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Post-Roman Britain

The Kings of Northern Britain

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 16 December 2023

Old King Cole by Max Parish

Coel Hen is a familiar figure in many ancient Welsh genealogies. Most of the Romano-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 those later kings, mainly in order to make them look more important).

In the short time after his life in which 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 which were established were founded by his sons or grandsons.

The historical evidence

Although the evidence is typically patchy, Coel himself appears to have lived from around AD 350-420, during the time in which the last Roman officials either returned to the heart of the fast-fading empire to leave Britain and her people to fend for themselves, or were ejected in AD 409 (see The End of Roman Britain in the 'related links' in the sidebar).

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 which was handed to them by the vicarius of Britannia, the late Roman supreme authority over the regional governors. They were generally charged with defending the coast from increasing barbarian raids, but their remit may have involved a general troubleshooter brief.

The Roman dux disappear from the Notitia Dignitatum about AD 400 and it is not unnatural to presume that Coel assumed or was granted this title late in this period. Britain was barely under direct Roman control anyway by this stage, so it's just as possible that Britain was already handling a degree of its own administration without resorting to bothering the emperor with details.

The 'Men of the North'

Coel seems to have made his headquarters at Britain's northern capital of Eboracum (York), and if tradition is to be believed then he imposed his power over a great swathe of the country - the entire militarised northern zone, in fact.

Map of Britain AD 450-600
This map of Britain concentrates on British territories and kingdoms which were established during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, as the Saxons and Angles began their settlement of the east coast (click or tap on map to view full sized)

A TWO PART FEATURE:
Part 1: The Kings
Part 2: Descent of the Kingdoms


Coel Hen can be considered by means of surviving tradition to be the first king in, and of, 'Northern Britain'. It seems to have been he who oversaw the transition from direct Roman rule to an independent Britain which now took care of its own defence.

In Celtic tradition which survived in Wales, thanks to his dominance, he is often labelled a 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', or Demetia.

From his headquarters, Coel Hen seems to have managed the territory between Eboracum and Hadrian's Wall, all of which formed parts of the later British kingdoms or regions of Ebrauc, Deywr, and Bernaccia, and west to cover the territory of the later Rheged, (which, even later, would be divided into 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'.

Multangular Tower
The third century Multangular Tower in York (Ebrauc) 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

[1] Sometimes known as the 'Kingdom of Kyle', ruled by King Coilus (Coel) and located in what is now south-western Scotland.


According to later claims, Coel Hen also had a hand in structuring the Guotodin in the eastern territory between the two Roman walls following the departure to Wales 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' or Gwŷr y Gogledd in Welsh. These were the Romano-Britons of surviving native 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 from 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) around AD 600 (shown on this site as AD 597), and these events which are detailed in The Mabinogion cemented the reputation of 'The Men of the North' in their glorious, but ultimately futile, efforts of resistance against the Germanic invaders.

Britons versus Angles
The attack against the Angles at the end of the sixth century appears to have been a last-ditch attempt by the semi-Romanised Britons to rid the land of these invaders - and it failed, albeit gloriously


Old King Cole

Most people today will have heard of Coel Hen (or 'King Coel', plus '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 in northern Wales.

One of those legends concerned Coel Hen's last campaign. It was during his time in charge in the north that immigrant Ulstermen from the Scotti tribe of Dalriata (in north-eastern Ireland) began to settle the western coast of Pictland, around Argyle in todays western coast of Scotland.

Coel, needlessly worrying that the two peoples - Scotti and Picts - 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 (located around today's Glasgow and south-western Scotland). 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 no-doubt powerful army, and Coel eventually set up camp at what became Coylton, alongside the Water of Coyle (in modern Ayrshire).

Picts
The traditional view of Picts as the 'painted people' is based on a description given by the Romans, and the use of blue woad as a body paint does seem to have been highly prevalent in the far north of Britain


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, being overrun and scattered (the Romans suffered several such reversals of fortune in Scotland).

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 uncertain year of his death was circa AD 420. Afterwards, Coel's northern kingdom was divided between two of his sons:

Ceneu (later to be sainted) assumed control of the traditional kingdoms of the 'North & Midland Britain', remaining based at Ebrauc.

Gorbanian founded the dynasty which ruled over the kingdom of Bernaccia, which was later taken over by the Angles, who mangled the name as 'Bernicia'.

Corstopitum
The ruins of Corstopitum (now Corbridge), a legionary fort which was probably an important part of Bernaccia's defence network in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and also for the Votadini tribe prior to that


Thanks to the apparent continued use of Eboracum as a base of operations by Coel and his sons - as well as it remaining the Roman capital of northern Britain - it makes sense to list the kings of northern Britain alongside the kings of Ebrauc (as the evolving Brito-Welsh language dubbed it).

There were only three of the former - kings of northern Britain - with the next-in-line ruling only half of the lands which had been held by his father. The rest had been inherited by his brother.

The subsequent divisions of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' are described in Part 2 of this feature.

A TWO PART FEATURE:
Part 1: The Kings
Part 2: Descent of the Kingdoms
 

 

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