Merlin, Myrddin Wyllt, & the ‘Men of the North’


Tim Clarkson, Scotland’s Merlin: A Medieval Legend and Its Dark Age Origins, John Donald, 2016. Amazon US $22 PB, $8 Kindle.

Tim Clarkson’s new book, Scotland’s Merlin, was a lovely break from my usual plague reading. Merlin is one of the few Arthurian characters who can stand alone from the Arthurian corpus as the Welsh figure Myrddin. This is not totally surprising because he was constructed from several long free-standing figures of British history and legend.

My friend Tim strongly states that Arthur’s Merlin is a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s creative process (and I agree). Geoffrey drew on three legends to craft his Merlin Ambrosius (Emrys): the Dinas Emrys origin story, the Carmarthen origin story, and the prophetic wild man of the north legend. He named him well because the Merlin in Geoffrey’s History of the King of Britain is primarily a fusion of Ambrosius (Emrys) from the Historia Brittonum and a lost legend of Merlin from Carmarthen. Merlin’s interaction with Vortigern and the dragons completely comes from the Dinas Emrys story in the Historia Brittonum. The wild man Myrddin Wyllt primarily comes to the fore in Geoffrey’s last work the Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin).


The young Emrys and King Vortigern, with the dragons below the floor, originally from the Historia Brittonum

Now, I suspect that the Carmarthen origin story may have been as well developed as the Dinas Emrys legend so it may have contributed a little more than Tim credits, but what that is, is complete conjecture. It must mean something though that Geoffrey is so consistent in localizing Merlin’s hereditary lands in Carmarthen/South Wales.  Geoffrey’s first work, the Prophecies of Merlin, makes up a significant portion of Merlin material in this History of the Kings. We often forget that Geoffrey restricts Merlin’s role in Arthur’s life to his conception. Geoffrey claims that fans wanted more on Merlin so he produced his last work the Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) that now begins to draw much more explicitly on the prophetic northern wild man of the woods motif. If this northern wild man, Myrddin Wyllt (the wild), is the only source of Merlin as a prophet, then he is indeed the primary source for the figure. Although Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin did not circulate nearly as much as his History, it never the less contributed to Merlin’s later development as a character, albeit without many direct textual references.

It is the northern figure, known as Myrddin Wyllt in medieval Welsh literature, that Tim traces to his origins in the Caledonian woods of southern Scotland. The name Myrddin comes from the Old Welsh word for Carmarthen, which was caer-fyrddin, a softened form of Caer-Myrddin.  The modern Carmarthen is the anglicized version of Caer-Fyrddin.screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-1-51-08-am Although linked to a place name that would usually support it being a person’s name, that is not true in this case. Caer-Fyrddin (Caer-Myrddin) is more likely derived from the Roman Moridunum, possibly meaning sea fortress, itself derived from the pre-Roman Brittonic name. Type Caerfyrddin into google translate and listen to its pronunciation. Looking at the map here we can see that Carmarthen is placed on a river leading to a wide three-pronged fork (trident?) shaped estuary. Although not on the coast today, it is possible that it was located at the safest area in an estuary wetland.  It has been the capital of the pre-Roman Demetae tribe, so indeed before the Roman period it is likely that a prince or ruler was seated at Mordunum or ‘the Sea Fortress’. Clarkson places the origins of the name as early as Caermyrddin as early as the sixth century when the Romans had been gone long enough for new placenames and origin stories to develop. Indeed, this may be a similar date and process to the Dinas Emrys story preserved first in the Historia Brittonum.

[On a side note, Merlin’s association with a ‘sea fortress’ may be the source of tales that Merlin has a glass house or glass isle (perhaps invisible house/fortress). Coupled with Mryddin Wyllt’s apple tree, it’s not a great fictional leap to associate Merlin with Avalon, the isle of apples.]

At some point before the ninth century the name Myrddin was transferred, or rather replaced, the name of a northern British mad prophet named Lailoken in tales told in Wales. Some of the texts of Lailoken’s northern exploits even mention that he is known to some as Myrddin. However, his name has mutated through storytelling there is a good reason to believe that a real man, Lailoken, is the historical nugget at the core of Myrddin Wyllt. Lailoken is the focus of the rest of Clarkson’s book.

The battle of Arfderydd, dated to 573 in the Annales Cambriae (AC), was one of the favorite topics of early Welsh bards. It has left its mark in the ninth century (?) Myrddin poetry, the Welsh triads (bardic memetic devices), Rhydderch Hael lore and St Kentigern legends.  It was mentioned in the oldest ninth century version of the Annals Cambriae listing the British leaders on both sides. A much later recension adds that “Myrddin went mad” to the entry. All sources claim that it was an especially ferocious battle even by Dark Age standards; no quarter was given, nor apparently expected. Lailoken/Myrddin is reputed to have been a sole survivor of the losing side who goes mad from the horror of battle becoming a recluse in the Caledonian woods. He is essentially suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome or shell shock. He retreats to the woods living with a pet pig and uttering prophecies or omens from the branches of an apple tree. One of the oldest sources for Lailoken (in his own name) is in his interactions with St Kentigern in hagiography.

Perhaps the most important contribution this book makes to early British history, beyond the evolution of Merlin, is Clarkson’s analysis of the sources for the battle of Arfderydd. I agree with him that there is enough to believe that the battle took place and probably it’s location, but practically nothing else is historically credible. It became a magnet to collect the heroes of the North, generally on the winning side (of course). There is nothing that we can draw about who was actually involved, beyond the brothers Peredur and Gwrgi who defeated Gwenddolau (listed in the AC). All of the other figures were drawn to the lore of this battle like moths to a flame. Geoffrey’s Vita Merlini even has Lailoken/ Myrddin/ Merlin change sides in the battle so he can side with the winners! (contra to all other sources)

Early Modern Antiquarians attempts to reconstruct the battle from clues primarily in the Welsh triads and Myrddin poetry jumped to the conclusion that it was a battle between pagans and Christians (for no reason whatsoever). Primarily based on this assumption, Merlin was rebranded a druid. Clarkson has a whole chapter on this that should be read by anyone who wants to claim that he was a druid! “Merlin’s underpants!” — Merlin’s reputed role as a druid or magician is based on a desire by fans of Celtic mythology and those who want to ‘enhance’ or reputedly make Arthurian lore more realistic. There is no medieval basis for any of this. Both Lailoken/Myrddin and Arthur are nothing but Christian in the medieval material.

From here Clarkson takes on a variety of topics related to the evolution of Merlin and Arthuriana particularly in northern Britain. It was all very interesting and is good material for novelists who want to use medieval lore. I really enjoyed the book and I think anyone who likes Merlin, Arthuriana, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s process,  or medieval lore will enjoy it, so I heartily recommend it.

Merlin and the details of the battle of Arfderydd are now firmly in the realm of literature. As fiction, authors are free to embellish and borrow from wherever they want. I suspect that any real Dark Age figures behind these figures would be just fine with becoming mythic heroes. They knew well that this was their best bet at gaining lasting fame and the details no longer mattered in the realpolitik of their land within just a few generations after their time. Our instance to know ‘what really happened’ would have been largely lost on them. They well understood Achilles’ choice to opt for fame over being grounded in the real world with a long mortal life but soon forgotten.



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.

Berht of Dunbar?

Dunbar fortress at its height before it was intentionally dismantled.

Dunbar fortress at its height c.1400 before it was intentionally dismantled. Painting of Dunbar castle from the Marie Stuart Society Website.

I was reading Tim Clarkson’s The Picts: A History (2008) last week and I came across the following:

The sources credit him [Cinead mac Alpin] with six campaigns in Northumbria, during which he seized the coastal fortress of Dunbar and burned the monastery of Old Melrose on the River Tweed. Dunbar was an important stronghold of the hereditary guardians of Northumbria’s Pictish frontier. Among the family’s renowned ancestors was the warlord Berht — who led Ecgfrith’s ill-fated attack on Ireland in 684 — as well as other key figures in the Anglo-Pictish wars of the the late seventh and early eighth century. Cinead’s capture of Dunbar was of great symbolic importance for his Pictish subjects in the troubled border zone around the Firth of Forth. Not since the mighty victory at Dunnichen in 685 had an army from the old Pictish heartland inflicted so much damage upon the English. (p. 162)

I know Cinead is probably most people’s focus in this passage, but my interest is in Ealdorman/Duke Berht who also led the ill fated Northumbrian campaign into Pictland that ended at Dunnichen. Do we really know that Dunbar was the base of the hereditary guardians of the Northumbrian frontier?

Just a review of Berht’s claims to fame. First to attach this family to the Pictish frontier, Bede mentions two Berhts leading Northumbrian troops against the Picts in his chronilogical summary: Berhtred is killed by the Picts in 698 and Berhtfrith fought the Picts in 711. Both references suggest that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were leaders of the Northumbrian army and therefore, second only to the king. The Life of Bishop Wilfrid specifically calls Berhtfrith second only to the king. There is a Berctred listed in the Durham Liber Vitae immediately before Altfrid who is almost certainly King Aldfrith, exactly where he should be. There is no Berhtfrith listed but Eadwulf is, and as Eadwulf was Berhtfrith’s enemy in the succession of the child king Osred, which may explain why Berhtfirth isn’t listed.  We know that Berhtfrith was allied with Bishop Wilfrid, which may have also caused him to be left off of Lindisfarne’s Liber Vitae. It has been hypothesized that Berhtred and Berhtfrith were father and son, although of course they could be brothers or other kinsmen.

There are three specific traditions of these Berhts. First and foremost, a duke Berht (presumably Berhtred) led King Ecgfrith’s forces in an invasion of the Brega region of Ireland carrying off many hostages, at least several boat loads full. Adomnan brought back hostages from two trips to Northumbria and we don’t know that he got them all. Over years that it took Adomnan to negotiate the release of his hostages, it is likely that some had died and others were integrated into the monasteries of Northumbria and did not want to leave. Given Berht’s prominence in this successful invasion, it is almost certain that he was with Ecgfrith at the battle of Dunnichen against the Picts in the very next year. This also means that Berhtred may have been present when King Bridei took Ecgfrith’s body to Iona for burial, where Ecgfrith’s half-brother Aldfrith was waiting with Abbot Adomnan. If he was second only to the king and was apparently effective during Aldfrith’s reign, he must have supported Aldfrith and indeed, his support may have been vital for the succession of Ecgfrith’s half-Irish brother who had been gone from Northumbria for so long. His role as the Norhtumbrian king’s warlord appears to have been maintained judging by his death in battle against the Picts in 698, the middle of Aldfrith’s reign.

It is probably not a coincidence that Duke Berhtfrith was the critical figure supporting Aldfrith’s eight year old son Osred for the throne in 705 against Eadwulf who initially succeeded for three months. According to Duke Berhtfrith’s account of Eadwulf’s seige of Bamburgh in early 705 at the synod of Nidd, he was both young Osred’s protector and chief supporter for the throne against Eadwulf and credited their success to God’s support for Bishop Wilfrid who they vowed they would support if they were successful. Berhtfrith’s support for the boy may also reflect his families reliance on the descendents of Oswiu for their power. I do have to wonder if we don’t have a royal princess somewhere among the maternal ancestors of the Berhts (perhaps a daughter of Oswald or Oswiu, or Aebbe’s husband?). Berhtfirht is last heard from in a record of a Pictish battle in 711, the middle of Osred’s reign. It is likely that he was gone from the scene before young Osred takes power on his own and ultimately dies at the hands of his men in 716. I tend to think of Berhtfrith as being like a Mayor of the Palace. Like so many young Frankish kings, Osred didn’t survive coming in to his majority for long dying at age 18. Any survivors of Berhtfrith’s family were probably invovled in the political chaos that followed Osred’s death and may have seen some support in Osred’s reputed brother Osric. Ironically, the throne eventually passed to Eadwulf’s lineage in his cousins Cenred and Coelwulf.

Had Bede not written the Historia in the reign of King Coelwulf, we might know much more about these powerful dukes, but with their rivals in power Bede barely mentions them. Their inclusion in the chronilogical summary suggests that were was much more known about them somewhere in Bede’s sources. He either excised material about them, leaving the summary entries or they were in one of his chronical sources and got copied into the summary. While the latter may be true, I suspect Bede picked his entries in the chronilogical summary more carefully. Given that King Coelwulf had been deposed earlier in the year that Bede finished the Historia, Bede may initially included more on the Berhts only to later excise almost all contemporary information.

So coming back to Dunbar, it is mentioned only once that I know of in Bede’s time. It is the site of another miracle of Bishop Wilfrid. King Ecgfrith sends Wilfrid to Dunbar to be imprisoned in its dungon by its sheriff Tydlin. Whether Tydlin is the highest ranking official in Dunbar or not is unknown but it seems likely. Tydlin’s failure to imprison Wilfrid may have led to his loss of Dunbar and it being turned over to Berhtred, but then again Berhtred is higher up the food chain than a sheriff, so this makes me wonder how high status Dunbar was in the 680s. It makes sense for Dunbar to eventually become the seat of the march warden but was it all the way back to Berhtred’s time?

The real question though is if not Dunbar, then where would Berhtred’s fortress have been? Surely such a warlord would have controlled a hillfort, given the Northumbrian’s fondness for British style hillforts. Edenburgh is possible, but like Stirling it may have been far too close to the border. Tim may be right that after the battle of Dunnichen in 685, Dunbar may have been the fortress of the frontier guardian. It is interesting that Cinead also hit Old Melrose in the same campaign that ravaged Dunbar. Given the importance of Old Melrose to Northumbria, it is likely that there was protection nearby. Edenburgh keeps coming to mind as Berht’s fortress though maybe because I can’t imagine that it was sitting empty. It is likely that Berht’s fortress would have been on the coast though given that the sea-road was still dominate (as seen in all Northumbrian hillforts — Bamurgh, Dunbar, Edenburgh, Stirling…). Although old Roman fortresses that were particularly prominent in Northumbria  along both walls and inland as well, but the English haven’t been particularly associated with any of them. Dunbar may have been the best compromise position for a march warden who was as heavily involved in the politics of the kingdom as the Berhts. Dunbar was close enough to the Firth of Forth to keep tabs on the Picts and respond, while closer by sea to Bamburgh. Dunbar also has the added advantage of being an ideal spot to monitor naval activity along the coast.

Northern British Bibliography

This is a bibliography for Strathclyde,  Gododdin (Lothian),  Isle of Man, and Cumbria — ‘the Men of the North’, Gwyr y Gogledd.

Alcock, Leslie(1979) ‘ The north Britons, the Picts and the Scots’, p. 134-42; In: The End of Roman Britain: Papers Arising from a Conference, Durham 1978 Edited by P.J. Casey. BAR British Series 71.

  • (1983)’Gwyr Y Gogledd: An Archaeological Appraisal’ Archaeological Cambrensis. 132: 1-18.
  • and Elizabeth Alock, and Sally M Foster(1986) “Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84: 1, Excavations at St. Abb’s Head, Berwickshire, 1980” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland 116: 255-79.
  • (Jarrow Lecture 1988) “Bede, Eddis, and the Forts of the North Britons” pp. 775-806 in Bede and his World: Volume II The Jarrow Lectures 1979-1993 Aldershot, Variorum.
  • and Elizabeth Alcock(1990) “Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84: 4, Excavations at Alt Clut, Clyde Rock, Strathclyde, 1974-1975” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 120: 95-149.
  • (1993) “Image and Icon in Pictish Sculpture” p. 230-236 in The Age of Migrating Ideas: Early Medieval Art in Northern Britain and Ireland Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Insular Art held in the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh, 3-6 January 1991. R. Michael Spearman and John Higgett, editors. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland and Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing.

Anderson, A.O. (1922) Early Sources in Scottish History Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

Anderson, Marjorie, O. (1980) Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland. Edinburgh and London: Scottish Academic Press.

Aneirin, Y Gododdin

  • Translation and notes by Kenneth Jackson. In: The Gododdin: the Oldest Scottish Poem (1969) Endinburgh Univeristy Press.
  • Translation, introduction and notes by A.O.H. Jarman Aneirin: Y Gododdin Britian’s Oldest Heroic Poem (1990) Gomer Press
  • Translation, Introduction and Notes by John Koch In: The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark Age North Britain. (1997)

Annales Cambriae In: Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals. Edited and translated by John Morris. (1980) History from the Sources Series.

Bede Ecclesiatical History of the English People. (1994) Edited by Judith McClure and Roger Collins. Oxford University Press.

Brooke, Daphne (1991) “The Northumbrian settlements in Galloway and Carrick: an historical assessment” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 121:295-327.

  • (1994) Wild Men and Holy Places: St. Ninian, Whithorn, and the Medieval Realm of Galloway Edinburgh: Canongate Press.

Caradoc of Llancarfan and a monk of Rhys Two Lives of Gildas Translated and notes by Hugh Williams. Reprinted by Llanerch Press.(Gildas claimed to be Pictish.)

Carey, John and John Koch. 2000. The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales. Celtic Studies Publications (anthology)

Cessford, Craig (1994) “Pictish Raiders at Trusty’s Hill?” Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquity Society 69: 81-88.

  • (1993) ‘Calvery in Early Bernicia: A Reply’ Northern History 29: 185-87.
  • (1994) ‘The Death of Aethelfrith of Lloegr’ Northern History 30: 179-183.
  • (1996) “Yorkshire and the Gododdin Poem” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 68: 241-243.
  • (1996) “Exogamous Marriages between Anglo-Saxons and Britons in Seventh Century Northern Britain” Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 9: 49-52.
  • (1999)”Relations Between hte Britons in Southern Scotland and the Anglo-Saxon Northumbria” pp. 150-160 in Northumbria’s Golden Age. Edited by Jane Hawkes and Susan Mills. Sutton Publishing.

Chadwick, H.M. (1959) ‘Vortigern’, p. 21-33; ‘The Foundation of the Early British Kingdoms’, p. 47-56; In: Studies in Early British History Nora Chadwick, Ed. (1959) Cambridge University Press.

Chadwick, N. (1953) ‘The Lost Literature of Celtic Scotland: Caw of Pritdin and Arthur of Britain’ Scottish Gaelic Studies. 7: 115-183.

  • (1959) ‘A Note on the Name Vortigern’, p. 34-46; ‘A Note on Constantine Prince of Devon’, p. 56-60; ‘A Note on Faustus and Riocatus’, p. 254-363; In: Studies in Early British History Nora Chadwick, Ed. (1959) Cambridge University Press.
  • (1963) ‘The Conversion of Northumbria: a comparison of sources’ ; ‘The Battle of Chester: A study of Sources’; ‘Bede, St. Colman, and the Irish Abbey of Mayo’, p. 186-205 (1963) In: Nora Chadwick, Eds. Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early Border
  • (1969) Early Brittany.  Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
  • (1976) The British Heroic Age: The Welsh and the Men of the North. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Charles-Edwards, Thomas (1978) ‘The Authenticity of the Gododdin: An Historians View’, p. 44-71; In: Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (Studies in Old Welsh Poetry) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and R. Brinley Jones. University of Wales Press.

Clancy, Thomas Owen and Gilbert Markus. (1999) The Triumph Tree: Scotland’s Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350. Canongate Scottish Classics. (anthology)

Clarkson, T. J. (1993) “Richmond and Catraeth” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 26: 15-20.

  • (1999) “The Gododdin Revisited” The Heroic Age Issue 1
  • (2006) “Locating Maserfelth” The Heroic Age Issue 9
  • (2008) The Picts: A History.

Cubbon, A. M. (1982) ‘The Early Church on the Isle of Man’, p. 257-282 In: The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland Susan Pearce Editor, BAR British Series 102

Clancy, Thomas Owen (2000) “Scotland, the ‘Nennian’ recension of the Historia Brittonum, and the Lebor Bretnach” p. 87-107 in Kings, Clerics, and Chronicles in Scotland 500-1297: Essays in honour of Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday Simon Taylor, Editor. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Dark, Kenneth R. (1992) ‘A Sub-Roman Re-Defense of Hadrian’s Wall? ‘Britannia  23:111-120.

  • ( 1993) ‘St. Patrick’s uillula and the fifth-century occupation of Romano-British villa’, p. 19-24 ; In: St. Patrick, AD. 493-1993. David Dumville, Editor. Woodbridge Publishers
  • (1994) Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 400-800. St. Martin’s Press.
  • (1996) ‘Proto-industrialisation and the end of the Roman economy’, p. 1-22; ‘Pottery and local production at the end of Roman Britain’, p. 53-66; In: External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman Britain and Post-Roman Britain. K.R. Dark Editor. Boydell Press.
  • (1998) ‘Centuries of Roman Survival in the West’ British Archaeology 32 (March)
  • (2002) Britain and the End of the Roman Empire. Tempus.

Dark, S. P.(Petra) (1996) ‘Palaeoecological evidence for landscape continuity and change in Britain ca AD 400-800’, p. 23-53; In: External Contacts and the Economy of Late Roman Britain and Post-Roman Britain. K.R. Dark Editor. Boydell Press.

Davies, Wendy (1982) Wales in the Early Middle Ages. Leicester University Press.

Davies, Sioned and Jones, Nerys Ann  (1997) The Horse in Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives.  Cardiff: University of Wales

Fraser, James E. (2002) The Battle of Dunnichen, 685. Tempus.

Foster, I. (1969) ‘Presidential Address: Wales and North Britain’. Archaeologigia Cambrensis. CXVII: 1 16.

Gardner, Rex (1999) “Kentigern, Columba, and Oswald: The Ripon Connexion” Northern History 35:1-26.

Gruffydd, R. Geraint. (1989/90) ‘From Gododdin to Gwynedd: reflections on the story of Cunedda’. Studia Celtica Vol XXIV/XXV : 1-14.

  • (1994)’In Search of Elmet’ Studia Celtica XXVIII:63-79.

Hanson, W.S. and Campbell, D.B. (1986) ‘The Brigantes: From Clientage to Conquest’ Britannia 17:73-89.

Harke, Heinrich (December 1995) ‘Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon Graves  British Archaeology 10

Hartley, B. R. and Fitts, R.L. (1988) The Brigantes. Alan Sutton Publisher.

Haycock, Marged (1983-84) ‘Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin’ Studia Celtica 18/19: 52-78

Henken, E. Traditions of the Welsh Saints. (1987) Cambridge England: D.S. Brewer.

Higham, N. (1992a) ‘Medieval Overkingship in Wales: the Earliest Evidence’ Welsh History Review  p.145-159.

Hughes, Kathleen. (Jarrow Lecture 1970) “Early Christianity in Pictland” pp. 268-284 in Bede and his World: Volume I Jarrow Lectures 1958-1978 Aldershot: Variorum , 1994.

Hughes, Kathleen. (1980) Edited by David Dumville. Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages: Studies in Scottish and Welsh Sources. Studies in Celtic History Vol. II. Boydell Press.

Hughson, Irene (1997) “Horses in the Early Historic Period: Evidence from the Pictish Sculptured Stones” p. 23-42 in The Horse in Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives Edited by Sioned Davies adn Nerys Ann Jones. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Jackson, Kenneth. (1953-8) ‘The site of Mount Badon’ Journal of Celtic Studies 2: 152-5.p

  • (1955) ‘The Britons in Southern Scotland’ Antiquity 29: 77-88.
  • (1959) “Edinburgh and the Occupation of Lothian” p. 35-42 in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in some Aspects of their History and Culture presented to Bruce Dickens Peter Clemoes, Ed. London: Barnes and Bowes.
  • (1963) ‘On the Northern British Section in Nennius’, p. 20-62 In: Celt and Saxon: Studies in the Early British Border. ed. N. Chadwick. Cambridge University Press.
  • (1980) ‘Brigomaglos and St. Briog’ Archaeologia Aeliana Fifth Series, Volume X. The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

Jobey, George ‘The Settlement at Doublestead and Romano-British Settlement on the Coastal Plain between the Tyne and the Forth’ (1982) Archaeologia Aeliana Fifth Series Volume X: 1-23.

Johnson, ‘Dual Personality of Gildas’ (1948) Antiquity. 22: 38-40

Jones, Glyn E. (1976) ‘Early Prose: The Mabinogi’ p.189-202, In: A Guide to Welsh Literature  Volume I, Edited by A.O.H. Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes. Swansea: Christopher Davies Publisher.

Jones, G.R.J. (1975) ‘Early Territorial Orgainization in Gwynedd and Elmet’ Northern History. 10:30-41.

Jones, Gwyn and Jones, Thomas, translators (1993) The Mabinogion Everyman Publishers

Jones, Michael E. (1979) ‘Climate, nutrition, and disease: an hypothesis of Romano-British population’, p. 231-51; In: The End of Roman Britain: Papers Arising from a Conference, Durham 1978 Edited by P.J. Casey. BAR British Series 71.

  • (1996) The End of Roman Britain Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Jones, Michael E. and Casey, John (1988)’The Gallic Chronicle Restored: A Chronology for the Anglo-Saxon Invasions and the End of Roman Britain” Britannia XIX: 367-98.

Jones, Thomas. (1967) ‘The Black Book of Caermarthen , Stanzas of the Graves’ Proceedings of the British Acandemy. p. 97-137.

Kent, J. P. C. (1979) ‘The end of Roman Britain: the literary and numismatic evidence reviewed’, p. 15 27; In: The End of Roman Britain: Papers Arising from a Conference, Durham 1978 Edited by P.J. Casey. BAR British Series 71.

Kirby, D. P. (1962) ‘Strathclyde and Cumbria: a survey of historical development to 1092’ Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society  lxii : 77-94.

  • (1968) ‘Vortigern’ Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies  23:37-59.
  • (1976-8) ‘British Dynastic History in the Pre-Viking Period’ Bulletin Board of Celtic Studies  27: 81-133.
  • (1977) ‘Welsh bards and the border’, p. 31-42; In: Mercian Studies Ed. Ann Dornier, Leicaster University Press.

Klar, Kathryn (1988) ‘What are the Gwarchanau?’, p. 57-96; In: Early Welsh Poetry: Studies in the Book of Aneirin, Brynley F. Roberts Editor. Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales.

Laing, Lloyd and Jennifer(1997) Celtic Britain and Ireland: the Myth of the Dark Ages. Barnes and Noble Books

Levison, William (1940) ‘An Eighth-century Poem on St. Ninian’ Antiquity xvi: 280-91.

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LKM: Gododdin

This month’s lost kingdom is Gododdin in southern Scotland (early medieval northern Northumbria). This post just gets longer and longer and still seems incomplete, so hopefully it will do to give you a flavor of this lost kingdom.

Gododdin is the one British kingdom that appears to have been conquered and annexed into Bernicia/Northumbria under King Oswald and his brother/successor King Oswiu. The Annals of Ulster records a siege of Edinburgh in 638, the middle of Oswald’s reign. It doesn’t record who won or if anyone was killed. Edinburgh would have been an impressive fortress and submission may have been as good as it got. Within months of Oswald’s death on 5 August 642, another battle was fought at Strathcarron east of Edinburgh between King Owain of Strathclyde and King Domhnall Brecc of Dalriada. The poem Y Gododdin records a victory stanza for Owain singing of Domhnall’s death.

“I saw a war-band, they came from Pentir [in Dalriada], and splendidly they bore themselves around the beacon. I saw a second, they came down from their homestead: They had risen at the word of Nwython’s grandson [Owain ap Beli ap Nwython]. I saw stalwart men, they came at dawn, and crows picked at the head of Dyfnwal Frych [Domhnall Brecc]” (B text, Y Gododdin, Clancy, p. 114)

The Annals of Ulster then record a batte between Oswiu of Bernicia and the Britons immediately afterwards. Given the breath of Bernician battles we don’t know where these Britons were, but I believe this was a battle between Bernicia and Strathclyde over control of Gododdin. I think Oswald’s death set off a contest between all the major northern powers — Bernicia, Dalriada, and Strathclyde — over the prime territory of Gododdin controlling the entire southern shore of the Firth of Forth. There is no evidence that Gododdin itself was involved in deciding its own fate, suggesting that the native dynasty of Gododdin ceased to be under Oswald or earlier. It is possible that Gododdin was already the territorial possession of another kingdom, possibly the Britons of Strathclyde/Dumbarton. Dalriada is also a possibility as Aedan mac Gabran was credited with a victory over Manau Gododdin, the northern region of Gododdin, around Stirling.

If Penda’s last seige of King Oswiu is correctly placed at Stirling (Urbs Iudeu), then the Gododdin would have been fully under Oswiu’s control by 655. Iudeu is the British name for the Firth of Forth. It is interesting to note that in Koch’s translation of Y Gododdin, he does find Oswiu’s name (Oswyd) in one of the elegies.

“The man dispatched to Catraeth with the day drank a mead feast at midnight. The lamentation of the assembled hosts was sorrowful for the mission compelled up the firey hero who died. None attacked Catraeth whose preparing for battle [while carousing] over mead drinking had been so mighty. None so completely drove off [?]Oswiu from the stronghold of Eidyn [Edinburgh]. Tudfwlch, [while he remained] for a long time away from his land and his settlements used to slay Saxons every seventh day. His maniliness will endure as a legacy through the memory of him amongst his splendid comrades. Wherever Tudfwlch — strength of the tribesmen — arrived, the place of spear shafts would be a bloody enclosure– Cilydd’s son [? or son of the Caledonian]” (Y Gododdin, A.13; Koch, p. 65)

It should be noted that Catraeth is also mentioned in a poetic elegy of Cadwallon of Gywnedd, who was slain by Oswald in 634. Makes me wonder if we have the dating of Catraeth so completely wrong. Needless to say if this is a reference to some action at Catterick that Cadwallon took part in c. 633-634, it is possible the same hero defended Edyn in 638. It is also possible that Oswiu was a major participant in the battle of 638 under his brother and his name is remembered as the final conqueror of Gododdin in his own reign.

From Oswiu’s reign it appears to be securely under Bernicia’s control. The Anglican diocese of Abercorn was in northern Gododdin to serve Pictland, so probably the edge of secure English territory in the early 680s. It seems likely that the majority of the former kingdom of Gododdin was securely in the diocese of Lindisfarne and the monastery of Coldingham was securely in Gododdin territory. Many of the battles with the Picts in the late seventh century were probably to protect Gododdin, now fully incorporated into Bernicia from Pictish encroachment.

Roman Times

In Roman times this region, which may have also extended into what we now call Bernicia, was heavily settled. It was always a frontier region of the Roman empire and only under direct Roman control when the empire was extended to the Antonine Wall. There are numerous hill forts and major settlements throughout the region. Traprain Law was one of the longest occupied hill forts and from it was found the Traprain Law hoard, mostly Roman silver. It is thought that the British of the Gododdin were alternatively employed by the Romans and raiders of Roman territory as suited the times. Most of the great silver neck chains with Pictish symbols discovered have been found in the territory of the Gododdin. It is thought that these neck chains may have been inspired by Roman uniforms. Other hillforts that may have been within the area considered to be Gododdin include hill forts at the modern places of Edinburgh, Dunbar, Coldingham, Bamburgh, Yeavering (and Yeavering Bell). There are also Pictish symbol stones in the Gododdin territory, although these may have come in the post-Roman times.

In some interpretations, Roman and immediately post-Roman Gododdin was a huge coastal kingdom that incorporated three territories: Manau (sometimes called Manau Gododdin, near Stirling), Lleuddinyawn (Lothian, Lleu’s territory), and Berneich (Bernicia). By this theory, Berneich/Bernicia was an area with some Anglican federates/mercenaries who settled just north of Hadrian’s Wall, eventually taking over that territory (perhaps in Ida’s time). Then by Oswiu’s time the territory of old Gododdin had been reunited into an expanded territory of Bernicia/Northumbria.

Votandini -> Gododdin -> Lothian

The kingdom of Gododdin does survive today in the regional name Lothian. Linguists seem to accept the continuous development of the Roman era name Votandini to Gododdin and eventually to Lothian. Given that ‘dd’ in Welsh is the ‘th’ sound its really only shortened with the V-> G-> L transition.

Y Gododdin elegies

Y Gododdin is a collection of about 300 elegies that claim to be all by one person named Aneirin. It reads like a collection of elegies remembering the recently fallen. The overall frame claims that the elegies are all from the battle of Catraeth (probably Catterick) sometime in the 5-6th century. However, linguists are sure that it has at least three phases of elegies — an original level from Gododdin, second level from its transmission to Strathclyde/Dumbarton (where the Domnall Brecc death notice is added), and finally to Gwynedd where it was finally preserved in the Book of Aneirin. Even the original layer from Gododdin probably includes elegies from a wider period of time beyond just one battle at Catraeth. I’ll give you a few of these elegies here from Koch’s translation to give you a feel for them.

“The rock of Lleu’s tribe, the folk of Lleu’s mountain stronghold at Gododdin’s frontier; the frontier was held. Counsel was taken, storm gathering; the vessel from over the Firth of a warband from over the Firth. [A man] who nurtures warbands came to us out of Din Dywyd to be an obstruction to the king’s warband. The shield of Grugyn before the bull of battle had a broken boss. [B2.24=B1.3=A.48, p. 3]

It was usual for him to be mounted upon a high-spirited horse defending Gododdin at the forefront of the men eager for fighting. It was usual for him to be fleet like a deer. It was usual for him to attack Deira’s retinue. It was usual for Wolstan’s son — though his father was no sovereign lord — that what he said was heeded. It was usual for the sake of the mountain court that sheilds be broken through [and] reddened before Yrfai Lord of Eidyn. [B2.28, p. 9]

More than three hundred of the finest were slain. He struck down at both the middle and the extremities. The most generous man was splendid before the host. From the herd, he used to distribute horses in winter. [Gorddur] used to bring black crows down in front of the wall of the fortified town — though he was not Arthur— among men mighty in feats in the front of the barrier of alder wood — Gorddur. [B2.38, p. 23]

Wearing an ornament of rank, in the front line’s array, armed in battle’s uproar, before the day[of his fatal battle] he was a hero in deeds, a centurion counterthrusting against armies. Five fifties would fall before his blades [there fell of men of Deira and Bernicia] twenty hundred laid waste at one time. Rather than to a wedding rite, his flesh went to wolves, rather than to an altar, his victory spoils to the crow, rather than a proper funeral, his blood flowed the ground, [all] in exchange for mead in the pre-eminent seat with the assembled hosts. For as long as there are singers, Hyfaidd will be praised. [A.5, A.1, p. 57]”

Legends of Gododdin

The Gododdin takes its place in early British lore in several enduring legends. It is traditionally considered the home of King Lot of Lothian in Arthuriana. His original name was Lleuddun Luyddog of Dinas Eidyn and is said to have been buried at the ancient hill fort of Dunpelder Law. The main ancient fortress of Traprain Law is also said to be his seat. The name Lothian is said to derive from his name Leudonia, but of course as a mythical/legendary figure it was the other way around. He is also connected with the Welsh god Lleu.

Like many early welsh figures, he is said to be the maternal grandfather of several saints. According to the Bonedd y Sant, his grandsons include:

  • St Kentigern (Mungo) by his daughter Denw/Thaney and Owain son of Urien Rheged
  • St Lleuddad and others by his daughter Tenoi, wife of Dingad
  • St Beuno by his daughter Peren, wife of Bugi

He is mentioned in a the oldest fragmentary life of St Kentigern as a half-pagan king who is killed by a swineherd. Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern claims that when Thaney was found to be pregnant with Kentigern, his maternal grandfather tries to kill his daughter by throwing her from the cliff of Dunpelder. When she survives this she is set adrift in the Forth of Firth/sea where she landed at Culenros where St. Sevanus was living. She gave birth and St. Sevanus baptized them both. St Sevanus raised and educated Kentigern until he moved to Glasgow, where he founded a monastery and later became bishop. Kentigern is the patron saint of Glasgow.

After Geoffrey of Monmouth, as Lot of Lothian he is variously King Arthur’s uncle or brother-in-law. Exploring the development of the character Lot of Lothian is beyond this post, but here are his origins…

Other various legends of Gododdin include the origins of Cunedda, founder of the first dynasty of Gwynedd, is said to have come from Manau Gododdin, a northern section that wraps around the head of the Firth of Forth, to North Wales (Gwynedd). This claim is first made in the Historia Brittonum from c. 825. It seems likely that this whole legend has been greatly influenced by the origins of King Merfyn, founder of the second dynasty of Gwynedd, on the Isle of Man (Manau). As the Historia Brittonum was written in his time, placing the founder of the first dynasty of Gwynedd in another Manau could have helped justify his conquest. If it unclear if the Scottish region of Manau (where Aedan mac Gabran wins a battle) was ever really part of Gododdin or if this is a later creation of Gwynedd.


Thomas Owen Clancy, ed. The Triumph Tree: Scotland’s Earliest Poetry AD 550-1350. Canongate, 1998.

Peter C Bartrum. A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000. National Library of Wales, 1993.

John T Koch, ed and trans. The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997.