2. Canu Tysilio
edited by Ann Parry Owen
An edition of this poem was published by Ann Parry Owen in the Poets of the Princes Series (GCBM i, poem 3), and its background was discussed further in Parry Owen 1992: 15–50, and later by Nerys Ann Jones and Morfydd E. Owen in an important article where they attempted to place the three twelfth-century poems to saints in their contemporary political and historical context (Jones and Owen 2003: 45–76). They argued that Cynddelw’s poem for Tysilio was a product of Gwynedd not of Powys as had been suggested by Parry Owen, and placed it ‘not in the court of the prince of Powys sometime during the reign of Madog, … but in Gwynedd, probably in the last decade of the reign of Owain Gwynedd who died in 1170’ (ibid. 59–60). Powys had faced a period of crisis following the death of Prince Madog ap Maredudd in 1160 and the murder of his son and heir, Llywelyn, a few months later. Powys was divided between the descendants, and whilst they all vied against each other for supremacy, the kingdom as a whole became weakened. The threat to this divided Powys from the English over the border, and an increasingly powerful Gwynedd to the west, was great, and Canu Tysilio was interpreted as a plea to Owain Gwynedd, Cynddelw’s foremost patron by the second half of the 1160s, to guard the interests of his church at Meifod. The argument is summarized in Stephenson 2016: 66–7:
The necessity for the extension of Venedotian control over Powys appears to
provide the most convincing context for the composition of Canu Tysilio,
which may be interpreted as a prospectus for, or a justification for, the
intervention of Owain Gwynedd, the Prydain ddragon of the poem. Tysilio’s
church at Meifod was presented as part of a continuum of places associated
with the saint, and several key locations of that continuum were presented as
lying in the realm of Owain Gwynedd – particularly in Anglesey and
Eifionydd. Effectively the poem places Meifod under Venedotian protection
The argument depends, to a great extent, on whether we accept that it was sung from the perspective of Gwynedd. It is suggested in Jones and Owen 2003: 59–60 that the description of Meifod as being ‘near the place where Gwyddfarch is beyond Gwynedd’ (Ger y mae Gwyddfarch uch Gwynedd, l. 46) describes the location of the church from the standpoint of the poet and his audience in Owain Gwynedd’s court. However, is it perhaps more likely that Cynddelw is locating Meifod from the perspective of Tysilio, who had retreated to Gwynedd to flee from his father, and later on, from his unkind sister-in-law? This is the matter that Cynddelw had discussed earlier in this first caniad, where he described the saint’s ‘confinement of exile’ ([c]archar alltudedd, l. 21). We learn from the hagiographical material preserved in Brittany (see n70(e)) that after fleeing to a church on the Menai Straits Tysilio was summoned back to Meifod because his old teacher, Gwyddfarch, was talking of undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome, thus leaving the community at Meifod bereft of its leader. Tysilio promised Gwyddfarch that should he stay in Meifod he would arrange for him to see Rome from there, and one afternoon he led his old teacher up a hill near the church, whence he enjoyed a magnificent view of the city and its glorious buildings. Is it not more likely that line 46 should be understood in this context (i.e. from the perspective of Tysilio who was in Anglesey and had to travel ‘beyond Gwynedd’ to return to Meifod), rather than in that of the twelfth century? Similarly line 173 ‘confessor of the imperiled people of Gwynedd’ (Periglawr peryglus Wyndyd) could be interpreted as a description of Tysilio during his exile in Gwynedd; a few lines later he is described as ‘The sustainer of Powys, chieftain of fortitude’ (Post Powys, pergyng cedernyd, l. 193), and one who had spent some time in the past in the region of Pen Mynydd (possibly in Anglesey, but again this is not certain, see n83(e)). The purpose of both these lines is to emphasize Tysilio’s authority over both kingdoms, reflecting the extent of his cult. The line ‘he achieved heaven in the land of Eifionydd’ (Gorpu nef yn Eifionydd dudded, l. 20) is understood in Jones and Owen 2003: 59 as a reference to the saint’s death. However, as it was a topos in the poetry to refer to ecclesiastical life as ‘heaven’ (see n8(e)), Cynddelw may be referring to the time Tysilio spent in a church in Eifionydd during his youth (see n64(e) on llan Llydaw). If Eifionydd was indeed his place of death – and there is no evidence to support that – then it is likely that his body was translated to Meifod, the main church associated with his cult.
The evidence from the poem is therefore inconclusive and difficult to pin down, and does not provide us with a strong argument for rejecting the view that this symphonic-scale poem was commissioned by Madog ap Maredudd, prince of Powys, by his chief poet, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, to promote the reputation and status of Meifod as the foremost church of Powys and Tysilio as its main saint. The detailed knowledge it displays of the history of the royal line of Powys, and the way that Tysilio himself is presented as a leading member of this line, describing his crucial role in winning a victory for Powys against Northumbria in the historical battle of Maes Gogwy (Maserfelth) in c.642 (see n48(e)), strongly suggests that the intellectual context for this poem was the royal court of Powys, not that of Gwynedd. And as Rachel Bromwich noted (TYP4 xcvii), Cynddelw’s knowledge of Powys’s past, as evidenced, for example, by this poem and its reference to the battle of Maes Cogwy, ‘points to an especially lively interest in the older heroic traditions at the court of Madog ap Maredudd in the mid-twelfth century’ (see the notes on caniad IV).
If we are correct in placing the poem in the final years of Madog ap Maredudd’s reign, c.1156–60, its date corresponds with the highly ambitious rebuilding work undertaken by Madog at Meifod, when he raised the profile and status of this old clas church by introducing modern and international architectural features and sculpture. Stephenson 2016: 54–5 links this major building work with the new dedication to the Virgin Mary in 1156:
The dedication itself was significant for it indicated that Madog was aligning
his new church with the international cult of the Virgin and thus announcing
his presence as a ruler whose influence was more than local. He was the
patron of a church whose new dedication was the same as that of the
Cistercian abbeys …
Malcolm Thurlby further suggests that Cynddelw’s description of the vision of Rome enjoyed by Gwyddfarch at Meifod was another attempt to raise Meifod’s profile, by suggesting a direct relationship between it and Rome: ‘This must surely be read as a strong statement in favour of the clas church, in that Meifod was associated with Rome without any Norman intermediary to impose or supervise Gregorian reform’ (see Thurlby 2006: 248–9 quoted in Stephenson 2016: 54–5).
It was also during this period that Madog ap Maredudd built his castle at Mathrafal, a short distance south of Meifod: ‘Within the heartland of Powys, Madog was responsible in 1156 for the construction of a castle near a cymer, or confluence of two rivers, in Caereinion, and this can be identified with some confidence as the significant fortification at Mathrafal’ (ibid. 51).
All these elements suggest that it was Madog ap Maredudd’s ambition during the final years of his reign to create a power hub for himself in the valley of Meifod that he could pass on in time to his son and heir, Llywelyn.
The attention Cynddelw gives to Meifod’s cemetery, which he describes as gwyddfa brenhinedd ‘the burial-place of kings’ (l. 48), is also interesting. Stephenson 2016: 54 describes the location of the church within ‘an exceptionally large curvilinear churchyard suggestive of great antiquity’; its size certainly suggests that it could have been a burial-place for the kings of Powys in the past. It was there that Madog ap Maredudd himself was buried in 1160: BT (RB) 140–1: Ac yMeivot, yn y lle yd oed y wydua, yn eglwys Tissilyaw sant y cladwyt yn enrydedus ‘And in Meifod, where his burial-place was, in the church of St. Tysilio, he was honourably buried’. However, apart from its size and Cynddelw’s description, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the cemetery was used as the burial-place of the princes of Powys before Madog’s time, although Stephenson 2016: 223 states that it is ‘likely’ that Madog’s father, Maredudd ap Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, was buried there. Sometime between 1132 and 1151 Madog was named in a charter presenting a grant to the church at Trefeglwys in Arwystli (Pryce 1993: 15–54, especially 51), but this does not weaken the argument that Madog was also a patron of Meifod, because princes would often grant gifts to more than one institution. (In the case of the Trefeglwys charter, Madog doubtless wanted to emphasize his authority as the chief ruler of Arwystli, land that lay outside the heartland of Powys itself; and by styling himself in the charter as rex Powissensium ‘the king of the people of Powys’ he was making it clear that the people of Arwystli belonged to Powys.) Is it possible that the promoting of the cemetery of Meifod as the burial-place of the royal line of Powys was part of Madog’s ambition to create his centre of power in Meifod-Mathrafal? And is Cynddelw, by promoting the cemetery as such in his poem, fulfilling one of the requirements of his commission?
In the ninth and final caniad, Cynddelw turns his attention to the contemporary rulers at Meifod, referring specifically to the head of the church, the abbot, a local man (l. 225 Ei hynaf henyw o’i thirion ‘its leader springs from its territory’); to the prior, or second in command (sygynnab, l. 227), who enjoys many poets’ praise; and to Archdeacon Caradog, who cares for the people of Powys (ll. 229–32) and who also hails from a local aristocratic family (see n95(e)). It was probably at Meifod that thearchdeaconry of Powys was based at this time (Stephenson 2016: 55), this being part of the bishopric of St Asaph which was established in 1141. Thus Meifod is likely to be the Llan Bowys to which Cynddelw refers in line 153. Stephenson 2016: 56 suggests that during the final years of his reign, Madog ap Maredudd sought to strengthen the archdeaconry, ensuring ‘that should the episcopal seat [i.e. St Asaph] – liable to influence from both the earldom of Chester and the expanding realm of Gwynedd – fall into hostile hands, Powys would still be under the effective control of an ecclesiastical officer based at Meifod’.
In conclusion, the most likely context for this grand-scale poem by Cynddelw is the final years of Madog ap Maredudd’s reign (i.e. 1156–60), when the prince was evidently creating or consolidating a centre of power for himself at Meifod and Mathrafal. He is the poem’s most likely patron, having commissioned his chief poet, Cynddelw, to promote the important role he wanted Meifod, its church and cemetery, to play in this ambition.
No Vita for Tysilio has survived, but the details in Cynddelw’s poem suggest that traditions about him were well known in the royal court of Powys in the middle of the twelfth century. The way Cynddelw alludes in passing to incidents without proper explanation – for instance the miracle of the trespassing animals which froze to the spot in a field (ll. 190–2) – suggests that stories concerning the saint were familiar to the audience. Is it possible that a written Vita for Tysilio was created at this time, under the patronage of Madog ap Maredudd? And was a version of that (?Latin) Life taken to Brittany where elements of it were used to form the Lives of saints Suliac and Sulin / Suliau? (See SoC for a detailed discussion of the Breton material; and cf. Sims-Williams 2018: 50, ‘The Welsh Vita of Tysilio, which the Bretons adapted to fit St Sulian, is lost, but Cynddelw’s poem in praise of Tysilio and Meifod leaves no doubt that such a Vita existed by c.1160.’) We can be confident that it was a written copy that went to Brittany, this being evidenced by the Old Welsh orthography of some of the proper nouns in Le Grand’s seventeenth-century version of ‘La Vie de Saint Suliau ou Syliau’ which was based on earlier, now lost, material (see Le Grand 1837: 481–5, which has forms such as Brocmail, Meibot, Guymarch / Guymarcus, Mené). If the episode about the vision of Rome that Gwyddfarch had in Meifod was inspired by the new and Romanesque elements added to the building of Meifod church in the late 1150s, then it is likely that the Vita as well as Cynddelw’s poem dates from the final years of Madog’s reign. The fact that they were both products of the same contemprary court would explain the close relationship between them. As will be demonstrated in the notes, information given in the Breton hagiographical material casts light upon several lines in this poem.
The final years of Madog ap Maredudd’s reign as prince of Powys, c.1156–60.
A summary of the poem
Caniad I (1–52)
The poem opens by addressing God who will bring the poet to heaven (1–8). God’s second gift to his poet will be inspiration to praise Tysilio (9–14). Cynddelw refers to the miracle of the saint’s birth (15–16) and names his royal parents, Garddun and Brochfael (17, 19). We learn of his journey into exile to escape from shame and to avoid women (21–8), especially a certain unkind woman who was pursuing him (29–32). Wrongdoers will pay for their sins (33–6), but Tysilio and his followers will always stand steadfastly against evil and defend a generous court (37–40). This section ends with a description of Meifod, its royal cemetery, and the brave men who defend it (45–52).
Caniad II (53–82)
The church of Meifod is praised, mentioning its location, its priests and its services (53–64), and contrasting the security of life there with hell which is overwhelmed by plagues, fire and pain (65–70). The poet promises to make peace with God before the end of his life, so that he can receive God’s forgiveness on Judgement Day (71–8). The section finishes with the poet’s intention to sing a new song for his lord (rhebydd, l. 81 – God or Tysilio?), words that would be echoed a few years later by Gwynfardd Brycheiniog at the beginning of his poem for St David.
Caniad III (83–110)
Cynddelw describes the respect shown towards him as he presents his poem to Tysilio in Meifod (83–6), then praises the beauty of the church, especially by candlelight on feast days (84–92). Those who dare attack Meifod will suffer ruthless revenge (93–6). The poet mentions the perilous situation in which we all find ourselves because of our sins (97–100), and this section ends with a series of lines expressing the hope that God will reward those whose lives reflect the virtues of Christ (101–10).
Caniad IV (111–34)
After presenting Tysilio as the one who will welcome us on Judgement Day, the rest of this section goes on to describe him as a military leader who led Powys to victory against Northumbria in the battle of Gwaith Cogwy (Maserfelth).
Caniad V (135–54)
There is mention of Tysilio’s retreat or exile to Anglesey (135–8), followed by four lines, very typical of Cynddelw’s voice, in which he confirms his role as a royal poet singing to Tysilio who is also of royal descent, being the grandson of Cyngen (139–42). The following two couplets (143–6) are unclear – do they perhaps describe Tysilio’s final retreat to Meifod church (without naming it) where he enjoyed the welcome of the saints before his death? The section ends with a list of churches that he founded, but they are not easily identified (147–54).
Caniad VI (155–70)
The head of the church, who was often the subject of fine praise poetry, is lauded for his support of poets (155–8), and there is praise for beauty of Meifod, surrounded by its cemetery (159–60). Cynddelw describes the vision of Rome that was enjoyed in Meifod (by Gwyddfarch, although he is not named) and praises that distant city, and in the final lines of this section Rome and Meifod become one in the poet’s imagination (161–70).
Caniad VII (171–96)
The leader at Meifod is praised, the one who welcomes visitors (?pilgrims) with their gifts (171–2). Tysilio’s care for his people extends over the inhabitants of Gwynedd and he deserves the poets’ praise, which will endure (173–6). Cynddelw identifies himself with the audience, those whom Tysilio will lead to God, and he mentions in particular the blessings he himself receives under the patronage of the saint and his church (177–84). Two of Tysilio’s miracles are mentioned (185–92) and this section ends by describing the saint as a defender of Powys, one who spent time at Pen Mynydd during his youth (193–6).
Caniad VIII (197–210)
After confirming his loyalty to Tysilio, the ‘penitent whose devotion was most supreme’ (Penydwr pennaf ei grefydd, 197), a series of couplets echo the Credo, as Cynddelw confirms his faith in God, who promoted him from a simple poet, purawr, to a master poet, prydydd (201–10).
Caniad IX (211–42)
This final section opens with Cynddelw confirming his status as a poet of the highest order (211–12), who benefits from the generosity of his patron (Madog ap Maredudd) as he shares his best horses with him (213–18). The welcome and generosity Meifod extends to the warriors and inhabitants of Powys is again praised (219–22), and attention is given to the leaders of the church, its abbot (hynaf), its prior (sygynnab) and its archdeacon (archddiagon), Caradog (223–32). The poem ends by equating Meifod with heaven (233–42).
Metre and cynghanedd
This long poem subdivides into nine caniadau or sections, each having a different end-rhyme. The whole poem is sung on a single metre, cyhydedd fer, namely couplets of eight-syllable lines, on the same end-rhyme, each line having three stresses, see CD 334. The metrical lines are very regular as regards their syllable count and number of stresses; irregularities are uncommon.
There is some kind of cynghanedd in every line: either alliteration, especially in the middle of a line (cynghanedd braidd gyffwrdd); internal rhyme, often forming cynghanedd lusg; or a combination of alliteration and rhyme, forming cynghanedd sain, which usually ends before the end of the metrical line, cynghanedd sain bengoll. Attention is drawn in the notes to lines where editorial decisions concerning cynghanedd affect the reading or meaning.
Caniad I (1–52): 52 lines on the end-rhyme -edd. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (medd! / Nis medd).
Caniad II (53–82): 30 lines on the end-rhyme -aint. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (bylgaint. / Pylgeinau).
Caniad III (83–110): 28 lines on the end-rhyme -ir. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (enwir. / Enwir).
Caniad IV (111–34): 24 lines on the end-rhyme -yn. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (gennyn! / Can).
Caniad V (135–54): 20 lines on the end-rhyme -en. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (berchen. / Perchen).
Caniad VI (155–70): 16 lines on the end-rhyme -awd. The reference to pilgrims ([p]ererindawd) and to the leader of Meifod as a ‘lord of chalices’ (Peniadur cerygl) probably serves as a link between the end of this caniad and the beginning of the next.
Caniad VII (171–96): 26 lines on the end-rhyme -yd. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (penyd! / Penydwr).
Caniad VIII (197–210): 14 lines on the end-rhyme -ydd. Cyrch-gymeriad connects the end of this caniad with the beginning of the next (yn brydydd. / Prydydd).
Caniad IX (211–42): 32 lines on the end-rhyme -on. The end of the poem does not echo the beginning in any obvious way, but both refer to God.
Note on the translation
The translation offered is fairly literal, however, at times precedence has been given to translating the overall sense of a sentence, rather than adhering to the individual words and their order in the text. A more literal Welsh paraphrase is offered in GLlF.