Rhodri ap Merfyn Frych
King of Gwynedd 844-878
Rhodri gained the epithet Mawr, that is "the Great" for two reasons really. Firstly for his success as a warrior, in particular he won a famous victory against the Vikings when he defeated and killed their leader Ormr in battle on Anglesey in 856 and secondly for acquiring the reputation for making the first attempt to create a unified Welsh kingdom.
The Unification of Wales?
His father was Merfyn Frych (Merfyn the Freckled) ap Gwriad, king of Gwynedd until his death in 844. The traditional story is that Merfyn married Nest, the daughter of Cyngen ap Cadell king of Powys, and that Rhodri himself married Angharad, daughter of Meurig ap Dyfnwal king of Seisyllwg. Rhodri was therefore able to inherit Gwynedd from his father in 844, Powys in 855 on the death of his father-in-law, and Seisyllwg in 872 on the death of his brother-in-law Gwgon ap Meurig. Thereby uniting the majority of Wales under one king and allowing him the boast, Tywysog Cymru, King of Wales.
Of course this still left a great deal of Wales unmolested, such as most of the south, Dyfed, Glywysing and Gwent, but it was more than any one else had achieved up to that time. However it has more recently been suggested, with a fair degree of conclusiveness, that neither Nest nor Angharad ever existed,1 and that they were simply invented by later propagandists for Venedotian expansionism.2 Doubts have therefore arisen as to the extent of Rhodri's perceived dominion.
The question of Seisyllwg
Later genealogies record the claim that he married Angharad ferch Meurig sister of Gwgan ap Meurig ruler of Seisyllwg and thereby "inherited" the kingdom on the latter's death. Gwgan ap Meurig died by drowning in 872 and is the last recorded king of the native dynasty of Ceredigion to rule. His death may not have been entirely accidental but the extent to which Rhodri thereby conquered Seisyllwg is unclear.
It was Gerald of Wales writing in the twelfth century 3 who said that Rhodri's lands were divided between his sons after his death, which led many subsequent writers to assume that Rhodri had taken over Seisyllwg in 872 and then bestowed it on his son Cadell as his share of the inheritance.
Since it is known that Rhodri's son and successor as king of Gwynedd, Anarawd raided Seisyllwg in 894 it his clear that his control over that territory was not absolute; if it had existed during his lifetime it was challenged afterwards. Cadell may well therefore deserve much of the credit for actual subjugation of Seisyllwg in the late 890s.
The question of Powys
As regarding the acquisition of Powys we are on firmer ground, as following the death of Cyngen ap Cadell in around 855 there are no further mentions of local kings in Powys until the time of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn in the late eleventh century, and in particular no references to any local rulers of the next generation submitting to Alfred the Great.
The marriage of Merfyn to Nest may well be entirely fictitious, but Powys may well have exhausted itself in its struggles against Mercia, and it seems likely therefore that Rhodri was able to expand his influence over most of Powys during his lifetime. But as the exact details of this conquest are not known to us, the extent to which the task was completed during his lifetime is uncertain.
Little else is known about his life, but the fact that he was granted the appellation "Great" demonstrated the impression that he made on the Welsh political consciousness. Most subsequent kings of Wales of whatever kingdom would seek to trace their lineage back to him on order to show their suitability for rule. Many would seek to follow the pattern he had created.
In his final years Rhodri's fortunes declined; he was forced to flee to Ireland in 877 by another Viking raid and was killed 878, together with his son Gwriad ap Rhodri, fighting the English4. He was succeeded by his son Anarawd who, together with his brothers, sought to build on the foundations that Rhodri had created.
1 Patrick Sims-Williams Historical Need and Literary Narrative: a Caveat from Ninth-Century Wales (Welsh History Review, vol. 17, 1994)
2 In any case, Welsh Law did not allow for the transmission of title to land, or kingship for that matter, by women.
3 Otherwise known as Giraldus Cambriensis from The Description of Wales
4 Very probably by Mercians under Ceolwulf II, who was essentially a puppet-king of Mercia installed by the Vikings.
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Kari Mundi The Welsh Kings (Tempus, 2000)