In the first part of my essay, Yr Hen Ogledd: The kingdoms of the Old North (Part I), I explored the backstory and historical frame of the kingdoms of the region known as the Old North. I focused on their historical evolution and the colourful and volatile relationships maintained by the various tribes who inhabited them. Additionaly, I delved into the social regulations that ran through them and their judicial system and concluded with the language spoken and its characteristics.
In the second part of my essay, I’ll point out the reasons the Old North shares a particular bond with Wales, bring together the host of sources from which all our knowledge originates and wrap up with a list of the significant as well as the lesser kingoms that comprised its vast territory.
Wales and the Old North: Affinity
In the collective Welsh memory of history and myth, the figure of Cunedda holds a distinctive place. Tradition attributes the creation of Wales to him and his sons and has bestowed upon them the title of ‘’Men of the North.’’ Regarded as the progenitor of the royal dynasty of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, one that loomed large amogst the medieval Welsh kingdoms, Cunedda constituted a major player in the shaping of the Old North.
A particular tale presents him as a descendant of one of Maximus’ generals called Paternus, appointed by the emperor himself as commander of Alt Clut. Of course, much more than this ties Wales and the Old North, giving birth to the self-perception the Welsh and the Men of the North are one and the same.
The term Cymry is a modern Welsh one, owing its roots to this ancient relationship. In actuality, it doesn’t refer to a particular culture or ethnic group; nowadays, it encompasses only the Welsh of Wales and the Brittonic-speaking Men of the North.
Examining further the etymology, we spot the reflex of old in the world kombrogoi, translated as ‘’fellow-countrymen, Celts’’. Comparatively, its Breton counterpart kenvroiz still retains the original meaning ‘’compatiots’’.
The word itself ended up as an endonym, employed by the northern Britons themselves during the early 7th century or even earlier and throughout the Middle Ages to refer both to the Kingdom of Strathclyde and the region of western Englad north of the Ribble Estuary (in a nutshell, North and South Cumbria).
Another term Brythoniaid enjoyed popularity before this and for various centuries later, evoking a past where all Celts in the island presented a unified brotherhood. The word Cymry hasn’t fallen out of use; it survives in the native name of Wales, Cymru, the land of Cymry, and in the ceremonial and non-metropolitan country in North West England called Cumbria, meaning both ‘’homeland’’ and ‘’mother country’’.
The majority of the traditional wellhead of information pertaining to the Old North is held to gush from the Old North, flowing down all the way to Wales; bardic figures such as the author of Y Gododdin, Aneirin, are believed to have lived as poets in the courts of the Old North. The long and sort of it, these stories and bards are considered no less Welsh than the stories and bards who originated in Wales.
A Slew of Sources
The surviving sources we have in our possession can be divided into three distinct categories: literary, historical and place names.
The literary include
- The poetry of fabled bards like Taliesin, Aeirin and Llywarch Hen.
- The Harleian genealogies, the genealogies of Jesus College MS 20 and the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd.
- The Triads of the Isle of Britain (though it should be taken into account they ultimately proved to be the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg and therefore much doubt has been cast on their validity).
- Elegies (marwnadau), songs of praise (canu mawl) and certain extant mythological tales.
We should bear in mind stories composed by bards with the intent of praising a patron and complimenting with flattering words genealogies are certainly not without bias, nor can we accept them as absolute and precise fountains of accurate historical information.
On the other hand, it’s important to note that while they are prone to exaggerations, they do not alter or distort the historical facts known to the bard’s listeners because that would dishonour and denigrate both the bards and their patrons.
What’s more, the accounts of defeat and tragedy as well as victory on the battlefield render such tales useful as historical sources and boost their value even more as they provide us with information about a span of British history where very little can be reliably gleaned.
The historical include
- The Historia Brittonum by Nennius
- The Annales Cambriae
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
- The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
- The Annals of Tigernach
The aforementioned sources cannot be said to present an impartial historical frame. The authors as well as later transcribers displayed their preconceptions and prejudices with the aim of promoting their own interests, presenting their motivations as leaning always towards the service of justice and truth. Anything that hindered or opposed that was omitted and apocryphal entries surged instead.
Bede himself was a Northumbrian partisan and turned with bias against the Native Britons. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is generally considered a commendable effort of writing down history with accuracy, based on a variety of creditable sources.
Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae confirms early people and places found in the literary and historical sources. However, the work wasn’t meant to function as a historical account but as tool to proselytize the author’s contemporaries to Christianity.
Place names in the Cumbric dialect in Scotland south of the Forth and Clyde and in Culberland and neighbouring countries suggest regions of the Old North inhabited by Britons in the early Middle Ages.
Place names of Old English and Old Norse origin point, too, to isolated locations of later British presence. In Yorkshire, from the Old English term walas (Britons or Welshmen) derive the names of Walden, Walton and Walburn, indicative of British presence encountered by the Anglo-Saxons. Last, the name of Birkby, coming from the Old Norse Breta, ‘’Britons’’, implies a place where the Vikings crossd path with Britons.
- Alt Clut or Ystrad Clud: a kingdom that once stood in modern Dumbarton in Scotland. It was later known as the Kingdom of Strathclyde, having flourished best amongst those of the Old North. It was, also, the ‘’last of the Mohicans’, the only one to survive and function as an independent realm into the 11th century until its final absorption into the Kingdom of Scotland.
- Elmet: situated in western Yorkshire in northern England. Located south of the other northern British kingdoms, and well east of modern Wales, it survived into the early 7th century.
- Gododdin: a kingdom in present-day southeastern Scotland and northeastern England, the area previously inhabited by the Celtic tribe of the Votadini. The bard Aneirin composed the poem Y Gododdin to extol their bravery and virtue ad mourn the loss of this illustrious kingdom during the terrible class between a miscellaneous group of Celtic elite warriors and the Angles of Bernicia.
- Rheged: its entire scope is unknown, though it included parts of modern Cumbria. Its king, Urien, is a well-known figure in Welsh history and myth.
- Aeron: a minor kingdom described in texts such as the poem Y Gododdin. We cannot tell with certainty where it lay, but some scholars have proposed it was located in the Ayrshire region in southwest Scotland. Probably a part of Urien Rheged’s realm, often associated with him.
- Calchfynydd (“Chalkmountain”): save for one of its rulers, Cadrawd Calchfynydd, numbered amongst the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, the only thing we know is that it formed part of the Old North.
- Eidyn: known as Din Eidyn, Fort of Eidyn, it was located around the present-day city of Edinburgh, bearing a close relation to the kingdom of Gododdin. The place name today is spotted in toponyms such as Edinburgh, Dunedin and Carriden, fifteen miles to the west of the country. The Angles besieged Din Eidyn in 638 and kept it under their control for the three subsequent centuries.
- Manaw Gododdin: the coastal area south of the Firth of Forth and, as its name shows, part of the region of Gododdin. Today, the name survives in Slamannan Moor and the village of Slamannan in Stirlingshire (derived from Sliabh Manann, the ‘’Moor of Mannan’’). Its root is, also, found in Dalmeny, five miles northwest of the capital of Edinburgh, formely known as Dumanyn, probably derived from Dun Manann. Another source is the north of the Forth in Pictish Manaw in the burgh of Clackmannan and the eponymous country of Clackmannanshire, which comes from Clach Manann, the ‘’stone of Manann’’, which describes a monument stone there.
- Novant: another kingdom amonsst the verses of Y Gododdin. It could probably be associated with the Iron Age Celtic tribe of Novantae in southwest Scotland.
- Regio Dununtinga: located in Northern Yorkshire and mentioned in the hagiographic text the Life of Wilfrid. Possibly took its name from a ruler Dunaut (could be Dunaut ap Pabo) whose existence is confirmed in the genealogies. Its name survives in the present-day town of Dent in Cumbria.
A trio of kingdoms that didn’t form part of the Old North but feature prominently in its history include:
- Dál Riata : a Gaelic kingdom. The family of Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata claims a place in the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd.
- Northumbria and its predecessor Anglo-Saxon couple states, Bernicia and Deira.
- Pictish kingdom
So, in the end, what’s the perception of the Old North if we’re to sweep through the available sources of historical and literary nature? I think, as it happens in every corner of the world and in every age, we can tesellate a reality no less variable and intricate, no less beautiful and terrible than the one we live in nowadays.
Yr Hen Ogledd was a land of exalted kingdoms and glorious courts but, also, a land of backstabbing, treachery and political intrigue. A land of mighty kings of distibguished lines and fierce, valiant warriors but, also, a land of desperate alliances and savage, intercine struggles. A land of blooming arts and dreamy magic but, also, a land where the warhorns and bardic elegies sounded its own death knell.
And, if the kingdoms of the Old North eventually fell to the Anglo-Saxon siege, the gigantic stature of their untamed, high-spirited and valourous Celtic defendants still looms large not only in the Welsh collective memory but in the collective memory of all humanity, reminding us that fighting for our dignity and freedom is a worthy cause, even if we don’t emerge victorious in the end.