History Files


Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain




MapThe Pennines

FeatureEvidence gathered from the lives of the Northern British kings says that, upon the death of Mor ap Cenau, grandson of Coel Hen, his 'Kingdom of Northern Britain') was divided between his sons. While the eldest of them gained the capital city of the North, Ebrauc, the next in line was Arthuis. He  was the first 'King of the Pennines', another name that was probably applied by later writers rather than being used by the people of the period. He ruled the whole length of the Pennines, but his inheritance meant the further subdivision and weakening of the north of Britain. Upon the abdication of his son, this land was further divided into two kingdoms, Dunoting and The Peak. The latter, occupying the modern Peak District, was better land than in the north, and was probably the main base of the 'Kings of the Pennines' while the territory remained undivided.

FeatureThe name 'Pennines' probably derives from the Celtic 'penn' which means 'mountain', or 'summit'. The name was also applied to the Apennines in Italy, perhaps by the Celtic inhabitants of its northern reaches. The name would have been formed as 'penn-inus', meaning that it certainly originates in the pre-Anglo-Saxon domination of the region.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson.)

fl c.470

Arthuis / Arthwys ap Mor

'King of the Pennines'. Son of Mor of Northern Britain.

FeatureProbably in power at the same time as the more famous Arthur Pendragon of Britain, Arthuis is often claimed as the historical basis for many of the exploits that are later ascribed to 'King Arthur'. Many of Nennius' Arthurian battles are often said to have taken place in Northern Britain. These and other northern stories associated with 'King Arthur' may, in reality, be relating the achievements of this near contemporary monarch.

The Pennines
Arthuis claimed as his share of his father's lands the central 'spine' of Britain, between the east and west coasts of northern Britain, but it was a relatively tough land to tame

fl c.480

Cynfelyn ap Arthwys

Son. Moved south into the Midlands and founded Cynwidion.

c.500 - c.525

Pabo Post Prydein (St) (Pillar of Britain)

Brother. 'King of the Pennines'. Died as a monk in Gwynedd in 530.

c.500 - 525

Papcastle in Rheged, on the north bank of the River Derwent in Cumbria, is a site of some note. Once an important Roman site, Papcastle derives its name from Pabo. Presumably this is Pabo Post Prydein (the 'Pillar of Britain' for his efforts in holding down the Picts). Although it is speculation to wonder, could it be possible that Pabo has a holding at the site, even though it is within Rheged? He would be King Meirchion's first cousin once removed, so the family ties are doubtless still close, and possibly all of the interrelated kings of the North hold pockets of territory or buildings across the region (a novel based in the period by John H Egbers, An Elmet Inquest, posits much the same idea in the form of an Elmetian holding within Rheged).


Following the abdication of Pabo Post Prydein, the kingdom of the Pennines is divided into The Peak (the southern section) and Dunoting (the northern section). Given the rough reignal lengths of both of Pabo's sons, Sawyl Penuchel and Dunaut, they must both be infants at the time. Sawyl is clearly active in the later years of what appears to be a very long reign, so it seems possible that he does not rule this territory in person from such an early date. So perhaps someone else does...

c.525 - c.560s?


Son? A 'lost king', amalgamated with Sawyl Penuchel's reign?

Three possibilities are raised by the long span between Pabo's abdication and Sawyl's death (all dates are approximate here): either the name of a possible first ruler of The Peak has been forgotten and his reign has subsequently been merged into that of Sawyl's; or the territory is bequeathed to him upon his birth and he takes control when he comes of age; or finally that it remains part of the fragmenting kingdom of the Pennines for longer than is thought, and is only sub-divided away from it a generation later than is generally assumed. This raises the possibility that the 'lost king' who might precede Sawyl and Dunaut is their father while Pabo is their grandfather. A simple case of a name lost from a later royal pedigree. In general, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

MapThe Peak (South Pennines)

As a name, 'The Peak' is not necessarily the one used by the Britons who lived there, but it was clearly a name in use to describe the region, or some aspect of it. The Mercians who invaded it called themselves the Pecset (with 'set' evolving into 'settlers'). They are more regularly known as Pec Saetan, Pecsaetan, Pecsætan, or Pecsætna (the latter may be more in favour these days). As the invaders rarely gave their conquered territories names that did not derive from their locality, or their geographical locations relative to other Teutons, 'The Peak' is just as likely to have been in use both by Britons and the Angles who inherited the land by right of conquest.

Strangely for the Angles, it was not their conquest. The Peak eventually fell to the Bernicians, but an administrative vacuum must have existed in the southern Pennines for a time as the Pecset were allowed to drift in from the Midlands. That link towards the south gave Mercia dominance in the southern Pennines, and not, as might be expected, the Northumbrian descendants of the Bernician conquers of The Peak.

c.525 - c.590

Sawyl Penuchel (the Arrogant)

Son of Pabo of the Pennines? 'King of The Peak' (South Pennines).

fl c.600

St Madoc Ailither (the Pilgrim)

Son. His mother was the dau of the king of Ulster. Died 626.

St Madoc is educated at the court of his maternal grandfather, King Muiredach of Ulster (507-534). It is there that he becomes interested in Christianity, and he later studies under St David (Dewi Sant) at Glyn Rhosyn. After a spell as abbot of Glyn Rhosyn, he returns to Ireland to found several monasteries, including Clonmore, Drumlane, and Ferns.

Clonmore Abbey
The ruins of St Madoc's Clonmore Abbey survive, as do many headstones in the graveyard, but sadly the abbey itself is in ruins





Catguallaunliu is something of a mystery. His name is a later form of Cassivellaunus or Catuvellanus (the high king of the Britons prior to the Roman conquest), and is also closely related to Cadwalader and Cadwalla, both also late British forms. The names have the same first two elements, but the 'liu' ending may be down to a copyist's error.


FeatureThe Bernician Angles successfully destroy the kingdom around this time, during a general expansion that also sees the fall of Dunoting around the same time, and Sawyl is forced to flee to Wales. There is a story in the Life of St Cadoc that places Sawyl Penuchel at Allt Cunedda near Kidwelly in South Wales. This puts his court in Dyfed, but the name of the location links it to Cunedda of Gwynedd, suggesting that his campaigns to clear Wales of Irish raiders had extended much farther south than is otherwise known. The story about Sawyl in Wales has him and his warband stealing food from Llancarfan Abbey (hard times, clearly, for this dispossessed king). St Cadoc follows them and finds them sleeping under a tree. He cuts off their hair and flees to a bog. When Sawyl and his men follow the bog claims them. It is unclear if this is the same Sawyl, but the approximate dates for the saint coincide with his approximate dates. His body is buried in a nearby mound called 'Banc Benuchel'.

Map of Elmet
A map showing Elmet's probable borders during its greatest extent, with the grey areas being lost first, and the deep pink area last, in 617 (click on map to view full size)

FeatureFollowing Bernician conquest of the Pennines, their authority is seemingly not stamped on the southern part of the region. Angles move into the south Pennines from the Midlands, becoming the Pecset (or Pecsætna - Peak settlers). These migrant groups are probably already a client unit of the swiftly growing kingdom of the Iclinga Mercians. Evidence exists of recurring famine and virulent bubonic plague across Europe in the second half of the sixth century. It is possible, therefore, that the Pecset move into a territory much reduced in terms of population. The low incidence of Celtic place names may provide some support for this as these names usually have a higher survival rate from British territory conquered in the late sixth century onwards.