29 December, 2010

Ceretic of Elmet

Ceretic was a king of the Brittonic kingdom of Elmet in the early seventh century. The likely location of the kingdom of Elmet was discussed in an earlier post. Ceretic is the only king of Elmet explicitly mentioned in the surviving sources, and it seems likely that he was the last. What do we know about him?


Historia Brittonum

Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete, and Expelled Cerdic, its king.
--Historia Brittonum ch. 63, available online

Annales Cambriae

616 Ceredig died.
617 Edwin begins his reign.
--Annales Cambriae, available online

Assuming that the Ceredig who died in 616 is the Cerdic, king of Elmet, mentioned in Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae seems to have got the events the opposite way round. If the records refer to the same individual, it is possible that Edwin (Eadwine) expelled Ceredig/Cerdic before beginning his own reign, or perhaps as part of the same campaign so that events followed close on one another and their order later became confused.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History

Bede refers to a Brittonic king called Cerdic, ruling in around 614. This king Cerdic shares a name with the Ceredig recorded in Annales Cambriae at about the same time, and also with the king of Elmet recorded at about the same time in Historia Brittonum. Ceretic, Ceredig and Cerdic were variant spellings of each other. Ceretic was a popular name*, but three separate Ceretics, two of whom are explicitly called kings and the third of whom was considered important enough for his death to be recorded in the Annales, all contemporaries, seems rather unlikely. The simplest explanation is that all three sources refer to the same individual.

….a dream which her mother Breguswith had when Hild was an infant, during the time that her husband Hereric was living in banishment under the protection of the British king Cerdic, where he died of poison.
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV ch. 23.

I discussed Hereric in an earlier post. Bede’s story suggests that Hereric’s death is likely to have occurred around the time of Hild’s birth in about 614, so Ceretic was reigning at that time.

The Welsh Triads

Three Adulterers' Horses of the Island of Britain:Fferlas [Grey Fetlock] horse of Dalldaf son of Cunin, and Gwelwgan Gohoewgein horse of Caradawg son of Gwallawc, and Gwrbrith [Spotted Dun] horse of Rahawd.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

Caradawg is a variant spelling of Ceretic.


There is no patronymic for Ceretic of Elmet given in Bede, Historia Brittonum or Annales Cambriae. As far as I know, the Triad mentioning a Ceretic ap Guallauc does not give him a territorial association. I cannot find a likely candidate for Ceretic of Elmet in the Harleian, Jesus College or Men of the North genealogies listed on Keith Matthews’ website.

On the strength of the reference to Ceretic ap Guallauc in one of the Welsh Triads (see above), John Koch suggests that Ceretic of Elmet was the son of Guallauc ap Laenauc, who appears in the genealogies and in Canu Taliesin (Koch 1997, page xxiii, footnote 1). If this is the same Guallauc recorded as an ally of Urien Rheged in Historia Brittonum, he was active in the late sixth century. More about Guallauc in another post.



Historia Brittonum is clear that Ceretic was ruling Elmet when Eadwine ruled Northumbria, and we know from Bede that Eadwine ruled from 617 to 633. Annales Cambriae says that Ceretic died in 616 (assuming this is the same Ceretic), which would imply that Ceretic was ruling Elmet at the beginning of Eadwine’s reign rather than the end. If he is the same as the king mentioned by Bede, he was ruling in 614. So we can reasonably conclude that Ceretic was an adult in 614-617.

If we take John Koch’s suggestion that Ceretic of Elmet was the son of Guallauc, then Ceretic’s father was leading armies in the late sixth century.

Ceretic could have been born as late as the late 590s, if he was born well into his (putative) father’s active life. This would place him in his late teens in 614, just about old enough to be a king. None of the sources mention any children, which would be consistent with Ceretic having been too young to have married or fathered children before the end of his reign. However, the sources available to us are very patchy and it is perfectly possible that Ceretic did have children and they were simply not considered important enough to be mentioned (as is very likely if they did not hold positions of political or ecclesiastical power).

Ceretic was probably born some time after 550 (550 would make him 64 years old in 614), otherwise he would have been getting too old to be an active ruler in 614-617. This would make him an adult at the time of his father’s campaigns in the late sixth century, and so it is slightly surprising that he is not mentioned even in passing, but I wouldn’t read too much into that.

On the whole, I would favour a birth date for Ceretic somewhere in the middle of the possible range, probably some time around 580 or so. This would make him too young to take a senior role in his father’s campaigns in the late sixth century, and he would be an adult in his thirties by the time we know he was ruling Elmet in 614-617.


No children, wife or parents are recorded for Ceretic of Elmet, so his family background and connections are uncertain. If John Koch is correct that he was the son of Guallauc ap Laenauc, then his family was a branch of the ‘Men of the North’ and claimed descent from the founder figure Coel Hen. This would make Ceretic and his father relatives of Peredur (possible king of York, see post on Peredur) and Urien, king of Rheged. This is quite a likely familial association for someone who ruled a territory in part of modern Yorkshire.

If Ceretic of Elmet is the Caradawg ap Gwallawc of the Triad, then presumably he was associated with some famous incident of marital infidelity, since he is listed as one of the Three Adulterers. Make of that what you will. (Sometimes I wish the Triads were just a little less cryptic).


Assuming that Ceretic of Elmet is the same British king Ceretic mentioned by Bede, he had given refuge to Hereric of Deira. Since Bede says that Hereric was living under Ceretic’s protection, this indicates that Hereric’s presence was officially recognised and sanctioned by Ceretic. Hereric’s wife and at least one young daughter, possibly two, were also living with him at Ceretic’s court. This may suggest that Hereric had been there some time, long enough to establish a household, and/or that he felt sufficiently secure there to bring his family to live with him. If he had been on the run from a recent defeat in battle, say, or if he doubted Ceretic’s intentions, it is perhaps unlikely that his wife and baby daughter(s) would be with him. This is consistent with Ceretic having a friendly attitude towards Hereric, rather than one of hostility or resentment, though this is speculative.

If Ceretic was friendly towards Hereric of Deira, this may indicate personal friendship, kinship or a political alliance (or any combination thereof). Ceretic’s marriage and family ties are unknown, and he may have had connections with the Deiran royal family in general or Hereric in particular. Elmet and Deira were neighbouring territories and would be natural candidates to ally together against predatory neighbours. Aethelferth of Bernicia had annexed Deira some years earlier (see post on Dating the annexation of Deira), which may well be the reason that Hereric was living in banishment in Elmet in the first place. Ceretic may have been willing to shelter Hereric to honour an alliance. If Hereric was planning to make an attempt to reclaim Deira, Ceretic may have been prepared to offer help and support, either to honour an alliance, out of self-interest or both. Aethelferth had a long track record of military conquest, and if Ceretic feared Aethelferth’s intentions towards Elmet he may have hoped that an attack by Hereric would weaken Aethelferth and forestall an invasion of Elmet.

If Hereric and Ceretic were on friendly terms, this raises questions about Hereric’s death while under Ceretic’s protection. We know from Bede that Hereric’s uncle Eadwine, also in exile from Deira, was living on friendly terms at the court of King Raedwald of the East Angles at about the same time (616/617), and that Aethelferth of Bernicia, Eadwine’s deadly enemy, sent envoys to Raedwald offering him bribes if he would murder Eadwine and threats of war if he would not. Raedwald was swayed by Aethelferth’s arguments – Aethelferth was an extremely powerful king at the time, very probably the most powerful in England – and agreed to kill Eadwine, until he was talked out of it by his queen (Bede, Book II ch. 12). Perhaps something similar happened with Hereric and Ceretic in Elmet, except that Ceretic did not have a queen who persuaded him to change his mind. Many other possibilities come to mind: Hereric’s death may have been due to natural causes and mistakenly or maliciously attributed to poison; he may have been killed for some personal motive that had nothing whatever to do with his membership of the Deiran royal family or Ceretic’s political position; he may have been secretly assassinated on Aethelferth’s orders, or by a rival from his own family, without Ceretic’s knowledge or consent; he may have been killed by somebody to discredit Ceretic… the list is limited only by your imagination.

Hereric’s uncle Eadwine expelled and/or killed Ceretic a few years after Hereric’s death, according to Historia Brittonum. No motive is recorded. It may have been an act of vengeance for Hereric’s death, if Ceretic was believed to have been responsible or even if he had only failed to prevent it. If it was a straightforward land grab with no motive except gain, it is possible that Hereric’s death served as a convenient excuse, if one was needed.


Historia Brittonum says that Ceretic was expelled from his kingdom, Annales Cambriae says that he died in 616. Both may be true; if he was driven out of his kingdom, perhaps injured in battle, he could have died shortly afterwards in exile.

Ceretic does not appear in the genealogies, and none of the sources mention any children. This may indicate that he did not have children, or that none of them held a position of sufficient political or ecclesiastical importance to warrant a mention by the chroniclers. Either way, it suggests that if Ceretic had any children, they did not subsequently reclaim his kingdom.


Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Historia Brittonum ch. 63, available online
Koch J. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from dark-age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4.

*The name Ceretic belonged to: Caratacus, the first-century British king who fought the Romans; Coroticus, a fifth-century king in northern Britain ticked off by St Patrick; Vortigern’s interpreter in Historia Brittonum; the eponymous founder of Ceredigion in what is now mid-Wales; Cerdic, the founder of the royal line of Wessex; Caradog, an eighth-century king of Gwynedd. And those are just the ones I can think of.


Rick said...

To the 'Murrican reader, Caradawg has a rather appropriate name for a(n in)famous adulterer!

And if that was his reputation at the time, it suggests one possible explanation for Hereric's apparently untimely demise, as well as raising a question about Hild's paternity that Bede naturally had no interest in pursuing.

On the other hand that could be putting an awful lot of faith in a triad, when you could argue just as well that the poet was really reaching for colorful material. Famous adulterers' horses?

Carla said...

Why is Caradawg especially appropriate?

I think that's reading rather a lot into one Triad :-) Especially as it may not even be the same Ceretic; there were a lot of Ceretics about, and we don't know the patronymic of the one who was King of Elmet, so he may not have been the Ceretic ap Gwallawc of the Triad. Though who's to say?

Bede is quite definite about Hild's paternity, though a conspiracist might say he doth protest too much, I suppose.

The Triads look like a sort of aide-memoire for poets and storytellers, a bit like the lists of kennings in the Prose Edda. So one would expect them to be full of colourful material that would immediately call a story to mind. Horses seem to have had a special status, as there's a group of Triads called The Triads of the Horses. Maybe there were stories about famous horses in their own right.

Rick said...

It's the '-dawg' that looks like a Southern-drawl pronunciation of dog, with connotations you can fill in.

And I agree that the Triad is very thin evidence for anything beyond poets' willingness to turn over any rock for entertaining material, let alone that Ceretic had Hereric offed in order to canoodle with his wife!

For that matter, Bede mentions the poison story with no implication that Ceretic was the guilty party. As I mentioned the last time Hereric came up, presumably the only reason the story got into Bede at all was as the 'origin story' of a notable churchwoman.

Carla said...

Yes, Hereric is mentioned in Bede only in the context of the prophetic dream about his daughter Hild. Bede was explicitly writing a church history - how the English came to be Christian - so unless Hereric had some role to play in the uptake of Christianity, Bede would have had no particular reason to record him. There must have been a good many royal and aristocratic figures who never made it into Bede at all. Probably the most we can say about Hereric's death is that Bede didn't consider it important in his history of Christianity. So by extension, it's a reasonable conclusion that the circumstances surrounding Hereric's death, whatever they were, were not explicitly religious. Beyond that, you can take your pick :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Researching all those obscure kings looks like plotbunny juggling. :D There's a lot of story material in the things Bede doesn't mention. ;)

Same with Tacitus, btw.

Carla said...

Gabriele - indeed there is, which is part of the fun :-)

Rick said...

Isn't that much of the charm of this period? The curtain is just coming up, after a host of changes that we can scarcely reconstruct. we only have one listed king of Elmet, evidently the last one. Had there been a succession of earlier kings. Or was it a kingdom that Ceretic carved out, and which failed to outlast him?

Rick said...

Though I just looked back at your previous post - it would be funny if Elmet only lasted less than two decades as an entity, but left name traces that have survived for 1500 years.

Psuedo-Latin verification word: exuctis

Carla said...

Rick - I was just about to say that in reply to your previous comment! It's possible that the name of even a short-lived kingdom might have stuck in place names, perhaps if it featured in popular local stories or something, but it does seem more likely that the name had been around for a while and had become established over time. I don't know its derivation. As far as I know the name isn't mentioned before the seventh century, although as the records are so sparse it could have been around earlier and not been written down in any record that survived. Ptolemy's second-century Geography lists a 'Camulodunum' as being in the territory of the Brigantes, and if this is the same as the Campodunum mentioned by Bede, maybe Elmet could have originated as one of the sub-components of the Brigantes, who occupied such a big area that they are usually thought to have been some sort of federation. This is speculation, I need hardly add :-)
And yes, this sort of thing is part of the attraction of the period.

Rick said...

Yes, Elmet could have been familiar as the name of a district long before (and after!) it was the name of an independent kingdom.

I think we have the illusion that more is known of Roman Britain than really is, because it was a Roman province and we have many surviving sources on the Roman Empire as a whole. But it seems that it is only well into the post-Roman era that we begin to hear perspectives that actually come from Britain.

Carla said...

The name certainly seems to have survived as a region name long after it ceased to be an independent kingdom, since it is still around in place names today and in the name of a parliamentary constituency. If the Brigantes were a federation, it's a pity there's no legend or record to give a clue to the names of possible component parts.

Yes, because 'Roman Empire' is uch a convenient label, it's easy to assume that it was homogeneous and unchanging and to assume that what applied in Italy in the first century was equally true in Britain in the fourth or Syria in the second. Whereas, as it spanned hundreds of years and hundreds of miles, circumstances probably varied a lot at different times and places. The impressive archaeological remains probably also contribute to thinking we know more than we do - we can reconstruct (some of) the structures, but don't necessarily know how they were used. E.g. the Elliptical Building at Chester! That said, the inscriptions from Roman Britain, official documents like the Notitia and finds like the Vindolanda Letters are a source of information that we don't have again until much later. Literate and bureacratic societies make the historian's life easier :-)

Gabriele C. said...

Yeah, and even Archaeology has its limits. A layer of burnt material can be caused be several reasons, including attacking Alamanni as well as someone having been careless with a cooking fire. ;)

Though I think if it's found outside the gates, the Alamanni (or Picts, Saxons, whoever) are the more likely candidate. ;)

Meghan said...

Sorry late to the party! I'm always impressed with the amount of research you do. It makes for very interesting reading!

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, unless there happens to be a historical source that connecting an archaeological discovery to a recorded event (e.g. Boudica's revolt with the burned layer under London and Colchester), it can be difficult to interpret.

Meghan - thank you, and I'm glad you found it interesting.