Cadafael son of Cynfeddw was King of Gwynedd (a powerful Brittonic kingdom in what is now north-west Wales) in 655 AD. What do we know about him?
64. Oswy, son of Ethelfrid, reigned twenty-eight years and six months. During his reign, there was a dreadful mortality among his subjects, when Catgualart (Cadwallader) was king among the Britons, succeeding his father, and he himself died amongst the rest. He slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.
65. Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is, Atbert Judeu. But Catgabail alone, king of Guenedot, rising up in the night, escaped together with his army, wherefore he was called Catgabail Catguommed.
--Historia Brittonum, available online
The 'field of Gai' is the Brittonic name for the battle that Bede calls Winwaed, where Penda was killed by Oswy (Oswiu) of Northumbria on 15 November 655. Guenedot is a variant spelling of Gwynedd. "Catguommed" translates roughly as "Battle Shirker".
Three Kings who were (sprung) from Villeins:
Gwriad son of Gwrian in the North, and Cadafel son of Cynfeddw in Gwynedd, and Hyfaidd son of Bleiddig in Deheubarth.
--Red Book of Hergest, available online
Cadafel, Catgabail and Cadafael are all variant spellings of the same name. Assuming the Cadafel King of Gwynedd in the Triads and the Catgabail King of Gwynedd in Historia Brittonum are the same, what can we say about him?
Cadafel was evidently not part of the same lineage as the kings of Gwynedd whose genealogy is recorded in the Harleian Manuscript and the Jesus College Manuscript (see article on the Chronology of the Kings of Gwynedd). This may underlie the claim in the Triads that he was "sprung from villeins". As a villein is an unfree peasant or serf, this is not likely to be literally true. If Cadafael became King of Gwynedd after 634 when Catwallaun (Cadwallon, Cadwalla) of Gwynedd was killed at Hefenfelth, and was still king in 655 when he departed before the Battle of Winwaed, he must surely have been an effective leader or acceptable to the Gwynedd nobility or both, which is unlikely if he was not of royal or noble stock.
I can think of three explanations for the "villein" claim in the Triads:
I daresay there are others. Insults tend to stick most effectively if there is a grain of truth in them that can be exaggerated, so I personally would favour either the second or third explanation over the first, but this is a matter of opinion.
Since neither Cadafael nor Cynfeddw appear in the genealogy of the Kings of Gwynedd, it is not known how they were related to the direct line, if at all. Clutching at straws, one could note that the Cad- name element in Cadafael's name is shared with three contemporary kings in the direct line (Cadfan, Cadwallon, Cadwaladr), which may indicate that Cadafael's family was an offshoot of the ruling dynasty of Gwynedd. On the other hand, it should be noted that the element "cad" means "battle" and might therefore be expected to be a common name element among the warrior class. As a second straw, the Cyn- name element in Cynfeddw is also shared with Cynddylan, hero of the Canu Heledd poetry, and Cynddylan's father Cyndrwn. According to the poetry, Cynddylan held power in what is now eastern Wales or what is now the West Midlands or both and was roughly contemporary with Penda and Cadafael (see article on Cynddylan for more details). Could Cadafael's father have had connections with Cynddylan's family?
Cadafael was ruler of Gwynedd in 655, and was of fighting age at the time (since he led his army away from a battle he was supposed to fight in). He was therefore probably born not much before 600 (which would make him 55 at Winwaed), or he would have been too old to fight, and probably not much after 625 (which would make him 30 at Winwaed), or he would have been too young to be the leader.
It is not known when Cadafael became king. Catwallaun of Gwynedd was killed in 633 or 634 according to Bede (631 according to Annales Cambriae), and Catwallaun's son Cadwaladr lived to 682 and must therefore have been quite young when Catwallaun was killed, perhaps only a child. The death of Gwynedd's powerful warrior king on a distant battlefield, leaving only a child as heir, would be a plausible context for the reign of a king from a different lineage. This must therefore be a plausible candidate for the beginning of Cadafael's reign, although he could have emerged at any time between then and 655. If we say that Cadafael became king in 634 or so, this tends to push his birth date back to the earlier end of the range. If he was born in 600, he would have been 34 when he became king, experienced enough to have some chance of restoring Gwynedd's fortunes after the trauma of Catwallaun's defeat.
Nor is it known when, or how, Cadwaladr replaced Cadafael as King. If Cadafael's departure on the eve of Winwaed exposed him to ridicule as a coward, as his nickname in Historia Brittonum suggests, it may have provided Cadwaladr with an opportunity to depose him. Or Cadafael may have voluntarily handed over power, or died of natural causes.
Cadafael's motivation for - as it turned out - the defining event of his life, his decision to march home the night before the battle of Winwaed, is also unknown. I can think of several motivations:
These aren't mutually exclusive, and I daresay there are more. You can take your choice, as ever. I personally suspect that there is considerably more to Cadafael's story than a jumped-up peasant who ran away from a battle; but what it might be is open to interpretation.
Trivia: King Cadafael achieved lasting fame as the origin of the name chosen by novelist Ellis Peters for her sleuthing monk, Brother Cadfael. So his name does live on in popular culture, even if he is no longer attached to it :-)
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum, available online
Red Book of Hergest, available