Hen Ogledd

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Yr Hen Ogledd, meaning The Old North, is a Welsh term used by poets and scholars for those parts of northern Britain, up to the Firth of Forth, in which were Welsh kingdoms in the years between 500 and the Viking invasions of around 800. Famous kingdoms of The Old North include Rheged, Elmet and the kingdom of the Gododdin.

The term is derived from heroic poetry as told by bards for the enjoyment and benefit of the Welsh kings of that era. The bards looked at the Old North with the romance of a land once mighty and now lost except in legend. From the relatively southern Welsh perspective, these are stories of the Gwŷr y Gogledd (Men of the North), with their relationships to the great men of the past given by genealogies such as Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North) and the Harleian genealogies. "The North" became "the Old North" in recognition of the passage of time since the literary works were contemporary, hence "the Old North" and "Men of the Old North".

In attempting to construct a reasonably accurate history of the areas that now make up these lands, scholars have adopted the term Hen Ogledd from the Welsh heroic poetry to refer to the northern Brittonic kingdoms.


Almost nothing is reliably known of Central Britain before c. 550. There had never been a period of long-term, effective Roman control north of the TyneSolway line, and south of that line effective Roman control ended long before the traditionally given date of departure of the Roman Army from Britannia in 410 - 407. It was noted in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus and others that there was ever-decreasing Roman control from the 2nd century onward, and in the years after 360 there was widespread disorder and the large-scale permanent abandonment of territory by the Romans.

By 550, the region was controlled by peoples speaking British, or Old Welsh as it may be termed, except for the eastern coastal areas, which were controlled by the English peoples of Bernicia and Deira. To the north were the Picts and in the northwest the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada. All of these peoples would play a role in the history of the Old North.

Historical context

The tales of Yr Hen Ogledd are often of warrior heroes. Lest they be characterised though as Britons defending their lands against intruding Saxons, these wars were frequently between the Britons, as Taliesin recounts with glee, just as the English lords were as often fighting each other and the Picts Picts. Where the poets do recount wars with Deira and Bernicia, this provides a perspective of history usually told from the standpoint of the ultimate victors, the Northumbrian English. The story of the demise of the kingdoms of the Old North is the story of the rise of Northumbria from two coastal kingdoms to become the premier power in Britain north of the Humber and south of the Firths of Clyde and Forth.


The interests of kingdoms of this era were not restricted to their immediate vicinity. Alliances were not made only within the same ethnic groups, nor were enmities restricted to nearby different ethnic groups. An alliance of Britons fought against another alliance of Britons at the Battle of Arfderydd. Áedán mac Gabráin of Dalriada appears in the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, a genealogy among the pedigrees of the Men of the North.[1] The Historia Brittonum states that the Northumbrian king Oswiu married a Briton who may have had some Pictish ancestry.[2][3] A marriage between the Northumbrian and Pictish royal families would produce the Pictish king Talorgan. Áedán mac Gabráin fought as an ally of the Britons against the Northumbrians. Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd allied with Penda of Mercia to defeat Edwin of Northumbria.

Conquest and defeat did not necessarily mean the extirpation of one culture and its replacement by another. The Brittonic region south of the Solway was absorbed by English Northumbria in the 7th century, yet its distinctiveness appears to have remained, its people known in Old English as the Cumbre (Modern Welsh Cymry), giving us today the name of Cumberland.

The last of the kingdoms of The Old North was Strathclyde, which survived until the eleventh century.

Societal context

The organisation of the Men of the North was tribal, under several kings, whose borders expanded and contracted as fortunes waxed and waned, and it appears that many petty kings might owe allegiance to a dominant royal family, sometimes indirectly through client relationships, and receiving protection in return. For Celtic peoples, this organisation was still in effect hundreds of years later, as shown in the Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda, and mirrored in Irish Brehon law or reflected in the Scottish Leges inter Brettos et Scottos ('Laws between the Britons and the Scots').

The king may have a principal court as a form of capital but would maintain multiple courts throughout his territory, travelling among them to exercise his authority and to address the needs of his clients, such as in the dispensing of justice, or from which to wage war.


Modern scholarship uses the term "Cumbric" for the variety of the Common Brittonic language spoken in the Hen Ogledd. It appears to have been very closely related to Old Welsh, with some local variances. There are no surviving texts written in the dialect; evidence for it comes from placenames, proper names in a few early inscriptions and later non-Cumbric sources, two terms in the Leges inter Brettos et Scottos, and the corpus of poetry by the cynfeirdd, the "early poets", nearly all of which deals with the north.[4]

The cynfeirdd poetry is the largest source of information, and it is generally accepted that some part of the corpus was first composed in the Old North.[4] However, it survives entirely in later manuscripts created in Wales, and it is unknown how faithful they are to the originals. Still, the texts do contain discernible variances that distinguish the speech from contemporary Welsh. In particular, these texts contain a number of archaisms – features that appear to have once been common in all Brittonic varieties, but which later vanished from Welsh and the Southwestern dialects.[4] In general, however, the differences appear to be slight, and the distinction between Cumbric and Old Welsh is largely geographical rather than linguistic.[5] Poets such as Taliesin were able to move between the south and the north without difficulty: Taliesin was from the southern kingdom of Powys but served Urien of Rheged in the north.

Cumbric gradually disappeared as the area was conquered by the English, Scots and Norse, but survived in the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Kenneth H Jackson suggested that it re-emerged in the Lake District in the 10th century, as Strathclyde established hegemony over that area. It is unknown when Cumbric vanished, but the series of counting systems of Celtic origin ('Yan Tan Tethera, …') recorded in Northern England since the 18th century have been proposed as evidence of a survival of elements of Cumbric;[5] though the view has been largely rejected on linguistic grounds, and on evidence that it was imported to the fells after the Old English era.[6][7]

Nature of the sources

A listing of passages from the literary and historical sources, particularly relevant to the Old North, can be found in Edward Anwyl's article Wales and the Britons of the North.[8] A somewhat dated introduction to the study of old Welsh poetry can be found in his 1904 article Prolegomena to the Study of Old Welsh Poetry.[9]

Literary sources

  • The bardic poetry attributed to Taliesin, Aneirin, and Llywarch Hen.
  • The genealogical tracts of the Harleian genealogies, the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd, and the genealogies of Jesus College MS 20.
  • The Triads of the Island of Britain (excluding the infamous 19th century forgeries of Iolo Morganwg).[10][11]
  • The other elegies (marwnadau) and songs of praise (canu mawl), as well as certain mythological stories, that have been preserved.

Stories praising a patron and the construction of flattering genealogies are neither unbiased nor reliable sources of historically accurate information. However, while they may exaggerate and make apocryphal assertions, they do not falsify or change the historical facts that were known to the bards' listeners, as that would bring ridicule and disrepute to both the bards and their patrons. In addition, the existence of stories of defeat and tragedy, as well as stories of victory, lends additional credibility to their value as sources of history. Within that context, the stories contain useful information, much of it incidental, about an era of British history where very little is reliably known.

Historical sources

  • The Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius (a mixture of fiction and history)
  • The Annales Cambriae
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum by Bede
  • The Annals of Tigernach

These sources are not without deficiencies. Both the authors and their later transcribers sometimes displayed a partisanship that promoted their own interests, portraying their own agendas in a positive light, always on the side of justice and moral rectitude. Facts in opposition to those agendas are sometimes omitted, and apocryphal entries are sometimes added.

While Bede was a Northumbrian partisan and spoke with prejudice against the native Britons, his Ecclesiastical History is highly regarded for its effort towards an accurate telling of history, and for its use of reliable sources. When passing along "traditional" information that lacks a historical foundation, Bede takes care to note it as such.[12]

The De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae by Gildas (c. 516–570) is occasionally relevant in that it mentions early people and places also mentioned in the literary and historical sources. The work was intended to preach Christianity to Gildas' contemporaries and was not meant to be a history. It is one of the few contemporary accounts of his era to have survived.

Dubious and fraudulent sources

The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth is no more than pseudohistory, though it looms large as a source for the largely fictional romantic stories known collectively as the Matter of Britain. It is of no historical value except in as far as it created legends on which mediæval monarchs acted and which poets wove into romances that form part of our culture.

The Iolo Manuscripts are a collection of manuscripts presented in the early 19th century by Edward Williams, who is better known as Iolo Morganwg. They contain various tales, anecdotal material and elaborate genealogies that connect virtually everyone of note with everyone else of note (and with many connections to King Arthur and Iolo's native county, Glamorgan). They were at first accepted as genuine, but have since been shown to be an assortment of forged or doctored manuscripts, transcriptions, and fantasies, mainly invented by Iolo himself. A list of works tainted by their reliance on the material presented by Iolo (sometimes without attribution) would be quite long.

Kingdoms and regions

Major kingdoms

Places in the Old North that are mentioned as kingdoms in the literary and historical sources include:

  • Alt Clut or Ystrad Clud – a kingdom centred at what is now Dumbarton. Later known as Strathclyde, it was one of the best attested of the northern British kingdoms. It was also the last surviving, as it operated as an independent realm into the 11th century before it was finally absorbed by the Kingdom of Scotland.[13]
  • Elmet – centred in western Yorkshire. It was located south of the other northern British kingdoms, and well east of present-day Wales, but managed to survive into the early 7th century.[14]
  • Gododdin – a kingdom stretching southwards from the Firth of Forth and possibly into Northumberland – the area previously noted as the territory of the Votadini. This is the subject of the poem Y Gododdin, which memorialises the Battle of Catraeth, a disastrous raid by an army raised by the Gododdin on the Bernician English.[15]
  • Rheged – a major kingdom that evidently included both banks of the Solway Firth, with its chief royal court on the River Lyvennet in what is today Westmorland. Its full extent is unknown (the village of Dunragit in Wigtownshire appear to mean "Fortress of Rheged", perhaps at its border). Rheged may have covered a vast area at one point, as it is very closely associated with its king Urien, whose name is tied to places all over northwestern Britain.[16]

Minor kingdoms and other regions

Several regions are mentioned in the sources, assumed to be notable regions within one of the kingdoms if not separate kingdoms themselves:

  • Aeron – a minor kingdom or place mentioned in sources such as Y Gododdin and in Taliesin; its location is uncertain, but it may be Ayr in Ayrshire.[17][18][19][20] It is frequently associated with Urien Rheged, and may have been part of his realm.[21]
  • Calchfynydd ("Chalkmountain") – almost nothing is known about this area, though it was likely somewhere in the Hen Ogledd, as an evident ruler, Cadrawd Calchfynydd, is listed in the Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd. William Forbes Skene suggested an identification with Kelso (formerly Calchow) in Roxburghshire.[22]
  • Eidyn – this is presumed to be Edinburgh or its vicinity; the city was apparently named Din Eidyn ('Fort of Eidyn'). It was closely associated with the Gododdin kingdom.[23] Kenneth H. Jackson argued strongly that Eidyn referred exclusively to Edinburgh,[24] but other scholars have taken it as a designation for the wider area.[25][26] The name may survive today in toponyms such as Edinburgh and Carriden (from Caer Eidyn), located fifteen miles to the west.[27]
  • Novant – a kingdom mentioned in Y Gododdin, presumably related to the Iron Age Novantae tribe of Galloway.[28][29]
  • Regio Dunutinga – a minor kingdom or region in Yorkshire mentioned in the Life of Wilfrid. It was evidently named for a ruler named Dunaut, perhaps the Dunaut ap Pabo known from the genealogies.[30]

Possible kingdoms

The following names appear in historical and literary sources, but it is unknown whether or not they refer to British kingdoms and regions of the Hen Ogledd.

  • Bryneich – this is the British name for the English kingdom of the Bernicians. There was probably a pre-Saxon British kingdom in this area, but this is uncertain.[31]
  • Deifr or Dewr – this was the British name for English kingdom of the Deirans, between the River Tees and the Humber. The name is of British origin, but as with Bryneich it is unknown if it represented an earlier British kingdom.[32]



  1. Bromwich 2006, pp. 256–257
  2. Nennius (c. 800), "Genealogies of the Saxon kings of Northumbria", in Stevenson, Joseph, Nennii Historia Britonum, London: English Historical Society, 1838, p. 50, http://books.google.com/books?id=Kq8KAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA50 
  3. Nicholson, E. W. B. (1912), "The 'Annales Cambriae' and their so-called 'Exordium'", in Meyer, Kuno, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, VIII, Halle: Max Niemeyer, p. 145, http://books.google.com/books?id=80CwEwwb6d0C&pg=PA145 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Koch 2006, p. 516.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Koch 2006, p. 517.
  6. A Dictionary of English Folklore, Jacqueline Simpson, Stephen Roud, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-210019-X, 9780192100191, Shepeherd's score, pp. 271
  7. Margaret L. Faull, Local Historian 15:1 (1982), 21–3
  8. Edward Anwyl (July 1907 – April 1908), "Wales and the Britons of the North", The Celtic Review, IV, Edinburgh: Norman Macleod (published 1908), pp. 125–152; 249–273, http://books.google.com/books?id=6mIGAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA125 
  9. Edward Anwyl (1904), "Prolegomena to the Study of Old Welsh Poetry", Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (Session 1903–1904), London: Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (published 1905), pp. 59–83, http://books.google.com/books?id=1VoJAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA64 
  10. Lloyd 1911:122–123, Notes on the Historical Triads, in The History of Wales
  11. Rachel Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein (University of Wales Press, revised edition 1991) ISBN 0-7083-0690-X.
  12. For a recent view of Bede's treatment of Britons in his work, see W. Trent Foley and N.J. Higham, "Bede on the Britons." Early Medieval Europe 17.2 (2009): pp. 154–85.
  13. Koch 2006, p. 1819.
  14. Koch 2006, pp. 670–671 when finally absorbed by the Northumbrians.
  15. Koch 2006, pp. 823–826.
  16. Koch 2006, pp. 1498–1499.
  17. Koch 2006, pp. 354–355; 904.
  18. Bromwich 1978, pp. 12–13; 157.
  19. Morris-Jones, pp. 75–77.
  20. Williams 1968, p. xlvii.
  21. Koch 2006, p. 1499.
  22. Bromwich 2006, p. 325.
  23. Koch 2006, pp. 623–625.
  24. Jackson 1969, pp. 77–78
  25. Williams 1972, p. 64.
  26. Chadwick, p. 107.
  27. Dumville, p. 297.
  28. Koch 2006, pp. 824–825.
  29. Koch 1997, pp. lxxxii–lxxxiii.
  30. Koch 2006, p. 458.
  31. Koch 2006, pp. 302–304.
  32. Koch 2006, pp. 584–585.

Further reading

  • Alcock, Leslie. Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550–850. Edinburgh, 2003.
  • Alcock, Leslie. "Gwyr y Gogledd. An archaeological appraisal." Archaeologia Cambrensis 132 (1984 for 1983). pp. 1–18.
  • Cessford, Craig. "Northern England and the Gododdin poem." Northern History 33 (1997). pp. 218–22.
  • Clarkson, Tim. The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland. Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010.
  • Dark, Kenneth R. Civitas to Kingdom. British political continuity, 300–800. London: Leicester UP, 1994.
  • Dumville, David N. "Early Welsh Poetry: Problems of Historicity." In Early Welsh Poetry: Studies in the Book of Aneirin, ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Aberystwyth, 1988. 1–16.
  • Dumville, David N. "The origins of Northumbria: Some aspects of the British background." In The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. S. Bassett. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989. pp. 213–22.
  • Higham, N.J. "Britons in Northern England: Through a Thick Glass Darkly." Northern History 38 (2001). pp. 5–25.
  • Macquarrie, A. "The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400–1018." In Medieval Scotland: Government, Lordship and Community, ed. A. Grant and K.J. Stringer. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1993. pp. 1–19.
  • Miller, Molly. "Historicity and the pedigrees of north countrymen." Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 26 (1975). pp. 255–80.
  • Woolf, Alex. "Cædualla Rex Brettonum and the Passing of the Old North." Northern History 41.1 (2004): 1–20.

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