Anglo-Saxon (500-1000)

The Birth of the Saxon Kingdoms

Geoffrey claims that Arthur handed over his kingdom to Constantin III, who reigned for four years and crushed a Saxon revolt before his death, reported as “being struck down by God’s vengeance”. He was succeeded in 546AD by Aurelius Conanus, his nephew who imprisoned Constantin’s son and usurped the throne. Gildas writes that Conanus was guilty of murder, fornication, adultery and a love of civil war and, it is thought, deliberately corrupts his name to Caninus to make a pun on the Latin for “dog”. He did not last long and in 546AD the throne was won by Vortiporius who is credited with repelling a Germanic invasion.

Legend also credits him with locking his wife away and having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. There is a memorial stone at Castle Dwran in Carmarthernshire bearing the inscription “Memoria Voteporigis Protictoris”, thought to mark his grave, the inscription interestingly referring to him as protector rather than king and again shows how these old writers talk of Kings of the Britons when they in fact mean local or tribal rulers. Vortiporius is thought to have ruled in Dyfed in South Wales, roughly the area of Pembrokeshire.

He was succeeded in 550AD by Malgo who reigned for five years, leaving two sons, neither of whom inherited the kingdom. Malgo is also known to the Britons as Maelgwm Gwynedd, the King of Gwynedd and died of the Yellow Plague which ravaged Europe in the 550s. These tandem records of history illustrate the difficulty in placing events in a proper time frame during the period, but do confirm the turbulent and changing nature of a land being torn apart by the clash of two very different cultures.

What is known however, is that the borders of the various kingdoms were beginning to harden and sub kingdoms were being formed by former enemies coming together to carve out new territories.

With Cynric carving out his kingdom in the West Country, another Angle called Creoda was looking to do the same in the midlands. He was ruler of a tribe known as the Iclingas, named after his ancestor Iclis and they occupied an area of the Trent valley, gradually expanding and driving the local Britons westwards into Wales. This area came to be known as Mercia, which is from the old English “Mierce” meaning border people and from which the modern term “Marches” meaning borders, derives, they were based at Tamworth and eventually expanded until their border met that of Northumbria to the north and Sussex, Essex and Wessex in the south. Their western border abutted the Celtic kingdom of Powys. Creoda ruled for eight years and was succeeded by his son Cearl in 593AD and, following Cearl’s death in 603AD, by Pybba, his second son.

Despite the need to unite against the invaders, native rulers continued to fight among themselves in much the same way as mentioned by Tacitus many years before.  In 573AD, Peredur, king of York, and Dunait, king of the Pennines, fought Gwendolau of Carlisle at the Battle of Arthuret. Despite the large loss of life in the battle, neither side gained much advantage and it seems the only winner was one Urien of Rheged, a local warlord who became the new ruler of Carlisle. According to the bard Taliesin in his writings, Urien was a “strong champion” and a “pillar of Britain”, fighting everyone and anyone from the Severn to the Clyde.

Urien’s “caer” or fort was on the site of the old Roman camp at Catreath, the modern Catterick Taliesin relates that Urien and his son Owain fought against a “fourfold” army of Angles led by their warleader Fflamddwyn or Firebrand at the Battle of Argoed Llwfain, in which they killed an important Angle called Ulph. Only tantalisingly small details are known of the clash, that it took place on a Saturday morning and was fought near a ford.

This victory seems to have given the Britons new heart and put the Angles on the defensive. Taliesin rejoices at the victory, “This the English know, Death was theirs, Burnt are their houses”.

Despite these setbacks, the invaders did manage to establish a presence in the area and the Angle Ida built a strongpoint at a place called Bamburgh Rock. Ida’s successors fought many battles with the native kings, “sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were victorious” wrote Taliesin. Urien managed to form an alliance with three other British kings, Riderich, Gaullauc and Morcant. Together they fought and cornered the Angle king Hussa on Holy Island at Lindisfarne.

The siege lasted three days, but once again, internal division split the Britains. Urien was assassinated by one Lovat, a hireling of “the envious king Morcant” and although Urien’s son Owain continued the struggle, he too was killed and the alliance slipped away enabling the Angles to expand their conquest of the area. The medieval Welsh poem “The Gododdin” tells the story of a brave attempt by the Britons to repulse the invaders at the Battle of Catreath where 300 warriors fought to the death in a vain effort to stop the fort falling into the Angles hands.

Other invaders were also establishing themselves in the north and we now turn to Aella, an Angle, who in 581AD, defeated the local British and overrun the kingdom of Ebrauc which extended from the Humber to the Tees. Aella called his new kingdom Deira, from the old English, “Deifr” meaning waters, or possibly “Daru” meaning the people of Derwent. This mini kingdom was to be merged with the kingdom of Bernicia early in the seventh century to become the kingdom of Northumbria.

Bernicia itself, the name meaning “land of mountain passes” in old Brythonic, covered most of what we now know as Northumberland, Berwickshire, Lothian and Durham, and was part of a pre Anglo Saxon “old north kingdom” of the Votadini ruled by Coel Hen. It is likely that some of the Angles in the area had originally been brought over by the Romans as mercenaries to man Hadrian’s Wall and had settled in the country and were later reinforced by others seeking territory in the aftermath of Roman departure.

In the west, Cynegils, great great grandson of Cynric, pushed his territory ever westwards driving the West Welsh before them. The Chronicle states that the two sides met at Beandun in Devon in 614AD, where the army of Wessex killed two thousand and sixty five Welsh, an unusually precise number.

The first Bernician Angle king recorded is Ida, who with his sons, fought the various alliances of the native Britons and, as related earlier, achieved control only after the native alliance collapsed into civil war. Ida’s grandson Aethelfrith fought and won a number of battles with the native kings, principally the Battles of Cattreath (Catterick) where forces of the native kings Mynddog Mwynfawr of Din Eidyn and Cynan of the Goddodin were destroyed and Degastan, near Dawston Rigg on the Scottish border, where he fought Aedan King of Dal Riada leading a coalition of troops from various British kingdoms, plus a contingent from the Ulster Kingdom of Tara. The Angles were led by Theodbold, brother of Aethelfrith and Hering, son of Hussa.

Theobald’s forces were centred on high ground forcing Aedan’s troops to advance over a stream and up sloping ground. In the ensuing fighting, Aedan’s forces were destroyed and his son Domingart killed. During the battle Theobald and his housecarls were cut off and slain to a man suggesting that his forces fought separately from Hering’s. Aethelfrith’s victories secured his dominance and he overran the land between the Border, Chester and the Trent and it is largely due to his successes that these areas now have English names and not Welsh.

Bede, writing some 150 years later comments, “From the first day until present, no king of Scotland has dared do battle with the English”. It is worth noting that the term “English” was now increasingly being applied to all the invaders be they Angle, Jute or Saxon. Aethelfrith went on to defeat Aelle, king of Deira and around 604AD, united the two mini kingdoms under the name Northumbria.

It was Aethelfrith who, coveting the rich farming land owned by the church, carried out the massacre of the monks from the monastery of Bangor on the River Dee at the Battle of Chester, then known as “Carlegion”, a once mighty Roman fort. The Chester forces were led by Solomon ap Cynan, son of the King of Powys who arrayed his army outside the city walls to confront Aethelfrith. The monks gathered in front of the walls to pray for a British victory under a military guard led by a warrior called Brocmail.

The monks had fasted for three days in preparation and, according to Bede, were divided into seven groups of three hundred which would seem a surprisingly high number, although the Chronicle states the number as 200. When the pagan Aethelfrith was told the purpose of their prayers he retorted “If they are crying to their God against us, they are fighting even if they do not bear arms”.

He directed his first attack against the monks who were promptly deserted by their protectors and slaughtered .The Bangor monastery had been in existence since 180AD and founded by the Celtic King Lucius as a seat of learning following his conversion to the faith. Some other sources attest that over 1200 monks were killed in the attack with less than 50 managing to escape, but it is the Chronicle’s version that is considered the most reliable.

Aethelfrith then “destroyed the rest of the accursed army, not without heavy loss to his own forces”. Aethelfrith took over the lands of Deira and Bernicia, causing Aelle’s son Edwin to take sanctuary in East Anglia with Raedwald. Aethelfrith attempted to bribe Raedwald into having Edwin killed, but Raedwald refused. Aethelfrith then demanded that Edwin be handed over to him and again Raedwald refused.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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