Magnus Maximus in Welsh legend

Legendary accounts of Magnus Maximus’s career, including his marriage to the Welsh princess Elen, likely circulated in Welsh-speaking areas early on. While the story of their meeting is probably fictional, there is evidence supporting some underlying facts. Magnus Maximus holds a significant place in the earliest Welsh Triads, dating from around 1100, which reflect older traditions in some cases. Welsh poetry often uses Macsen as a comparative figure to later Welsh leaders, preserving these legends in two distinct versions.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae”

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “Historia Regum Britanniae,” written around 1136 and a source for many English and Welsh legends, Maximus is portrayed as a Roman senator, the nephew of Coel Hen, and becomes the king of the Britons after Octavius’s death.

For he is the cousin of Constantine, and the nephew of king Coel, whose daughter Helena possessed the crown by an undeniable hereditary right.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

This transition occurs because Octavius desires a powerful half-Roman-half-Briton son-in-law to inherit the kingship of Britain as a dowry. Thus, he extends an offer to Maximus, who then leaves Rome for Britain. Along his journey, Maximus sacks Frankish towns and unintentionally invades Clausentum (modern Southampton), nearly engaging in battle with the Britons before a truce is agreed. After negotiations, Maximus is granted the kingship of Britain, and Octavius retires. Five years into his reign, Magnus Maximus invades Gaul with a vast fleet, leaving Britain under Caradocus’s control. In Armorica, he defeats the king and imposes rule before heading to Rome, leaving the region to Conan Meriadoc, which explains the Welsh name for Brittany, Llydaw, meaning “half-silent.”

Upon Caradocus’s death, Dionotus takes over as Britain’s regent, later becoming king after Maximus’s death in Rome. However, Gracianus Municeps usurps the throne from Dionotus. Geoffrey’s history, while generally favorable towards Maximus, ends with a lament for the loss caused by his actions.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

The narrative in “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” presents a stark contrast to the story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historia Regum Britanniae” regarding Maximian. Scholars concur that “The Dream” must draw from a different source than Geoffrey’s account, possibly aligning more closely with the older traditions hinted at in the Welsh Triads.

In the tale, Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, is captivated by a vision of a beautiful young woman living in a distant, splendid land.

And he saw a maiden sitting before him in a chair of ruddy gold. Not more easy than to gaze upon the sun when brightest, was it to look upon her by reason of her beauty. A vest of white silk was upon the maiden, with clasps of red gold at the breast; and a surcoat of gold tissue upon her, and a frontlet of red gold upon her head, and rubies and gems were in the frontlet, alternating with pearls and imperial stones. And a girdle of ruddy gold was around her. She was the fairest sight that man ever beheld.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Upon waking, he dispatches his men worldwide to find her. After much effort, they locate her in a grand castle in Britain, the daughter of a local chieftain from Caernarfon (Segontium), and bring Macsen to meet her. Remarkably, she matches the woman in his dream in every detail. The maiden, known as Helen or Elen, reciprocates his love. Macsen, finding Elen to be a virgin, grants her father rule over Britain and commissions the construction of three castles for Elen.

And she asked to have the Island of Britain for her father, from the Channel to the Irish Sea, together with the three adjacent Islands, to hold under the empress of Rome; and to have three chief castles made for her, in whatever places she might choose in the Island of Britain. And she chose to have the highest castle made at Arvon.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Macsen’s story also touches on his response to a new emperor’s challenge, his campaign across Gaul and Italy to reclaim Rome, and his reward to his British allies with land in Gaul, known as Brittany. The tale of Elen receiving tragic news about her husband and dying in despair is memorialized in the naming of the village Croesor.

Coel Hen is said to have been appointed by Maximus as the governor of northern Britain, eventually becoming the high king. Additionally, Magnus Maximus and Elen are considered the parents of Saint Peblig, with a church dedicated to him in Caernarfon, built on an early Christian site over a Roman Mithraeum.

Maxen Wledig & Welsh Triads

And the second (army) went with Elen of the Hosts and Maxen Wledig to Llychlyn: and they never returned to this Island.

Triads of the Island of Britain, When a Host went to Llychlyn.

Three Chief Officers of the Island of Britain:
Gwydar son of Rhun son of Beli; and Cawrdaf son of Caradawg; and Owain son of Maxen Wledig.

Triads of the Island of Britain.

Macsen & Pillar of Eliseg

Macsen also has his presence in many genealogies as a founding father: he crops up in the lists of the Fifteen Tribes of Wales, and he’s given as an ancestor of a Welsh king on a monument – the Pillar of Eliseg – 500 years after his own death. Luckily this inscription was recorded in 1696 by Edward Lluyd as nowadays it’s illegible.

Pillar_of_Eliseg - Pillar of Eliseg

Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys … throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
This is that Concenn who … with his hand … to his kingdom of Powys … and which … the mountain
[the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost]
… the monarchy … Maximus … of Britain … Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan … Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until …

Concenn filius Cattell Cattell / filius Brohcmail Brohcmal filius / Eliseg Eliseg filius Guoillauc Concenn itaque pronepos Eliseg / edificauit hunc lapidem proauo / suo Eliseg Ipse est Eliseg qui nec/xit(?) hereditatem Pouos … mort / c autem(?) per uim …e potestate Anglo/[rum]…in gladio suo parta in igne / Quicu]mque recit(a)uerit manescr[i]p/[tum] … m det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg Ipse est Concenn /……… … manu / ……… e ad regnum suum Pouos / …… …… et quod / …… … …… / …… …… montem /… ………… /……… … monarchiam / … … ail Maximus Brittanniae / … nn Pascen[t] … Mau[n] Annan / … Britu a[u]t[e]m filius Guarthi/[girn] que(m) bened[ixit] Germanus que(m) / … peperit ei Se[v]ira filia Maximi / [re]gis qui occidit regem Romano/rum Conmarch pinxit hoc / chirografu(m) rege suo poscente / Concenn Benedictio d(omi)ni in Con/cenn et s(imilite)r(?) i(n) tota familia eius / et in(?) tota ragione(m?) Pouois / usque in …