The Kingdom of Powys was a Welsh successor state that emerged during the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal from Britain. Based on the Romano-British tribal lands of the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii in the east, its boundaries originally extended from the Cambrian Mountains in the west to include the modern West Midlands region of England in the east. The fertile river valleys of the Severn and Tern are found here, and this region is referred to in later Welsh literature as "the Paradise of Powys". The name is thought to derive from the Latin "pagus" meaning the country-side, also a cognate of 'pagan'. During the Roman Empire this region was organised into a Roman province, with the capital at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter), the fourth largest Roman city in Britain.
Throughout the Early Middle Ages, Powys was ruled by the Gwerthrynion dynasty, a family claiming descent jointly from the marriage of Vortigern and Princess Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus. Archaeological evidence has shown that, unusually for the post-Roman period, Viroconium Cornoviorum survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the Powys capital. Nennius, writing in the 8th century in his "History of the Britons", recorded the town as Caer Guricon, one of his "28 British Towns" of Roman Britain. In the following centuries, the Powys eastern border was encroached upon by English settlers from the emerging Anglian territory of Mercia. This was a gradual process, and English control in the West Midlands was uncertain until the late 8th century.
In 549 a great plague arrived in Britain, and Welsh communities were devastated, with villages and countryside alike depopulated. However, the English were less affected by this plague, as they had far fewer trading contacts with the continent at this time. Faced with shrinking manpower and increasing Anglian encroachment, King Brochwel Ysgithrog may have moved the court from Caer Guricon to Pengwern, the exact site of which is unknown but may have been at Shrewsbury, traditionally associated with Pengwern, or the more defensible Din-Gwrygon, the hillfort on the Wrekin.
In 616, the armies of Æthelfrith of Northumbria clashed with Powys. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Northumbrian monarch's political rival, Edwin of Deira, was living in exile in Gwynedd around this time. Historians such as John Morris have suggested that Æthelfrith attempted to capture him, but presumably King Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys denied access through Powys to Edwin in Gwynedd, and seeing an opportunity to further drive a wedge between the North Welsh and those of Rheged, Æthelfrith invaded Powys' northern lands. Æthelfrith forced a battle near Chester and defeated Selyf and his allies. At the commencement of the battle, Bede tells us that the pagan Æthelfrith had 1,200 monks from the important monastery of Bangor-Is-Coed in Maelor, slaughtered because he said "they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers". Selyf was also killed in the battle and may have been the first of the Kings of Powys to be buried at the church dedicated to St. Tysilio, at Meifod, thence known as the Eglwys Tysilio and subsequently the dynasty's Royal mausoleum.
If King Cynddylan of Pengwern hailed from the royal Powys dynasty, then forces from Powys were also present at the Battle of Maes Cogwy in 642. Subsequent to this, the region around Pengwern was sacked, its royal family slaughtered and most of its lands were annexed by Mercia, some by Powys. These events were remembered in Welsh poems which told of the desolation of Princess Heledd (Canu Heledd) on hearing of the death of her brother (Marwnad Cynddylan).
Powys enjoyed a resurgence with successful campaigns against the English in 655, 705-707 and 722, wrote Davies. The court was moved to Mathrafal Castle in the valley of the river Vyrnwy by 717, possibly by king Elisedd ap Gwylog (d.c. 755). Elisedd's successes led Mercian King Aethelbald of Mercia to build Wat's Dyke. This endeavour may have been with Elisedd's own agreement, however, for this boundary, extending north from the Severn valley to the Dee estuary, gave Oswestry (Welsh: Croesoswallt) to Powys. King Offa of Mercia seems to have continued this consultive initiative when he created a larger earth work, now known as Offa's Dyke (Welsh: Clawdd Offa). Davies wrote of Cyril Fox's study of Offa's Dyke:
In the planning of it, there was a degree of consultation with the kings of Powys and Gwent. On the Long Mountain near Trelystan, the dyke veers to the east, leaving the fertile slops in the hands of the Welsh; near Rhiwabod, it was designed to ensure that Cadell ap Brochwel retained possession of the Fortress of Penygadden." And for Gwent Offa had the dyke built "on the eastern crest of the gorge, clearly with the intention of recognizing that the river Wye and its traffic belonged to the kingdom of Gwent.
This new border moved Oswestry back to the English side of the new frontier, and Offa attacked Powys in 760 at Hereford, and again on 778, 784 and 796. Offa's Dyke largely remained the frontier between the Welsh and English, though the Welsh would recover by the 12th century the area between the Dee and the Conwy known then as the Perfeddwlad.
Powys was united with Gwynedd when king Merfyn Frych of Gwynedd married princess Nest, the sister of king Cyngen of Powys, the last representative of the Gwertherion dynasty. With the death of Cyngen in 855 Rhodri became king of Powys, having inherited Gwynedd the year before. This formed the basis of Gwynedd's continued claims of overlordship over Powys for the next 443 years. Rhodri the Great ruled over most of modern Wales until his death in 878. His sons would in turn found dynasties of their own which would loom large in Welsh history, each claiming decent from Rhodri. Merfyn inherited Powys, whilst his brothers, Anarawd ap Rhodri and Cadell, established the Aberffraw dynasty in Gwynedd and the line of Dinefwr respectively.
In 942 Hywel ap Cadell of Deheubarth (Rhodri's grandson through his second son, Cadell) seized Gwynedd on the death of his cousin, Idwal Foel. He apparently took Powys from Llywelyn ap Merfyn at the same time and arranged for a dynastic marriage between their children. Hywel had founded Deheubarth 920 out of his maternal and paternal inheritances, and maintained close relations with Athelstan of England, often visiting Athelstan's court. Hywel studied the English legal system and reformed the Welsh laws in his own realms, and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome in 928, he took his collection of laws, which allegedly were blessed by the pope. Hywel encouraged the use of coinage in Wales, having his monies minted in Chester, a benefit of his relations with England. In 945 Hywel held an assembly in Whitland to codify his law codes, though with the aid of the celebrated cleric Blefywryd. Hwyel's works would lead posterity to name him the good or in Welsh Hywel Dda, and his reign is recognised as an unusually peaceful one. On his death, Gwynedd reverted back to the Aberffraw dynasty, though Powys and Deheubarth were divided between his sons. Maredudd ab Owain rebuilt the kingdom of his grandfather Hywel the Good. He was king of Deheubarth and Powys by 986, when he seized Gwynedd. Maredudd fought off English encroachment in Powys and increasing Viking raids in Gwynedd. He is recorded to have paid a penny for hostages captured by Vikings, a large sum for his time. With Maredudd's death in 999, Powys passed to his grandson Llywelyn ap Seisyll, through Maredudd's elder daughter Princess Anghared (with her first husband Seisyll ap Owian), while Deheubarth was divided between his sons. Gwynedd temporarily returned to the Aberffraw line. Though the next century would see the abandonment of the senior historic families as increased Viking incursions and incessant warfare led usurpers to overthrow the Aberffraw and Dinefwr houses which were not recovered by them until the latter part of the century.
Llywelyn's son Gruffydd would unite all Wales under his own kingship, displacing his cousins in Deheubarth, and even expanding into England affecting politics there. With Gruffydd's death Deheubarth passed through a series of rulers with various claims, but would return to the historic Dinefwr dynasty in 1063 in the person of Maredudd ab Owain ab Edwin.
It is through Princess Anghared (as daughter of Maredudd ab Owain of Deheubarth and Powys), her second husband was Cynfyn ap Gwerstan, that the Mathrafal dynasty was founded. The dynasty takes its name from the historic seat of Mathrafal Castle. Anghared's son Bleddyn ap Cynfyn would inherit Powys in 1063 on the death of his maternal half-brother Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Bleddyn, the name means wolf in Welsh, secured Gwynedd in 1063 after a battle with the Aberffraw claimant Cynan ap Iago, with Edward the Confessor of England endorsing Bleddyn's seizure later that year. Additionally, Bleddyn is recorded as amending the Law Codes of Hywel Dda.
Bleddyn ap Cynfyn and his brother Rhiwallon fought alongside the Anglo-Saxons against the Norman Invasion. In 1067 they allied with the Mercian Eadric the Wild in an attack on the Normans at Hereford, then in 1068 with Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria in another attack on the Normans. In 1070 he defeated his half-nephews, the sons of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, in the battle of Mechain in their bid to take Gwynedd. Bleddyn ap Cynfyn himself was killed in 1075 while campaigning in Deheubarth against Rhys ab Owain. With Bleddyn's death, Powys passed to his sons and grandsons in their turn. Gwynedd passed to his cousin Trehaearn ap Caradog, who was killed in 1081 at the Battle of Mynydd Carn, and would then return to the histioric Aberffraw dynasty in the person of Gruffydd ap Cynan. Powys was itself divided between Bleddyn's sons Iorwerth, Cadwgan, and Maredudd.
After William of Normandy secured England, he left the Welsh to his Norman barons to carve out lordships for themselves. Thus the Welsh March was formed along the Ango-Welsh borderlands. By 1086 the Norman Earl Roger de Montgomery of Shrewsbury had built a castle at the Severn ford of Rhydwhiman, named Montgomery Castle after his home in Normandy. After Montgomery other Normans claimed the north Powys' cantrefi of Ial, Cynllaith, Edernion, and Nanheudwy. From here they took Arwstle, Ceri, and Cedwain. Almost the whole of Powys, as much of Wales, was in Norman hands by 1090. The three sons of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn would lead the resistance and their restoration in Powys. By 1096 they had retaken most of Powys, including Montgomery Castle. Roger Montgomery rose in revolt against King William II of England and his son Robert Belleme had his lands confiscated in 1102.
Through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the House of Mathrafal struggled to retain its lands in Powys against Norman Marcher lords and a resurgent Gwynedd. After 1160, when Madog ap Maredudd died and his designated son and heir, Llywelyn ap Madog, was killed the realm disintegrated on and was divided into northern and southern principalities. Divided they were weaker still and while the northern realm of Powys Fadog largely supported the independent aspirations of neighbouring Gwynedd under Owain Gwynedd, Llywelyn Fawr and Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the southern realm of Powys Wenwynwyn was frequently at loggerheads with the princes of Gwynedd and often chose an independent course. By 1263 all Powys acknowledged Llywelyn the Last as the Prince of Wales but Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn the lord of Powys-Wenwynwyn changed allegiance again in 1274 and was exiled to England. He was reinstated during the new English campaign against Llywelyn of Gwynedd in 1276. In the final campaign of Llywelyn the Last in 1282 the forces of Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn were instrumental in the downfall of Llywelyn when they alongside Roger Lestrange of Ellesmere and Roger Mortimer ambushed Llywelyn and killed him.
Powys Fadog (northern Powys) largely became the English lordship of Bromfield and Yale (the latter now spelt Iâl), but the lordship of Glyndyfrdwy and half the commote of Cynllaith (known as Cynllaith Owain), including Sycharth remained in Welsh hands until the defeat of Owain Glyndŵr.
The name Powys for this area disppeared (at latest) with the introduction of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 when its marcher lordships were incorporated into the new counties of Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire.
Powys would not be resurrected until the boundary changes in 1974 created a new and enlarged county of Powys that merged the counties of Montgomeryshire, Brecknockshire and Radnorshire. However, Brecknockshire had not traditionally been within the bounds of the old kingdom, Radnorshire had not been part of it since the mid-10th century, and large areas of the north formerly within Powys were placed in the new county of Clwyd.
Kings of Powys
House of Gwerthrynion
Gwrtheyrn (High-King Vortigern)
Cadeyern Fendigaid c.430 - 447 Reputed eldest son of Gwrtheyrn, blessed by Saint Germanus
Cadell Ddyrnllwg c. 447 - 460
Rhyddfedd Frych c. 480
Cyngen Glodrydd c. 500
Pasgen ap Cyngen c. 530
Morgan ap Pasgen c. 540
Brochwel Ysgithrog c. 550
Cynan Garwyn (? – 610)
Selyf ap Cynan (610 – 613)
Manwgan ap Selyf (613)
Eiludd Powys (613 – ?)
Beli ap Eiludd vers 655
Gwylog ap Beli (695? – 725)
Elisedd ap Gwylog (725 – 755?)
Brochfael ap Elisedd (755? – 773)
Cadell ap Elisedd (773 – 808)
Cyngen ap Cadell (808 – 854) Throne usurped by Gwynedd and exiled to Rome where the family endured
House of Manaw
Rhodri Mawr (854 – 878) of Gwynedd, inheriting through his mother
Merfyn ap Rhodri (878 – 900)
Llywelyn ap Merfyn (900 – 942)
Hywel Dda (942 – 950) Usurped from the Aberffraw line
Owain ap Hywel (950 – 986) Ruled thereafter by a cadet branch of the House of Dinefwr, establishing the Mathrafal dynasty of rulers
Maredudd ap Owain (986 – 999)
Llywelyn ap Seisyll (999 – 1023), son of Anghered by her first husband. Anghered is the daughter of Maredudd ab Owain
Rhydderch ap Iestyn (1023 – 1033)
Iago ap Idwal (1033 – 1039)
Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (1039 – 1063)
Mathrafal Princes of Powys
Bleddyn ap Cynfyn (1063 – 1075)
Iorwerth ap Bleddyn 1075 - 1103 (part)
Cadwgan ap Bleddyn (1075 - 1111 (part)
Owain ap Cadwgan (1111 - 1116 (part)
Maredudd ap Bleddyn (1116 – 1132)
Madog ap Maredudd (1132 – 1160)
From 1160 Powys was split into two parts. The southern part was later called Powys Wenwynwyn after Gwenwynwyn ab Owain "Cyfeiliog" ap Madog, while the northern part was called Powys Fadog after Madog ap Gruffydd "Maelor" ap Madog