Coel Hen, or Coel the Old*, appears as a founder figure in several Brittonic royal genealogies. What can we say about him?
Coel Hen (also spelled Coyl Hen or Coil Hen) appears at the head of several genealogies of sixth-century Brittonic kings preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, for example:
[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen.[G]uallauc map Laenauc map Masguic clop map Ceneú map Coyl hen[G]urci ha Peretur mepion eleuther cascord maur map letlum map Ceneú map Coylhen.[M]orcant map Coledauc map Morgant bulc map Cincar braut map Bran hen, map dumngual moilmut map Garbaniaún map Coyl hen map Guotepauc [continues]
--Harleian genealogies, available online
Llywarch Hen m Elidyr Lydanwyn m Meirchavn m Gorust Ledlvm m Keneu m CoelDunavt a Cherwyd a Sawyl Pen Uchel meibyon Pabo Post Prydein m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel.Gwendoleu a Nud a Chof meibyon Keidyav m Arthwys m Mar m Keneu m Coel
--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), available online
Morgant m cletauc m morgant uull brawt branud uoel m dyuynwawl m garboniawn m coel hen.
-- Jesus College manuscript 20, available online
Urien (Urbgen), Morcant (Morgant) and Guallauc are the names of kings who fought against the kings of Bernicia in the late sixth century according to Historia Brittonum. Gurci and Peredur died in 580 according to Annales Cambriae. Gwendoleu was killed at the battle of Arthuret in 573 according to Annales Cambriae. A corpus of poetry attributed to Llywarch Hen portrays him as an approximate contemporary of Urien. So this group of genealogies appear to be concerned with the descent of kings who were active in the later sixth century.
One of the genealogies in the Jesus College manuscript also names a wife and daughter of Coel Hen:
Mam veibyon Cuneda oed wawl verch Coyl hen.Gwreic Coyl hen oed verch Gadeon m Eudaf hen vchot.
Jesus College manuscript 20 #7, available online
These lines translate as:
The mother of the sons of Cunedda was Gwawl daughter of Coyl HenThe wife of Coyl Hen was a daughter of Gadeon son of Eudaf Hen.
Eudaf Hen appears in the Dream of Macsen Wledig as the lord of Segontium/Caernarvon, whose beautiful (legendary?) daughter Elen married Emperor Magnus Maximus. Cunedda is the (legendary?) ancestor of the kings of Gwynedd.
The wife and daughter of Coel Hen also appear in the Triads:
These are the three times when the Lordship of Gwynedd went by the Distaff:One of them was Stratweul daughter of Cadfan ap Cynan ab Eudaf ap Caradog ap Bran ap Llyr Llediaith; and this Stratweul was wife of Coel Godebog. She was the mother of Cenau ap Coel and the mother of Difyr. Others say that she was called Seradwen daughter of Cynan ab Eudaf ap Caradog.The second was Gwawl daughter of (Coel) Godebog, mother of Cunedda Wledig and wife of Edyrn son of Padarn Peisrudd.And the third was Essyll(t) daughter of Cynan Tindaethwy, mother of Rhodri Mawr and wife of Merfyn Frych.
--North Britain Triads, available online
The first thing to be said about the genealogies and the Triads is that they are late sources, surviving in medieval manuscripts written in what is now Wales several centuries later than the sixth-century kings whose descent they describe. This leaves ample time for the genealogies to have been miscopied, misinterpreted, manipulated or even made up altogether. Coel Hen occupies a similar position to that occupied by Woden in many Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies, and may bear about as much relation to history. It is quite possible that Coel Hen was added in by whoever compiled the genealogies at the top of any short genealogy that was felt to need some additional ancestors in its upper reaches, or even that he was a fictional figure who never existed at all. The Triads were a sort of aide memoire for poets and storytellers, not necessarily a record of factual events.
However, the genealogies and the Triads are about all there is, so with these caveats in mind, let’s accept that Coel Hen was a real figure of some sort and that the genealogies and Triads preserve some genuine information. If so, what can reasonably be inferred about him?
Coel may be a Brittonic form of a Latin name such as Coelius. This may indicate that Coel Hen was originally a Roman figure. However, other Latin-derived names occur in the genealogies; there is a ‘Garboniawn’ son of Coel Hen in one of the genealogies listed above, which may be a Brittonic version of the Roman name Germanianus, and the ancestors of Cunedda in another genealogy are given as Etern, Padarn and Tacit, which may be derived from the Roman names Aeternus, Paternus and Tacitus. It may simply be that Roman-derived names were fashionable among certain families or classes, and that Coel Hen belonged to one of these.
‘Hen’ means ‘old’, and may indicate that Coel Hen lived to a ripe old age, or that when the title became routinely attached to his name he was thought of as a figure from the distant past. These are not mutually exclusive.
‘Godebog’ appears as a title or nickname for Coel in the Triads, and the earlier form ‘Guotepauc’ appears as his patronymic in Morcant’s genealogy in the Harleian genealogies above. It translates as ‘Protector’. This may be derived from a Roman title or rank and, along with his name, may indicate that Coel Hen was originally a Roman figure. However, a sixth-century king in south Wales, Vortipor, was also named ‘Protector’ in a Latin inscription on his tombstone. It may be that ‘Protector’ was a fashionable title for a ruler, possibly borrowed from memories of Roman titles but not necessarily with a direct link to previous Roman structures of government.
Urien, Peredur, Gurci and Gwendoleu all lived in the late sixth century, as did Guallauc and Morcant if they are the same individuals named in the Historia Brittonum. Coel Hen’s name occurs 4-7 (mainly 4 or 5) generations above their names in the genealogies. Applying the very approximate dating method of counting generations, and allowing 30 years per generation, this puts Coel Hen in approximately the early fifth century.
Urien’s territory was Rheged, whose location is uncertain but probably somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland (more about Rheged in another post).
Gwendoleu was killed at the battle of Arthuret, traditionally located at Arthuret House near Longtown in Cumbria, and the nearby place name Carwinley may be derived from ‘Caer Gwendoleu’ (see earlier post on the Battle of Arthuret).
Guallauc ap Laenauc may be associated with the kingdom of Elmet (see earlier post on Guallauc ap Laenauc). Alternatively, the first element of his name means ‘wall’, so he may have been associated with one or both of the two Roman walls, Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall.
Peredur is tenuously associated with York (see earlier post on Peredur).
All of these are located somewhere in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, and one of the genealogies is explicitly called ‘The Descent of the Men of the North’, clearly indicating the territorial associations of the people in it. If Coel was considered an ancestor (real or imagined) of rulers in northern England/southern Scotland, that may indicate that he himself was considered to have ruled part or all of the same area.
The name of Coel’s wife in the Triads, Stratweul, translates as ‘Wall Road’, and the name of Coel’s daughter, Gwawl, translates as ‘Wall’. While it is possible that these represent the actual names borne by aristocratic ladies, it may be more likely that they represent titles or regional designations misunderstood as names. They may indicate that Coel Hen had some association (real or imagined) with a famous wall and/or a road associated with a wall. The two most obvious candidates for a famous wall in early medieval Britain are the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall, both of which have associated military roads. This is also consistent with a location for Coel Hen somewhere in northern England/southern Scotland.
Rank or status
The title ‘Protector’ was also used by a ruler in sixth-century south Wales (who may have been one of the kings castigated by Gildas). This may indicate that Coel Hen had, or was believed to have had, a similar high status, i.e. as a king or equivalent. His position at the top of a large number of genealogies also indicates that he was considered an important figure (even if the genealogies include a sizeable component of fiction, why invent descent from a nobody?).
An attractive conclusion to leap to is that Coel Hen was a very senior Roman official controlling the northern part of Roman Britain in the early fifth century, that he continued to rule the same large territory after the official end of Roman administration in the early fifth century, and that he established a dynasty that continued to rule his territory (progressively divided between sons at each generation) for the best part of the next two centuries.
The first part of this scenario is, I think, plausible. The senior military commander in the northern part of Roman Britain in the late Empire was the Dux Britanniarum and Prefect of the Sixth Legion, who was probably based at York (see post on the documentary sources for post-Roman York) and commanded the garrisons of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall as well as the Sixth Legion. This would have been a position of considerable power, and strongly associated with Hadrian’s Wall. The holder of this position may well have been able to retain a degree of authority over some or all of the area between York and the Wall for some time after the official end of Roman administration in the early fifth century. How long would depend on the ability of the individual concerned, the resources available to him, and whether Roman government collapsed rapidly in mutinies, civil wars, rebellions and/or attempted coups, or dwindled gradually as a declining economy and decaying infrastructure made it progressively more difficult to maintain central control over a large area, leading peripheral (and progressively less peripheral) regions to become progressively more independent until they fragmented into separate polities.
The latter part of the scenario – that Coel Hen founded a dynasty whose descendants ruled the north for two centuries – I think is less plausible. Maintaining control of a large area and handing it on by inheritance over many generations implies a degree of political stability, unlikely in the aftermath of a change as major as the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Britain in the sixth century appears to have been a mosaic of many small independent polities – Gildas alone names five kings, and many more appear in Historia Brittonum, the Triads and the poetry. It seems likely to me that this fragmentation would have occurred earlier rather than later, probably in the fifth century, and that the rest of the fifth and most of the sixth century was a period of rearranging the pieces by competition and successive cycles of consolidation, partition and reconsolidation, resulting in the mix of small and large kingdoms that are discernible around the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries when historical records start to become less scant.
However, the first part of the scenario is by itself consistent with Coel Hen’s appearance in the genealogies and the Triads. A senior Roman commander in the northern part of Roman Britain in the Late Empire would be consistent with a Roman name and a Roman title, and consistent with an association with Hadrian’s Wall. If he held the position during the last days of Roman rule he would have held the sort of authority over the area under his command that later ages associated with a king. If he maintained this position for enough time to become the subject of stories and panegyrics/ heroic poetry, he could have become established in literary tradition as an important figure and a powerful ruler in northern England/southern Scotland. Even if the territory fragmented after a few years or decades into many local rival kingdoms, each with an independent ruler, he may still have been remembered as the predecessor of them all. Local rulers may have claimed descent from him as a way of legitimising their own claims to authority, and when later kings compiled their genealogies, his name would be a logical one to add to the upper reaches as a famous ancestor. (If he had a family, some of the claims may have been true.)
If we accept that Coel Hen had a real existence, his appearances in the genealogies are consistent with him having lived some time in the early fifth century; been associated with the Late Roman administration (with a Roman name and title); held an important position of power in the north of Roman Britain and associated with one or both Roman Walls; held it for long enough and effectively enough to become famous, with stories told about him that were remembered and circulated (and probably embellished) in later years and were worth referring to in the Triads; had descendants who ruled parts of his territory after him and/or became established as a suitable figure to add to the upper reaches of a genealogy in need of an illustrious ancestor from the distant past (thereby giving him a large family of ‘virtual’ descendants to add to any actual biological descendants).
As ever, other interpretations are possible.
Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), available online
Harleian genealogies, available online
Jesus College manuscript #7, available online
North Britain Triads, available online
* Yes, he may well be the origin of the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme. No, absolutely nothing reliable is recorded about his cheerful disposition or his taste in music. Pity.