Medieval Welsh Genealogy
An Introduction and Textual Study
An Interview with Ben Guy
Welcome to the Herald, Dr Guy. Can you please give us an insight into how you first became interested in medieval history and how it shaped your studies and research to date?
Like many children, I was fascinated by knights, castles, and King Arthur, but I think that it all had a particular resonance with me because of where I lived. I grew up in a village called Penyffordd in north-east Wales, not far from Wrexham. Family outings often involved visits to the many castles and abbeys of North Wales, and these visits piqued my interest. I distinctly remember one visit to the magnificent castle at Caernarfon, which at the time had an exhibition about the wars between Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Edward I. After this visit, the question that lingered in my mind was ‘who were these Welsh princes that I don’t know anything about?’ The question lingered for a long time.
Through my teenage years, I began compiling a family tree database of the Welsh princes using my mum’s family tree software. Much of the information came from what I would now regard as dubious websites, but it was during this time that I first encountered actual medieval genealogies. Most people didn’t know about all this at the time – it was quite an embarrassing and nerdy activity for a teenager to be getting up to! But I had to spill the beans eventually, when the same interest resulted in an application to read Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge. So in a strange kind of way, the central theme of what has become my first book originally led to my undergraduate degree course, and not vice versa!
You write that “Genealogy was a central element of life in medieval Wales”. Did it have a greater significance there than in other nations?
Genealogy certainly had a special significance in medieval Wales. The reasons for this varied over time. Within the famous body of Welsh customary law known as the ‘Law of Hywel Dda’, knowledge of family relationships was essential for doing things like claiming an inheritance or pursuing a blood feud. The political situation also increased the importance of genealogy. In the early Middle Ages, Wales was a land of many kings, whose relationships with one another often conditioned the balance of power. In the late Middle Ages, when Wales was ruled by the king of England, certain social and legal conditions led the Welsh gentry class to preserve their genealogies with notable zeal, in order to uphold their claim to nobility even in the face of adverse material circumstances. Such factors meant that genealogy probably was more important in medieval Wales than in other parts of medieval Europe, such as England. On the other hand, genealogy had at least an equal, if not an even greater, significance in medieval Ireland, for similar reasons. The extreme stratification of royal power in early medieval Ireland led to the medieval Irish corpus of written genealogy dwarfing even that of Wales!
Given their significance, who decided and who wrote genealogies? And who had the power to have them changed?
The million-dollar questions! The truthful answer is that I don’t know, but I’d like to think that I could give a better educated guess than some others. As is so often the case, closer study of a subject makes you realise quite how much you don’t know about it. It’s usually assumed that genealogies were written on behalf of kings and princes. It’s well recognised nowadays that medieval genealogies bear political messages due to the way that they represent the past. It is for this reason that you’ll often see and hear medieval genealogies referred to as ‘propaganda’, with the implication being that they were intended to convince the public of a certain point of view, usually the political legitimacy of the current ruling family.
But I’ve come to feel that this is a misleading characterisation of medieval genealogy. In the book, I try to maintain a distinction between rationalisation and justification. Rulers in medieval Wales no doubt justified their positions of power through reference to prestigious ancestors and relatives, as is reflected in the copious court poetry surviving from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which was composed on behalf of those rulers and performed publicly in their courts. On the other hand, the written genealogies that survive to be studied were probably, prior to the fifteenth century, written in churches and monasteries, mostly by clerics and monks.
My feeling is that the genealogical writing of such people was often undertaken to rationalise contemporary political circumstances in genealogical terms. This would have resulted in genealogies which were naturally favourable to those in power at the time, but which were not necessarily commissioned or managed by rulers directly. The extent to which such writing could be called ‘propaganda’ depends on how we imagine the texts to have been consumed by their audiences. And further complications arise once the close relationships between the rulers and the churchmen are taken into account. So, I would say that rulers and their associates may sometimes have succeeded in influencing the contents of genealogical writing, but we should not assume that this was invariably the case!
Is there an example of a genealogical entry or alteration that had an impact on contemporary events?
One of the clearest examples comes from the reign of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Wales, who died fighting the forces of Edward I in 1282. By the middle of the twelfth century, a long pedigree had been created for Llywelyn’s family that traced their lineage back to Adam via the early kings in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s infamous History of the Kings of Britain. The line was naturally traced through Brutus’s son Locrinus, who was the ancestor of later kings of Britain in Geoffrey’s narrative. But by Llywelyn’s day, Edward I had co-opted Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account as his own justification for why he should rule over all of Britain, including Wales and Scotland. It was necessary for Llywelyn’s family to change tactics.
In a remarkable letter written by Llywelyn and his court to John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the height of the war of 1282, Llywelyn claimed that he had the right to rule lands in Wales as a descendant of Kamber, son of Brutus. The purpose of this claim was to undermine Edward by drawing attention to the part of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s narrative where Brutus divided Britain between his three sons, Locrinus receiving England, Kamber receiving Wales, and Albanactus receiving Scotland. Sure enough, the genealogies of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd diverge from those of his ancestors by tracing his lineage back to Kamber son of Brutus rather than Locrinus.
You compare Welsh genealogical writing with that of England and Ireland. How similar, or otherwise, were their approaches, and why do you think that is?
The approaches to genealogical writing found in early medieval Ireland, England, and Wales were more similar than has previously been recognised. The pedigrees of ruling families were structured and arranged in strikingly similar ways in each case. I argue that this is due to mutual influence between the Irish, English, and Welsh traditions of genealogical writing. This type of genealogical writing probably arose in Ireland in the seventh century, inspired especially by the many genealogies found in the Bible. The same practices soon spread to Britain due to the cultural prestige and influence of Irish churchmen during that time.
Why the particular focus on Gwynedd?
In one chapter of the book, I focus on the genealogies of Gwynedd, an important kingdom in north-west Wales, because the genealogies of Gwynedd are copious and interesting enough to tell a story that spans the entire period from the ninth to the fifteenth century.
Prior to the fall of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, the ruler of Gwynedd was frequently the most powerful ruler in Wales and often wielded influence even further afield. This is reflected by the special attention paid to the rulers of Gwynedd in genealogical writing. For instance, the dynasty known as the Merfynion, which came to rule both Gwynedd in the north and Deheubarth in the south, was the only Welsh family ever to be traced back as far as Adam during the Middle Ages. Moreover, the genealogies of the rulers of Gwynedd continued to be reproduced and developed even after 1282, for various reasons: they could represent ‘Wales’ on a broad level in English genealogical writing; they were used by the Mortimers, who descended from the rulers of Gwynedd, to stake their own claim to royalty; and their legendary sections were redeployed in the fifteenth century in genealogies of the Tudor family.
How vast a body of writing did you have to read and research for your book?
Very little has been written on medieval Welsh genealogy directly. On the other hand, the genealogies of medieval Wales touch upon so many other aspects of Welsh politics, culture, society, and literature, spanning the entire medieval period, that it was necessary to do a great deal of background reading! But it’s perhaps more important to emphasise the reading and research of primary sources. The tiny amount of critical scholarly work on medieval Welsh genealogy is out of all proportion to the vast amount of material existing in manuscripts. From between about 1450 and 1650 there survives hundreds of Welsh genealogical manuscripts, many of which have never been properly consulted. Some of these contain only early modern genealogies that would be of less interest to medievalists, but many others, as I discovered, preserve medieval genealogies, including some that are otherwise unknown. Even after all my work, I’m certain that these manuscripts contain medieval genealogical treasures that await discovery. There are some subjects in Medieval Studies that are greatly overworked; this is not one of them!
Can you tell us about the collections of secular genealogies that you analyse?
I focus on three collections of secular genealogies in the book. One, called the ‘Harleian genealogies’, is fairly well known, since it provides a rare glimpse of the ruling families of early medieval Wales prior to about 950. The second, called the ‘Jesus 20 genealogies’, survives in a manuscript of c. 1400 but preserves a collection of various earlier genealogical tracts that evolved, sometimes codependently, between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. That collection is a complicated one to disentangle!
The third collection I call the ‘Llywelyn ab Iorwerth genealogies’. My study of this collection is probably one of the most significant aspects of the book. In the past, the text had received attention only from Peter Bartrum, who divided it up and presented it as a series of tracts about medieval Welsh genealogy surviving in late medieval and early modern manuscripts. But it is so much more than that. It survives in dozens of later manuscripts and exercised a powerful influence of the genealogical tradition of early modern Wales. I argue that it was composed, as a deliberate whole, between 1216 and c. 1223, during the reign of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, prince of Gwynedd. It is a complex and thoroughgoing attempt to recount Welsh dynastic history within the context of Llywelyn’s hegemony. It drew upon an interesting array of Latin and vernacular textual sources, many of which are identifiable. It may have been composed by or in association with Llywelyn’s poet and courtier Einion ap Gwalchmai, possibly using the literary resources of the Cistercian abbey of Aberconwy. I hope that the Llywelyn ab Iorwerth genealogies receive the recognition they deserve in the future!
What do you hope medieval historians and historians of Wales will take from your book?
If there’s one thing that I hope historians will take away from the book, it’s that great value can be gleaned from even the most intractable and superficially boring of sources! I hope that it stimulates medieval historians to think about genealogies from elsewhere in different ways. I’d love to think that it will inspire a similar type of study for medieval Ireland, but that would be a truly mammoth task! I hope that the genealogies, when viewed in a different way, can allow historians of Wales to ask new questions about native Welsh politics, culture, society, and literature. It’s sometimes said that Welsh history suffers from a lack of source material. But this isn’t true for genealogical source material!
Will you continue your work in this field or do you have plans for something else?
Both, for sure. I’m currently undertaking an exciting new project on the history of the Anglo-Welsh border in the early Middle Ages, which, needless to say, draws heavily on the genealogical sources. But there are plenty of other avenues of research that remain to be explored with regard to the genealogies themselves. For example, some interesting things remain to be said about the fate of Welsh genealogical writing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This is tied up with the fate of Welsh literary culture in the later Middle Ages more generally. Back to the manuscripts!
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
I keep up in three ways – through informal networks of colleagues, through big conferences like Leeds IMC (an important part of which is the book stalls!), and through academic journals and their review sections. For me, the most significant thing that publishers can do it to keep going to events like the IMC, and keep on offering excellent conference discounts!
Dr BEN GUY is a Junior Research Fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge.
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