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