Columban Dal Riata


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When St. Columba arrived in Scotland as part of his penance for his part in the Battle of Cuil Dremne (563), legend says that King Conall of Dal Riata granted him the island of Iona for use as a monastery. He soon had a local scriptorium, writing center, so that from that time on historical events were recorded in Dal Riata.
Before 563, there would have been only oral memory. We only have one historical source for that period, the Senchus Fer n’Alban. It was written in around 660, a century after Columba arrived, and for the express purpose of generating nationalistic sentiment against Northumbria. The work gives a clear genealogical descent from Conall and Gabrán back to their common paternal grandfather Domangart. 
The only other Dal Riatan historical source for the period is Columba’s biography, written in about 697 and based on Iona’s historical records and whatever oral legends were to be had. Considering how much longer a monk could live than a layman, there might have been quite a few stories floating around. Anyway, the Vita Columba gave Conall and Gabrán’s parentage, but never named their common grandfather.

You might say the writer, Adamnan, simply had no interest in family trees, but Adamnan was a relative of Columba and a descendant of kings. It might be argued that Columba somehow did not know, but to be ignorant of host kingdom’s royal family in any way would have been unthinkable. We must at least consider that Gabrán and Conall did not have a common grandfather.

That suggestion demands a second look at the book, and perusing the Vita Columba we see that Columba never seems to go to any hall, castle, or even hill-fort while in Dal Riata. It was not that Adamnan opposed speaking of them, either. If his royal heritage is not enough to prove he had no compunctions about them, he does go into detail about Columba’s visit to Brude’s fortress in Pictland.1

Another omission is also important. Although the “official” history makes it clear that both Loairn and Óengusa of Cenéls Loairn and Óengusa were active around this time, neither one of them is mentioned. Conall and Gabrán are, and so are several members of the official family that are not in the official history, peasants, thieves, and monks; just not cenéls Loairn and Óengusa.

Many of the people Columba talks to in Dal Riata do not even seem to be noble. Actually, paging through the book the word pirate comes to mind. For instance, Erc is blatantly addressed as “the Robber”.2    There is also a chapter about Johan son of Conall son of Comgall in which he is clearly described as a bandit with his own group of men.3

All of the above suggests that the family tree was altered in the Senchus. More than that, it puts into question whether or not there was even a royal Dal Riata dynasty at all when Columba arrived.4

Stronger evidence of that last thought can be found in what little we know of the Convention at Druim Cett (574). Now there is a concensus that the High-King of Ireland, Áed mac Ainmuirech, conceded that Scottish Dal Riata would pay no tribute and provide no warriors. In return, Dal Riata promised that its fleet would be at his command.5

In the past, those believing that Scottish Dal Riata was originally part of Irish Dal Riata believed that this compromise gave Scottish Dal Riata its first taste of freedom from Ireland. Looked at from Áed’s perspective, though, the compromise is all wrong. He would have had no reason to give up tribute and fighting men. On the contrary, considering the weakened state of his dynasty and the fact that his predecessors had needed to fight throughout their reigns, he would have had every reason to believe he needed more military strength.

Instead of Druim Cett signaling the beginning of Scottish independence, we should think of it more as an acceptance of dependence. In return for making their veteran crews available to the high-king, the Irish pirates in Britain were accepted as a nominal kingdom under the high-king and as such they were protectedfrom all the kingdoms they had stolen from.

So if there was no royal family in the Dal Riata of 563 and for years afterwards what was there? We will be wisest to start with what we know; that is not in the Senchus but the Vita Columba. There are, in fact, at least three distinct clans to be found there – the families represented by Domnall, Gabrán, and Conall. There are possibly others. Erc “the Robber” is a likely clan leader. Colgu was an important person in Ireland, so his presence in Dal Riata raises the possibility that a lesser line may have migrated there.

Why pirates, or at least raiders whose leaders came from royal families? As was mentioned above, during the fifth century the western coast of Britain was invaded by the Irish, who used bases in Britain to stage attacks further inland. What we know about them is that the Irish who held the land and managed to build a kingdom were related to Irish royalty, but we have no way of knowing if they were in every case the only group that settled in an area or just the most successful one. It is only because of the Vita Columba that we know there were several clans in Dal Riata.

Dal Riata made for a good pirate base, and in some ways was the best British base. The region has many islands with shifting beaches. Sea depths can change. An area like that would have been navigable for someone who lived there but hazardous for anyone hoping to attack in heavy ships. It would have been more practical to attack in smaller ships, currachs. The problem with that idea was that a currach could only carry a few men and as soon as it came into a narrow area it would have made an easy target for ambush by land or sea; the perfect pirate base.

Because it was so easy to hide or defend, it would have been difficult to unite the area as well; a raiding party could evade any chieftain trying to unite the raiding crews almost indefinitely.

Not that there would have been any general need for unity during the fifth and sixth centuries. Each raiding group was mobile and could function independently. Irish and British targets were available on the sea and land, and there was no real threat to any group at the time and no potential threat in the foreseeable future.

Yet, with all these factors against unification, within about a dozen years of Columba landing Dal Riata was unquestionably united under a single king – Áedán. That timing, coupled with the strength of Columba’s overpowering personality, tells us that the Irish saint was probably the cause, but why?

The most obvious reason is stability. Columba had left an island where dominance was contested by a few kingdoms, but within each region there was general unity. Dal Riata had none of that. As an intelligent man raised in a dynastic household Columba would have been aware of the political and economic advantages, and awareness of the Picts’ and Strathclyde’s power would have given him an imminent reason to force Dal Riata together. The Battle of Teloch or Delgu (574), at which Dúnchad son of Conall and many other Dal Riatan leaders died, would have served as a good warning for the Dal Riata chieftains – no one could conquer Dal Riata, but none of the bands was safe, either.

As a religious man, so many different factions would have caused him problems; how would he administer to them all equally. Each time he visited one group he would have risked offending all the others or worse he would give them an excuse to fight among themselves. One leader of Dal Riata would have eliminated that issue.

Once the wheels were in motion, Columba thought he could influence them; he hoped to make Eoganán son of Gabrán the king,6  though no specific reason is given. The author only brings this up because interfering in political affairs is what had gotten the Irish saint exiled in the first place. Columba eventually allowed the election to take place naturally and duly crowned Áedán, Eoganán’s brother, as king.

The Dal Riata after Druim Cett took on a new persona, an extroverted one. Though we are uncertain about dates, it is known that Áedán raided Orkney, fought at the Island of Man, battled the Miathi of the Upper Forth, warred against the Picts, and plundered the capital of Strathclyde – Alt Clut or modern Dumbarton. We also know that he fought multiple battles against the Northumbrians leading up to his signal defeat against Æthelfrith at Degsastan. The moment Dal Riata was joined into one kingdom it became an island wide power and Áedán was clearly not shy about testing the extents of that power. He was so active, and his exploits so influential, that he is one of the few non-Welsh figures remembered in the Welsh Triads.7

1 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 2.36.

2 Ibid, 1.33. Considering the the obvious transformations and additions to the Dal Riata genealogy, it is tempting to consider this “robber”, an expected description for a monk about a chieftain, to be the father of Fergus in the official Dal Riata history. 

3 Ibid, 2.23.

4 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 132-5.

5 Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History A.D. 500-1286, (Stamford, 1990), 83 fn. 2; Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1980), 148-9; Bannerman, Studies in the History of Dalriada, (Edinburgh, 1974), 1-2; Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, (London, rev. 2001), 110.

6 Adamnan, Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy (Iona), trans. and ed. William Reeves, (Llanerch, rep. 1988), 3.5.

7 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), triads 29 and 54. He is called “the Wily”.


The Setting for the Rise of Germanic Kingships

One alliance against Rhun, two at Arfderydd, two at Catraeth, and the only Germanic chieftains that actually do anything up until the last decade or the sixth century are the ally of Gododdin, the two Northumbrians that Urien and his allies fought against, and the Ælle whose people the future pope Gregory came across. Part of the reason why they are so rare is because the Germanic people themselves did not have the ability to write throughout the middle part of the sixth century.Another reason is propaganda; we should know more about Iurminric than we do, but because the people of Kent needed a clear history of superiority over the British his activities did not measure up. Northumbria put all of its known chieftains into a single king-list, but we know now that several of the people on that list were contemporary rulers.

Finally, that until the last century or so of this period the Germanic people did not have real kings. At the beginning of the century they operated in clans, and during the time of the British alliances during the middle sixth century, they transitioned into local kingships themselves.

There is archeological evidence of this transition; high status sites only emerge around mid-century and become fewer and wealthier as they approach the end of the century, telling us in the physical record the same thing we can guess from the historical record.

The question is how did the Germanic kingships go from nonexistence before around 550 to relative obscurity and then regional and island-wide dominance by the early seventh century? In the distant past it was assumed that the Historia Brittonum, Historia Ecclesiastica, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and De Excidio Britanniae were not only consistent with each other but provided an accurate account of the Germanic kingships; they had begun with Hengest receiving Kent and the landings of the future kings of Wessex, Sussex, and so on. In that model, there was no great transition apart from the dynasties finishing up the conquest of their respective kingdoms from the British at around that time.

More recently, Professor Arnold and others have proposed that the unstable nature of early kingship and the need for each dynasty to prove its worth would have resulted in conflict and the rapid assimilation of kingdoms into progressively larger and more powerful kingdoms. This sounds very much like the model the author has suggested for British kingships. There is one significant difference, though. We know that kingships in the Romanized areas began around 470 or so, when the first known bards appear. By perhaps 530 (60 years later), powerful regional kingships like Rhun and Gwrtheyrn had emerged. Even through the early kingship of Urien, though, bards still spoke of cattle raiding and no British leader from this period ever assimilated as much land as Kent or Northumbria into a single kingdom. On the other hand we hear of no dateable and historical Germanic leaders until no earlier than 550, and already by 600 or earlier (50 years) we see the first full size kingdoms.

What is more interesting is that, though we know from the physical evidence that there was cattle raiding among the early Germanic kingdoms there are no skop poems that speak of them. Though there are a couple figures we could equate with the vague British gwledig of the past like Dewrarth and Coel in Soemil and maybe Ida, the Germanic people in Britain never generated an heroic cycle like Arthur, Conchobar of Ireland, or Hrolf Kraki in Denmark. We could guess that by the time the Germanic people had the ability to record they were no longer living in an heroic culture, but it is hard to believe that no memory of the recent past would have been preserved somewhere.

So, with a long history of kingship on the continent, the Germanic people took around eight decades longer than the Romanized Britons to develop kingship, but once they did they took less time to build larger and stronger kingdoms. How could the Germanic people have formed stable political units so smoothly, and just in time to take advantage of the failing British strength?

It has been hypothesized above that Gwrtheyrn controlled Kent at the peak of his power. The Historia Brittonum claims that Urien had conquered much of Northumbria during his ascendancy but likely Morcant and Gwallog, who ruled kingdoms adjacent to Northumbria, had territories in the region too. For Y Gododdin to be so interested in Deira, at least some the kingdoms involved must have taken tribute from villages in the area as well.

It has also been seen that the taxation system collapsed throughout Britain when the Roman government was decapitated at the provincial level. When they developed the local British kingships used a new kind of taxation system; one where villages as a whole were responsible for collecting a predetermined amount of food and goods and passing it along to the local king. As local kingships were absorbed by the more successful dynasties, the villages continued to give their taxes to the original dynasty or to a man installed by the new king, who then passed it along to his king. The system was not equally fair to all villagers or villages, but it did mean that the time an over-king spent collecting tribute did not grow too much as his kingdom expanded.

That worked well when British kings were adding British territories to their kingdoms. However, if the archeology has not mislead us and the Anglo-Saxons of the early to middle sixth century had no kings or kingdoms, it would have made taking tribute from them time consuming. As each village had its own ruling clan, every settlement in an area would need to be passed through. An over-king like Urien might theoretically spend the entire summer collecting tribute from a large enough territory.

It seems to this writer that the simplest way to overcome that problem would have been to appoint an Anglo-Saxon to do the job. A local man, or better yet an Anglo-Saxon from the king’s war-band, would be ideal. Either choice would be aware of the culture and personally know the language; both attributes would help to avoid many problems involved in ruling a different culture. And as with all the king’s tributaries, this hypothetical tax collector would be allowed to erect a hall and gather his own band of warriors to enforce collection of the tribute and protect the territory.

Under the powerful kings who dominated the middle of the sixth century, these hypothetical puppet tax collectors would have been very useful, saving the British kings time and effort and giving them money, livestock, and supplies. However, the last of the dominant British kings faded in the last third of the sixth century.

As British power declined, their former tax collectors would have been in a perfect position to assume independent authority themselves; they had been collecting tribute already and had a group of warriors at their command. The author has no direct evidence for this suggestion, only the fact that it fits the evidence and the curious detail that Northumbria, Wessex, Sussex, and Kent, the same regions that were most likely controlled by British over-kings during the middle or late sixth century, were the first regions to develop regional kingships.

Once the Germanic kingdoms had emerged as regional powerhouses the British days were numbered. England, then as now, is far more fertile in the south and east than in the north and west, and much more fertile than either Wales or Scotland. Greater fertility meant they could grow more food with less labor. Greater amounts of food meant the Germanic kingdoms could support a larger population. A larger population in turn guaranteed more warriors for the battlefield. Once the Germanic people had the chance to take full advantage of their numbers, the British people would find it impossible to match the English armies.

1 Bassett, “In Search of the Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Steven Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 23; Wood, “Kings, Kingdoms and consent”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977), 18-20; Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Peter H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood, (Leeds, 1977b), 91-92; Yorke, “The Kingdom of the East Saxons”, ASE 14 (London, 1985), 1-30; Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 197-199.

2 Arnold, An Archaeology of the Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, (New York, 1988), 211-29; Arnold, “Social evolution in post-Roman western Europe”, European Social Evolution, ed. John L. Bintliff, (Bradford, 1984), 277-94; Scull, “Archaeology, early Anglo-Saxon society and the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms”, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 6 (Oxford, 1993), 65-82; Hodges, Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Trade A.D. 600-1000, (London, 1982); Arnold, “Stress as a factor in social and economic change”, Ranking, Resource and Exchange, eds. A.Collin Renfrew and Stephen Shennan, (Cambridge, 1982), 124-31; Arnold, “Wealth and social structure: a matter of life and death”, Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries 1979, ed. Philip A. Rahtz, Tania M. Dickinson, and Loma Watts, (Oxford, 1980), 81-142; Hodges, “State formation and the role of trade in Middle Saxon England”, Social Organisation and Settlement, eds. David R. Green, Colin Haselgrove, and Matthew Spriggs, (Oxford, 1978), 439-54; Sawyer, From Roman Britain to Norman England, (London, 1978); Dumville, “Kingship, genealogies and king-lists”, Early Medieval Kingship, eds. Philip H. Sawyer and Ian N. Woods, (Leeds, 1977b), 72-104; Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent, (Oxford, 1971). 

3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xli. 

Another Book?


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Britain; 367-664 is at the publisher and should be available in August.  I’ll continue publishing chapters for the next few books and any errors you may find I will make use of when the manuscript is sent back to me.

Now, I have no immediate plans to write something as massive as that any time soon, but I have already gotten the unofficial go-ahead to write another book.  It will be a series of loosely connected essays on topics in post-Roman Britain, sort of like my usual post only more fully researched and with footnotes.  And since you are the people most interested in Arthuriana I thought I would ask if there was something you would like to see.  So far this is what I have, divided loosely by subjects.  It should come to a little more than 100 pages.


-Arthur and Nationalism

-Did Arthur Exist?  Where and When?

-What does Dux Brittanorum mean?

-Sword and the Stone

-The Story behind the Abduction

-The Story behind Owain’s Adventure


-Badon’s Importance, date, and placement


-The 12 Battles

-Battle Sizes


-What is the grail?


Knights of the Round Table

-Members of his war-band; historical and literary



-Cei, the Grumbler

-So how many knights did he have at one time?

-What was the Round Table?

-Gawain’s Brothers

-The Round Table at Winchester



-Lancelot’s Kin






-Peasant-Warrior ratios













-The Dragon



-Grail Castle

-Who were the Picts?

-Who were the Anglo-Saxons?


-What was Logres?


-How did the legends become romances?

-The story of Marie de Champagne

-The Story of Chretien de Troyes

-The story of Philip of Flanders

-Geoffrey of Monmouth



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Four chapters ago Gwrtheyrn was briefly mentioned as an example of evolving British kingship during the sixth century. Eleven chapters before that, his development as a literary character was examined as a part of The Kentish Source’s development. To understand his career better, it will be simplest to focus on his progression as a character in British history and then critically examine that against what we have already learned.
Gwrtheyrn first appears in Gildas as superbus tyrannus – “Overking”. There he is credited with inviting the first Germanic tribes over to Britain. In the Late Roman tradition, he settled them in the troubled areas of the island and promised to feed and house them in return for their services as mercenaries against the Picts and their fellow Germanic tribesmen.

This story is all wrong though. As we have seen, there is no evidence that a single king controlled Britain during the fifth century. In fact, from the break down of Roman provincial government, to the settlements of the Irish, the known activities of the fifth century kings, and into the sixth century alliances demonstrates a consistent trend of emerging and developing kingships beginning in the late fifth century. As we will see in the pages below, these kingdoms continued to increase in size and complexity until they became the medieval kingdoms that would survive remain in place for most of the Middle Ages.

We have also seen that the Romans had been bringing Germanic tribes as foederati to Britain from the fourth century; they were already on the island when Gildas had his superbus tyrannus inviting them in the fifth century. Realizing that, we can see why Gildas had to include an over-king in his history; he needed one to explain why the Germanic peoples were on the island.

Knowing what we know now we can empathize with Gildas. He saw the Romans as the instruments of God’s forgiveness and because of that could nbg nbot imagine them ever making the mistake of bringing the Germanic peoples to the island. What made more sense to him was that a Briton king had been at fault, someone who must have ruled Britain so that he had the necessary power. That was why he placed the introduction of the foederati after Aetius, that and a probably weak oral memory of the time between Aetius and Badon.

Following him was Bede, a man who was no fool by his exquisite Latin and careful scholarship. He was locked into the story though. By the time he wrote two hundred years later Gildas was already remembered as a great scholar and his history as the history of post-Roman Britain.

Even if he had been willing to challenge Gildas, his ecclesiastical superiors had given him The Kentish Source as the official history and it confirmed everything Gildas had written. Bede really had no other choice but to write the story he had in front of him. We know he expanded the Gildasian history, probably using The Kentish Source, adding the names of the two Germanic chieftains, Hengest and Horsa, and along with a brief biography. Because we know that he was so strongly Northumbrian, it was probably he who had added a snippet about two additional chieftains who fought in the north but were related to Hengest. His contribution to the history strengthened Northumbria’s claim to power in his century by connecting the kingdom’s earliest leaders with the most famous the man who had outwitted the British over-king and legally been given possession of Kent.

When the Historia Brittonum was originally written during the ninth century, most of that story was probably ignored. After all, it was written in Powys by the son-in-law of the Powysian king, and Rhodri had the history written to help him unite the British kingdoms under his kingdom’s leadership.

It was rewritten in the tenth century, though, and the purpose of the Dyfed revision was to undermine Powys’ authority by attacking one of its most revered kings. At the time, Hywel Dda ruled the kingdom and he was firmly allied with Æthelstan, so Hywel probably had access to The Kentish Source through him. He made use of it, for the first time blending the British memory of Gwrtheyrn’s power and dynastic importance with Vortigern’s control of Britain, flaws, and chronology through the suggestion of their name similarity – Vortigern was the Latin form of Welsh Gwrtheyrn.

In this new version of history, Gwrtheyrn had emerged as the leader of all Britain after 410 but was still being attacked by the Picts and Germanic peoples. Hoping for a solution he took counsel with his nobles and decided to invite Anglo-Saxon mercenaries onto the island to help him. These foederati performed their jobs well, but then their leaders fooled him into allowing more and more warriors from the continent. They fooled him again when they introduced him to a Germanic woman who seduced him. He insisted on marrying her, and Hengest insisted on Kent as a dowry. That was when he had lost control.

His son Vortimer (properly Gwrthefyr if the information had come from a Briton source) now emerged to beat the Anglo-Saxons nearly back to the eastern coast but was killed in the fighting. At that point, old Gwrtheyrn returned to the story. He was captured when all of his nobles were killed and ransomed for more territory. When the ransom was agreed upon, he spent his remaining days hidden inside a fortress only to be burned alive when two dragons emerged from its foundations.

Alfred, or whoever commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, happily made use of the story about the cunning Germanic chieftains and the fool they had stolen Britain from. Besides cutting back the story to fit into a chronicle form, the editor(s) only made two changes to the tale. The first was that Gwrtheyrn’s son was never mentioned because the English probably had no memory of one. The second was that they reversed the order of the battles so that it looked like the Anglo-Saxons were conquering territory instead of losing it.

Without a doubt, what we know about Gwrtheyrn comes mainly from Gildas and the mistaken association between his superbus tyrannus and the historical Gwrtheyrn. Sorting through the information gaps, personal, religious, and political motivations there is very little else to be learned about Gwrtheyrn. Very little, but there is something of value.

First of all there are the names. The interchangeability of roles between the superbus tyrannus, Vortigern, and Gwrtheyrn have been widely accepted as showing they were considered the same people in the historical tradition. The Historia Brittonum also names an Outigern as roughly contemporary to Maelgwn, Ida, and the five bards and imples that all eight men were important in their time – the bards for their abilities and the kings for their successes; Koch has even suggested that the here implies that the first named poet, Talhaearn, was attached to Outigern. Yet we know nothing whatsoever about this king otherwise. In Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, the author proposed a simple scribal error; dyslexia might have switched Votigern to Outigern, and Votigern is a close form of Vortigern.

Finally there is Gwrthefyr son of Gwrtheyrn. His name translates as “great prince” while his “father” ’s name translates as “over-king”; similar but not identical. He also only appears in Historia Brittonum, and only so that he can fight Hengest in four battles – Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone. Bede says there was fighting between Vortigern and Hengest, but names no battles making it possible that he had simply eliminated British victories from his history.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also says the battles were fought between Vortigern and Hengest but names them; ÆgelesÞrep (Aylesford), Crecganford (Crayford), Wippedesfleot (near Ebbsfleet), and a fourth unknown site. Historia Brittonum names them too; Thanet, the Darenth river, Epsford, and near a great stone.

None of the seven sites match which means that the information was probably not taken from the same source. However, Epsford is probably Aylesford, and all seven sites are usually located in Kent. That at least suggests that both the British and the English had a memory of a series of four battles fought by Hengest. The fact that Gwrthefyr shows up nowhere else but replaces Gwrtheyrn for them suggests that Gwrthefyr is yet another doublet, a seam in the blending.

As aspects of Gwrtheyrn’s career that were apparently uninfluenced by the Gildas/Kentish Source tradition Outigern and Gwrthefyr might just allow us to see something historical about the Gwrtheyrn; he was a king recognized as Maelgwn’s equal who fought several battles in or at least near Kent.

That is really not much. However, there are two other details to consider which will throw some light on the mysterious Gwrtheyrn; we know almost nothing about Iurminric the father of Æthelberht and the northern British kings seem to have dominated the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria during the same time frame. Let me explain.

It has not really bothered anyone that we know nothing about Iurminric, and that strikes this scholar as odd. Consider, Æthelberht allowed the Christian mission into his kingdom in 597, along with its ability to write and the potential power that gave the king. A fifty-five year old man at that time could easily be expected to remember back to 557. Æthelberht may have married his Frankish wife (who brought her priest) around 580, meaning that oral memory might have gone back to 540 – 530 if a fifty-five year old at the time had remembered any events back when he or she was five. On the other hand, Iurminric was born in the range 523-560. No matter how you work the numbers, he spent his entire adult career within the limits of oral memory, yet the only two details we have about him are that his name is Frankish, implying a relationship with the Franks back another generation, and that he was the father of Æthelberht. Very odd.

Next piece of information; the northern British kings. As we have seen above, there were at least five different alliances over the last half of the sixth century, at least two of which took tribute from Germanic-held territories. This was a period of British revival and expanding political awareness because the British had already developed kingship and with it access to a stronger political organization along with more warriors under one king. The only southern king we have seen was active during this period outside of Wales and Cornwall is Gwrtheyrn.

Take those unrelated facts and add that to a question about the Hengest battles against Vortigern/Gwrthefyr. We know they could not have been remembered if they had taken place in the fifth century; that and neither Hengest, Vortigern, or Gwrthefyr would have been around to fight them. So why were they remembered in both traditions? What would have been the point of remembering them before they were made a part of The Kentish Source and attached to the Historia Brittonum?

To answer that, we return to the fact that Iurminric would have been active during the middle of the sixth century, roughly the same era as Gwrtheyrn himself. Gwrtheyrn, as we have seen, was remembered in the north for being a powerful king. In the north, the powerful men of his era controlled land all the way to the eastern coast. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that he might have as well?

It would make sense. The Kentish Source was focused on showing the legitimacy of Kent’s rule by demonstrating that its early kings had been smarter and better warriors than their British counterparts. Its writer(s) had not made up the initial landing and the outwitting of Vortigern, so why would they have started making things up with the battles? It seems more likely, at least to the present scholar, that those battles would have been taken from oral memory, and oral memory would only have extended back to the middle sixth century, suggesting that Iurminric might have been the man fighting the battles against Gwrtheyrn.

Why was Iurminric not connected to them? As they are used in Bede and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they are battles of conquest on an island that the Germanic people had just come to. However, if Iurminric was fighting them they would have been battles for independence. Independence might have a certain attraction, but it would also mean that at some point the royal house of Kent had willingly submitted to British authority and that would have gone against the basic purpose of The Kentish Source.

So, instead of deleting the battles altogether, they did what any good medieval historian seems to have done, they repurposed and redated them. The decision demonstrated Hengest’s superior leadership and eliminated the potentially embarrassing fact that as late as the middle sixth century Kent had been paying tribute to the Britons. When in the tenth century Dyfed eliminated the pro-Gwrtheyrn version of the Historia Brittonum and rewrote British history it was an unhoped-for stroke of luck for Kent.

Of course even if the above theory is right there is no way to know who won what battle, or even the campaign. Probably our safest source for that is The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle because of its writer’s habit of explicitly saying when the English won and being vague when they did not. It states that Hengest and his son Æsc won Ægelsþrep (probably Aylesford) and another battle and implies that they won at Crecganford (probably Crayford), while it is mute on the victor at Wippedesfleot.

Who was Gwrtheyrn? He was a powerful king who lived at the climax and the twilight of British power. It seems reasonable that Gwrtheyrn claimed sort of tribute over many of the Germanic clans in the south. The author’s appraisal would be that there was a revolt late in his career. Maybe it was led by Iurminric but Ælle, Bede’s first Bretwalda, is a more likely possibility; it would explain his place in Bede’s list and fit in well with the chronology of events that has been worked out above.

More probable still would be that several leaders emerged among them Ælle, Ceawlin, and Iurminric. In that scheme the former two could have been contemporary Bretwaldas, bringing dozens of villages under one ruler in imitation of the early British kings.

Growing more theoretical as the sources give less information, the fighting was indecisive in Gwrtheyrn’s lifetime, but after he died (probably not in battle as Vortigern’s end has nothing to do with the invaders in either the British or the Germanic versions) the Germanic tribes claimed their independence.

In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Vortigern is not mentioned after the first battle. It is also possible that he lost it and died, and whoever followed him could do no better. Again though, we may never know.

1 De Excidio Britanniae, trans. Michael Winterbottom, (Chichester, 1978), 23.1 

2 The author has elsewhere suggested that he may have taken advantage of this gap in his knowledge to blame Arthur for the Germanic presence because of a family feud involving the death of his brother. There is no better evidence for that theory now than there was then, but it would explain his choice of using an over-king to explain the Germanic presence instead of a simple invasion of Britain; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2012), 42-9.

3 The Late Roman Empire included many powerful men who were able to carve small kingdoms out of the Roman Empire for decades at a time. If Gildas was well read, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, he may have known this and applied that knowledge to what he did not know about fifth-century Britain. 

4 It has been pointed out that Aetius was the far extent of his oral knowledge, but that is no guarantee that he had access to an unbroken sequence of events from that famous letter to his present day.

5 Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 86. 

6 Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 2013), 27.

7 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 89; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 16.

8 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. George Norman Garmonsway, (London, 1953), years 455, 456, 465, and 473. 

9 “Historia Brittonum”, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), chapter 44.

10 Brooks places the marriage between the mid-570s and 581; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 50; Stafford, Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, (Athens, GA, 1983), 35-6, 67-8, 73-4.

11 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 222. Brooks places him in the second quarter of the sixth century because his parents must have been influenced by the Franks to have given him that name; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 46-7.

12 Rhun’s primary concern seems to have been the north, and legend does say he was gone for a long period of time which would have left a void of power in Wales. Even if he had remained in Gwynedd for the relevant part of his career, Gwrtheyrn’s genealogy includes Gloiu, or Gloucester, suggesting that his base was along the Wye River. Their spheres of influence may have never overlapped.

13 It has already been suggested that overlordship probably meant control over less area for the earlier Bretwaldas; Campbell, “The Lost Centuries 400-600”, The Anglo-Saxons, ed. James Campbell, Eric John, and Patrick Wormald, (London, 1982), 53-4.

Urien’s Alliance and Y Gododdin

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.

Y Gododdin

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.

The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xlvii-l.

The Battle of Arfderydd

Through the entire fifth and sixth century, very few battles are listed in the Annales Cambriae. There are of course the “Arthurian” battles of Badon and Camlann, but even if we can believe that they took place there is no way to corroborate that they happened in 516/7 and 537/8, respectively; they could be dated wrong by decades. The first event we can be confident of is the Battle of Arfderydd. It is listed at 573 in the Annales Cambriae along with the notice that Gwenddoleu died there. Even that late we can not trust it completely though, three decades later it misdates the Battle of Chester by at least a decade.

The annals also fail us in not giving any real context for the battle. As we will see below Peredur and Gwrgi were present at the battle and died in an unknown battle in 580. Another participant was Dunawt son of Pabo and the annals give his death at 595, but in both instances we are given nothing else, no useful information. To gain a better understanding of what was happening in the sixth-century North we will have to explore the smattering of information to be found in several less traditional sources.

Vita Kentigerni

The Life of Kentigern only mentions Arfderydd in passing. In one of the later episodes we are told that a half-insane man who had been living in the woods for twenty years was once in the service of Gwenddoleu as a bard. When his king was killed at Arfderydd, this Myrddin lost his mind and ran into the woods. Basically, all this source does is confirm everything in the annal and add the name of a bard. Myrddin might be interesting in his own right (as the literary forefather of the more famous Merlin) but is not much help here.

Trioedd Ynys Prydein

The battle is mentioned in four different places here. None of the triads give a clear picture of the battle itself, but overall they do tell us that Gwenddoleu was on one side and Cynfelyn, Dunawt Fawr, Peredur, and Gwrgi were on the other. Dreon, Dunawt Fawr, and Dinogad are also connected to the battle but their alliances are not given.

The battle is listed in another triad as one of the three futile battles of Welsh legend. However, it is one of the last, lastest, and least trustworthy sections of the triads. We have already seen with Y Gododdin and the Historia Brittonum materials that Gwynedd had been interested in developing a sense of unity against the English kingdoms during the ninth century. Could the entry have been influenced by that nationalistic movement? Possibly. One way or the other, though, it does not help us to understand the sixth century any better though.

What can we take away from this battle? It was mentioned in several sources early on, which made it impossible for the Gwynedd editors to alter the fact that British kings had fought against British kings. Otherwise it might have suffered the same fate as Catraeth and confused British historians even more

Dr. Miller did a wonderful job of piecing together a reasonable scheme, but in the end she had to admit that there was no way of being certain about who was on whose side and why. As quickly as things may have changed in the period, the present author is not even certain that sort of information would be all that useful even if it were possible.

We can be certain of several broader items, though. For one, we can now add Arfderyö to the short list of battles we know much about in the sixth century – along with Catraeth. Arthuret seems to be an accepted spot for the battle, too, because the connection is made for us in the Vita Kentigerni. We also know that both battles were fought primarily between British kings.

Second, there are the distances involved which we can see by the participants. Traditionally Gwrgi and Peredur have always been connected with York; in the Welsh Arthurian stories Peredur’s father is Efrawc which is derived from the Latin word for York, Eburacum, called Ebrauc in the Historia Brittonum list of civitates.

The connection of Peredur and Gwrgi to late sixth-century York had made no sense up until the last couple of decades because York had been within the borders of Deira, and Deira was traditionally founded decades before Arfderydd or the deaths of Peredur and Gwrgi. However, now that we understand Germanic kingships were only forming in the mid-sixth century and that the British kingdoms were still dominant into the late sixth century, the association makes a little more sense; York had not yet been absorbed into Deira during the brothers’ lifetimes. We will see below when and how York ended as a kingdom, but for now this piece of information is mainly useful as a clue about politics in the last third of the century.

Dunawt Fawr has been tentatively connected with modern Dent, also in Yorkshire, because of an allusion in Eddius’ Vita Wilfridi to regio Dunotinga which was given to the church of Ripon in 675. It is tentative because Dunawt was not an uncommon name. However, Dunawt spent his career allied with Gwallog and fighting Owain and Pasgen the sons of Urien, and all three of them were from the same area.

The other names – Gwenddoleu, Dreon, and Dinogad – are people we can only guess generally about. Hector Chadwick and William Skene placed Gwenddoleu’s hall a few miles north of Arthuret. Dreon is as yet unidentified, while Dinogad might have been the son of Cynan Garwyn somewhere in Powys.

Even a Dinogad from northeastern Wales makes sense with what we have already learned about the late sixth century. Politics had already advanced well beyond cattle stealing and alliances went beyond standing together against a common enemy.

[1] Over the decades, estimates have put Badon as early as 478 and most scholars have hovered around 500, potentially making the Annales Cambriae not up to forty years off.

[2] Dr. Molly Miller has written the only serious exploration of the battle; Miller, “The Commanders of Arthuret”, TCWAAS 75 (Kendall, 1975), 96-117.

[3] As Bromwich pointed out, the entry uses the form Merlinus for Myrddin; Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), 208.

[4] Ibid, 29, 31W, and 44.

[5] Ibid, 31W and 44.

[6] Ibid, 84.

[7] Ibid, xx-xxi, xxvi.

[8] Miller, “The Commanders of Arthuret”, TCWAAS 75 (Kendall, 1975), 96-117.

[9] Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, trans. and ed. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), 489.

[10] Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid, trans. James Francis Webb, ed. David Hugh Farmer, The Age of Bede, (Harmondsworth, rev. 1983), 126.

[11] Ibid, 396.

[12] Canu Llywarch Hen, ed. Sir Ifor Williams, (Cardiff, 1960).

[13] Skene, Arthur and the Britons in Wales and Scotland, ed. Derek Bryce, (Lampeter, 1988), 23-5; H. Chadwick, Early Scotland: The Picts, the Scots, and the Welsh of Southern Scotland, (Cambridge, 1949), 143; H. Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, (Cambridge, 1932), 109 and 111 fn. 4.

[14] “Dinogad”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford, 2004), Web.

Rhun Son of Maelgwn

In the previous chapter the raid on Rhun son of Maelgwn’s kingdom, and his retaliation, was mentioned. The present author has previously placed that invasion in the thirty year range of 543×572 because of the participants, their other activities, and the people they were related to. So how does that fit into the development of British kingdoms in the sixth century? We have already seen the overall picture; kingdoms were getting bigger and their kings were thinking bigger.

There is more to it than that, though. Admittedly, we do not know where all the raiding kings were from, but we do know that a ruler in Strathclyde and another from Lothian came down to northwestern Wales; we know that at least two kings passed through several kingdoms or took very long boat rides to get to Gwynedd. We also know that Rhun responded with his own campaign north.

In the era of Arthur, only decades earlier, kings had made their name by raiding nearby kingdoms and stealing cattle. Their reputations had depended on their ability to steal, and to protect, their livestock. Leaving their kingdoms alone for the days it took to make a raid on a nearby kingdom would have been risky. To travel so far away would have been downright suicidal. That is, until Rhun’s era.

So what changed between the last decades of the fifth century and the middle of the sixth century that made these raids possible? To begin with, it seems likely that the British kingdoms had reached or were reaching their natural limits given the circumstances. By that the author does not mean that the kingdoms had all expanded until their borders were major rivers and mountains. In some cases that was doubtless true, for instance Gwynedd and Stratclyde had the Irish Sea on their west. In this case, though, economics and military practicalities were also involved; think of a kingdom as being only as large as each ruler could protect and keep under their control given the conditions of the time. Horse transportation limited communications and mobility.

Just as important were the traditions of kingship and tribute-giving. Without a very strong one, kings may have needed to keep personal connections with every village under their protection. That meant a limit to how many settlements they could keep.

The time they were living through was even more important. As we have seen, communications had broken down at the end of Roman Britain and were only slowly mending. The rise of kingdoms was helping villages to become more interconnected, but it would have been a slow process. Even in the later Middle Ages travel was limited.

You might ask why a king would not demand tribute from villages he had no intentions of protecting in order to bring in more food and money. For a ruthless modern warlord that might be a good short-term solution, but among the Celts that sort of fraud would not have been in their best interests. As has been seen, to collect tribute would be to claim the area as a part of the kingdom, and if a king was unable to protect his lands he was an ineffective ruler. Among the Celts through the Early Medieval period, an ineffective king could, by tradition and Celtic law, be replaced.

So, what could kings do in the middle sixth century when they realized they could not expand their kingdoms any further but wanted more power? They could get involved with alliances. In the example of Rhun, an alliance served to help each king punish the more powerful Rhun. An alliance might have provided a deterrent against an otherwise more powerful king. It might a king to pass through other kingdoms on his way down to, say, Gwynedd without fear of his own kingdom being attacked. An alliance might also provide trade options and connections to other kingdoms. In short, alliances would have expanded each kingdom’s awareness on the island as they became familiar with their allies’ connections.

The second lesson to take away from the episode between Rhun and the northern allies is the strength of Gwynedd. Five allies made a raid on Gwynedd but Rhun alone took his warriors on campaign up North. The results of that campaign are unimportant. What is essential to understand is that the kingdom was strong enough that Rhun believed he had a reasonable chance of taking retribution on all of the allies and returning home alive. Somehow, the geography of Gwynedd was such that it could support more warriors, or was better organized, or had a better fighting reputation than all five of the northern kingdoms put together.

Professor Charles-Edwards has proposed the intriguing suggestion that the Gwynedd of about 500 may have formed some sort of alliance with the newly powerful Irish Feni in order to gain a reprieve from Irish raids. It is even possible that the Gwynedd dynasty might have been Irish; if it was that might explain the extraordinary lengths to which the dynasty went to portray itself as a native dynasty whose first act was to push the Irish out of Gwynedd. It might also explain the bogus claim that it was descended from Romans and a Gododdin chidftain. Practically speaking, the alliance might have given Gwynedd a distinct advantage for many decades. It might have been the reason behind Rhun’s overconfidence in his army.

The raid on Rhun’s kingdom and his retaliatory campaign up North are two unique events in Early Medieval British history. Studying them gives the historian a snapshot of what the middle sixth century looked like by providing us with many clues about the state of development among the British kingdoms.

It was seen in the introduction that most historians still believe post-Roman Britain was based on the divisions Rome had imposed, which had in turn been based on pre-Roman tribes. What we see here is that this was not always the case. Britain was fractured in 410. Only a century and a half later were its kings capable of thinking and operating much beyond their own borders. In this even the northern kingdoms, which had been freed of Rome soonest and allowed to develop the longest, were not immune.

[1] Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 205-6.

[2] The Black Book of Chirk states that they arrived by sea but fled by land.

[3] Legend has it that Rhun died during the campaign. A famous saying is that Rhun’s warriors were gone so long that their wives had to sleep with their servants so that they could have children.

[4] Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 175-180.

[5] Bonedd yr Arwyr, 29.

[6] “Historia Brittonum, Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, trans. and ed. John Morris, (London, 1980), ch. 62.

530-600: An Expanding View

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.



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The author has elsewhere given a point-by-point rebuttal of Professor Dumville’s and Professor Padel’s papers about Arthur not existing. They can be summed up as follows: The sources for the period are not impossible to make use of, they just require a strong understanding of the materials used in their creation and the biases of all the authors involved – a lot of research into what has been discovered and a strict adherence to those findings.

Of course Arthur is not mentioned much and of course where he is mentioned he is often connected to the supernatural – he lived in an heroic age period where oral literature dominated. As anyone who knows oral literature can tell you, stories in an oral society change a lot like a message in the telephone game. Even two generations can make a huge difference; Urien was remembered in oral literature too, but since he lived just a little later his legend did not grow as much as Arthur’s.

Arthur bears no reasonable comparison to Fion macCumhail. None! Not by his activities, the linguistics, or his introduction into the historical sources.

Despite the contrary claims the earliest sources – Y Gododdin and the Northern Memorandum as found in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae – all name Arthur in an historical context.

Adjusting for the known biases, all the historical and even literary sources are consistent in where and when they place Arthur. He lived right around 500 in the Carlisle/Old Carlisle region.

To this the question “If he is a northern historical figure why is he not listed in the “Men of the North” genealogy?” Simply put, the genealogy was a political tool; it deepened the alliance of British kings by giving them a common ancestor. By that time, neither Arthur nor his descendants were active so there was no reason to insert him.

Speaking of historical sources, the Historia Brittonum says that Arthur was present at twelve battles while Annales Cambriae confirms his presence at Badon and adds Camlann. Both sources took their Arthurian information from the Northern Memorandum, whose information might extend back to the late sixth century with Rhun son of Urien even if the writing in its present form only goes back to around 750. All this has made those thirteen battles a hot topic for Arthurian enthusiasts hoping to prove Arthur existed. No theory has ever gained much traction though. It may not even be possible to place all the battles in one area. Battle lists are notorious for being composites of participants and regions. The Arthurian battles have two problems on top of that. The Historia Brittonum battles are twelve in number and are located at nine sites; both numbers were symbolically important for the Celts. There are also indications of rhyme in the list that suggests the author found it in a poem that included the battles of several kings.

To make a comparison pretend for a moment that we live in an oral society. Now accept that MacArthur and Rommel were the two best generals of World War II. In a battle list drawn up a hundred years from now we might find that they had fought each other on D-Day, at the Battle of the Bulge, El Alamein, Midway, and the Philippines. This despite the fact that neither man was at several of those battles and that they never met each other. With that in mind, the only battles with any historical value are Camlann and possibly Badon.

When did Arthur live? By mid-century, every known British king is consistently placed in one kingdom and most of them are associated with contemporaries. Arthur is connected with no one site and his associations are with kings and saints from all over Britain. Some scholars have believed this makes him less historical, but as has been seen in the pages above the fifth century was a period of transition between Roman and British cultures. The first British bards we know of were active no earlier than about 470, so naturally the first generation or so of rulers they spoke of would be a little shrouded in legend. For these reasons and several more, Arthur was probably active somewhere between roughly 480 and 520.

Where did he live? Old Carlisle seems the most likely guess. It would explain his predilection with things Roman in Historia Brittonum and would fit roughly in the center of the geographical area from which Arthurian figures seem to come from. Oddly enough, when the present scholar listed all the sites associated with Arthur’s hall in the literature and history and eliminated every entry that was used for a clear literary, political, or personal reason, Carlisle was far and away the most commonly named location. We also know that Old Carlisle was a consistently occupied city during the period in question.

Old Carlisle may also have been the command quarters for Hadrian’s Wall. In an era when the Roman Empire was tearing itself apart that may not mean anything. However, according to the archeological record the years around 500 were when several former Hadrian’s Wall forts were reoccupied. That is all the stranger because Roman forts throughout the rest of the island were vacant.

What it has suggested to Professor Dark, Koch, and the present scholar is that some powerful force (a single king or alliance) might have controlled the entire area and initiated the reoccupation. If that force was Arthur, it would help to explain why he was remembered more vividly than any other king of the period; it would have made him the leading person on the island in a very real way.

Politically, he would have taken tribute from more people than any other person on the island. Holding an entire east-west stretch of land might have allowed him to limit communications between the North and the South. Actually, he might have been able to limit the movement of traders, bards, and craftsman to and from the North. Hadrian’s Wall would have also given him a psychological edge. Old Carlisle had been a Roman fort, and Hadrian’s Wall a Roman system of fortresses. Reoccupy them would have helped him claim a little more of Rome’s lingering mystique.

A reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall could also have served a military purpose. During the Roman occupation, it had served as a blockade against the Picts, a bulwark against the constant attacks on the British people. In the hands of a Briton, Hadrian’s Wall might have been used to give the British people a sense of unity. In previous centuries it has been argued that could have come together against the Germanic peoples who had already settled a good portion of eastern England, but it could equally have served against the Picts or the Irish.

Which raises another question; who were Arthur’s enemies? According to Gildas, the Battle of Mount Badon was fought between British and Germanic tribes, and the principles may have been exactly that. We cannot believe that the lines were that simple, though. As has been seen above, several Irish dynasties would eventually intermarry with local kingships in Wales. It has long been noted that Cerdic, traditional founder of the Wessex dynasty, has a British name. The court-list in Culhwch ac Olwen contains several Anglo-Saxon figures who were roughly contemporary with Arthur. As we shall see below, the most famous poem of the period, Y Gododdin, is about two mostly British armies fighting each other, both with several Anglo-Saxons. The Mercian king Penda was allies with British Gwynedd for most of his career. Arthur may very well have fought against the Irish, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons during his kingship. Just as likely, Arthur may have had an Irishman, a Pict, and an Anglo-Saxon in his personal war-band.

With that in mind, it is not really important what culture his enemies were a part of. Nor does it matter what language his neighbors spoke; he would have been just as willing to make raids on Anglo-Saxons, Picts, and Irish just as he would have on Britons. He would have been just as likely to ally with another culture group, too. We must always keep in mind that Arthur did not live in an environment where fighting was based on national identity. None of the kings from this period – Urien, Maelgwn, Rhun, Gwrtheyrn, or the mysterious king of Gododdin did. There was no need in Arthur’s time, because the Germanic people were not a threat. Arthur spent his career working to enhance his fame, wealth, and the number of warriors in his war band.

1 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014); Dumville, “Sub-Roman Britain: history and legend”, History 62 (London, 1977a), 173-192; Padel, “The Nature of Arthur”, CMCS 27 (Cardiff, Summer 1994), 1-31.
2 Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 175-6; Thurneysen, “Zimmer, Nennius vindicatus”, ZDP 28 (Halle, 1896), 85, 87; Bruce, The Evolution of Arthurian Romance, from the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, (Gottingen, 1923), 9. Jackson opposed the inclusion of this text in the Northern History on the basis of Beulon’s request that the Anglo-Saxon genaeologies (meaning also the Northern History apparently) be omitted from his copy. The task was done to his satisfaction and the Arthuriana information was not included. Therefore, so the reasoning goes, Arthuriana is not a part of the Northern History because Beulon knew it was not a part of the Northern History. The author believes it more accurate to say that Beulon believed that Arthuriana was a part of the Northern History, but his opinion carries no more weight than a modern historian’s. It is a good bet that he knew even less about the Northern Memorandum or the Northern History than we do.
3 The Gododdin of Aneirin, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cxxiii.
4 The most notable have been Alcock and Jackson. Most recently, Andrew Breeze has located all the battles in the north and placed Arthur in Glasgow; Alcock, Arthur’s Britain, (New York, 1971); Jackson, “Once Again Arthur’s Battles”, MP 43 (Chicago, 1945), 44-57; Breeze, “The Arthurian Battle of Badon and Braydon Forest, Wiltshire”, Journal of Literary Onomastics 4.1 (Brockport, 2015), 20-30; Breeze, “The Historical Arthur and Sixth-Century Scotland”, Northern History 52.2 (Leeds, 2015), 158-81.
5 Lloyd, The History of Wales, (Cardiff, 1912), 126 fn. 6; Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, (Cambridge, 1932), 155; Crawford, “Arthur and his Battles”, Antiq 9 (Gloucester, 1935), 279; Jackson, “The Arthur of History”, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. Roger S. Loomis, (Chicago, 1959), 78; Bromwich, “Concepts”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 169.
6 The present author had long thought that Badon was an artificially attached battle as well, but Christopher Gidlow has pointed out that few people who have not studied military strategy know about Napoleon’s greatest victory at Borodino even though everyone seems to know about his final defeat at Waterloo. It makes sense that Badon is not heavily referenced in Welsh literature. Badon is also the only other Arthurian battle named in Annales Cambriae.
7 Professor Koch has suggested that chapter 65 of the Historia Brittonum implies Talhaearn was Outigern’s bard, that Outigern was contemporary to Ida, and that the other four bards mentioned – Taliesin, Aneirin, Cian, and Bluchbeirdd – were contemporary with Ida, meaning that their relative chronology was three times removed from their placement there (Cunedda, Cynan, Cadwallon, Cynddylan: Four Welsh Poems and Britain 383-655, trans. and ed. John T. Koch. (Cardiff, 2013), 27-9). The floruits of these and the other bards of the period are more thoroughly explored in Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 54-61.
8 For a more detailed series of arguments please see Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 87-125.
9 Dark, From Civitas to Kingdom, (Leicester, 1994), 112.
10 Koch, “Marwnad Cunedda a diwedd y Brydain Rufeinig”, Yr Hen Iaith: Studies in Early Welsh, ed. Paul Russell, (Cardiff, 2003), 176-82; Dark, “A Sub-Roman Defense of Hadrian’s Wall?”, Brit 18 (Stroud, 1992), 111-120; Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 126-32.
11 The Picts may have had a couple of larger kingdoms, but a much less dense population.
12 Myres, The English Settlements, (Oxford, 1989), 146-7; Koch, “Cerdic”, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encylopedia, ed. John T. Koch, (Santa Barbara, 2006), 392-3. The name is from British “Caratacus”. It was clearly not a fluke, either. Ceawlin, from an opposing dynasty, also had a British name (Ward-Perkins, “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British?” HER 115 (Oxford, 2000), 513), as did Cædwalla (York, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, (London, 1989), 138-9).
13 For a complete list of characters and an explanation of their origins see now Culhwch ac Olwen: An edition and study of the oldest Arthurian tale, eds. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992).
14 Higham, An English Empire, (Manchester, 1995), 218-240; The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xlii.

The New Economic System


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As has been seen, Roman Empire’s administration had been exemplary. Rome’s founders had erected a stable bureaucracy that possessed an intelligent set of checks and balances which adapted over time and changing circumstances. As it had transitioned into an empire another group of far-sighted lawmakers had adapted the government so that it could integrate new provinces and cultures. By 400, every local government from Britain to India had a variation of the Roman model.

Through foreign and domestic wars, its income had also been stable. Taxes had been individually assessed based on personal holdings and then collected in the form of coins. Tradition had made the wealthy elite responsible for local administration as well as local project funding; forums, baths, public buildings, and roads had all been a part of their normal responsibility.

At the provincial level, money had been used to pay for the hospices along the highways that were used by official travelers as well as craftsmen, artists, and traders. Reserves were left alone in case of emergency. The empire paid the military and the officials who had been publically educated, but the senators came from wealthy families and had been given nothing for their public service by tradition.

Then Constantine had displaced the Roman governor and his bureaucracy and installed his own. When the Romano-British citizens revolted and overthrew Constantine’s government, the provincial government collapsed. Severing the connection with Rome meant no more income, no military support, and only limited contact with the empire. Dismantling the provincial government meant no local military or political order.

The local governments had remained intact and functioning through all that. However, throughout the last half-century of Roman rule the wealthy had been either immigrating to the continent or their country villas in Britannia where they had stopped performing public service. By 410, most of them were no longer contributing their resources to the villages and towns.

The departure of the wealthy from public life was just as catastrophic as the loss of provincial government. The wealthy had maintained local buildings and roads throughout Britain. Without them, all of these things fell into disrepair. Their business relations had kept them connected to other settlements and to the greater empire. Without them, villages were suddenly isolated.

As we have seen, the core of Roman civilization was education. Teaching a single language and mythology united the upper class in a common culture that spanned across the empire while educating the most talented among the poor at the public’s expense and then pushing them toward government positions had ensured a high level of competency at all levels of government. It had also made government employees unusually loyal to Rome.

However, the grammatici and the rhetorici that had done the teaching had been funded by the education of the rich, so without them the teachers would have had no patrons in Britain. Probably, some of them remained behind and found work where they could (Gildas’ education is proof of that), but those who insisted on their traditional income were forced to leave for the continent.

Along with the political changes came economic adaptations. Coins had been coming to Britain for centuries as pay to government officials and soldiers. They had then spent their money on the island and dispersed the new money. But as of 410 Britain was no longer part of the empire and received no more shipments of coin.

Judging by the wear of later Roman coins, money was used for a long time after the last shipments – we think it was still in circulation until maybe 430 or 440. They were used until no one could read them any more. After that, the Britons drifted into a bartering system as it was practiced among the Irish and had been among the pre-Roman British – with a female slave, a milk-producing cow, and an ounce of silver as equal standards of exchange.[i] Bartering meant that trade would be more limited from that point on; artwork, specialists, and weapons were still easily transportable, but cattle were the most convenient unit of exchange and they were more difficult.

For centuries Britannia had been protected by the Roman military, but the military had been paid by Roman coins and those were no longer free flowing after about 407, which means that whatever official military forces Constantine had left behind had probably dispersed long before 420.

During the last few decades of Roman Britain, the foederati had been protecting the eastern and southern coast from pirating and raids. They had been paid by food and supplies as well as coins, and probably by more and more trade items after 407. As we have seen, even these protectors would eventually revolt and conquer the very lands they had been protecting. That would leave the Britons on their own to protect themselves with homemade spears, bows designed and used for hunting, and any sharp household objects they could find.

The new economic system was local in the extreme – with a bartering system in place it had to be. It also ensured that the social, military, and even political aspects of post-Roman Britain were also local. Public buildings and roads crumbled from no maintenance. Local governments went from a well-educated bureaucracy to an informal group of town elders. The effect was as significant to them as the sudden loss of internet would be to us in the modern world.

[i] The exact equivalencies seem to have varied by region and time but the basic exchange, the bartering dollar, was the female slave/milking cow/ounce of silver.