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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Northern Britain (Ebrauc / Eboracum) (Romano-Britons)

FeatureWith the expulsion of Roman officials in AD 409 (see feature link), Britain again became independent of Rome and was not re-occupied. The fragmentation which had begun to emerge towards the end of the fourth century now appears to have accelerated, with minor princes, newly declared kings, and Roman-style magistrates all vying for power and influence while also facing the threat of extinction at the hands of the various barbarian tribes which were encroaching from all sides.

The capital of the north of Roman Britain was Eboracum (modern York). This city was located in territory which had formerly been under the control of the Brigantes. While it was certainly founded by Rome, an eponymous Celtic founder figure is still included in the list of 'High Kings' of Britain, as Ebraucus, son of Mempricius, both only a few generations removed from the equally mythical Brutus.

FeatureFrom AD 197, Eboracum became the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior, which covered not only the entire north of Britain up to Hadrian's Wall - essentially the former territory of the Parisi and Brigantes combined - but also a large swathe of the Midlands. The latter explains the traditional founding of a kingdom of the Cynwidion people, with a leader who hailed from the north. In the early fourth century, the province of Britannia Inferior was renamed Britannia Secunda and was reduced in size, roughly from the Humber to Hadrian's Wall. This created the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' which would be preserved in oral and written traditions in Wales (see feature link for more).

FeatureIt is this Late Roman province which Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century AD. He is thought to have gained the post of dux Britanniarum, either thanks to Magnus Maximus who went on to stage his own claim for the Roman imperial throne (see feature link), or perhaps shortly after Maximus' death on continental Europe. If tradition surrounding him has any basis in fact, then Coel Hen was effectively the first post-Roman Governor of the north, and apparently came to be styled 'King of Northern Britain', either during his lifetime or - much 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 military region or, less likely, as a magistrate, a form of governorship for the region which does seem to have survived in the south. A pretty reasonably suggestion by the author Parke Godwin is that this title was amended at some point to become prince-magistrate, combining the old Roman world with the re-emerging Celtic one.

That re-emerging Celtic world seems to have taken hold of the north more quickly than the more heavily Romanised south and east. Here it helped, even if it may have resulted in conflict elsewhere. A militarily aggressive and defensive mindset preserved the independence of the north without many of the problems which can be inferred as seeming to beset the south in the fifth century. However, the slow division of the north 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 Eboracum 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 (which in essence they would have been by the time the empire was ejected from Britain). Eboracum remained the capital of the Romano-British 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 well known expression of surprise, 'ee by gum' equates to 'Eboracum'. Many languages have an uncomfortable 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', meaning 'man' and 'family, tribe'. So Virotutis is 'man of the tribe' or, more specifically, a real man, ie. a warrior. The Gaulish 'wiros' means 'man'. In Latin this is 'vir', meaning 'man, 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 (see Camulodunum). Adding them together suggests (perhaps loosely) that Roman Eboracum could be the British Eviracam, meaning 'warrior [man of] Cam[ulos]'.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with Coel Hen's ancestry supplied by Mick Baker, and additional information by Edward Dawson, from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), Nennius (J A Giles, Ed & Trans, 1841, published as part of Six Old English Chronicles (Henry G Bohn, London, 1848)), from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from The Anglo-Saxon Age c.400-1042, D J V Fisher, from The Ethnology of Germany Part 3: The Migration of the Saxons, Henry H Howorth (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 7, 1878), from the Annales Cambriae, James Ingram (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912), from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Anne Savage (translator and collator, Guild Publishing, 1983).)

 

fl c.80 BC

Aballac

Son of High King Beli Mawr 'the Great' (fl c.100s BC).

Eudelen

Son.

Eudos

Son.

Ebiud

Son.

Outigirn

Son.

The name Outigirn is the same as the name (actually a title) of Vortigern, except that it uses a Greek spelling for the initial 'w' sound (the 'v' is pronounced as a 'w'). This would indicated that the name is a traditional one which predates by more than two centuries its use by the well-known fifth century high king of Britain.

Gallo-Belgic quarter stater
Shown here is a gold Gallo-Belgic quarter stater of the C-type, which can be dated between 80-60 BC, at least a couple of decades before the first of Julius Caesar's expeditions to Britain

'Vortigern' has usually been taken to be a title, meaning 'supreme ruler' or similar, but perhaps instead it is indeed a name. The Celts have been well known for creating names with double meanings or which supply a pun. Naming someone a supreme ruler could certainly be character-building!

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

Son. 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 garrison of Pons Aelius (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) 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. The Cornish links also relate to Arthur of the Britons (see feature link).

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

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 which connects the military fortress with the main town centre.

FeatureThe civilian population almost certainly declines, with many of its inhabitants migrating into the countryside, while the administrative centre remains in use (see feature link). Suburban villas also remain occupied into the fifth century, suggesting that only the city centre falls derelict, with people moving to the outskirts.

c.420

Bernaccia is passed to Coel's younger son. At the same time Deywr, which is part of the territory which belongs 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

Second 'King of Northern Britain'.

c.450

FeatureCeneu'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' (see feature link). 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 which is only stopped by the intervention of Ambrosius Aurelianus.

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)

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 by Celts to engage in wordplay, '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 (under the House of Atholl).

c.455

According to later British tradition, 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.

Romano-Britons burying treasure
With discord building in the country between about 420-450, many Romano-Britons left in a hurry, burying their wealth in the hope that they could return in better times to collect it

Tradition, and a few scant records, show that Hengist, who has a base in Ceint and who sees that he no longer has a malleable ally, revolts and the territory 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 in which Britain is in a state of confusion following the removal of Vortigern from office and the Jutish revolt in Ceint would be an ideal date for this event.

fl c.470

Einion ap Mor

Son. Gained Ebrauc.

fl c.470

Arthuis / Arthwys ap Mor

Brother. Gained 'The Pennines'.

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 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

The old ways are probably returning faster here than in the south, in regions which are more often governed by generals than magistrates. The emerging kingdoms are probably still under the authority of men who are more Roman general than Celtic king, even so.

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. Hadrian's 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. Einion ap Mor now governs Ebrauc as a definable kingdom.

Ebrauc / Eboracum (Romano-Britons)

The capital of the north of Roman Britain was Eboracum (modern York), former territory of the Brigantes. From AD 197 the city was the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior, which encompassed the entire north of Britain between Hadrian's Wall and the Midlands. In the early fourth century, the province was renamed Britannia Secunda and was reduced in size, roughly from the Humber to Hadrian's Wall.

FeatureThis created the concept of a 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' which would be preserved in oral and written traditions in Wales (see feature link for more). It is this Late Roman province which Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century AD. He is thought to have gained the post of dux Britanniarum, either thanks to Magnus Maximus who went on to stage his own claim for the Roman imperial throne, or perhaps shortly after his death. If that tradition has any basis in fact then Coel Hen was effectively the first post-Roman Governor of the north.

At first, Ebrauc was most likely governed in much the same way as it had been under direct Roman administration, as a military region or, less likely, as a magistrate, a form of governorship for the region which does seem to have survived in the Post-Roman south. Following three generations of subdivision from the late fifth century onwards, the heart of the region became a smaller but still powerful political entity with Eboracum still at its heart.

FeatureThe name of this entity is unclear, but as with many other potential 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). The name Catreath (immortalised in the Mabinogion - see feature link) 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 from 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 Angles who were in charge of York during the early 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 major, 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 while forging Deywr into Deira in the south. These new, hostile kingdoms squeezed Ebrauc out of existence within a generation.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, from the Annales Cambriae, James Ingram (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912), from The Oxford History of England: The English Settlements, J N L Meyers, from the Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons), Nennius (J A Giles, Ed & Trans, 1841, published as part of Six Old English Chronicles (Henry G Bohn, London, 1848)), from The Oxford History of England: Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton, from The Anglo-Saxon Age c.400-1042, D J V Fisher, from The Ethnology of Germany Part 3: The Migration of the Saxons, Henry H Howorth (Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 7, 1878), from Ulwencreutz's The Royal Families in Europe V, Lars Ulwencreutz, and from the Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi per Ernulphum Episcopum (The Story of the Church of Rochester up to Bishop Ernulf, known as the Textus Roffensis or Annals of Rochester).)

 

fl c.470

Einion ap Mor

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

477

In the south, although a difficult position during the 440s seems to have been improved, the situation regarding Germanic invaders remains serious. Newly arrived Saxons under Ælle and his sons land at Cymens ora and beat off Britons who oppose their landing, driving them to take refuge in the great forest called Andredesleag (The Weald). These Saxons quickly become known as the Suth Seaxe.

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)

495

FeatureAccording to tradition Cerdic lands in five ships on the British south coast at Cerdices ora, together with Saxon and possibly some Jutish companions, and begins a takeover of the local Jutish, Saxon, and sub-Roman territories (see feature link). The Jutes and Saxons who are already settled there are apparently already referring to themselves as the West Seaxe (possibly separate from the earlier Meonware settlers to the east).

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.

South Craven
The rugged territory of Dunoting, which included Craven, was a relatively tough area in which to survive, and the population figures for Dunoting were probably quite low

547

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

559

The 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. Source of 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 (see feature link) 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.

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

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

The 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 fall later, between about 570-580. Therefore 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.

Map of Britain AD 550-600
At the start of this period, the Angle and Saxon kingdoms on the east and south coasts were firmly established. Many of the rapidly-formed Romano-British territories in those areas had been swept away in the late fifth century (click or tap on map to view full sized)

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, Eboracum 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. In time Deira and neighbouring Bernicia are united into the mighty kingdom of Northumbria.

 
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