THIS year is the 1,000th anniversary of one of most elusive figures in Welsh history – about whom little is known, but whose place in history ranks him alongside the legendary warrior Beowulf.
A millennium has now passed since the death of Elystan Glodrydd, whose coat-of-arms lives on in the unexpected form of the emblem of Chelsea FC.
Elystan’s lion (the technical terminology is “rampant reguardant”) appears in blue on the badge of the club, alluding to the borough of Chelsea which was ruled by Elystan’s kinsmen.
Alternately known as Elystan or Elstan, he was the founder of the fifth Royal Tribe of Wales and died around 1010 AD, the year the anonymous Old English heroic poem Beowulf is believed to have been written.
Relatively little is known about Elystan himself, but his descendents ruled a principality in Mid Wales, part of Rhwng Gwy a Hafren, between the Wye and the Severn including the areas of Maelienydd, Elfael and Cedewain (does the name ring any bells?) These territories lay in an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Radnorshire and southern Montgomeryshire.
In the murky beginnings of the last millennium, these were very distinct groups of kingdoms which were not necessarily a part of Powys, said keen historian Philip Beddows.
“There was a great deal of chaos following the Norman Invasion, and this area took the greatest hit,” said Philip, who created the Elystan.co.uk website after he began to investigate his own family tree and discovered links with the line of Elystan.
The name, along with its many variations, is a Welsh rendering of the Anglo-Saxon name Athelstan. Glodrydd is not actually a surname but was an epithet added to his name, meaning “the renowned”, “the praiseworthy” or “the famous”.
According to one manuscript, Elystan was slain in a civil brawl on Long Mountain near Welshpool. Elystan was buried at a chapel in a place subsequently named Trelystan on the south east slopes of Long Mountain. Some records describe the place as Capel Tref Elystan.
Philip hopes to organise a gathering of the descendants of Elystan at Llanbister in October, with visitors coming from as far afield as America.
Elystan may have hundreds if not thousands of potential descendants. His son, Cadwgan, had five sons. The lineage was obviously a good one because one of Cadwgan’s sons, Idnerth, had three sons – one of whom, Madog, then went on to also have five sons.
Two of Madog's sons, Cadwallon and Einion ruled respectively over Maelienydd and Elfael. They were not on good terms, and in 1160 Cadwallon seized Einion before handing him over to the King of Gwynedd, Owain Gwynedd, who surrendered him to Henry II.
In a move which could have come straight out of Robin Hood, Einion escaped custody. In 1176 both brothers rallied in the re-establishment of Cwm Hir Abbey.
Elystan has many modern royal descendants including the Countess of Wessex, said the chairman of the Abbey-cwm-hir Heritage Trust, Dr John Davies. “It’s possible that one of the later members of his family was buried at the Abbey at Abbey-cwm-hir,” said Dr Davies.
“It was quoted in a document in the year 1234 about a relation dying at the Abbey and it’s possible we’ve found the grave niche.
“When you talk about the princes of Wales, people don’t necessarily think of the princes of Powys.
“We have a lot more records available than people may think. We often hear about these figures as being mythical but there is no such thing in Wales – we have British court records, letters between French and Scottish royalty and the Welsh.
“The amount of research in the last 20 years means that we are starting to write biographies of courtiers as well as princes. The internet has helped enormously to generate interest and many amateurs are doing great work,” he said.
Much later than Elystan’s death, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the house of Mortimer succeeded in acquiring complete possession of the lands of the Elystan dynasty. The anniversary gathering is due to take place in October. For more information on Elystan, visit the website www.elystan.co.uk.
See full story in the County Times