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Cychwyn arni

Wales & the Britons 350-1064

T.M. Charles-Edwards: Wales & the Britons 350-1064

An immensely detailed and thorough study of seven centuries of British kingdoms and their neighbours

Not the easiest book to score, this is the first part of a history of Wales and, for many people, it will be a specialist reference text. I got a huge amount from it (hence the 5*) but that does not mean to say there are not difficult, highly academic sections. It is also costly but will take you at least twice the time it would to get through your average read. Furthermore, you don’t have to be Welsh; there is everything here: the development of England, the kingdoms before Scotland, Ireland’s influence on the western shores, the Isle of Man, even the Hiberno-Norse.

Early chapters present a survey of ‘post-Roman’ Britain: from the Manaw border between Gododdin and the Picts through Rheged, North Wales – where the Ordovices are replaced by Gwynedd, ultimately of Irish origin, Powys which is developing as the ‘paganes’ opposition to urban-centred Cernyw / Cornouui, South Wales where the Demetae had become Dyfed, through to the territories of the Southwest: the relatively ‘untouched’ lands of the Durotriges (Dorset) and the Dumnonii (Devon / Cornwall).

The section on Brittany was difficult thanks to unfamiliarity and its repetition of British names – Kernev, Dumnonia, Gwenod. In retrospect, I see how important it was in the context of the geospatial linguistic analysis which follows. The first attestation of a sizeable British presence in Armorica belongs to the 460s, the time of Riothamus, and settlement would have been with Imperial authority. The lands of the Veneti were probably gradually taken by force over the sixth century. Some settlement between the Bretons and the Franks was likely but it cannot be dated to 497, although relations were peaceful until Childebert I’s death in 558. Intriguingly, whilst Latin appears to have been a normal means of communication in Britain, in the lands west of the Vilaine in Brittany, the dominant language appears to have been British.

One of the central arguments of the early chapters is that British led some linguistic changes. For much of the island, monolingualism was a complete myth – at least in the fifth and sixth centuries. Many areas which had been most Romanised were already dominated by Germanic tribes, but Latin had been the language of the occupation and, under threat, western and northern Britain clung to it. Latin was far from static though. Just as it set out to become French, Sard or Catalan with less complex grammar, something similar was underway in Britain. There was a second affinity here: Irish.

I got through the next section relatively unscathed by complexities but the linguistics here are technical, the explanations somewhat limited. The road from Brythonic to Welsh saw several major shifts including partial assimilation of single, intervocalic consonants to vowels. In Insular Celtic this happened not just within words but across word boundaries. Welsh also experienced a ‘North Sea group’ development: the loss of the final syllable or apocope. This is common to the development of the Germanic languages – the word for ‘man’ lost its final syllable (‘mannaz’) just as Celtic, ‘wiros’ did. Lenition (soft mutation) came to replace the grammatical function that case inflection had in Brythonic. This is unskippable because loss of the genitive case inflection is central for the inscriptions section. But case inflection and final syllable losses were independent of one another: Irish retained a rich declension system but underwent apocope. The most important change in Welsh, the shift in syllable stress, occurred in Cornish and Breton at much the same time and as late as the ninth century. The establishment of Hwicce circa 600 separated land access between the Southwest and Wales – but contact continued by sea, usually the fastest means of communication.

A significant section of the book is about inscriptions, which although usually brief, offer crucial evidence. In the early period, inscriptions were too few in number to support specialisation. One issue not discussed is that, if the ogham alphabet was ‘specifically designed’ for Primitive Irish, why should it have contained letters which were never used? For the Isle of Man, there was a change in ethnic attribution between Orosius and Bede – even though the latter was familiar with the former. Between 400 and Viking times there were evidently both British and Irish with dominance determined by Irish Sea balances of power. There is also a clear distribution of monolingual and bilingual inscriptions on the island. Epigraphically, Gwynedd is similar to Scotland whilst Dyfed is similar to the Isle of Man. Only in Brycheiniog with its Irish influence do we find a region well-stocked with inscriptions close to England’s border. Across a broad area there was a general shift from an epigraphy derived from late Roman Britain to a more ecclesiastical one, tied to book scripts and using a Latin learned in schools. In Northern Britain this development was cut short around 700 by the expansion of Northumbria.

The collapse of a treaty with the Irish in 360 led to a series of raids culminating in the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ (367). Later documentation suggests that there were three waves: from Leinster, Ulster and the Féni, who acquired an outlet to the sea around 500. Accepting the Féni hypothesis means rejecting Gwynedd’s establishment through Cunedda’s migration from Manaw Gododdin. We know that Maelgwyn’s reign overlapped with Ida of Bermicia’s in Northumbria, which commenced around 547, implying that Maelgwyn’s great-grandfather might have arrived circa 400. That would imply Irish settlement stopping shortly after. But it did not. The Penbryn inscription (in Demetaen territory) implies that the Ordovices lasted through much of the fifth century and that their number included an Irish component.

Challenges to received wisdom continue with the St Patrick story pitted against the forgotten legacy of Palladius and the overthrowing of the myth of an integrated Celtic Christianity. British and Irish Churches probably maintained contact through personal relationships. Southern Britain circa 500 was much like Eastern Europe in 1900 with intermingled ethnicities. By 700 that had changed. Amongst earlier assimilations (circa 600) was the integration of the Irish south of the Clyde which heralded a change in attitudes towards language: the British language became a defining mark of identity.

When Rome left, material culture in Britain deteriorated sharply even though the west had been less than thoroughly Romanised. Britons were worse off than they had been four centuries earlier. Nevertheless, at a limited number of concentrations of political power – Tintagel, Dinas Powys and Garranes (County Cork and possibly in Éoganacht Raithlinn) – there was a rich accumulation of pottery from the Eastern Mediterranean over 475 to 550. This aligns with Gildas’ characterisation of that period as one of recovery and subsequent peace. But shipments post-550 were from the Atlantic seaboard and, increasingly, the bulk of the population was excluded from an elite material culture, most Britons ceasing to use ceramics.

There then follows a section on laws and charters, focussing on the Book of Llandaff, which I found heavy going alongside the next section on kin relationships. Part of the section on the laws of Hywel Dda might have been easier after reading about Hywel himself. But the kin relationships section is important, remembering that kinship is next to kingship in the English language – to which Charles-Edwards progresses.

North of Hadrian’s Wall a kingly tradition had survived the Roman period even though some between there and the Antonine Wall had sporadically come under Roman rule. Further south, in the fifth century, Britain acquired new kings. Some British kingdoms were on a small scale – Dumnonia, Demetia, Ventia (Gwent). Vortigern presumably ruled a wider area but we have no documentary evidence and his name survives in Welsh form in a tiny kingdom: Gwerthrynion. By the ninth century in Wales some kingdoms were even smaller. By then Brycheiniog was then quite separate from any Silures successor state, Ventia was divided into the precursors of Glamorgan & Gwent, a Romano-British vicus, ‘Ariconium’, had become Ergyng and there were assorted other small territories such as Buellt (Builth), whilst Rhôs in Gwynedd’s sphere appears to have had its own dynasty.

British kingship harked back to a recent Roman past and a deeper, Irish inheritance. But, following the advent of Christianity, there was a further influence from the Old Testament. Different words were used for the concept of ‘king’: arbennig (ruler of a significant kingdom); rhi (poetic or minor), gwlaedig (‘lord’, related to the modern Welsh for ‘country’) – and the new arrival, brenin, perhaps originally connected with the concept of ‘freeman’ or even with the sovereignty deity, Brigantia, more often tied to the Brigantes but also present in the river name, Brent.

Æþelberht of Kent’s role in the Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England changed perceptions, Rome switching its efforts to Germanicised parts of the island, whilst the British became characterised as heretics. In the eighth century Wales’ relationship with the Angles becomes clouded by the inner and outer zones surrounding ‘Mercia Proper’ (not the original heartland of Mercia, it should be added). Two fantastic material survivals from the period are brought in to explore this: the Pillar of Eliseg (Elisedd / Elise) at Llantisilio-yn-Ial, and Offa’s Dyke.

Patron of the ‘pillar’ was Cyngen ap Cadwell, King of Powys from around 808 until his death in 854. It celebrated the achievements of his great-grandfather, Elisedd ap Gwylog. Although Elisedd is never mentioned in the annals, it is claimed that he recovered Powys from Mercia in 757, the year Æþelbald was murdered by Beornred (prior to his ousting by Offa). The text – no longer so legible – is reliant on Edward Lhuyd’s translation in the late seventeenth century and may be compromised by two separate recoveries – one under Elisedd. However, it is clear that in 750 there was a rebellion of southern English against Æþelbald and Powys may have exploited this state of affairs.

Asser, writing from the Court of Wessex but originally from southwest Wales, claims that Offa built a defensive dyke from ‘sea to sea’, echoing earlier descriptions of Hadrian’s Wall. Modern archaeology suggests that this is a little distant from the truth: there was probably already Wat’s Dyke (which does not neatly link-up and which has been the subject of recent dating controversies) whilst, in the south, the new construction did not reach the Severn Estuary. But it was still some kind of frontier, if only one delimiting lands from which a Mercian king might not raise taxes. Right up against Wales, Shropshire has less British names than Staffordshire and this may reflect the importance of fortifying the frontier zone. Shropshire seems to have experienced the greatest intensity of Anglicisation, declining both to the north and – more rapidly – to the south.

There is a tenth century document concerning the small Dunsætan area, bordering on Gwent (which had, apparently, ‘at one time’ belonged to the Dunsæte) and which seems to have included lands on both sides the Wye. North of the Monnow lay Ergyng / Archenfield – which even Domesday indicates had some Welsh population. In Dunsætan, the Welsh on the other bank of the Wye appear to have been in a tributary relationship. The boundary on the Wye had not rendered Dunsætan obsolete and it is clear that interactions continued across the river.

There are two (credible but incompatible) interpretations. One denies the existence of settled Mercian overlordship in Wales between 679 and 796 (i.e. Trent to Offa’s death). By the ninth century, there was far more extensive subjugation, the frontier having become sharply defined in cultural & linguistic terms. This would attribute much to the military conquests of Cenwulf in Wales from 816 to 822.

The alternative views Mercian hegemony in Wales as lineal descendent of Penda’s control of southern England. In this scenario, the Pillar of Eliseg refers specifically to Powys after a period of direct Mercian rule. Cenwulf’s aggression would have commenced immediately after succession, slaying Caradog ap Meirion of Gwynedd shortly after the beginning of his reign, later campaigns being merely an attempt to defend an authority under threat.

In the late seventh century, Wessex still faced Dumnonia across its western frontier. In 722 the Annales Cambriae records the death of Beli of Alt Clud and 3 battles against the ‘Cornish’: Hehil. Garth Maelog and Pencon (locations all now difficult to identify). Independent confirmation regarding Beli exists in Irish annals. 722 is only 12 years after the ASC records Ine (with the help of his South Saxon ally) against Geraint, King of Dumnonia. So, by 722 ‘Defna scir’ had fallen and British victory secured the survival of Cornish independence.

Around 830 an anonymous Welsh scholar wrote ‘Historia Brittonum’. The history of the Roman and post-Roman periods is dealt with strangely, Ambrosius appearing a Christ-like figure, raised in Glamorgan from a virgin birth. It also conflicts with the Pillar of Eliseg regarding the genealogy of Powys’ kings, implying interchange with Gwerthrynion.

Following disputes between Rhôs-based Hywel and Cynan of Gwynedd, the ninth century saw a new dynasty in North Wales: the Merfynion. Relationships you might find through a simple Google search are different to those presented here. Hywel’s reign had been a time of substantial territorial loss to Mercia’s benefit. Over the course of a century the Merfynion would come to dominate much of Wales. Both Merfyn Frych (‘the Freckled’) and his son, Rhodri Mawr, seem to have ruled both Man and North Wales. But Merfyn took Gwynedd under obscure circumstances. It is possible that he was part of a great move southwards driven by the Vikings who attacked Ulster in 825, Brega & eastern Leinster in 827. But this is not Charles-Edwards’ default.

More likely is that North Wales factions associated with diverse Mercian parties. Offa seems to have found Caradog acceptable but the latter was slaughtered under Cenwulf. After Cenwulf’s death, attacks resumed – including Deganwy’s destruction in 822. With Ceolwulf deposed in 823, internal Mercian disputes handed Wessex’s Ecgberht an historic opportunity.

Over the period from Æþelwulf’s death in 858 to Northumbria’s incorporation in 958, England shifted from division to single, unified administration. In 850 there were still four separate kingdoms and there continued to be instability across the Central Belt of Scotland and the Thames Valley. In 870 two Viking kings based in Ireland, Olaf and Ivar, besieged Alt Clud and captured Dunbarton. When Arthal died in 872 at the instigation of Constantine, he had a new title: ‘King of Strathclyde’, implying that the British had been unable to rebuild Dunbarton. Whereas Alt Clud had looked north to Lomond, the new capital, Govan, had Renfrewshire as hinterland. Strathclyde enjoyed significant territorial expansion in the late ninth century and by 927 it extended as far as Penrith. There is no positive evidence to suggest an alliance between Strathclyde and the Vikings before 920. However, for Ragnall in York, it may have seemed politic to permit expansion.

As early as 841 the Vikings had transformed Dublin into a major fortress and port, winning important battles by 848 whilst their other major target, Frisia, experienced increased stability under Charles the Bald. The new target was to be Britain. Between 865 and 878 the Great Heathen Army conquered Northumbria, East Anglia, much of Mercia – and very nearly Wessex. What remained of Mercia, no longer Wessex’s equal partner, became a satellite of its southern neighbour. But how exactly did this happen and what role did Wales play?

Ceolwulf is seen as Viking client king. In the 877 partition the Vikings left him with the territories bordering Wales. That same year on Anglesey, Rhodri was defeated by the ‘Dark Foreigners’ and fled to Ireland. Edington (Ethandun) took place in 878 and that same year Rhodri was killed by the ‘English’. It is inconceivable that Alfred was responsible but Ceolwulf may have had a ‘free hand’. Relations between Mercia and Gwynedd are betrayed as nothing less than a blood-feud. However, over 881 to 893 Mercia went into collapse mode. Rhodri’s sons defeated it at the Battle of Conwy. Æþelred submitted to Alfred and the latter sought to replace him as overlord in southeast Wales as Æþelred’s dominance slipped away even amongst the Hwicce (which had been Mercian since Penda) and the Magonsæte.

Charles-Edwards argues Glywysing and Gwent’s submission preceded Mercia’s, citing a chronology: Edington (878), Conwy (881), Alfred encouraging Hywel ap Rhys, Brochfael ap Meurig and Ffernfael to transfer allegiance (881/882), Æþelred’s acceptance of Wessex’s overlordship (882 or 883) and the Watling Street boundary treaty with Guthrum no earlier than 883. Dyfed and Brycheiniog were threatened by expansionist Gwynedd and therefore submitted whilst Anarawd himself most likely submitted between 888 and 892. Powys had probably already been incorporated into Gwynedd by 886.

Threatened by Viking forces from the late 880s to 896, Brycheiniog built a unique monument in Wales: a crannog on Llangorse Lake. ‘Brecanmere’ in English, it would be burned down by the Mercians within thirty years. In 893 Cadell ap Rhodri replaced the sons of Hyfaidd as ruler of Dyfed. Southeast Wales remained under West Saxon overlordship, whilst most of Wales returned to Mercia’s sphere.

In times of strength Dyfed expanded into the Tywi Valley but it may have lost this to the petty kingdom of Ceredigion in the late seventh century. From the eighth to eleventh centuries it was heavily subjected to Viking raiding compared to most of Wales. In 904 Llywarch ap Hyfaidd died, leaving his daughter as heiress. Core Dyfed then became subject to a takeover by neighbouring Seisyllwg (Ceredigion & the Tywi) under Hywel the Good, grandson of Rhodri. It is not discussed but Hywel may not actually have controlled all Seisyllwg. It is also possible he inherited Dyfed from his father, Cadell ap Rhodri, implying acquisition sometime between 894 and 909. In 894 Anarawd and the ‘Anglii’ (presumably Mercia) laid waste to Seisyllwg, although not ‘core Dyfed’. Meanwhile, Alfred’s attentions were on the Vikings.

Parker ASC implies that the Welsh kingdoms which formed an alliance with Edward the Elder were those formerly subject to Mercia, having transferred their allegiances after Edward’s coup against Ælfwynn in December 918. Whilst Parker presents a unified group, the truth may have been rather different. By 927 Chronicle D names ‘Uwen’ (Owain?) king of Gwent and there is no mention of the kings of Glamorgan. The Mercian register indicates that Brycheiniog possessed its own king under Lady Æþelflaed, but in retribution for the murder of Mercian abbot, Ecgbryht, she had Llangorse crannog burned. So, at least two kingdoms in the southeast were not Merfynion-controlled. There was probably an alliance between Æþelred and the Merfynion in exchange for overlordship – at the expense of both Dyfed and Wessex (in 893 all of Wales had been under West Saxon control). Asser seemed unaware of Hyfaidd’s death (despite originally being from Dyfed), perhaps because it did not take place until fractionally later than traditionally chronicled.

Merfynion aspirations in Dyfed were not fulfilled until Edward the Elder’s reign. When Llywarch ap Hyfaidd died in 903 and Rhodri was decapitated in 904, Edward had his own concerns with his cousin, Æþelwald. In 924 Edward died at Farndon-on-Dee. He may have planned that Ælfweard was to take care of Wessex whilst his other son, Æþelstan, was for Mercia, perhaps having been fostered by the royal court there. This may even have been the logic behind Edward’s coup against Ælfwynn. Regardless, it was not to be. Ælfweard died in Oxford almost immediately.

In 927 Æþelstan acquired the Kingdom of York from Sihtric / Sigtryggr despite an attempt by Guthfrith / Gofraid ua Ímair to succeed. Hywel and Morgan ap Owen (Gwent’s king) probably went north with Æþelstan. But different sources suggest a varying story for Eamont Bridge – or, as it might actually have been, Dacre – if William of Malmesbury is to be believed. Had the Cumbrians given Gofraid some support?

It was only at this point with Gofraid removed that Æþelstan was in a position to get Owain of Cumbria (just beyond the border) and Constantine, the Scottish king, to come together in his presence. There is much said about ‘idolatry’ but both Owain and Constantine were Christians. The presumption must be that Gofraid was not and that offering support should be considered idolatrous. Gofraid died of a painful illness in 934 and his son, Olaf, became the leading figure amongst the Uí Ímair. Æþelstan led an army as far as Dunnottar, even ravaging Caithness. The Scottish king was forced to give his son as hostage and attend celebrations of his defeat. It may be that Constantine had previously switched support back to the Uí Ímair, thereby violating Eamont.

Olaf’s campaign in 937 led to defeat at Brunanburh (not Bamburgh; probably in the Wirral). On both occasions when Olaf had led combined armies against Wessex, Hywel had remained faithful to the English. In the last round of this battle between the Uí Ímair and Wessex, Edmund conquered the Kingdom of York and ravaged Cumbria, giving the latter to Malcolm of Scotland in exchange for overlordship. In Wales only Idwal Foel had allied with Olaf. Anarawd, Idwal’s father, had been allied to the Viking ruler of York until around 890. ‘Armes Prydein’ was written in this context, foretelling a time when the Welsh would lead an alliance against the English and drive them from the island.

The poem is awkward to date. Olaf’s allies and the Armes alliance are only a partial match. Olaf’s were Constantine (Alba), Owain (Cumbria) and Gebeachan (presumably, the Hebrides). In Armes, there are two groups. Firstly, the ‘cymod’ (people to whom the Welsh have been reconciled): Vikings and Gaels. However, some Gaels are described as ‘of Anglesey’ – problematic because it was British. That might imply a later composition date but the fact that the Irish Vikings wouldn’t follow St David’s flag might imply that they were still heathen at the time. The wording might just imply Gaelic-speaking?

The second group is the ‘cludwys’ (‘included amongst us’) with an inheritance right to Britain: Cornish, Cumbrians and (via the revenant leader, Cynan), Brittany. Note the etymological connection with the River Clyde (Clud). The mismatch comes in this group as neither Bretons nor Cornish came out against Æþelstan, only Cumbrians from Strathclyde. In Brittany’s case it would have been an unlikely scenario as Alan was a former guest at Æþelstan’s court. In 939/40 the allies might well not have included Scotland either. Constantine was approaching abdication and not participating may help elucidate why Cumbria was handed over to the new king, Malcolm (Máel Coluim in Gaelic), by Æþelstan.

Talk of ‘Men of Dublin’ suggests that Armes is post-841 and the establishment of the first longphort (and before the second half of the tenth century) whilst the fact that the tribute reeves of Cirencester fled to Winchester suggests that this is not Burgred’s Mercia in 853. Furthermore, the tribute regime does not smack of Alfred and single English overlordship. Charles-Edwards suggests that the composition date is between 927 and 942. Idwal’s death in the latter meant there was no prospect of a co-ordinated uprising and the poem is serious political propaganda to that end. As to where it was written, the propaganda target and writer’s domicile residence should not be confused. It is possible the target was Dyfed and Glywysing whilst the poet wrote from Gwynedd – and another poem with the same opening lines was definitely from the north.

Hywel’s death (as leading king since 916) in 950 represents a turning point, broadly coinciding with weakening West Saxon cohesion. I grew up with the notion that Edgar was ‘first king of all England’. In fact, in 957 he became simply king of Mercia, not taking on Wessex until Eadwig’s death (959). During the gap, most of Wales probably came under Edgar but the southeast was probably under Eadwig. Appointed by Eadwig in 956, Ælfhere was probably the most active Englishman in Wales. Although initially closely connected with Eadwig, his authority remained unharmed under Edgar.

Hywel’s son, Owain, succeeded him without opposition in Dyfed but he did not retain power in Gwynedd. There seems to have been a major battle at Carno (in the cantref of Arwstli) between Hywel’s sons and Idwal’s (Iago & Ieuaf). There was also conflict along a fault line extending from Gŵyr east as far as Cowbridge as Gower shifted back and forth between Dyfed and Gwent.

In 961 the ‘sons of Olaf’ sacked Caergybi / Holyhead, ravaging Lleyn and there were further Anglesey attacks from other Uí Imair branches. It is a confused picture, particularly with regard to Olaf’s identity: Olaf Guthfrithsson or Olaf Cuarán, king of Dublin until 980?

Whilst Cornwall’s religious landscape continued to be quite different from Devon’s, it was now an English county. Brittany had been conquered by the Franks and yet, during the decline of the Carolingian Empire, there was a large measure of independence – even expansion, meaning that alongside Breton-speaking, there were considerable Romance-speaking areas.

During the late ninth and tenth centuries Cumbria expanded too, taking over former Northumbrian territories. But two developments weakened Cumbria in the mid-eleventh century. The first was the establishment of a separate entity: the Rhinns in the southwest of modern Galloway. Whether the Gallgaedil were the dominant element in Galloway society in the early eleventh century we cannot tell, but the name means ‘foreign Irish’ and is the precursor of the modern name. Gaelic survived here until the early modern period and they were considered separate from the Gaelic Scots (perhaps also in their laws), holding strong links with Man, Dublin and the Hebrides. Dumfriesshire and coastal Cumbrian names have stronger Viking elements than the Rhinns. But King Suibne’s ‘Galloway’ may not have been in the Rhinns. Echmarcach, who was to die as ‘King of the Rhinns’ retired to Galloway and the people became attached to a region. However, topographically the name was first associated with Bute and Cowal – i.e. further north than modern Galloway, in the Firth of Clyde. Only later were the Rhinns added to an expanding Galloway (perhaps in the twelfth century). The second change was that Siward, Earl of Northumbria, gained control of all Cumbria.

Moving beyond the Millennium, the Welsh picture becomes more confused. When Maredudd ab Owain died in 999, Cynan ap Hywel of the northern Merfynion took the kingship of Dyfed but he died in 1003 and there is no record of his successor. Edwin ab Einion had ravaged Maredudd’s Deheubarth (literally, the ‘right-hand part’) in 992 and he was still alive at the beginning of Cnut’s reign. Edwin had hoped to succeed to Dyfed but there is no evidence that he did.

Gwynedd is only marginally less obscure. One possible ruler is Aeddan who had his power base west of the Conwy whilst there is a hint Llywelyn ap Seisyll was in power east of the river. One ‘Eilaf’ (probably Eilifr Thorgilsson) came into Wales and laid waste to Dyfed and St David’s. He was a major figure in Gloucestershire under Cnut, hinting that there may have been some alliance between Cnut and the Irish. Wales remained a concern to the English but beyond their capacities.

Rhydderch ab Iestin heralded another new dynasty in the south whose origin is unclear from the chronicles. In 1027 Cynan ap Seisyll was killed but the chronicles do not indicate by whom. The Book of Llandaff says that Rhydderch ab Iestin succeeded Cynan as king of Gwynedd (although Iago ab Idwal of the northern Merfynion held Anglesey). This does not mean that Rhydderch was the killer since in 1030 the English and Dubliners attacked Wales.

After Rhydderch ab Iestin’s slaughter by the Irish in 1033, Iago gained Gwynedd (presumably expanding from Anglesey) and Edwin ab Einion’s sons, Hywel and Maredudd, gained the southern kingdom. But there was further fragmentation in the Southeast with different kings (both grandchildren of Rhydderch ab Iestin) in Gwent uwch Coed / Ystrad Yw (Caradog ap Gruffudd) and Gwent is Coed / Ewyas (Rhydderch ap Caradog). This Rhydderch is likely to have taken Brycheiniog and thus established a position barring the two doorways into Wales from Herefordshire.

Cumbria and Brittany were – in territorial terms – British successes of the ninth to eleventh centuries. But those successes encouraged cultural dilution. In contrast, Wales was more distinctly ‘British’: less Welsh territory had been taken by the Vikings and there had been no expansion into English territories. In Northern Britain the ninth to twelfth centuries would prove the graveyard of two British languages: Pictish and Cumbric.

Initially, two of the final three chapters about the organisation of the Church and Latin education really feel as though they belong somewhere else. But the importance of Latin learning emerges in the final chapter on poetry when there is evidence of rivalry. Two bardic praise poems from the Book of Taliesin are examined: Edmyg Dinbych (Dinbych being Tenby) and Echrys Ynys (‘Desolate the island’). Charles-Edwards dates the first to be from between 814 and 870 when Longbury Bank’s role was at an end but Penally and Caldey Island were still active – but before the 870 dynastic switch to the Merfynion. Triffun’s cousin, Tangwystl, married Bleddri, father of Hyfaidd of Dyfed. The names Bleddri and Bleiddudd (in the poem) have the same first element, ‘wolf’ followed by a different name for ‘ruler’.

Echrys Ynys may also be datable if Aeddan is the one killed in 1017 by Llywelyn. Finally, in total contrast, there is the dialogue between Llywarch and Gwên. This brings the whole work to a moving and universal end, revealing truths about humanity alongside their equivalents regarding the natural world.


A chronology of i-stem declensional collapse in Old English: Proto-Germanic *awiz, English sheep terms & phonological change

have moved on from this but here you go

Old English Roots


Proto-Indo-European had an i-stem athematic noun class which survived into early Germanic languages. By literate Old English i-stems had almost completely disintegrated. Examination of sound changes, particularly with regard to the word for ‘ewe’, might help date this collapse. There might also be a correlation with changes in attitudes to sheep in early Anglo-Saxon society.

In Part 1 I examine how the class came to be in Proto-Indo-European, its survival into the Germanic period and what became of it in OE. In Part 2 I attempt to date the collapse in the context of a series of clearly defined (but sequentially awkward) phonological changes to the English language.

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Britannia – the failed state: Part 5 – Anglo-Saxon settlement and British tribal areas

The Anglo-Saxon settlement stories for Kent, Sussex and Wessex have too much in common to ring entirely true. Nevertheless, a wholesale rejection of them might still be unwise.

  • Kent

According to Gildas the British invited the Germanic tribes in to help them with raiders from the North. It has long been assumed that these were Picts but Kent is not an obvious place from which to confront Picts. So, was the ‘northern nation’ actually the Catuvellauni? Quoit brooches with incorporated Germanic designs suggest co-operation rather than confrontation. Stylistically mixed artefacts suggest an ethnically diverse population.

Gildas’ focus may well indicate that in the mid fifth century there was a coup d’état there. Although the Cantwara was a successor state to that of the Cantiaci, there was also a strong Frankish influence. One of the early kings, Irmenric, seems to have had a Frankish name and Æðelberht married a Frankish princess. It is even possible that (once again) power structures extended across the Channel.

There was a strong Frankish influence on Kent
Copyright – Simon J Kyte / Ashmolean Museum

West Kent was a major concern with a number of rulers in the area being from Essex – replicating spatial patterns from pre-Roman times. West Kent’s separateness continued to be recognised with two diocese in the county.

There is no formal reference to Kent until 568 and Kent and Sussex were at war over the area to the east of Pevensey – another area which would come to see itself as separate.

  • Sussex

For Sussex the early settlement was in the far east of the civitas of the Regni – but the Sussex border issue was a fluid one. As for ‘Cymenshore’, there is no archaeological evidence for settlement until long after any alleged date. In the sixth century, Mercia granted the Meonwara to Sussex, shifting its centre westward.

  • Wessex

If Cerdic actually arrived as an Anglo-Saxon settler, then he was certainly not the first to do so. Draper notes that in the area around Swindon there are signs of an early blending of cultures. Cerdic and Cynric seem to have been fighting on the borders of Atrebatic territory rather than at its heart. Cerdic’s Celtic name actually lends some historicity – why give a Saxon leader a non-Saxon name?

Some names in Wessex did not change drastically – for example, Durosæte (Dorset). It may have been from there that Gildas was writing.

Myers sees Wessex as the successor to the Atrebatic state but the focus has tended to be on West Saxon / Jutish relations. There is evidence for Jutes on the Isle of Wight but the case for them in Hampshire is more limited. The case for the Upper Thames as the ‘cradle of Wessex’ is a weak and improbable one.

Grave goods from Berinsfield, Thames Valley
Copyright – Simon J Kyte / Ashmolean Museum

However, the battle of 571 does not make much sense to me. Supposedly fought at Bedford, the West Saxons gained the towns of Limbury (now a suburb of Luton), Aylesbury, Eynsham and Benson. These last two are both adjacent to the Thames near Oxford. The next key battle mentioned is Feðanleg (587) – purportedly Stoke Lyne, near Bicester. That sequence makes very limited sense but is critical to Laycock’s belief that the 571 battle is Catuvellauni territory breaking down. [For the record, there has been no archaeological evidence found in Luton and ‘Bedcanford’ does not fit with the early developments in Bedford’s name. However, is it just possible that these were local capitals of tribes such as the Hicca?]

  • East Anglia

A power base in the Rendlesham Forest area hardly aligns neatly with the Roman Iceni distribution of power – far to the north. However, the Wuffingas may not have been the first generation of Anglian rulers in the east and their ship burials at Snape and Sutton Hoo smack far too much of Sweden and West Norway. It was claimed that Rædwald’s grandfather was Wuffa. That would take the foundation back no further than 550. And that implies that such a foundation is later than Spong Hill.

The (partially reconstructed) Sutton Hoo helmet
Copyright – Simon J Kyte / British Museum
Nothing like Spong Man and the mysterious ‘A.L.U.’ references
Copyright – British Library

There is also the marked division between Middle and East Anglian burial practices to consider. [Something to ask ourselves here is whether the North / South Folk division is some reflection of the competition between the Spong and Rendlesham cultures?]

  • Mercia & Lindsey

Although Mercia is amongst the most important kingdoms, it remains amongst the most obscure. Laycock suggests that the separation of Mercia and Lindsey may be the result of a Corieltavian split and that in the late sixth century they may have had the same king: Creoda / Cretta. But a lot of Anglo-Saxon names sound extremely similar.

Britannia – the failed state – Part 4: Ethnic conflict, financial meltdown and the last years of Roman Britain

Ethnic conflict, financial meltdown and the last years of Roman Britain

Sometime around 370 there was a marked change in Roman Britain’s economic indicators. This is most obvious in what had been one of the most prosperous areas: the region immediately to the south of Cirencester. There was a sudden rush of coin hoarding in a line between the Avon and Southampton with the additional complication that coins may have become worthless. Furthermore, a line of villas in the area show signs of burning at some point between 335 and 380.

The two acclaimed mosaic schools at Cirencester and Dorchester did not flourish after 370 and there are extensive signs of ‘squatter occupation’ – or, more likely, refugee encampments. The coin deposit rate is such that it can only mean a large-scale displacement of people.

The New Forest’s pottery industry had been huge in the first half of the fourth century. By the second half it was in decline and somewhere between 370 and 400 it ceased production altogether.

Wansdyke, a hugely impressive defensive structure still visible today, almost matches the line of the villa fires. South of it, hillforts were reoccupied but there was pottery from the Mediterranean. In contrast, north of the dyke, grass-tempered pottery predominates.

Wansdyke – There is little discussion about whether the two main sections are the same structure.
© Simon J Kyte

If Wansdyke (literally, Woden’s dyke – the name giving away the fact that it is pre-Saxon) was the Dobunnic / Durotrigan border as Dark suggests, then it takes no account of the border of the Belgae civitas. Is this then the re-emergence of an ethnic conflict after 300 years with some artificial and externally-imposed boundary? It may be that in the western half of the civitas the Dobunni were trying to reassert themselves. As the Durotriges moved north to stop them the conflict may well have sucked in the Atrebates as well.

At Cunetio (Mildenhall, more or less part of Marlborough these days) massive defences were constructed even though the settlement itself had no obvious economic importance. This may have been because it was the first town over the border and had to be well fortified against the Dobunni. But even Silchester shows signs of fortifying itself against potential Dobunnic attack. A Dobunnic / Atrebatic confrontation may have been a trigger for a yet wider conflict.

In the east of the country the last decades of the fourth century may have seen a new defensive structure, Fleamdyke (the first phase has been radiocarbon dated to between 330 and 510). A series of hoards has been found broadly along the old Catuvellauni-Trinovantes / Iceni border – including the famous hoards of Thetford and Hoxne. In north / west Kent and Surrey the old dispute between the Cantiaci, the Atrebates and the Catuvellauni may have reignited. The imposed shift of border in the Fens may also have become a focal point of dispute once again.

Perhaps around 400 the economic downturn appears to have become a full-scale financial collapse. The appearance of coin clipping is perhaps an early sign since it demonstrates that Roman authority had completely broken down. Clipping coins was an offence and yet it was clearly going on everywhere. But a second stage here suggests that the survival of large numbers of clipped coins implies that either people could not recover metals they had buried (because they were either dead or fled) or that metals simply lost any intrinsic worth – or, of course, both!

So, the scale of financial dislocation was evidently massive. All currencies with an assigned value but no intrinsic worth are potentially liable to collapse. However, usually when this happens some ‘hard’ currency retains worth. When all currencies (even precious metals) become worthless you have ‘extreme financial dislocation’ with dire societal implications.

And we can take a good guess at when this might have happened. Coins of the short reign of Eugenius (392 – 394) reached most parts of Britain whereas coins of Constantine III (407-411) have only ever been found in Suffolk and Middlesex. Therefore, the interruption of coinage flow must have happened sometime in Constantine’s reign – or so Laycock says. Does it not actually suggest that financial market implosion had already taken place by 407 – i.e. clearly before the Roman decision to abandon Britain?

Around 410 there was a mass extinction of pottery manufacturers. By 400 very few areas still had local pottery production – Devon may be an exception. Black burnished ware from Poole, for example, was exported as far as Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly, it became restricted entirely to Durotrigan territory. The pottery industry is one we know a fair amount about but it may be indicative of what happened to lots of sectors around the time. It was not simply about access to export markets but also about supply lines for raw and component materials.

The ‘dark earth’ deposits at Canterbury, Winchester, London, Lincoln, Gloucester and elsewhere were once thought to be evidence of vegetable planting but it is more likely that they represent a large number of collapsed wattle and daub structures. Furthermore, it is obvious that these were only temporary builds without sill walls. Eventually, the refugees living in these urban areas went back to the countryside. The last remaining logic for staying in the cities was defensive rather than economic.

One might expect agriculture to have continued largely unaffected. But that is not the case suggesting that there might even have been large scale famine. For example, in the Upper Thames Valley there are signs of extensive damage to agriculture and the abandonment of terraces.

One objection to the civil war scenario is a lack of human body evidence. However, when corpses are left unburied on the surface, remains tend not to survive. And there are examples of bodies. For example, some lay unburied in a ditch in Cirencester.

Returning to my own thoughts, what is extraordinary is that the old idea that, at some point around 411, the Romans just decided to ‘up sticks’ because they had issues elsewhere is really being challenged. What we have here is a 40+ year recession. And that’s the economic context in which British leaders invite Saxons, Anglians and Jutes to help defend their borders. That will be for Part 5 but for now it is worth assessing what the Romans got themselves into. In the North, various Brigantian groups never gave up and may eventually have won the day. We would never have heard about it as the media was controlled by a ruling elite with a different agenda. In the Southeast corner, supposedly far away from the ‘military zone’ we have client kingdoms who undertake massive human rights atrocities, old ethnic hatreds that are content to simmer in imposed civitas boundaries until authority is over, an economic collapse possibly without parallel until the Black Death and, with no focus in the book, fragmentation even within the Roman authority power structures. Britain = failed state. Next: the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon England!

Britannia – the failed state – Part 3: THE TRULY DARK AGES – Roman Britain in the second to fourth centuries

It seems to me that, whilst many view the Anglo-Saxon age as ‘dark’, the age that is perhaps darkest is the middle period of the Roman occupation of Britain. Roman historical sources are silent for most of the second and third centuries. We hear from Tacitus about the ultimately pointless victory at Mons Graupius in 83 and the retreat to the Tyne-Solway line by the beginning of the second century and Hadrian’s Wall in 117, the shortest line from sea to sea. In the reigns of Domitian and Trajan we have the Stanegate forts, presumably some response to a military threat – from the Brigantes? There was no causeway across most mile forts on Hadrian’s Wall, just 14 crossing points, all carefuly administered.

Did Brigantian resentment of having their territory cut in two lead to the building of the Antonine? By 158 the Antonine Wall was abandoned and Hadrian’s Wall recommissioned.

Pausanias records that Antoninus Pius (Emperor 138 to 161) had to deprive the Brigantes of part of their territory because they had launched an attack on the ‘Genounian District’. Some have suggested that Pausanias has confused the Brigantes with the Brigantii and their neighbours the Genauni in Rhaetia. But there is no other indication of any trouble there. Laycock considers the possibility of a confusion of sounds; the Votadoini eventually became the Gododdin and between Latin and British there is the possible confusion of G, W and V. That might leave us with ‘Venounian’. The next bit worries me more: the connection with High Cross (Venonis).

The underlying suggestion – never really stated in full – is that the Brigantes broke over the Peak District, attacked Venonis and then went about setting fire to towns such as Towcester. [It seems as likely to me that, after the Civil War off 69 and submission to Rome in 71, some part of the Brigantes territory continued to have a name in some way connected with Venutis and that it may have been this area that the Brigantes attempted to reclaim.]

The appearance of fortifications around many towns in eastern, southern and central England during the late second and early third centuries requires another explanation. In some, such as Towcester, the new fortifications did extensive damage. There are interesting clusters in North Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Essex. The implications is that Catuvellaunian territory was under threat from different directions – from the Iceni and the Dobunni.

Third century sources are even thinner than second century ones – until the Carausius / Allectus revolts (which are underplayed in the book). The strategic road linking Lincoln and Leicester was possibly the Brigantian border. There is evidence in the area that some towns were arranging their own defences – against fellow British tribes. The contention is supported by military brooch types. Laycock raises the possibility that Rome may have effectively surrendered to the Brigantes – such accommodations were not unkown. The gateways of Hadrian’s Wall were either narrowed or blocked in this period. In the east, Caister and Brancaster become the first elements of the ‘Saxon Shore Forts’ despite there being no question of a Saxon threat at the time.

The massive period with no sources comes to an abrupt end in the period 367 – 369. In the meantime we have had the Allectus regime, the campaign against the Dicaledones, Constantine’s death in York in 306 and the fall of the gallic-British Empire. By 360 Picts and Scots were plundering close to Hadrian’s Wall. Then Picts, Vecturiones and Scotti and Atacotti from Ireland attacked in what seemed like a timed and coordinated fashion with the Saxons attacking at the same time from the other direction.

However, archaeologists have struggled to find evidence of widespread raids. one might be tempted to ask, ‘Did anything happen at all?’ but the historian, Ammianus, is generally reliable. And there are developments; the bastion was added to London Wall sometime between 341 and 375 and there were similar defence improvements in the Northwest (Ravenglass, Maryport and Bowness). Meanwhile the tribes of south, central and eastern Britain were rearmed. One clue are the ‘two dolphin’ miltary belt buckles which were common in mainland Europe pre-350. They turn up at Larkhills, Winchester in the graves of (presumably) foreign soldiers over 350 to 370. Then from 370, they start turning up all over Britain – a small percentage imported, but most simply local copies.

There is also written evidence of tribal involvement in official Roman defensive structures of the late fourth century. The Notitia Dignitatum identifies a unit drawn from the Cornovii whilst Hadrian’s Wall records work from the Dumnonii, the Durotriges and the Catuvellauni. Are these forced labour or tribal militia units serving on the Wall?

Occupied rooms in villas appears to have peaked between 300 and 350 with a marked decline by 375. There is a similar pattern for pottery whilst towns indicate decline before the ‘Dark Earth’ deposits period. But there is no evidence of settlement from any of the conspirator groups: Scots, Picts and Saxons were not raiding inland on a regular basis.

Britannia – the failed state (Part 2)

© – Simon J Kyte


At the end of the 50s AD Rome faced an unstable situation in both the north and west of Britain. Caractacus had been defeated in Wales in 51 where Rome both the Silures in the south and the Ordovices in the north had been overcome. [Gaius Suetonius] Paulinus was poised to attack Anglesey – home to the druids and probably also full of refugees from further south in Wales. In the North, Rome had the hardest fighting yet to come. It had already had to step in to assist Cartimandua against her ex-husband, Venutius (and was to do so again in 69 – although she would be less lucky this time, being evacuated by Rome, leaving the kingdom to venutius at war with Rome). [The two are actually linked to the events in Wales since the first time we hear of them it is in the context of handing Caractacus over to the Romans. I suspect Laycock has missed something about Venutius as well – but i will come back to that in a later period.] Eventually Rome managed to fully annex the Brigantes in 71.

In the Southeast they thought things were fairly settled. So, the events of 60/61 must have come as a shock. We have dual sources on Boudicca: Tacitus and Cassius Dio. But Tacitus was writing sometime around 100 and his father-in-law had served, whereas Cassius Dio was writing about 229.

Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, had been a Roman client. When he died his left his estate to his two daughters and the Emperor. The dispute with Presutagus’ wife, Boudicca, saw Boudicca whipped and her daughters raped, the remainder of the Iceni elite ‘treated like spoils of war’.

When the Iceni rose in 60/61, they chose a moment when Roman forces were still busy in Wales. A critical question is whether the Trinovantes were also involved or not. The sacking of Camulodunum was the first major act and it may have been that the expense and symbolism of the new Temple of Claudius helped bring them on side. Catus Decianus did not spare enough resources to defend the city. The Ninth Legion moved south but the opposing forces encountered one another somewhere and the Romans were forced back.

Paulinus marched back from Wales towards London but initially only brought his cavalry and decided that he could not defend the growing commercial centre [it was unwalled at the time]. Therefore, he let Boudicca take it and she slaughtered the city. Verulamium (St Albans) was also destroyed although Tacitus is unclear on the sequence.

Laycock argues that everything points towards border raid strategies rather than a serious attempt to get the Romans from the islands. Colchester was a Roman colony but it was also still capital of the Trinovantes. Note here that one of the other two cities sacked, Verulamium, was the traditional capital of the other half of the confederation. Furthermore, it was Paulinus, not Boudicca, who forced the final (set piece) battle.

Tacitus is rather over-sympathetic to Boudicca presenting her as freedom fighter, encapsulated by her ‘lover of liberty’ speech – even though he had little chance of knowing what she had actually said. He also avoids the gory details of her human rights atrocities. Dio is less cautious.

We need to question whether Tacitus is correct in saying that the Trinovantes joined the rebellion. It was not just Roman targets which suffered, there was clearly the British Sheepen site as well. There is no evidence that the Trinovantes leadership was treated in any fashion akin to the Iceni by Rome. Tension between the Iceni and the Catuvellauni probably had a long history. Mile Ditch on the Icknield Way near Cambridge may be evidence of this. Burgh by Woodbridge hillfort shows signs of burning too. Whilst the Catuvellauni adopted Roman culture enthusiastically, the Iceni – whilst nominally client – seem to have been more in two minds about it and continued to issue coins using British symbolism.

Whatever the truth, the damage to stability in the core Southeast was substantial as were the implications for tribal relations between the Iceni, Catuvellauni and Trinovantes for generations – perhaps, as we shall see, for centuries. It may also have generated a new source of conflict in the Fens as Rome sought to limit Iceni access to salt resources.

The Romans now introduced a new form of administration in Britain based on the civitas. Most – but not all – were based on ethnic territories. However, Bath – in Dobunnic ethnic territory – suddenly found itself in the Atrebatic Belgae civitas. In the Mendips Togidubnus may have gained control of the silver and lead mines. Later it would have huge ramifications.

Britannia – the failed state (Part 1)

Tribal conflicts and the end of Roman Britain


Stuart Laycock approaches relations between Rome and the British tribes from a framework of experience in modern day Bosnia and Iraq.

The book commences with a survey of tribes based on Ptolemy. The 150 year gap between Caesar and him means that there is relatively little overlap (even though Caesar did not focus on tribal identities) should remind us that tribal identities and boundaries were subject to flux over a relatively long period. Coinage was issued by some tribes in the Southeast essentially south of a line between the Severn and the Humber.


Kent plus some of East Sussex. Pottery types in parts of East Sussex have more in common with Kent than with Atrebatic territories. The Cantiaci probably had a strong relationship with northern Gaul and even, at times, shared leadership. In the first century BC Kent was an area of dispute between the Atrebatic tribes and the expanding Catuvellauni. Competition may have helped mould a distinct identity for West Kent. Ptolemy suggests that Cantiaci territory stretched north of the Thames to include London.


Like the Cantiaci, in the latter half of the first century BC, The Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes adopted cremation for some of their dead. In Ptolemy’s analysis, the Catuvellauni occupy one of the largest tribal areas with a capital at Verulamium (St Albans) but covering Herts, Beds, Bucks, Oxon, Cambs and Northants.

Critically, the Catuvellauni are not mentioned by Caesar but a leader called Cassivellaunus (essentially ‘Cadwallon’) is. Meanwhile, Caesar describes the Trinovantes as ‘almost’ the most powerful tribe, based in Essex but suffering under the impact of Cassivellaunus. The conderation process is obscure with the archaeology of the two groups being virtually indistinguishable. Under Cunobelin Camuludonum (Colchester) became joint capital.


These three entities (Atrebates, Belgae, Regni) all seemed to be linked and Cunliffe sees them as a single unity in pottery terms whilst they issue the same coinage. There is nothing here discussing the potential linguistic separateness of the group. The Regni occupied West Sussex, whilst the Belgae had their capital at Winchester but also seem to have had another centre, Aquae Calidae (presumably Bath which should have been in western Dobunnic territory). The Atrebates were based in Calleva (Silchester), East Berkshire and the area around Marlborough. They may have stretched to the Thames but were under pressure from southward expansion of the Catuvellauni. They built an oppidum at Calleva in the second half of the first century BC.

Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England – The Winchester Hoard

Covered Dorset and part of Somerset. The Durotriges had an identity istinctly different to their Atrebatic neighbours with greater cross-Channel influence. By 100 BC they had clear links with Armorica, through which they lined to Mediterranean networks. In the first century BC they were importing Dressel I amphorae and figs. Hengistbury Head and (later) Poole harbour were trade termini. There were possibly two sub-groups based around Dorchester and Illchester.

But economic glory was short-lived. In the second half of the first century BC cross-Channel trade was significantly downgraded alongside downgrades in the metals used in coins.


Based in the area from Worcester to the Upper Thames. In the early period there is a strong suggestion of Atrebatic influence and until about 35 BC Atrebatic coinage was in circulation. Later there appears to have been increasing influence from the Catuvellauni. Coins suggests that the region may have become divided since some say CORIO whilst others say BODVOC. This may also reflect two centres: Bagendon near Cirencester and Camerton near Bath.

Dobunnic coins in the British Museum

The Cornovii never issued coinage and we are reliant on Ptolemy. They coveredan area around Chester, Viroconium (Wroxeter) and the Wrekin. There was lead and salt extraction in Cheshire but this is one of the tribal groupings we know least about.


The Dumnonii seem to have had even more in common with Armorica than the Durotriges. The Cornish may have been a component sub-tribe closer still to Armorica with some shared characteristics such as ‘fogous’. There is a possibility of invasion by the Veneti in the first century BC. Dominated by small hamlets rather than towns there is little sign of the adoption of Roman culture and customs.


Whilst not the focus of this book, the Silures, Ordovices and Demetae are mentioned alongside early Roman campaigns against the Deceangli.


Covered Norfolk and some of Suffolk, centred on Venta (Caister). There is evidence of conflict in the pre-Roman period between the Iceni and Trinovantes. Under Cunobelin there was a marked advance towards Iceni territory by the Catuvellauni – Trinovantes confederation.

Prasutagus became a Client King to the Romans – Norwich Castle Museum

Centred around Lincoln and Leicester but also including parts of Warwickshire, the Corieltavi make very few appearances in Roman historical services. There may have been two sub-areas focused on Kirmington and Old Sleaford. Coins suggest a pattern of joint leadership.


Notable for its ‘Arras Culture’ burials (although Arras is actually cognate with the Atrebates name) in carts. The burial type is restricted to eastern Yorkshire and the tribe has an identical name to one in Gaul. Laycock suggests that there must have been a rather larger immigration. Malton was the liveliest town in Roman times but the official capital was still Brough On Humber. There is evidence of contact with the Corieltavi.


Tacitus claims that the Brigantes were the most populous tribe and they certainly occupied the largest tribal area covering much of Northern England from the peak District to the Tyne-Solway line. Interestingly, the adoption of Roman culture seems to have divided either side of the Pennines with the western side not adopting.

Unsurprisingly, with such an extent and natural barriers, there seem to have been lots of sub-groups:

  • Carvetti (around Carlisle)
  • Settantii (Fylde)
  • Gabrantovices (eastern Yorkshire)
  • Tectoverdi (around Hadrian’s Wall)
  • Lopocanes (around Hadrian’s Wall)
  • Possibly the Latenses around Leeds

Corieltavian coin hoards may indicate Brigantian raids. Settlements seem to be mainly huts with the exception of the oppidum at Stanwick, occupied from around 40 AD or later.


These are numerous and, in many cases, we only have Ptolemy’s word for them. But we should keep in mind that the previous decade had seen Agricola’s drive into Scotland as far as Mons Graupius. Critical from the perspective of this book are those tribes between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall: some northern Brigantes, Novantae, Damnonii / Dumnonii, Selgovae and Votadini.


First contact between the British and Rome may have been in British interventions across the Channel. According to Caesar Britons fought in all the Gallic Wars against him. It is less clear in what capacity. It may well be that Gaulish coins found in Britain were payments for British mercenaries. Furthermore, Caesar indicates that Diviiacus, King of the Suessiones may have had some political authority in parts of Britain.

Matters changed when in 55 BC Caesar crushed resistance in Armorica which inevitably set his sites on Britain. Commius seems to have attempted to persuade tribal leaders to ally themselves with Rome. But no tribe seems to have seriously committed. However, it did become clear that there was a new, powerful political ally in the game.

Caesar also says that Cassivellaunus had killed the Trinovantian king and driven his son, Mandubracius into exile. The Trinovantes initially allied themselves with Cassivellaunus but then switched to Rome. Laycock suggests that a significant element was pro-Rome from the start. Mandubracius returned with Caesar’s forces. The Cenimagni / Iceni now abandoned Cassivellaunus as well. Unretrieved hoards in Kent may relate to Caesar’s invasion of the area. At the end of 54 BC Caesar left Britain and never returned. Commius for some reason found himself fighting on Vercingetorix’s side in Gaul and then in support of the Bellovaci revolt. He was forced by Rome to make peace and fled to Britain. It is not clear whether the Atrebatic name in Britain dates from this time or was already in use.

After Caesar’s visit it seems that the Catuvellauni gained strength under Tasciovanus and Cunobelin, evidenced by coinage issue. Around 30 BC Tasciovanus was issuing coinage from Verulamium and (to a lesser extent) from Camulodunum. The sequences involved in unification of the two tribes remain controversial. A limited number of coins appeared south of the Thames where Kent seems to have slipped from Atrebatic influence to become part of the Catuvellaunian sphere. [Not mentioned but what about Oldbury Hill?]

Further east, Bodvoc of the Dobunni was issuing coins stylistically based on Tasciovanus’ designs. This would tie in with Cassius Dio’s contention that the Catuvellauni had political control of at least part of the ‘Dobunni’ (presumably, ‘Bodunni’). There is also evidence of continued expansion into Iceni territory with Cunobelin’s coins reaching further into than Tasciovanus’ did.

Rome only became a serious influence when two tribal leaders sought help from Augustus. It is unclear why Tincomarus of the Atrebates and Dubnovellaunus (of either the Cantii or the Trinovantes) sought help – perhaps for some internal dispute or fear of Catuvellauni expansion. The latter is countered by the fact the Catuvellauni seem to have had strong connections with Rome by this point although Atrebatic coins also show Roman influence.

In the Atrebatic territories the picture becomes more confused by the issuing of coins by Epaticcus in the northern area of the region about 35 BC. He styled himself as ‘son of Tasciovanus’ although it is not clear if this is metaphorical or literal. But it does suggest that Atrebatic territories were under pressure from north of the Thames. Although it’s confusing there is something going on as Adminius son of Cunobelin seems to have tried to separate Catuvellaunian Kent from the main bloc of Catuvellauni territory.

Cunobelin died around 40 and was succeeded by Caratacus and Togodumnum. Across Berkshire and Northern Hampshire Epaticcus’ coins were replaced by those marked CARA. This is also the time that Berikos (Verica in Latin; Beruk in Ango-Saxon – as in ‘Berkshire’), probably the last pre-Roman Atrebatic king, was forced out of his territory by the Catuvellauni-Trinovantian confederation.

It is hard to say how far Cassius Dio’s account of the invasion 170 years after the event should be trusted. Having defeated Caractacus and Togodumnum, Plautinus accepted the surrender of the Bodunni under Catuvellaunian control. There is then a mess of German units wading across waters and the geographical locations are difficult to identify if not fabricated. The whole story is in conflict with both logic and archaeological evidence.

The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria – Max Adams

Like a blazing torch thrust deep back into the Dark Ages of the seventh century

I read this book immediately after having completed Adams’ book on AElfred’s Britain. That book took me months to get into. It sat around for months with 100 pages read. Then, I read the remainder in a matter of little more than a weekend. Instantly, I knew I had to read ‘The King in the North’.

The detractors from ‘The King’ amongst these reviews are not entirely incorrect. This claims to be the ‘life and times’ of Oswald of Northumbria. It is not; it is so much more.

Broadly covering the period from the late sixth century through until the end of the seventh, this book is every bit about the dynastic rivalries between the royal houses of Deira and Bernicia, Northumbria’s interaction with its neighbours, allies, enemies: the Irish speaking Dal Riata – in which both Oswald and Oswiu grew up (this is Oswald’s first language); the Brythonic Kingdoms of Rheged, Elmet and Pictland, the integrated lands of Gododdin (Votadini), Penda’s heathen Mercia and Raedwald’s East Anglia.

It takes us through the context of some of the key battles of the period – whether inside or outside Oswald’s reign: Catraeth / Catterick (c. 587), the defeat by the combined forces of Deira and Bernicia of the rag-tag Rheged-Gododdin alliance; Dal Riata’s reduction to tributary status in 604 at Degastan; AEthelfrith’s annexation of Rheged in 615 and the Battle of Chester against Solon, son of Conan of Powys; the Battle of the River Idle in around 616 and East Anglia’s promotion of Edwin; Edwin’s own conquering of Elmet and his campaigns against Man and Anglesey.

Both Oswald and his younger brother, Oswiu (and a substantial portion of the book is actually about him), grew up under the Irish influence of Dal Riata. In 632, Edwin died at Hatfield / Haethfelth, courtesy of the alliance formed between Penda and Cadwallon of Gwynedd (Cadwallon ap Cadfan). The plug had been pulled beneath Northumbrian stability and it reverted to its constituent kingdoms. The vacuum also sucked in the British. At Deniseburn in 634 Cadwallon laid waste to Northumbria.

But the power vacuum brought about by Edwin’s death also facilitated Oswald’s return. And with him came all sorts new ideas from Dal Riata’s Goidelic culture – including Irish Christianity. In 635 the Kingdom of Northumbria was converted by Aidan of Iona.

But whilst the conversion was a genuine one driven by Oswald’s beliefs, Northumbrian thought was still infused with pre-existing cults. So, when in 643, Oswald was killed in battle (near Oswestry) by Penda and his allies, an at least partly unfamiliar – if, in retrospect, only partly – worship of body parts ensued. The talismanic value of heads, in particular, was huge but, in Oswald’s case it was combined with Aidan’s prediction that the king’s arm would never corrupt. The cult clearly became widespread, appealing both to Britons and Angles, to the heathen and the Christian.

The ‘standardisation’ of Christianity in the Northeast is a key legacy of Oswiu’s rule, thanks to the Council of Whitby. Alhfrith and Oswiu called it nominally to bring to an end the debate between Irish and Roman interpretations of the calculation of the date of Easter. But this is unlikely to have been amongst the primary reasons. For a start, in practical terms, both traditions usually ended up with Easter being celebrated at the same time. And Northumbria had more expedient matters at stake: the very unity of the kingdom itself at the risk of Deiran muscle being flexed. Even though Oswiu’s own upbringing must have made him more sympathetic to Iona than Canterbury, he was unequivocal in not permitting two traditions to continue side by side and, ultimately, ingratiated himself with Rome. The reform had important political implications, separating the roles of abbot and bishop and Oswiu was swift to make the most of the political capital.

However, there was to be a long-term legacy of granting lands into the wrong hands in the name of religion. As time went on this became an obvious opportunity for draft avoidance. It was to leave Northumbria weak militarily and open to attacks. But the attacks were not going to come from a traditional enemy such as Mercia; there were going to come from Scandinavia and Lindisfarne would be amongst the first to pay the price.

Although I consider this an amazing book, detractors are correct that there is a feel that it loses direction in the last few chapters. However, I think the thinness of the material Adams is working with needs to be considered – and, indeed, that makes it all the more of an achievement. True enough, some holes felt more exposed than ever: the transformation of the mythical lineages of kings into some form of history, the ongoing debate about the origin and date of the Tribal Hidage and where it fits in, alternative possibilities for the Staffordshire Hoard and – most of all – the problem of the relationships with, say, Lindsey, and, above all, Penda’s Mercia.

In retrospect, perhaps it is fair to suggest that the whole work has a slight tinge of a pro-Bernician bias but then one has to utilise available sources and those sources were never Mercian.

I consider the real achievement of the book to be the bridging of a chasm – the chasm that existed between academic understanding of the mid-7th century and the popular, Victorian-indoctrinated conception of this period of the Dark Ages. That, surely, is an incredible achievement?