The seven centuries between the breakdown of Roman imperial authority and the Norman conquest have been difficult to understand historically given the scant documentary record and the few investigated archaeological sites. Yet this was a period during which Wales acquired an identity and a distinctiveness in language and culture. It was a time of fundamental change: the consolidation of Christianity as the religion of the people, new settlements, and diverse influences from west and east as Romano-British culture decayed and the impact was felt of Anglo-Saxon hostilities and then Viking incursions. There was a transformation of tribal groupings into larger, more stable kingdoms, and fleetingly the idea of Wales was translated into a political unity.
Wales shared in the Roman empire’s political, economic and social vicissitudes as it struggled against fragmentation in the course of the fourth century. As peace and stability waned, the economic system, particularly that of Romanised south-east Wales, would have changed once coinage ceased to circulate. With the collapse of central Roman administration during the early fifth century a new social order developed with independent regional kingships. There is no reason to believe that power was seized by force from the Roman authorities. It is more probable that, in the absence of effective central government, authority was assumed by local elites accustomed to civic rule or running large estates. Some new elite groups may have emerged with the aid of remnants of the Roman army. Leaders of early medieval kingdoms probably legitimised their standing by laying claim to continuing Roman authority, as is suggested by the practice of erecting stones inscribed with Roman terms.
While some new rulers may have considered themselves to be heirs of Rome, and titles like ‘protector’, magistrate’, ‘prince’ and ‘king’ continued to be used by Latin writers, there were conspicuous changes. Secular power shifted to new locations. Although the walled town of Caerwent (Venta Silurum) near Chepstow, in the most Romanised part of Wales, seems to have given its name to the early medieval kingdom of Gwent, it probably failed to operate as a town beyond the early fifth century. Like the late Roman fort at Caer Gybi near Holyhead, it became the location of a monastery, while many Romano-British settlements were abandoned.
Throughout the British Isles the fifth century was a time of migrations and invasions. In Wales many kingdoms developed, and as the years passed the more energetic and warlike ones overcame weaker neighbours. The foundation of the kingdom of Gwynedd has been attributed to a war leader, Cunedda, who migrated from north Britain to Gwynedd in the early fifth century and is supposed to have expelled Irish invaders from north-west Wales. However, the authenticity of the Gwynedd foundation story is questionable: many scholars consider it to be a later invention to justify a contemporary ruling house of Gwynedd and its expansion. In particular, the house of Merfyn of Gwynedd (‘glorious King of the Britons’, died AD 844) manipulated pedigrees to justify the rise to power of Merfyn Frych in the ninth century. He may have been from the Isle of Man, and one aspect of legitimising his foreign origin may have been to assign the foundation of Gwynedd to Cunedda as an earlier immigrant.
There is debate as to when the immigration of Irish tribesmen to south-west Wales began. They were raiding the area in the second half of the fourth century but it is unlikely they were allowed to settle under Roman supervision. Dyfed was a kingdom of Irish origin: in the fifth century the Déisi, a tribal group driven from the Waterford area, crossed to south-west Wales, and their leaders replaced native elites to rule the Demetae there. There is strong evidence of the Irish presence in Ogam inscriptions, genealogies and place names of Irish origin. The ruling dynasty of Brycheiniog seems also to have been partly of Irish origin.
The kingdom of Powys emerged in the fifth century and extended far into what later became Shropshire; Wroxeter, east of Shrewsbury, was probably an important early centre. To add lustre to their triumph over the Anglo-Saxon Mercians in the early ninth century, Powys’s genealogists claimed the Roman Magnus Maximus and perhaps the Briton Vortigern as their ancestors, a tradition denied by their arch-rivals in Gwynedd in the Historia Brittonum.
South-east Wales was the most Romanised part of the country. It is possible that Roman estates in the area survived as recognisable units into the eighth century. The kingdom of Gwent is likely to have been founded by direct descendants of the Silurian ruling class. Another kingdom in the region, Erging, was dominant around 500 to 600. However, in the seventh century the kingdom of Glywysyng to the west (the forerunner of Morgannwg) gained control of both Erging and Gwent.
Despite the fragmented political geography of Wales, a common language emerged, distinct from the ancestral Brittonic, attested by the end of the eighth century in a few surviving literary works and inscriptions. The upper echelon of society in the petty kingdoms was formed by the king and his kin, supported by a warrior class. They were maintained by levies on the agricultural products of the mass of the population, whose mobility both geographically and socially was tightly restricted, and who lived in small dispersed settlements or maerdrefi.
During the seventh century the Welsh kingdoms confronted Anglo-Saxon aggression. On occasion they formed temporary alliances with individual English kingdoms against a common foe. For example, when Northumbrians attacked Powys in a campaign that was probably aimed at all of north Wales and Mercia, in about 633, Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia formed an alliance. Northumbria was repulsed by Cadwallon, who took the fight to the aggressor but was killed in 634, and the Gwynedd-Mercia alliance was eventually successful in about 642. Soon afterwards, Mercia started to expand its own borders into Powys and began a long period of intermittent border warfare.
After a century of Mercian expansion, Powys under King Eliseg regained enough strength to defeat Mercia in about 750, but King Offa of Mercia (757-96) responded with vigour. The dyke that takes his name was at least initiated by him. It was a forceful statement of demarcation and was capable of acting as a control on organised movement of people and goods. One of the great achievements of construction before the Industrial Age, the earthwork is the most impressive early medieval field monument in Britain. Seen as a tribute to the power of the Welsh rulers, it has shaped our view of the extent and identity of Wales.
The ninth century saw far-reaching changes in the British Isles that had serious consequences for the Welsh kingdoms — the raids of the Viking warbands, the collapse of some of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the rise of Wessex to leadership among the English. Unsettled conditions allowed some Welsh kingdoms to extend their power. The achievement of Rhodri Mawr (the Great) of Gwynedd (died 878) in uniting for the first time the three largest kingdoms of early Wales was inspirational. He is said to have acquired Gwynedd from his father (844), Powys from his mother (855), and Deheubarth through his wife (874); by his own efforts he defeated a Danish force on Anglesey (856). His sons completed his conquests in south-west Wales, and henceforth the line was split into two: the northern descended from his son Anarawd and the southern from his son Cadell. King Alfred of Wessex (died 899) claimed overlordship of Wales, which Gwynedd resisted, but some Welsh kings found it convenient to win Alfred’s support against the Vikings and other Welsh rulers to protect themselves from Anglo-Saxon aggression. Welshmen appeared at Alfred’s court, such as the cleric and scholar Asser. In 893 Gwynedd acceded to Alfred’s authority.
In the next century Hywel (later know as Dda, the Good) consolidated Deheubarth. He too had to confront the Vikings and the kingdom of Wessex and was prepared to accept the overlordship of Anglo-Saxon kings to strengthen his position. As a result, he was able to invade Gwynedd and annex Brycheiniog, giving him control by the time he died in about AD 950 of most of Wales except the south-east. Known as ‘the head of glory of all the Britons’, Hywel’s name is forever associated with codifying Welsh Law, which had developed over centuries as, among other things, a sophisticated regulation of relationships between kin groups.
Ultimately, these territorial achievements sprang from the personal qualities of individual kings rather than from marriage and inheritance, and so they had a fitful existence — and still did so on the eve of the Norman conquest, when Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (died 1063) made himself king of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth, and even took Morgannwg. Yet, even for the two centuries before the Norman conquest, knowledge of the material history is meagre.
While historical records highlight the activities and interests of the powerful, remarkably little is known about settlements or population. Archaeological evidence is frustratingly elusive — though it certainly exists hidden from view. In many areas timber was favoured over stone for building, leaving less visible remains, and substantial earthworks were rare apart from the great linear dykes. The lack of a strong tradition of using ceramics also means that the scattered fragments of pottery that indicate settlement in other periods are absent. The rate of finding new sites is low compared with other periods, but hunting them down has been made easier through aerial reconnaissance by the Royal Commission.
Most early medieval settlements have been discovered in the coastal lowlands. Among these, several distinct types can been recognised. Defended sites are most clearly identified on the ground, such as the small promontory hillfort at Dinas Powys near Cardiff. This was the first such site to be comprehensively investigated, and excavations between 1954 and 1958 revealed the residence of a local ruler and the trappings of power that surrounded him. There were traces of several buildings encircled by four banks and ditches, numerous artefacts, and evidence of economic activity. Imported goods included pottery from the Mediterranean and France (the amphorae probably containing wine and olive oil), fine glass vessels from Anglo-Saxon England and the continent, and metal scrap for recycling. Since this important excavation, similar sites have been excavated, such as the hilltop fort near the mouth of the River Neath at Hen Gastell. Other investigations have confirmed long-standing views that that many hillforts occupied during the Roman period were refurbished as royal or aristocratic strongholds between the fifth and seventh centuries. Among those investigated have been the multivallate promontory fort at Carew in Pembrokeshire and the imposing hillforts at Degannwy and Dinas Emrys in Caernarfonshire. Rhuddlan in the north-east is somewhat different in character, generally being thought to be the Anglo-Saxon burh known as Cledemutha, established in 921 by Edward the Elder to bring the surrounding area under English political control. It may have been a regional centre or a small enclave dependent on its port, border traffic and nearby estates.
On a smaller scale, the coastal promontory fort at Castell on Anglesey, excavated in 1991, has been compared with Viking promontory forts on the Isle of Man and tentatively associated with eleventh- and twelfth-century links between the kings of Gwynedd, particularly Gruffudd ap Cynan, and the Vikings of Dublin and Man. Defended economic centres in coastal lowlands are known from the enclosed coastal settlement at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey, while one artificial island settlement, or crannog, at Llan-gors has been identified as a royal site associated with the kings of Brycheiniog. Undefended high-status settlements also existed, such as Longbury Bank in Pembrokeshire, occupied between the late fifth and seventh centuries. Early medieval sites may be suggested by concentrations of artefacts, as at Kenfig and Twlc Point in Glamorgan and at Linney Burrows in Pembrokeshire. Evidence for small-scale activities of various sorts has also been found at some enclosed hut groups dating from the late Roman period and a few caves in south Wales, such as Minchin Hole in Gower and Lesser Garth cave north of Cardiff, which was perhaps associated with a settlement on the ridge above.
Even where major elements of the early medieval landscape are highly visible, such as the Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke systems along the borders with England, or the cross-ridge dykes attributed to this period, there is hardly any knowledge of their contemporary environment. What little is known points to a rural economy based on subsistence farming with small-scale production, exchange and trade. New discoveries, such as the recently excavated corn-drying kilns and iron-smelting furnaces at Herbranston near Milford Haven, may illuminate resource management and specialisation.
Artefact production was at a craft scale, supplying local requirements, with the possible exception of some metal working. Activities identified include leather working, textile weaving, bone and antler working (particularly to make combs), iron working (to make tools and weapons), manufacturing of copper-alloy objects such as penannular brooches, stone working to produce querns and whetstones, and timber working (for buildings, palisades and boats). No pottery was produced locally.
Archaeological evidence shows that coastal Wales retained links directly or indirectly with the Mediterranean from the fifth to seventh centuries. There is clear Gallic influence on some early inscriptions. During the fifth and sixth centuries amphorae and fine red-slipped tableware were imported from the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa; during the sixth and seventh centuries ceramic wares were imported from western France. It is thought that metalwork and raw material were used for exchange by Welsh rulers, whose power was reinforced by trade with west Britain, Ireland and the continent. Much of this may have been in response to initiatives from outside. There was also limited importation of glassware, beads and metalwork from Anglo-Saxon England in the sixth and seventh centuries, some by overland routes — perhaps through travel or diplomatic or marital gifts rather than sustained trade.
The period after 500 has been called the ‘Age of the Saints’, and the rise of a local form of Christianity and Church was one of the characteristic features of these centuries. The persistence of traditions and dedications suggests that some religious leaders — Dewi, Padarn, Teilo, and Deiniol — created such strong impressions that tales of them were transmitted down the generations. Dewi (St David), who came from a Ceredigion dynasty in the sixth century, was the leading Christian ascetic of his day. Others were abbots ruling monastic communities, one of the most renowned being Illtud, abbot of the monastery of Llanilltud Fawr or Llantwit Major. Early Christian centres included Bangor and St Davids, renowned as important ecclesiastical lordships that suffered at the hands of Viking raiders, as did a string of others: Caer Gybi and Penmon on Anglesey, Tywyn in Merionethshire, Clynnog Fawr in Caernarfonshire, St Dogmael’s in Pembrokeshire, Llanbadarn Fawr near Aberystwyth, and Llantwit Major and Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan. By the ninth century monasteries had become important landholdings and were centres of learning and political influence. The landscape would also have been dotted with small churches, and in many localities Christian communities built enclosures or llannau for their burials.
The physical remains of early churches have proved elusive. Aerial photography and field observation have identified a growing number of cemeteries — recently excavated examples include Brownslade Barrow in Pembrokeshire and Tywyn y Capel on Anglesey. While ecclesiastical centres are referred to in Saints’ Lives, charters, Welsh Annals and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and their locations are suggested by concentrations of inscribed stones and stone sculpture, little is known of their original appearance. Their size and layout, their relationship to secular settlements and the peripheral sites within their pastoral spheres are often unclear. A rare exception is Burry Holms in Gower, excavated in 1965-8 by the Royal Commission, whose survey of the early Christian period in Glamorgan (published in 1976) suggested it was a pre-Norman hermitage or retreat.
Some islands became monastic enclaves. Centres such as Caldy received imported goods from Gaul and the Mediterranean during the fifth to seventh centuries, implying contact with the outside world and probably with secular settlements. Aerial reconnaissance by the Royal Commission has revealed a handful of defended enclosures related to smaller circular or curvilinear churchyards, though the significance of the associations is not yet clear.
Inscribed stones and stone sculpture provide the most prolific evidence for the period, and they are crucial to our understanding of the evolution of the Welsh kingdoms, languages, literacy and the Church. Cross-carved stones and more ambitious sculpture, including freestanding crosses (sometimes with inscriptions), date from the seventh century onwards. Variations point to a number of workshop traditions or groups, often centred on monasteries. They allow us to identify a range of early medieval ecclesiastical sites and trace the patronage of the Church by the secular elite. The Royal Commission included detailed entries on many stones in their first county inventories (for example, the tenth-century cross known as Maen Achwyfan in the 1912 volume on Flintshire), and its records and photographs have enriched the new Corpus of early medieval inscribed stones and stone sculpture, the first two volumes of which appeared in 2007.
Much remains to be learned about early medieval settlement in Wales — from identifying and dating sites to understanding more complex issues. For example, how were older sites reused and new ones constructed? How did they function within a changing society? What impact did settlement have on the landscape? What variations existed in agriculture and animal husbandry? Many of the high-status sites may have provided security in times of turmoil, but where did most of the population live (estimated at two or three hundred thousand)? The archaeological archive of the Royal Commission is an essential tool for those wishing to understand six centuries of shadow-like history.