King of Strathclyde (c580-c612)

The Welsh Genealogies, or more specifically the Harlan manuscript and the Bonedd Gwyr y Ogled trace the descent of a king called Rhydderch Hael, "the Generous" whose name also appears in a number of poems and stories relating to events in North Britain. The genealogies name his father as Tudwal and trace his lineage back to Dyfnwal Hen "the Old", himself the grandson of Ceretic Guletic the presumed founder of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The literary Rhydderch Hael

What is notable is the frequency which the name Rhydderch Hael appears in early Welsh literature and myth.

He appears in the tale preserved in the Black Book of Chirk, where Rhydderch engages in a military expedition to north Wales, to avenge the murder of his kinsman Elidir at the hands of Rhun ap Beli, king of Gwynedd. Rhydderch and his army ravage the territory of Arfon thereby provoking Rhun to launch a retaliatory raid which saw his army advancing as far as the Forth. (1)

In the Welsh triad, the Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Island of Britain, the third ravaging, refers to one Aedan the Wily coming to the court of Rhydderch Hael at Alt Cluid where "he left neither food nor drink nor beast alive" . Since there was a contemporary king of Dalriada named Aedan mac Gabran, it is quite possible this tale represents some folk memory of a Dalriadan raid into Strathclyde territory.

Rhydderch's sword Dyrnwyn, or "White Hilt," appears as one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain and other triads mention Rhydderch's horse Rudlwyt, or Dun-Grey; and his daughter, Angharad appears as one of the Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain where she is described as Ton Velen (literally Yellow Wave). Rhydderch himself also appears within the collection of Welsh poetry attributed to one Myrddin (2), where Myrddin speaks of fleeing from the Battle of Arderydd (3) and hiding in the Caledonian forests to escape the wrath of the "fierce Rhydderch Hael".

The historic Rhydderch Hael

Adomnan in his seventh century Life of St Columba records the existence of a king called "Roderc, son of Tothail" who is described as the ruler of Petra Cloithe (4). Adomnan describes how this "Roderc" sends a message to Columba, asking if he would be "slaughtered by his enemies," to which the saint prophesied that the king "will die at home on his own pillow".

It is likely (as was normal for the times) that he had a number of enemies. The Historia Brittonum, (where he is referred to as Rhydderch Hen) names him as one of the northern kings who fought against the embryonic Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia and where tradition accords him a role in the Siege of Lindisfarne; and as noted above, he would have counted among his enemies the Dalriadan king Aedan mac Gabran

We can be reasonably certain that the "Rhydderch Hael" of the Welsh Genealogies, the "Rhydderch Hen" of the Historia Brittonum and Adomnan's "Roderc" are all one and the same and we can therefore place Rhydderch as the ruler of Strathclyde who, as a contemporary of St Columba, must have reigned sometime between the arrival of the latter at Iona from Ireland in 563 and his death in 597.

The only other vaguely historical reference to Rhydderch Hael is in the late twelfth century Life of St Kentigern (5), written by Joceline a monk from Furness Abbey in Cumbria on behalf of the then Bishop of Glasgow. In this hagiography Rhydderch Hael appears as "King Rederech" where he is portrayed as Kentigern's patron and grants the latter land at Glasgow in order to establish a bishopric. (6)

We do not really know when Rhydderch died, although according to Joceline's Life of Kentigern he died in the same year as Kentigern himself, which according to the Annales Cambriae was in 612, hence this has become the traditional date with which to terminate his reign. This does not seem unreasonable, but it is not conclusive.


NOTES

(1) A tale which was probably designed for domestic consumption within Gwynedd to portray Rhun as a mighty warlord who could wage war far beyond his own lands.

(2) Who may or may not have been a genuine sixth century poet but was certainly the precursor of the Arthurian Merlin

(3) Generally believed to have been a historical event which probably took place at Arthuret near Carlisle in 573.

(4) Petra Cloithe being a Latinisation of the Brythonic Alt Cluid.

(5) The patron saint of Glasgow, whom the Scots have chosen to call Mungo for some obscure reason.

(6) "Vaguely historical" because of course, Joceline's Life was written specifically to bolster the claims of the see of Glasgow for primacy amongst the Scottish bishoprics. It is significant, that Adomnan makes no mention of any Kentigern; the relationship between Rhydderch and Kentigern may therefore owe more to the ecclesiastical imagination than historic reality.


SOURCES

Rhydderch Hael by Tim Clarkson (The Heroic Age Issue 2)

A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain - Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby (Seaby, 1991)

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