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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * *


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