22 February 2023

Summary: A History Of Y Hen Ogledd

A very rough and speculative summary of the history of the Old North, covering 540s - 660s.

Summary: A History Of Y Hen Ogledd

After a bit of a rollercoaster ride through early British history and subverting much of the standard geography and history for this period, I thought it sensible to summarize how I see it. I accept that there will be many mistakes in my analysis and tweaks needed to my ideas, but, overall, I am confident that the general concepts are correct and that any errors do not make the whole edifice collapse.

Firstly, ‘Y Hen Ogledd’ or the Old North is a region that goes roughly from the Humber to the Roman Wall and from the North Sea to the Pennines. This history is a history of the Britons, and definitely not a history of the English, so it brings together the shared histories of the North, Wales, Cornwall, Man and the Scottish Lowlands.

Secondly, my take on the history of the decline and fall of The Old North is roughly as follows. It needs a lot of finessing and is very speculative but here we go:

Before 540 Urien born.
Before 586 Urien wins battle at Catraeth and others, combines Rheged with Wensleydale and Gododdin, with urbs regia at Ahned-Burgh-Aldborough. 
580 – 586  Urien defeats Northern invaders, Picts, etc., at Argoed Llwyfain.         
Composition of Taliesin's Heroic Poems, and Aneirin’s Dinogad’s Coat. 
586 – 588 Siege of Lindisfarne by Rheged and Gododdin. Urien killed by Morcant. 
588 Fateful attack by Gododdin and Rheged on Catterick, destroyed at Catraeth by English army led by Æthelfrith and his father. 
588 – 633 Rheged and Gododdin flee to Gwynedd. Aneirin’s Gododdin Laments composed; both his and Taliesin poems perfected. Cadwallon becomes instilled with fervour for the lost Rheged realms. 
590s From his base in Gwynedd, Owain (son of Urien) makes raids, kills Theodoric in 591 but does not regain Rheged. Owain is killed in battle. Taliesin’s ‘Lament for Owain, Son of Urien’ is composed. 
626 Edwin baptised by either Rhun (son of Urien) or Bishop Paulinus. 
633 Northumbria breaks into 2 kingdoms. T’s ‘Rheged, Arise, Its Lords Are Its Glory’ composed. Cadwallon advances into Wensleydale, takes over Aldborough. Osric besieges Aldborough, but Anglo-Saxons defeated, and Osric is killed by Cadwallon. 
633 Cadwallon raids across north Northumbria. Rheged reformed temporarily. 
634 – winter  Cadwallon based at Corbridge. 
634 – spring Cadwallon kills Eanfrith at Corbridge when he sues for peace. 
634 (Jun-Jul) Death of Cadwallon, destruction of Gwynedd army at Heavensfield by Oswald Lamnguin.  Political power of Britons diminishes.
634 – 635 Marriage of Oswiu to Rheinmelth (Urien’s granddaughter). Alhfrith born. 
642 (5th Aug) Death of Oswald at Oswestry, battle of Maserfelth. 
c. 655 – 664 Alhfrith sub-king of Deira, so Urien’s family regains Rheged. 
664 - 670sSynod of Whitby and establishment of monasteries at Ripon and Hexham reduces power of British church.
Later, much later T’s poem ‘The Battle of the Trees’ composed 

The Romans left. The North remained a militarised zone but descended into chaos with warring factions nibbling away at the edges of this area which had been the original Brigantian tribal district from the Humber to the Wall. 

At some point, control was taken back by a descendant of a military or old Roman family, Ambrosius Aurelianus, then later someone who may have been called Arthur (if he existed) established control over an area from the Humber to the Wear and along the old Roman road, Dere Street, up to Coria (Corbridge). Arthur’s area of control was centred around an administrative town, called the Burgh, now known as Aldborough. He may have fought various battles to maintain control across his patch which we now can call Rheged-Gododdin, for example the Battle of Manaw Gododdin (Badonis-Roseberry Topping) was in the early sixth century. 

Later, another warlord, called Urien, took control by force or descendancy of Rheged, the modern-day Ryedale, and then took control of Wensleydale, once again with his urbs regia at the Burh, i.e., Aldborough. He fought and won a famous victory at the wood called Coed Caer Llwyfenydd, which is today the flat area from The Forest to Castlelevington and Yarm. This battle is recorded in Taliesin’s poems, including the Battle of the Trees (Cat Godeu) and may be echoed in Egil’s much-later saga as the battle at Vinheiδr. He probably fought and won a battle at Catterick as well, as well as other smaller skirmishes. 

Both Arthur and Urien had their spiritual home at Manaw Gododdin, now known as Roseberry Topping. There may have been a castle on this hill or at Castle Eden, which is the Caer Eidyn of Gododdin, both are in North Yorkshire-County Durham. The river Leven starts near Manaw Gododdin and becomes the Tees, or Idon, so is the spiritual waterway for the North.

At some point, Urien joined up with some of his neighbours and proceeded to Bernicia in Northumberland to fight the Anglo-Saxons, where the British confederacy besieged the Anglo-Saxons on Lindisfarne (c. 587), but one of his allies had Urien killed while out on patrol. The alliance collapsed and the Gododdin and Rheged soldiers returned to Castle Eden. Whilst the soldiers were in the north, the Anglo-Saxons fought up from the Humber and others came down from the north after the siege of Lindisfarne was lifted, and they occupied Wensleydale. On their return, the Rheged-Gododdin militia hatched a plot to fight back the Anglo-Saxons, drank a lot and then rode to Catterick. In c. 588, they were destroyed at the Battle of Catraeth, Rheged-Gododdin was lost, and the leaders fled to their cousins who were the rulers in Gwynedd. 

In Gwynedd, the bards of Rheged-Gododdin composed beautiful ballads to honour their dead leaders and heroes, Urien and the soldiers of ‘Y Gododdin’. 

Here, one of the descendants of Cunedda, who was from Gododdin, was stirred up by the stories of the lost kingdoms and he, Cadwallon, sought revenge. So, in 633-4, he rode to Wensleydale, recaptured Aldborough, destroyed Osric’s army at a battle here in May 633, then rode into Bernicia and laid it waste. He overwintered in Corbridge. In early 634, Eanfrith came to seek a truce, but Cadwallon killed him. Now, he was the undisputed ruler of the north and had revenged the losses of Catterick in 588. 

But Oswald returned and defeated and killed Cadwallon at the battle of Denisesburn having raised his cross at Heavenfield, near Hexham, in 634. Oswald became king of Northumbria. Then, in or around the same year, Oswald’s younger brother, Oswiu, married Rhieinmelth, a granddaughter of Urien, so joining the families together, uniting Britons with Anglo-Saxons.  

The ruling family of Mercia caused problems and likely Gwynedd continued to lay claim to the North by birthright, so Oswald went to fight them in Wales in 642, but he was killed and martyred at the battle of Maes Elferth, which may be near Oswestry. He is cut up and his head put up on public display.

I cannot help wondering whether the rulers of Northumbria did not continue to push against the Britons. So, in 664, Oswiu arranged the Synod of Whitby to discuss various tricky church matters, but I reckon that really he sent St Wilfrid to shift power away from the local British church to the Roman church, by accepting the customs of Rome instead of the Irish practices of the local Britons. Then later, St Wilfrid established monasteries at Ripon (672) and Hexham (674) as new power bases, close to but sufficiently distant from the local British centres of Aldborough and Corbridge. If it was their intention further to diminish the influence of the established Britons power, and to promote the newer Anglo-Saxon power, then they were very successful.

As for Arthur, I don’t think he existed as a real person. He is not mentioned in Gildas nor in the Taliesin early poems. If he was real, he is not English but British, nor is he from the South but from the North, both of which I take to include Wales, and if anyone has the right qualifications it is Urien. For me, though, Arthur is not a person but a place. He is symbolic of Rheged, of the Old North, because the campaigns of Arthur in Nennius are the history and geography of the lost kingdom of Rheged first and foremost, rather than the exploits of one individual. So, if anything, Arthur is Rheged as a whole, or a place like Aldborough or Roseberry Topping. 

I cannot work out the basis for the word Arthur, but I am unconvinced that the words written in Y Gododdin and Nennius actually are Arthur – we want it to be, perhaps, but we must be careful of bringing our assumptions to what we look at. We must observe as best we can without preconceptions. The best I can do for now is ‘Arehur’ or ‘Archur’. The T is not written in the same way as Ts elsewhere in the texts, the crossbar is too short and does not extend both sides and the bar itself is very short. So, I get either ‘Ar + Ure’ which means ‘beside the Ure’, i.e., Brittonic for the Latin, Isurium, and so the town of Aldborough, or a more flaky mash-up of ‘A + Rheged’, giving Areefiew and then Arthur.

But what I don't believe in is the Arthur invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the early twelfth century. His rollicking tale of aggression, rape and sorcery seems to be about inventing a creation myth for the Norman conquerors, a story that justifies the building of an empire through violence rather than diplomacy or marriage.