In the middle decades of the 10th century the Strathclyde Britons were ruled by a king called Dyfnwal ab Owain who died in 975. His father was probably the same Owain who, in alliance with Scots and Vikings, was defeated by Athelstan at Brunanburh in 937. Dyfnwal himself saw his realm invaded by the English in 945, a campaign in which two of his sons were taken captive and blinded. Later, during the reign of the English king Edgar, Dyfnwal seems to have been present – with his son Malcolm – at an important meeting of kings at Chester in 973. Two years after this event, according to the Irish annals, Dyfnwal died while on pilgrimage to Rome.
An old tradition in what is now the English county of Cumbria refers to a king called Dunmail who bequeathed his name to a cairn or ‘raise’ – a heap of stones – on a hill in the Lake District. The cairn is known as Dunmail Raise and is supposed to mark his grave. Some historians think that the various Dunmail legends may have originated in old stories about one of the several Strathclyde rulers called Dyfnwal: the two names appear to be related. In the 10th century, the northern part of Cumbria (the part that used to be the county of Cumberland until 1974) was indeed under the authority of the Clyde kings. The language spoken by these kings – a form of Brittonic (Brythonic) which we now call ‘Cumbric’ – sounded similar to Old Welsh. Between c.900 and c.1030 it was the speech of power and authority in an extensive region stretching from the River Eamont near Penrith to the northern tip of Loch Lomond. A favoured candidate for the ‘Dunmail’ of Cumbrian folklore is the Dyfnwal who died in 975, chiefly because his reign spanned such a large chunk of the 10th century. This Dyfnwal was clearly quite famous in his own time. He attracted considerable interest in the textual sources, appearing in the Irish annals, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a vita (‘Life’) of St Catroe.
In the dim-and-distant past I did a fair amount of hillwalking in the Lake District but I never visited Dunmail Raise, nor have I fully explored the local legends about it. Maybe the old tales of ‘King Dunmail’ preserve a genuine kernel of truth? This possibility is explored by Diane McIlmoyle in her interesting blog on Cumbrian history and folklore. Her recent post on Dunmail Raise gives a neat summary of the old traditions and has a nice photo of the cairn itself.
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I’ve looked at the name ‘Dyfnwal’ (its origins and pronunciation) in a previous blogpost.
My musings on Dyfnwal ab Owain can be found on pages 179-85 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland. Alternatively, those of you with a copy of Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba can turn to pages 183-4 and 188-9. The nearest thing to a concise biography of Dyfnwal is by Alan Macquarrie in his paper ‘The kings of Strathclyde, c. 400-1018’, pp.1-19 in A. Grant & K.Stringer (eds.) Medieval Scotland: crown, lordship and community: essays presented to G.W.S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1993).
This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series: