The Kingdom of Powys was a Welsh petty kingdom and later principality that emerged during the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal from Britain and endured into the Middle Ages.
Powys was originally based on the lands of the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii, extending from the Cambrian Mountains to the fertile valleys of the River Severn and River Tern; the region referred to in later Welsh literature as "the Paradise of Powys". During the Early Middle Ages however the Britons were driven off this paradise and into the hills of what became Wales, where the kingdom continued until King Edward I completed the conquest of Wales.
The name Powys is thought to derive from the Latin "pagus" meaning the country-side; during the late Roman occupation this region was organised into a province with the capital at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter).
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 (Caer Guricon) survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the capital of Powys. At some time, possibly as a result of the plague of 549 or of English encroachment, the royal court moved to Pengwern, which legend recalls as the capital. Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century says that Pengwern was Shrewsbury, though it might have been the more defensible Din-Gwrygon, the hillfort on the Wrekin.
In the following centuries, the Powys eastern border was encroached upon by English settlers from the emerging kingdom of the Mercians. This was a gradual process, and English control in the western Midlands was uncertain until the 8th century.
In 616, the armies of Æthelfrith of Northumbria clashed with Powys and forced a battle near Chester, at which he and defeated King Selyf. Bede tells that at the opening of battle, the pagan Æthelfrith had 1,200 monks (from Bangor-Is-Coed in Maelor) slaughtered because he said "they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers". Selyf 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.
King Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn Fawr, Cynddylan of Pengwern, fought at the Battle of Maserfelþ in 642, and the region around Pengwern was sacked, the royal family slaughtered and most of its lands annexed to Mercia. These events were remembered in Welsh poems which told of the desolation of Princess Heledd (Canu Heledd) on hearing of the death of her brother (Marwnad Cynddylan).
Powys enjoyed a resurgence with successful campaigns against the English in 655, 705-707 and 722. The court was moved to Mathrafal Castle in the valley of the River Vyrnwy by 717, possibly by King Elisedd ap Gwylog. After Elisedd's successes King Aethelbald of Mercia built Wat's Dyke, extending north from the Severn valley to the Dee estuary (which gave Oswestry to Powys). King Offa of Mercia later created a larger earthwork, now known as Offa's Dyke. 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 to the English side of the new frontier. Offa fought Powys in 760 at Hereford, and again on 778, 784 and 796, but Offa's Dyke largely remained the frontier between the Welsh and English kingdoms thereafter, though the Welsh would recover by the 12th century the area between the Dee and the Conwy known then as the Perfeddwlad.
Rhodri, Hywel and Gruffydd
King Cyngen was the last representative of the Gwertherion dynasty. With his death of Cyngen in 855, King Rhodri of Gwynedd, known as Rhodri the Great, inherited Powys through his mother Princess Nest, Cyngen's sister. This union formed the basis of Gwynedd's continued claims of overlordship over Powys for the next 443 years. Rhodri ruled most of modern Wales until his death in 878, whereafter in the Welsh manner his kingdom was divided between his sons, each if whom founded a dynasty of his own. 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 the Good (Hywel ap Cadell) 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 his overlord, King Athelstan of England, often visiting Athelstan's court; Hywel even gave one of his sons an English name, Edwin. Hywel studied the English legal system and reformed the Welsh laws in his own realms, 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 Blefywryd. Hwyel's works would lead posterity to name him the good or in Welsh Hywel Dda, and his reign is recognised as an unusually peaceful one. On Hywel's death, Powys and Deheubarth were divided between his sons though Gwynedd reverted to the Aberffraw dynasty.
Maredudd ab Owain rebuilt the kingdom of his grandfather Hywel the Good. 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 ap Llywelyn, united all Wales under his own kingship, displacing his cousins in Deheubarth, and even expanding into England, until chastised by Harold Godwinsson. 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 ap Owain ap Edwin.
House of Mathrafal
Bleddyn ap Cynfyn founded the Mathrafal Dynasty, named from the historic seat of Mathrafal Castle; the son of Princess Anghared, daughter of Maredudd ap Owain of Deheubarth and Powys. Bleddyn inherited Powys in 1063 on the death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Bleddyn secured Gwynedd in 1063 after a battle with the Aberffraw claimant Cynan ap Iago, and was confirmed in possession by Edward the Confessor of England. Bleddyn is recorded as amending the Law Codes of Hywel Dda.
Bleddyn and his brother Rhiwallon fought alongside the English 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 histioric Aberffraw dynasty in the person of Gruffydd 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 in the Welsh March. 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 cantrefs 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 de Bellême had his lands confiscated in 1102.
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 designated son and heir, Llywelyn ap Madog, was killed the realm disintegrated on 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 the Last 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.
End of the kingdoms
Owen de la Pole (Owain ap Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn) surrendered the principality of Powys Wenwynwyn (southern Powys) to Edward I in 1283, receiving it back as a marcher lordship. The lordship descended in Owen's family until 1587, when it was sold to Sir Edward Herbert, whose descendants were created Baron Powis and later Marquesses and Earls of Powis, with their seat at Powis Castle in Montgomeryshire.
Powys Fadog (northern Powys) largely became the English lordship of Bromfield and Yale, 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.
In the Victorian period the name "Powisland" emerged as a poetic alternative for Montgomeryshire.
Rulers of Powys
House of Gwerthrynion
- Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern, reputed High-King of Britain)
- Cadeyern Fendigaid c.430–447 reputed eldest son of Gwrtheyrn
- Cadell Ddyrnllwg c. 447–460
- Rhyddfedd Frych c. 480
- Cyngen Glodrydd c. 500
- Pasgen ap Cyngen c. 530
- Morgan ap Pasgen c. 540
- Brochwel Ysgithrog c. 550
- Cynan Garwyn (?–610)
- Selyf ap Cynan (610–613)
- Manwgan ap Selyf (613)
- Eiludd Powys (613–?)
- Beli ap Eiludd vers 655
- Gwylog ap Beli (695 –725)
- Elisedd ap Gwylog (725–755?)
- Brochfael ap Elisedd (755?–773)
- Cadell ap Elisedd (773–808)
- Cyngen ap Cadell (808–854) Throne usurped by Gwynedd and exiled to Rome where the family endured
House of Manaw
- Rhodri Mawr (854–878) of Gwynedd, inheriting through his mother
- Merfyn ap Rhodri (878–900)
- Llywelyn ap Merfyn (900–942)
- Hywel Dda (942–950) Usurped from the Aberffraw line
- Owain ap Hywel (950–986) Ruled thereafter by a cadet branch of the House of Dinefwr, establishing the Mathrafal dynasty of rulers
- Maredudd ap Owain (986–999)
- Llywelyn ap Seisyll (999–1023), son of Anghered by her first husband. Anghered is the daughter of Maredudd ab Owain
- Rhydderch ap Iestyn (1023–1033)
- Iago ap Idwal (1033–1039)
- Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039–1063)
House of Mathrafal
Bleddyn ap Cynfyn (1063–1075)
- Iorwerth ap Bleddyn 1075–1103 (part)
- Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (1075–1111 (part)
- Owain ap Cadwgan (1111–1116 (part)
- Maredudd ap Bleddyn (1116–1132)
- Madog ap Maredudd (1132–1160)
From 1160 Powys was split into Powys Wenwynwyn and Powys Fadog.