After the initial rise of kingships and the development of more powerful kingdoms in the first half of the sixth century it was inevitable that the British kingdoms would begin to think on a larger scale; a small kingdom is only be concerned about its immediate neighbors because he is only likely to be attacked by them. However, once it has expanded beyond a handful of villages larger issues come into play – trade, alliances, and control of waterways for instance.
The first indications of a larger playing field centered around Gwynedd, the one kingdom of the early sixth century that had been able to maintain its power consistently; it had retained the same ruling dynasty through several kings as well. At some time in the middle of the sixth century, one of its more famous kings, Maelgwn, died. Hoping to tap into some of Gwynedd’s reputation and power, a Gwrwst Priodor (kingdom unknown) made an unsuccessful raid into Gwynedd and was killed. In retaliation an alliance of five northern kings – Rhydderch, Clydno Eidyn, Mordaf, Nudd Hael, and Elidyr Mwynfar representing Strathclyde, a Gododdin kingdom, and three unspecified kingdoms invaded Gwynedd. They were beaten back by Rhun, who then collected his own army and marched north.
The campaigns themselves are of little note. As far as we know no kingdoms were conquered and no territories were won or lost because of them. What is interesting is that Rhun’s Gwynedd was matched by an alliance of kings. This was probably the first British alliance since the Picts.
The next example of the Britons’ expanding awareness is found in the Historia Brittonum, which claims that Urien was the head of a powerful alliance in northern Britain that included Rhydderch, Morgant of Gododdin, and Gwallog of Elmet. It was interested in more than revenge, too. The Taliesin poems and the Historia Brittonum say it fought against the Germanic peoples, and Historia Brittonum even says they beat the invaders back to Lindesfarne before the coalition broke up.
The poem Y Gododdin makes a similar claim; a confederacy against the Germanic peoples. This alliance was led by Gododdin and included kings from Cornwall in the south to Pictland in the North as well as Elmet, at least one Germanic chieftain, and the Gododdin king himself. This joint army was solely interested in beating back the Germanic peoples too. It met with them at the battle of Catraeth but was annihilated.
Both the Urien and the Gododdin alliance in isolation are two more examples of just the sort of wider political awareness that was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. However, recent scholarship has suggested that they may not have come together against just the Germanic peoples. As Professor John T. Koch pointed out, one of the Taliesin poems claims that Urien won a major battle at Catterick (the most widely accepted site for the Battle of Catraeth).
There is more to the theory than that of course. As we have seen above, Rhydderch had already been involved in an alliance against another British king. The Taliesin poems are very clear that Urien spent the early part of his career fighting Britons. Koch has noted evidence in Y Gododdin that the chief enemy might not have been Germanic, that the Germanic warriors who were involved were serving a British king.[i]
Added to the above evidence are the parallel members of each alliance. The Morgan who was Urien’s ally may well have been a king in Gododdin ruling from Din Peledyr. The leader of the Gododdin alliance hailed from Din Eidyn. Gwallog son of Lleenog was the ruler of Elmet, but Y Gododdin names a Madawg Elmet in the Gododdin alliance.[ii] From what we know of epithets (Maelgwn Gwynedd and Urien Reged), he was probably a part of the Elmet ruling family and therefore Gwallog’s rival. Catraeth was a clash of major British kingdoms. It was not fought simple for prestige or the theft of cattle; the participants seem to have had multiple reasons for participating.
This alliance represents another advance in British politics. It would have been impossible in an era where kings only ruled the area that could be seen from their hall and was impractical until the British kings had built larger kingdoms.
The last major alliances under discussion here show up at the Battle of Arfderydd. According to the Annales Cambriae, it was fought in 573. Though the Welsh Triads confirm the battle did happen, we have seen above that this event was probably recorded within living memory the date might not be too accurate. Tapping various earlier sources we learn that Dunawd, Cadrod, Cynfelyn, Dingad, Dreon, Rhydderch, Peredur, Gwrgi, and Gwenddoleu (all northern rulers apart from Dingad and Dreon of “Powys”) were present and an alliance of Rhydderch, Dunawd, Cynfelyn, Peredur, and Gwrgi opposed Gwenddoleu. This, again, is two opposing alliances dominated by Britons.
Which brings us to Gwrtheyrn. As far as historical interactions and genealogy is concerned, he was a king of the early to middle sixth century.[iii] Given the developing size of kingdoms during the period and the suggestive name of the Gwrtheyrnion region in modern southern Powys, Gwrtheyrnion might have been Gwrtheyrn’s original kingdom. The other possibility is that he was from roughly the modern country of Gloucester, where his official ancestor Gloiu had once been the eponymous ruler of Gloucester.
Most scholars have seen The Kentish Source as found in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as using Vortigern in order to legitimize the presence of the Germanic people in Britain.[iv] This goes without saying; without him Kent had no legitimate reason for migrating and no legal acquisition of Kent. But how powerful was the historical Gwrtheyrn? Maybe, just maybe, he was southern counterpart to one of the northern alliances. No other southern king seems to have interested later historians as much.
The above has mentioned several northern British alliances, a powerful Gwynedd king, and a possible over-king in southern England all of whom were expanding their kingdoms, but nothing about Cornwall and Devon. We can guess that the same sort of thing was happening there. We even have a little evidence; scattered information in the vitae and local legends tell us that a Theodoric and Cunomorus were powerful kings. There are no “historical” sources, though, and there is too little of the oral traditions to make any real sense out of beyond a rough chronology.[v] Other regions that were already conquered by 650, like western England, may well have had over-kings as well that we know nothing about.
The expanded geography of kingdoms also meant exposure to larger rivals and the inception of more pitched battles. In the author’s Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain it was proposed that the events of Rhun’s campaign north, the Battle of Arfderydd, and the Battle of Catraeth occurred in that order. Though there is no way of knowing the politics or even exactly who the participants were in the latter two events, two conclusions can be drawn. First, that they can all be safely placed in the last two-thirds of the sixth century. Second, that they are the first events that affected a large region of Britain. As such they deserve a little closer scrutiny.
[i] The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-lvii.
[ii] B2.29, A.68, and B1.22.
[iii] Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 91.
[iv] Brooks, “The creation and early study of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 55-74; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 22; Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History to 900 A.D., (Cambridge, 1976).
[v] All that is certain about Theodoric is that his name is Germanic and that he is associated with an unusually large number of British saints. The information about the Cunomorus of southern England is simply that he died in the sixth century. A Cunomorus of Brittany was powerful enough to get Gregory of Tours’ interest, but there is no way to be certain that he was active in Britain, let alone if he was powerful there.