Rhydderch Hael (Welsh: Rhydderch the Generous, fl. 580 – c. 614) was a ruler of Alt Clut, a Brittonic kingdom in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" of Britain. He was one of the most famous kings in the Hen Ogledd, and appears frequently in later medieval works in Welsh and Latin.
According to sources such as the Harleian genealogies and Adomnán's Vita Columbae, Rhydderch's father was Tutagual of Alt Clut, who was probably his predecessor as king. A tyrannical king named Tuduael, Tudwaldus or some variation appears in the 9th-century poem Miracula Nyniae Episcopi and in Ailred of Rievaulx's Vita Sancti Niniani as a contemporary of Saint Ninian; this is possibly a reference to the father of Rhydderch. Genealogies record Rhydderch as a descendant of Dumnagual Hen. Outside of these pedigrees Rhydderch's kinsmen appear only in Welsh texts, chiefly the heroic poetry and the fragments of saga preserved in the Welsh Triads. One such kinsman, Senyllt Hael, is credited in the poem Y Gododdin with him seen presiding over a royal court famed for its liberality. Another, Senyllt's son Nudd Hael, appears with Rhydderch in the triad of the "Three Generous Men of Britain".
In a curious tale preserved in the 12th-century Welsh law code known as the Black Book of Chirk, Rhydderch accompanies other rulers from the North on a military expedition to the Kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales. According to the story, Elidir Mwynfawr, another prince of the North, had been killed in Arfon in Gwynedd. In response Rhydderch joined Clydno Eiddin, the aforementioned Nudd Hael, and the otherwise unknown Mordaf Hael to seek vengeance on King Rhun Hir ap Maelgwn of Gwynedd. They traveled by sea and ravaged Arfon, but were expelled by Rhun's forces. Rhun attacked Strathclyde and pushed as far as the River Forth.
Here Elidyr Muhenvaur, a man from the north was slain and, after his death, the men of the north, came here to avenge him. The chiefs, their leaders, were Clyddno Eiddin; Nudd Hael, son of Senyllt; and Mordaf Hael, son of Seruari, and Rydderch Hael, son of Tudwal Tudglyd; and they came to Arvon, and because Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewydus in Arvon, they burned Arvon as a further revenge. And then Run, son of Maelgwn, and the men of Gwynedd, assembled in arms, and proceeded to the banks of the [River] Gweryd in the north, and there they were long disputing who should take the lead.
The textual uncertainties suggest that the story of the Arfon expedition and Rhun's response is likely to be apocryphal, its creation owing less to actual sixth century events than to later north Welsh propagandists who, in seeking to glorify their own kings, portrayed Rhun as an ancestor of those kings and as a mighty warlord who could wage war far beyond his own lands and against figures whose fame may already have become enshrined in Welsh tradition.
Welsh tradition regards Rhydderch as one of the northern British kings who fought against the early Anglo-Saxon realm of Bernicia. The Historia Brittonum depicts him as an enemy of several Bernician kings of the late sixth century, but the theatre of the wars between them is not identified. It is said he joined with Urien of Rheged and Morcant Bulc in their ill-fated alliance:
Four kings fought against them, Urien and Rhydderch [Hael] and Gwallawg and Morcant. Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons. During that time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry were victorious, and Urien blockaded them for three days and three nights in the island of Ynys Metcaut. But during this campaign, Urien was assassinated on the instigation of Morcant, from jealousy, because his military skill and generalship surpassed that of all the other kings— Historia Brittonum, chapter 63
The war with Bernicia is one of only two military campaigns in which Rhydderch Hael is said to have been involved, the other being a raid on the Strathclyde court by Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata and a fellow-contemporary of Saint Columba which is recorded in the gloriously named Three Unrestrained Ravagings of the Island of Britain in the Welsh Triads:
…when Aedan the Wily came to the court of Rhydderch the Generous at Alt Clut; he left neither food nor drink nor beast alive.
Apart from this work there are no other supporting texts to prove the accuracy of these events. However, in a broad context it is indeed not unlikely as Alt Clut and Dál Riata were neighbours and fought many times during the Sub-Roman and Early Medieval periods. Dál Riata was a relative newcomer to the politics of Britain and raids by the Gaels, as the Scots of Dál Riata were commonly known, on the Brythonic border kingdoms around Hadrian's Wall had been typical since the time of Vortigern and before. Furthermore, Áedán mac Gabráin is known to have been a particularly belligerent warlord whose campaigns extended from Pictavia to Northumbria. It is tempting to ascribe the ultimate origin of this material to Strathclyde court-poets of Rhydderch's own time. One Triad mentions Rhydderch's horse Rudlwyt, meaning "Dun-Grey," while another poetical fragment names his sword Dyrnwyn, "White Hilt," as one of the legendary Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain.
Aside from the Welsh sources, the other main repository of information on Rhydderch Hael is the Latin hagiography surrounding Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow, whose most complete surviving Life was written in the late twelfth century by Joceline of Furness, in modern Cumbria, on behalf of the Bishop of Glasgow. Attempts have been made to identify possible archaic elements and indeed it now seems likely that it draws together several strands of very early Strathclyde tradition, possibly originating in the seventh or eighth centuries. Rhydderch Hael appears as "King Rederech" and is portrayed as Kentigern's royal patron and benefactor, from whom the saint received land at Glasgow upon which to establish the principal bishopric of the greater Strathclyde region. The king is said to have had a royal residence at Partick.
Rhydderch's date of death is unknown, although the Life of Kentigern places his death in the same year as the saint's which, according to the Welsh Annals, occurred in 612, which is adjusted by historians to 614. This date is supported by Adomnan who refers to Rhydderch as a contemporary of Saint Columba who died in 597. Adomnan's assertion that Rhydderch did not die in battle can probably be taken at face value: the fulfillment of Columba's prophecy was the important issue for Iona and there was nothing to be gained by producing a fictional end for a king whose life and death were presumably already recorded in Glasgow and Dumbarton traditions.
Welsh collections name Rhydderch's sword's Dyrnwyn as one of the so-called Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. When drawn by a worthy or well-born man, the entire blade would blaze with fire. Rhydderch was never reluctant to hand the weapon to anyone, which is said to explain his epithet Hael, but no one ever dared touch it.
|King of Alt Clut
- Rocking stone; Rhydderch is said to have been buried at the Clochoderick stone in Renfrewshire.
- MacQuarrie, pp.6–7.
- Clarkson, T. (2014), Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, Birlinn, Edinburgh, p. 30
- Bromwich, pp. 240-1.
- Bromwich, Rachel, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978; revised ed. 1991
- Clarkson, Tim. "Rhydderch Hael." The Heroic Age, Autumn/Winter 1999
- MacQuarrie, Alan, "The Kings of Strathclyde", in A. Grant & K.Stringer (eds.) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community, Essays Presented to G. W. S. Barrow, (Edinburgh, 1993), pp. 1–19.