History Files


Post-Roman Britain

The Kings of Northern Britain

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999



Old King Cole by Max Parish

Coel Hen is a familiar figure in many ancient Welsh genealogies. Most of the Celtic British kings of the north of Britain could trace their descent from him in one form or another, as could many Welsh kings (or at least, these descents were later ascribed to them). In the short time after his life that Central and Northern Britain remained free of the invading Angles, between the start of the fifth century and mid-sixth century, all of the kingdoms that were established were by his sons or grandsons. Although the evidence is typically patchy, he appears to have lived from around AD 350-420, during the time when the last Roman officials returned to the heart of the faltering empire, leaving Britain and her people to fend for themselves.

Coel's particular association with the north of Britain has led to the well-founded suggestion that he was the last of the Roman Duces Brittanniarum (Dukes of the Britons). Only one existed at any time. They were selected as generals of the army with direct authority from the governor of Britannia to defend the coast from the increasing barbarian raids). The Roman dux disappear from the Notitia Dignitatum in about 400 and it is not unnatural to presume that Coel assumed or was granted this title. He seems to have made his headquarters at Britain's northern capital of Eboracum (York), and he certainly imposed his power over a great swathe of the country. Coel Hen can be considered by tradition to be the first king in, and of, Northern Britain, and seems to have overseen the transition from direct Roman rule to an independent Britain which took care of its own defence.

In the Celtic tradition, because of his dominance, he is known fully as the High King of Northern Britain [1] (as opposed to other major kings of his generation, such as Cunedda Wledig, who was King of North Wales - later Gwynedd, or Antonius Donatus Gregorius (Anwn), who was King of South Wales - Demetia).

[1] Sometimes known as the Kingdom of Kyle.

From his headquarters Coel Hen governed the territory between Eboracum and Hadrian's Wall (which formed the later British kingdoms of Ebrauc, Deywr, and Bernaccia), and west to cover the area of Rheged, (later North Rheged, South Rheged, Dunoting, Elmet, Caer-Guendoleu, and a kingdom which, to deduce its name from the later Saxon Pecset, was probably called something like the Kingdom of the Peak). According to later claims, he also had a hand in structuring the Guotodin in the eastern territory between the Walls after the departure of Cunedda Wledig.

As a result of the many kingdoms which were inherited by his immediate descendants, Coel became the founding ancestor of what came to be known as The Men of the North (Gwŷr y Gogledd). These were the Britons of the surviving kingdoms who were fighting the advancing Angles in the sixth and seventh centuries. They were drawn from the kingdoms of Guotodin and Rheged, from Alt Clut and various minor principalities, and together they upheld the tradition of battling Celtic warriors, feasting together before riding out with the warband to do battle with the enemy. Their stubborn resistance was dealt a fatal blow at Catreath (Catterick) in around 600, and these events (detailed in The Mabinogion) cemented the reputation of The Men of the North in their glorious, but ultimately futile, efforts of resistance to the Teutonic invaders.

Most people today will have heard of Coel Hen (or "King Coel" - with "Hen" the Brito-Welsh word for "old"), even if they don't realise it. He is immortalised in verse:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe,
And he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers, three

The legends of the Northern British were preserved by Rhodri Mawr, when he became King of Gwynedd. One of those legends concerned Coel Hen's last campaign. It was during Coel's time as High King that immigrant Ulstermen from the Scotti tribe of Dalriata (in northeastern Ireland) began to settle the western coast of Pictland, around Argyle. Coel, needlessly worrying that the two peoples would unite against the British, sent raiding parties across his northern border to stir up discord between them. Coel's plan backfired as the Picts and Scots were not taken in and were instead pushed even closer together. They began to attack the British Kingdom of Alt Clut. Coel was forced to declare war against them and moved north to defend Alt Clut. The Picts and Scots fled into the hills ahead of Coel's army, and Coel eventually set up camp at what became Coylton, alongside the Water of Coyle (in modern Ayrshire). For a long time, the British forces successfully held their ground, while the Scots and Picts suffered and starved. Unfortunately, this desperate state forced the enemy to advance in a last-ditch attack on Coel's stronghold. Coel and his forces were taken by surprise, overrun and scattered. Tradition states that Coel wandered through unknown countryside until he was eventually trapped in a bog at Coilsfield (in Tarbolton, Ayrshire) and drowned. Coel's body was first buried in a traditional mound at Coilsfield before being removed to the church at Coylton (date unknown). The year of his death was circa AD 420. Afterwards, Coel's Northern Kingdom was divided between two of his sons:

Ceneu (St) assumed control of the kingdoms of the North & Midland Britain, remaining based at Ebrauc.

Gorbanian founded the dynasty that ruled over the Kingdom of Bernaccia (Bryneich), which was later taken over by the Angles, who pronounced it Bernicia.

Because of Coel's, and his son's, apparently continued use of Eburacum as a base of operations and also as the traditional Roman capital of North Britain, it makes sense to list the Kings of North Britain alongside the Kings of Ebrauc (as the evolving Brito-Welsh language dubbed it). There were only three of the former, with the next in line ruling only half the land of his father, as the rest of it had been inherited by his brother.

The subsequent divisions of the Kingdom of Northern Britain are described in the next feature.



Text copyright P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.