06 February, 2013

Coel Hen



Coel Hen, or Coel the Old*, appears as a founder figure in several Brittonic royal genealogies. What can we say about him?

Evidence

Genealogies

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 Coel
Dunavt 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 Hen
The 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.

Triads

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 


Interpretation

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?

Name
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.

Title
‘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. 

Date
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.

Territory
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.)

Conclusion
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.


References
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.

14 comments:

Beth said...

Really nice synthesis of the info, I enjoyed reading this. :) For the epithet 'Hen', I've wondered if its application is supposed to signify that the bearer was considered by someone, somewhere, sometime, to be a 'founding father' figure - Dyfnwal Hen of Strathclyde, for instance, or Llywarch Hen who you mention here. (And maybe Bran in Morcant's Harleian geanealogy, which rather looks like two genealogies for the price of one!) If that were the case it would be consistent with the way Coel is put forward as the ancestor of so many northern British chieftains. One additional reference to him is in the Taliesin poem 'The Battle of Argoed Llwyfein', where Owain ab Urien calls himself 'a whelp of Coel's descent'. That seems to suggest that the claims could have started relatively early; depending on how you date the poem, of course, as this may be a slightly problematic line. However, it doesn't necessarily imply that this is a claim of actual kinship - which isn't to say, as you observe, that Coel couldn't have had such descendants - as opposed to a position of authority felt to be an 'inheritance' from a powerful figure of the past. And I do agree that his wife and daughter serve to link Coel with the Wall rather than being proper personal names, hinting at the possible extent of his territory.

Just as an aside, 'Guallauc' has been interpreted as meaning 'excelling' or 'better' - although that doesn't rule out his having held territory near the Wall, of course.

Beth said...

Meant to say if the interpretation of Guallauc's name is right, it wouldn't rule out his ruling near the Wall - I don't know the arguments for or against the idea that his name means 'wall'. Do you know who suggested it, at all? I've come across it, but can't think where I've seen it!

Carla said...

Beth - Thanks, I am glad you liked it. Yes, 'Hen' might signify a 'founding father' figure, which could be a variant on my suggestion that it might indicate a figure from a distant past. If the reference in the Taliesin poem is genuinely early, then it indicates that Coel was seen as a founder figure worth claiming descent from by the late sixth century, which would tend to support the idea that he really was a historical figure and not just made up by the genealogists. Though it may also be possible that the line attributed to Owain was a late addition to the poem made after the genealogies had been compiled. Even if the poem was composed by Taliesin originally, it had probably been told and retold by generations of bards before it was written down, and could have been modified en route.

My preference is for the idea that most of the 'descendants' of Coel in the genealogies were successors, rather than biological descendants as such, because this seems a simpler explanation than postulating a single phenomenonally successful family. Some could have been biological descendants as well, and indeed the distinction may not have mattered much anyway. It's not as if anyone could prove or disprove a claimed descent by DNA testing (!). As long as a famous claimed forebear wasn't famous for having left no descendants (the historical Arthur might be in this category, if he existed), who's to contest a claim of illustrious descent made by someone powerful?

The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology gives 'wall' as one of the possible meanings of the name 'Gwawl' from the Mabinogion (the others are 'light' and 'hedge'). If it does mean 'wall' it could perhaps be borrowed from Latin 'Vallum', like the Old English word that gave rise to modern English 'wall'. 'Gwawl' looks like the first element of 'Gwallawg' or 'Guallauc' to me, so I have assumed they are related names sharing an element, like all the Cad- names. I think John Morris says that Gwallawg means 'wall' in The Age of Arthur, too, so I probably saw it there as well - though don't quote me on that, because I haven't checked the book.

That said, the interpretation of Guallauc as 'excelling' is John Koch, isn't it? Google Books has it in his Celtic Culture Encyclopaedia. And on Old Welsh linguistics his opinion is not to be taken lightly. I should amend the post to mention that - thanks for the reminder!

I think it can still be reasonably concluded that Guallauc's territory was somewhere in northern England/southern Scotland on the basis that HB says he fought battles against kings of Bernicia. If his name doesn't mean 'wall' it knocks out one of the supporting planks from the argument but (for once) there's more than one plank in it.

Beth said...

I agree, the 'founding father' and 'man of the past' could well have been sort of synonymous, hence the number of men bering the epithet 'Hen'.

Yes, Owain's line could well be a later addition/adaptation - this particular poem has attracted some debate as to its dating, if I recall correctly. The line itself contains the phrase 'A cheneu vab coel', which translated literally means 'And Cenau son of Coel'; rather reminiscent of the genealogies, so it could've been influenced by them as you suggest. (Ifor Williams dimissed 'vab' as a gloss and posits instead confusion of the word 'cenau', or 'whelp' with the personal name of Coel's son, hence the translation I mentioned in my last comment.) I suppose rival kingdoms might contest claims of descent, but I can't really see why they'd be that bothered. As you say, it probably didn't matter all that much - not compared to the ability to wield (and hold) power.

Ah, that's likely it. I haven't read Morris' book, but his ideas are quite widely disseminated, so I've probably come across it that way. The first part of Guallauc's name is very like the word for 'wall', and indeed the modern Welsh word (well, one of the words) for wall is actually 'gwal', but I don't know enough about Welsh linguistics to say whether that - as opposed to 'Gwawl', which has that extra letter - would be viable in an historical context. Yes, the 'excelling' interpretaion is Koch, whose opinion on linguistic matters is, as you say, worth listening too. I can certainly see how the sound changes his suggestion is based on would work, and the meaning is one I can imagine British nobles being quite keen on...

As you point out, the HB shows that Guallauc was active in the northern England/southern Scotland area, as does some of the poetry, if you take the modern identifications of various places mentioned at face value. His territory, I suppose, will remain a mystery beyound that, enticing as the possible link with Elmet may be.

Carla said...

There's also the phrase 'Hen Ogledd', The Old North, used in medieval Wales to refer to what's now southern Scotland/northern England (roughly the area between the Walls). Association with that might also have reinforced some of the 'Hen' epithets in the genealogies.

Tim Clarkson in The Men of the North suggests that Ceneu in the genealogies was made up as a result of misunderstanding the line as 'Ceneu son of Coel', i.e. that the poem influenced the genealogies. Given that they were both in circulation together in medieval Wales I suppose they could both have influenced each other.

"A whelp of Coel" makes more sense to me in the context of the poem, where Owain could be using it as a poetic reference to himself, whereas "Ceneu son of Coel" fits less easily. I can see the point of defying an enemy by saying 'no heir of Coel would yield hostages' but rather less of saying that a specific long-dead ancestor would yield hostages. However, even if Owain's defiant words in the poem don't refer to a Ceneu map Coel, that doesn't mean that there could not have been a Ceneu map Coel in his (claimed) family tree; indeed, if there was, it would be a clever play on words.

My guess is that a claimed illustrious descent was a requirement for a successful warlord, but that it could be acquired/ polished up after the fact if necessary. And then repeated until it became established as a fact because 'everybody knows it'. Nowadays we might call that a 'factoid', a fact-shaped object, but that's a recent concept...

No, I don't know enough linguistics to begin to make that judgment. I don't even know whether it's possible for two different sources to end up at the same word, or at any rate at two words that are so similar that the differences between them are less than the spelling variations within each (if you follow). Yes, a name element meaning 'excelling' would have obvious appeal in a noble family! Though in that case I might have expected it to be a commoner name element than it seems to be, even if not quite as ubiquitous as 'Aethel-' in Old English names (!). One reason I like 'wall' as a derivation is that I can see how that might have been localised to names in a small region, and resulted in a comparatively rare name.

Rick said...

Is Coel Hen the source of 'Old King Cole'? In any case, I (hazily) recall reading other speculation about Coel Hen, along similar lines.

Wouldn't the name of (possibly-legendary) Elen also suggest a classical origin? At least it looks like some variant on Helen.

Certainly whoever was in charge of the northern frontier military zone would be in a strong position, with whatever auxiliary troops were left when the legions marched off.

But how were these troops paid? This is a whole aspect of the late Empire about which I know nothing - but unpaid troops can turn into a crisis very quickly. Personal charisma is great, but it has to be turned into pay/provisions/plunder in order to hold onto an army.

Rick said...

Oops, only noticed your footnote about Old King Cole after posting!

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, Elen is a Brittonic variant of Helen. The name probably came into regular use not so much from Helen of Troy as from St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, who was an important Christian saint. There was a legend (Geoffrey of Monmouth, I think) that St Helena was from Britain. I don't think there's any solid evidence for that, but it's consistent with her having been a popular saint in Britain, and the legend could also have reinforced the popularity of the name Elen in Britain. The name Elen resurfaces in medieval French Arthurian romances in the Gallic variant, Elaine.

In the late Roman army the troops got free food supplies and equipment, plus a salary, plus bonuses (donatives) as sort of personal gifts from the emperors. Salary payments were erratic, and I should imagine also suffered from periodic inflation. As I understand it the donatives were more reliable - emperors presumably understanding the importance of keeping troops sweet - and it's not hard to see how the system of imperial donatives could turn into the more familiar system of a warlord handing out loot or exotic trade goods as gifts to his followers. Supplies would have been provided by the military logistics and supply services when the imperial administration system was working. That may have been one of the last parts of the administration to fall apart, because hungry soldiers are a very, very bad idea, so one imagines that any authority, no matter how threadbare, made military supply its top priority. As and when the supply system did break down, local commanders had the means to exact supplies from the local population. If that was done in a controlled way at a level that the local economy could withstand in the long term (perhaps instead of paying imperial taxes), then again it starts to look not unlike a system of food-rents and feudal dues.

Beth said...

Carla - That's true. I hadn't thought of connecting Yr Hen Ogledd with the 'Hen' epithet, but certainly a lot of the characters I can remember who bear that epithet are from the Old North. Of course, that could just be reflecting my research focus... ;)

Thanks for metioning Mr Clarkson's theory; I do have The Men of the North, but have to admit I haven't read it through thoroughly, so I didn't remember that. Ceneu was evidently in use as a personal name as 'early' as the less archaic part of The Gododdin, so yes, I can see how there could have been a misunderstanding, with the scribe thinking the word was a personal name. And yet it kind of surprises me that he performed such a flight of fancy without some basis, because I'd have thought 'ceneu Coel' (assuming there wasn't already some other word between those which he then reinterpreted) would have made sense to him. Of course, maybe it just didn't. I'm not arguing for or against Ceneu's existence here, just noting a puzzle, really. Certainly in the context of the poem, though, I'd agree, 'whelp' makes good sense where the personal name doesn't really contribute much at all. Good point about the possible wordplay!

I followed. :) Agreed, a regional name would explain the comparative rarity of something like 'Guallauc'. The name 'Guoillauc' I believe appears on the Pillar of Elisedd and I do wonder if it represents 'Guallauc', but as you say, it's nowhere near as common as you might expect for a name that means 'excelling'. I can't think of any other (Brittonic) names off the top of my head which actually incorporate the 'gual' element, either.

Carla said...

Beth - it's well worth reading. Re the poem, there may have been an illegible or archaic word that the scribe had to guess at. Or both versions may have been in oral circulation, or some versions may have included a reference to a famous incident involving Ceneu map Coel that was rather awkwardly compressed into a shorter version.

Yes, I wondered about Guoillac on the Pillar of Eliseg, and mentioned him in my post about Guallauc ap Lleenauc. I don't know of any other Guallauc or Gual- names, apart from Gwawl in the Mabinogion, who might be legendary/ mythical, and Gwawl daughter of Coel in the Triads, which might be some sort of metaphor for a region rather than an actual name. So it does seem to have been a rare name, although of course there could be any number of reasons for that.

Beth said...

This one got buried in my inbox - sorry about that. Yes, I definitely must push Clarkson's book higher up my reading list. Re the poem, I totally agree.

As far as 'gual-' names go, I did briefly wonder about Dyfnwal (being a king of Strathclyde, he could at a stretch have been associated with the Antonine Wall, perhaps) but since the name is apparently interchangeable with 'Dunmail', it seems things aren't that cut and dried. (When are they ever with this period...) I think it's been suggested that that 'Gwawl' in the Mabinogion is, similarly to Gwawl daughter of Coel, a metaphor for a region, because of his patronymic of Clud. Having said that, 'Clud' does appear as an element in personal names, so who knows? In any case, Guallauc's name remains a real mystery.

Carla said...

Beth - yes, Gwawl son of Clud does look suspicious, doesn't it? Like something about the Antonine Wall turned into a name.

There again, I do sometimes imagine future archaeologists/historians trying to make sense of contemporary culture with similarly late and fragmentary sources, and wonder whether they would start constructing theories about someone called Pierre being a personification of rock, or someone called Heather being a memory of a flower-goddess, or someone called Douglas being a metaphor for a Scottish river. As you say, who knows?

tenthmedieval said...

My guess is that a claimed illustrious descent was a requirement for a successful warlord, but that it could be acquired/ polished up after the fact if necessary. And then repeated until it became established as a fact because 'everybody knows it'. Nowadays we might call that a 'factoid', a fact-shaped object, but that's a recent concept...

For what it's worth, this would fit with an old article of David Dumville's about how people of this era used genealogies, which was as he saw it and probably still sees it, as a flexible and adaptable way of asserting a right to inherit, no matter the actual biological descents involved. The Irish genealogies are especially obvious in the way that a new political overlordship causes the upper reaches of various families' descents to be moved over; compare also the addition of Biblical figures to Anglo-Saxon genealogies after conversion... (The ref. is Dumville's piece in Peter Sawyer and Ian Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kinsghip (1977). I suspect I risk telling you things you already know here...

Rick - Yes, Elen is a Brittonic variant of Helen. The name probably came into regular use not so much from Helen of Troy as from St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, who was an important Christian saint. There was a legend (Geoffrey of Monmouth, I think) that St Helena was from Britain. I don't think there's any solid evidence for that, but it's consistent with her having been a popular saint in Britain, and the legend could also have reinforced the popularity of the name Elen in Britain.

At the very least, it's consistent with Constantine having been born in York. Helena must have been there for some time at least, even if she didn't start in Britain...

Carla said...

Tenthmedieval - many thanks. I would agree with that theory, that the genealogies could be used as a claim for a right to authority without necessarily reflecting biological descent. As well as the addition of Biblical figures (e.g. in Alfred the Great's genealogy), I seem to remember various late Northumbrian kings claiming descent from Ida of Bernicia and a concubine. As so often, the two aren't mutually exclusive; some of the genalogies may have also been biological descents, at least for some generations.

Yes, good point, if Helena had been resident in Britain for a while, she may have been regarded as a 'British' figure at the time even if she had originally been born somewhere else.