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Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Tue Mar 27, 2012 7:37 pm
by Kaliforni
A recent research interest of mine has been Dark Ages Cornwall and the Kingdom of Dumnonia. To spur discussion on this topic, I thought I'd ask a simple question: Who was the greatest King of Dumnonia, or of its apparent successor state, the Kingdom of Cornwall? (Use your own definition of "greatest.")

Here are some summaries of the candidates. Those with more experience in researching them can correct me where I'm wrong:

Cynvor (L. Marcus Conomorus, E. Mark), early/mid 6th century
He is usually identified with Prince Conomor the Usurper of Breton history and pseudohistory. This attribution seems likely, as Conomor reigned in Brittany during the same time as Cynvor reigned in Dumnonia. If we accept it, we get a rather complete picture of his reign: Inheriting the throne of Dumnonia, his early reign coincided with the Age of Saints in Cornwall, as he encouraged greater Christianization of his realm. He married into the ruling families of Brittany, attempting to unite the two realms under himself. A succession crisis ensued when the young pretender to the throne in Brittany came of age, and gained Frankish support. Cynvor was defeated, but managed to guarantee that his line continued back in Dumnonia. His personal life back in Dumnonia, although not attested historically, is remembered in legend through Tristan and Iseult, as early Breton lives of saints confirm that he was also known as "Mark."

Custennin Gorneu (E. Constantine of Cornwall), mid 6th century
Cynvor's successor, we have a rare contemporary attestation of Custennin in the form of Gildas' ca. 540 condemnation of him. Apparently embroiled in another succession crisis, Custennin murdered multiple pretenders to his throne in order to solidify his reign. Local tradition holds that he later abdicated in favor of his son, Erbin, to pursue a monastic life. If true, this move could be seen as an act of piety, or of cunning--as abdicating in favor of his son guaranteed a permanent dynasty of his descendants as long as the throne of Dumnonia lasted, and his reputation increased significantly, to the point where he is now remembered as "Saint Constantine of Cornwall." Geoffrey of Monmouth would later consider him a King of Britain.

Gerent I (Cy. Geraint mab Erbin, L. Gerontius), late 6th/early 7th century
Gerent is most notable for how fondly Welsh sources remember him, indicating that he was an invaluable military ally to other Brythonic kingdoms against the Saxons. Although his reign was probably short--tradition holds that his father, Erbin, had a long and uneventful reign, and that Gerent died in battle--and he did not necessarily win his battles, he appears to have been able to maintain significant control along the Bristol Channel. Anglo-Saxon records did not record conquest of significant Dumnonian land during Gerent's reign. He is probably the "Geraint for the South" mentioned as fighting at Catraeth in Y Gododdin, and the "Geraint son of Erbin" mentioned as fighthing at Llongborth in the Black Book of Carmarthen. He is also remembered in legend in Gereint and Enid, although it conflates him with a different person.

Cado (Cy. Cadwr, L. Cadorius), early 7th century
Most of what we know about Cado comes from placenames, as he apparently gave his name to several hillforts called "Cadbury." As these existed long before his reign, his legacy probably isn't so much one of building fortifications, but rather maintaining them in an effort to keep back the advancing Saxons. He wasn't entirely successful, however, as he is the most likely candidate chronologically to have been King of Dumnonia when the Dumnonians lost to Cynegils of Wessex in the devastating Battle of Beandun. This loss likely severed the close relationship of Dumnonia with the southern Welsh kingdoms. Nonetheless, Cado is remembered fondly in Welsh sources, and is depicted in Breuddwyd Rhonabwy as giving Excalibur to King Arthur.

Gerent II (L. Gerontius), late 7th/early 8th century
The Anglo-Saxons wrote more about Gerent II than any other Dumnonian king, likely because they found him very adversarial and they wanted his land. Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherbourne, famously condemned him for following the Celtic practice of Easter calculation, against Rome's wishes. Gerent fought a bloody war with Ine of Wessex in the early 8th century, resulting in the loss of much land to Wessex. John of Worcester records that the end of the war came in 710, when Gerent was slain in battle. Afterward, Dumnonia was reduced to the rump state of Cornwall, which the Cornish were able to maintain with victory at the Battle of Hehil, although Gerent would have been dead by that time if John of Worcester is right.

Donyarth (Cy. Dumnarth, L. Doniert), late 9th century
He is the only King of an effectively independent Cornwall (as opposed to Dumnonia) we know of by name. He drowned in the River Fowey in 876 per the Annales Cambriae, and has a very cool marker dedicated to him in St. Cleer, dating to immediately after his death.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Mar 29, 2012 9:05 am
by factotum
What about the fellow named on the men skrifa? Who else is named on stones??

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Fri Mar 30, 2012 6:22 am
by Kaliforni
"Rialobrani," right? I've wondered about him, but he seems to be absent from Welsh genealogies of Dumnonian kings, like Jesus College MS20. Maybe he was an earlier king than records, or perhaps he was only a local "king," or perhaps he was a couple of generations removed from the kingship, as the inscription suggests (that he was the son of the prince). Would you vote for him anyway?

Cynvor's name (as "Cunomori") appears on the Tristan stone. It's also the best historical evidence for the existence of Tristan, although nobody claims that Tristan was ever King.

Edit: Thanks for bringing up Rialobrani, you've encouraged me to do more research on him. I've become more convinced that he's legendary. Some Medieval folk probably developed a tradition that he was buried underneath a much more ancient standing stone, and so they carved his name into that stone, as archaeological study of the stone suggests. Also, his name seems to me to be an obvious reference to the legendary figure the Welsh called Bendigeidfran ("Bran the Blessed"), son of Llŷr. "Cunovali" is similarly a conceivable reference to Llŷr, although a more opaque one.

Naturally, I'm interested in any contrary opinions.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:12 am
by Marhak
According to the legend, Rialobran (Rialvran) was the son of a king (Cunoual/Kenwal) whose castle - Lescudjack Castle, Penzance - was overrun by a usurper (Irish?), killing Cunoual and orphaning the boy who was brought up in exile. When grown to manhood, Rialobran returned to challenge the usurper. A great battle took place at Goon Ajydnyal, close to Men an Tol, which culminated in single combat between the prince and the ususper. Rialobran died and was buried beneath the stone now called Men Scryfa (which might have been a Bronze Age menhir), so the prince never became king.

Because the local hero died, the story has a ring of truth to it. His father would only have been a regional king(let) under the overall rule of the reigning king of Dumnonia.

I don't think either man named on the stone had any connection with Bendigeidfran or Llyr; Bran being a reasonably common element in personal names; e.g. the an whose name is preserved in the farm hamlet of Brane, earlier Bosvran, "Bran's dwelling".

Inscribed stones like Men Scryfa are early Christian monuments, and there is the hint of an incised cross on the stone. They were set up in one of two types of location: in an early enclosure (lan) of the Celtic Church; or beside an important trackway. The Men Scryfa stands between two parallel routes of the Tinners' Way track (Old St Ives Road), and just west of the point where they meet near the Four Parish Stone (Men Crows).

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Tue Apr 10, 2012 8:26 am
by Marhak
A year ago, I took issue with the University of London, which issues disgraceful "educational" sheets, being more fiction than fact. One of these has the temerity to describe King Doniert's Stone as "Anglo-Saxon"!!!!!!!!!! The University never even had the decency to respond.

The Annales Cambriae entry of 875 is of great interest in that it contains the name of Cornwall, in Celtic not in the Latin it's otherwise written in, and specifically mentions the Cornish people (in Latin). "Dungarth rex Cerniu, id est Cornubiae, mersus est" (Donyarth, king of Cornwall, that is the Cornish people, is drowned". This, 37 years AFTER the Battle of Hengestesdun, which all too many Anglocentric twistorians groundlessly claim to have represented the conquest of Cornwall. (PS - I don't believe for one minute that Hengestesdun was Hingston Down, Callington; but Hingston Down, Moretonhampstead, within 10 miles of Saxon-held Exeter and Crediton).

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Wed Apr 11, 2012 7:41 pm
by Kaliforni
Thanks for the excellent reply about Rialvran, Marhak. If you don't mind, I have a few more questions regarding him, trying to further separate history from legend:
  • You presented an excellent summary of the plausibly historical aspects of the Rialvran legend, but surely you're also aware of the purely legendary aspects, as well. In particular, local tradition remembers him as a giant, and says that he continued to protect his land even after he was buried. There's also a tradition that his family founded a church in the area. I can dig up citations for those traditions if you haven't heard of them before. So, I agree that the name "Bran" alone is not sufficient to connect him to Bendigeidfran, but the legends seem to me to match to a degree: Both were giants from families that helped found Christianity in their areas, ruled near the sea, died in battles against the Irish, were buried at notable existing places, and continued to protect their people from future invasions even after they were buried. What do you think could be causing the similarities here? Bendigeidfran-type tradition superimposed on a real person (Rialvran)? Common Brythonic legendary archetypes without any real connection?
  • Does the Cunoual name sound as much like a euphemism to you as it does to me? If so, does using a euphemism for local royalty have precedence in the time period? I thought it was typical to use personal names of local royalty, not euphemisms.
  • Are there other examples of burying people at ancient menhirs from the time period? I thought that other local royalty tended to get new markers.
Regarding other topics: I agree that it is nonsensical to call Doniert's Stone "Anglo-Saxon," it clearly isn't, and all the evidence I've read points to Cornwall being effectively independent during Donyarth's time. And I suppose you voted for Gerent II? I personally view him as having been militarily weak... but he's an excellent choice if you're wanting someone who particularly irked the Saxons.

One last question for anyone willing to field it: Was there ever a King Bledric of Cornwall or Dumnonia? Sources contradict each other on this point. I have an opinion, but would like others first!

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:29 pm
by Marhak
"When the cold mists fill the air / You can see him standing there / His blood-stained tunic still he wears / On the field of White Down". So runs the final verse of the song about the Rialobran legend by my good old friend Jan Beare.

As it stands, the legend seems very local in character, but I do see some similarities with the Bran legend. There are some legends - John of Chyannor, for example - which have parallels even in mid-Europe. The Jack the Tinkeard legends have several definite links with the Irish story of Lugh Lamhfhada. The Men Scryfa stands very close to Carn Galva, stronghold of a protective giant (a protector of the local people) named Holiburn, and it's been noted that Holiburn and Rialobran are not a million miles apart. (Hannibal's Carn, the next hill to the NE, is different - that's named after an 18th century farmer called Hannibal Thomas).

I have little doubt that some trackside inscribed stones are re-used menhirs, but I don't think archaeology has either confirmed or disproven this. Certainly some menhirs in Brittany were heavily Christianised.

Bledric/Blederic. I find no solid historical reference to him and he has to be treated for now as legendary only. That doesn't mean to say that the man never existed. It's just that it can't yet be proven.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 2:31 am
by factotum
Craig : I don't believe a word of your tale about Rialobran, but it's sounds like a damn good yarn, and would make a better movie than many I've seen.

One thing that has always puzzled me is where the Irish come in. There are ogham stones about the place to show they came here, just as they did to Dyfed and LLŷn, but there don't really seem to any Irish loans in Cornish, or Irish place names, or indeed any mention of their role in history. One book I read claimed that the Cornovii were drafted down here by Voritgern from Powys, expressly to clear the Irish out. So difficult to sort out history from myth.

Btw. many of the names like LLŷr/Lir (sea?), Bran (raven), Lugus/Lugh/LLeu (light) etc. turn up in Irish legends too, and even in continental place names, so caution is needed. Still, you can't beat a good tale :-)

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 2:39 am
by factotum
And of course looking out the door that faced towards Cornwall was what finally stopped Bran's severed head from speaking, after 80 years was it? Mind you thinking about some recent politicians ... But then he did say "A fo pen bid pont", roughly "He who would lead must become a bridge" ... Enough!

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 8:57 am
by Marhak
It isn't my tale, Keith, but the local legend as relayed by Hunt and Bottrell c.1880. Re: the Irish, several Cornish inscribed stones without Ogam script have Irish names on them: Cunaide (Cunaida) at Hayle; Quenataucus (containing quen- 'head') and Dinuus (Denawas) at Bleu Bridge; Brocagnus (Brocagnas, "little badger") at St Endellion; Vailathus (Faelath, "howler") and Vrochanus (Froechan, "little heather"), Cardinham, amongst them. As there's precious little evidence of any 5th/6th centiry Irish invasion, other than folk-tales, these people could just as easily have been travellers, traders or priests.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:11 pm
by Kaliforni
Marhak wrote:Bledric/Blederic. I find no solid historical reference to him and he has to be treated for now as legendary only. That doesn't mean to say that the man never existed. It's just that it can't yet be proven.
As I understand it, with Bledric, we're working mainly with Geoffrey, the Historie of Cambria, and the Book of Baglan, none of which are known for their impeccable history. But it is worth noting that Geoffrey did include real Dumnonian kings in his work (Mark, Cador, and Constantine... although he probably got the order wrong), with Gorloise being the only obvious invention in the time period of interest. I don't really trust the Historie of Cambria (any reason why I should?), which leaves the Book of Baglan. The list has already been posted on this forum, and it clearly follows the Galfridian order. So it's probably derived, but I think its purpose is worth noting, as a genealogy of established nobility. Why did later nobility claim descent from Bledric rather than Erbin? The obvious answer is that Geoffrey said Bledric was important, not Erbin, and so that was the invented tradition. I favor this interpretation. But it's not difficult to imagine that these sources are right that Custennin had a son named Bledric, and that was the line that survived. And while we're speculating, we can recall that the Historie of Cambria says that Bledric died circa 613, after both Erbin and Gerent I (who died young, per tradition). Gerent I's son, Cado, would have needed a regent if he was still coming of age when his father died... but I digress. For now, Bledric should be considered legendary.

IMHO, the "correct" king list is the one given in Jesus College MS 20, which, recall, is:
Mam theudu m Pedur m Cado m Gereint m Erbin. Gereint m Erbin m Kyn6a6r m tudwa6l m G6rwa6r m Gadeon m Cynan m Eudaf hen.
...but with three caveats: (1) It is missing Custennin, which is probably simply a mistake. He should fit between Erbin and Kynvawr. (2) It delves into the legendary at some point, probably at those prior to Gurvawr. (3) It's not clear if Theudu and Perdur were kings or princes, since this is a genealogy, not a king list. Although, they're also the only candidates we have, and this is a very important genealogy (of the Queen of Brittany), so their status as kings seems quite likely. Gerent II seems likely chronologically to have succeeded Theudu.

I also find that there is a strong enough tradition to consider certain princes historical, namely Tristan, son of Cynvor, Dywel, son of Erbin, and possibly some others.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:23 pm
by Marhak
Susan Pearce's "The Kingdom of Dumnonia" has (I think) 2 king lists. The book might now be out of print, but some libraries may have it.

Interesting info re: The Tristan Stone, Fowey. The (barely legible) mid 6th century inscription reads DRVSTANS IC IACIT CVNOWORI FILIUS, but John Leland recorded a third line, possibly broken from the stone during one of its several moves. This apparently said: CVM DOMINA OVSILLA ("with the Lady Ousilla"). As Drustans is a feasible original of "Tristan", so "Ousilla" would be a reasonable Latinisation of Esylt (Adsiltia, "to be gazed upon: a British equivalent of the Greek Miranda). If Leland really saw this, then the stone would name all three of the legend's central characters, if we can believe Wrmonoc's "Marcus, also Quonomorius [Cunomoros]). Oliver Padel dismisses this totally BUT - Leland himself never equated the names with the legend, and therefore wasn't looking for sensationalism. Was he simply describing what he saw?

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:55 pm
by Kaliforni
I think that the "CVM DOMINA OVSILLA" possibility is fascinating, but should obviously be treated with caution, as I'm sure you agree. I don't think we have any unambiguous record of historical queens, do we? For example, Gerent I's traditional wife, Enid, is more likely an invention of Medieval romances than a historical person.

Re: Who was the greatest king of Dumnonia/Cornwall?

Posted: Sat Apr 14, 2012 8:57 am
by Marhak
Gerent I is said to have had 3 sons, Cado who succeeded him; plus Yestin and Selyf. At least one of these, possibly both, went into the Church and could have been SS. Just and Selevan. The Selus Stone, in St Just church (which reportedly bore the word PRESBITER (priest) at its foot when found) intrigues me, especially as the only feasible meaning of "Lafrowda" is "lann vreder" (brothers' church site). St Selevan buried in his brother's church????

And what of St Just? Where is he buried? Out on the western boundary of St Just parish, beside a crossroads of ancient trackways, is the Boslow inscribed stone. This bears a 7th century one-name inscription, a contemporary cross and what appear to be Alpha and Omega symbols. It also still stands at one end of a traceable grave and is, therefore, a rare survival. The name is TAETVERA (Taethuere), meaning "exalter of the journey". Many priests of the time took a "name in religion", much as Popes do, and St Patrick is a good example of this (his real name appears to have been Magonus). So, if Taethuere was not the man's real name, what might that have been? The stone is named in 1613 - as Crowze East (Crows Ust: St Just's cross). Food for thought?