Llywarch Hen ‘the Old’ is a legendary Welsh hero, supposedly the first-cousin of Urien Rheged, who lost his sons and lands in the wars against the Saxons and eventually to Powys where he lived as an enfeebled, old man until he died. Very late texts have Llywarch the Old as an exile in Arthur’s court.

Genealogy of Llywarch the OldEdit

Llywarch is unmentioned in the Harleian MS. 3859 Genealogies. But in the tract De Situ Brecheniauc, three of King Brychan’s daughters marry descendants of Coel the Old:

Nyvein marries Kynvarch and becomes mother to Urien Rheged,
Euerdil marries Elidir (Eliffer) and becomes mother to Gwrgi and Peredur,
and Guaur marries Lydanwyn and becomes mother to Llywarch the Old.

In Bonedd y Saint 17, the saint Buan is made out to be the son of Ysgwn the son of Llywarch the Old.

Finally, in Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, Elidyr Lydanwyn appears as the brother of Cynvarch father of Urien Rheged and the father of Llywarch the Old as in later texts. Putting this all together:

    │            ♂Brychan              │
    │           ┌────┴───┐             │
♂Cynfarch = ♀Nyvein   ♀Guaur = ♂Elidir Lydanwyn
          │                  │
    ♂Urien Rheged      ♂Llywarch Hen

Poems of Llywarch the OldEdit

A number of poems attributed to Llywarch are found in the Black Book of Carmarthen, the oldest manuscript to contain secular material, and also in the later Red Book of Hergest, and was probably also in the White Book of Rhydderch when that manuscript was complete.

These poems are in the Welsh of their day, more-or-less, certainly not in the Welsh of the 6th or 7th century when the historical Urien Rheged flourished. The poems then appear to be the work of a poet or of more than one poet of perhaps the 10th century. Whether these were based on earlier poems no longer preserved that were written by an historical Llywarch the Old or whether they are pure invention is unknown.

Some of the poems seem to imagine Llywarch and his sons fighting in Powys rather than in the north of Urien Rheged. Ifor Williams, in his Canu Llywarch Hen suggests that the ninth century when Powys was suffering in a war with Mercia is a reasonable time when they might have been composed. Patrick K. Ford (in his The Poetry of Llywarch Hen connects the poems to the new dynasty of Gwenydd established by Mervyn Frych (d. 844) whose lineage was traced up to one Llywarch the Old by the learned (and obsequious).

In one poem Llywarch describes himself as carrying the head of Urien which he has apparently cut off when Urien was slain to prevent it falling into the hand of his enemies.

In traditional scholarship, these poems were believed to the be the verse portions of a saga of Llywarch the Old, and those verses that could most easily be fitted into the saga were rearranged in a more sensible order and printed in that fashion, ignoring verses that could not easily be fitted. Ford thinks this to be an unprovable and unlikely theory and instead, in his edition of the poems, prints them in the same order as found in the Red Book, which he shows from fragments and incomplete copies to have also been the order in the lost pages of the White Book.

Ford suspects that the poems date to the late 9th or early 10th century and to be the record of a poet who, in a trance, spoke as Llywarch the Old.

The Story of LlywarchEdit

A history of Llywarch’s life was written in 1777 by one Richardus Thomas who was both inventive and credulous. Thomas, as was common at the time, attributed not only those surviving poems attributed to Llywarch as genuine works of that man, but almost all other poems in the Red Book and used such details as he could pull from these poems and genealogies to invent a life of Llywarch with never a thought that anything in them might be the least dubious.

This life was included in William Owen Pughe’s The heroic elegies and other pieces of Llywarç Hen, prince of the Cumbrian Britons which first printed in 1792 the Llywarch Hen poems and various other medieval Welsh poems with translations. This life is the bases of the life of Llywarch in many later, supposedly learned, works.

Llywarch the Old in an Early TriadEdit

In Triad 8 in [[Rachel Bromich|Bromich]'s Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Llywarch is one of the Three Prostrate Chieftains, along with Manawydan son of Llŷ Half-speech and Gwgon Gwron son of Peredur son of Eliffer son of Eliffer of the Great Retinue.

According to Bromwich (2006, pp. 15–16), the word liedyf, here translated as ‘prostrate’, may mean ‘humble, downcast, yielding’. She notes that this fits well the character of Manawydan in the third branch of the Mabinogi who makes no protest against King Caswallawn son of Beli who has slain Manawydan’s nephew Caradoc son of Brân and in general in the take does no act heroically against any who do him wrong (except for a single mouse) which is one of the points of the story.

However Llywarch, in the poems attributed to him, is hardly so unresisting. Bromwich suggests that the meaning of liedyf here is ‘subdued by misfortune’.

Llywarch the Old and ArthurEdit

In the Historia Brittonum the era of Urien Rheged (and therefore of Llywarch) was the late 6th and/or the early 7th century, long after the time in which Arthur was supposed to have flourished. However later texts make Urien and his sons Owein Rheged to be contemporaries of Arthur, in which case Llywarch the Old would also be a contemporary of Arthur and there would be pressure to connect Llywarch with Arthur.

In Bromwich’s Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Triad 65 lists the Three Licensed Guests at Arthur’s Court and the Three Homeless/Dissatisfied Ones as Llywarch the Old, Llemenig, and Heledd. The same names appear in Triad 76 as Three Violent(?) Marvellous(?) Ones of the Island of Britain and in Triad 77 as the Three Wanderers of Arthur’s Court.

Llywarch is also listed, along with Cynon son of Clydno and Aron, as one of the Three knights of Counsel among the Twenty-four Knights of Arthur’s court.


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