A Northern Alliance
In chapter 63 of the Historia Brittonum, we are introduced to Urien and his exploits in one brief entry.
“Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderethen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.”
The present author has elsewhere examined what we know about Urien’s final campaign and concluded that it happened during the middle third of the sixth century. However, a simpler approach works just as well. As has been seen, the earliest kingships were local in the extreme, with chieftains taking tribute from villages within sight of their own halls and not much further. It was only in the second third of the sixth century that regional British kingships developed. The history of Northumbria is fairly well laid out from 593, when Æthelfrith took the Bernician throne. Within twelve years he had conquered Deira and the other kingdoms of Northumbria, making it unlikely that any alliance of British kings had made him pay tribute. In 605 he threatened Chester, which tells us that there were no northern British kings strong enough to face him. As we will see in the pages below, Northumbria was too strong after that to be seriously threatened for several decades.
But what about the four British kings? The Historia Brittonum does not say they were allied, nor does he state outright that Urien was even the most powerful king of the group. It is fairly clear that he meant that Urien was the most powerful king and the leader. Urien is named first, Urien bottles up the Germanic army, and Urien’s death ends the campaign. One gets the sense that Urien had the same role as Agamemnon in the Iliad.
But then we remember the nature of the source, Historia Brittonum, a compendium history written in the ninth century to strengthen the legitimacy of the new Gwynedd dynasty, which claimed to be descended from Urien. It was in the author’s best interests to represent Urien as the leader of kings because it demonstrated how powerful the dynasty’s most famous ancestor had been. His assassination was a stroke of genius; it led to the dissolution of the alliance and a resurgence of the Bernicians.
We must not forget a second theme in the book, either; when the Rhodri Mawr was having it written he was trying to unite the British kingdoms under his leadership to beat back the English. Urien was supposed to represent him and serve as a lesson; when the British united they were invincible, and when they started bickering amongst themselves the English kings could easily defeat – as the Historia Brittonum demonstrated with the rise of Æthelfrith after Urien was killed. The above examination leaves us only with a confederacy involving four kings whose known members – Urien, Ryderethen (Rhydderch), and Guallauc (Gwallog) – ruled in the North, and Morcant was likely from Gododdin which was also in the North.
As has been seen, Y Gododdin is a eulogy to a group of warriors who went on a campaign against the Deirans to their south and died at the Battle of Catraeth. At this point, Catraeth is fairly well established as modern Catterick in what would be medieval Northumbria, which means that the participants listed in Y Gododdin were attacking the same rough area as Urien and his alliance had.
For the same reasons listed for the Urien alliance, the thinking has gone that the battle was fought after the first third of the sixth century but before 605 by which time Bernicia had conquered Deira and the other kingdoms of Northumbria and was too powerful for the British kings to attack. As far as a sequence of events, most scholars have argued that the Urien alliance was first because it was able to drive the Germanic peoples nearly off the island. At some point after Urien’s demise the Gododdin chieftain gathered a confederacy around himself and attacked Deira.
Recently, Professor John T. Koch of Cambridge presented a more efficient theory. As we have seen, Y Gododdin had existed in two forms, but both were eventually written down in Gwynedd during the same period that saw the collection of materials which were used in Historia Brittonum. Koch’s study and reconstruction of the Y Gododdin poem showed the same Gwynedd interests were in the poem – to extol the virtues of British unity and portray the English as the enemy. He noticed several details in his reconstruction that indicated the enemy’s identity had been kept intentionally vague; the Deirans had been at the battle but they might have had allies.
Going back over the historical Taliesin poems (which he had also done some work on), Koch noted that Catraeth was one of the settlements over which Urien ruled. In itself that was nothing unusual; it made sense that a powerful ruler would have claimed lands well beyond his central territories. However, all of a ruler’s claimed territories would not be listed in praise poems, only his significant holdings. And what would make a settlement more important than if a decisive battle had been won near it?
The theory Koch laid out amounted to this; Urien and his allies – from Strathclyde, Elmet, and probably Lothian – were either allied with the Germanic peoples in the area or ruled over them. The Gododdin king, seeking a balance of power in the North, collected a large group of like-minded kings and Anglo-Saxon leaders, and marched against Urien and the other kings around the Catraeth region. The campaign was a disaster, but the bravery of the men involved lived on in the poem Y Gododdin. Later Gwynedd, capitalizing on the extant literature from both sides, used the Urien alliance’s success to support their hopes for a united British people and the Gododdin’s failure as an epitaph for the brave warriors who had fallen against the Germanic invaders.
Historically of course that did not happen, nor did the Historia Brittonum’s account that Urien and the other kings beat back the Northumbrian kings in a cultural war. All we can really be certain of is that Urien’s coalition won the battle of Catraeth, controlled a large part of Northumbria as a result, and that at least some of their opponents were Germanic. When Urien’s alliance broke up that control fizzled. It would be the last time the Britons would have the upper hand against the Germanic peoples for decades.
1 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 21-27, 112, 139, 142, 144-5, 154, 162, 168-171, 176-7, and 185.
2 The present author had previously given a range for Urien’s confederacy of 574×620. This is still possible given the birth-ranges of the participants, but they could not have been dominant in Northumbria after 605, which means that if Urien’s traditional death is the historical one it could not have taken place at or after 605 on Lindesfarne.
3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xxvi. This in direct contradiction to the traditional view that argued the years around 600 were the most reasonable range for the Battle of Catraeth (Aneirin, Canu Aneirin, ed. Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 1938), xxviii, xxxi-xxii; Bromwich, (ed.) The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry: Studies by Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 2nd ed. 1982), 47-49, 52-53; The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem, trans. and ed. Kenneth H. Jackson, (Edinburgh, 1969), 11-12; Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland A.D. 80-100, (London, 1984), 20-2; Aneirin: Y Gododdin – Britain Oldest Heroic Poem, trans. and ed. Alfred O.H. Jarman, (Llandysul, 1988), xviii-xx.
4 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xlii.
5 “Book of Taliesin”, trans. John T. Koch and John Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, (Malden, 1995), 338-42.
6 Taliesin. Canu Taliesin, ed. Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 1960), II; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xvi.
7 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 221-6.
8 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xlvii-l.