3 Dark Age Kings of Britain Confirmed by Archaeology

Archaeological discoveries have confirmed the existence of several Dark Age kings of Britain. What do we know about them?

Mar 11, 2024By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
dark age kings britain
Illustration of Maelgwn Gwynedd, king of Dark Age Britain, from Brut Y Brenhinedd, 15th century, Wales, Source: Wikimedia Commons; with Book of Llandaff, 12th century, Llandaff, Wales, Source: The National Libray of Wales


Early Dark Age Britain is notorious for being poorly recorded. Most of our information about the era comes from much later records, written centuries after the events they allegedly describe. There is endless debate from scholars, based on the literary evidence, surrounding the historicity of the kings of Britain of this era. However, there are a few cases where we do not need to rely on the later medieval records to know whether a given king really existed or not. There are about 200 stone inscriptions from Dark Age Britain. These inscriptions provide us with contemporary or near-contemporary insights into the kings of Britain at that time.


1. Nudd Hael

Folio from the Black Book of Chirk, 13th century, Source: The National Library of Wales


This first example concerns a king who is not particularly famous but whose historicity most scholars accept even without the archaeological evidence. Nudd Hael was a king who lived in the latter half of the sixth century. He ruled somewhere in the north of Britain, between the border of England and Scotland, although his exact territory is unknown. His epithet “‘Hael” is Welsh for “Generous.” Thus, his name was Nudd the Generous.


He appears in several late records, such as the collection of medieval Welsh traditions known as the Welsh Triads. He also appears in a document known as the Black Book of Chirk, which dates from c. 1200. This book contains a story about Nudd Hael and several relatives engaging in an attack against the Kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales. He also appears in several medieval Welsh genealogies. Although the manuscript evidence for his existence does not appear very strong, there is a reference to him in a very early Welsh poem. Thus, most scholars accept him as probably historical.


Yarrow Stone with the inscription of Nudus son of Liberalis, sixth century, Selkirkshire, Source: Canmore.org


There is a very interesting archaeological discovery that was made in the late nineteenth century in Selkirkshire, southern Scotland. It was a stone that contained the personal name “Nudus,” widely accepted as the early version of the name “Nudd” that we see in medieval Welsh manuscripts. It also contains the word “liberalis,” the latin word for “generous.” Therefore, when this stone inscription was originally discovered, it was immediately believed to be a reference to Nudd Hael. However, scholars subsequently revised this interpretation. It is now accepted as reading:

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“This is the everlasting memorial: in this place lie the most famous princes, Nudus and Dumnogenus; in this tomb lie the two sons of Liberalis.”


On this basis, the idea that this is a reference to Nudd Hael has largely been abandoned. It has also been abandoned on the basis that this inscription appears to date from the early sixth century, whereas Nudd Hael was a king of the late sixth century. However, are these objections valid?


Gildas’ De Excidio, folio 14v, Source: The British Library, London


Regarding the date of the stone, it seems that most commentators have been misled by assumptions regarding how precisely inscriptions from this era can be dated. The only way of dating inscriptions precisely is by having an extensive corpus of other inscriptions, which are, themselves, securely dated. Failing that, we could use a corpus of securely dated literature to see how the language evolved over time. In the case of sixth-century Britain, we have neither. Therefore, we cannot really date this inscription any more precisely than to the sixth century in general.


The issue of the parentage of “Nudus” is more interesting. The inscription calls him the son of “Liberalis.” As a personal name, this is very strange. What appears to have been overlooked by most commentators is the Biblical use of the term “son.” The Bible regularly refers to people as the “sons” of a certain quality or characteristic that particularly defines them. For example, we see expressions such as “sons of the East,” “sons of the exile,” and “sons of disobedience.”


Gildas’ sixth-century De Excidio proves that this specific Biblical terminology was used in sixth-century Britain. Therefore, the inscription calling Nudus the “son of Liberalis” may simply mean that generosity was his defining quality. Therefore, this inscription absolutely could be the memorial of Nudd Hael.


2. Conomor

Statue of Gregory of Tours, Jean Marcellin, 19th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


A more straightforward example is that of Conomor. Like Nudd Hael, he is accepted as a historical figure based on literary evidence. He is mentioned by Gregory of Tours, a sixth-century writer from France. Conomor was known as a tyrant. He was a king of part of Brittany, having arranged the death of King Jonas. He was eventually overthrown by an alliance of kings, including Judwal, the son of Jonas.


There is a large inscribed stone in Cornwall which is variously known as the Tristan Stone, the Conomorus Stone, or the Longstone. It dates broadly to the sixth century, with some margin for error on either side. The correct reading of the short inscription is subject to debate, but there is near universal agreement about one of the names: Cunomorus. The name is identical to the ruler documented by Gregory of Tours. Furthermore, the chronological match is excellent. For these reasons, many scholars have sought to identify the Cunomorus of this inscription with Gregory’s Conomor from Breton history.


Tristan Stone, sixth century, Cornwall, Source: Cornwall.co.uk


One obvious objection to this identification is that Conomor was a ruler of Brittany, whereas this stone inscription is from Cornwall. However, there is evidence that Conomor was indeed one of the kings of Britain, as well as Brittany.


There is a ninth-century record called the Life of St Paul Aurelian. In this account, based in the sixth century and set in the southwest of Britain, there is a reference to a king named Marc. The account claims that he was also known by the name “Quonomorius,” which is clearly a form of the name “Conomor.”


This supports the conclusion that Conomorus was one of the kings of Britain, not just of Brittany. Furthermore, the ninth-century account says that King Marc, or Qunomorius, ruled over peoples of four different languages. This indicates that he ruled over more than just one area, which is consistent with making Conomor a ruler of part of Cornwall as well as Brittany. Furthermore, the Dark Age kings of Britain in the southwest, by all accounts, had a strong connection with Brittany. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that the Cunomorus of this inscription really was King Conomor.


3. King Ithel

King Ithel’s genealogy in the Harleian MS 3859, folio 195r, 12th century, Source: The British Library


Another king of Dark Age Britain was King Ithel. He was the king of Glamorgan and Gwent and the son of King Morgan. He likely lived in the seventh century, although some modern sources place him in the eighth century. King Ithel is mentioned as a very prominent king in the twelfth-century Book of Llandaff, which records numerous land grants made by kings to the church. At the town of Llantwit in southeast Wales, there is an inscribed stone known as the Samson Pillar that reads:


“In the name of the most high God. Begins the cross of the Saviour, which Samson the Abbot prepared for his own soul and for the soul of Ithel the king and for Arthmail and Tecan.”


There is good reason for identifying the King Ithel of this inscription with King Ithel of the Book of Llandaff, the son of Morgan. Some of the evidence comes from the Book of Llandaff itself, and other evidence comes from another collection of records, the Llancarfan Charters.


Book of Llandaff, 12th century, Llandaff, Wales, Source: The National Library of Wales


These records show that there was a religious figure named Samson who was active just after the death of King Ithel. One record from the Llancarfan Charters specifically identifies him as an abbot, just like on this stone inscription. In the same era, in a charter dated to the reign of one of the sons of Ithel, we also find a “Teican.” This figure likely matches the Tecan of the inscription. Since this inscription says that the cross was prepared “for the soul of Ithel the king,” this supports the idea that this inscription was made after Ithel had died. Thus, both Abbot Samson and Teican from the charters are of the correct generation to be the figures from this inscription. Furthermore, Ithel had a grandson recorded as “Arthmael,” who could easily be the “Arthmail” mentioned on the stone.


Traditionally, this stone has been dated to the ninth century. However, a more recent analysis by historian Brian Davies provided good reasons for dating it to the seventh century, or perhaps about 700. This means that it is near-contemporary with King Ithel himself.


How Archaeology Confirms Several Dark Age Kings of Britain

A collection of inscribed stones from Dark Age Britain, Llantwit Major, Wales, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In summary, there are several Dark Age kings of Britain who are confirmed, or very likely confirmed, by archaeology. One is Nudd Hael, a king of the north in the second half of the sixth century. The stone inscription referring to “Nudus son of Liberalis” can definitely be understood as a reference to him. We simply need to recognize the existence of the Biblical meaning of the word “son,” which Gildas shows us was in use in sixth-century Britain. This Nudus could therefore have been the “son of Liberalis” in a figurative sense, with “Liberalis” referring to his defining quality, identifying him as Nudd Hael.


There is also Conomor, principally a king of Brittany. However, he was also one of the kings of Britain, as supported by the ninth-century Life of St Paul Aurelian. He can certainly be identified as the Cunomorus who appears on the Tristan Stone in Cornwall.


Finally, we have seen that King Ithel of Glamorgan and Gwent appears on the Samson Pillar, which likely dates to the seventh century.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He is the author of "King Arthur: The Man Who Conquered Europe" and "The Trojan Kings of Britain: Myth or History?". Caleb enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.