Kingdom of Powys

Kingdom of Powys
Teyrnas Powys
5th century–1160
Banner of the Mathrafal House of Powys Coat of arms
Unbennaeth Prydain
"The Monarchy of Britain"[1][2][3]
Medieval kingdoms of Wales.
Capital Caer Guricon, Pengwern, Mathrafal, Welshpool
Languages Welsh
Religion Celtic Christianity
Government Monarchy
   6th century Brochwel Ysgithrog
  d. 616 Selyf ap Cynan
  d. 755 Elisedd ap Gwylog
  1063 - 1075 Bleddyn ap Cynfyn
  1116 - 1132 Maredudd ap Bleddyn
  1132 - 1160 Madog ap Maredudd
Historical era Middle Ages
   end of Roman rule in Britain 5th century
   Division (Between Fadog and Wenwynwyn) 1160
Currency ceiniog cyfreith &
ceiniog cwta
Preceded by
Succeeded by
sub-Roman Britain
Powys Wenwynwyn
Powys Fadog
Demonym: Powyssi; Powysian
Powys landscape near Foel

The Kingdom of Powys was a Welsh successor state, petty kingdom and principality that emerged during the Middle Ages following the end of Roman rule in Britain. Based on the Romano-British tribal lands of the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii in the east, its boundaries originally extended from the Cambrian Mountains in the west to include the modern West Midlands region of England in the east. The fertile river valleys of the Severn and Tern are found here, and this region is referred to in later Welsh literature as "the Paradise of Powys".


The name Powys is thought to derive from Latin pagus 'the countryside' and pagenses 'dwellers in the countryside', also the origins of French "pays" and English "peasant". During the Roman Empire, this region was organised into a Roman province, with the capital at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter), the fourth-largest Roman city in Britain. An entry in the Annales Cambriae concerning the death of King Cadell ap Brochfael says that the land later called Powys was originally known as Ternyllwg.[4]

Coat of Arms of the Powys dynasty

Early Middle Ages

Throughout the Early Middle Ages, Powys was ruled by the Gwerthrynion dynasty, a family claiming descent jointly from the marriage of Vortigern and Princess Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus. Archaeological evidence has shown that, unusually for the post-Roman period, Viroconium Cornoviorum survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the Powys capital. The 9th-century Historia Brittonum records the town as Caer Guricon, one of his "28 British Towns" of Roman Britain. In the following centuries, the Powys eastern border was encroached upon by English settlers from the emerging Anglian territory of Mercia. This was a gradual process, and English control in the West Midlands was uncertain until the late 8th century.

In 549 the Plague of Justinian - an outbreak of a strain of bubonic plague - arrived in Britain, and Welsh communities were devastated, with villages and countryside alike depopulated. However, the English were less affected by this plague as they had far fewer trading contacts with the continent at this time. Faced with shrinking manpower and increasing Anglian encroachment, King Brochwel Ysgithrog may have moved the court from Caer Guricon to Pengwern, the exact site of which is unknown but may have been at Shrewsbury, traditionally associated with Pengwern, or the more defensible Din Gwrygon, the hill fort on The Wrekin.

In 616, the armies of Æthelfrith of Northumbria clashed with Powys. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Northumbrian monarch's political rival, Edwin of Deira, was living in exile in Gwynedd around this time. Historians such as John Morris have suggested that Æthelfrith attempted to capture him, but presumably King Selyf ap Cynan of Powys denied access through Powys to Edwin in Gwynedd, and seeing an opportunity to further drive a wedge between the North Welsh and those of Rheged, Æthelfrith invaded Powys' northern lands. Æthelfrith forced a battle near Chester and defeated Selyf and his allies. At the commencement of the battle, Bede tells us that the pagan Æthelfrith slaughtered 1200 monks from the important monastery of Bangor-on-Dee in Maelor because, he said, "they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers". Selyf ap Cynan was also killed in the battle and may have been the first of the kings of Powys to be buried at the church dedicated to St. Tysilio, at Meifod, thence known as the Eglwys Tysilio and subsequently the dynasty's Royal mausoleum.

If King Cynddylan of Pengwern hailed from the royal Powys dynasty, then forces from Powys may also have been present at the Battle of Maes Cogwy in 642. According to the probably ninth-century cycle of englyn-poems Canu Heledd, the region around Pengwern was sacked soon after, its royal family slaughtered and most of its lands were annexed by Mercia, some by Powys. However, this account is generally now thought to represent ninth-century imaginings of what must have been going on in the seventh, inspired by Powys's political situation in the ninth century.[5]

Powys enjoyed a resurgence with successful campaigns against the English in 655, 705-707 and 722, wrote Davies. The court was moved to Mathrafal Castle in the valley of the river Vyrnwy by 717, possibly by king Elisedd ap Gwylog (d.c. 755). Elisedd's successes led King Æthelbald of Mercia to build Wat's Dyke. This endeavour may have been with Elisedd's own agreement, however, for this boundary, extending north from the Severn valley to the Dee estuary, gave Oswestry (Welsh: Croesoswallt) to Powys. King Offa of Mercia seems to have continued this consultive initiative when he created a larger earth work, now known as Offa's Dyke (Welsh: Clawdd Offa). Davies wrote of Cyril Fox's study of Offa's Dyke:

In the planning of it, there was a degree of consultation with the kings of Powys and Gwent. On the Long Mountain near Trelystan, the dyke veers to the east, leaving the fertile slops in the hands of the Welsh; near Rhiwabon, it was designed to ensure that Cadell ap Brochwel retained possession of the Fortress of Penygadden." And for Gwent Offa had the dyke built "on the eastern crest of the gorge, clearly with the intention of recognizing that the river Wye and its traffic belonged to the kingdom of Gwent.

This new border moved Oswestry back to the English side of the new frontier, and Offa attacked Powys in 760 at Hereford, and again on 778, 784 and 796. Offa's Dyke largely remained the frontier between the Welsh and English, though the Welsh would recover by the 12th century the area between the Dee and the River Conwy, known then as the Perfeddwlad or "Midlands".

Rhodri, Hywel, and Gruffydd

Flag of Gwynedd

Powys was united with Gwynedd when king Merfyn Frych of Gwynedd married princess Nest ferch Cadell, sister of king Cyngen of Powys, the last representative of the Gwertherion dynasty. With the death of Cyngen in 855 Rhodri the Great became king of Powys, having inherited Gwynedd the year before. This formed the basis of Gwynedd's continued claims of overlordship over Powys for the next 443 years.

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Rhodri the Great ruled over most of modern Wales until his death in 878. His sons would in turn found dynasties of their own which would loom large in Welsh history, each claiming descent from Rhodri. Merfyn inherited Powys, whilst his brothers, Anarawd ap Rhodri and Cadell, established the Aberffraw dynasty in Gwynedd and the line of Dinefwr respectively.

In 942 Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (Rhodri's grandson through his second son, Cadell) seized Gwynedd on the death of his cousin, Idwal Foel. He apparently took Powys from Llywelyn ap Merfyn at the same time and arranged for a dynastic marriage between their children. Hywel had founded Deheubarth 920 out of his maternal and paternal inheritances, and maintained close relations with Æthelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons, often visiting Æthelstan's court. Hywel studied the English legal system and reformed Welsh law in his own realms (later called the Cyfraith Hywel or "Laws of Hywel"), and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome in 928, he took his collection of laws, which allegedly were blessed by the pope.

Hywel encouraged the use of coinage in Wales, having his monies minted in Chester, a benefit of his relations with England. In 945 Hywel held an assembly in Whitland to codify his law codes, though with the aid of the celebrated cleric Blegywryd. Hwyel's works would lead posterity to name him the good (Welsh: Hywel Dda), and his reign is recognised as an unusually peaceful one. On his death, Gwynedd reverted to the Aberffraw dynasty, though Powys and Deheubarth were divided between his sons.

Maredudd ab Owain rebuilt the kingdom of his grandfather Hywel Dda. He was king of Deheubarth and Powys by 986, when he seized Gwynedd. Maredudd fought off English encroachment in Powys and increasing Viking raids in Gwynedd. He is recorded to have paid a penny for hostages captured by Vikings, a large sum for his time. With Maredudd's death in 999, Powys passed to his grandson Llywelyn ap Seisyll, through Maredudd's elder daughter Princess Anghared (with her first husband Seisyll ap Owian), while Deheubarth was divided between his sons. Gwynedd temporarily returned to the Aberffraw line. Though the next century would see the abandonment of the senior historic families as increased Viking incursions and incessant warfare led usurpers to overthrow the Aberffraw and Dinefwr houses which were not recovered by them until the latter part of the century.

Llywelyn's son Gruffydd would unite all Wales under his own kingship, displacing his cousins in Deheubarth, and even expanding into England affecting politics there. With Gruffydd's death Deheubarth passed through a series of rulers with various claims, but would return to the historic Dinefwr dynasty in 1063 in the person of Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin.

House of Mathrafal

It is through Princess Anghared (as daughter of Maredudd ab Owain of Deheubarth and Powys), her second husband was Cynfyn ap Gwerstan, that the Mathrafal dynasty was founded. The dynasty takes its name from the historic seat of Mathrafal Castle. Anghared's son Bleddyn ap Cynfyn would inherit Powys in 1063 on the death of his maternal half-brother Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Bleddyn (the name means wolf in Welsh) secured Gwynedd in 1063 after a battle with the Aberffraw claimant Cynan ap Iago, with Edward the Confessor of England endorsing Bleddyn's seizure later that year. Additionally, Bleddyn is recorded as amending the Law Codes of Hywel Dda.

Bleddyn ap Cynfyn and his brother Rhiwallon fought alongside the Anglo-Saxons against the Norman Invasion. In 1067 they allied with the Mercian Eadric the Wild in an attack on the Normans at Hereford, then in 1068 with Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria in another attack on the Normans. In 1070 he defeated his half-nephews, the sons of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in the battle of Mechain in their bid to take Gwynedd. Bleddyn ap Cynfyn himself was killed in 1075 while campaigning in Deheubarth against Rhys ab Owain. With Bleddyn's death, Powys passed to his sons and grandsons in their turn. Gwynedd passed to his cousin Trehaearn ap Caradog, who was killed in 1081 at the Battle of Mynydd Carn, and would then return to the historic Aberffraw dynasty in the person of Gruffudd ap Cynan. Powys was itself divided between Bleddyn's sons Iorwerth, Cadwgan, and Maredudd.

After William of Normandy secured England, he left the Welsh to his Norman barons to carve out lordships for themselves. Thus the Welsh Marches were formed along the Ango-Welsh border. By 1086 the Norman Earl Roger de Montgomery of Shrewsbury had built a castle at the Severn ford of Rhydwhiman, named Montgomery Castle after his home in Normandy. After Montgomery other Normans claimed the north Powys' cantrefi of Ial, Cynllaith, Edernion, and Nanheudwy. From here they took Arwstle, Ceri, and Cedwain. Almost the whole of Powys, as much of Wales, was in Norman hands by 1090. The three sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn would lead the resistance and their restoration in Powys. By 1096 they had retaken most of Powys, including Montgomery Castle. Roger Montgomery rose in revolt against King William II of England and his son Robert Belleme had his lands confiscated in 1102.

Approximate extent of Powys before division in 1160

Through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the House of Mathrafal struggled to retain its lands in Powys against Norman Marcher lords and a resurgent Gwynedd. After 1160, when Madog ap Maredudd died and his son and designated heir, Llywelyn ap Madog, was killed the realm disintegrated and was divided into northern and southern principalities. Divided they were weaker still and while the northern realm of Powys Fadog largely supported the independent aspirations of neighbouring Gwynedd under Owain Gwynedd, Llywelyn Fawr and Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the southern realm of Powys Wenwynwyn was frequently at loggerheads with the princes of Gwynedd and often chose an independent course. By 1263 all Powys acknowledged Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as the Prince of Wales but Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, the lord of Powys Wenwynwyn, changed allegiance again in 1274 and was exiled to England. He was reinstated during the new English campaign against Llywelyn of Gwynedd in 1276. In the final campaign of Llywelyn the Last in 1282 the forces of Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn were instrumental in the downfall of Llywelyn when they alongside Roger Lestrange of Ellesmere and Roger Mortimer ambushed Llywelyn and killed him.

Post-kingdom Powys

Main article: Powys Wenwynwyn

Owen de la Pole (Owain ap Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn) apparently surrendered the principality of Powys Wenwynwyn (southern Powys) to Edward I in 1283, receiving it back as a marcher lordship. Previously, the principality had already been the subject of constant fighting and dispute between the Kings of England and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales. The lordship descended in Owen's family until 1587, when it was sold to Sir Edward Herbert, whose descendants were created Baron Powis and Marquesses and Earls of Powis, living at Powis Castle

Main article: Powys Fadog

Powys Fadog (northern Powys) largely became the English lordship of Bromfield and Yale (the latter now spelt Iâl), but the lordship of Glyndyfrdwy and half the commote of Cynllaith (known as Cynllaith Owain), including Sycharth remained in Welsh hands until the defeat of Owain Glyndŵr.

The name Powys for this area disappeared (at the latest) with the introduction of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 when its marcher lordships were incorporated into the new counties of Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire.

Powys would not be resurrected until the boundary changes in 1974 created a new and enlarged county of Powys that merged the counties of Montgomeryshire, Brecknockshire and Radnorshire. However, Brecknockshire had not traditionally been within the bounds of the old kingdom, Radnorshire had not been part of it since the mid-10th century, and large areas of the north formerly within Powys were placed in the new county of Clwyd.

Rulers of Powys

Administrative units of the Kingdom of Powys

Kings of Ternyllwg

Kings of Powys

House of Gwerthrynion

House of Manaw

Mathrafal Princes of Powys

From 1160 Powys was split into two parts. The southern part was later called Powys Wenwynwyn after Gwenwynwyn ab Owain "Cyfeiliog" ap Madog, while the northern part was called Powys Fadog after Madog ap Gruffydd "Maelor" ap Madog.



  1. Wade-Evans, Arthur. Welsh Medieval Law. Oxford Univ., 1909. Accessed 1 Feb 2013.
  2. Bradley, A.G. Owen Glyndwr and the Last Struggle for Welsh Independence. G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York), 1901. Accessed 1 Feb 2013.
  3. Jenkins, John. Poetry of Wales. Houlston & Sons (London), 1873. Accessed 1 Feb 2013.
  4. Cambrian Archaeological Association. Archaeologia Cambrensis: "The Pillar of Eliseg", p. 297. W. Pickering, 1851. Accessed 27 Feb 2013.
  5. Jenny Rowland, Early Welsh Saga Poetry: A Study and Edition of the ‘Englynion’ (Cambridge: Brewer, 1990), pp. 120-41.
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