‘Elystan the Renowned’, founder of one of the Royal Tribes of Wales
- the dynasty of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren (Between Wye & Severn):
Princes of Maelienydd and Elfael, and Lords of Ceri,
Radnor, Gwerthrynion and Buellt
Above: view looking west across part of beautiful Maelienydd and parts of Elfael from Castell Crug Eryr
Elystan is remembered as the founder of the fifth Royal Tribe of Wales and is mentioned as being King of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren, which in English means ‘Between Wye and Severn’. This region (often referred to in later times as a Kingdom) was independent of the Princes of Deheubarth, Gwynedd and Powys and included the Cantrefs of Maelienydd, Elfael, Buellt, Gwerthrynion, Ceri and Cwmwd Deuddwr.
His father was Cuhelyn ab Ifor (i.e. phonetically, Kai-helin son of Ivor). The word ‘ab’ (if preceding a vowel) or ‘ap’ (if not preceding a vowel) is the welsh for ‘son of’. They stem from the older Brittonic ‘Mab’ and ‘Map” which are more easily recognised as equating to the well known Gaelic ‘Mac’. Peter Bartrum in his work on Welsh genealogies confirms that Elystan’s father was Cuhelyn ab Ifor ap Severus ap Cadwr ap Cadwr Wenwyn ab Idnerth ab Iorwerth Hirflawdd (‘Iorwerth of the Long Struggle’). Iorwerth was a direct descendant of Casnar Wledig (‘The Ruler’) of Powys and was a son of Tegonwy ap Teon. Bartrum records that he is first mentioned in De Situ Brecheniauc, writing: where he is called ‘Gereuerth, King of Powys, whence are named the Iorwerthian’ (P.C. Bartrum: A Welsh Classical Dictionary: people in History and legend up to about 1000). Teon is said to have been a Bishop and to have given his name to Carneddau Teon (‘the Stones of Teon’), now known as the Stiperstone Hills, which are located in Shropshire near its western border with Wales. Teon was the ancestor of many tribes mainly in Powys, foremost of which was that of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn who founded a new dynasty of Princes in Powys, one of whose descendants was Owain Glyn Dŵr. Another of Teon’s descendants was Bleddyn’s relation Trahaearn ap Caradog of Arwystli, who seized the throne of Gwynnedd after Bleddyn’s death. Bleddyn had latterly become ruler of Gwynedd as well as Powys.
The name Elystan (sometimes written as Elstan or Ethelystan) is a Welsh rendering of the Anglo-Saxon name Athelstan / Æthelstan. Elystan was said to have been named after his godfather King Athelstan. It is a lovely story, but the dates of Elystan’s life (c.975-1010) suggest this connection is impossible - Athelstan died in October 939. However, perhaps Athelstan was a godfather to Elystan’s father resulting from a political alliance, after all the great Welsh King Hywel Dda attended Athelstan’s court, was a close ally and recognised Athelstan as de facto High King of Britain. Athelstan had been brought up in Mercia under the care of his Aunt, Æthelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, so may well have known the Powys-Mercia border region from an early age and made close connections there. This would all then provide a better explanation for why Cuhelyn chose to name his son after the very impressive King Athelstan; the truth is that we are highly unlikely ever to know the truth. Glodrydd is not a surname, but was an epithet added to his name and means “the renowned”, “the praiseworthy” or “the famous” - perhaps this also echoed memories of King Athelstan.
Elystan has often been referred to as King of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren or as Prince of Fferllys, another name used to refer to the same region. Although there is no historic evidence for these titles, we can assume that Elystan ruled the region in some way or other during his lifetime, making him recognised in practice as a king. Certainly, his descendants ruled all or parts of his patrimony afterwards and were recorded either with the title ‘Prince’ or in rare examples ‘Rex’ (i.e. King). He is also said to have been Earl of Hereford, a title he was said to have inherited from his mother. There is in fact no evidence for this title and Bartrum calls this claim fictitious. However, Hereford had originally been in Welsh territory, and the old kingdom of Erging stretched up to the Wye - that part of Herefordshire retained its Welsh-ness for many hundreds of years, and continues to do so even up to this day. Perhaps Elystan’s mother’s family held the place at some time in the past or remembered a tradition from a time before the Mercians reached Hereford - the truth is that we are unlikely ever to know, but can safely assume that Elystan was not himself Earl of Hereford.
Elystan's mother is said to have been Gwen ferch (i.e. daughter of) Gronwy ap Tudur Trefor. Tudur Trefor is remembered as founder of one of the Noble Tribes of Wales and was said to have been Lord of both the Maelors and of Bromfield, in the northern borderland of Powys. He is said to have married a daughter of Hywel Dda, (‘Howell the Good’) King of Deheubarth and later ruler of most of Wales. Hywel is one of the most highly regarded Welsh kings and was the grandson of the equally famous Rhodri Mawr (‘Roderick the Great’), King of Gwynedd.
Rhodri fought for many years to rid north Wales of Vikings, as Alfred did in England. His victory over the Vikings, when he killed their leader Horm is celebrated in the naming of the promentary by Llandudno ‘Great Ormes Head.’ Rhodri's father, Merfyn Frych (‘the freckled’), seized the throne of Gwynedd and the royal seat of Aberffraw, when Hywel ap Rhodri Molwynog King of Gwynedd died in 825AD. Merfyn had a dynastic claim to the throne via his father Gwriad, who had married Esyllt, a daughter of Cynan ap Rhodri Molwynog.
Rhodri Mawr's grandmother Esyllt, was a direct descendant of the great King Cunedda who migrated to north Wales with many of his countrymen of the Votadini tribe, whose kingdom of Manaw Gododdin - a British kingdom centered on Edinburgh (then called: Din Eidyn) had been virtually overrun by Anglo-Saxons. It was a raid by a war band of Britons (i.e. Welsh) from this kingdom to Catterick inside the nascent Angle kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia that resulted in one of the greatest, oldest surviving and most famous poems in the Welsh language - The Gododdin, which appears in the Book of Aneirin.
Cunedda is remembered as having driven the Irish settlers out of north Wales and founded the dynasty of Gwynedd. He is recorded in ancient pedigrees as the grandson of Padarn Beisrudd - ‘Paternus of the Red Cloak’, an epithet which suggests that he had worn the cloak of a Roman officer. As a contemporary of Vortigern, Paternus would have been in his prime about 383AD, and it is possible that he had been invested with his cloak as part of the efforts of the Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus, known to the Welsh as Macsen Wledig (‘Maximus The Ruler’), to secure the borders of Britannia.
As mentioned above, the earliest legendary ancestor of Elystan was Casnar Wledig who lived in the 500s and is mentioned in the tales of the Mabinogion (Culhwch & Olwen and Rhonabwy’s Dream), where he his name appears as ‘Kasnat Wledig’. He is well understood to be the same person as Casanauth Wledig who married a granddaughter of King Vortigern and his wife Severa, daughter of Macsen Wledig. The epithet ‘Wledig’ is only found applied to the names of a select number of people and it seems to be suggestive of rule, lordship, royalty and/or military command. In this latter case, it may be a feint echo from a past that only survived in oral tradition, and speaks of the changing nature of leadership in post-Roman Britain, when Roman military appointments continued amongst the Romano-Britons, potentially in competition with emerging or continuing British royal dynasties. No-one has achieved a water-tight definition, but Geoffrey Ashe in his book ‘Kings and Queens of Early Britain’ comes close with the following description: ‘Wledig’ is a rather cryptic title which occurs as gwledig in early texts. Derived from the Welsh for land’, it seems to mean an army commander who attains a more or less legitimized power - a ‘land-holder’. Four or five men are styled who flourished during the last phase of the Western Empire. All but Maximus are native to the island, so the bestowal of the title on him is another token of his adoption as a compatriot. Perhaps Casnar was the military commander or war leader of the region that became Rhwng Gwy a Hafren, or bordered on it. The truth is we will probably never know.
Left: A view from Cwmwd Deuddwr, looking south east down Nant Gwynllyn into Gwerthrynion and beyond, on the road from Pont ar Elan to Rhaeadr. In the centre distance is Gwastedyn Hill, the closer hill just beyond and to the right of Gwynllyn (‘White Lake’) itself is Coed y Cefn. The farm on the left with smoke rising from it is Glanllyn. Just behind, over and above the hill to the left is Maen Serth, the ancient standing stone which also marks the spot where Elystan’s great great grandson Einion Clud, Prince of Elfael was killed in 1177. Gwerthrynion took its name from ‘Gwrtheyrn’, the Welsh name for Vortigern, King of Britain, who legend records fled to the area, and whose son is said to have been granted Gwerthrynion and Buellt by Ambrosius Aurelianus, the legendary but also historical Romano-British military commander, whose victories against the Saxons are well remembered and are echoed in the more legendary story of Arthur.
Macsen Wledig, Casnar’s great-grandfather-in-law, had commanded the army in Britain and had been proclaimed Emperor. His subsequent expedition to Gaul and Rome ended years later in failure. The loss to Britain of many British warriors who travelled with his army from Britain was greater than many have realised, coinciding as it did with the invasions of Saxons and many others.
The Historia Brittonum, written in the 9th century throws some light on the circumstances:
The seventh emperor was Maximianus. He withdrew from Britain with all its military force, slew Gratianus the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, families, and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons lovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. In consequence of their absence, Britain being overcome by foreign nations, the lawful heirs were cast out, till God interposed with his assistance.
Armorica is what we now know as Brittany (i.e. ‘Little Britain’) as a result of extensive migration of Britons who created new kingdoms in the area, particularly as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.
Returning to Cunedda - it was through his son Einion Yrth’s own son Cadwallon Lawhir that Rhodri and Elystan are descended. Rhodri acquired the kingdom of Powys through his mother Nest, the sister of Cyngen, last King of the old dynasty of Powys, who died a pilgrim in Rome in 855 AD (or as some say 854).
The Pillar of Eliseg, once a giant cross, near Valle Crucis (ie: Valley of the Cross) Abbey, in the Vale of Llangollen was put there by Cyngen in honour of Elise, his Grandfather who regained Powys from the Saxons. Elise is sometimes recorded as Elisedd or as Eliseg. Nest's father was Cadell son of Brochwel (otherwise written as Brochfael), whose ancestor was Brochwel Ysgithrog (‘of the tusks’) the legendary founder of the ancient dynasty of Powys, whose capital was at Pengwern, known to us today as ‘Shrewsbury’, the county town of Shropshire.
The last legendary Powys dynasty to rule from Pengwern and the old Roman City of Viriconium, by today’s village of Wroxeter, was Cynddylan, who was killed about the year 656 AD during a Mercian assault into Powys.
One of the most memorable and poignant old Welsh poems survives this cataclysmic event, the poet, supposed to be Llywarch Hen (i.e. Llywarch ‘the old’) looking out across the Severn valley from the top of the Wrekin hill wrote many verses that include these:
Cynddylan’s hall is dark to-night.
There burns no fire, no bed is made.
I weep awhile, and then I am quiet.
Cynddylan’s hall is dark to-night.
No fire is lit, no candle burns.
God will keep me sane.
Cynddylan’s hall. It pierces me
To see it roofless, fireless.
Dead is my Lord, and yet I am alive.
Cynddylan’s hall is desolate to-night
Where once I sat in honour.
Gone are the men who held it, gone the women.
Cynddylan’s hall. Dark is its roof
Since the English destroyed
Cynddylan, and Elvan of Powys
(translation taken from Dr John Morris’s authoritative book:
The Age of Arthur, A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650)
From this time the Mercians dominated what is now called Shropshire and before his death in 796 AD, the Mercian King Offa built his dyke to mark the border between the English and Welsh Kingdoms.
Elystan Glodrydd was born c.975 AD (according to Bartrum); some have said that he was born c.927 AD in the city of Hereford, known to Welsh as Caer-Ffawydd (Beech-chester) and later as Henffordd. Others have suggested that he was actually born c.933 AD. The reason for the different dates is that 927 AD is sometimes recorded as the second year of Athelstan’s reign and Elystan is said to have been born in the second year of the reign of King Athelstan, who it is said was Elystan’s godfather, and from whom he (reputedly) received his name. Elystan’s name is variously recorded as spelt: Athelstan, Ethelstan, Ethelystan, Elystan or Elstan. Bartrum is the best authority for an approximate birth date.
Elystan married Gwenllian, daughter of Einion ab Owain ap Hywel Dda, by whom he had a son Cadwgan, the father of a numerous family. According to Harleian manuscript 1973, Elystan was slain in a civil broil on Long Mountain near Welshpool in Montgomeryshire - perhaps on the beacon ring on the top of Long Mountain, marked on maps as Caer Digoll.
It was the site of an important battle in 630 AD in which Cadwallon ap Cadfan, King of Gwynedd and his ally Penda of Mercia defeated the army of Edwin, King of Northumbria. The battle led to the retreat of Northumbrian power and the dramatic advance of Cadwallon’s army deep into Northumbria, reconquering old British (i.e. Welsh) territories that had been lost to Anglo-Saxon invasion and settlement, such as the kingdom of Elmet, which the Venerable Bede wrote had been conquered by Edwin. Cadwallon and Penda defeated and killed Edwin in October 633 AD at the battle of Hatfield Chase near Doncaster. However, this historic moment in British history was not to last. Cadwallon was defeated and killed a year later in 634, by Oswald of Bernicia at a place near Hexham that Bede calls Deniseburna near Hefenfelth i.e. Heavenfield. Oswald subsequently became King of Northumbria and was himself defeated and killed by Penda at battle near Oswestry in Shropshire, whose Welsh name is Croesoswallt - ‘Oswald’s Cross’.
The name ‘Long Mountain’ has the same name as ‘the Long Mynd’ at Church Stretton in Shropshire - both translate into Welsh as Mynydd Hir, and both have very long summits, the Long Mynd’s is the longest in the British Isles. But the Welsh called Long Mountain ‘Cefn Digoll’, which is literally translated as The ridge not lost or otherwise The unending (as in a circle) or unbroken ridge. There are a few ideas about the origin of such a name. One may mean that the ridge was so long it seemed to never end - hence ‘Long Mountain’. Another is that it was ‘the ridge that wasn’t lost’ - referring to it not being lost by Cadwallon in the battle of 630 and/or the importance attached to preserving the ridge of the summit in Wales, when so many were held strategically on the English side. Whatever the answer, ‘Cefn Digoll’ is not an easy name for an English speaker to pronounce -phonetically it is ‘Kevun Dee-gothl’ - i.e. with the double ‘LL’being said as in the Welsh Llan, rather than English ‘Lan’).
Elystan was buried at a ‘chapel’ in a place subsequently named Trelystan, a tiny settlement on the south east slopes of Long Mountain, inside Wales just across the Shropshire border. In Welsh Tr/Tre means ‘town/home’ - hence Tr-Elystan. Some records (see example below) describe the place as Capel Tref Elystan.
One transcription of Harleian MS 1973, whose author Jacob Chaloner died in 1631, reads:
Elistan Glodrith, or Edelstan the renouned, borne in the Castell of Hereford, anno 933, and in the 9 yeare of Edlistan, K of Saxons, who was his godfather, was Earle of Hereford, and Lord of the countrey above Offa dich, betwene Wy and Severne, in tyme of Edelred, K of Saxons. He dyed & was buried at Cappell Tref Elistan in Causeland (i.e. Trelystan in the hundred of Cawrse).
Further records add that Elystan died in the year 1010 A.D. and is buried at the site of the present church. Bartrum says the story of Elystan’s death on Long Mountain is unsubstantiated, but the place name, many repeated records of this fact over time and local tradition are more than suggestive that the story is correct.
In 1485, Long Mountain again made its mark in history when it became the muster point of the Welsh army of Henry Tudor (King Henry VII) led by his famous military commander Sir Rhys ap Thomas. They marched from there to Bosworth Field, where they defeated King Richard III. Sir Rhys was a descendant of the Princes of Deheubarth, whose castle of Dinefwr he inherited from his father. Sir Rhys’ wife Efa (English: ‘Eva’) was a direct descendant of Elystan via his grandson Idnerth ap Cadwgan ab Elystan.
The Church of St. Mary, Trelystan.
“Cappell Tref Elistan”
This remotely located church has the distinction of being the only entirely timber framed church in Wales. The site is very ancient and has been in use since well before the 11th Century, when it is first mentioned in history. Some measurements of at least one of the yew trees in the churchyard have resulted in an estimated age of over 1,000 years.
The Church is built over the top of a barrow, which means it is on a very ancient site.
The Church at Trelystan has a notice at the door, which reads:
THE PARISH OF TRELYSTAN
Trelystan appears in the Domesday Book as ‘Ulestanesmude’, and the neighbouring parish of Leighton as ‘Lestune’. Both were in the hundred of ‘Witenreu’ (presumably present day Worthen).
‘Ulestanesmude’ with many changes of spelling, remained the place-name for many years eventually becoming ‘Wolstanmynd’. A map of 1577 shows ‘Treleston’, and one of 1645 ‘Treleston’. The parish registers first record the present spelling in 1709. The Harleian Manuscript No 1973 states that ‘Edelstan the Renowned’ was buried in ‘Chappel Trest Elistan’ in 1010.
The Registers begin in 1660 when Laurence Seddon was Rector of Worthen, in which parish the district then was, and they are complete except for the years 1717-1775. The present parish was formed in 1873.
Trelystan Church, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin was originally built of wattle and daub, which was replaced by a wooden structure in the 14th Century. It was extensively restored in 1856, but some of the old timber is still visible in the Vestry. There is no other Church of similar construction in Wales.
The single bell is circa 1500 and bears the inscription ‘Sancta Maria Ora Pro Nobis’. There is a barrel organ, constructed in 1827 which plays 20 hymn tunes. The ‘screen’ opposite the pulpit was in Chirbury Abbey until the dissolution under Henry VIII. The East Window, in Munich painted glass, portrays the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Although the parish lies entirely in Wales, it is in the Diocese of Hereford. The rival claims of St Asaph and Hereford were disputed for many years, and in 1278 Anian (of St Asaph) and Cantilupe (of Hereford) referred the matter to arbitration. In 1279 Pope Nicolas III sent the case to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and after much argument it was agreed that all parishes to the East of the Severn from a line drawn from Montgomery to Shrawardine in Shropshire should be allocated to Hereford. Richard de Swinfield, who had succeeded Cantilupe as Bishop, traversed the district in 1288 and took formal possession of the allocated parishes.
Elystan had at least one son Cadwgan. Follow the link to Genealogy in the index to this website for details of Cadwgan ab Elystan and his descendants.
Below are some pictures of Long Mountain and surrounding countryside, connecting Elystan and his earlier forebears to the landscape.