Merfyn Frych ('Merfyn the Freckled'; Old Welsh Mermin), also known as Merfyn ap Gwriad ('Merfyn son of Gwriad') and Merfyn Camwri ('Merfyn the Oppressor'), was King of Gwynedd from around 825 to 844, the first of its kings known not to have descended from the male line of Cunedda.
Little is known of his reign, and his primary notability is as the father of Rhodri the Great and founder of his dynasty, which was sometimes called the Merfynion after him. Merfyn came to the throne in the aftermath of a bloody dynastic struggle between two rivals named Cynan and Hywel – generally identified with the sons of Rhodri Molwynog, despite that putting both men well into their 70s or 80s at the time – at a time when the kingdom had been under pressure from Mercia.
The times leading up to Merfyn's reign were unsettled for both Gwynedd and neighboring Powys. Both kingdoms were beset by internal dynastic strife, external pressure from Mercia, and bad luck with nature. In 810, there was a bovine plague that killed many cattle (the primary form of wealth at the time) throughout Wales. The next year, the ancient wooden llys at Deganwy was struck by lightning. A destructive war for control of Gwynedd raged between 812 and 816, while in Powys a son of the king was killed by his brother "through treachery". In 818, there was a notable battle at Llanfaes on Anglesey. Although our sources do not identify the combatants, the site had been the llys of King Cynan.
Coenwulf of Mercia took advantage of the situation in 817, occupying Rhufoniog (see map) and laying waste to the mountains of Snowdonia. Coastal Wales along the Dee Estuary must have remained under Mercia through 821, as Coenwulf is recorded dying peacefully at Basingwerk in that year. In 823, Mercia laid waste to Powys and returned to Gwynedd to burn Deganwy to the ground. Gwynedd and Powys then gained a respite when Mercia's attention turned elsewhere and its fortunes waned. King Beornwulf was killed fighting the East Anglians in 826, his successor Ludeca suffered the same fate the following year, and Mercia was conquered and occupied by Ecgberht of Wessex in 829. Though Mercia managed to throw off Ecgberht's rule in 830, it was thereafter beset by dynastic strife and never regained its former dominance, either in Wales or eastern England.
Family background and marriage
Merfyn was linked to the earlier dynasty through his mother Esyllt, the daughter of King Cynan (d. after 816), rather than through his father Gwriad ap Elidyr.[note 1] As his father's origins are obscure, so is the basis of his claim to the throne.
Extremely little is known of Merfyn's father Gwriad. Merfyn claimed descent from Llywarch Hen through him, and the royal pedigree in Jesus College MS. 20 says that Gwriad was the son of Elidyr, who bears the same name as his ancestor, the father of Llywarch Hen, Elidyr lydanwyn. Supporting the veracity of the pedigree is an entry in the Annales Cambriae, which states that Gwriad, the brother of Rhodri the Great, was slain on Anglesey by the Saxons. That is to say, Merfyn named one of his sons after his father Gwriad.
The discovery of a cross inscribed Crux Guriat (English: Cross of Gwriad) on the Isle of Man and dated to the 8th or 9th century raised the question of whether Gwriad's possible connection to "Manaw" was to Manaw Gododdin, once active in North Britain, or to the Isle of Man (Welsh: Ynys Manaw). John Rhys suggested that Gwriad might well have taken refuge on the Isle of Man during the bloody dynastic struggle between Cynan and Hywel prior to Merfyn's accession to the throne, and that the cross perhaps does refer to the refugee Gwriad, father of Merfyn. He goes on to note that the Welsh Triads mention a 'Gwryat son of Gwryan in the North'. Other locations for "Manaw" have been suggested, including Ireland, Galloway and Powys.
While Rhys' suggestion is not implausible, his reference to Gwriad's father Gwrian contradicts the royal pedigree, which says that Gwriad's father was Elidir, so this may be a confusion of two different people named Gwriad. Gwriad's name does appear with northern origins in the Welsh Triads as one of the "Three kings, who were of the sons of strangers" (sometimes referred to as the "Three Peasant Kings"), where he is identified as the son of "Gwrian in the North".
Precious little is known of Merfyn's reign. Thornton suggests that Merfyn was probably among the Welsh kings who were defeated by Ecgberht, king of Wessex, in the year 830, but it is unknown how this affected Merfyn's rule.
Merfyn is mentioned as a king of the Britons in a copyist's addition[note 3] to the Historia Brittonum and in the Bamberg Cryptogram, [note 4] but as both sources are traced to people working in Merfyn's own court during his reign, it should not be considered more significant than someone's respectful reference to his patron while working in his service.
In the literary sources, Merfyn's name appears in the Dialogue between Myrddin and his sister Gwenddydd (Welsh: Cyfoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd ei chwaer), found in the mid-13th-century manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest. The dialogue is a prophecy of the future kings, and lists among them Merfyn in the passage "meruin vrych o dir manaw" (English: Merfyn Frych of the land of Manau).
- There is nothing in what is known of Welsh law stating specifically that women were capable of transmitting legal title of kingship, and it is not known whether Merfyn came to the throne through usurpation or prior arrangement. Lloyd's article on Merfyn in the Dictionary of National Biography says that claims of kingship through a maternal line were sometimes recognised under the Welsh law of inheritance and cites mamwys (English: maternity, heirship through the female line) for the justification. However, mamwys refers to matters of property.
- The view that Ethyllt was Merfyn's mother and Nest his wife is held by Davies and many others, including David E. Thornton and Lloyd, who notes the consistency of the genealogies in Jesus College MS 20 and Harleian MS 3859 against the contrary account that Nest was the mother and Ethyllt the wife. Thornton gives Nest as Cadell's sister.
- Merfyn's name appears twice in the Historia Brittorum as 'Mermin', with both mentions attributed to later additions to the Historia made in Gwynedd during Merfyn's reign. He is mentioned in a passage as quarto Meruini regis Britonum, and in another passage as ad annum quartum Mermini regis. In his History of Wales, Lloyd notes that this is the addition of a later copyist. Additionally, he notes that the text annum quartum Mermini regis does not appear in other copies of the Historia.
- The Bamberg Cryptogram was published with English annotation in 1892. It was discovered at Bamberg, Germany and it contains characters that must be translated from Greek numerals to Latin text using a key in order to read the message (a form of cryptogram), hence the document's name. It is accompanied by Latin text that names several medieval people of note, and includes the words Mermin Britannorum regis. This was written at the court of Merfyn during his reign.
- Wade-Evans, Arthur. Welsh Medieval Law. 1909. Accessed 31 Jan 2013.
- E.g., in Charles-Edwards, T. Wales and the Britons, 350–1064. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. Accessed 26 Feb 2012.
- Parry 1829:63, Brut y Saeson.
- Wolcott, Darrell. Ancient Welsh Studies. "Governance of Gwynedd, 754–825". Accessed 5 Feb 2013.
- In 823 Mercia devastated Powys and burned Deganwy. Parry 1829:63, Brut y Saeson.
- Old Welsh: Ketill
- Mermin moritur. Gueith cetill. Phillimore 1888:165, Annales Cambriae.
- Lloyd notes that some later copyists had invented a definite connection of the battle with Mercia and Merfyn, where no such connection was stated in the original source. Lloyd 1911:324, A History of Wales, Vol I.
- Lloyd 1911:232, A History of Wales, Vol I
- Kirby 1991:153–7
- Thornton 2004
- Lloyd 1909:277, Dictionary of National Biography, article Merfyn
- Phillimore 1887:87, Pedigrees from Jesus College MS. 20 — The genealogical line for Merfyn's son Rhodri the Great traces all the way back to Coel Hen through Llywarch Hen: "Rodri ma6r. M. Meruyn vrych. M. G6rhyat. M. Elidyr. M. sandef. M. Alcun. M. tegyth. M. Ceit. M. douc. M. Llewarch hen. M. Elidyr lydanwyn. M. Meircha6n. M. G6rgust. M. Keneu. M. Coil hen. mal y mae vchot." A subsequent pedigree traces Rhodri's ancestry back to Maxen wledig through Gwriad's paternal grandmother.
- Ford, P.K. (1970) Llywarch, Ancestor of Welsh Princes, Speculum, Vol. 45, No. 3, p. 450
- Phillimore 1888:166, Annales Cambriae — year 877, "Rotri et filius eius guriat a saxonibus iugulatur."
- Kermode 1897:48–53, A Welsh Inscription in the Isle of Man
- Rhys 1897:52–53, Note on Guriat
- Skene 1868b:368, Red Book of Hergest — Three kings, who were of the sons of strangers: Gwryat, son of Gwryan yn y Gogled; and Cadafel, son of Cynfedw in Gwynedd; and Hyreidd Hir, son of Bleidic in Deheubarth.
- Fraser 2009:185 suggests that the Gwriad of the triad is to be identified with that King Guret of Alt Clut whose death is recorded under the year 658 by the Annals of Ulster.
- Davies 1990:81, A History of Wales
- Lloyd 1911:324, A History of Wales, Vol I
- Nennius & c. 800:3, 14, Historia Brittonum
- Lloyd 1911:224, The Age of Isolation, in A History of Wales, Vol I, in footnote 145
- Stokes, 1892 & pp-71 – 72, On a Mediaeval Cryptogram
- Skene 1868b:222, Red Book of Hergest
- Davies, John (1990), A History of Wales (First ed.), London: Penguin Group (published 1993), ISBN 0-7139-9098-8
- Fraser, James E. (2009), From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, New Edinburgh History of Scotland, I, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-1232-1
- Kermode, Philip Moore Callow (1897), "A Welsh Inscription in the Isle of Man", in Meyer, Kuno; Stern, L. Chr., Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, I, Halle: Max Niemeyer, pp. 48–53
- Kirby, D. P. (1991), "The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the first three-quarters of the ninth century", The Earliest English Kings (Revised ed.), New York: Routlege (published 2000), pp. 153–157, ISBN 0-415-24211-8
- Lloyd, John Edward (1894). "Merfyn Frych". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 37. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 277.
- Lloyd, John Edward (1911), A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest, I (2nd ed.), London: Longmans, Green, and Co (published 1912)
- Nennius (c. 800), Stevenson, Joseph, ed., Nennii Historia Britonum, London: English Historical Society (published 1838)
- Parry, Henry (translator), ed. (1829), "Brut y Saeson", Archaeologia Cambrensis, Third, IX (XXXIII), London: J. Russell Smith (published 1863), p. 63
- Phillimore, Egerton, ed. (1887), "Pedigrees from Jesus College MS. 20", Y Cymmrodor, VIII, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 83–92
- Phillimore, Egerton (1888), "The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies, from Harleian MS. 3859", in Phillimore, Egerton, Y Cymmrodor, IX, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 141–183
- Rhys, John (1897), "Note on Guriat", in Meyer, Kuno; Stern, L. Chr., Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, I, Halle: Max Niemeyer, pp. 52–53
- Skene, William Forbes (1868a), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, I, Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas (published 1868)
- Skene, William Forbes (1868b), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, II, Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas (published 1868)
- Stokes, Whitley (18 July 1892), "On a Mediaeval Cryptogram", The Academy (July – December, 1892), XLII, London: The Academy (published 1892), pp. 71–72
- Thornton, David E. (2004), "Merfyn Frych (d. 844)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press
- Derolez, R. (1952), "Dubthach's cryptogram", L'Antiquité Classique, 21, pp. 359–75
Hywel ap Rhodri Molwynog
| King of Gwynedd
Rhodri the Great