Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956

Hywel Dda

The Welsh king Hywel Dda (died 950)

Although I’ve listed this post in the ‘non-Scottish’ category it does have a connection with the blog’s overall theme. It’s basically an announcement of a new article dealing with important events of the 10th century, a period when the dominant power in Britain was the West Saxon royal dynasty. The article is mainly concerned with West Saxon policy towards Wales but the author, Kevin Halloran, considers a wider political picture in which the northern Celtic powers – the kings of Alba and Strathclyde – also figured as key players. Kevin is frequently cited in modern studies of the battle of Brunanburh (937): his two articles in the Scottish Historical Review make a strong case for considering Burnswark (in Scotland) as a likely location for the battlefield.

In his latest article, Kevin takes a detailed look at the reigns of Athelstan (c.925-39) and his younger brothers Edmund (939-46) and Eadred (946-55) by examining their dealings with the Welsh kingdoms. Although West Saxon dominance in Wales cannot be denied, Kevin argues that the situation was more dynamic than has previously been recognised. He sees changes in the fortunes of individual Welsh kings adding instability to the mix and making the situation far less settled for West Saxon overlords than they might have hoped. To a very ambitious king like Athelstan, who had pretensions to be ruler of all Britain, overlordship of Wales was a key element in his plans. Not only did it ease tensions along the western flank of his core territory, it also discouraged Welsh kings from getting too friendly with Viking warlords or with other dangerous powers. As long as the Welsh remained on board as client-rulers, Athelstan could rely on them to boost his military manpower with their own armies. But contemporary records suggest that his overlordship was not as secure as later English chronclers liked to believe. Nor was every formal meeting between Athelstan and his Welsh clients necessarily summoned by him as an opportunity to display his dominance. In some cases, a meeting may have been requested by the clients themselves when they wished to raise particular concerns. West Saxon scribes often described Welsh rulers as subreguli, ‘little under-kings’. As Kevin points out, the term subregulus seems pejorative, as though English propaganda sought to demean those who were given this label in charters and other documents, but it might simply reflect English awareness of the fragmented pattern of royal authority in Wales. Welsh kingdoms were often divided between heirs, a practice that obviously had a weakening effect by hindering cohesion and centralisation.

Another aspect of Athelstan’s relationship with the Welsh is their apparent absence at Brunanburh. If their kings really were his clients in 937, they ought to have fought alongside him in the great battle. Their absence has been viewed by some historians as a sign of loyalty to Athelstan, i.e. the Welsh were good clients because they didn’t join the Celtic-Scandinavian alliance ranged against him. This is not the only interpretation we can draw, nor necessarily the most plausible. Perhaps, as Kevin Halloran suggests, the Welsh had now rejected English overlordship – if only temporarily. When Edmund succeeded Athelstan two years after the battle, the old system of West Saxon domination and patronage appears to have been amended or replaced. Edmund evidently preferred dealing with one powerful Welsh king, Hywel Dda, rather than with a gaggle of petty ones who were, in any case, engaged in perpetual rivalry with each other. Hywel eventually became an overlord in his own right, bringing most of Wales under his authority. In the time of Eadred, Edmund’s successor, West Saxon royal scribes were already calling Hywel rex, ‘king’, to acknowledge his status as a much bigger fish than the small-time subreguli of Athelstan’s time.

The above is merely a selective summary of Kevin’s article. Other interesting aspects could be picked out and highlighted, but this blogpost would then be far too long.

Kevin Halloran, ‘Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956’ Welsh History Review vol.25, no.3 (June 2011), 297-313

Note: This article is not freely available online.



22 comments on “Welsh kings at the English court, 928-956

  1. Dave Kelday says:

    This is not about Welsh kings at the English Court in the 10th century – but it is about Norse lords in English affairs in the 11th – so a bit off topic but the article prompted my thoughts.
    I carried out a long study of the Norse in the Highlands over recent years and have written a study as a result. Whilst doing so I came across two rather interesting accounts that, whilst not bearing directly on the Highlands did involve the Orcadian Jarls in the wider politics of the British Isles, and indeed beyond.


    “Sometimes he (Thorfinn) made víking expeditions to the west and plundered in Scotland and Ireland. He was also in England and at one time he was the chief of the Thingmenn.”
    (Orkneyinga Saga).

    The position of this entry in the saga seems to suggest that Thorfinn held a position of considerable authority in the Kingdom of England. What can be made of this, seemingly improbable, statement? Could it be possible that a Scoto-Norse Jarl of the far north held such an apparently important position at the English court? Or should we simply see this entry as a saga fabrication?
    I believe there are two episodes in the mid eleventh century history of England which could account for this odd record. The saga places the notice of Thorfinn’s presence in the English Thing, or council, after the death of Rognvald Brusisson in about 1046 and prior to Thorfinn’s trip to Europe in c.1050, but the wording of this section is vague and it is possible at least that Thorfinn could have been chief of the council of King Hardaknut. Hardaknut took the English throne in 1040 but reigned just two years before his death. If we could date Thorfinn’s time as a ‘thingman’ before the death of Rognvald then the presence of a leading Scandinavian lord like Thorfinn at the court of a Scandinavian king of England would be a little less surprising. Hardaknut’s father, Knut, held the Norwegian throne for a time and is such was Thorfinn’s nominal overlord. If Hardaknut had claimed this overlordship and if Thorfinn had recognised that claim then he could well have been obliged to act of counsellor to Hardaknut. That as a Jarl he was a, if not the, leading Norse nobleman would explain his position as chief ‘thingman’.
    However Hardaknut was not King of Norway and I doubt very much that Thorfinn, reluctant to acknowledge actual Norwegian kings as his overlord, would have obeyed any claim to overlordship that Hardaknut could have advanced.
    There is a better option. Following the death of Hardaknut in 1042 the leading men of the English realm accepted the dead king’s chosen heir, Edward, as their king. Indeed Edward was, by all reckoning, the heir to the throne, descended from the English kings deposed by Knut and related through marriage to Hardaknut. The new king was of course Edward ‘the Confessor’ and, not surprisingly given the immediately preceding Danish dominance of England, his early ‘court’ was strongly Scandinavian in make-up. Furthermore Edward brought in ‘foreign’ advisors and counsellors, principally Normans, for his early life had been spent in Normandy. It is also of note that Edward’s mother, Emma, was active in support of rival claims to the English throne.

    “…Queen Emma appears to have supported the claim of Magnus of Norway to the English throne.”
    (Frank M. Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England).

    This is most interesting for Thorfinn was no friend to King Magnus. King Magnus had been the foster-brother of Jarl Rognvald Brusisson and when Thorfinn’s man Thorkell had killed Rognvald Thorfinnr had shortly afterwards travelled to Norway seemingly to seek the forgiveness of his overlord Magnus. Thorfinn’s overbearing attitude and absolute refusal to pay compensation for the death of Magnus’ retainers who had been killed with Rognvald meant that forgiveness was not forthcoming and the two men parted in wrath. It becomes all the more interesting if we could place Thorfinn as the chief counsellor to Edward, the king who stood in the way of Magnus’ claim. The seriousness of that claim is demonstrated in Edward’s reaction to his mother’s support for Magnus.

    “In the autumn of 1043 the king rode…to Winchester, where his mother was living, took possession of all her property and confiscated her lands.”
    (Frank M. Stenton – Anglo-Saxon England).

    King Magnus retained his claim throughout his life, with or without support from England and matters rose to crisis point in 1047. King Magnus had been fighting a running war with the Danes under Sveinn Estridsson and Sveinn had sought support from his English allies to help resist Magnus’ advances. Whilst he was thus engaged with the Danes Magnus had little or no opportunity to press his claim to the English throne but in early 1047 Magnus defeated Sveinn and forced him to flee. Magnus was now King of Norway and Denmark and free to turn his attentions to England. Magnus’ claim was based on a treaty made between him and Hardaknut prior to the latter’s succession to the English throne. This treaty stated that should either of the two die without a son, the other would become his heir. That Hardaknut actually proposed Edward as his heir in the face of this agreement is not certain but possible, pitting Edward against Magnus. With Magnus free to act the Edward’s kingdom stood open to attack.
    In these circumstances it would not be so strange to see Edward seeking the support of the powerful Jarl Thorfinn against Magnus, nor given the animosity between Magnus and Thorfinn, to see Thorfinn accepting the position of chief of the counsel. What is surprising, however, is that the English sources, principally the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, completely fail to record such an appointment. Having said this the English sources display a total ignorance of the affairs of the far north in Britain, concentrated as they are on matters within England, and southern England especially. For example Thorfinn’s large-scale attack on England in 1041-2 goes unrecorded in the Chronicle, as indeed does Thorfinn himself. To the chroniclers Thorfinn may simply have been another of the ‘foreign’ lords in Edward’s counsel.
    I have suggested that Thorfinnr was a member of Edward’s counsel and court, thereby implying his presence in England but there is no specific mention of Thorfinn’s presence in England other than during his campaign in the early 1040s. This need not, however, be taken to support Thorfinn having been one of Hardaknut’s counsellors for the saga does report Thorfinn’s activities in the west, in Ireland and in Scotland, in addition to the record of him being ‘thingman’ in England in the first place. We can perhaps accept that he may have visited England without the saga categorically stating such. The visit or visits may not have been frequent or prolonged, indeed there may only have been a single visit, a single instance where Thorfinn stood as chief of the counsel. Given that Thorfinn was more than busy in the north until 1046 and that King Magnus died late in 1047 allows only a short period when Thorfinn could have been in England as counsellor, for after the death of Magnus the urgent need for such an ally as the Jarl had passed.
    The matter of Thorfinn’s connection with the English court remains open and the suggestion advanced above is only a suggestion, there is no hard evidence to support it, only a window of opportunity. Like much else in the saga account of Thorfinn’s life too little is recorded and major events and actions are accorded only fleeting note, such as the Battle of Vatnsfjord, the raid on England, the possession of ‘eleven Scottish earldoms’, the lands held in Ireland and Thorfinn’s alleged residence in Galloway. It is strange that the life of the greatest of Orkney’s Jarls bears such slight record in the Saga of the Jarls.

    • Tim says:

      I don’t know much about Thorfinn but he does seem to be one of the most interesting figures of the 11th century. There’s a book about him, which I haven’t got, called Thorfinn the Mighty: the Ultimate Viking by George Brunsden (published in 2009). It may reflect the current consensus (if there is one) on the historical value of the sagas.

  2. David Hillman says:

    It’s been often noted how ironic it was that Armes Prydain was written at the very time that Hywel Dda was spending time as subregulus at the West Saxon court. There was obviously resentment amongst some of the Welsh at West Saxon arrogance.
    The most powerful Welsh prince had always to solve the quandry of either collaborating with the English king and make himself more powerful, which both would prefer, or to put himself at the head of resistance to English encroachment, when there seemed no alternative.I can not help being reminded of the impossible situation of King Hussein of Jordan before the six day war! Hywel must have been a very clever man

    • Tim says:

      A very clever fellow, I imagine. The times were extremely difficult for any king caught up in the crucible of rivalries, alliances and ambitions. What we now call ‘strategic planning’ must have occupied much of Hywel’s time, as he tried to assess how the balance of power was moving. Successful kingship in the 10th century probably meant knowing when, and with whom, to forge useful political relationships. The obvious ‘friend’ to get cosy with in this period was Wessex, although clearly not in 937 when things were beginning to look tricky for Athelstan.

  3. […] Clarkson of Senchus has an interesting post on Welsh kings in the English court in the time of Alfred the Great’s […]

  4. I’m most grateful for the write-up on my ‘Welsh kings’ article. It’s a good summary but I would clarify one point: my argument suggests that the Welsh split before Brunanburh, with Hywel Dda remaining loyal to Athelstan while Idwal (and possibly others) gave tacit or active support to the anti-English coalition.
    If anyone would like a pdf copy please e-mail me – khalloran4674806@aol.com

  5. Thankyou Tim (and Kevin), a useful shaft of light in a dimly lit area of the literature; added to necessary reading lists…

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jon. I hope to review more of Kevin’s publications here in the future, as his research on the tenth century unfolds.

  6. esmeraldamac says:

    I guess the absence of the Welsh at Brunanburh adds weight to the theory that it took place in Scotland, not the Wirral. Very useful; thank you.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Diane. One thing I didn’t make clear in the blogpost was Kevin’s reference to a tradition linking Idwal the Bald, king of Gwynedd, with the alliance against Athelstan in 937. If true,this might put North Welsh troops at Brunanburh. With hindsight, the post dealt with the issue of Welsh involvement/abstention too sweepingly (as Kevin later pointed out).

      Another tradition sees Welsh soldiers, possibly those of Hywel Dda, helping Athelstan’s brother Edmund ravage Strathclyde in 945. This is the campaign where our old friend King Dunmail of Cumbria was left with two blinded sons. I suppose if one Welsh force (Hywel’s) was in southern Scotland in 945, another (Idwal’s) could have been there in 937 (if we think of Brunanburh as being in the same region). As usual in this period the picture is cloudy and we’re left clutching at various straws.

  7. Mick Deakin says:

    A. Keith Kelly discusses the possibility that the’ Adils’ of Egils Saga is in fact Idwal, the Welsh king of Gwynedd.

    (Page 206-212 The Battle of Brunanburh. A Casebook)

    It must be said that his suggestion relates to Adils/Idwal within the framework of the saga. Although he does go on to say that it would have made logical sense for Idwal to have been at Brunanburh.

    • Mick,
      The similarity in the names Adils and Idwal is clear but I remain wary of relying much on the Egils Saga. There are a number of objections to the identification within the saga itself – Adils is described as a Scots earl, he is associated with a brother called Earl Hring and he is, of course, killed by Egils in the battle. It remains an interesting idea. How about Adils being the Viking leader Eowils, brother of King Hinguar (Ivar, from JoW and Aethelweard), killed at the battle of Tettenhall!?

  8. Mick,
    Further to your point, Alistair Campbell (The Battle of Brunanburh) had some interesting observations of Adils and Hring: “Hringr and Adils are Norse names…They belong chiefly to legendary persons, and they actually occur together in a list of mythical heroes in Saxo.”(p.71 and n.1) He makes the further suggestion that Welsh references in the saga (my copy has Adils as Scots but this may be a mistranslation and he may be ‘Welsh’ in other versions) derive from a vague memory of Owain of Strathclyde’s part in the battle and that ‘for symmetrical purposes (ie to match Egils and his brother and the pair of English earls)…Owain of Strathclyde has been made into two persons with Norse names” and concluded “In that event, Hringr and Athils are to be regarded as fabricated to set off the English pair.”
    Who knows!!!!

  9. Mick Deakin says:


    In Egils Saga ‘ Bretlandi’ is taken to mean Wales as in Old Norse sources Wales is usually referred to as ‘Bretland’.

    The non-involvement of the Welsh at Brunanburh still puzzles me though, particularly as Idwal was used in the Scottish campaign of 934.

    However, I am very much interested in your Eowils/Ingwar suggestion – it has a certain Hring to it !

    Pun intended 🙂


  10. Tim says:

    Kevin & Mick,

    Alan Anderson in Early Sources of Scottish History (vol.1, at p.412, note 2) proposed that the name Adils ‘is an Icelandic form of Old Danish Athils (West Scandinavian Audgisl; Irish Auisle)’. He wondered if Adils in Egil’s Saga might be the same as Audgisl Sihtricsson (‘Oisle’) in A.Clon’s account of Brunanburh/Othlyn.

    Staying with Anderson, his next page has the Saga’s account of Egil and Thorolf advancing against Adils and Hring at Vinheath, and Hring’s gruesome death on Thorolf’s spear, after which Thorolf presses on through the enemy ranks. ‘Then many Britons and Scots fell’, the Saga continues, according to the translation in ESSH. My instinct is to identify these Britons as Strathclyders, because they’re fighting alongside Scots, and because Hring and Adils are fighting as Scottish earls. Is it possible that ‘Bretland’ was a fairly general Norse term for any ‘land of Britons’, and that in the context of Vinheath this meant Strathclyde?

  11. Mick Deakin says:


    A. Keith Kelly does mention that Bretland could also be taken to describe Cumbria, as each is a land of The Britons. He then goes on to say ” ..Some scholars would say that by Bretland the Norse simply mean Wales and those regions that are populated predominantly by Celtic peoples..”

    Another interesting point that he highlights is that Idwal and his brother were slain when fighting against Edmund in 942. The enemy of Edmund at that time was another Anlaf/Olaf, namely Olafr Tryggvason and that the similarity of the two battles may have led the writer to conflate some of the key figures involved.

    Tim & Kevin,

    Whilst on this subject and in particular the locations Vinheath and Vinwood.

    I have noted that ‘Glasawat Taliessin’ Line 7 describes – ‘ Atvyd Mei ar Venei, crei gyflogawt’ – In May, on the Menai, there will be a place of carnage.
    Could the first element Vin or Vinu be in any way connected to the Afon Menai / Menai Strait I wonder ?

  12. kevin halloran says:

    Mick, I’ll have to read Kelly as I’m confused by some of this. Firstly, so far as I’m aware, we do NOT know that Idwal was killed in battle, simply that he was ‘killed by the Saxons’. Secondly, I haven’t come across Olaf Tryggvason in connection with Edmund. There is a famous Olaf T in the latter tenth century who (if I remember correctly) may have opposed Edmund Ironside or featured at the battle of Maldon??? In 939-41 Edmund opposed Anlaf Guthfrithson until his death that year in Lothian.

  13. Mick Deakin says:


    I also cannot find any connection between Olaf T and Edmund !

    I have taken the above information from Kelly’ notes to item 25 Egils Saga (Brunanburh Casebook pages 206-212). There is an essay by Kelly later in the book (pages 305-314) entitled ‘ Truth and a Good Story : Egils Saga and Brunanburh’

    Another conflated account it seems ?



  14. Tim says:

    I also will have to read Kelly. I’m interested in what he says about the Britons and ‘Bretland’ but not at all sure what he means in the following sentence quoted by Mick:
    ‘Some scholars would say that by Bretland the Norse simply mean Wales and those regions that are populated predominantly by Celtic peoples…’
    Surely he means ‘Brittonic/Brythonic’ here, not ‘Celtic’?

    Mick, on your point about a possible connection between ON Vin– and Welsh Menai, I’m no expert in OW but I’m guessing Venei is due to lenition (soft mutation) as required by the syntax of this particular line of poetry. Norse-speakers would, I expect, normally hear the place name in its ‘hard’ form with initial M. But again, I’m no more an expert in ON than I am in OW. I recall seeing the first element of Menai explained as Welsh men-, ‘carrying’ in the sense of ‘strong tide’.

    Although the jury is still out on the Vinheath=Brunanburh theory, I still wonder about Vin– and the first part of Wendune.

  15. Mick Deakin says:

    I believe you are correct regarding the ‘lenition’ suggestion Tim. I have since found further examples of this.


  16. Mick Deakin says:


    It could be, that Vin- was used metaphorically and by this I mean (Vin-)Wine/Blood ?

    • Tim says:

      The saga imagery would certainly fit such a metaphor, Mick.

      Other possibilities include hypothetical Old Norse hvin, ‘gorse’ (cf. OE ‘whin’) and Welsh/Cumbric gwyn, ‘white’.

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