The Gododdin, Dark Age Politics, Part 6

Today’s installment about the kingdoms of Dark Age Britain is particularly exciting. Previously, we’ve talked about the Old North Kingdoms of Alt Clut and Nouant, and also about how this region became Scotland. As a setting for The Retreat to Avalon and The Arthurian Age, the Kingdom of the Gododdin holds a special place in Arthurian lore.

From Wikipedia

Gododdin is the Welsh form of Votadini, the name of an Iron Age Celtic tribe that lived in south-east Scotland from the Firth of Forth to the River Tyne. Like their neighbors, they spoke Brittonic and were distinct from the Picts to the north.

Romans offering treasure to the Gododdin. (My photo, from Edinburgh Castle.)

Some of the earliest activity in this region was at Traprain Law and Edinburgh, going back to the stone age. After the invasion, they seem to have been on more or less friendly terms with the Roman Empire, acting as a buffer state after the failed attempts by Rome to hold the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall.

Part of a hoard of hacked-up, 5th century, Roman silver found at Traprain Law. (From Wikipedia.)

A part of the region, alongside the Firth of Forth and including Edinburgh, was called Manau Gododdin. It’s not clear why, but it is likely due to the decentralized form of kingship at the time. The founder of Gwynedd, Cunedda, is said to have ruled the Manau Gododdin before relocating with his family to northern Wales, early in the 5th century. This may have been at the invitation of Magnus Maximus, in order to defend the region from invading Irish.

At some point, probably after Lot’s death, his kingdom became known as Lothian, and it remains the name of the region of Scotland encompassing the core of his old domain, and his primary fortresses at Edinburgh and Traprain Law.

But let’s get into the really interesting part. This region is more closely linked to King Arthur than the other northern kingdoms for a number of reasons. We’ll start with the historical part.

As mentioned in this post about the existence of Arthur, the earliest known reference to Arthur is from the Welsh poem, Y Gododdin. The poem is about Mynyddog the Wealthy, king of the Gododdin, who recruits 300 of the greatest British warriors, feasting them (and likely preparing) at his fortress of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) for a year. His goal is to attack the Angles at their fort of Catraeth (Catterick in North Yorkshire). The attack is a disaster. All died but one: Aneirin, the bard who composed the poem.

Y Gododdin, leaving Din Eidyn for Catreath. (My photo, from Edinburgh Castle.)

As you may know from the article mentioned above, one of the warriors is compared to Arthur. Apparently he’s an incredible warrior, but still no Arthur. The oldest surviving copy of this poem was written down around the late 1200’s, but linguistic evidence suggests it was composed in the early to mid 600’s. This is within a few generations of when Arthur likely lived. Aside from providing evidence of Arthur’s existence, Y Gododdin provides early evidence of other Brittonic kingdoms, customs and people.

As if this wasn’t enough, this region is heavily associated with Arthur through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, as well as the later medieval romances. As I’ve said before, I think there are seeds of truth in many old stories, particularly in the oldest known versions. In this case, we’re tracking down King Lot of the Host (meaning a large army).

Saint Kentigern, from Glasgow University.

Lot first appears in The Life of Saint Kentigern, the patron saint of Glasgow. This hagiography was written about 1185, supposedly from old Glaswegian legend and Irish documents. In this, Lot is said to be Kentigern’s maternal grandfather. According to the story, Lot learned that his daughter, Teneu, had become pregnant.

Now, there are varying details on this. In The Life, it’s suggested that Kentigern was bestowed by God as a virgin birth on a very devout Teneu whose father was a pagan. This seems… unlikely. For one thing, the rulers of Britain south of Pictland, had been Christians for generations.

Other examples of this story say that she was raped, or that she was seduced. Some stories say this was by Owain ap Urien of Rheged, but Owain lived well after the era of Lot, so this is most likely a later medieval combining of famous people into a single bloodline.

Now, if you have read The Retreat to Avalon, you will recognize what comes next. If not, the next paragraph contains a very minor spoiler.

In any event, Teneu refused to tell her father who had knocked her up, and like any father, Lot was angry. Unlike most fathers, his remedy was to throw her over the walls of his palace at Din Pendyrlaw (Traprain Law).

Traprain Law / Din Pendyrlaw. The awful cut-out on the left side is from a 1938 road-stone quarry.

By Divine grace, Teneu survived and was spirited away, later giving birth to the boy who would become Saint Kentigern, also known by the pet name, Mungo.

The next time we see Lot is from Geoffrey of Monmouth. As you may recall from past articles, Geoffrey is the first person we know of to take the various stories of Arthur in existence in his time and put them down in writing (likely filling in the gaps from his own imagination). Geoffrey said that Lot was a loyal vassal of Uther Pendragon, King of Britain, and that he married Uther’s daughter, Anna. Lot and Anna had two children, Gawain and Modred.

As you can see, the popular recollection of Modred being the bastard child of an incestuous pairing of Arthur with his half-sister, Morgana, was no part of the early legends. We have the French Romance writers to thank for that travesty. If you have read The Retreat to Avalon, you can also see why I structured my story based on the early legends.

Arthur is also linked to this region by other legends. Too many to really list here, but among them, the seventh of his famous twelve battles, the Battle of the Celidon Wood, is thought to have occurred within this region. My guess is southwest of Edinburgh in the Tweed valley along a Roman road. There is also a reference to Arthur and Bedwyr fighting “Dog-Heads” (probably Picts) at the mount of Eidyn (Edinburgh castle, or nearby Arthur’s Seat) in the Welsh poem, Pa Gur.

Over the next few centuries, the Romance versions of Arthur’s story, from Chrétien de Troyes to Thomas Malory and beyond, portray Lot as an early adversary who either becomes a loyal vassal to King Arthur, or who eventually rebels again. He is no longer married to Anna, but to Morgan, Morganna or Morgause, and their children include Gareth, Agravain, and Gaheris (who murders her).

Edinburgh Castle, where Din Eidyn once stood.

Historically, Gododdin seems to have been under the control of Alt Clut for a time, before breaking free in the late 5th or early 6th centuries. By the 7th century, the Gododdin were defending against the Angles who had taken over the British kingdom of Berneich. This is when the Battle of Catraeth occurred. In 638, the Angles besieged Din Eidyn, and it was the end of Gododdin, which became part of the eventual kingdom of Northumbria. The fame of the Gododdin and the Britons of The Old North remained in the legends of the Welsh, long after the last of the northern British kingdoms had disappeared.

Thanks for stopping by! As always, I’d love to hear from you with questions or comments or new insights. I am steadily working on The Strife of Camlann, Book 2 of The Arthurian Age trilogy. In the meantime, if you haven’t picked up The Retreat to Avalon, please check out the reviews. If you would like to see King Arthur and his knights portrayed as they most likely existed, I think you’ll like it!

Book 1 in The Arthurian Age

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