The Tern Valley Trail
Wrockwardine's Regal Past
By the mid-10th Century, the Royal manor of Wrockwardine was an important local centre enjoying rights and privileges over a wide area of modern day east Shropshire. The settlement’s pre-eminence may have arisen when Viroconium Cornoviorum, the former western capital of Roman Britain and home of the Celtic Cornovii tribe, was abandoned at the end of the 6th or early 7th Century in exchange for a site nearer to the traditional tribal centre of The Wrekin Hill fort. However, other sources link Wrockwardine’s regal lineage to the legendary kingdom of Pengwern and the seat of its last leader, Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn.
To secure Britain from Anglo-Saxon incursions, the Romans appear to have appointed local chieftains to help defend some of the more vulnerable parts of their territory and a number of independent kingdoms may have emerged in these areas after their rule ended. Owing to the unstable climate in which these new states arose, many appear to have been short-lived and evidence supporting their existence is scarce.
The Legend of Pengwern
Little of the conjectured kingdom of Pengwern is known until the Battle of Chester, which is thought to have occurred about 613. It seems likely that, if the fledgling state did exist, it, too, was based on former Roman settlements; in this case Caer Luit Coyt (Wall, South Staffordshire), Caer Magnis (Kenchester, Herefordshire) and Viroconium (Wroxeter, Shropshire). Pengwern’s leader at that time was, reputedly, Cyndrwyn Fawr (the ‘Great’) who may have fought at Chester with other British leaders against King Aethelfirth of Bernicia.
Pengwern supposedly passed to his son Cynddylan around 620, who then ruled the kingdom from Llys Pengwern (the fabled ‘Hall of Cynddylan’). Viroconium had been abandoned by this time and, although the reasons for its demise are unclear, it may have been that it was exchanged for a more defendable site in the vicinity of The Wrekin Hill, the former tribal capital of the area from which Wrockwardine takes its name.
The Laments of Heledd
The main source of evidence for Pengwern’s existence is contained in two 9th Century Welsh poems dealing with Cynddylan’s death and the destruction of his kingdom at the hands of King Oswiu of Northumberland, thought to have taken place in the year 656. In the past, both Marwnad Cynddylan (the Death Song of Cynddylan) and the Canu Heledd (The Laments of Heledd – in legend, Cynddylan’s sister) have been attributed to Llywarch Hen (Lewis The Old), the last king of the former Welsh state of South Rheged. Llywarch, who is believed from around 534 to 634, became renowned as a poet but it is unlikely he wrote either of the works concerning Cynddylan’s exploits. It is probable that Marwnad Cynddylan and the Canu Heledd were passed by word of mouth for up to 200 years before being written down, which also makes their validity as historical evidence problematical.
However, other evidence, contained in surviving Welsh pedigrees of the period, suggests the actual existence of characters mentioned in Marwnad Cynddylan and the Canu Heledd, while the children of Cyndrwyn Fawr (including Heledd herself) are listed in another contemporary document, the Bonedd yr Arwr. There is also fragmentary evidence to suggest Cynddylan’s involvement in the Battle of Maes Cogwy (Oswestry) in 642, when King Oswald of Northumbria was slain at the hands of King Penda of Mercia. Indeed, it was Cynddylan’s participation in this campaign that supposedly resulted in his own death, fourteen years later, when, after defeating Penda, Oswald’s brother, Oswiu, wrought revenge on the leader of Pengwern and several of his brothers.
The Hall of Cynddylan
In the Canu Heledd, Cynddylan’s burial takes place at Baschurch (Eglwysseu Bassa) in north Shropshire, which is often assumed to have been the site of Llys Pengwern, his capital. However, the ancient texts make reference to Cynddylan’s home being much nearer to The Wrekin Hill and the former Roman town of Viroconium, while his kingdom is also described as occupying the lands between the Roden and Tern, from which Baschurch is some distance away. The literal translation of Pengwern, meaning ‘at the head of a swamp or marsh’, would certainly be more appropriate to Wrockwardine’s situation above the Weald Moors.
Indeed, the royal manor held special privileges over the area, including unlimited cattle grazing rights, until the late 1500s, although quite how or why it came to have such generous rights remains uncertain. To add to the air of mystery surrounding the area’s lineage, The Tribal Hidage, an Anglo-Saxon tax record that may have been compiled within 100 years of the supposed fall of Pengwern, records Wrockwardine as belonging to the Wreosensaete (‘the people of The Wrekin’), a sub-kingdom of the larger Anglo-Saxon state of Mercia. Other evidence from the period suggests the word ‘saete’ may have been used to denote former British kingdoms, providing another tantalising clue to Wrockwardine’s regal past.