Kingdom of Rheged: Dark Age Politics, Part 11

Hi folks! Today I’m going to talk a bit more about Rheged, a British kingdom in the period between the end of the Roman occupation and the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is not a well known era, but is fascinating for the struggles and changes that happened in the British “Dark Ages“.

As I discuss in past articles like the discussion of Ancient Carlisle, Rheged has a long tradition within Arthurian Legend. Unfortunately, most of what we know of Rheged, both historically and in legend, comes from long after Arthur would have lived. So in this article, I’ll talk about what we know and how I adapted that information to my historical novel series, The Arthurian Age. Some of these details will be more applicable to the upcoming third book in the series, Three Wicked Revelations.

Rheged’s history begins at least a generation after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in 410 AD. However, its roots are found in the Celtic British tribes that lived in what now constitutes northwest England and southwest Scotland, and the attempts to maintain a kind of Roman-like federation in the aftermath of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain. I talk about this change in several past articles, such as “An Age of Tyrants“.

Roman Provinces of Britain
Roman Provinces of Britain, as theorized by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

As near as we can tell, the former Roman provinces of Britain tried to maintain a certain level of cohesion after the end of Roman rule. Yet, fracturing began almost immediately in a process that would take less than a century to result in the disappearance of the Roman provinces and establishment of the British and nascent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

In the last years of Roman rule, the provinces of Britannia Secunda and Valentia, appear to have been under the control of Coel Hen, who may have been Rome’s last Dux Britanniarum (military commander) of the territory that would become northern England. Coel Hen would become a sort of king of the region, even if he never assumed such a title. Evidence of this is that, on his death, the two provinces were split up between his sons, in the Celtic fashion. Ceneu, the eldest, seems to have inherited Britannia Secunda and the southern portion of Valentia, while Garbonian ended up with the region that would become Berneich (Bernicia).

Hadrian's Wall and Northern Britain in The Arthurian Age
Hadrian’s Wall, the border controlled by Coel Hen

Little is known of Ceneu. He is called a saint, possibly due to support of the church in response to Germanic and Pictish pagan raiders. When he died, his lands were again divided between his sons, Mor and Gwrast. (We’ll see this Celtic custom throughout the history of the Britons, a practice that certainly contributed to the eventual domination of Anglo-Saxon culture.) Mor inherits the region that becomes Ebrauc, modern Yorkshire, while Gwrast “The Ragged” inherits what was Secunda and south-western Valentia.

Little is known of Gwrast, except that on his death, his lands were again divided. His eldest, Meirchion Gul (“The Lean”) became king of Rheged, and Meirchion’s younger brother, Mascuid, became king of Elmetia in the area that had been southwest Valentia. If you’ve read The Retreat to Avalon, you will recognize Meirchion from Gawain’s stop at Cair Ligualid (Carlisle). On Meirchion’s death, Rheged was split near the middle, with Cynfarch taking the North Rheged and Elidyr taking South Rheged.

Map of Britain circa 500 AD
Conjectural map of Britain, circa 500 AD, from The History Files

Rheged had a belligerent reputation, apparently often at war with its British neighbors to the north, Nouant and Alt Clut. There is evidence that Rheged expanded into Nouant’s territory during the Arthurian era, or very soon after. Its most famous kings, Urien and his son, Owain, have been associated often with King Arthur, but lived about a century too late.

Urien is known for his success in battles against the Angles of Bernicia and, around 590 AD, helps form an alliance with Elmet and Alt Clut, along with the dispossessed British king of Berneich, Morcant Bulc, against the Angles in northern Britain. The alliance nearly drives the Angles out of Berneich, but Morcant, fearful of Urien’s power growing with success, has him assassinated, and the alliance against the Angles falls apart.

Five years later, Morcant attacks Rheged and kills Owain. Soon after, the Britons of the Old North attempt to defeat the Angles at the Battle of Catraeth, eulogized in the poem Y Gododdin. It is a disaster for the Britons. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms march on, and Rheged disappears before the dawn of the eighth century.

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

This time period is absolutely fascinating, and I am baffled that the history between the end of Britain’s Roman era in the year 410 AD, and the beginning of Anglo-Saxon dominance around the end of the 6th century is virtually ignored in modern lessons and media. That’s two centuries of missing history!

A great example is Britain’s own BBC. On a search for “Anglo-Saxon era”, the first hit I see is from the BBC. According to the British Broadcasting Company’s website,

The Anglo-Saxon period lasted for 600 years, from 410 to 1066, and in that time Britain’s political landscape underwent many changes.

BBC “History” Page

This is crazy. No where in the BBC’s article does it mention anything about the native Britons. It goes from being a part of the Roman Empire, to the suggestion that Germanic immigrants moved into an otherwise empty island. There is more to this, which I think might be my next post. But for now, thanks for stopping by, and as always, I’d love to hear from you with comments, questions, or corrections (if you can find any 😉 ).

Book 2 of The Arthurian Age
Book II of The Arthurian Age

4 thoughts on “Kingdom of Rheged: Dark Age Politics, Part 11”

  1. You make a number of statements as if they are undisputed fact, such as which lands were ruled by various Coelings and how they were divided in each generation. (I’m not disputing that they may have been divided every generation – but where are you getting all this granular detail?).

    Also, Morcant seems rather late to have been “dispossessed” of Bryneich. Surely it had been in Anglian hands for some time by the late 500s. Most scholars seem to say, “We don’t know where Morcant belongs.” Equally, I’ve never before seen the assertion that Morcant killed Owain. We don’t even know that Owain survived Urien. There is a reasonable case to be made that he didn’t.

    If you have good, scholarly sources for any of this, I hope you will share them. Otherwise, you really need to learn to qualify your statements.

    • Thanks for writing in. I apologize, I must not have been clear enough in my statement in the beginning of the article about how little we know of this era, and how I adapt this information to my historical novel series.

      Some folks who study these topics deeply can get very opinionated about minor details, often demanding that their interpretation of events is correct, when they have no more proof than some other person’s interpretation. I have gone through many sources and chosen the details I find most plausible in order to build a plausible story. In articles such as these, I frequently link to other sites for details that some, like you, perhaps, might find interesting to explore further. Aside from those links, I also have a page with an extensive list of written and online sources (List of Sources for The Arthurian Age), and another page (Interesting Links) with links to many more online resources. I hope you find these helpful.

      This is not an academic website. My responsibility is not to present every argument with academic sources to support my assertions. I don’t want to bore my readers. My goal isn’t to impress academics, but to ignite an interest in history for people who don’t have the time to devote to academic historical studies, but may not know how rich and interesting these times were. If it encourages these people, like it has me, to explore these topics more deeply, then all the better.

      As for Morcant Bulc, a google search will offer some of the sources I used for my description. Dating is a particularly troublesome issue. I’m of the opinion that most commonly cited dates are later than the actual people and events they report. In my novels I am meticulous about not changing what history we know for certain. But where it is fuzzy on details, like dates, I make the best judgement I can, because you can’t write a compelling historical fiction novel with a lot of “maybes”.

      Thanks for speaking up!

  2. Llywarch Hen

    The Head of Urien

    I carry a severed head.
    Cynfarch’s son, its owner, would
    Charge two warbands without heed.

    I bear a great warrior’s skull.
    Many did good Urien rule;
    On his bright breast, a dark gull.

    I bear a head at my heart,
    Urien’s head, who ruled a court;
    On his bright breast the crows dart ….q


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