History Files
 

 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

 

 

MapNorthern Britain (Ebrauc)

MapThe Roman capital of the North was Eboracum (modern York), which was located in territory that had formerly been under the control of the Brigantes. While the city was founded by Rome, an eponymous Celtic founder figure is included in the list of High Kings. From AD 197, Eboracum became the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior, which covered not only the entire north of Roman Britain up to Hadrian's Wall - essentially the former territory of the Parisi and Brigantes combined - but also a large swathe of the Midlands. In the early fourth century, the province was renamed Britannia Secunda and was reduced in size, roughly from the Humber to the Wall.

FeatureIt is this Late Roman province that Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century. He is thought to have gained the post of dux Britanniarum either thanks to the usurper Magnus Maximus or perhaps shortly after Maximus' death on the Continent. He was effectively its first post-Roman Governor, and apparently came to be styled 'King of Northern Britain', either during his lifetime or more probably by later generations. At first, Ebrauc was most likely governed in much the same way as it had been under direct Roman administration, as a magistratum, a form of continuing governorship of the region, with (as has been quite reasonably suggested by the author Parke Godwin) the likely title of prince-magistrate, combining the old Roman world with the re-emerging Celtic one.

The Celtic world seems to have taken hold of the North more quickly than the more heavily Romanised south and east, and a militarily aggressive and defensive mindset preserved its independence without many of the problems that beset the south in the fifth century. However, its slow division into separate kingdoms ensured that it was a weaker region in the sixth century. Archaeologically, how late the Roman way of life was pursued in York is unknown. The town and its community may well have survived after the final Roman troops either left, merged into the general population, or served as British troops. Eboracum remained the capital of the North well into the sixth century and was a vital city while the British held it (after which it seems to have been abandoned for a short period).

Where did the name Eboracum come from? Some modern speakers of the more traditional forms of Yorkshire dialects state that the expression of surprise, 'ee by gum' equates to 'Eboracum'. Many languages have a nasty habit of swapping sounds in sequence, so could the first part of the name, 'ebor', be constructed in a similar fashion to the name of the Celtic deity, Virotutis? The elements for this are 'wiros' and 'toutas', 'man' and 'family' or 'tribe'. So Virotutis is 'man of the tribe' or, more specifically, a real man, ie. a warrior. The Gaulish 'wiros' means 'man', and in Latin this is 'vir', 'man' or 'hero', or a man of courage. This provides the first part of Eboracum, while the ending, '-cum', could be a shortened form of Camulos, the warrior deity. Adding them together suggests (perhaps loosely) that Roman Eboracum could be the British Eviracam, meaning 'warrior [man of] Cam[ulos].

(Coel Hen's ancestry supplied by Mick Baker. Additional information by Edward Dawson.)

fl c.80 BC

Aballac

Son of High King Beli Mawr.

Eudelen

Son.

Eudos

Son.

Ebiud

Son.

Outigirn

Son.

The name Outigirn is the same as Vortigern, except that it uses a Greek spelling for the initial 'w' sound (the 'v' was pronounced as a 'w'). This would indicated that the name is a traditional one which predates its use by the well-known fifth century high king of Britain by more then two centuries. 'Vortigern' has usually been taken to be a title, meaning 'supreme ruler' or similar, but perhaps instead it is a name. The Celts were well known for creating names with double meanings or which supplied a pun.

Oudecant

Son.

Ritigrn

Son.

Iumetel

Son.

Grat

Son.

Vrban / Urban

Son.

Telpuil

Son.

Teuhant

Son.

Tegfan Gloff

Son.

383? - c.420

Dux Britanniarum Coel Hen

FeatureSon. Effectively High King after Magnus Maximus.

c.380s - 390s

FeatureLate in the century, the only known British military unit, the First Cohort of Cornovii (Cohors Primae Cornoviorum) can be found serving at the Pons Aelius (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) garrison on the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall. By this time the five hundred-or-so men of the unit are probably under the command of Coel Hen.

c.400

As a centre of habitation, Eboracum is probably declining. The city's rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, are known to be flooding at periods during the winter, inundating the wharves and probably even the bridge that connects the military fortress with the main town centre. The civilian population almost certainly declines, with many of its inhabitants migrating into the countryside, while the administrative centre remains in use. Suburban villas also remain occupied into the fifth century, suggesting that only the city centre falls derelict, with people moving to the outskirts.

Multangular Tower
The third century Multangular Tower in York lies at the western corner of the legionary fortress, which was probably the military HQ of fifth century Northern Britain. The tower's remains are now part of York's Museum Gardens

c.420

MapBernaccia is passed to Coel's younger son. At the same time Deywr, which is part of the territory belonging to the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain', is settled by a group of Anglian laeti. They inhabit territory along the coast to serve in the defence of that same coastline against raiders. Their leader is possibly one Saebald, son of Sigegeat of Waegdaeg's Folk in Angeln.

c.420 - c.450

(St) Ceneu ap Coel

FeatureSecond 'King of Northern Britain'.

c.450

Ceneu's territory is divided into Rheged which lies to the west of the Pennines and Ebrauc to the east, which continues under the name of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain'. It could be within about twenty years of this date that Geoffrey of Monmouth has Octa of Kent attack Ebrauc and harry the Britons, a development that is only stopped by the intervention of Ambrosius Aurelianus. However, the story is mentioned in no original sources and appears to be a complete fabrication. Possibly it is a misremembering of similar involvement in regional politics by the settled Angle laeti of Deywr, especially as tradition has Ceneu settling the defeated Octa in Deywr.

fl c.450

Mor ap Ceneu / March / Mark

Third and last 'King of Northern Britain'. 'Chief of Dragons'.

'Mor' as a name is unusual. This Brythonic word means 'great', so its use by an individual would suggest some kind of epithet (as in Alfred the Great) or perhaps a nickname. This suggests that Mor's personal name has been lost. Even worse, given a tendency to wordplay by Celts, 'mor' may be 'great', or it could even be the alternative meaning of 'ocean'.

It later evolves considerably changed in Welsh as 'mawr', which is applied to several late Welsh kings (notably the ninth century Rhodri Mawr). It also survives unchanged in use by northern Britons outside the reach of later Angle influence, most notably in Alt Clut and (probably via that kingdom) to the later kingdom of Scotland.

c.455

According to later British tradition, High King Vortigern is removed from office by the council after trying to settle yet more foreign laeti in Britain, this time in the north-east, within the territory of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain'. The high kingship is given to his eldest son, the able and popular Vortimer. Hengist, seeing that he no longer has a malleable ally, revolts and the territory or kingdom of Ceint is quickly overrun by his Jutes.

While it is unknown just how the change from British Deywr to Anglian Deira progresses, Soemel is noted by the later royal pedigree as someone who 'separated Deira from Bernicia'. This clearly refers to Ebrauc rather than Bernaccia (still in British hands at this time), as it is only considerably later that Bernicia is Deira's main rival in the region. At the moment Ebrauc governs the whole south-east section of Northern Britain, and it seems to be Soemel who probably refuses to blindly obey orders and instead establishes negotiated terms of service, perhaps on a semi-independent basis. The time at which Britain is in confusion following the removal of Vortigern from office and the Jutish revolt in Ceint would be an ideal date for this event.

c.470

Upon the death of Mor, 'Chief of Dragons' (Pendragon), the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' is divided between his sons. Einion gains Ebrauc while Arthuis gains the 'Kingdom of the Pennines'. Around this time, the Guotodin also seem to become fully independent and Elmet is granted to the younger son of Gwrast Lledlwm, king of Rheged, further contributing to the fragmentation of the north.

The old ways are probably returning faster here than in the south, in regions more often governed by generals than magistrates, but the emerging kingdoms are probably still under the authority of men who are more Roman general than Celtic king. They are most likely regimented and authoritarian, and the ruler of Ebrauc, capital of the North, is probably recognised as being the first among equals. The Wall is still guarded, although it is rarely needed as a boundary marker, given that the people of Alt Clut and Guotodin on the other side are now reliable allies.

MapEbrauc (Eboracum)

FeatureFollowing three generations of subdivision, the heart of the former 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' became a smaller but still powerful political entity based at Eboracum. The name of this entity is unclear, but as with many other possible Romano-British kingdoms of the period, the name of its chief city is usually applied to it, this being Ebrauc or Eborac (Roman Eboracum, Later Welsh Cair Affrauc, Anglo-Norse Eorforwic, modern York). See the top of the page for a detailed breakdown of the name Eboracum. The name Catreath (immortalised in the Mabinogion) is sometimes applied, but this was a northern region which was most likely part of the territory of Bernaccia. Even so, it was claimed by Ebrauc from 547.

There were certainly Germanic settlements in East Yorkshire in about the middle of the fifth century, and early Anglian cremation burials have been found on The Mount and at Heworth (on the outskirts of York) where the urns were among the earliest of their kind to be found in the country. The date is about a century too early to be the work of the Angles who were in charge of York during the Old English period, so it seems plausible to assume they were barbarian laeti, mercenaries employed by the Britons to fight against their northern enemies. There seem to have been at least two separate colonies of these laeti, one settled in the north and the other in the southern region of Deywr. In the mid-sixth century these laeti took over, establishing their independence and overcoming Bernaccia in the north and creating Deira in the south. These new, hostile kingdoms squeezed Ebrauc out of existence within a generation.

fl c.470

Einion ap Mor

First king of Ebrauc. Brother of Arthwys of the Pennines.

c.505

When Einion dies, his son Eliffer inherits the best part of his territory, around Ebrauc and the south-eastern portion of Northern Britain. But Caer-Guendoleu, a pocket-sized territory in the north-west, passes to Ceidio ap Einion.

c.505 - 560

Eliffer Gosgorddfawr (of the Great Army)

Son. Brother of Ceidio of Caer-Guendoleu.

c.525

Following the abdication of Pabo Post Prydein of the Pennines, his kingdom is divided into The Peak (the southern section) and Dunoting (the northern section), although given the rough reignal lengths of both of Pabo's sons, Sawyl Penuchel and Dunaut, they must both be infants at the time. It seems possible that they do not rule in person from such an early date, so perhaps someone else does.

547

The core of Bernaccia falls to the Angles under their leader, Ida, and, whilst laying claim to Catreath as an outlying and unconquered section of Bernaccia, Ebrauc suddenly finds itself with a Teutonic kingdom on its northern border. It is the first such breach in the defences of the north, despite a century of such chaos to the south of Britain, and suddenly the defensive strength of the Men of the North looks shaky.

Roman baths at York
The Roman baths at Eboracum were built in phases between the late second and early third centuries, and the remains of the main building were rediscovered in the 1970s

559

MapThe Angles in Deywr pronounce their kingdom of Deira, perhaps with help from their kinsmen in Bernicia, and Ebrauc suddenly faces a threat on two sides. Within a short space of time the Deirans probably secure the coastal region in which they have been settled for up to a hundred and twenty years.

c.560 - 580

Peredyr Arueu Dur (Steel Arms)

Son. Died. Used as source for c.270s BC British King Peredurus.

573

FeatureIn one of the many internecine wars which all serve to weaken the British defences in this century, the Annales Cambriae relates that Peredyr fights against Caer-Guendoleu at Bellum Armterid (the Battle of Arfderydd). The battle results in the death of Peredyr's cousin and opponent, King Gwenddolew ap Ceidio. It is this event which provides one of the greatest single early sources of reference for these northern kings. Unfortunately, the Annales Cambriae reveal little more than the basic facts, and that 'Merlin went mad'. This would be Myrddin Wyllt, a court bard who ranks with Taliesin in seniority and who seems to be confused with a possible Merlin of the mid-fifth century in the eyes of later tradition (most especially by Geoffrey of Monmouth in The History of the Kings of Britain).

? - 580

Gwrgi ap Eliffer

Brother and joint ruler. Died.

580

Gwrgant Gwron (the Hero)

Son of Peredyr. Last British claimant to the kingdom. Fled.

c.570 - 580

FeatureThe Deirans continue to gain ground in the region. Although they seem already to have captured the coast by about 570, the city of Ebrauc (York) is known to have fallen later, between about 570-580, so it seems likely, given their dates of death in the Annales Cambriae, that the sons of Eliffer fight on from their capital until overrun. Peredyr's son, Gwrgant, is forced to flee the kingdom, and at least two and-a-half centuries of Christian worship in one of the key bishoprics of the British Church is also ended. North Rheged gains the territory of Catreath, while the loss of Ebrauc to the Deirans leaves Elmet's long north-eastern border exposed, and also exposes Dunoting.

Nothing historically is known of the city of Eboracum in the fifth and sixth centuries, but the disastrous expedition from Guotodin around 597 could be an attempt to reclaim the lost city for the British. By the first decade of the seventh century, and perhaps earlier, it lies within, but not at the heart of, the kingdom of Deira, and it is probably at this time that the flooded areas along the riverside begin to be reclaimed.