Berneich, Dark Age Politics, Part 7

Hi, folks. I hope you are all doing well in these trying times. I’ve been tardy getting this post up, but there’s been a lot going on. Before we get started, I’d like to say that some big news is coming. One item is is that I’m nearly finished with book 2, The Strife of Camlann. The other bit is something I need to keep under wraps until I have the details ironed out. So lets get to it with another of the Old North Kingdoms of The Arthurian Age and talk about Berneich.

Working on the final chapters of The Strife of Camlann at a secret location…

Berneich is an early form for the name of the Kingdom of Bernicia. Some who recognize that name may wonder why I am including a Saxon kingdom among the British kingdoms of Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North, as these British kingdoms became known to Welsh legend).

The reason is that Bernicia is an Anglicized form of the earlier British kingdom’s name. Why did the Saxons adopt the name of the British kingdom, instead of giving it a name from their own language? Let’s find out.

We know very little of Berneich of the Britons. It only appears as mentions in Old Welsh poetry. It lay, as near as we can tell, along the coast of today’s south-eastern Scotland and north-eastern England. It would be bordered on the north by the Gododdin, to the north-west by Alt Clut, to the west by Nouant, to the south-west by Rheged, and to the south by Ebrauc (these last two kingdoms will be discussed in upcoming articles). It’s capital may have been at Din Guardi, the site of today’s Bamburgh Castle. Berneich was in the tribal region of the Votadini, like their neighbors, the Gododdin, but also seem to have encompassed some of the Brigantes tribes.

Berneich included lands both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall, interestingly enough, nearly mirroring the current north-east border between England and Scotland. This may have much to do with the fact that this also matches the north-east borders of the Roman Empire in Britain. Despite the rise, expansion, contraction and fall of various kingdoms in the centuries after Rome departed, Britain finds its borders still influenced by Rome.

The Five Roman Provinces, as theorized by eminent historian and archaeologist, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews.

Like most of the British kingdoms from the Post-Roman era, there are a number of interpretations of how Berneich came to be. For The Arthurian Age, I have chosen what I think to be most likely. This is where things really get interesting, because the kingdoms of what had been Roman Britain are the key players in the history of Britain and Arthur.

The Britons Take Control

In the chaos of the final century of the Western Roman Empire, Magnus Maximus appointed a British chieftain named Coel Hen to be Roman Britain’s Dux Britanniarum in about 383 CE. This Roman military commander of the provinces of Valentia and Britannia Secunda was headquartered at Ebrauc (York), and his forces were primarily stationed along Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall, stretching across Britain from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

Coel Hen would be the last Dux Britanniarum for the Roman Empire. In 410 CE, the Britons revolted, expelling the last of the Roman Imperial administrators. The details of this, and the formation of the British kingdoms south of Hadrian’s Wall, will be in the next post, about The Consilium. To keep this article from getting too long, I’m just going to talk about the founding of Berneich.

What happens next is uncertain. Few records survive from this time period, but it appears that Coel Hen was an early-adopter of a practice of turning former Roman provinces into hereditary kingdoms. When he died, his control of the two provinces passed to his sons. In the Celtic fashion, Coel’s lands did not go just to his eldest son, but were split between his heirs. His eldest, Ceneu, got the lion’s share, from the east coast to the west. Coel’s other son, Gorbanion, received the realm that became known as Berneich, from the Brittonic for “Land of Mountain Passes”.

Suffering under devastating raids from Pictish, Irish and Germanic tribes, the British rulers invited Germanic warriors to various coastal locations of eastern Britain as foederati, mercenaries allowed to settle (often with some agreement of logistical support) in exchange for military service.

In Berneich, most of the foederati were Angles. In contrast to other locations in Britain, these seemed to have lived relatively peacefully, even intermarrying with their British neighbors. At first, at least. In time, their growing numbers and political influence through family ties resulted in the Anglian warlords overtaking the British powerbase.

In around 547, Ida became the first Anglo-Saxon king of Bernicia. He may have had a British mother, or married a British noblewoman. In any event, it seems that the change in rulers was a dynastic shift, not a violent revolution.

However, not all the British warlords seem to have been happy with the change in management. They resisted the expansion of the new regime, and archeological evidence shows little Anglo-Saxon activity inland. It wouldn’t be until Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, that the Britons were finally subdued.

Speculative map of British and Anglo-Saxon territories at the end of the sixth century.
From D. N. Ford’s Early British Kingdoms

This subdual may have been due in large part to an ambitious attack and catastrophic defeat of the Britons at Catraeth (modern Catterick, North Yorkshire) in the kingdom of Deira, another young Anglo-Saxon realm to the south of Bernicia. About the year 600, the king of the Gododdin launched the attack with 300 of the most famed British warriors from across the isle, after feasting them for a year at his fortress at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). It was a disaster. Greatly outnumbered, the Britons fought valiantly, but were wiped out. Only three survived. It was immortalized in the epic Old Welsh poem, Y Gododdin (which is also the earliest mention of King Arthur).

Diademed, to the fore at all times,
Breathless before a maid, he earned mead.
Rent the front of his shield, when he heard
The war-cry, he spared none he pursued.
He’d not turn from a battle till blood
Flowed, like rushes hewed men who’d not flee.
At court the Gododdin say there came
Before Madawg’s tent on his return
But a single man in a hundred.

Portion (Verse II) of Y Gododdin, translated by Mary Jones.

A few years later, Æthelfrith took over the kingdom of Deira, apparently by force. The joined kingdoms would eventually become known as Northumbria, but this is well after the Arthurian Age.

In The Retreat to Avalon, Berneich is ruled by the British king, Dumnagual, the grandson of Coel Hen. He is not a member of the Consilium, for reasons that are explained later. But his eventual decision to join with the Britons to the south will unleash momentous events in Book 2, The Strife of Camlann.

I hope you enjoyed this article. As always, I’d love any comments and questions. The next post will be an important one, because it gives an overview of how the kingdoms of Arthurian Britain came to be. Until next time, take care.

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