Emperor Justinian and the British Kings, c. 540

Emperor Justinian

Roman historian Procopius had a lot to complain about in his Secret History. Its pretty easy to say that he did a hatchet job on his bosses, Emperor Justinian and General Belisauris. Procopius was the Late Antique equivalent of a severely conservative ‘think tank’ founder, you know the type that queue up to appear on talk shows and start whisper campaigns. He shared some whoppers, perhaps the least of which is theorizing that his emperor is really a demon and the court women were even worse.

Complaints about Justinian’s use of the treasury are constant throughout the Secret History.

There was no time at which he ceased giving huge gifts of money to all the barbarians, to both easterners and westerners as well as out of the North and to the South, as far as the inhabitants of Britain … for they poured into Byzantion from every corner of the world in order to reach him….he was overjoyed with this state of affairs, believing it to be a lucky opportunity to exhaust the wealth of the Romans and throw it out to the barbarians, as good as throwing it into the churning waves of the sea. (Procopius, Secret History, III:13-15)

If Justinian’s ambition to recapture former imperial territory was real, then he had to build hegemony, buying allies and perhaps paying for proxy wars. He also had to keep former Roman territory that paid him at least lip service happy. So if British kings styled themselves protectors of the Roman province and requested subsidies to pay Saxon troops to protect Roman territory, it would be hard to Justinian to turn them down while handing out money to barbarians. Regardless of how they asked, there was enough gold going from Constantinople to Britain for Procopius to know about it and complain.

Justinian I  Tremisis. Rome mint. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

Justinian I Tremisis. minted in Rome. Struck circa 540-546 AD.

If a lot of gold was heading to Britain, it probably went to the western territories along the Irish sea where archaeologists have found most of the Roman/Byzantine trade goods in the fifth century. Most notably, the Penmachno stone from Gwynedd dates the grave of the son of Avitorius who was buried to the time of Justi* Con[sul]. This stone has been most often dated to the consulship of Justinian in 540 (Sarris, p. 200). Gildas’ five kings are likely to be among the beneficiaries of Justinian’s largess, and he singles out Maelgwn of Gwynedd as the most powerful. So it is interesting that the one king we would predict would have been in touch with Justinian’s court, has the Penmachno stone in his kingdom and  is the only British citizen recorded as dying in the ‘great mortality’ in 547. The Annals Cambriae are usually off by a couple of years in this section so this lines up well with the Irish records of plague in the 540s.

 The great death [plague] in which Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd died. ‡Thus they say ‘The long sleep of Maelgwn in the court of Rhos’. Then was the yellow plague.‡ (Annals Cambriae, 547)

anus Mortalitas magna inqua pausat mailcun rex genedotae (A-text of Annals Cambriae, Gough-Cooper ed.)

Likewise the additional material added in the B-text (‡) referring to Maelgwn’s death during the ‘yellow plague’ has the hallmarks of oral history found in Irish sources. (I’ll come back to folklore on Maelgwn and his death some other day.) For unknown reasons, Irish folklore color codes the plague as yellow – although no epidemic infectious disease of the mid-sixth century causes yellowing. Ann Dooley has made a well argued case for the ‘yellow plague’ and other terms like blefed as being references to the plague. So we have a route and rationale for the Plague of Justinian to reach the Irish Sea zone from any number of points with direct contact infected areas of Justinian’s territory. While its possible that Justinian’s goods reached Britain through Gaul (possibly through the Loire valley) (Little 2007:10), while Justinian held territory in Iberia and controlled the Straits of Gibraltar, a direct route by sea is also possible. Plague fleas can be transported in cereals or textiles for long distances.

One of the oddities of early Anglo-Saxon records is that most of the royal dynasties go back to about 550, about a hundred years after the Anglo-Saxons themselves claim (and archaeology confirms) that they came to Britain. Failure to pay for security services rendered is also a consistent feature in folklore of the ‘adventus’. Archaeology also tells us that links to Byzantium were lost from the mid-sixth century, right around the time of the plague. So whatever help Justinian was sending Britain, it may have been to keep the ‘Saxons’ on the payroll for a little while longer, but as soon as trade with Byzantium (and presumably Roman foreign aid) is cut off around the time of the plague, we find the origins of the English royal dynasties.

So when I look at the recent Staffordshire hoard of gold military equipment, I just have to wonder how much of Justinian’s gold is recycled there.

Items from the Staffordshire hoard


Anthony Kaldellis, ed. & trans. Prokopios: The Secret History and Related Texts. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2010.

Ann Dooley “The Plague and its Consequences in Ireland” in Plague and the End of Antiquity, ed. Lester Little, Cambridge, 2006.

Peter Sarris. Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700. Oxford History of Medieval Europe, 2011. [Sarris is the only recent historian to discuss these linkages between Justinian and events in Britain, but he does not mention Maelgwn’s death.]

Lester Little “Life and Afterlife of the First Plague Pandemic” in Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750.  Lester Little, ed.  Cambridge, 2006.

King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.


Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

The Makers of Scotland

Tim Clarkson, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2012. 224 pg.

In his third book, Tim Clarkson takes on the first thousand years of recorded Scottish history. It’s a huge task, but Tim was more than up to the challenge. I really enjoyed it. I tend to focus so much on my narrow time period that it’s really good to properly put it all in context. For example, I was struck while reading this the parallels between the Anglo-Saxon adventus and the Scandinavian contact and migration to Britain. Both begin as raiders seeking only loot from soft targets (villas vs monasteries), then both are either offered payments or mercenary positions to protect Britain from their fellows, and lastly by military and other permanent migration to the isles.  All food for thought and I do wonder by these parallels aren’t talked about more. By usually constraining most of my reading to the pre-Viking period I can often miss such important contextual associations.

Do the math, to cover a thousand years in 225 pages, you can only expect so much depth. I think Tim covers as much chronological detail as possible in a book this length. He managed to untangle the Scottish and Pictish families and succession clearly and briefly. I wish I could talk him into writing a Men of the North style book on Dál Riata! By choosing not to delve into academic controversies, Tim swept aside discredited theories, replacing them with well received  new paradigms, and sometimes making a choice where the there isn’t consensus. Countless updates and choices brings out the clear and consistent voice of the historian I have gotten to know so well over so many years. Tim doesn’t write much about historical theory but his historical paradigms are deftly woven through The Makers of Scotland, just as with his other books. In some ways his voice has more clarity here because of the expanse of time covered – and that is a good thing!  I highly recommend The Makers of Scotland as an ideal, comfortable read whether you want a contextual refresher  or are coming to Scottish history for the first time.

Tim Clarkson is a generous and accessible author. He can be found at his blog Senchus (highly recommended) and on twitter at @EarlyScotland.

All Cadwaladr’s Mothers

[From the archives with a new title: a little bit of folklore for the first Friday in June.]

Cadwaladr the blessed is one of my favorite Old British folklore figures so I can’t leave 2007 behind without one long post on him. A paraphrase translation follows of some matrilinear notes on Cadwaladr in the Bonedd y Arwyr (pedigrees of the heroes) taken from PC Bartun, Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, Cardiff, U of Wales Press, 1966. I can’t read Old Welsh so this paraphrase is based off the little Welsh I can figure out in the pedigree and translations I’ve seen elsewhere for these names.

These are the mothers of Cadwaladr and most of his paternal ancestors. This list of mothers assumes that you know Cadwaladr’s paternal lineage (given further below).

The Mothers of Cadwaladr o Gogail

  • Mother of Cadwaladr the blessed, daughter of Pybba, sister of Penda son of Pybba.
  • Mother of Cadwallon son of Cadfan, Tandreg the black, daughter of Cynan Garwen [of Powys]
  • Mother of Beli son of Rhun, Perwar daughter of Rhun of Great Wealh son of Einian son of Mar son of Keneu son of Coel [Hen]
  • Mother of Rhun ap Maelgwn, Gwallwenn daughter of Avallach
  • Mother of Maelgwn Gwynedd, Meddyf daughter of Faeldaf son of Dylan Draws of Nan Conway
  • Mother of Meddyf, daughter of Tallwch son of March/Mark son of Meirchiawn, sister of Tristain [Drystann, Drustain]
  • Mother Cadwallon Long Arm, Prawst daughter of Tithlyn Britain [Prydain]
To fill in a few gaps, here is Cadwaladr’s patrilinear pedigree from Bonedd y Sant (pedigrees of the saints):

Catwaladyr vendigeit [ap Kadwallawn ap Catuan] m. Yago m. Beli m. Rhun m. Maelgwn m Catwallawn llawhir m. Einyawn yrth m. Cuneda weldic” (Bartrum, p. 56)

Cadwaladr the blessed [son of Cadwallon son of Cadfan] son of Iago son of Beli son of Rhun son of Maelgwn (Gwynedd) son of Cadwallon Long Arm son of Einian yrth son of Cunedda the Chieftain/ruler.

Cadwaladr became an immensely important ancestor to later kings of Gwynedd because they all traced their descent from him. The remainder of the First Dynasty of Gwynedd were his son and grandsons and the Second Dynasty of Gywnedd legitimated itself through a matrilinear linkage to Cadwaladr’s dynasty. As Cadwallon was universally said to be Cadwaladr’s father, thus the Cadwallon who was slain by King Oswald at Denisesburna close to Heavenfield was the ancestor of all later kings of North Wales.

I should point out that the patrilinear genealogy above probably has at least incorrect link. The ancestry of Iago ap Beli is given differently in different genealogical tracts. There seems to have been claims that Rhun ap Maelgwn was a bastard or died childless. Anyway, Iago ap Beli was related to Maelgwn but probably not his great grandson.

Getting back to this massive matrilinear genealogy… the whole point is to link Cadwaladr to as many Old British heroes and genealogical tales as possible. One of the oddest and most common tales of Cadwaladr is that his mother was the sister of Penda of Mercia. This is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Notably, it is not improbable, even if it is too late to rely on. Heroes whom Cadwaladr is said to descend from include Cynan Garwen of Powys (such a marriage, again, is not improbable), a fabulously wealthy descedant of the northern Coel Hen (Ole King Coel was a merry ole soul…), King Mark and Tristain of Arthurian fame, and then some sovereignty type tales. Both Coel Hen and King Mark-Tristain link Cadwaladr to the stories of the Gwyr y Gogledd [Men of the North- British heroes whose land later became Northumbria].

Did you notice a familiar figure here from last week? Cadwaladr via Rhun ap Maelgwn is said to be the descendant of Avallach, whom we met before as the grandfather of Owain ap Urien in the tale of Modron at the Ford. So… this means that Maelgwn Gwynedd had a similar meeting at a ford as Urien Rheged. It is not a coincidence that both fathers have their kingdom (Gwynedd and Rheged) as their epithet; this means that they were the real foundation king for the kingdom. We might say “Penda Mercia”, “Ida Bernicia” or “Aethelfrith Northumbria” as an analogy. Both Maelgwn Gwynedd and Urien Rheged create their kingdoms out of some minor land holding of their family.The last two figures probably represent similar sovereignty tales with local and pan-Brittonic claims respectively. Dylan Draws of Nan Conway is obviously some type of local tale within Gwynedd (which borders or includes the River Conway). The last figure who epithet is “Britain” suggests a similar foundation role but this story has been lost.

These extended genealogies give us a peek into all of the folklore and oral ‘history’ that has been lost and some of the material that Geoffrey of Monmouth and other twelfth century authors drew upon.

King Ina’s Food Rents and the Tribal Hidage

I’ve been reading Kathy Pearson’s “Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet”, which is just full of interesting information. Assessing the livestock available in early medieval northern Europe, Pearson quotes  from King Ine’s law code on hide (land) rents. From every 10 hides of land, King Ine demanded “2 full-grown cows or 10 wethers, 10 geese, 20 hens”.  A wether is a male castrated goat (I had to look it up). That is a lot of goats. Makes me wonder if  a wether couldn’t have referred to castrated male sheep as well. At first I had to wonder what the king would do with all these livestock, especially if the male goats/sheep, and poultry were substituted for cows. He can only eat so much and host so many feasts. It’s true that some of these livestock will be redistributed within the kingdom, including to monasteries and standing armies.

The Tribal Hidage from Henry Spelman, ‘Glossarium archiaologicum’, p. 292 (via Wikipedia)

Trying to put this into perspective. one of the only contexts we have is the tribal hidage, listed to the right, that dates to about the same century as King Ine who ruled from 688-726. Its function has been argued over for at least a century. Is is a tax sheet, a tribute list, a military roster, or an even more general use? Most scholars seem to believe that its written from the point of view of Mercia (though there isn’t consensus on this either). Regardless it is an assessment of the English lands south of the River Humber.

Some believe that the Wessex assessment is either exaggerated or punitive. At 100,000 hides King Ine would have been collecting 20,000 cows a year (or 100,000 wethers, 100,000 geese, and 200,000 hens!). Ok, so lets assume that the Wessex assessment does not reflect reality.

Lets consider this rental fee applied to a smaller area like Lindsey (Lindes-ferona), assessed at 7000 hides  it would owe 1400 cows. Even with redistribution including to monasteries, that is a lot of cows to cope with and come up with from watery Lindsey. With these kinds of numbers, it’s not too hard to see where the hides came for manuscripts. It’s also hard to imagine the industry needed to butcher and process this many animals for meat, leather, bones and sinews, and what would he do with the birds? Of course, the king can export some of the leather and some of the livestock may have been paid to a greater king than himself. Some may have been sold back to the people for other goods. He still has to cope with a lot of meat.

How would this rental fee have been applied. Did it only apply to estates of more than 10 hides? In that case, smaller land holders would be exempt, or charged lesser fees per hide. These also were not all of the rental fee. Pearson notes that King Ina also demanded one cheese per hide (of unmentioned size) and collected butter as a form of rent has well. Cheese and to a lesser extent butter would have been important nutrients and long-term storage for dairy products.  Most European rentals were also included eggs, but as these are perishable and delicate, it seems likely that these were paid to the most local officials or monasteries. Pearson notes that cheese and eggs are written about as though they were a primary means of currency for the peasants rather than a regular food stuff. As a side note, cheese and eggs would probably have been women’s products and the types of goods that women would barter for household needs or services.

Pearson suggests that these high rental demands may have allowed the king to store foodstuffs away for times of famine. While this is true for some things like cheese and some crops, I’m not sure that livestock would have been much of a bulwark against famine. The cost of maintaining this much livestock would have been a considerable expense.  In times of famine, fodder for cattle would have also been lean. It might have been some insurance for the elites and monasteries who could maintain as much livestock as their estates could hold. I just really can’t see the king sending beef out to hungry peasants. How early medieval communities would have survived famines is still an open question, still food for thought.

Reference: Kathy Pearson (1997) “Nutrition and the Early Medieval Diet” Speculum, 72, 1-32.

Heavenfield, Hefenfeld, and Caelestis Campus

Not the cross at Heavenfield!

A little while ago Tim Clarkson of Senchus brought an Andrew Breeze paper  about the history and derivation of the name Hefenfeld*, the Old English version of Heavenfield, to my attention. Its taken me a while to get to it but here is what I think.

It is clear to anyone who has looked at the history of this place-name or even just the place-names that surround it, that versions of hefenfeld have spread over a wide landscape.  S Oswaldes Asche is mentioned in several late medieval accounts presumably referring to the cross or a version of it. The entire valley was called halydene (holy valley) by Leland. I know I’ve read of more heavenfield related place-names than Breeze lists; suffice it to say that the holy site left a big footprint in local place-names and lore.

There is also nothing new about the annoying tendency of  historians and antiquarians to confuse the camp site of Hefenfeld (modern Heavenfield) with the nearby battlefield site of Denisesburna.  (Many otherwise good historians have made real hash out of the places and dates for Oswald’s camp site and battlefield!) This confusion reaches well back into the Middle Ages and may be a reflection of the vague notion about where both were located from the very beginning (though most modern mistakes are just careless reading of Bede).  Breeze reviews all of this in considerable detail, although it is only important to his argument to show that the name for the site was never very fixed. [He says that he has shown the date to be 633 but I don’t think he has shown that at all.]

Breeze then gets down to his main argument on the relationship and derivation of the names hefenfeld and caelestis campus. First he rules out the Old English name Hefa as a source for hefenfeld, though his reasons don’t seem very sound. Hefa’s becoming ‘hefan’ as in modern Hevingham  in Norfolk doesn’t seem that far from Hefenfeld to me. Breeze opts to take Bede at his word, that Hefenfeld is derived from caelestis campus. Fair enough. The English would have been new enough settlers in that area that English place names like X’s field are unlikely to be completely supplanted by alternative place name lore by Bede’s time (though there may have been some intentional renaming of landmarks in English from their British names).

Breeze then turns to the “curious expression” of Caelestis campus. He points to two parallel constructions elsewhere in Bede’s History: campus roborum (‘plain of oaks’, Durrow) and in the Moore Bede campus Cyil, the plain of Kyle in Galloway. Equally he finds more similar constructions in Welsh-Latin texts including Campus Gaii, the plain of Gaius, the name for Bede’s Winwead in the Angles Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum (HB). The HB also includes campus Elleti, where the boy Ambrosius Aurelianus is found my Vortigern’s men. Looking to hagiography Breeze finds campus Heli in the Life of Padarn and Campus Malochu in a charter linked with St Dyfrig. Ok, so we have campus being a common Latin word for plain in Welsh-Latin and apparently taken up for at least place names in early English Latin. This wasn’t really in doubt but its good to see them all collected together. At this point I would like to point out that three of these plains are named for people (Gaius, Elleti, and Malochu) and two are descriptive, plain of oaks in Ireland and plain of brine/salt water (heli) in Brittany. Not surprising for its date and topic, Breeze zeroes in on campus Gaii for comparison.

Since Welsh-Latin used campus Gaii ‘plain of Gaius’ for the battlefield of Uinued, where the Roman road from York to Donchester crosses the river Gwent, Caelestis campus may be explained not as ‘heavenly plain’ but as ‘plain of Caelestis’. It would be a similar place-name survival from Roman times. There is no difficulty about Caelestis as a personal name in Celtic Britain. An inscription of about the year 500 at Barmouth in Gwynedd reads CAELEXTI MONEDORIGI ‘(monument of) Caelestis Mondorix (‘mountain king”). So the evidence suggests that, just as the flood-plain of  Gwent was known in British-Latin tradition as campus Gaii, so also the defensive site used by Oswald was known as Caelestis campus, presumably after a local British chieftain or lord, a namesake** of the fifth-century Caelestis of North Wales. (Breeze, p. 196)

First, Caelestis is a late Roman name rendered in modern English as Celestine. It was not uncommon in late antiquity. Pope Celestine I had a tenure from 422 to 432. There is no problem with it being a name in Roman Britain or post-Roman Britain. I don’t think its helpful to think of 7th century Britain as Celtic Britain. To me, Celtic Britain was pre-Roman or areas never under Roman control. I don’t have a problem with caelestis campus referring to a Roman or Romano-British person. It makes more sense than there being a pagan shrine or sacred tree at the site.

St Oswald in Lee, Heavenfield via Google Earth February 2009

Second, Breeze stresses that it was a plain not a field, a plain being much larger. I just want to say that there is another language issue here between US English and UK English. In US English a plain is a very large, flat stretch of land. When a friend and I visited England several years ago we went to Stonehenge. Apart from our impression that it is much smaller than all of the pictures make it out to be, we both agreed that we would never consider it to be sitting on a plain. We also visited Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall and Hexham; believe me, I didn’t see any plains. There were some large open fields of rolling but very large hills with lots of valleys. Most of what I saw I would consider hillsides.  If you all want to see some plains come the US Midwest.  I don’t have a problem with the translation of campus to field. Besides just because the name wasn’t fixed to a specific spot in the later medieval period doesn’t mean that it wasn’t originally more localized.  When looking at this picture of Heavenfield to the right keep in mind that we don’t know how wooded the area was in the seventh century.  Even so the slope in the land is visible even in this open field picture.

Northumbrian settlers, failing to recognize the personal name in the genitive case here, and taking caelestis as a masculine adjective, seemingly mistranslated the toponym as Hefenfeld. Thereafter Bede could exercise sacred wit on the form, even though in origin it had not more to do with Christian heaven than, say, Anguli in the anonymous Whitby life of Gregory had to do with angeli, Æelli with Alleluia, or Deire with de ira Dei. (Breeze, p. 197)

I’ve never really bought mistranslation explanations. It takes some knowledge of Latin to make this conversion. The average Northumbrian settler would not know that caelestis meant heavenly (as in the heavens, the sky). Knowledge of Latin means churchmen, and churchmen of presumably Hexham would have a motive to use word play to rename the site a fitting name for their shrine. Remember that Bede gives his explanation of the name in an episode that he credits directly to a source at Hexham. It is possible that visiting churchmen or churchmen stationed at the royal estate of Hexham (before it was given for a monastery) renamed the site using word play. It seems to me that the word play translation makes sense and may have been close enough to a translation of the original name (whose namesake would probably have been long dead) to be acceptable to local Britons.


Andrew Breeze. (2007). Bede’s Hefenfeld and the Campaign of 633. Northern History, XLIV: 2, p. 193-197.

*Hefenfeld is also sometimes written as hefenfelth.

**Namesake means different things in US English and UK English. In UK English namesake just means sharing the same name.  In US English namesake usually means that one is named directly after the other, ie. John Jr is the namesake of John Sr but not of unrelated Johns.

The Death of King Diarmait

I’ve been browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland for you know what, plague, and I came across an interesting entry.

665 Kl. The death by plague of the son of Áed Sláine, i.e. Blathmac [], i.e. in Calatruim. Diarmait died in the same place, standing, stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him. His soul departed from him. It is found in some books that these two kings, Blathmac and Diarmait, reigned twelve years. In others, however, … years, which we follow. These two kings of Ireland, then, Blathmac and Diarmait, died in that plague, i.e. the Buide Conaill. (FA 28)

The Annals of Ulster has a king Diarmait son of Aed Slaine and a king Blathmac who died of plague. There is nothing about being “stretched against a cross, watching the Laigin army approaching to kill him.” I don’t think that I’ve seen anything quite like this before. This would seem to have a Leinster (Laigin) connection, like some of the other hints in plague lore like the name Buide Conaill itself (Conaill being the dynastic founder of the Leinster). Has anyone seen anything like this before?