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Post-Roman Britain

Descent of the Kingdoms of Northern Britain

Compiled by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 17 December 2023

Old King Cole by Max Parish

According to tradition regarding the 'Men of the North' - with that tradition only surviving due to it being transmitted to Wales - Cerneu was Coel Hen's eldest son, and his main inheritor. His name in Welsh is Cenyw, Latin Ceneus, and English Kenneth.

That tradition states that his kingdom comprised of most of the north and midlands of Britain, and he continued to claim the title 'King of Northern Britain'. He must have been very Romanised in his operations, upholding Roman Christian beliefs in the face of intense pressure from invading Picts and Scotti from the north and threatening Angles on the east coast, all of them pagan in their beliefs.

For this, he appears to have been canonised.

In the south, Britain's overall ruler, Vortigern, used a typical late Roman policy of employing Saxon laeti (mercenaries in the Roman tradition) to defeat British enemies. This meant that, for most of his reign, Ceneu was obliged to accept the help of Germanic groups in the form of Octha (grandson of Hengist, and later king of Kent) and Ebissa (who could be the same person as Cissa, possible king of the South Saxons), in rebuffing Pictish raids on his territory.

The perceived interference of the foederati seems to have been generally resented especially, no doubt, after the foederati revolt of the 440s. It was not until after a large-scale rebellion of mercenaries in Kent under Hengist and Horsa that other groups are claimed as having been brought under control.

Magnanimous in victory, Ceneu apparently allowed his mercenary groups to settle in Deywr (later Deira in the East Yorkshire/Humberside region). Upon his death, Ceneu's kingdom was divided between his two sons, Gwrgant and Mor.

Gwrgant took the western lands stretching from below the Solway to the Mersey, in the form of the kingdom of Rheged. Mor inherited the central kingdom around the capital of the north, Ebrauc, and land to the north of the Solway.

Malton
The remains of the defensive bank at Roman Derventio (modern Malton) are shown here, which formed the main military post in the region of Deywr

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


Subsequent generations further sub-divided those kingdoms until the north consisted of a plethora of small kingdoms in four distinct areas:

  • Ebrauc (the British kingdom of York), centred on that city and covering most of North Yorkshire, including Deywr (Humberside).
  • The Pennines, covering an area which became divided into two kingdoms (names uncertain). One is listed here as Dunoting, centred on Dent in West Yorkshire, while the other was probably based on the southern Pennines, in the Peak District (northern Derbyshire).
  • Elmet, a West Yorkshire-based kingdom which was centred on Campodunom (Leeds), and which survives today as a name suffix for several places in the area, such as Sherburne-in-Elmet.
  • Rheged, which comprised North Rheged (modern Cumbria) based around Caer-Ligualid (Carlisle), and South Rheged (Lancashire and Manchester) based around Ribchester or Lancaster. In later years it also gained the North Solway kingdom of Caer-Guendoleu.

All of this is better illustrated in the table below, showing the break-up of a single kingdom into the patchwork which was conquered piecemeal by the Angles.

 

 
 

NORTHERN BRITAIN
under Coel, based at Ebrauc

 

NORTHERN BRITAIN (Reduced)
under Cerneu, based at Ebrauc
    
BERNACCIA
under Garbanion

RHEGED
under Gwrast
NORTHERN BRITAIN (Reduced)
under Mor, based at Ebrauc

RHEGED
under Merchion
ELMET
under Masgwid
EBRAUC
under Enion
PENNINES
under Arthwys
DUNOTING
under Dynod

NORTH RHEGED
under Cynfarch
SOUTH RHEGED
under Elidyr
EBRAUC
under Peredyr
CAER-GUENDOLEU
under Ceidio
 
Descent tree

 

The details behind Coel's reign, and the circumstances which lead to the break-up of his northern British kingdom can be found in the first part of this feature (see 'related links').

One region which is not mentioned here is the territory of the Votadini. By the fifth century they had evolved into the Guotodin (the same name but altered through language evolution). This northern tribe governed much of the eastern coast of today's south-east Scotland and seem to have been made up of several sub-tribes.

Antonine Wall
The northern border of Guotodin territory in the fifth century would probably have been at the eastern end of the Antonine Wall, shown here near Rough Castle, Falkirk, although the crest is fairly denuded in this modern photo (with the ditch on the right) Text


Manau Gododdin was part of the northernmost area of this tribal territory and kingdom. It is listed amongst details for the main Guotodin rulers, but has an entry of its own under the name Venicones.

The southern Votodini emerged into independence as the Bernaccians. It seems likely that Coel included the Guotodin under his own area of governance, and that their later (southern) kings were descended from or linked to him.

Evidence for this is sketchy, but then so is much of the early post-Roman history of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain'.

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.