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.

* * * * * * *
This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde


6 comments on “Rheged’s exiled warband?

  1. Michelle says:

    You saved me from perpetuating this in an upcoming post! 🙂

    I read Fraser’s paper back then but I didn’t think about it in terms of the Britons fighting in Ireland. I clearly need to reread a couple of Fraser’s papers from around then. His new book is supposed to be out very soon, if not already.

    As for what was left of Rheged, assuming they didn’t fight to the last man or go to Strathclyde – the most likely home for them- would be Gwynedd. If they had gone to Gwynedd it would explain the references to Rheged in the Historia Brittonum (written in Gwynedd) and the role of the ‘men of the North’ in Gwynedd literature. In reality, assuming any remaining warriors were left to find their own homes, they would have scattered and been easily absorbed by the other British kingdoms in Wales and don’t forget Cornwall holding out against Wessex. Some of them may have even headed to Brittany or the Picts. There is no reason to think that warbands would have remained together or at least not in groups larger than a dozen or so.

  2. Tim says:

    The most die-hard elements among the elite of Rheged probably sought refuge in Gwynedd or elsewhere but I expect others tried to tough it out at home. There may have been some hope of retaining their estates (and aristocratic status) under English rule. A few, perhaps a lot, might have been forcibly replaced by Northumbrian nobles. Those who were permitted to remain as landowners and weapon-bearers would have been obliged to swear oaths of loyalty to the English king. Future social advancement for their sons and grandsons would thereafter have required the adoption of “Englishness” (including the English language) at the expense of “Britishness”. Beyond this we venture into matters of ethnic identity, which is very much a grey area.

  3. Michelle says:

    We also come back to the cross in Cumbria which has the name of Alchfrith son of Oswiu’s wife on it. If Alchfrith was the son of Rhianmellt of Rheged and Oswiu of Bernicia, then there may have been a family member, one of their sons to whom some could transfer their loyalty and retain some of their land as you suggest. I don’t think Rhianmellt delivered Rheged to Bernicia at all, and there is no reason to think Alchfrith had anything to do with bringing Rheged into Northumbria. Yet their grandchildren could still be acceptable nobles in Rheged after it was annexed. These grandsons (or granddaughters) would have to be very clear about their loyalty to their cousins and Northumbria to be able to rule over British lands.

  4. Tim says:

    I totally agree, Michelle. The idea of Rheged being given away as a marriage dowry has never worked for me. Regarding the Bewcastle Cross, I have often wondered why it was sited in that particular location. Could it have been deliberately set up because of Alchfrith’s Rheged ancestry? Maybe Bewcastle was either a religious centre for Rheged’s royal family or a key place on the kingdom’s border? Alchfrith had Romanist sympathies and it is possible that Rheged’s native churches leaned the same way – perhaps Rhun ab Urien was pro-Roman in his ecclesiastical ventures?

  5. I don’t disagree with your hypothesis that the “Britons” fighting in Ireland were most likely from Strathclyde. But before we leave Rheged totally behind, it strikes me that the so-called Picts of Galloway (part of Rheged) might have played a role in fighting in Ireland. The Irish certainly spoke of them – but if memory serves, as Cruithne rather than Picts (and of course they are still referred to in the region as Creenies). And Cruithne is cognate for Pretani (Briton). Watson says the Gall Ghaidhil from Galloway fought for kings of Ulster, Tyrone and Munster in the mid-800’s – why not the remnant Cruithne (Briton) elements from that region as well?

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this, Robert. I seem to recall reading somewhere a theory that the ‘Britons’ mentioned in these annal entries might actually be the Cruithne or ‘Irish Picts’, i.e the Dal nAraide.of Ulster. The Galloway Picts are a bit of a puzzle. I’m of the opinion that they were invented by English chroniclers during the Anglo-Scottish wars of the 12th century. But then we’ve still got to account for the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill…. All of which goes to show there are plenty of issues to keep us scratching our heads for many years to come.

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