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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


South 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. This detached southern section of Rheged is likely to have covered modern Lancashire and probably Cheshire.

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'.

Modern Rochdale seems to retain the kingdom's name, with its modern form probably originating from the Bernician conquest of the kingdom. There has been evidence of prehistoric activity in the area, but it seems entirely unclear whether there was a Celtic settlement there. Angles who almost certainly did settle there, in an entirely Celtic land, were probably called the 'Rheged settlers' or similar (the 'Elmed Saetna' provide a similar example in the north, while the Somersetae provide one of several examples in the south).

Their settlement became 'Reced ham' (essentially 'Rheged hamlet'), although the second part later changed from 'ham' to 'dael' (Old English for an open valley). The change was probably caused by a new wave of settlers, presumably Vikings, who used 'dal' or 'dahl' much more often than Anglo-Saxons, who seemed to use it very seldom. Despite being entered into Domesday as Recedham (suggesting the dual usage of both names for a time), the settlement of 'Reced dael' gradually transmuted into modern 'Rochdale'. Typically, such an analysis is not entirely accepted by modern scholars, making Rochdale's place in the kingdom uncertain.

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.560

Elidyr Llydanwyn 'the Stout & Handsome'

Son of Meirchion of Rheged. First King of South Rheged.


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.

c.570 - c.613

Llywarch Hen 'the Old'

Son. Flourit before 600. Last king of South Rheged. Died 634.

c.570 - c.582

During Llywarch's reign he is also king of Ynys Manau until it is effectively snatched from him by the Ulaid. His name, Llywarch, seems to break down into two parts, with 'warch' perhaps being 'varch' (later 'vark' and then 'march'), which means a horse or stallion.

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)

The first part is more complicated. 'Llu' forms the word 'host' ('lluoedd'), while 'llu arfog' is an armed force. so Llywarch could be taken to mean 'stallion host' (literally, 'cavalry force', or perhaps more poetically, 'war horse' as a metaphor for the leader of the host). Another school of thought which has far less weight to its argument proposes that 'Lly' descends from 'Lleu' and then Lugh, the sun god, making the name 'Lugh's stallion'.


Morcant Bulc, dispossessed king of Bernaccia, attacks North Rheged and kills Owain map Urien, fatally weakening the kingdom. It survives for a few more years, although its ruler is uncertain. In the possible power vacuum which exists immediately after Owain's death, it could be Llywarch Hen who exercises authority over the north.

The hill fort of Ward Law lies on the northern side of the Solway Firth, immediately south of Dumfries. It dominates the Nith estuary at Caerlaverock and controls access inland via the River Nith. Caerlaverock is a castle which sits at the foot of the hill fort, and its name translates as 'the lark's nest fort'. However, in Old Welsh, 'laverock' equates 'Llywarch'.

Ward Law
The cairn at the summit of Ward Law and the site of the Iron Age hill fort looks down on the site of Caerlaverock, and its later medieval castle


Most of the remaining northern British kingdoms fall around this time, during a period of vigorous expansion by the Bernicians. South Rheged is included amongst those losses. Llywarch Hen and his large family flee west to Penllyn in Powys (a refugee centre for many northern British royal families around the turn of the century).

While North Rheged also falls to the Bernicians in the early seventh century, and is later legally inherited by them through the marriage of one of Urien Rheged's descendants, the fate of South Rheged is much less clear.

Around 790, Elidyr map Sandde map Alcwn map Tegid map Gwyar map Llywarch Hen becomes king of Ynys Manau (Llywarch Hen's great-great-great grandson). Elidyr's own son, Gwriad, becomes king of Gwynedd in 815, still carrying the title, 'Heir to South Rheged'.

Physical control of the region, however, certainly falls to Northumbria, although southern sections may be conquered by Mercia during that kingdom's ascendancy in the eighth century (at precisely the time in which Elidyr map Sandde is active).

Viking ship
A recreation of a Viking ship of this period which was uncovered on England's west coast, in Liverpool on the Wirral peninsula in 2007 (formerly part of Northumbria and, before that, South Rheged)

Following the ninth century Viking invasion, the southern section is split between the Danelaw and Mercia, while the rest of South Rheged is occupied by Vikings, probably as part of the Scandinavian kingdom of York. Finally, it is conquered in the tenth century by Wessex to form part of a united England.

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