cedifor, was also a poet, and he commemorated the deaths with a series of englynion. (It is worth noting that all of this poet’s surviving work is in the englyn metre; like his foster-brother Hywel, Peryf was apparently a poet by nature not by profession and he did not compose awdlau in praise of patrons). The first englyn in this series sets the brothers’ former glory against their bloody fate:

Tra fuam yn saith, trisaith – ni’n beiddiai,
Ni’n ciliai cyn ein llaith,
Nid oes, ysywaeth, o’r saith
Namyn tri trin ddiolaith

‘While we were seven, three times seven could not challenge us,
They couldn’t force us to flee before our death,
Woefully, there is now of the seven
Only three left who can’t avoid battle.’


In one poignant line Peryf says this of his brothers: ‘Buant briw ger eu brawd-faeth’ (‘They were injured beside their foster brother’). Suggesting that he saw Dafydd kill Hywel ‘with a spear’ (â gwayw), he curses him, calling him ‘false’ (enwir).

Peryf ap Cedifor also composed a marwnad (‘elegy’) for Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd. One of the poem’s englynionmakes powerful use of that simple technique, repetition:

Llas arth yn y gyfarthfa
Llas nerth gwŷr, eryr aerfa,
Llas Hywel wyn fab Owain,
Llas gŵr mirain uch morfa.

‘A [man who was like a] bear was killed in the fight,
A [man who was] strength for men was killed, an eagle of the battlefield,
Brilliant Hywel son of Owain was killed,
A splendid man was killed above the sea-marsh.’

The word translated as ‘fight’, [c]yfarthfa, more literally means ‘a barking [of dogs during a fight’], the image depicting Hywel as a great bear hounded to death by a pack of dogs.

Concise in wording as an englyn must be, this verse is nonetheless geographically specific; Pentraeth, the place where Hywel was killed, is ‘above’ the morfa or ‘sea-marsh’.

However, the word rings especially poignantly in the ears of those familiar with Hywel’s own poetry. The son of Owain Gwynedd told us in his gorhoffedd that he loved the morfa in Meirionnydd, where a woman’s arm served as his pillow, and that he loved both morfa and mynydd of his native land.

Further Reading

Davies, The Age of Conquest [:] Wales 1063-1425 (Oxford, 1987).

Nerys Ann Jones and Ann Parry Owen (eds.), Cyfres Beirdd y Tywysogion[:] Gwaith Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr II(Cardiff, 1995).E. Caerwyn Williams and Peredur Lynch (eds.), Cyfres Beirdd y Tywysogion[:] Gwaith Meilyr Brydydd a’i Ddisgynyddion (Cardiff, 1994).

Kathleen Anne Bramley (ed.), ‘Gwaith Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd’ and Morfydd E. Owen (ed.), ‘Gwaith Peryf ap Cedifor’, in Cyfres Beirdd y Tywysogion[:] Gwaith Llywelyn Fardd I ac eraill o feirdd y ddeuddegfed ganrif (Cardiff, 1994)

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