Thus possessed of power and consequence, the bards were not unwilling to exercise their privileges, and sometimes, in doing so, their manners frequently savoured of caprice. This was perhaps the case with Cadwallon, the chief bard of Gwenwyn, and who, as such, was expected to have poured forth the tide of song in the banqueting-hall of his prince.
But the war of the English people with the Britons seems at this moment to have died down for a season, and the Mercian ruler boldly broke through the barrier which had parted the two races till now by allying himself with a Welsh King, Cadwallon, for a joint attack on Eadwine. The armies met in 633 at a place called the Heathfield, and in the fight which followed Eadwine was defeated and slain.
Himself ignorant of writing or reading, Gwenwyn, in anxious haste, delivered the letter to Cadwallon, who usually acted as secretary when the chaplain was not in presence, as chanced then to be the case. Cadwallon, looking at the letter, said briefly, "I read no Latin.
All thoughts of peace, thoughts which, in themselves, were foreign to the hearts of the warlike British, passed before the song of Cadwallon like dust before the whirlwind, and the unanimous shout of the assembly declared for instant war. The Prince himself spoke not, but, looking proudly around him, flung abroad his arm, as one who cheers his followers to the attack.
"So please you, my liege, I would but demand wherefore he has for years forborne to take the life he aimed at, when it was in his power nay, when it must have been lost but for his seemingly faithful service?" "Norman," said Cadwallon, "I will answer thee. When I first took upon me thy service, it was well my purpose to have slain thee that night.
He called hastily on a young and ambitious bard, named Caradoc of Menwygent, whose rising fame was likely soon to vie with the established reputation of Cadwallon, and summoned him to sing something which might command the applause of his sovereign and the gratitude of the company. The young man was ambitious, and understood the arts of a courtier.
After the long and glorious reign of Edwin, his successor, Ethelfrith's sons came back to Bamburgh; the eldest, Eanfrid, was slain within a year, and his brother Oswald carried on the struggle against Penda of Mercia. We have seen how he fought against Penda and Cadwallon on the Heavenfield near Chollerford, and gained a victory which obtained for him many years of peace.
But neither the anxious and breathless expectation of the assembled chiefs and champions neither the dead silence which stilled the roaring hall, when his harp was reverently placed before him by his attendant nor even the commands or entreaties of the Prince himself could extract from Cadwallon more than a short and interrupted prelude upon the instrument, the notes of which arranged themselves into an air inexpressibly mournful, and died away in silence.
But the effort was in vain he declared that his right hand was withered, and pushed the instrument from him. A murmur went round the company, and Gwenwyn read in their aspects that they received the unusual silence of Cadwallon on this high occasion as a bad omen.
Since the dissolution of the temporary alliance which Penda formed with the Welsh King Cadwallon the war with the Britons in the west had been the one great hindrance to the progress of Mercia. But under Offa Mercia braced herself to the completion of her British conquests.