Hueil son of Caw is a character who lived in sixth century Britain as a contemporary of King Arthur. Although he does not have a large place in the medieval romance tales, he was well known in medieval Wales due to a famous tradition about a conflict between him and Arthur, which resulted in Hueil being beheaded.
|Associations:||King Arthur, Maen Huail|
|First Known Literary Appearance:||Breton Life of St Gildas|
Attributes of Hueil
Hueil (whose name is also frequently spelled ‘Huail’) is notable for his boldness and even haughtiness. One early source states that he ‘never submitted to a lord’s hand’. However, it appears that he was not totally averse to serving others, for he appears in the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen as one of Arthur’s allies.
Nonetheless, it is clear that this was the exception rather than the rule. Even that tale speaks of a feud between Hueil and Arthur.
A later source expands on Hueil’s refusal to submit to anyone else. Particularly, he was said to have refused to submit to Arthur, the king recognised by almost everyone else at the time as the high king of Britain. This shows Hueil’s haughtiness.
Hueil was not just haughty with nothing to back up his pride. No, but rather, he was a strong and powerful warrior. He led his brothers (among whom he was the eldest) into battle frequently, testifying to his leadership, his power, and his ability as a soldier.
One source even refers to him as a ‘most distinguished soldier’. His bravery, too, is mentioned in the sources.
He evidently had a charismatic personality. This is seen partly from the fact that his many brothers were willingly led by him, and it is also seen by the fact that one source tells us that the inhabitants of the land were hoping that he would become king. This same source also refers to him as an ‘excellent youth’.
Perhaps related to this, he was also supposedly wise. The Englynion y Clyweit, a collection of proverbial sayings, states of Hueil that ‘his saying was just’.
Literary Origins of Hueil
There are no contemporary references to Hueil, so on that basis, we cannot say that he definitely existed. Nonetheless, there is relatively early evidence for his existence.
He appears to be mentioned in the Breton Life of St Gildas, written in the ninth century by a monk of Rhuys. This talks about the sons of ‘Caunus’, undoubtedly the same as the ‘Caw’ who is described in other records as the father of Hueil. This account mentions a son of Caunus by the name of Cuillum, generally agreed to be a form of the name ‘Hueil’.
That Cuillum really was Hueil is supported by the fact that the Life of St Gildas presents Cuillum as succeeding his father to the kingship, which is consistent with the fact that Hueil is described as Caw’s eldest son.
Additionally, Cuillum is referred to as a ‘very active man in war’, fitting the characteristics of Hueil outlined earlier.
After this, Hueil makes his first unambiguous appearance in Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh tale probably written in the early 11th century. This tale describes a number of adventures, most notably a boar hunt. Arthur leads this boar hunt, and with him are many, many allies. Hueil is one of them.
Another Welsh source which mentions Hueil are the Welsh Triads. There, Hueil is listed as one of the ‘Three Battle-Diademed Men’ of Britain. This agrees with his general war-like nature and his role as a powerful soldier and warrior, discussed earlier.
The earliest source which provides us with extensive information about Hueil is the second Life of St Gildas, written by Caradoc of Llancarfan in c. 1140. This provides us with the information about Hueil being a distinguished soldier, leading his brothers into battle, and having the support of the people. It also contains the earliest account of the feud between Hueil and Arthur, resulting in the former’s death. It even goes on to describe the aftermath of this event, such as the reconciliation between Arthur and Hueil’s brother, Gildas.
These are the primarily literary origins for the character. There are numerous expansions of these accounts, particularly the account in the second Life of St Gildas, which forms a large part of Welsh tradition.
Life of Hueil
Hueil was the son of Caw, a famous and apparently powerful king from what is now Scotland. Hueil was the brother of Gildas, the famous preacher and writer from sixth century Britain. As already mentioned, it appears that Hueil sometimes served as one of Arthur’s allies, as in the Culhwch and Olwen, but more often than not he seems to have been a fiercely independent king.
Regarding his status, although it is true that the second Life of St Gildas states, in an account of his feud with Arthur just before his death, that the people expressed the desire that he be made king, the earlier Life of St Gildas reports that he was in fact made king upon his father’s death. This indicates that he was not merely a prince at the time of his feud with Arthur, but that he was indeed a king. Perhaps the account in the second Life is referring to the high kingship, which at that time was held by Arthur. Or alternatively, it is just a slightly anachronistic comment, really belonging to an earlier point in his life.
In any case, it appears that Hueil did become king of his father’s kingdom in Scotland. By all accounts, he was active in war, though the only records of specific wars in which he participated are Arthur’s boar hunt in Culhwch and Olwen and his own raids on southern Britain in the Life of St Gildas. This latter account tells us the following:
“[Hueil] used to harass [Arthur], and to provoke the greatest anger between them both. He would often swoop down from Scotland, set up conflagrations, and carry off spoils with victory and renown.”
In response to this, Arthur set out to attack him. He pursued Hueil all the way to the Isle of Man, where he eventually caught up with him, defeated him, and beheaded him. There is a specific stone which, by tradition, is identified as the very stone on which he was beheaded. It is known as Maen Huail, which means ‘the Stone of Huail’. Interestingly though, this is in Ruthin, north-east Wales, rather than on the Isle of Man. This is in accord with a later tradition that states that Hueil was taken by Arthur to Ruthin to be executed.
The account of Hueil’s death is said to have taken place while his brother Gildas was preaching in Ireland. The Annales Cambriae place Gildas’s visit to Ireland in 565. Similarly, the first Life of St Gildas states that he was called to Ireland by King Ainmericus, universally identified as Ainmuire the king of Ireland from 566 to 569.
Since that is when Gildas travelled to Ireland, and the account of Hueil’s death is placed shortly before Gildas returned from Ireland after having spent quite some time there preaching and converting many people, the account of Hueil’s death at Arthur’s hand must be set in the late 560s at the earliest, or possibly 570 or even a little later.
In the account of Hueil’s feud with Arthur and his eventual death, he is twice referred to as a ‘youth’. This probably means he cannot have been older than 30 years old at the most, though he was probably not younger than 25 years old, since his younger brother Gildas had already been preaching in Ireland for some time at this point. Since the account must be set in about 570, we can therefore conclude that Hueil must have been born somewhere between 25 to 30 years earlier, or between the years 540 to 545.
Therefore, we can see that Hueil was evidently the brother of Gildas III, the Gildas who was born in the middle of the sixth century (see the article ‘Vita Sancti Gildae (Life of Saint Gildas)’, which explains the multiple Gildases).
See our complete list of Arthurian characters for more entries like this one.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur