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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

The Pennines (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.

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).

It is this late Roman province which Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century AD. If that tradition has any basis in fact then Coel Hen was effectively the first post-Roman Governor of the north. Evidence gathered from the lives of the northern British kings shows that it was from this that the kingdom of 'The Pennines' was formed, upon the death of Mor ap Ceneu, Coel's grandson.

FeatureWhile the eldest of his own sons gained the capital city of the north, Ebrauc, the next in line was Arthuis. He  was the first 'King of the Pennines', a name which was probably applied by later writers rather than being used by the people of the period, but a variation of it may indeed have been applied. Arthuis ruled the whole length of the Pennines, but his inheritance meant the further subdivision and weakening of the north of Britain. Upon the abdication of his son, this land was further divided into two kingdoms, Dunoting and The Peak (see feature link).

The latter, occupying the modern Peak District, was better land than in the north, and was probably the main base of the 'Kings of the Pennines' while the territory remained undivided. The name 'Pennines' probably derives from the Celtic 'penn' which means 'mountain', or 'summit' (literally 'head'). The name was also applied to the Apennines in Italy, perhaps by the Celtic inhabitants of its northern reaches. The name would have been formed as 'penn-inus', meaning that it certainly originates in the pre-Anglo-Saxon domination of the region.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and 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).)

 

fl c.470

Arthuis / Arthwys ap Mor

'King of the Pennines'. Son of Mor of 'Northern Britain'.

FeatureProbably in power at the same time as the more famous Arthur Pendragon of Britain, Arthuis is often claimed as the historical basis for many of the exploits which are later ascribed to 'King Arthur' (see feature link).

Many of Nennius' Arthurian battles are often said to take place in 'Northern Britain'. These and other northern stories which are associated with 'King Arthur' may, in reality, relate to the achievements of this near contemporary monarch.

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

fl c.480

Cynfelyn ap Arthwys

Son. Moved south into the Midlands to found Cynwidion.

c.480

The youngest son of King Arthuis is Cynfelyn. He is later claimed as one of the 'Men of the North' who head southwards to attempt to claim territory in the British Midlands. According to tradition, he controls an area of the East Midlands below Elmet, probably covering elements of what becomes eastern Pengwern and perhaps forming a state with his followers which is called Cynwidion.

c.500 - c.525

Pabo Post Prydein (St) 'Pillar of Britain'

Bro. 'King of the Pennines'. Died a monk in Venedotia in 530.

c.500 - 525

Papcastle in Rheged, on the north bank of the River Derwent in Cumbria, is a site of some note. Once an important Roman site, Papcastle derives its name from 'Pabo'. Presumably this is Pabo Post Prydein (the 'Pillar of Britain' for his efforts in holding down the Picts).

Although it is speculation to wonder, could it be possible that Pabo has a holding at the site, even though it is within Rheged? He would be King 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 buildings across the region (a novel based in the period by John H Egbers, An Elmet Inquest, posits much the same idea in the form of an Elmetian holding within Rheged).

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.525/c.560s?

Following the abdication of Pabo Post Prydein, the kingdom of the Pennines is divided into The Peak (the southern section) and Dunoting (the northern section). Given the rough reignal lengths of both of Pabo's sons, Sawyl Penuchel and Dunaut, they must both be infants at the time.

Sawyl is clearly active in the later years of what appears to be a very long reign, so it seems possible that he does not rule this territory in person from such an early date. So perhaps someone else does...

c.525 - c.560s?

?

Son? A lost king/regent, fused with Sawyl Penuchel's reign?

Three possibilities are raised by the long span between Pabo's abdication and Sawyl's death (all dates are approximate here): either the name of a possible first ruler of The Peak has been forgotten and his reign has subsequently been merged into that of Sawyl's; or the territory is bequeathed to him upon his birth and he takes control when he comes of age; or finally that it remains part of the fragmenting kingdom of the Pennines for longer than is thought, and is only sub-divided away from it a generation later than is generally assumed.

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

This raises the possibility that the 'lost king' who may precede Sawyl and Dunaut is their father while Pabo is their grandfather. This would mark it out as being a simple case of a name being lost from a later royal pedigree. In general, the simplest explanation is usually the best one.

The Peak (South Pennines) (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).

It is this late Roman province which Coel Hen is traditionally assumed to have inherited at the end of the fourth century AD. 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 'The Pennines', upon the death of Coel's grandson, Mor ap Ceneu.

Mor's second son was Arthuis, inheritor of 'The Pennines'. Following the abdication of his brother and successor, Pabo Post Prydein, the kingdom was divided into The Peak (the southern section) and Dunoting (the northern section). Given the rough reignal lengths of both of Pabo's sons, Sawyl Penuchel and Dunaut, they must both be infants at the time, and their remains some question in regard to who actually commanded during this period.

As a name, 'The Peak' is not necessarily the one which was used by the Britons who lived there, but it was clearly a name which remained in use to describe the region, or some aspect of it. The later Mercians who integrated into it from the south called themselves the Pecset ('Peak settlers', with the suffix '-set' evolving into 'settlers'). They are more normally known as Pec Saetan, Pecsaetan, Pecsætan, or Pecsætna (the latter may be more in favour with twenty-first century scholars).

As the new arrivals rarely gave their conquered territories names which did not derive from their locality, or their geographical locations relative to other Germanic groups, the name 'The Peak' is just as likely to have been in use both by Britons and the Angles who inherited the land by right of conquest.

Unusually for the Angles of the north, it was not really their conquest. 'The Peak' did fall to the Bernicians, but an administrative vacuum must have existed in the southern Pennines for a time as the Pecset were allowed to drift in from the Midlands. That southwards link gave Mercia dominance in the southern Pennines and not, as might be expected, the Northumbrian descendants of the Bernician conquers of 'The Peak'.

Roman Canterbury

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 A History of the English Church and People, The Venerable Bede (Leo Sherley-Price translation - revised by R E Latham), and 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).)

 

c.525 - c.590

Sawyl Penuchel 'the Arrogant'

Son of Pabo of the Pennines? 'King of the Peak' (S Pennines).

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.

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)

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.570 - 580

FeatureThe 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 (see feature link), 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.

fl c.600

St Madoc Ailither 'the Pilgrim'

Son. His mother was the dau of the king of Ulster. Died 626.

St Madoc is educated at the court of his maternal grandfather, King Muiredach of Ulster (507-534). It is there that he becomes interested in Christianity, and he later studies under St David (Dewi Sant) at Glyn Rhosyn. After a spell as abbot of Glyn Rhosyn, he returns to Ireland to found several monasteries, including Clonmore, Drumlane, and Ferns.

Clonmore Abbey
The ruins of St Madoc's Clonmore Abbey survive as one of County Carlow's most important early Christian sites, as do many of the headstones in the graveyard

Guitcuin

Brother.

Catguallaunliu

Brother.

Catguallaunliu is something of a mystery. His name is a later form of Cassivellaunus or Catuvellanus (high king of the pre-Roman Britons). The name form is also closely related to 'Cadwalader' and 'Cadwalla', both also late British forms. The names have the same first two elements, but the 'liu' ending may be down to a copyist's error.

c.590

Flush with recent successes, the Bernician Angles successfully destroy the kingdom of 'The Peak' around this time, during a general expansion which also sees the fall of Dunoting. Sawyl is forced to flee to Wales.

There is a story in the Life of St Cadoc which places Sawyl Penuchel at Allt Cunedda near Kidwelly in South Wales. This places his exiled court in Dyfed, but the name of the location links it to Cunedda of Venedotia, suggesting that his own fairly recent campaigns to clear Wales of Irish raiders managed to extend much farther south than is otherwise known.

The story about Sawyl in Wales has him and his warband stealing food from Llancarfan Abbey (hard times, clearly, for this dispossessed king). St Cadoc follows them and finds them sleeping under a tree. He cuts off their hair and flees to a bog. When Sawyl and his men follow the bog claims them.

St Cadoc's Church
St Cadoc's Church is set in the village of Llancafarn in the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales, now famous thanks to a 2007 discovery of medieval religious illustrations beneath centuries of lime wash and paint, with these including 'St George and the Dragon', the 'Seven Deadly Sins', the 'Seven Virtues' and others, and with restoration work ongoing

It is unclear whether this is the same Sawyl, but the approximate dates for the saint coincide with those for Sawyl of 'The Peak'. Sawyl's body is recovered and buried in a nearby mound called 'Banc Benuchel'.

FeatureFollowing Bernician conquest of the Pennines, their authority is seemingly not stamped on the southern part of the region. Angles move into the south Pennines from the Midlands, becoming the Pecset (or Pecsætna - Peak settlers - see feature link). These migrant groups are probably already a client unit of the swiftly growing kingdom of the Iclinga Mercians.

Evidence exists of recurring famine and virulent bubonic plague across Europe in the second half of the sixth century. It is possible, therefore, that the Pecset move into a territory which is much reduced in terms of population. The low incidence of Celtic place names may provide some support for this as these names usually have a higher survival rate from British territory which is conquered in the late sixth century onwards.

 
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