In my debut novel THE WELL OF TEARS (Book One of the Dream Stewards), the story of the ancient sorcerer’s guild known as the Stewardry unfolds around historical milestones that mark the reign of a remarkable (and somewhat savage) ruler in 10th century Wales. Like the legendary Arthur, this later king brought lasting peace and stability to a war -weary land. That may well be where the similarities between the two end, but the more I learned about this less famous man, the more intrigued I became.
The recorded history regarding the era of Hywel the Good is scant, and what survives is conflicting and largely scholarly conjecture – a perfect storm for a fantasy writer. Plenty of historical backdrop, but not so much that the facts would interfere with the re-imagining of the events, the people, their relationships, and their world. THE WELL OF TEARS (Book One of The Dream Stewards) takes place in a magical realm that parallels the human one, and centers on a prophecy that foretells Hywel’s rise to power.
Hywel Dda, as depicted in the Peniarth Manuscripts
Hywel ap Cadell, descended from a long line of warrior kings and ruled in Wales from around 905 AD until his death in 950 AD. To this day, his reign is purported to be the longest period of peace and prosperity in the pre-modern history of Wales. This long and relatively benign rule earned him the epitaph “Hywel the Good”.
Hywel is credited by many historians with stabilizing the political and economic climate of the region by bringing all of the independent kingdoms under his sole control – something that had never been accomplished before, or since . It should be assumed that he accomplished this through no small measure of ruthlessness and brutality. His reign is described as violent, and his tactics include the assassinations of several of the rightful rulers of the lands he desired to possess. Hywel was clearly a skilled warrior as well as a brilliant, and probably vicious, military strategist.
However, he was also adept at political maneuvering and was very good at cultivating alliances that supported his ambitions. It seems that Hywel believed that territorial disputes between clans and power struggles between kings led to the sort of unrest that threatened the unity of all nations and, in turn, made them vulnerable. His intent appears to have been to create a sovereign nation that was not only economically and socially prosperous, but also secure from the ravages of invasion. And it bears noting that during his years as overlord, the kingdoms under his control were spared the rape and pillage of the Viking conquests – where the neighboring regions were not.
Map of Hywel’s Kingdom (Blue)
When viewed through the lens of time, it seems clear that Hywel was a man in pursuit of a vision. Every significant decision he made appears to have been an intentional move toward consolidating the smaller principalities into one kingdom. An early marriage to the daughter of a rival king that brought the kingdom of Dyfed under his control, alongside the lands he inherited from his father. A series of skirmishes, the questionable death of his younger brother, and his skillful betrayals of assorted cousins eventually garnered him nearly all of the territory now known as Wales and Cornwall. Add to that his strategic submission to the English monarchs who held power during his life (pure political genius), and you have the portrait of a man who was born to be king.
Perhaps Hywel’s most admirable quality was his life-long dedication to establishing formal rules of governance. In about 928 AD, Hywel made a pilgrimage to Rome, which is where historians believe he found the inspiration for his own legacy – the codification of the first written body of law, which addressed issues of local governance, property rights and social conduct. A conference held at Ty Gwyn ar Daf, one of Hywel’s residences, circa 945 AD, resulted in the documentation of these laws for posterity. They are still known as “The Laws of Hywel the Good”, and were actively enforced for several centuries after Hywel’s death.
And so we have the makings of a complicated and somewhat romantic hero; certainly a man who would stop at nothing to accomplish his own ends, but also one who did it all in the furtherance of what he believed to be a greater good. At least as Hywel saw it, the end justified the means. The stuff of legend, I say, and a life full of enough intrigue to inspire me to create an entire mythology in his name.
If you’re as intrigued as I am about the history of Wales and Hywel Dda, I invite you to enjoy the fable-ized version I have created in THE WELL OF TEARS and the next books of The Dream Stewards. For you die-hard historians out there, Wikipedia has a surprisingly accurate and complete overview of his accomplishments. Original sources are scarce and very hard to find, which as far as I am concerned, only adds to the mystique!