21 October, 2009

Brittonic names in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ genealogies, and vice versa

In an earlier post, I discussed some examples of marriages between Brittonic and early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) royalty. The presence of Brittonic names in Anglo-Saxon genealogies, and a possible Brittonic warrior whose father had an Old English name, may be further supporting evidence for intermarriage.

Caedbaed of Lindsey

The genealogy of the kings of Lindsey (roughly modern Lincolnshire, see map for approximate location) is given in the Anglian Collection:

Woden; Winta; Cretta; Cwedgils; Caedbaed; Bubba; Beda; Biscop; Eanferth; Eata; Aldfrith
--Anglian Collection (scroll down)

None of the individuals can be securely dated. Bede mentions a man called Blaecca, who was the reeve of the city of Lincoln in around 628 (Book II ch.16). If this Blaecca was some sort of relative of the three kings beginning with B- in the genealogy, as might be consistent with the habit of alliterative naming and his possession of a position of responsibility, then those kings might be tentatively dated to somewhere around the early to mid seventh century, but this really is clutching at straws.

For the purposes of the current discussion, the name of most interest is the one immediately preceding the three B- kings, Caedbaed. This name contains the common Brittonic name element Caed- (also spelled Cat- or Cad-), which derives from the word for ‘battle’ and occurs in the names of numerous documented Brittonic kings and princes in the seventh century, including Cadfan, Cadwallon and Cadwallader of Gwynedd (see earlier post on the Kings of Gwynedd) and Cadafael Catguommed (see earlier post on Cadafael). Does its presence in the genealogy of the kings of the Anglian kingdom of Lindsey indicate a coincidence, a fashion in names, a scribe who mistakenly copied the name in from somewhere else, or a dynastic connection with Brittonic royalty?

Cerdic of Wessex

Bishop Asser, writing in the late ninth century, gives the genealogy of Alfred the Great as follows:

King Alfred was the son of king Ethelwulf, who was the son of Egbert, who was the son of Elmund, was the son of Eafa, who was the son of Eoppa, who the son of Ingild. Ingild, and Ina, the famous king of the West-Saxons, were two brothers. Ina went to Rome, and there ending this life honourably, entered the heavenly kingdom, to reign there for ever with Christ. Ingild and Ina were the sons of Coenred, who was the son of Ceolwald, who was the son of Cudam, who was the son of Cuthwin, who was the son of Ceawlin, who was the son of Cynric, who was the son of Creoda, who was the son of Cerdic, who was the son of Elesa, who was the son of Gewis, from whom the Britons name all that nation Gegwis
--Asser, Life of Alfred

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:

A.D. 495. This year came two leaders into Britain, Cerdic and
Cynric his son, with five ships, at a place that is called
Cerdic's-ore. And they fought with the Welsh the same day. Then
he died, and his son Cynric succeeded to the government, and held
it six and twenty winters

A.D. 519. This year Cerdic and Cynric undertook the government
of the West-Saxons; the same year they fought with the Britons at
a place now called Charford. From that day have reigned the
children of the West-Saxon kings.

A.D. 534. This year died Cerdic, the first king of the West-
Saxons. Cynric his son succeeded to the government, and reigned
afterwards twenty-six winters.
--Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Never mind the contradictory dates for now; there is clearly a tradition that an important early king of the West Saxons was a man called Cerdic. This is the same name as the Brittonic name Ceretic or Ceredig. Bede mentions a Brittonic king Cerdic (Book IV ch. 23), at whose court St Hild of Whitby was born in around 614 (probably the same Ceredig whose death is recorded in Annales Cambriae in 616).

616 Ceredig died.
-- Annales Cambriae

Cadwalla of Wessex

At least one later king of the West Saxons also had a Brittonic name. Bede describes a king called Cadwalla (the same as the Brittonic name Cadwallon, see above under Caedbaed of Lindsey) who made himself king of the West Saxons by military force in around 686 and died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 689 (Book IV ch. 16; Book V ch. 7). Bede explicitly says that he was a member of the West Saxon royal dynasty (Book IV ch. 5).

So the West Saxon dynasty was founded by a man with a Brittonic name, and a member of the same dynasty also had a Brittonic name in the late seventh century. This could be coincidence, fashion or may indicate a dynastic connection with Brittonic royalty.

Possible Anglian name in Y Gododdin

Y Gododdin is a Brittonic epic poem describing a disastrous attack by a warband from Gododdin (roughly the area of modern Lothian and Edinburgh) on ‘Catraeth’ (location unknown, possibly the Roman fort at Catterick in North Yorkshire). The date is unknown, but usually placed in the late sixth or early seventh century, although the poem survives only in a much later (around 13th century) manuscript. It mainly comprises elegies for fallen warriors. One of them, Yrfai or Uruei, had a father whose name was Golistan or Uolstan:

It was usual for Uolstan’s son – though his father was no sovereign lord –
that what he said was heeded
It was usual for the sake of the mountain court that shields be broken through
reddened before Yrfai Lord of Eidyn
--Translation and reconstructed text by John Koch (stanza B2.28)

John Koch interprets Golistan or Uolstan as a form of the common Old English name Wulfstan (Koch 1997). (John Koch's interpretation of the historical context of the poem and the battle is controversial, but the name Golistan/Uolstan doesn't depend on his theory about the historical context). If correct, perhaps this Wulfstan was a mercenary or exile in Gododdin (“no sovereign lord”) who married his employer’s daughter and whose son held a high rank in Gododdin’s warband.


There are two reasonably well-documented inter-ethnic royal marriages from Northumbria in the early seventh century, with possibly a third from the same region in the late sixth century (see earlier post).

Recognisably Brittonic names appear in the genealogies of the Anglian kings of Lindsey (Caedbaed, undated, possibly early seventh century) and the West Saxon royal house (Cerdic, possibly legendary founder, late fifth century; Cadwalla, late seventh century). There may be a hint of an Old English name in the patrimony of a Brittonic hero in Y Gododdin (late sixth or early seventh century). Cross-ethnic naming may be merely a matter of fashion, or could indicate inter-ethnic dynastic connections.

I would interpret the documented marriages and the presence of cross-ethnic names to indicate that inter-ethnic aristocratic marriage could occur in early medieval Britain. There is insufficient evidence to say whether it was rare or widespread, or how its occurrence may have varied by region or over time.

Map links

Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997, ISBN 0-7083-1374-4.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1990, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Anglian Collection, available online
Asser, Life of Alfred, available online
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, available online
Annales Cambriae, available online


Doug said...

Very interesting! (Presumed) Anglo-Saxons with Brittonic names are easily explained under current beliefs that Anglo-Saxons took over British kingdoms one way or another, for example marrying the heiress when their descendants could be given the occasional Brittonic name. Genetic surveys have us descended mostly from English males and Brittonic females, so it was happening at other levels. I had not previously heard of Uolstan, and I had interpreted it as Wulfstan before reading on. This does suggest an Anglo-Saxon man fallen on hard times and taking refuge in a British kingdom. It is still an English male and a Brittonic female, however!

Rick said...

I am afraid I have a struggle to get past King Bubba. (In colloquial American usage, 'Bubba' has somewhat the same meaning as 'redneck.')

That whole genealogy is curious, starting with Woden, and having another king, Biscop, whose name, looks like the OE spelling of 'bishop.'

The case of the West Saxons is particularly interesting, and not just because it ended up as the English ruling house. Perhaps some Briton found himself in charge of a Saxon warband, and decided to make the best of things.

Likewise Uolstan may have just been an adventurer making the best of things. But interestingly the poet calls attention to his father's modest status, not his foreignness.

Carla said...

Doug - Vortigern and Rowena, and Penda's sister and Catwallaun, were the other way round (Brittonic male and English female), if those were genuine events. We don't know exactly how Ecgfrith of Northumbria was a cousin to Bridei of the Picts, so that could be through either a male or female relative. I'd be cautious about generalising from the small number of examples. Another possibility is that although the Anglian Collection genealogies are presented as genealogies (X begat Y begat Z), if some of them were collated in part from king-lists (X was king, then Y, then Z), that could be another context for the occasional appearance of an unusual name. If the kings of Lindsey list was originally a king-list, then one could conjecture that Caedbaed might have been a Brittonic prince marrying an Anglian princess, which would be a possible explanation for his name in the middle of the list. Caveat that some of the names in the genealogies, especially in the upper reaches, may have been misunderstood, miscopied, legendary figures turned into ancestors (e.g. Woden), or invented altogether. In the absence of other sources to corroborate the names, this can't be tested - although it does perhaps show that whoever wrote down the Anglian Collection was un-fazed at the presence of a Brittonic name in the (supposed) descent of the kings of an Anglian kingdom. This in turn raises the interesting question of what exactly was meant by ethnic terms such as Briton or Angle at the time, and whether many people were much bothered in practice.

Rick - I'm afraid some of the single-element Old English names do look a bit lumpen to modern eyes :-)
It's common for Old English royal genealogies to include Woden as a founder, and that may reflect a prevailing fashion about the right sort of illustrious pedigree to claim rather than anything to take too literally. None of the names in the Lindsey genealogy are corroborated elsewhere, so how much weight to put on them and how to interpret them is anyone's guess.

Yes, Biscop is the Old English for 'bishop'. Bede refers to a nobleman-turned-abbot called "Benedict Biscop".
Possibly 'Biscop' in the Lindsey list was a king who abdicated and took up the religious life, like Sigbert of East Anglia, or possibly it really is a genealogy and refers to a bishop of royal stock whose son became king. If either of those is correct, it might be another dating straw to clutch at, since one would expect bishops to come after the conversion to Christianity in the early seventh century (unless of course one conjectures that Lincoln had hung on to a bishop since Late Roman times). As usual, many interpretations are possible.

I'm sure you're familiar with the various theories that propose Cerdic as a son of Arthur or Vortigern :-) In which case he could be seen as a Brittonic king making use of Saxon mercenaries in the same way as Vortigern but perhaps with a different outcome. The son-of-Vortigern theory can neatly accommodate him, since if he was also a son of Rowena that would make him a grandson of Hengest giving him lofty descent - and powerful relatives - on both sides, always handy for a would-be king on the make. As I mentioned above, I wonder whether many people were all that bothered about ethnic background as such, as distinct from wealth, social status, military power, loyalty ties, kinship networks and the rest of the currency of ordinary power politics. This could chime in with your last point, that the Y Gododdin poet comments on Yrfai's father's social status rather than on his ethnicity. Though on the other hand, it could be that Uolstan just happened to have a foreign name rather than being of foreign descent, or even that his name has been reconstructed wrongly. As so often, numerous interpretations are possible.

Gabriele C. said...

Aside the fact that the Pictish king lists are a mess to begin with, there are also some names that most probably aren't Pictish at all.

I won't be surprised if the thinking was often along the lines, hey, that Saxon guy and his warband are on our side, the Pictish neighbour is the one who stole our cattle. Let's marry my daughter to the Saxon warlord who can kick neighbour's behind for us. :D

Rick said...

Gabriele - Would we even know a 'Pictish' name when we saw one? Or would it just be another name that wasn't obviously either Brittonic or English?

Carla - Actually I wasn't familiar with those Cerdic theories, even though they parallel speculations I've made. :-)

I'd imagine that 'ethnicity' - in practical terms, native language, Brittonic/Welsh or English - would always lurk in the background in practical respects. Even elites wouldn't necessarily be bilingual.

In late Roman times, 'Germanic barbarians' were seen as a distinct population with a separate legal status, however much it might get blurred in local practice. Surely 5th century Britons had some stereotype of Saxon freebooters, even if they were also doing business with Saxon horse traders in Lundenwic.

How much continuity there is with concepts of English and Welsh several hundred years later is anyone's guess, but shared group identity even among warring clans is common enough; see under 'Hellenes.'

Carla said...

Gabriele - indeed, the Pictish king-lists are very peculiar! That's the sort of scenario I had in mind.

Rick - Good question. There's still a debate about whether the Pictish language was a form of P-Celtic (Brittonic), Q-Celtic (Gaelic), non-Celtic, or something else (I have seen a theory suggesting it was related to Finnish), so it's tricky to define what counts as Pictish. The Pictish king-lists are the major source we have for Pictish names. Some of the names are recognisably related to Brittonic names, e.g. Elpin or Alpin in the Pictish lists (of Kenneth MacAlpin fame) looks like a form of the name Elphin or Elfin that appears in Brittonic genealogies, some aren't. Some, like Enfret/Eanferth (Northumbrian) and Beli (Strathclyde British) belong to identifiable individuals who came from lands other than Pictland. I think it's fair to say that the names in the list look like they come from a variety of sources.

I rather like the Cerdic-as-a-son-of-Arthur-or-Vortigern theories, although they are pretty much unprovable with the current evidence, because they provide a neat and fairly simple explanation for why a man with a Brittonic name could be regarded as the founder of an 'Anglo-Saxon' dynasty. I daresay there were stereotypes then as now, and legal distinctions were made in some law codes, e.g. Ine of Wessex. What's interesting, and difficult to assess at this distance, is how it worked in practice. Language is the most obvious marker, as you say, and language is a cultural trait that can be learned.

Gabriele C. said...

Rick, since Commodus' edict in the early 3rd century, all free people living in the Roman Imperium were Roman citizens and had the same legal status. But Germania Magna was no Roman province, and when they crossed the limes, they came to fight and plunder, and didn't care about law. It was a bit different with the Gothic tribes who were accepted into the imperium in the late 3rd century but not granted full citizenship, obviously.

But the lines between Romans and 'barbarians' became pretty blurred in the 5th century when the army was led by more Germans than Romans. Flavius Stilicho, the magister militum, was a member of the Imperial family by his son's betrothal to Honorius' daugther, and King Alaric's rival Sarus was a Roman general as well. Alaric himself had been educated at the military academy in Byzantium, and it was Honorius' big mistake to listen to the anti-barbarian party among his advisors instead of granting the Visigoths land in exchange for military service - in the end they took it anyway. :)

Rick said...

Yes, the lines between 'Romans' and 'barbarians' could be very blurred! I've speculated that an ambitious Saxon in 5th century Britain might as readily aim at being Stilicho as at being Theodoric. The case of Cerdic suggests that a Briton might also aim at being Theodoric.

Language can be learned, though at least in modern times there's a stereotype of English-speakers as mulishly monolingual.

One thing that would tend to reinforce language division as (elite) culture division is poetic tradition. English speaking courts were hearing one set of songs, Welsh speaking courts a different set, with different heroes and villains.

Carla said...

Gabriele - thanks very much, really interesting. Germanic officers in the Army top brass are known from Britain too, the Fullofaudes who was Dux Britanniarum in the 360s had a Germanic name.

Rick - or aim at being Magnentius or Magnus Maximus, except getting to win this time :-) Given that the Army was the source of real power, the distinction between magister militum and Emperor may have been getting a bit academic. You can argue that 'king' effectively combines both roles.

The modern stereotype derives partly from the educational system of starting language teaching at 13 or 14 instead of in primary school when children are primed to pick up languages easily. This in turn may well be a hangover of Empire, reinforced by the fact that American is the dominant world language for business so English-speakers can get a free ride. This may be a comparatively recent phenomenon. Go back to the Renaissance court and the impression I have (not based on any systematic sample) is that many educated people spoke multiple languages; Elizabeth I famously spoke five. Bede evidently knew Latin and Greek as well as Old English, since he quotes from Latin and Greek texts, and since he knew the translation of Brittonic place names like Caerlegion (and knew that the Brittonic form was closer to the Latin form than the English version) he either knew some Brittonic himself or had access to someone who did. Oswald spoke fluent Irish as well as Old English. So there are some documented examples of people in the early medieval elite (secular and religious) who were bilingual or multilingual. How many there were is anyone's guess, but the number wasn't zero.

Good point about Brittonic and Old English court poetry developing separate sets of stories with separate heroes and villains. Possibly sometimes the obverse of each other! Bede quite clearly regarded Catwallaun of Gwynedd as a villain and Eadwine as a great hero, and whoever wrote Moliant Cadwallon reversed the roles. Something similar may have applied to Magnus Maximus, regarded as hero and Emperor in Welsh tradition (The Dream of Macsen Wledig; the inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg), and as a treacherous usurper by Gildas. Possibly also with Vortigern, although the surviving evidence is very one-sided. HB gives the anti-Vortigern side in exuberant detail, while only the faintest echo of what may have been a pro-Vortigern side now remains (inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg claiming that Vortigern was blessed by St Germanus, implies that the dynasty of Powys regarded him as a honourable ancestor worth commemorating on a monument to their glory). Presumably the pillar inscription originally had a matching set of pro-Vortigern stories told in Powys about the heroism of Vortigern and the stupidity/arrogance/tyranny of Vortigern's rivals that haven't come down to us, owing to the political extinction of the dynasty of Powys in the early ninth century. The huge disadvantage of oral tradition compared with written tradition is that extinction is final; you can rediscover a manuscript that's been ignored for thousands of years if you have a Rosetta Stone to go with it, but you can't rediscover a forgotten poem.