There will be a lot of people out there asking “What on Earth is a Wledig!” The answer is … no one really knows. Here’s some background.
There appear to be many figures in Arthurian and Welsh literature who are given the title Wledig (various spellings: Gwledig/Guletic/Guledic), by either being referred to as one or having it attached to their name.
Here are some, in no particular order:
Mascen Wledig (Magnus Maximus)
Emrys Wledig (Ambrosius Aurelianus)
Urien Wledig (Urien of Rheged)
Ywain Wledig (could be Owain, Urien’s son)
Ceritic Wledig (thought to be St Patrick’s Coroticus)
Amlawdd Wledig (supposedly Arthur maternal grandfather)
Fflewdur Flam Wledig
… but Arthur is only called Wledig in one poem (possibly two – see below), but the title didn’t stick. The poem, ‘The Throne of the Sovereign’, is attributed to the 6th century bard Taliesin, but it’s thought to be by some later bard.
There they are sought, the bold,
The lost men of battle.
I compare the fierce ranks
Of the late Penduic,
Of the death-dealing ranks,
Of the breastplated legion,
The Wledig raised
On the old-renowned border,
To a broken grass-stalk
Arthur’s supposed maternal grandfather, Amlawdd Wledig, bore the title but not him. He is called a pen teyrned, ‘leader/chief of kings/princes/rulers, which is impressive, but he wasn’t made to keep up with the Joneses … in this case, Ambrosius Aurelianus (Emrys Wledig) and Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig).
Whilst in Modern Welsh the meaning of gwledig is ‘rural, countrified, country, agrarian‘, there are differing explanations as to what exactly an Early Medieval Wledig was. These ranges from ‘land holder’, to ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’ and ‘lord over other’s country through victory’. The Indo-European data base gives:
Proto-Celtic: *wlati- ‘sovereignty’ [Noun]
Old Irish: flaith [i f, later m] ‘sovereignty, ruler’
Middle Welsh: gulat [f] (OW), MW gwlad ‘country’
Middle Breton: guletic (OBret.)
Cornish: gulat gl. patria
The GPC defines Gwledig as:
“lord, king, prince, ruler, term applied to a number of early British rulers and princes who were prominent in the defense of Britain about the time of the Roman withdrawal; (possibly) commander of the native militia (in a Romano-British province).
Their definition of teyrn is:
“monarch, sovereign, king, prince, lord, ruler, leader, dictator, tyrant; (figuratively) sovereign (adj.), royal.
Patrick Sims-Williams notes in “The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems” from The Arthur of the Welsh (p. 52) that Arthur might be the otherwise unnamed Prydein Wledig - ‘Lord of Britain’ – referred to in the poem Kat Godeu (which refers to Arthur later on).
‘Lord over other’s country through victory’, put forward by Fabio P. Barbieri in an article at the Faces of Arthur section at Robert Vermaat’s Vortigern Studies website ( http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/ ), does seem to have some logic to it. Here is part of it:
“Now, Taliesin seems to me to draw a marked distinction between two words for “king”, Teyrn and Gwledig. (He never uses Brenhin, which is significant, but if I make out the original Welsh right, he does sometimes use the very archaic Rieu for “kings in the mass, the whole class of kings, both gwledig and teyrn”.) When Urien’s bard praises his lord in the most emphatic and ringing terms, he calls him gwledig. Urien is the gwledig of cattle-lifters at his great battle at Gwenystrad, in the sense that nobody in the world is better at taking wealth away from enemies. Gwenystrad must have been a tremendous triumph for Urien: speaking of it, Taliesin describes this single northern lord as the scourge of the men of all the island, gathered in battle-lines (gwyr Prydein adwythein yn lluyd). Clearly a large coalition had been gathered to teach the impudent cateran a lesson – and had ended up learning one instead. It is by virtue of this great victory over men from many parts of the island that Taliesin awards his lord the title of gwledig, qualifying it, even then, as gwledig only in that he takes cattle away from so many enemies. He still is not said to rule over them, even though he defeated them. It seems clear that the sovereignty of Rheged, alone, does not make a gwledig. Gwledig is a term of praise, specifically for victory, and in particular for the kind of victory that proves supremacy over a large number of competitors.” ( http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/fabio/book1.7.htm)
There is only one Guletic mentioned in the 7th to 9th century collection of poems Y Gododdin, that being a character called Ywain/Ewein/Owein (who could be Owain Rheged) and John Koch interprets the meaning differently to that above:
“Ewein [Owein] is twice referred to as of particularly high status, called *couri(g)entin penn – ‘rightful privileged chief’ and guletic ‘(hereditary) sovereign lord’. The latter title is not lightly accorded in Early Welsh sources.” (‘The Gododdin of Aneirin’, Koch, p. 225
Whether Arthur was historical or not, and whether an historical Arthur was a Wledig or not, it is odd that he wasn’t later given this prestigious title for literary effect. Why wasn’t it used in his stories to bolster his standing, or was pen teyrned enough? Did someone come up with pen teyrned purely because of how they interpreted the battle list in the Historia Britonnum and because Arthur had no Wledig title? There is only one other person I know of given the title pen teyrned and that is Gwenddoleu, who in the Myrddin poem Oianau is called “pen teyrnedd Gogledd” (“Pen teernet goglet“); translated as, “chief of lords of the Old North”.
Arthur does jump to being an imperator and, unless someone was particularly well read in the ways of the Roman Republic, they meant emperor and not military commander! This could have been a translation of Wledig to imperator, seeing as Macsen went from imperator to Wledig. It’s unlikely that Macsen, who was the emperor Magnus Maximus, was actually a Wledig, but he was given the title anyway, probably to Brittonicize this Spaniard.
Ambrosius (Emrys) received it for his greatness and even Cunedda, the supposed ridder of the Irish from what are now north and southwestern Wales has it, but not Arthur, the supposed ridder of the Saxons.
Of course it wasn’t just Arthur who wasn’t a Wledig. Vortigern isn’t called a one either and even the powerful Maelgwn (Gildas’s Maglocunus) doesn’t seem to be, and, according to Gildas, a taker of other people’s country was exactly what he was, IF that’s its meaning. Maybe Vortigern wasn’t known as a taker of other’s county, more of a loser of his own through the bad press he received. As for Maelgwn, it may simply be because we don’t have any surviving bardic poetry, unlike Urien, calling him such … and he may not have been liked much either!
But there’s a fly in the ointment to all this.
MS. HENGWRT 536.
TEIOED ARTHUE AE WYE
Teir Lleithicltiyth Ynys Prydein. Arthur yii pen teyrned
ym Mynytf a Dewi yn pen ysgyb a MaelgCn Gtfyned yn pen
hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned yg Kelliwic yg Kernetf a
Betwini esgob yn pen esgyb a Charadatfc ureichuras yn pen
hyneif. Arthur yn pen teyrned ym Pen Eionyd yny gogled
a Chyndeyrn Garthwys yn peri esgyb a Gtfrthmwl Wledic yn
TRIADS OF ARTHUR AND HIS WARRIORS.
Three tribe thrones of the Island of Prydain. Arthur the chief lord at Menevia, and David the chief bishop, and Maelgwyn Gwyned the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Kelliwic in Cornwall, and Bishop Betwini the chief bishop, and Caradawc Vreichvras the chief elder. Arthur the chief lord at Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.
So here we have a pen teyrned and Wledig mentioned together.
The translation makes teyrned a ‘lord’ and not king. I believe it should be plural in both cases, but I could be mistaken. The same goes for Arthur’s mention in ‘Culhwch and Olwen, where I’ve seen pen teyned translated as ‘sovereign lord’. No wonder everyone’s confused and say Arthur wasn’t originally called a king. However, if teyrn is only a ‘lord’ and a brehin only a king, then it seems to me we have an awful lot more lords and Wledigs compared to kings in the Early Medieval period … but I may just may not be aware of them!
So what’s the difference between a pen teyrned and a Wledig? Once again I’d like to quote Fabio P. Barbieri (Chapter 1.7: Resurgent Celticism: Function and power of Gildas’ kings):
“Teyrned, therefore, are those of the lord class who either cannot fight or are defeated in battle, an inferior kind of lordship. Gwledig are the kings who assert their right to rule by victory, who take cattle and do not have cattle taken away from them (surely a poetic version of the claiming and refusal of tribute). But this is not merely a contingent fact depending on the changing fortunes of arms: these ranks are at least to some extent permanent.”
Not sure about this. That would make a pen teyrned the ruler of teyrns, which seems to make the title almost the same as Wledig! However, Christopher Snyder in a post at Arthurnet said:
“Tigernos” is a common Celtic term (variants include teryn, theryn, tiern, and thigern) for a ruler, usually a local ruler)”
So calling Arthur a pen teyrned could mean several things. A pen teyrned who is just the ‘chief/leader of local rulers’ is very different from one who is a ‘leader of kings’ (‘sovereign lord’?). If it is the former, it could have given rise to the ‘not a king but a leader of kings in battle’, whilst the latter translation could have led Geoffrey of Monmouth (and others) to interpreted him as being a ‘king of kings’ or even ‘emperor’? Maybe this is what confused the hell out of the Historia Britonnum and Annales Cambriae compilers.
Thanks for reading,