I see two stars engaging in combat with wild beasts beneath the hill of Urien where the people of Gwent and those of Deira met in the reign of the great Coel.
This is a difficult passage to grasp, especially to follow how and why Henry constructed it. Henry Blois’ conflates so many issues (which is his intention). Firstly, it is apparent from the earlier passage, Henry Blois, while at Clugny, hopes to start an insurrection against Henry II by citing Conan of Brittany and Cadwalladr from Wales944 as leaders of such a revolt. I think it becomes clear that he wishes his audience to recognise in the prophetic words of Ganieda the battle of Coleshill in July 1157.
We should note that all the previous prophecies are relevant to the readership at the time of publication of the Vita as relatively notable recently transpired events. However, to complicate the salad of his composition of the prophecies…. Henry employs his usual craft in prophecy construction. He cleverly links the prophecy back in time to the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, so let us deal with that aspect first. The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, was fought between the forces of the Kingdom of Rheged under the command of Urien and Owain mab Urien and the forces of the Kingdom of Bernicia under Fflamddwyn (Flamebearer). What little is known about the battle comes from the early Welsh poem Gwaith Argoed Llwyfain by the poet and bard Taliesin.
Taliesin’s inclusion in the contemporaneous scene with Ganieda presented in the VM is a part of Henry Blois’ subtlety in making the prophecies appear to coincide historically as contemporaneity is supported by Nennius.945 Taliesin’s Battle of Argoed Llwyfain946 is I think, from where Henry finds his original reference to ‘Urian’ in the HRB prophecy: And when he shall let loose his cruelty upon them, flesh and bones shall he devour them, yet shall be burned upon the top of Urian.947
944See appendix 19
945The first written reference to Taliesin is found in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum: §62. …At that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry. The great King, Mailcun, (Melkin) reigned among the Britons. Also, in the Life of St Cadoc In those days, a certain King, of the name of Maelgon, reigned over all Britain.
946Battle of Argoed Llwyfain translated by John Morris Jones Y Cymmrodor, XXXVIII (1918) 156
947HRB VII, iv
A few lines later in the HRB we read: The oaks of the forest shall come together and engage in conflict with the rocks of the Gewissi, which also links it to this passage in the Vita. However, Henry Blois is hoping his audience will recognise in this prophecy the battle of Coleshill,948 and this is why Coel is introduced and the mention of the hill of Urien. This is how Henry’s conflation works using Taliesin’s poem:
In the morning on Saturday there was a great battle.
From when the sun rose till when it set
Fflamddwyn marched in four hosts
To wage war against Goddeu and Rheged.
He came from Argoed to Arfynydd:
They were not suffered to remain for that one day.
Fflamddwynof great bluster exclaimed,
“would they give hostages, are they ready?”
Him answered Owain, eager for the fray,
“They would not give hostages, they are not ready;
And Cenau, son of Coel, would have suffered torture
Stoutly, ere he would cede anyone hostage”.
Uryen, lord of Yrechwydd, exclaimed
“If it must be an encounter for kith and kin,
Let us raise our lines above the mountain,
And let us hold up our faces above the edge,
And let us raise our spears above his men’s heads,
And let us attack Fflamddwyn in his hosts,
And let us kill both him and his company”.
And before Llwyfein wood there was a copse;
Ravens were red with the blood of men.
And men who charged- the minstrel shall sing,
For many a year the song of their victory.
This battle account from the sixth century was fought in north Wales between the Britons of Goddeu and Rheged under Owein and his son Uryen against the Angles of Bernicia and Deira under Theodoric the Flame barer, son of Ida.
This is not as ‘Geoffrey’s’ HRB has it, a battle between the Gewissi and Deiri. The Hill of Uryen is only tentative suggestion but does seem to be suggested in the reference in the HRB. This is ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’s’ source in this instance as there is Uryen’s ancestor Coel Godebog who, from the HRB, was King of the Britons’ The Great Coel.’949
Supposedly on one Saturday, Fflamddwyn had surrounded the seat of power within Rheged and demanded that King Urien submit and provide hostages. Urien’s son Owain and his friend Cenau rejected this proposal. Urien then stirred his men and fighting began. In the ensuing combat Fflamddwyn was slain, temporarily freeing Rheged of the Anglian menace. Henry Blois puts Merlin in the battlefield in the beginning of the Vita; if anyone was there at the battle it would have been Taliesin from whom the poem and account derive. Anyway, old bardic material achieves its goal by linking Taliesin a prophet poet, with Merlin and his sister Ganieda (the one now giving this prophecy), causing a conflation for ‘Geoffrey’s’ readers and confusion for researchers into the Vita Merlini; all seemingly reading prophecies linked to a historical bard’s account of the same event.
948HRB V,vi, Coel, Duke of the Britons,
949HRB V, vi
We know Henry Blois in the VM has no interest in creating more novel history; this he accomplished in the HRB! His main interest now is to add credibility or weight to episodes in the HRB, reasserting and manipulating; but most of all to add new prophetic material: I see two stars engaging in combat with wild beasts beneath the hill of Urien where the people of Gwent and those of Deira met in the reign of the great Coel.
The two stars are in combat in Wales (wild beasts)950 beneath the hill where Urien fought back in the days of Coel. I believe this is how Henry Blois arrives at Ganieda’s prophecy about Coleshill by linking Coel to the hill of Urien in the hope his audience links this to the battle of Coleshill.
The Battle of Coleshill was a battle fought in July 1157 between an army of 30,000 men led by Henry II and an army of 3000 men, led by the Welsh prince Owain Gwynedd. King Henry’s invasion of Gwynedd was to halt the land grab of Owain Gwynedd into the lands of Powys which Stephen in his reign failed to do. Henry II wanted to curb the Welsh rebellion against Norman control and to expand his empire into northern Wales. He did this with the support of the Prince of Powys Madog ap Maredudd and Owain’s brother Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd who had fallen out with his brother. This is the same Cadwalladr Henry Blois is also trying to incite to rebellion against Henry II by predicting a comeback of the Britons/Celts as mentioned previously.
At all times Henry Blois is conscious of several criteria that need to be adhered to in order that his audience believe that these prophecies of Ganieda are contemporaneous with those spoken by Merlin in antiquity as found in the HRB. Henry Blois is posing as Geoffrey of Monmouth and also setting himself the task of anchoring his whole Vita account historically in the 6th century or thereabouts. His words need to appear as those of a 6th century seer; but that seer needs to make accurate predictions that not only appear to transpire but can be recognised as past events by his audience. At the same time, Henry Blois needs to appear as Geoffrey of Monmouth who is merely translating prophecies that are not his but Merlin’s, Taliesin’s or Ganieda’s. Henry does imply that these events transpired where a battle took place previously; beneath the hill of Urien in the days of Coel…. So, at the same time Ganieda is seeing a different battle…. that of Coel’s hill.
This is speculation, but if I am correct in this assertion, this is the only prophecy of Ganieda’s that does not relate directly to Henry, his brother or the Anarchy. However, it does concern Henry Blois as to the outcome…. if King Henry II had been killed. It would have made his return to England less hazardous as he is nervous about King Henry’s reaction on his return to England. This prophecy will have been the most up to date historical event at the time of finishing the composition of VM.
Not only does he anchor the prophecy to the HRB, but also to Nennius and Taliesin’s poem of the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain. The reason I think it is this episode in 1157 to which he hopes his reader will believe the prophecy is about…. is because Henry purposely tries to conflate Coleshill with Taliesin’s historical account of the Battle of Argoed Llwyfain. If you remember it is a composite conflation of this battle which in effect sets the scene for Merlin in the beginning of the Vita and the aftermath of his madness.951
Providing this specific prophecy is not a later interpolation by Henry Blois (nor the allusion to Cadwalladr and Conan); this might be the method by which to determine the dating of the completion of the Vita Merlini. The entire sequence fits if we accept Henry wrote the Vita Merlini while at Clugny. He has used this last event as the closing prophetic truth of the VM. We know the battle of Coleshill took place in July 1157 and Henry Blois was now under serious pressure to return to his See at Winchester having been recalled to England by King Henry through several requests, masked with threats by Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury.952
It seems to me that this time at Clugny was a period in which Henry Blois had hoped to return to England, but judging by the letters in Note 1 is afraid to. It is clear in the Merlin prophecies of John of Cornwall that Henry hoped for a rebellion to have occurred to unseat Henry II while Henry Blois was at Cluny. He delayed his return as long as he could until peace was finally made…. and there was no further hope of the success of a Celtic rebellion with those Henry had tried to incite under the pretence of Prophecy.
I do not wish to add to the confusion Henry Blois has left for posterity, but there is a small chance he might be referring to a similar incident that happened in his brother’s reign also said to have happened at Coleshill. Owain Gwynedd had annexed territory as part of Gwynedd in about 1150 during the Anarchy in Stephen’s reign. Owain Gwynedd then repelled an attempt to regain it, by the joint forces of Ranulf, earl of Chester and Madog ap Maredudd, prince of Powys. However, as all the other prophecies of Ganieda seem highly relevant to Henry Blois…. it does not seem to be this specific event the prophecy alludes to.
950Gesta Stephani, 7, ‘but it breeds men of an animal type’
951Joscelin’s Life of Kentigern has a prose account of a madman cured by drinking water from a healing spring, just like the VM.
952See Note 1