In the South, it seems at least feasible that Gwrtheyrn’s ascendancy created the infrastructure that helped form the first Germanic kingdoms, otherwise there is the unlikely coincidence of Gwrtheyrn/Vortigern’s floruit, Vortigern/Vortimer-Hengest’s battles in Kent (no matter which way the campaign went, Hengest was at some point defending his own kingdom instead of being on the offensive), and the sudden emergence of several Southumbrian overlordships within (at the most) a couple decades after archeology says the first kingships formed.
In the North, we have a very different type of evidence for the same situation. The traditional belief had been that the ill-fated Gododdin expedition had fought at Catraeth in around 600, when Northumbria already had fully formed kingdoms and was approaching unification. As has been seen above, more recently the date for that battle has shifted from around 600 to perhaps 570 or even 540. Just as important, Gododdin’s opponents in the battle have been reimagined not as Germanic kings but British chieftains – Urien, Gwallog, Morgan, and Rhydderch. Both sides apparently had Germanic allies or tributaries fighting alongside them.
This change of dating and focus is in perfect agreement with the archeology, the Taliesin poems, and Historia Brittonum; Urien does fight two Germanic chieftains in the history, but he fights them only in Northumbria and never as threats to his kingdom. In the poems, no Germanic chieftain is mentioned by name against Urien at all. Fflamddwyn, the nickname of a “Bernician” chieftain, does appear in a poem fighting against Owain, but that battle could have been as much as a generation after Catraeth; plenty of time for the Germanic clans to have developed into substantial kingdoms especially now that we know how quickly they grew in size and strength.
In fact, the Taliesin poems can be used to support the new dating and reinforce our new views on the political situation. In the eighth Taliesin poem “Gweith Gwen Ystrat”, line 9, Urien is named as the Lord of Catraeth. This piece of evidence was used by Professor Koch to show Catraeth’s political and military importance to both Urien and the Gododdin expedition.
Catraeth, generally agreed upon as modern Catterick Bridge, was well within Northumbria once it was united in 604/5 by Æthelfrith. If the battle was fought after that or even when Bernicia was an established kingdom (by 593 at the latest), one would imagine Bernicia and/or Æthelfrith would figure prominently in the battle poems; they do not. The fact that Catraeth is in what would be Northumbria by 605 but was in Urien’s possession and was fought over by two predominantly Briton confederacies is strong evidence that there were no developed Germanic kingdoms at the time of the battle, which in turn forces us to the conclusion that Catraeth was fought long before 593.
Alright, so we know that Urien and Gododdin’s confederacies were active long before 593, and also that the Germanics of the time were not a significant military presence. Even better, we are fairly certain there was no cultural/racial hatred in the era. Historia Brittonum tells us that Urien’s last campaign was intended to drive the Germanic people into the sea. But if there were no Germanic kingdoms that would not have been a major task, and if the Britons did not hate the Germanics for being Germanic there would have been no desire to. So what was the purpose of the campaign? Was he forcing more Germanic clans to pay tribute? Fighting the Gododdin confederacy? Koch has argued eloquently that the Urien and Gododdin confederacies were at war, but are the two mutually exclusive?
Even if there were no significant Germanic kingdoms around the time of the Battle of Catraeth, the archeological record does show that power and wealth was beginning to centralize among the northern Germanic villages. Why?
Again, what fits the evidence best is that the region was already organized by the dominant British kings to make tribute taking and defense from other British chieftains easier and more local. Briton-directed organization would also explain the clear presence of Germanic warriors at Catraeth without the clear evidence of Germanic chieftains leading Germanic warriors there.
What happened next? In the South, Bede handed the modern historian a string of three consecutive over-kings which date-guessing has shown bridged the gap between British suzerainty and the rise of Germanic kingdoms. Because his northern sources had no Northumbrian equivalent to The Kentish Source, he could offer no such favors for his beloved Northumbria. Instead, all he had was simple oral history from the moment writing was possible.
Without Bede’s help, we are left with the raw materials in the Historia Brittonum and its attached genealogies. The former says that Ida was a figure of the mid-sixth century and that his eleven sons – Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa among them, ruled immediately after him. Date-guessing using the primary sources has proven that this official scenario is highly improbable. It seems more likely that several of the people named above were the rulers of other Northumbrian kingdoms; they were probably plucked from their historical positions and inserted into Bernicia’s royal family.
There is some evidence for this hypothesis. The conflicting information to be had from our sources is one piece and the unsatisfactory results of date-guessing are another. Others are less obvious; none of the “brothers” were active in the same place. Theodric is mentioned in Historia Brittonum only at Lindesfarne where he was besieged by Urien and his allies. According to the Welsh Triads, Adda fought against the York kings Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. We also know that Hussa fought against Rheged, Elmet, Strathclyde, and probably a Gododdin kingdom, which suggests he was from a northwestern Bernician kingdom – but this is the weakest of the three connections
The above clues do not give us a conclusive argument, but they do suggest a theory that agrees with archeology, that there were multiple kingships in pre-Æthelfrith Northumbria. It also has the advantage of not conflicting with itself.
The established history has neither. Northumbria did not have its first monastery, and the scriptoria that came with it, until probably 635. If historical writing started immediately (and Aidan was renowned for traveling ceaselessly so this is a big “IF”) and had access to someone who was the maximum of fifty-five, then he would have had access to living memory back no further than 585 under the best of circumstances. More likely he would have had access to accurate memories only back to 595. Even if we assume that Paulinus started writing Northumbrian history when he accompanied Æthelburg up to Northumbria in about 625 (when he established churches, not monasteries), living memory for him would have extended no further back than about 575, and probably 585. There is no conceivable way that there could have been any historical memories regarding a 547 Ida, and probably little or no living memory about Glappa, Adda, Æthelric, Theodric, Frithuwald, and Hussa. The only thing that would have been accessible at that time would have been heroic poems and whatever skop-derived genealogies were in existence.
And even if all the above calculations are wrong, our received history of sixth-century Northumbria clearly conflicts with contemporary British poetry and any attempt at date-guessing. It also does not explain the clear association of at least two kings with specific areas within Northumbria.
Actually, when put like that the scenario reeks bears a little comparison to another dynasty we have already met, Wessex. There at least three dynasties were smashed together to give the impression of a single and united kingdom from its first day of existence by giving several key individuals a genealogy that connected them to a common founder – Cerdic.
In Northumbria, it looks like the process was simpler, or less developed, as all of the suspicious persons were made the sons of Ida. The solution not only bonded the history of Bernicia’s kingdoms into a history where Bernicia had always been united, it push Bernicia’s foundation date further back in time and made the dynasty seem older and more respectable than it actually was.
So when did all the chieftains in the official king-list live? In the South, the genealogies of Wessex have previously been worked out with rough birth-years for most individuals. Not so with Bernicia. However, knowing that Theodric and Hussa were contemporary to Urien and that Hussa’s son was active in 603, the author has previously date guessed several early members of the official Bernician family:
Ida: Born 497×550 Hussa “son of Ida”: 530×570
Æthelric son of Ida: 535×568 Hering son of Hussa: 548×588
Theodric son of Ida: 515×585
Adda “son of Ida”: 515×585
It makes sense that both Æthelric and Theodric would be the sons of Ida. Ida is the legendary founder of the line and he is connected to Bamburgh Castle. In the Historia Brittonum Theodric was laid siege to at Lindesfarne, which is a nearby island. Æthelric is also reasonable as Ida’s son because it was his son Æthelfrith who first united Bernicia and Deira and had the power to create the official (oral) history at a time when there must have been survivors from the various kingdoms he had conquered. It would have made no sense to choose another father in place of his own when his father’s name would have been well known. And as the official genealogy has Ida as his grandfather and the conflicting chieftains as his uncles, it would have made no sense to choose another grandfather, either.
Hussa, on the other hand, is clearly not a son of Ida. The king lists specifically say that Theodric ruled first. Historia Brittonum, on the other hand, tells us that Hussa fought Urien and that Urien died while laying siege to Theodric; clearly a chronological gaff in the re-sewing of Bernician history.
Frithuwald likewise causes problems as a son of Ida. In the official king-list he is placed between Theodric and Hussa, but in the Historia Brittonum he is still alive when Augustine arrives in Britain at 597. It is also clear, in Bede and elsewhere, that all the sons of Ida were dead by 593, when Æthelfrith, from the third generation, began his reign. If Frithuwald was a son of Ida, he could not have been alive in 597. We already know that the king-list has been tampered with, and the Historia Brittonum (and Northern Memoranda writer) would have had no foreseeable reason to make the synchronization; Frithuwald was not the son of Ida.
Previously, the present author had listed Adda as a son of Ida. On further consideration, however, Adda was probably not in the same dynasty. He is not necessary for the genealogy, nor is there any geographical consistency between himself and either Ida, Theodric, or Æthelric. On the contrary, Adda is only noted for battling the York-oriented brothers Peredur and Gwrgi at Caer Greu. His interests were either around York or in an area near to it.
Almost nothing is known of the last brother Glappa, only that he is listed as Ida’s first successor. It is possible that Glappa was an historical son of Ida, but considering the tendencies shown above, it is more likely he was not. It may well be that the reason he immediately succeeds Ida in the official genealogy is that Glappa was the most powerful rival in the bardic records. In that case, his place as Ida’s first-born would have been meant as a nod to Glappa’s surviving family.
So, what do we know about Deira before Æthelfrith conquered it? Soemil has already been discussed; he seems to make the most sense as the person who separated Deira from British-controlled Bernicia in the middle sixth century; he was a northern counterpart to the Sussex Ælle, Ceawlin, and possibly Iurminric.
The next person we know anything about is Ælle, but what we do know is conflicted. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that he came to the throne in 560 and reigned for thirty years. However, it also says he succeeded Ida – of Bernicia! 560 and his reign length are also unbelievable; there is no way there could have been written records in Northumbria before 585?
Bede relays a continental memory, that Gregory saw some of Ælle’s people as slaves before he became pope. As this comes directly from a contemporary continental source it is credible. It also means, as Miller noted, that Ælle was active between when he returned from Constantinople in 585/6 and 590. That is not much, but it does give us one small range of dates in which he know someone was king in Deira.
How long was Soemil active if he was a rebel figure of the mid-sixth century? There is no way to tell. When did Ælle come to power? Again, we cannot know. It is possible that one succeeded the other? Yes, but not in any way probable. If Soemil was remembered for separating Deira from Bernicia, he would have been famous enough for any intelligent skop to insert into his king’s pedigree. So it is very possible that the two were not even related to each other.
Looking forward, we are told that Æthelric succeeded to the kingdom when Ælle died in 588. The inconsistency between the date and the supposed thirty-reign of Ælle (560+30=590) is a reminder that we cannot trust this date either. Nor does the entry give us a relationship between Ælle and Æthelric either. Were they brothers? Father and son? Competitors from different dynasties? That, too, we do not know and have no way of learning.
In the South, Gwrtheyrn’s reign created the organization for several late-sixth century kingships in Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. By about 600 these had coalesced into at least four distinct kingdoms. Above the Humber river, it would seem that the alliance of Urien, Rhydderch, Morcant, and Gwallog aided in the creation of several kingdoms in Bernicia and at least two in Deira. By the historical period these had merged into two, and were well on their way to forming the single kingdom of Northumbria by 604. It would be the continuing struggle between the houses of Deira and Bernicia that would engage Northumbria for most of the rest of the period in question, with several kingdoms only becoming involved long enough to shift the advantage from one house to the other for a few years at a time.
1 As the name of the entire region and not a particular kingdom, “Bernician” could mean any Germanic chieftain from Northumbria.
2 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xiii-xxxiv.
3 Ibid, xii.
4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 144.
5 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 63.
6 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), Triad 30.
7 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 61.
8 To be accurate, it is “Eda Glinvawr” who is placed at Caer Greu. Traditionally this figure has been assumed to be a mistake for Adda because Ida is said to have died some twenty years earlier. However, as one of the benefits of the altered Bernician king-list was to extend the dynasty backward in time, the argument that Ida must have been dead by then is no longer valid. Ida may well have been a contemporary the battle. The author thinks that geography is a better approach. Ida is associated with Bamburgh deep inside Bernician territory, while the York of Peredur and Gwrgi was inside Deiran territory, and therefore any Bernician chieftain fighting them was likely much nearer the border.
9 Miller has already done a masterful overview of the subject. The approach taken here is largely based on her; “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 35-61.
10 Miller, “The Dates of Deira”, ASE 8 (London, 1979), 42; Duddon, Gregory the Great, (London, 1905), 156 fn. 3 and 196 fn. 1.
11 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953).
12 The author’s study on early Deiran kings showed that there were a number of equally plausible options regarding Ælle and Æthelric, including a theory that they were from two different dynasties; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 146-7 and 219. Considering the official late sixth-century Bernician dynasty and its relationship with historical reality, two different dynasties seems even more likely.