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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Rheged / Recet (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 songs of Taliesin the bard remember Rheged's mighty leader, Urien. Outside of that, little hard historical evidence exists to pin down the kingdom until Nennius wrote his Historia Brittonum. The image of the kingdom is that it was a comparatively large one which covered the whole of modern north-western England, roughly incorporating the counties of Cumbria and Lancashire, and possibly Cheshire. It likely stretched from Hadrian's Wall above Caer Ligualid (modern Carlisle), perhaps all the way down to Campodunom (Celtic Loidis, modern Leeds) in the Midlands, and west to Caer Legion (Chester).

FeatureAccording to tradition, the kingdom was initially part of Coel Hen's 'Kingdom of Northern Britain', the northern half of Britain which had evolved from the former Roman military zone (see feature link). According to the scant written sources available, upon the death of Coel Hen's son, St Ceneu ap Coel, 'Northern Britain' was subdivided, creating Ebrauc to the east of the Pennines and Rheged to the west. The latter's northern capital was Caer Ligualid.

The name 'Rheged' seems to derive from the confederation of Celtic tribes which occupied almost the whole of the north below Hadrian's Wall, the Brigantes. Pre-Roman Celtic tribal names seem in places to have survived the period of empire and were occasionally reused from the fourth and fifth centuries onwards. Formed at a time in which the Celtic language was undergoing rapid change, the pre-Roman 'Brigant' seems to have become 'Breged' and then Rheged.

Within the kingdom, Carlisle was possibly founded as an Iron Age town by a division of the Brigantes who were known to the Romans as the Carvetii. It may have been their settlement which was turned into a civitas by the Romans in AD 79, named Luguvalium. That name contains the name of the god, Lugh. Appended to that is 'val', which probably means 'leader' (but see the Catuvellauni introduction for a counter-argument). During the Romano-British period, the name Luguvalium seems to have had the typical 'caer' added to it, meaning 'fortress', but had become mangled into Caer Ligualid. The name survived the kingdom's fall, though, becoming further mangled by later generations who merged the two words into one: Caerleyl, Anglicised as Carlisle.

It should also be noted that the Brythonic language has gone through five stages to reach modern Welsh: 'Primitive' (in the 500s-700s), Old Welsh (in the 800s-1000s), Middle Welsh (in the 1100s-1400s), 'Early Modern' (in the 1400s-1700s), and 'Late Modern' thereafter. Until the Middle Welsh period, the word 'caer' was actually 'cair', from the Brythonic 'cajr', meaning 'fort, fortified place'.

FeatureThe kingdom was divided in 535 into North Rheged and South Rheged (see feature link). Mike Hancox (via the comments section of The Realm of Rheged) suggests that it was not even a single kingdom at the start, but a confederation in the spirit of the Brigantes. This idea would seem to contradict the tradition that Rheged was formed as a division of 'Northern Britain', but if a confederation did indeed exist before the creation of the kingdom, perhaps as a direct continuation of part of the Brigantes confederation, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Rheged was deliberately formed on the basis of the confederation's area of influence.

Unfortunately little survives in the historical record other than in poems and genealogies, plus Nennius. Much of the material in the first two is early Welsh in origin, carried there when the north fell. Rheged has often been overlooked by archaeology. In fact the entire north-west is very poorly served by history and archaeology between about AD 400-1000. Even the later control of Cumbria by Strathclyde is shrouded in uncertainty.

The kingdom was probably sparsely populated, as much of its land was either moor, rocky limestone upland, or undulating lowland with poor soils. Fully arable and pasture land was hard to find. Local culture evolved directly from the Iron Age, without large-scale Roman influence except around Hadrian's Wall and in Carlisle. As the increasingly patchwork series of British kingdoms to the east fell to the Bernician Angles, Rheged quickly became a bulwark of the defence of 'Northern Britain'. When it finally fell, in the early seventh century, so did the north.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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 Rheged: An Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway, Mike McCarthy, from The Cambridge Historical Encyclopaedia of Great Britain and Ireland, Christopher Haigh (Ed), from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and from External Link: The Realm of Rheged (Heavenfield).)

 

c.450 - c.490

Gwrast Lledlwm 'the Ragged'

Son of Ceneu of 'Northern Britain'. First king. Born 422.

c.450

Gwrast inherits a land from the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' which contains existing Christian activities of the British Church during - at least - the fourth and fifth centuries AD. One such area of activity is around Hadrian's Wall, with possible churches and epigraphy which should include the Papias stone from Carlisle and the Brigomaglos stone, along with a stone from Vindolanda which has been incised with a cross.

'Gwrast' is the Welsh form of this king's name and is therefore probably later, despite the Cumbric dialect spoken in Rheged being closely related to Old Welsh. He is more probably known as Gurgustus, the Latin form of the name (Fergus is its modern form).

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)

c.470

Gwrast's eldest son, Meirchion Gul, is his confirmed successor to the throne of Rheged. His younger son, Mascuid, is granted the region of Elmet, which until now seems likely to have been under the direct control of Rheged.

This event seems to coincide with the death of Mor ap Ceneu, 'King of Northern Britain', and the subsequent division of his north-eastern British territory into Ebrauc to the east of Elmet and the 'Kingdom of the Pennines' to the west. This would probably leave Elmet permanently cut off from Rheged and perhaps even in danger of annexation, so it is in Gwrast's interests to ensure that one of his sons commands there.

c.490 - 535

Meirchion Gul 'the Lean'

Son. Mentioned in a Middle Welsh genealogy.

Mascuid / Masgwid Gloff 'the Lame'

Brother. Granted Elmet.

c.490

Gawain appears to rule Guotodin from a distance, being found first in Rheged and then in Wales (although his appearance in the latter region may only be attributed to him by bards who bring the stories of the 'Men of the North' with them to Mervyn Frach's new court at Gwynedd in 825).

He is also the hero of the medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His apparent absence either allows Bran Hen of Bernaccia to take control, or he hands the care of the kingdom to Bran.

Vindolanda Roman fort
Vindolanda, roughly at the centre-point in Hadrian's Wall, may well have fallen under the influence of Rheged after the primary division of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' around AD 450

c.500 - 525

One site in Rheged which is of interest is Papcastle, on the north bank of the River Derwent about nine kilometres along the Roman road from the coast at Maryport in Cumbria. It had been an important Roman site, and it also lies close to the later site of a minster at Brigham, which possibly has British Church activity dating from the fourth or fifth century.

Papcastle derives its name from Pabo, the name of the king of the Pennines in this period. Although it is speculation to wonder whether it is possible that Pabo has a holding at the site, even though it is within Rheged? He would be 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 estates across the region.

535

Upon Meirchion's death the kingdom is divided between his sons to form North Rheged and South Rheged. The practice of division is typical practice with Celtic peoples, but in a tumultuous post-Roman setting it usually serves to weaken the state.

North Rheged (Romano-Britons)

FeatureThe capital of the north of Roman Britain was Eboracum (modern York), former territory of the Brigantes. From AD 197 it was the capital of the province of Britannia Inferior but, in the early fourth century, this was renamed Britannia Secunda and was reduced in size, roughly from the Humber to Hadrian's Wall. This 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).

FeatureIt is this late Roman province which Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century AD (see feature link). If that tradition has any basis in fact then Coel Hen was effectively the first post-Roman Governor of the north. According to the sources, out of this was formed the kingdom of Rheged, upon the death of St Ceneu ap Coel.

Two generations later, with the loss of Rheged's Meirchion Gul around 535, even that territory was divided. The Rhegedian capital of Caer Ligualid (Carlisle) was retained for North Rheged, while Caer Robais probably served South Rheged. The northern kingdom's most famous king, Urien Rheged, also had a palace at Llwyfenydd (probably the River Lyvennet, close to Crosby Ravensworth in Cumbria), and probable dwellings at Caer Brogwm (Brougham) and Pen Rhionydd (possibly near Stranraer).

Caer Ligualid seems to have remained occupied as Roman authority faded. The headquarters building (principia), has been shown to have remained in use after the end of the fourth century. Similarly, buildings remained in use which were adjacent to the south side of the Via Principalis. Birdoswald on Hadrian's Wall also remained in use, with one of the granaries near the west gate being demolished at the end of the fourth century to be replaced by a timber hall. Such timber buildings could easily remain in use, and were easy to repair, well into the sixth century. Other sites, such as Netherby, near Armterid (Arthuret), and Stanwix show similar use during the same period.

The modern county of Cumbria, the heart of North Rheged, remembers in its name the British 'cymri' of the area ('Cumbria' is an Anglicised form of 'cymri', or 'men of the same country'). The kingdom was centred on part of Lancashire, and all of Cumbria and Galloway (Galwyddel) at its peak under Urien Rheged.

Thanks to him and his son, the kingdom is one of the better known, but even that knowledge is scanty. Early sources of any kind covering Cumbria and Galloway are very sparse, so the details of the kings are probably better known than those of their kingdoms. Dunragit, near Stranrear, means the 'fort of Rheged', which helps to confirm the little information available on the annexation of this region in Galloway into the kingdom.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe, from Rheged: An Early Historic Kingdom near the Solway, Mike McCarthy, from the Annales Cambriae, James Ingram (taken from the Harleian manuscript, the earliest surviving version, London, Everyman Press, 1912), 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 Anglo-Saxon Age c.400-1042, D J V Fisher, from The Cambridge Historical Encyclopaedia of Great Britain and Ireland, Christopher Haigh (Ed), and from External Links: Mote of Mark (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland), and 'Lost kingdom' linked to Galloway (BBC News), and The fiery demise of a vitrified hillfort in Scotland (Past Horizons, dead link), and The Realm of Rheged (Heavenfield).)

 

535 - c.570

Cunomarcus / Cynfarch Oer 'the Dismal'

Son of Meirchion of Rheged. First king of North Rheged.

547

To the east, the British kingdom of Bernaccia is seized by Angles who have been serving as laeti. The ruling king, Morgan Bulc is forced out. He takes refuge with the Guotodin, shifting his power base there, but the loss leaves North Rheged's border exposed to the invaders. As one of the stronger northern kingdoms, Rheged develops into a key player in the task of keeping the Angles bottled up in their new capital.

Dunton Holme axe head
This iron axe head was found in Denton Holme on the banks of the River Caldew, now a suburb of Carlisle but formerly an important city within the borders of Rheged

c.550

Galwyddel is invaded by North Rheged and is annexed to the kingdom. Its king is forced to flee with his family to Ynys Manau. How Rheged may have managed an invasion when it seemingly doesn't share a land border with Galwyddel is a simple matter to answer.

Caer-Guendoleu apparently stretches down to the head of the Solway Firth, blocking Rheged's land access to Galwyddel, but Guendoleu and Rheged are allies (they do not fight each other in the battle of AD 573), so there's no reason to suppose that Rheged's warband would not be permitted to pass through Guendoleu's territory to reach Galwyddel. Records are so lacking in detail, though, that Guendoleu's warband could ride with them and it will never be known.

This would also seem a likely point for the reoccupation of an early hill fort at Rockcliffe, overlooking Rough Firth (the Urr Estuary) approximately twenty-five kilometres to the south-west of Dumfries. Today it is known as the Mote of Mark (after King Mark of Cornwall, perhaps due to a confusion - both he and Cynfarch Oer have fathers named Meirchion).

The Mote of Mark
The Mote of Mark is an early hill fort at Rockcliffe, overlooking Rough Firth, which was occupied in the sixth century, presumably by Rheged's nobility

The fort is occupied from the sixth century and has a seaward side which falls sharply away to the water, while on the landward side is a rampart, a drystone wall in a timber frame, one of the few partial British parallels to Cadbury Castle. This rampart does not go all the way around, and the protected enclosure is much smaller, just sixty-one metres by forty metres. Inside, fragments of metal and jewellery prove the presence of craftsmen and a rich patron.

559

This is the date upon which the Angles in Deywr pronounce the creation of their kingdom of Deira, perhaps with help from their kinsmen in Bernicia. The outcome is that Ebrauc suddenly faces a threat on two sides. The once formidably strong north is now showing cracks in its defences.

c.570 - 590

Urien Rheged

Son. Possible High King. The Arthurian 'King Uther of Gore'.

c.570

Urien Rheged is the most famous of all of the kingdom's rulers. He is mentioned both by Nennius and Taliesin as the victor of several encounters with the Bernicians. Taliesin also names him as the ruler of Rheged, and he is named more specifically as the ruler of Llwyfenydd (probably the River Lyvennet, close to Crosby Ravensworth in Cumbria), where he has a palace.

This places him squarely in North Rheged, while his exploits and authority make him a major figure in Romano-British history, so much so that he is a candidate for the office or role of high king, effectively the battle leader of the Britons.

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)

573

Rheged gains the small northern Selgovae state of Caer-Guendoleu following one of the most pointless and destructive disputes of the period, King Guenddolau is killed in battle against Rhydderch Hen of Alt Clut, most probably for territorial reasons. Rhydderch is aided by Ebrauc and Dunoting. Upon gaining the territory, Urien places his two brothers in command of it, primarily, it would seem, to prevent it being captured by Rhydderch Hen.

577 or 579

Urien fights King Theobald of fledgling Bernicia when he besieges the Angles at Metcaud (Lindisfarne in the northern part of the modern county of Northumberland). His son, Owain, kills Theobald in battle (presumably the Flamdwyn, or 'Flamebearer', of British literature) after the latter demands hostages which are refused. Urien also receives a mention for 586.

c.580

FeatureThe Deirans have continued to gain ground on Ebrauc, and in this year the Annales Cambriae (see feature link) records that Ebrauc's king and his brother, Peredyr and Gwrgi, both die. It seems likely that this is in the last stages of the defence of the city, which now seems to fall to the Deirans.

Urien gains the territory of Catreath (generally accepted as Catterick in North Yorkshire), while the loss of Ebrauc to the Deirans leaves Elmet's long north-eastern border exposed, and also exposes Dunoting.

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

590

Elmet and Rheged form a confederation of British kings, primarily based and operating in the north. The dispossessed Morcant Bulc of Guotodin and Rhiderch Hael of Alt Clut both join the confederation in operations against the Angles, and are present at the siege of Ynys Metcaut (Lindisfarne) in this year.

The Bernicians are almost driven out of Britain but the confederation falls apart when Morcant Bulc has Urien Rheged assassinated, fearing his great power should the Britons win the war against the invaders. His act fatally weakens the British cause in the north.

c.590 - c.597

Owain map Urien / Ewain

Son. Last powerful king. Mentioned in 586 & 593.

595

FeatureFive years after Urien's assassination, North Rheged's borders are threatened as the Pennine kingdom of Dunoting falls to Bernicia. As a background to the military failures, this late sixth century period produces no Christian activity in three sites in Carlisle which are important in the seventh to ninth centuries (the cathedral, St Michael's Church, and the Workington & Dacre monastery site - see feature link for more).

This suggests that Christianity under the British Church is loosely enforced or encouraged, but that the later Anglian masters of Carlisle impose it more forcefully.

Lindisfarne
The isle of Lindisfarne, or Ynys Metcaut to the British, remained the fortress by which the Angles held onto their kingdom in the face of repeated British attacks, but Din Guayroi or Guarie (Bamburgh Castle) shown here may have been another

c.597

Morcant Bulc, dispossessed king of Bernaccia, attacks Rheged and kills Owain, fatally weakening the kingdom. Catreath is lost, prompting the Guotodin-led attack (described in The Gododdin poem) to try and retrieve it.

Rheged survives for a few more years with a ruler who's name is uncertain, although it is likely to be Owain's son, Elffin. There is the additional possibility that Llywarch Hen of South Rheged exercises his authority over the north. This theory is based on the existence of a castle overlooking the Nith estuary on the Solway Firth called Caerlaverock, which translates in Old Welsh as 'the fort of Llywarch'.

c.597 - c.616

Elffin map Owain

Son. Ruled? Held the remains of the kingdom?

c.600s

The former Roman town of Luguvalium, capital of the Carvetii tribe of Brigantes, still survives into the seventh century, with a town council and a working aqueduct. The signs of severe decay which can be found in a great many Roman towns after up to a century of abandonment or limited occupation are missing here. The town remains an important stronghold in the north.

c.616

The remnants of North Rheged collapse after being overrun by Edwin of Bernicia, although there is the possibility that an enclave remains. The Mote of Mark fort in Galwyddel, reoccupied in the sixth century, is destroyed by fire in the seventh century, possibly during the collapse of North Rheged. Trusty's Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet is also destroyed in the same period.

Trusty's Hill Fort
Excavations have discovered that Trusty's Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway was the seat of a royal court, probably that of the region's chieftains both before and after the occupation by Rheged, but was destroyed by fire during the Anglian takeover

c.616? - c.638?

Rhoedd map Rhun map Urien Rheged

Grandson of Urien Rheged via Rhun. Ruled?

c.638?

If Rhoedd map Rhun (son of Rhun, himself another son of Urien Rheged) does rule any remaining part of Rheged for any length of time, he is almost certainly the last to do so. The kingdom is not mentioned again in history or in verse.

654 - 664

Aldfrith is the son of Oswiu of Bernicia, king of a united Northumbria since 654. Aldfrith's mother had been, according to Nennius, Rienmelth, daughter of Royth (or Rhwyth), better known as Rhoedd map Rhun map Urien Rheged.

At the very least, Oswiu's marriage to Rienmelth is a dynastic union, albeit with a bride whose family has found themselves in severely reduced circumstances. It also solidifies his claim to rule all of the north, a land which he and his forebears have reunited so that it closely resembles the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' over two hundred years prior to this.

The Britons of Rheged are not displaced by the legal union with Northumbria. Quite the opposite, in fact. They appear to retain a strong cultural identity and infrastructure which is only destroyed in the ninth century, when the Vikings of York take control.

Plain of Kyle
The Northumbrians seized the plain of Kyle following a heavy battle between its former owners, the Britons of Alt Clut, and the Picts - presumably this loss cut off the Britons from the southern territory of Cumbria

By the beginning of the tenth century, the Britons and Scots of Strathclyde control Cumbria. With Aldfrith's death, his sub-kingdom of Deira is apparently drawn fully within Northumbria to be ruled as a single kingdom. His daughter, Eahlflæd, becomes a nun while a smaller Northumbria is held by the Vikings until forcibly united with the rest of England.

 
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