Some battles are forgotten, the bodies buried to time turned dust, the blood washed away in the rains and the memory faded with the passing of those that remained. Some are vague mentions in the ancient annals and tales, little more than dreams and legend.
The Battle of Maes Maen Cymro of 1118 lies somewhere in the inbetween - near forgotten but present in the Annales Cambriae and more so in the Brut y Tywysogion. Its location is a matter of borders, rather than settlement. But so very violent was the Battle of Maen Maes Cymro that it scarred the landscape, emerging from mystery in placename, in the fields in which it was fought and the bodies cremated, in the bridge that crossed the river red with the blood of those that died. In the little village of Rhewl, on the outskirts of Ruthin, on the border of the ancient cantrefs of Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd, the sons of Owain ab Edwin and Hywel ab Ithel fought out their feud in red slaughter.
‘Hywel ab Ithel, who had long ruled them [Rhos & Rhufoniog] under the protection of Powys, made war upon his neighbours, the sons of Owain ab Edwin, who were lords of the cantref of Dyffryn Clwyd.’
‘A History of Wales’ (1912), John Edward Lloyd Vol II, p.465.
Both sides brought to bear their supporters and overlords, and as such the Battle of Maes Maen Cymro can be seen as a sort of proxy battle of a political rewiring of north Wales. Hywel sought the support of Powys, and its ruler, Maredudd ap Bleddyn answered, bringing with him to Rhewl his nephews, Madog and Einion and 400 warriors. For their part, the sons of Owain ap Edwin, led by Gronw ab Owain, had the support of the Earl of Chester, who sent Norman knights, probably out of Rhuddlan, to the aid of Dyffryn Clwyd.
‘And after there had been a hard battle and many had been slain on either side, the sons of Owain and their men fled, after Llywarch ab Owain and Iorwerth ap Nudd - he was a praiseworthy, eminent man - had been slain in the battle, and after many others had been slain and many had been wounded, and they willingly returned empty-handed.’
Brut y Tywysogyon (1952), Thomas Jones, p.46-47.
The Battle resulted in a victory for Hywel ab Ithel, the forces of Dyffryn Clwyd eventually routed, Llywarch ab Owain, one of sons of Owain ap Edwain killed on the field. But, as both the Annales Cambriae and the Brut make clear,
‘Houuel filius ydwal ibi uulneratus de quo uulnere postea obiit’
Annales Cambriae C Text, trans. Henry W. Gough-Cooper (2015)
Hywel was mortally wounded during the Battle and died some 40 days later. His death without an heir left a power vacuum - one which the Kingdom of Gwynedd quickly exploited. Maredudd ap Bleddyn was in no position to annex the two cantrefs to Powys. The Brut claims that he, ‘did not dare to take possession of the land because of the French.’ Hence, Rhos and Rhufoniog came under the power of Gruffudd ap Cynan.
Dividing Cae Groes Fawr from Cae Groesfaen, the modern A525 through Rhewl splits what was likely the battlefield of Maes Maen Cymro.
The cause of the Battle is hard to fathom, but the Brut claims that ‘treachery was bred’ between the cantrefs of Rhufoniog and Rhos and that of Dyffryn Clwyd. It is possible that this ‘treachery’ referred to by the author was part of the political rewiring of north Wales at this time, with Gwynedd taking the political lead from a weakening Powys. The assumption has often been that this was some sort of shenanigan of the Normans out of Chester. While it was a tactic they were often to employ in Wales, and elsewhere, it simply does not ring true of Maes Maen Cymro. For one, this would seem to have been a battle instigated by Hywel, rather than the Norman supported sons of Owain ab Edwin, and for another the battle ultimately resulted in a strengthening of Gwynedd, ever the Norman nemesis. The Brut is rather partisan in its support of Powys - as such, it never openly claims that Gwynedd benefited from Maes Maen Cymro - and may be suggesting that it was Gwynedd behind the ‘treachery’. However, it may well be that the feud does have its origins in the presence of the Normans in Chester - that Hywel, and his overlord in Powys, were railing against who they perhaps considered traitors in their support of the ‘French’. It is unlikely that we will ever know for certain.
Cae Groes Fawr - thought to be the battlefield of Maes Maen Cymro 1118. Was a memorial cross raised here in memory of the slain?
The location of the Battle has been thought for sometime to have been in Rhewl, on the outskirts of Ruthin. Its placement is important, since it was on the border of Rhufoniog and Dyffryn Clwyd - a perfect place for the opposing forces to meet. And then there is the telling presence of place-name evidence. An area of Rhewl, near the old railway station, was once known as Maes Maen Cymro - a fact that can only be extremely important, of course. Close by are two fields, identified by tithe maps as ‘Cae Groes Fawr’ (no.29) and ‘Cae Groesfaen’ (no.30). These are fascinating, since they seem to refer to the presence of a cross, perhaps a memorial to the fallen of the battle. It’s possible, of course, that they refer simply to a cross existing before the battle, perhaps a gathering point for the opposing forces. It should be stated that they may refer to a crossroads here (Rhewl did become important as a droving route in the 18th and 19th centuries), but given the wealth of other place name evidence, this seems unlikely. If a cross was raised on this spot, all trace of it has long since been lost, from the earth and memory.
The bridge crossing the River Clywedog to the near north of Rhewl on the A525 has several names. It is known today for the poem carved into its stone. But one of those names happens to be Pont yr Afon Gwaed, rendering into English as The Bridge on the River of Blood. It has long been suggested that this refers to the aftermath of the Battle of Maes Maen Cymro, in which the blood of the dead and dying coloured the waters. Naming rivers so, is usually a telling reference to the brutality of the battle. The river flows north through Rhewl, skirting Cae Groes Fawr. It should be said that the name of the bridge might also refer to a little known skirmish of the English Civil War, thought to have been fought in Rhewl. Another local tradition is that a nearby field, to the north of the bridge, was used to cremate the bodies of the fallen. Again, tithe maps throw up fascinating possibilities. In the near area of the bridge are two fields, ‘Cae tan y’ (no.36) and ‘Cae tan y ffordd’ (no. 25), both of which may well suggest their use as a place of cremation.
In the quiet little droving village of Rhewl then, the Battle of Maes Maen Cymro was fought, and so scarred the landscape that its memory remains in the earth and distant memory.
A History of Wales, From Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest Vol. II, John Edward Lloyd, Longmans, Green & Co. (1912).
Annales Cambriae C Text, trans. Henry W. Gough-Cooper, (2015).
Brut y Tywysogyon, Thomas Jones, Cardiff (1952).
An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments in Wales: Denbigh, RCAHM, London (1914).