King of Powys 1088-1111
Born c1050 Died 1111
the Welsh ... chose many leaders from among themselves,
one of them was called Cadwgan, who was the finest of them
From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
His father was Bleddyn ap Cynfyn who had been king of Gwynedd until the year 1075 when he was ambushed and killed by Rhys ab Owain and the crown of Gwynedd had passed to a cousin Trahaern ap Caradog from Arwystli. Trahaern died in 1081 at the Battle of Mynydd Carn, and although Gruffudd ap Cynan briefly held Gwynedd he was soon in prison and the Normans in the shape of Robert of Rhuddlan occupied Gwynedd.
The old link between Gwynedd and Powys was therefore broken and the sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn began to assert themselves in Powys taking advantage of the power vacuum in north Wales to establish a new dynasty in Powys.
The recreation of Powys
In the years after Mynydd Carn, Cadwgan and his two elder brothers Madog and Rhirid built a power base within Powys centred on the traditional family lands of their grandfather, Cynfyn ap Gwerstan, and effectively re-established the kingdom of Powys.
Their father Bleddyn ap Cynfyn had been recognised as 'king of the Britons', that is the leading king of the Welsh, and his sons naturally wished to emulate their father's hegemony and in 1088, they moved westwards to impose their authority on Deheubarth where they succeeded in forcing Deheubarth's king Rhys ap Tewdwr, to flee to Ireland.
Rhys however, returned the following year with some Irish Viking mercenaries and confronted the brothers at the battle of Llech-y-crau. There Rhys defeated them and recovered Deheubarth;
Madog and Rhirid ap Bleddyn were both killed and Cadwgan fled back to Powys. This may well have been a serious blow to the family's attempt at dominating Wales (and left the way clear for Rhys ap Tewdwr to stake his claim as the leading native ruler of Wales), but it did leave Cadwgan as undisputed sole ruler of Powys.
The first Anti-Norman Rebellion
In 1093 Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in his attempt to prevent the takeover of Brycheiniog by Bernard of Neufmarche. After Rhys's death the floodgates opened, and the Normans over-ran most of Wales.
In the following year it was Cadwgan ap Bleddyn who formented and inspired the native Welsh to rise up and rebel against the occupying Norman forces; "first the north Welsh, then the west Welsh and south Welsh" attacked Norman garrisons and castles and put the invaders to flight. It was a nationwide uprising that spread beyond the borders of Wales as the rebels also "burned many vills and seized booty in Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire; and put to death many of the English and Normans" 1
Eventually both sides tired of the fighting, and in 1099 a peace treaty was agreed between king William II and Cadwgan with Grufudd ap Cynan. Cadwgan was confirmed as ruler of the territories of Powys and Ceredigion.
The rise of Powys
Events however, conspired against any lasting peace as in 1100 William II died, and his younger brother Henry became king. As had been the case when William II succeeded his father, there were many who preferred the claims of the eldest brother Robert of Normandy.
This time around, two of Robert's most active supporters were Robert de Belleme, who was earl of Shrewsbury and his younger brother Arnulf, who was lord of Pembroke. In 1102 these two rose in revolt against Henry I and enlisted the support of their Welsh neighbours. Cadwgan joined with his younger brothers Iorweth and Maredudd in providing troops and logistical support for the rebels.
Although Henry I was successful in his operations against the rebels he also sought to undermine the rebellion from within and offered Iorwerth ap Bleddyn everything held by Robert and Arnulf in Wales in return for his support. So Iorwerth ap Bleddyn switched sides, delivered his brother Maredudd into royal captivity, and the rebellion soon collapsed. Robert and Arnulf agreed to forfeit their lands in Britain and were allowed to return to Normandy.
Unfortunately for Iorwerth, Henry didn't keep his end of the bargain. When the two met at Shrewsbury in 1103, Henry had him imprisoned. Henry may have balked at the idea of establishing another member of the same dynasty in a position of power or perhaps he hoped to use Iorwerth as a lever to use against Cadwgan. 2
The zenith of power
With Iorwerth out of the way Cadwgan quietly consolidated his grip on power, marrying a daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan to secure friendly relations with Gwynedd, and establishing one of his supporters Uchtryd ab Edwin in Cyfeiliog and Meirionydd.
He was not, as was normal for those times, without challenges to his rule, the first of which came from the sons of Trahaern ap Caradog, Meurig and Griffri. The two brothers, who presumably had not forgotten that their father had once been king of a united Gwynedd and Powys, appear to have attempted to seize control of Arwystli in 1106. They failed as Cadwgan defeated and killed them both in battle.
Cadwgan's greatest challenge came of course, from Henry I himself. As a result of his defeat of the rebellion of Robert de Belleme Henry I had gained control of much land in Shropshire and Dyfed. Henry introduced Flemish settlers into Dyfed with a view to consolidating Norman power there, this brought Henry into conflict with Cadwgan who had ambitions of his own to expand further into Deheubarth himself. 3
Between the years 1109 and 1111 Cadwgan seems to have allowed his son Owain ap Cadwgan to begin a campaign of raids in the south west against Norman held territory within Deheubarth, actions which seriously annoyed and discomforted Henry I. Henry's reaction was to grant Gilbert Fitz Richard permission to establish himself in Ceredigion 4 and in 1110 released Iorwerth ap Bleddyn from prison in an attempt to undermine Cadwgan, but Iorwerth was ambushed and killed by his nephew Madog ap Rhirid soon afterwards, so little came of that.
Madog ap Rhirid however seems to have developed ambitions of his own and having tasted first blood with Iorwerth repeated the exercise again in 1111 when he ambushed Cadwgan near Welshpool and brought about his untimely death.
Cadwgan is one of the forgotten men of Welsh history, overshadowed by Rhys ap Tewdwr and his contemporary Grufudd ap Cynan but for the years between 1094 and 1111 he was the undisputed leader of the Welsh in Wales. From unpromising beginnings he rebuilt Powys extended its boundaries to include districts such as Ceredigion and Meirionydd until it was the dominant power in Wales.
Despite Cadwgan's support for Robert Henry seemed unable to dislodge him and so secure was his control in Powys that Henry I had little alternative but to accept his son Owain. (Despite his best efforts Madog ap Rhirid got nowhere.5)
Like a number of Welsh kings Cadwgan died violently and to soon; had he lived another ten years, Powys might well have become the focus of Welsh national aspirations instead of Gwynedd, and Norman penetration into central Wales might have been significantly thwarted. But despite his untimely death Cadwgan should be remembered as the inspiration and architect of the rebellion of 1094 which successfully freed most of Wales from the Norman yoke; without the rebellion and without Cadwgan, Wales would surely have fallen.
1 Quotations from the Chronicon ex Chronicis by Florence of Worcester.
2 A not particularly successful ploy in Henry's part as Cadwgan seems to have paid little regard to Iorweth's fate.
3 The kingdom of Deheubarth, in abeyance after the death of Rhys ap Tewdwr, encompassed both Dyfed, Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi. Cadwgan's ambitions were to penetrate Ystrad Tywi and dislodge the English from Dyfed.
4 Which did little to worry Cadwgan at the time but had consequences later on down the road.
5 Madog was captured by Maredudd ap Bleddyn in 1112, delivered up to Owain who had him blinded and castrated.
- The Welsh Kings by Kari Mundi (Tempus 2000)
- A History of Wales by John Davies (Allen Lane 1993)