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.
Throughout the stories compiled in the Mabinogion and the Welsh triads, a multitude of references abound about Northern heroes like Urien, Owain mab Urien, Coel Hen as well as their ancient lines and their illustrious descendants. A slew of exquisite literary attempts at poetry were attributed to Northmen as well such as the bard Taliesin, Aneirin, the legendary Myrddin Wyllt and the Cynfeirdd poets.
But who were all these valiant figures promenading down the lanes of history and fable alike? And, more importantly, which is the land that gave birth to them and nourished them with its wild charm?
The Old North or Yr Hen Ogledd in Welsh refers to the region of Northern England and the southern Scottish Lowlands peopled by the Celtic Britons of sub-Roman Britain in the Early Middle Ages. The native Celtic tribes communicated in a variety of the Brittonic language termed Cumbric.
The Old North featured as a distinct entity from the region of northern Britain inhabited by the Picts, Anglo-Saxons, Scoti and Welsh. However, its inhabitants were kin to the Picts, Welsh and Cornish and their land played a prominent role in Welsh literature and tradition for centuries after the fall of its kingdoms.
The names of the Anglian kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia were of Brittonic origin, something that suggests these two could have initially started out as Brittonic districts. Save for Strathclyde, all the kingdoms of the Old North fell into the hands of Anglo-Saxonic and Pictish conquerors around 800 AC. Eventually, Strathclyde was affixed to the Middle Irish-speaking Kingdom of Scotland during the 11th century.
All the singular and majestic legacy of the Old North held considerable sway in medieval Wales. The Welsh tradition recognized genealogies and bloodlines such as that of the Gwŷr y Gogledd, or Men of the North, and many were the great Welsh royal families and dynasties that traced their provenance all the way back to them.
Almost no reliable sources regarding Central Britain before the 6th century exist. North of the Tyne-Solway line Romans had had a brief, slippery control of the region, and to the south of the line Roman rule had lost its vigour long before the traditionally recorded date of the retreat of the Roman military from Britain in 407.
From historical accounts, those of Ammianus Marcellinus included, we learn that around 100 AD the famed Roman iron hold had started loosening and, more than a couple of centuries later, after 360, turmoil and unrest reigned over the isle of Britain. Entire legions and Roman citizens had started fleeing from the vicinities they had once claimed as their own.
Apart from the eastern coastal region, ruled by the Anglian folk of Bernicia and Deira, the rest was governed by native Brittonic-speaking tribes. The Picts to the north (also regarded as Brittonic speakers prior to Gaelicisation) controlled the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to the northwest. Part of the history of the Old North would be shaped by all of them.
Examining the historical behaviour of Britons, it becomes patently clear wars were the norm and that the tribes fought against each other in bitter conflicts. The Britons interchangeably donned both the mantle of defenders and aggressors as did the Angles, Picts and Gaels. And it is most fascinating to read about such incidents as recounted in the Welsh stories of the Old North full of colourful descriptions of the Britons taking arms against the Anglians. Though we must take into consideration that the opponents, also, had their own tales to tell.
The kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia entered into a dynastic union down the line; their marriage gave rise to the kingdom of Northumbria, and the birth of such a power sounded the death knell for the kingdoms of the Old North. As Northumbria turned into the major political player in Britain north of the Humber and south of the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth, the might of the districts of the Old North shrank irrevocably.
It’s beyond fascinating to note the intricacies that ran over these aforementioned kingdoms. Coalitions and strifes weren’t limited to neighbouring territories. A sovereign could ally with another from a different ethnic group or declare war against another who belonged to the same. Historical examples verify this reality such as a confederacy of Britons which clashed with another confederacy of Britons at the Battle of Arfderydd.
The figure of Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata shows up in a genealogy among the bloodlines of the Men of the North called Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd. Having allied himself with the Britons, he brandished his sword against the Northumbrians. Another figure, that of king Oswiu of Northumbria is mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, husband to a Briton who may have had some Pictish ancestry.
The Pictish king Talorgan I was the fruit of another such union between the Northumbrian and Pictish royal families. The king of Gwynedd, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, rallied along with the Anglo-Saxon king Penda of Mercia against king Edwin of Northumbria.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that defeat in battle and subsequent conquest didn’t necessarily signify the eradication of one culture in order to be supplanted by another. For instance, the Brittonic region of northwest England was absorbed by the Anglian Northumbria in the 7th century only to make again its appearance after three centuries as South Cumbria, as part of a single state along with North Cumbria (former Strathclyde).
The structure of the Men of the North was tribal where kinship groups of extended families swore their allegiance to a dominant royal family, many times through client relationships, and were rewarded with protection. The Celtic peoples held fast to such an organization as it was still in practice after hundreds of years later as historical legislature shows: the Irish Brehon law, the Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda and the Scottish Laws of the Brets and Scots.
Despite its culturally distinct origins, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon law shared many similarities with the Celtic law. It, too, was based on cultural tradition, without any debt to the Roman occupation of Britain.
The hive of political action was the ‘’capital’’, a primary royal court called llys in Welsh, far from the settlement or civitas of Roman rule and the red tape administration of our modern societies.
The king or chieftain, as the ruler and protector of his kingdom, maintained multiple courts throughout his territory, journeying back and forth between them to exercise his authority and cater to the needs of his clients such as the meting out of justice. In fact, this ancient measure of dealing with justice kept being practiced throughout England until the reforms enacted by king Henry II gave a modern spin on the administration of law.
Regretfully, no texts produced in the dialect have survived. All pieces of evidence we have today in our hands come from placenames, proper names spotted in a few early inscriptions, later non-Cumbric sources, a couple of terms in the Leges inter Brettos et Scottos and, last, the written body of poetry by the cynfeirdd, the ‘’early bards’’, most of it concerning the north.
The largest fountain from which our information flows is decidedly the cynfeirdd poetry. The general consensus is that some part of this corpus was first composed in the Old North. However, the rub is that it has only survived in later manuscripts written in Wales, which makes it hard to determine how faithful they are to the original sources.
Despite all these stumbling blocks, the poems contain noticeable variances that set the speech apart from contemporary Welsh. More specifically, a number of archaisms are observed, a trait that once was common in all Brittonic varieties but later disappeared from Welsh and the rest of the Southwestern Brittonic languages. The differences, though, are at a bare minimum, and the distinction between Cumbric and Old Welsh is mainly geographical rather than linguistic in nature.
As is the case with all conquests, Cumbric gradually vanished from use as the Old North fell into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons and later the Scots and Norse. However, it remained alive in the kingdom of Strathclyde, centered at Alt Clut, the modern area now known as Dumbarton in Scotland.
The English linguist and translator Kenneth H. Jackson propounded that it emerged once more in Cumbria during the 10th century when Strathclyde gained dominance over that region. On the other hand, the series of counting systems of Celtic origin recorded in Northern England since the 18th century cast doubts on that as they themselves have been used as evidence of the survival of the Cumbric language. However, such a suggestion has been rejected by linguists, with the actual evidence showing it was imported to England after the passage of the Old English era.
In the second part of my essay, I’ll focus on the close relationship between the Old North and Wales, the sum of the recorded sources that refer to the Old North as well as the cluster of its major and minor kingdoms.
The Welsh, through the prose collection of the Mabinogion, have presented to the world a singular artistic creation that offers a charming panorama of fantasy, romance, adventure, tragedy, humour and satire wrapped up in a net full of otherwordly magic and allure.
This blog post explores one of the four branches of the Mabinogion, the story of the British princess, Branwen, and the war of her family against her Irish husband and his warriors. A tale of high-octane poignancy, it offers to the reader a wide cast of characters, each one larger than life and full of complexity.
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
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