Six years ago, in a post at this blog, I discussed the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat. The former is mentioned in a medieval Welsh poem (or group of poems) known as Y Gododdin (‘The Gododdin’) where it is presented as a defeat for the Britons of Edinburgh at the hands of Anglo-Saxon foes. Gwen Ystrat was the scene of a victory for the North British king Urien Rheged, apparently over Pictish enemies, in a poem attributed to the bard Taliesin. The poem has the title Gueith Gwen Ystrat (Welsh gueith = ‘strife, battle’) and its historical setting is the sixth century AD.
In my blogpost from 2009, I referred to a suggestion by the Celtic scholar John Koch that the battles of Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were one and the same. I also mentioned an objection to this idea by Graham Isaac, who proposed that Gueith Gwen Ystrat should be seen not as an authentic poem from sixth-century North Britain but as an ‘antiquarian’ composition from eleventh-century Wales. I ended the blogpost on a rather sceptical note, sharing Isaac’s doubts as to whether the battle of Gwen Ystrat was a historical event rather than a literary creation.
Fast forward to 2015 and to the latest issue of the journal Northern History. This contains an article by Andrew Breeze in which the case for seeing Gueith Gwen Ystrat as a genuine North British poem of the sixth century is re-stated. Professor Breeze also discusses the possibility that the battle may have been fought in the valley of the River Winster in southern Cumbria. This idea was first proposed by the nineteenth-century Welsh scholar Thomas Stephens who observed that another poem attributed to Taliesin mentions a place called Gwensteri as the scene of a battle fought by a northern king called Gwallawg. Stephens wondered if Gwensteri might be an error for Gwen Ystrat and suggested that both names refer to Winsterdale. Breeze thinks Stephens was right to identify Gwensteri as the River Winster but sees the name Gwen Ystrad as an error for Gwensteri rather than the other way around. He proposes Gwensteri as a native Celtic (Brittonic) name for the Winster.
Other river-names in Cumbria certainly have names of Celtic origin but Winster has generally been regarded as Norse. An explanation of this name based on Norse vinstri (‘left’) was suggested by the Swedish philologist Eilert Ekwall nearly 100 years ago but Andrew Breeze thinks a more likely base is Brittonic gwen (‘white’). A name with the simple meaning ‘white river’ does indeed seem more likely than the harder-to-explain ‘left-hand river’. Taliesin’s poem also mentions a place called Llech Wen (‘White Stone’?) which Breeze identifies as Whitbarrow, a high fell on the east side of Winsterdale. Whitbarrow has a name of Anglo-Saxon origin meaning ‘White Hill’ and a prominent crag called White Scar.
Placing the battle beside the River Winster fits with Breeze’s broader vision of the geography of Urien’s kingdom (Rheged) which he envisages as straddling the Pennine hills to encompass parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria. This is in keeping with a consensus view on sixth-century political geography in which Urien is envisaged as ruling an extensive realm centred on the Solway Firth. I am not with the majority on this matter, nor do I think the name ‘Rheged’ can be written on a map with any measure of confidence – or without an accompanying question mark. The reasoning behind my scepticism (or heresy?) is set out in my book The Men of the North.
Andrew Breeze makes a good case for amending Gwen Ystrad to Gwensteri and for identifying the latter as a Celtic name for the Cumbrian river Winster. His article builds on his other recent work on the Old North and adds further weight to conventional opinion on the location of Urien’s realm. Heretical voices, such as mine, can only respond with a rather pessimistic view on the authenticity of Taliesin’s poems, or with the bleak suggestion that Rheged’s geography might be irretrievably lost.
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Andrew Breeze, ‘Urien Rheged and Battle at Gwen Ystrad’ Northern History 52 (March 2015), 9-19. [I am grateful to Andrew Breeze for sending me a copy of this article]
Other Rheged-related articles by Andrew Breeze….
‘The Names of Rheged’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society 86 (2012), 51-62.
‘Early Welsh Poetry and Rossett, Cumbria’ Northern History 49 (2012), 129-34.
‘Northumbria and the Family of Rhun’ Northern History 50 (2013), 170-9.
‘Yrechwydd and the River Ribble’ Northern History 47 (2010), 319-28.
Graham Isaac, ‘Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the Northern Heroic Age of the Sixth Century’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70.
Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010) [see pp.68-78 for a discussion of Rheged]
My blogpost from 2009: Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat.
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