The location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)

Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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Discover Dark Age Galloway

‘In Galloway, on the fringes of what had been Roman Britain’s northern frontier, the kingdom of Rheged emerged in the fifth and sixth century AD.’

So says Discover Dark Age Galloway, a new leaflet produced by GUARD Archaeology for the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This attractive little publication is available free of charge from a number of tourist venues in the area.

It’s well-written and informative, and also nicely illustrated. The colourful reconstruction drawings of the hillforts of Tynron Doon, Mote of Mark and Trusty’s Hill, and of the monastic site at Whithorn, are certainly worth a look. As previously reported here at Senchus, last year’s excavations at Trusty’s Hill yielded a wealth of data relating to what was happening there in the sixth to eighth centuries AD. People of high status lived on the summit, in a settlement associated with a rock on which Pictish symbols were carved.

This was indeed the era of Rheged, a place identified by the authors of the new leaflet as a kingdom centred on Galloway. They believe that the archaeological evidence from the fort on Trusty’s Hill supports the view that it was an important site within the kingdom. They may be right. If they are, I’ll stop musing on the possibility that the core of Rheged lay further north in the valley of the River Tweed.

Click the link below to see an announcement about the leaflet (and a reduced online version) at the Galloway Picts Project website. Those of you with your own theories on the location of Rheged may be interested in this part:
‘Rheged, for so long a lost kingdom, thought to be somewhere in South-west Scotland or North-west England, can now perhaps for the first time be fixed to the ground, not in Cumbria or Lancashire or Dumfriesshire, but in Galloway.’

The Galloway Picts Project – Discover Dark Age Galloway

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Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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The lively maiden of Dumbarton

Clyde Rock & Dumbarton Castle

Clyde Rock, Dumbarton (from ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1892)

A number of medieval Welsh manuscripts contain information relating to the Cumbri or North Britons, the native Celtic people of Northern England and Southern Scotland. One of these is ‘Peniarth 47′, written in the 15th century and preserved at the National Library of Wales. It contains a collection of ‘triads’ – brief texts in which three items from the medieval storytelling tradition are grouped under a common theme. Triads were used by the bards of Wales as a kind of subject index to a huge repertoire of poems and stories originally retained in their own memories.

Some triads listed famous events, such as ‘Three Futile Battles of the Island of Britain’. Others listed military forces such as ‘Three Faithful Warbands’ or renowned individuals such as ‘Three Chieftains of Arthur’s Court’. One triad refers to a trio of notable young women:

‘Three Lively Maidens of the Island of Britain’
Angharad Ton Velen, daughter of Rhydderch Hael,
and Afan, daughter of Meic Thick-Hair,
and Perwyr, daughter of Rhun of Great Wealth.

Afan’s father Meic (sometimes spelled ‘Maig’) was reputedly a 6th-century ruler of Powys, a part of Wales bordering the territory of the Anglo-Saxons or English. Not much is known about him, although the district of Meigen in Powys might preserve his name.

Perwyr’s father Rhun is identified in Welsh tradition as a prince of the North Britons and as a son of the famous warrior-king Urien Rheged (active c.580). Contrary to popular belief, the precise location of Rheged is unknown. It is no more than a modern guess that the name refers to a kingdom rather than to a smaller territorial unit such as a river-valley or group of estates.

One of Urien’s contemporaries among the North Britons was Rhydderch, king of Alt Clut, whose epithet Hael means ‘Generous’. Alt Clut (‘Rock of Clyde’) is an old Welsh and North British name for the imposing, twin-peaked volcanic ‘plug’ where Dumbarton Castle stands today. Rhydderch reigned in the late 6th and early 7th centuries and is one of the most recognizable figures in medieval Welsh literature, a key player in the so-called North British Heroic Age. Peering behind his literary fame among later Welsh bards we are probably seeing a powerful king of the early medieval period, a competent warlord who launched plundering raids against his neighbours. His adversaries apparently included Anglo-Saxons, Scots and fellow-Britons. Among his network of high-level contacts were Saint Columba of Iona and, less certainly, Saint Kentigern of Glasgow. In later Welsh folklore Rhydderch emerges as an oppressor of Merlin during the latter’s time as a ‘Wild Man’ in the forest.

According to the triad of the Three Lively Maidens, Rhydderch had a daughter Angharad. Although we know very little about her, we cannot assume she was nothing more than a literary invention. It is entirely possible that she was a real princess of Dumbarton, a genuine historical figure like her father. Her epithet Ton Velen (‘Yellow Skin’ or ‘Yellow Wave’) denotes a defining physical characteristic and must have originated in a poem or story in which she featured. This tale, although now lost, was presumably well-known among the bards of medieval Wales and may have been circulating for a long time before it got ‘catalogued’ in the triad.

Some of the earliest and most famous examples of Welsh poetry and saga originated in what the bards called Yr Hen Ogledd, ‘The Old North’, the land of Urien Rheged and Rhydderch Hael. It is possible that the poem or tale featuring Angharad Ton Velen originated in this region rather than in Wales, either to praise her while she lived or as an elegy following her death. Such a tribute may have been composed by a bard at the royal court of Alt Clut, perhaps in the years around 600.

In the absence of additional information about Angharad we can do no more than sketch a hazy picture of her life.

Her name means ‘much loved’ and is pronounced ‘Ann-Harrad’ (stressed on the second syllable). Traditions of uncertain reliability, preserved at Glasgow Cathedral in the twelfth century, identify Rhydderch Hael’s wife as Languoreth, Queen of Alt Clut. This lady, who may have been a native of the Hamilton area, was presumably Angharad’s mother. The same traditions mention a son of Rhydderch called Constantine, who gave up the secular life to become a priest. He and Angharad are the only offspring credited to Rhydderch and, although neither is historically secure, they are not necessarily fictional. Constantine is the namesake of the mysterious saint commemorated in the dedication of the old parish church at Govan, 12 miles east of Dumbarton, and the two are perhaps one and the same.

Let us assume, for the moment, that Angharad existed. A tentative chronological guess would place her birth in the period 570-590. As a princess of Alt Clut she would have been a Christian like her father (and, no doubt, her mother too). During her early years, until she was old enough to marry, her time would have been divided between the old fortress on the summit of Clyde Rock and other royal residences visited by her father’s entourage. Displays of wealth and status were an important part of early medieval kingship and a royal daughter was expected to play her part. We can imagine Angharad wearing jewellery of gold and silver, and clothes woven from the finest fabrics. In her father’s feasting hall she would have eaten roast meat served in expensive bowls manufactured in France. The wine in her drinking-cup would have been imported from the Mediterranean lands. Servants and slaves would have been ever-present throughout her entire life.

Later Welsh bards regarded Angharad as a ‘lively maiden’ (whatever that means). A particular characteristic of her physical appearance was Ton Velen, for which we may envisage either a striking mane of curly blonde hair (‘Yellow Wave’) or an unusually sallow complexion (‘Yellow Skin’). The late Rachel Bromwich, to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude for her magisterial study of the Welsh triads, interpreted Ton Velen as ‘Yellow (or tawny) Wave’, noting that ‘the reference may be to the girl’s hair’. This is reminiscent of the Gaelic word buide, which also means ‘yellow’, borne as an epithet by the Dál Riatan king Eochaid Buide (died 629) a son of Áedán mac Gabráin. Eochaid evidently received the epithet very early in life, for we find it being used by Columba when he greeted Áedán’s sons at a time when Eochaid was a small child. A number of sources suggest that Áedán fought at least one major battle against Angharad’s father Rhydderch.

Like Angharad, Eochaid is usually assumed to have had ‘yellow’ (i.e. blond) hair, but alternative interpretations of buide are possible. Eochaid and Angharad seem to have belonged to the same generation, and either or both may have had strikingly fair hair or, if ‘yellow’ is a reference to complexion, unusually sallow skin.

If Angharad survived the many perils of childhood to become a teenager she would probably have had little say in her future when the time came to choose a husband. As the daughter of a powerful king she was not only a lady of high status and considerable wealth but also a useful political commodity. Marriage to a prince of a foreign kingdom seems a likely scenario, the wedding perhaps putting a formal seal on a newly forged political alliance. Such a marriage would have taken the ‘lively maiden’ away from her lofty home on the Rock of Clyde, perhaps to a strange new land whose speech and customs she found totally unfamiliar.

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Notes & References

In modern Britain, the most well-known bearer of the name Angharad was the Welsh actress Angharad Rees (1944-2012), who starred in the popular 1970s TV series Poldark.

More pronunciations of Welsh (and North British) personal names:
Rhydderch – ‘Hrutherkh’
Rhun – ‘Rhinn’
Urien – ‘Irri-yen’

Five years ago, Andrew Breeze suggested that ‘Languoreth’ might be an error for ‘Iunguoret’ (or ‘Unwared’ in Modern Welsh).
[See his article 'Telleyr, Anguen, Gulath, and the Life of St Kentigern' Scottish Language 27 (2008), 71-80.]

Rachel Bromwich (ed. & transl.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads. 2nd edition* (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978).
The triad of the Three Lively Maidens appears on page 199 as ‘Triad 79′.
Professor Bromwich briefly discussed Angharad Ton Velen in the extensive ‘Notes to personal names’ (at page 270).
* I haven’t consulted the 3rd edition for this blogpost.

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Dunragit’s ceremonial mound


The Mote of Droughduil

The area around the village of Dunragit in Galloway contains one of the largest prehistoric ritual complexes in Britain. Aerial photography and excavation have enabled archaeologists to build up a picture of henges, processional roads and other features. These are mostly hidden below ground, but one major element of the complex is still visible today: an impressive artificial mound, standing between the main A75 highway and the railway, not far from the shore of the Solway Firth.

The mound is known as the Mote of Droughduil (or Droughdool). Until recently it was thought to be a motte – the base of a small castle – constructed in Norman times. An older theory suggested that it might be the presumed ‘Fort of Rheged’ which some people believe to be the origin of the name Dunragit. Rheged was a North British kingdom that flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. Its precise location is unknown but the most popular hypothesis sees it as encompassing lands on either side of the Solway.

Excavations conducted by a team from Manchester University during 1999-2002 confirmed that the Mote of Droughduil was built long before the kings of Rheged or the Norman lords of Galloway. It was a key nodal point in the prehistoric complex and seems to have been used as a viewing platform where important religious rituals could be observed. At some point, a ceremonial cairn was placed on the summit, and the mound itself was re-shaped to give a tiered or ‘stepped’ profile. To me, this re-shaping makes it reminiscent of the Doomster Hill at Govan, another ceremonial mound of artificial construction. Both sites were probably used for important public gatherings in very ancient times. Unfortunately, the Doomster Hill was destroyed in the name of Progress, and it now looks as if the Mote of Droughduil might be heading for a similar fate.

Permission has recently been given for a road-building project which will by-pass Dunragit village. The A75 is a very busy highway, much-used by heavy vehicles travelling to and from Stranraer (a major port for ferries between Scotland and Northern Ireland). I can understand, therefore, why people living along this route tend to support the construction of a by-pass. The trouble is, the new road at Dunragit will cut through the sacred landscape of prehistoric times. When the big machines start ripping up the hallowed earth, it’s hard to see how the Mote of Droughduil can survive.

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My thanks to Liz Roberts for sending me the link to Kenneth Roy’s article on this topic.

The Canmore database has an entry for the Mote of Droughduil. For recent information, see the report of the Manchester University excavations.

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The Names of Rheged

Place-name expert Professor Andrew Breeze is giving the annual James Williams Lecture in Dumfries on 2 December 2011. His topic will be ‘The Names of Rheged’.

This event is organised by the Dumfries & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society who will be publishing the lecture as a paper in their Transactions. In the meantime, those of us who are unable to attend will hopefully be able to read a summary on the Society’s website at a later date.

Information about time and venue can be found via this link.

For background information on Rheged I recommend Michelle Ziegler’s blogpost in her Lost Kingdoms series.

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The Giant’s Grave

The Giant's Grave

This enigmatic monument stands alongside St Andrews Church in the centre of Penrith. It takes its name from a legendary giant, known as Ewan Caesarius or Sir Owen Caesar, who was said to have hunted boar in the nearby Inglewood Forest. His ‘grave’ is not, in fact, a single feature but a collection of six individual monuments: two Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts and four hogback tombstones. All six are probably of 10th century origin and were originally not grouped together. The crosses look similar to others in various parts of what is now the English county of Cumbria, although their upper portions have long since vanished. The hogbacks are carved representations of Scandinavian houses and are a type of monument formerly associated with Viking burials. Current opinion now sees them as indigenous to Britain, the earliest examples possibly originating in Northumbria among Anglo-Saxon craftsmen influenced by contact with Norse settlers.

Nobody knows when the Giant’s Grave was assembled but a medieval date seems almost certain. References in antiquarian literature show that the present arrangement of the stones certainly pre-dates the modern era. An excavation in the 16th century found what were described as ‘the great long shank bones of a man, and a broad sword’. These items are no longer extant, but the presence of a weapon seems to argue against a Christian burial. When the bones were unearthed, their large size was seen as confirmation of the legend of the giant huntsman of Inglewood. In the 18th century, when St Andrews Church was rebuilt, the entire composite monument was moved from what was presumably its original setting to be re-erected in its current position.

The identity of Ewan Caesarius is unknown. Some people think he may have been based on a real historical figure connected with the area around Penrith. One favoured candidate is Owain ab Urien, a hero of the 6th century, whose father was the renowned King Urien of Rheged. Storytellers in Wales subsequently drew Owain into the Arthurian romances where he eclipsed his father as the most famous hero of the North Britons. The Welsh Arthurian tales featuring Owain presumably relate to one or more northern tales, circulating in the Anglo-Scottish borderland in the 12th century, in which he appears as the father of St Kentigern. Whether the Arthurian romances prompted the northern stories, or vice versa, is hard to say.

Urien’s famous son is not the only candidate in the search for Ewan Caesarius, nor necessarily the most plausible. Several namesakes from a different era, from the 10th-11th centuries, are also worthy of consideration. These later Owains were rulers of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the North Britons. At the height of their power, the Clyde kings held sway as far south as the River Eamont which skirts the edge of Penrith. One of the Strathclyde Owains fought on the losing side at the great battle of Brunanburh in 937; another tasted victory at Carham-on-Tweed in 1018, as an ally of the Scots against the English. Either of these two warlords could be the historical figure behind the fabled giant of Inglewood Forest whose bones allegedly lie in St Andrews churchyard. Alternatively, the legend of Ewan Caesarius might have no historical foundation at all.


W.G. Collingwood, ‘The Giant’s Grave’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, 2nd series, 23 (1923), 115-28

W. Hutchinson, The history of the county of Cumberland (Carlisle, 1794) [refers to the 16th century excavation of the Giant's Grave at pp.328-34]

J. MacQueen, ‘Yvain, Ewen and Owain ap Urien’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society 33 (1966), 107-31

Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

Edinburgh Castle, site of the Gododdin stronghold Din Eidyn.

In the introductory chapters to his radical reconstruction of the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin John T. Koch suggested that the sixth-century battle of Catraeth, described in the poem as a defeat for the warriors of Gododdin (Lothian), was a victory for their fellow-Britons of Rheged. Koch believed that a poem known as Gweith Gwen Ystrat (The Battle of Gwen Valley) attributed to Rheged’s court-bard Taliesin was composed to celebrate the event from the victors’ perspective. He suggested that Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were different names for the same place. In adopting this radical stance he challenged the conventional view of the Gododdin defeat which has long seen it as a triumph by the English kingdom of Bernicia over one of her British neighbours.

I was sceptical about Koch’s theory as soon as I saw it, not least because I don’t see any need to conflate the two battles. In Y Gododdin, Catraeth is clearly stated to be the location of the Gododdin defeat: there is no mention of the Gwen Valley. In Taliesin’s poem, Catraeth is mentioned as a territory associated with Rheged but is not described as the site of a battle. My unease about these and other aspects of Koch’s vision (or revision) of sixth-century history prompted me to discuss his book in the first issue of The Heroic Age back in 1999.

Recently, I looked again at a 1998 paper by Graham Isaac in which the Catraeth-Gwen Ystrat conflation was subjected to detailed linguistic scrutiny. When I first read Isaac’s analysis some years ago I welcomed his rejection of Koch’s theory – having no expertise myself in the complex field of Old Welsh literature I was glad to see a scholar from this area putting the theory under the microscope. Since returning to this topic in the past few weeks I was reminded of something I had forgotten, something quite significant for anyone with an interest in Rheged, namely Isaac’s belief that Gweith Gwen Ystrat should not be regarded as a poem composed in sixth-century North Britain.

In his paper Isaac questions the long-held view that the poem contains archaic linguistic features indicative of an early date of composition. Instead, he proposes that it was composed not by the northern bard Taliesin but by a Welshman of the period 1050 to 1150. If Isaac is right, the implications could be very severe, not just for Koch’s conflation of the two battles but also for conventional perceptions about other poems attributed to Taliesin. As Isaac observes near the end of his analysis: “It may be regarded as regrettable in some quarters that Gweith Gwen Ystrat in particular probably tells us nothing about sixth-century North British history” (p.69). If the poem is a product of eleventh- or twelfth-century Wales, then how confident can we be that any of Taliesin’s poetry about Rheged was composed in the sixth-century North? If one or more of these poems were composed centuries later by a Welsh “antiquarian” poet, how much of their political and geographical information about sixth-century Rheged can be trusted?


 John T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: text and context in Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)

G.R. Isaac, “Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the northern heroic age of the sixth century” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70

 My review of Koch’s book for the online journal The Heroic Age can be found here.

Additional note: The place Gwen Ystrat has never been satisfactorily located, nor (in my opinion) has Catraeth. I am unconvinced by the conventional identification of Catraeth as Catterick in Yorkshire, which I believe is too far south to be considered part of the Gododdin borderlands. Similar techniques of “sounds like” etymology have been employed to identify Gwen Ystrat with places in northern England such as Wensleydale, Winster, etc, but these are nothing more than wild shots in the dark.

Some of my early doubts about the Catterick hypothesis can be found in an article published sixteen years ago:
Tim Clarkson, “Richmond and Catraeth” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 26 (1993), 15-20

The Lindisfarne campaign

Lindisfarne Castle

Lindisfarne Castle

Chapter 63 of the ninth-century Welsh text Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) begins by naming five kings who succeeded Ida in the kingship of English Bernicia. Four are the sons of Ida (Adda, Aethelric, Theodoric and Freodwald) and the fifth is Hussa. Their reign-lengths, as given by the Historia, span the years from Ida’s death (which occurred in 559, according to Bede) to c.592. After naming Hussa and assigning him a seven-year reign the Historia continues:

Contra illum quattor reges, Urbgen, et Riderch hen, et Guallauc, et Morcant, dimicaverunt. Deodric contra illum Urbgen cum filiis dimicabat fortiter. In illo autem tempore aliquando hostes, nunc cives vincebantur, et ipse conclusit eos tribus diebus et tribus noctibus in insula Metcaud et, dum erat in expeditione, jugulatus est, Morcanto destinante pro invidia, quia in ipso prae omnibus regibus virtus maxima erat instauratione belli.

“Against him fought four kings; Urien, and Rhydderch the Old, and Gwallawg, and Morcant. Theodoric fought vigorously against Urien and his sons. During that time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry [Britons] were victorious, and Urien blockaded them for three days and three nights in the island of Lindisfarne. But, while he was on campaign, Urien was killed on the instigation of Morcant, from jealousy, because his military skill and generalship surpassed that of all the other kings”

The sequence of events is usually interpreted as follows: “Urien, king of Rheged, fought against the Bernician kings Theodoric (reigned 572-9) and Hussa (585-92). He led an alliance of native kings (including Rhydderch of Dumbarton) on a campaign that culminated in a siege of Lindisfarne. The alliance fell apart after the treacherous assassination of Urien on the orders of his jealous ally Morcant. This ended the siege and allowed the Bernician dynasty to survive.”

The above interpretation has led to the “alliance” of Britons being imagined by historians as something akin to a pan-British coalition assembled by Urien to wage a patriotic war against the northern English. Such views originated in a twentieth-century vision of ethnic hostility between “Celtic” Britons on one side and “Germanic” Bernicians on the other, coupled with a belief that sixth-century kings routinely formed alliances along clear-cut ethnic lines. But how accurate is this interpretation and can an alternative be proposed to replace it?

The passage in the Historia Brittonum can be broken down into its constituent parts. By stripping out conventional literary devices such as “sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry….” and “three days and three nights” we are left with four key elements of the narrative:

1. Four British kings, including Urien of Rheged, fought against Hussa of Bernicia.
2. An earlier Bernician king, Theodoric, fought against Urien.
3. Urien besieged a Bernician force on the island of Lindisfarne.
4. During a military campaign Urien was killed at the instigation of a British king (Morcant) who resented his military prowess.

There is no implication here of an alliance or coalition. Nor is there any hint of a joint campaign by the North Britons against an alien, non-Celtic people. My own preferred interpretation of the passage combines the above four elements to create a scenario which is somewhat less elaborate than the conventional one. It is based on a simple understanding of what the Historia actually says:

“In the period c.572 to c.592 the English of Bernicia fought a number of wars against the Britons. Among their enemies in this period were Urien of Rheged, Rhydderch of Dumbarton, a king called Gwallawg and another king called Morcant. During one of these wars an incursion by Urien into English territory included a noteworthy event: a siege of Bernician forces on Lindisfarne. Urien was eventually killed at the instigation of Morcant while on a military expedition against unidentified foes.”

With this alternative scenario in mind I see no reason to weave a story of “pan-British” co-operation from what the Historia Brittonum tells us about the Lindisfarne campaign. The Historia is in any case a controversial text whose testimony requires careful handling. Its author was keen to present the great events of the past in a manner designed to resonate with his contemporaries in ninth-century Wales. He consciously portrayed the conflicts of the sixth and seventh centuries as ethnic wars in which his own people (the Britons of Wales, Dumnonia and the North) courageously resisted the inexorable expansion of the English. In adopting this literary stance he was not presenting a factual report of sixth-century military history but pursuing instead a ninth-century propagandist agenda. We would be ill-advised to follow him too far along the same path.

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Before ending this post I offer a few additional thoughts arising from it….

[a] Urien’s campaign is sometimes envisaged as a blockade of the island of Lindisfarne, upon whose sea-girt shores the Bernicians were “penned up” and cut off from the mainland. But did his warband merely gather on the opposite coast to hurl insults at the Bernicians huddling across the water? Or did he do what any warlord possessing a modicum of “military skill and generalship” would have done, i.e. check the tides, wait for the sea to recede and march over the causeway to chase the English into some defensible stronghold (such as the prominent hill where Lindisfarne Castle now stands – see photo).

[b] Contrary to popular belief, the Historia Brittonum does not place the siege of Lindisfarne in Theodoric’s reign. The event seemingly occurred at some point in the period spanned by the reigns of Theodoric and Hussa, i.e. c.572 to c.592, but it cannot be dated more precisely.

[c] Rhydderch, Gwallawg and Morcant: there is no need to envisage any of these kings participating in Urien’s campaign. Why should they join him anyway? And why would a great warlord like Urien (whose military skill and generalship was apparently far superior to theirs) need their help? Each of them had fought (or were yet to fight) Hussa but there is no reason to believe that they conducted this warfare in alliance with each other rather than undertaking separate campaigns. It is in any case inconceivable that they were not rivals and competitors in an unending contest for territory, wealth and status, a contest which also involved Rheged and Bernicia, as well as other realms not mentioned in this part of the Historia Brittonum.

[d] It is possible, though by no means certain, that Urien exercised some measure of overlordship over one or more neighbouring kingdoms, though not necessarily those represented by the kings named in the “Lindisfarne” passage.

[e] If the Historia identifies any client or sub-king of Urien the likeliest candidate is Morcant, who allegedly instigated Urien’s demise because of jealousy, though he may simply have been a rival or neighbour who begrudged Urien’s achievements. Perhaps Morcant regarded Urien as a direct threat to his own territorial ambitions but lacked the military resources to mount a full-scale challenge on the battlefield? The slaying is sometimes called an assassination, an act of treachery, but it may have been Morcant’s only option and, in political terms, might have been his wisest move. We could be tempted to imagine a masked assassin stabbing Urien in the back with a poisoned dagger but the Historia uses the phrase jugulatus est (he was killed) which might mean nothing more devious than an ambush by a band of warriors sent by Morcant to waylay Urien and his bodyguard.

[f] The location of Morcant’s kingdom is unknown. It has been suggested that it lay on the east coast, near Bernicia and the British realm of Gododdin. Some historians think Morcant may have been a king of Gododdin during Urien’s reign in Rheged. This is possible, as are other hypotheses.

 [g] Of the British kings named in the “Lindisfarne” passage only Morcant is specifically linked to an event in Urien’s career (his death). Rhydderch is the only one of the four kings whose existence is attested elsewhere in a reliable source of non-Welsh provenance: he is mentioned in the seventh-century Life of Columba by Adomnan of Iona.

[h] Gwallawg, a figure famed in later Welsh poetry, cannot be dated securely, nor can his kingdom be located. Two poems about him were formerly attributed to the sixth-century North British poet Taliesin but current opinion now favours their composition in Wales at a much later date. This means that Gwallawg’s extremely tenuous link to the kingdom of Elmet in Yorkshire, together with any detailed reconstructions of his career derived from the poems, can no longer be accepted without question.

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For the conventional interpretation of Urien’s Bernician campaign (as an alliance or coalition of Britons) see, for example:

John Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: text and context from Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997), p.xxv & cxiii “alliance”

Sir Ifor Williams, The beginnings of Welsh poetry (Cardiff, 1980) [a collection of papers edited by Rachel Bromwich], p.44 “allies”

Alfred Smyth, Warlords and holy men: Scotland, AD 80-1000 (London, 1984), p.29 “Urien’s coalition”

Rachel Bromwich, “The character of the early Welsh tradition”, pp.83-136 in H.M. Chadwick [et al] Studies in early British history (Cambridge, 1959), p.84 “temporary coalition of British rulers”

John Marsden, Northanhymbre saga (Felinfach, 1995), p.47 “this powerful alliance of the Men of the North”. On the same page Marsden observes that the Historia Brittonum “does not specifically state that all four kings were present at the siege, but every authority accepts that they were”.

The most detailed treatment of the campaign and its context is:  Ian Lovecy, ‘The End of Celtic Britain: A Sixth-Century Battle near Lindisfarne’ Archaeologia Aeliana 5th ser., vol.4 (1976), 31-45

Rheged’s exiled warband?

The Irish annals include the following entries dealing with conflict in northern Ireland during the late 7th and early 8th centuries:

682: The battle of Ráith Mór Maigi Lini against the Britons, in which Cathasach son of Mael Dúin, king of the Cruithin, fell, and Ultán son of Dícuill.

697: Britons and Ulaid wasted Mag Muirtheimne.

702: Írgalach grandson of Conaing was killed by Britons in Inis Mac Nesáin.

709: The battle of Selg in Fortuatha Laigen against the Uí Cheinnselaig, in which fell two sons of Cellach of Cuala, Fiachra and Fiannamail, and Luirg with Cellach’s Britons.

Who were these ‘Britons’ and where did they come from? Why were they involved in the wars of Ireland?

The Irish annals of this period were written at the Hebridean monastery of Iona by monks who were, in many cases, themselves of Irish origin. It would appear from the above entries that an indication of where the British warbands came from was regarded by these monks as unnecessary. Perhaps they felt that they had already provided this information by describing the warbands as ‘Britons’? In the period 682-709 there was indeed only one North British kingdom capable of waging war in Ireland. This was based at Alt Clut, Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde, and was the last surviving realm of the Gwyr y Gogledd (‘The Men of the North’). The Clyde Britons had seen their compatriots fall one-by-one to the inexorable advance of English Northumbria. By c.670 the Northumbrian kings held sway over large tracts of what is now southern Scotland, having conquered major British realms such as Rheged and Gododdin. Some measure of imperium or overkingship was exercised over Alt Clut by the English king Oswiu (died 670) and by his son Ecgfrith (died 685) but the Dumbarton dynasty endured throughout this troubled period and in fact outlived the Northumbrian royal house by more than a hundred years.

Given Alt Clut’s status as the only functioning political entity of the northern Britons between 682 and 709 we might logically deduce that the warbands who campaigned in Ireland came from this kingdom. The annalists on Iona would have felt little need to call them anything other than ‘Britons’ because it would be generally assumed that they came from the Clyde. Any Scot, Pict, Irishman or Englishman of the late 7th century would have known that the Dumbarton kings were the only Britons who still commanded armies in the North.

Some historians, however, prefer an alternative explanation for the presence of North British warriors in Ireland by seeing them as “part of the exiled warband of Rheged” (Smyth 1984, p.26). According to this theory, the English conquest of Rheged left its military forces leaderless and penniless, driving them “to seek their fortune at the courts of Irish kings always in need of warriors for their own incessant warfare” (ibid.). Why these men should travel to Ireland rather than seek gainful employment in Britain is explained in simple economic terms: Irish kings apparently had the ability to “more richly reward them for their services” (Evans 1997, p.110). At this point it might be useful to note that there is no reference to Rheged in the Irish annals, not even in entries relating to the late 6th century when its kings reached the zenith of their power. The monks of Iona who wrote the earliest annals retrospectively were probably aware of Rheged’s existence through their contacts with Northumbrian monasteries but they chose not to mention the kingdom. By contrast they mentioned Alt Clut many times. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Clydesiders were the only Britons in whom Iona had any interest.

I have always been puzzled by the ‘Rheged mercenaries in Ireland’ theory. Why was it devised at all, and what purpose does it serve? The history of Rheged is mysterious enough without complicating it even further. Instead of weaving imaginative sagas around fragmentary information presented by medieval texts we should examine the fragments more closely to see what they say about the political biases of monastic writers and their secular patrons. By looking at the Irish annals from Iona’s viewpoint we might find ourselves better equipped to understand what role the annalists assigned to the Clyde Britons in the late 7th century. This kind of approach was adopted by James Fraser during an insightful study of secular and ecclesiastical contacts between Scots and Britons. Fraser examined the annals of 682 to 709 in the context of Iona’s political loyalties and offered a plausible hypothesis to explain the presence of Dumbarton warbands in Ireland. He envisaged a period of close co-operation between the Clyde kings and a royal dynasty of Scots in nearby CowaI, a relationship which produced “a tendency to share enemies and allies” (Fraser 2005, 109). Among the Cowal dynasty’s rivals were the Scots of Kintyre who, for more than a hundred years, had been in a symbiotic relationship with Iona. Fraser suggested that the Cowal Scots received strong military support from Alt Clut in pursuit of dynastic interests in Ireland. This led to Britons fighting alongside Cowal’s Irish allies against other Irish factions allied to Kintyre. The activities of these Britons were duly noted by the annalists because the interests of Iona’s patrons – the royal kindreds of Kintyre – were affected by the course of events. I will not delve any further into the complex web of 7th century politics – this post is long enough already – but Fraser’s article is certainly worth reading. The main point I wish to make here is that the idea of Rheged’s exiled warriors campaigning in Ireland does not stand up to scrutiny. The annals of 682 to 709 surely refer to the political affiliations and military obligations of the kings of Alt Clut.

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Alfred Smyth, Warlords and holy men: Scotland AD 80-1000 (Edinburgh, 1984)

Stephen Evans, The lords of battle: image & reality of the comitatus in Dark Age Britain (Woodbridge, 1997)

James E. Fraser, ‘Strangers on the Clyde: Cenel Comgaill, Clyde Rock and the bishops of Kingarth’. Innes Review 56 (2005), pp.102-20.

* I am grateful to Michelle of Heavenfield for drawing my attention to James Fraser’s article soon after it appeared in print.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde