06 July, 2013

Rheged: Location

Rheged (also spelled Reged, Reget) was a kingdom in early medieval Britain.  Its most famous king, Urien, was active some time in the late sixth century.  He is recorded in Historia Brittonum and royal genealogies, and was lauded in the poetry attributed to Taliesin.  However, the name of the kingdom itself is known only from the poetry; Historia Brittonum describes a military campaign by Urien against the kingdom of Bryneich (Bernicia) on the coast of what is now north-east England, but does not name or locate Urien’s kingdom. Where might the kingdom of Rheged have been located?


Location of other kingdoms

It seems quite clear that Rheged was somewhere in the north of Britain.  Urien’s genealogy is in the Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Descent of the Men of the North), and the one mention of him in Historia Brittonum describes him fighting against the king of Bernicia at Lindisfarne, in what is now north-east England (see earlier post on Urien Rheged for details).  Urien’s son and probable successor Owain is associated in a medieval tale with the northern saint Kentigern and the daughter of the King of Lothian in what is now south-east Scotland (see earlier post on Owain for more information). According to Historia Brittonum, Urien’s (probable) great-grand-daughter Rhianmellt married the brother of the king of Northumbria in what is now north-east England (more on Rhianmellt in a later post). 

Consideration of the known locations of other kingdoms in the north of sixth-century Britain may help to narrow down the area in which we can look for Rheged. See the sketch map here.

North of the Firth-Clyde isthmus, in what is now north and north-east Scotland, was the kingdom of the Picts.  Argyll, the Kintyre peninsula and nearby islands such as Mull and Iona were part of the kingdom of Dal Riada. The area around the Clyde valley and modern Glasgow was the kingdom of Strat Clut or Alt Clut (Strathclyde). One of Taliesin’s poems mentions a region called ‘Aeron’, which may have been the area around modern Ayr.  The area around Edinburgh and what is now Lothian in south-east Scotland was the kingdom of Gododdin.

What is now north-east England from the river Tweed to the Humber estuary was split between the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira (which merged to form Northumbria in the seventh century). How far they extended west is not known, but the great natural barrier of the Pennine chain is a likely border. The area around Leeds was the kingdom of Elmet (see earlier article on Elmet for more details. 

West from Elmet, a handful of place names indicate a possible kingdom called Craven located in the western foothills of the Pennines.  Its extent is (as usual) uncertain, although the weapontake of the same name in Domesday Book extended west to the Lancashire coast.  South of the Mersey, the Chester area and what is now Cheshire and Shropshire may have been part of the kingdom on Powys (see earlier post on early medieval Powys for more details).

This leaves a big void on the map on the western side of what is now northern England and southern Scotland, stretching from Ayr or Strathclyde in the north down to Lancashire (if Craven extended to the coast) or perhaps as far as the Mersey (if Craven did not extend to the coast) in the south. 

There was certainly occupation in this area in the fifth and sixth centuries, including some inhabitants who apparently controlled substantial resources and may have been chieftains or kings.  For example, someone built two successive very large timber halls in the Roman fort at Birdoswald (see earlier articles for more information on the halls and the dating). The coastal promontory fort of Trusty’s Hill on the north shore of the Solway was occupied by someone who could afford fine metalwork and luxury imports (see earlier article on Trusty’s Hill). Radiocarbon dating has suggested that Trusty’s Hill was occupied from approximately the late fifth century to approximately the early seventh century (see Galloway Picts site, 2 May 2013). Unfortunately, there were no inscriptions to name the people or dynasties who ruled from these places, or to name the areas they controlled.

So there is a large area on the western coast roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire with clear archaeological evidence of local or regional rulers in the early medieval period but no associated names. Conversely, there are named kings and kingdoms in the genealogies and the poetry with no associated locations.  It seems reasonable to put the two together, and to surmise that the un-located kings and kingdoms of the poetry, including Rheged, were probably to be found somewhere in this large region.

Place names

The name Rheged does not seem to have survived in modern place names.  Rochdale in Lancashire was recorded in Domesday Book as Recedham, and the first part of the name looks similar to ‘Rheged’.  However, it could be derived from the Old English word ‘raeced’ (a hall or large building) (Room 1993), or from some compound of Brittonic ‘coed’ (wood) (Clarkson 2010, p.72). 

Dunragit in Galloway has a second element (-ragit) that looks similar to ‘Rheged’, which would give the romantic translation ‘Fort of Rheged’.  However, Tim Clarkson suggests that it may be derived from Gaelic and may have no connection with Rheged (Clarkson 2010, p.71). 

Even if one chooses to accept these rather tenuous connections to the name ‘Rheged’, the two names are at almost opposite ends of the void on the sixth-century map identified above. So they still do not help much in identifying the location of Rheged.

Can the poetry help to narrow down the location of Rheged? More on this in the next post.

Map links

Historia Brittonum, available online
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0.


Constance Brewer said...

Nice analysis. Can't wait to see how poetry ties in.

Beth said...

The finds at Trusty's Hill certainly seem to be consistent with the sort of powerful kingdom Rheged is depicted as being, although there are no doubt alternative candidates. For me the Lyvennet/Llwyfenydd identification is still the most secure, but we could really do with some firmer evidence. (As usual...)

I'll have to re-read your posts about Birdoswald. Having just visited for the first time a few days ago, it'll be interesting to see how what's on the ground matches up with what else was found. :)

Beth said...

Yes, I did wonder if perhaps they were being a little precipitate... As you say, there are a lot of names in the poetry, some even less well known than Aeron or Godeu; and of course there are also kingdoms we don't have the names of, such as Gwallog's (if you don't see him as a king of Elmet, that is). Trusty's Hill happens to be in an area which most people believe was part of Rheged (and I liked your analysis with regard to positioning the kingdom, by the way), but...well, there's always a but with this kingdom, isn't there? I look forward to reading your post about the poetry. :)

I was really rather taken with Birdoswald. I think, without realising it, I'd been inclined to compare such a residence a little unfavourably with the hillforts, but having wandered round it, I've revised my opinion. It has plenty of space, good defences and access, and it would've been, I imagine, quite prominent - what else could a warlord ask for? ;) I didn't make it to Galava fort in Ambleside, but noted with interest that the English Heritage webpage on it discusses how it might have made a base for a warlord in the post-Roman period. I don't recall their having any absolute evidence, but it shows they're open to the possibility, and I do think you have a point - there could be quite a few forts occupied in this way where not much evidence survives. The hillfort above Thirlmere, for example, has produced a radiocarbon date of around the beginning of the 7th century, but I don't know that they've actually found any artefacts or indeed any other traces of occupation; that could apply to Roman forts too, perhaps. We've talked in the past as well about forts which retained their names as if occupation continued (such as Carlisle), although producing no physical evidence. Honestly, if the forts hadn't been robbed out, if they were still inhabitable and defensible, surely you would think of using them? I'm looking forward to seeing what they find in the forthcoming excavations at Ravenglass.

Rick said...

However, the name of the kingdom itself is known only from the poetry

Which leads me to an off the wall speculation: Could the name 'Rheged' itself be a poetic name, a la 'Albion', for a kingdom called more prosaicly by some other name?

Which, to be sure, still leaves the question, which one?

It wasn't very helpful of the Historia Brittonum to mention Urien but not the territory he ruled!

Carla said...

No idea what happened to my comment yesterday, which seems to have disappeared...

Constance - Thanks! I'll post about the poetry later.

Beth - I'd put Trusty's Hill as a centre for Rheged as possible but not proven (like so much else). I'd have no problem with it in fiction, but I'm cautious about claiming it as a 'fact'. A resemblance between dates of occupation and inferred dates from genealogies is just as much a coincidence as a resemblance between names.

Indeed, locating Gwallawg in Elmet is far from certain, and the extent of Gwenddoleu's territory is not known (assuming he was based at Carwinley). Also there seem to be quite a lot of genealogies for descendants of Dyfnwal Hen, perhaps people who ruled territories associated with (part of?) Strathclyde. Then there's Morcant, Llywarch Hen and Dunod, all associated with Urien in the Llywarch Hen poetry, Llywarch as an ally, Morcant as the assassin's employer and Dunod as an enemy of Urien's sons. No shortage of candidates!

Yes, a Roman fort has a lot going for it in terms of defensive capability and prominence. I think one issue that distinguishes the Roman forts from the hillforts is just that - the Roman association. Which could be positive or negative depending on the point of view. For someone who saw Roman authority as something to claim or emulate, a Roman fort could confer great prestige. For someone who saw Roman authority as occupation by an alien power, a hillfort with (real or imagined) allusions to a pre-Roman past of great kings and heroes might be the prestigious choice, while a Roman fort might be something to be shunned.

I missed that about the radiocarbon date at Thirlmere; has it been recently dug, and do you have any more details?

Yes, it will be interesting to see what (if anything) turns up at Ravenglass. Another Christian cemetery like the one at Maryport, maybe? I see a probable early medieval cemetery has recently been found at Caernarvon, near the Roman fort at Segontium (report online). I feel mildly smug about that, because I put a settlement at Caer Seint in Scorpion. I put it there on the strength of 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig' and geography; nice to have some evidence in support now :-)

Rick - Yes, quite possible. That would also be consistent with the apparent lack of name survival, if the name 'Rheged' was a somewhat ephemeral construct in the first place. We touched on this in one of the earlier posts when I suggested that the name Rheged might have been a relatively recent coinage for an enlarged territory. Perhaps rather like Bede using Northumbria for the combined Bernicia and Deira and having to keep explaining it to his readers, except that Northumbria stuck and Rheged, for whatever reason, seems not to have done.

Historia Brittonum doesn't give a territory for any of the four kings who 'fought against Theodric'. Rhydderch can be located in Alt Clut/Strathclyde, but the other three are all un-located. Guallauc is sometimes attached to Elmet, but the evidence for that is very weak, relying on a jump from one of the Triads via a disputed line in a poem (discussed earlier. So Urien is not alone :-)

Rick said...

Well, Northumbria did stick (didn't it?) - in the sense of lasting several generations. Whereas Urien's presumably extensive dominions seem not to have outlasted him.

And come to think of it, in an age of warlords with ever-shifting power bases, the idea of defining and naming territorial states might not seem obvious or necessary.

I can think of military/strategic factors that might influence the choice of Roman or non-Roman fortifications as bases. Hillforts compel any attacker to climb the hill, while Roman forts were presumably established along lines of communication that might - or might not - be relevant later on. More broadly the Roman forts were intended as components of a large-scale defense system, not as stand-alone strongholds

Carla said...

Rick - Indeed, Northumbria lasted as a kingdom until the Vikings, and then as an earldom until around the 12th C when one of the Norman kings split it up. The modern county (roughly corresponding to Bernicia) is Northumberland, which is a bit of an odd choice of name since it is a long way north of the Humber; I think it originates from the Norman partition of the earldom, but don't quote me on that.

Your suggestion of Rheged as a poetic name may tie in. It might not have been necessary for a warlord to define or name his territory, but some warlords or their poets might have chosen to try it, especially if he/they fancied himself as building some sort of new political order.

Quite right that the Roman forts were intended as part of an integrated system of defence. That said, an individual fort could still be used as an individual stronghold if/when the integrated system stopped working. Ken Dark has a theory that there was an attempt to reinstate an integrated system of defence based on the Roman defence network of York and Hadrian's Wall in the sixth century. If anyone did try that, and made it work even temporarily, it must have been someone thinking on a large scale.

Roman roads continued in use as major long-distance routes long after the official end of Roman administration in Britain, which is probably part of the reason why some modern trunk roads like the A1 and A5 still follow their lines. Roman roads would be among the quickest ways of moving a sizeable army by land in early medieval Britain, and probably retained their strategic relevance at least for long-distance campaigning or for rulers who were trying to control large-scale territories. They would also have been obvious routes for what trade and travel there was, and therefore a potential source of revenue in taxes and tolls, although the local warlord could presumably collect tolls from peaceful travellers just by stationing a party of armed men at a suitable choke point, e.g. a crossing over a major river or a hill pass.

Beth said...

Yes, that's pretty much the way I'd been thinking about Trusty's Hill. There are plenty of other kings/kingdoms that it might have belonged to, but as we'll probably never know, like you I'm happy enough to assign it to Rheged in the context of fiction. GUARD Archaeology's illustration of the fort in its heyday brings it to life rather well, anyway, irrespective of who was actually in charge during the period shown!

There are rather a lot of nobles associated with Strathclyde, aren't there? Bias in the sources (I'd imagine the genealogies might have been preserved, like Y Gododdin, in Strathclyde before travelling down to Wales); or were their kings just very prolific?

Occupying a Roman fort does appear to be a statement of continuity, of a link with the Roman world; mind you, so too could be the importation of Mediterranean pottery and glass which is often seen at high-status hillfort sites. (Unless they were just thought of as status symbols because they were rare and expensive.) That begs the question of whether the two viewpoints could co-exist in one kingdom, because if Trusty's Hill and the Mote of Mark were in Rheged, and so was Carlisle (assuming it was inhabited at the time, and there are a lot of assumptions in this hypothetical scenario), then we'd have an interesting mix of attitudes. Not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, especially if there were sub-regions.

The radiocarbon date comes from the ditch of Castle Crag (not to be confused with its Borrowdale cousin!) at Shoulthwaite, but there really isn't much out there about it that I could find. What info I have came from this PDF (p.23), courtesy of Liverpool Museums.

A Christian cemetery would be interesting, and would probably throw a bit of fuel on the fire of the Patrician birthplace debate... Yes, I saw that about Caernarvon - now there's life imitating art! That's pretty cool. :) (Could some kind archaeologist excavate my early medieval residences in Carlisle now? Pleeaase? :)) So, was the 'Dream' preserving a memory of this settlement, I wonder? How is the novel coming, by the way? :)

Carla said...

Beth - Good question. Strathclyde survived so much longer than most of the kingdoms in the 6th-C poetry that it perhaps just retained much fuller records for much longer, long enough for them to survive into medieval manuscripts. So a survival bias in the sources, perhaps also combined with a greater interest in Strathclyde on the part of the compilers, since it was a kingdom of the present or very recent past, rather than one from the distant mists of time.

Yes, it's interesting that hillfort occupation is on distinctly non-Roman sites (even where there might have been a choice, e.g. Degannwy hillfort in North Wales has high-status imports from the 5th/6th C but Segontium Roman fort, not that far away, has not - which is consistent with the local ruler having chosen, for whatever reason, to make Degannwy his residence rather than Segontium), and yet has Byzantine luxury goods. Perhaps the Eastern Empire, which was still important and powerful, was seen as distinct from the Western Empire which had collapsed. There's a theory that the Byzantine artefacts at western British hillforts represent some sort of dsiplomatic offensive by Byznatium, perhaps connected with Justinian's attempt at a reconquista. If so, I do wonder what the hillfort kings and the Byzantine diplomats made of each other. Or I suppose it's perfectly possible for a culture to covet material goods from another without necessarily having any political dimension. Martin Carver sees the Sutton Hoo ship burial as a defiant statement of Anglian paganism, perhaps in opposition to Merovingian-influenced Christian Kent just to the south, yet Merovingian coins and Christian silver spoons were apparently fine as prestige grave goods. For what it's worth, my guess would be that multiple viewpoints could and probably did exist within a kingdom - especially if said 'kingdom' had been relatively recently put together from disparate regions by military conquest. Bede seems fairly clear that there were different opinions on religion in many of the English kingdoms, with his stories of how fathers accepted Christianity and then sons rejected it, or vice versa, or a king accepted it and his advisers did not. It seems likely that there would be different attitudes to all sorts of other things as well, and as you say they aren't mutually exclusive. Scope for all sorts of interesting scenarios!

Many thanks for the link; I think I've got that PDF but had forgotten about the Thirlmere site. It does mention some bits and pieces about post-Roman Carlisle, so although nobody seems to have found the foundations of a Wroxeter-style palace all laid out, you have something to base your early medieval residence on :-)

Carla said...

Beth - (ccontinued) Good question about the Dream. If it was a medieval composition its choice of location for Macsen's princess may have been just a romantic guess, perhaps based on a desire to claim the 11th-C Norman castle for a Welsh figure from the past, or perhaps if the ruins of Segontium Roman fort were visible and made a suitable location. However, it is perfectly possible that the historical Magnus Maximus really did visit Segontium, perhaps being stationed there for a while - the coins in the fort indicate that it was in use in his day - and perfectly possible that he really did marry a local lady, in which case the Dream may be based on an actual event in an accurately recorded location. Given that it isn't set in the normal Arthurian romance location of Caerleon-on-Usk, I'm inclined to think that the location may have been handed down. Exactly how the excavated cemetery relates to the earlier Roman fort and its vicus is open to interpretation. Mortimer Wheeler's excavation as far as I know didn't identify traces of occupation in the fort after the end of the fourth century (-ish; the latest coin was Gratian so was minted in the late 370s/early 380s, but that only tells you the earliest date it could have been deposited, it could have been later). I don't know if techniques at the time would have been able to pick up the sort of faint traces seen at Birdoswald, but he would surely have identified 5th/6th century Byzantine pottery had it been there, so presumably it wasn't. Which is consistent with the centre of power in Gwynedd having shifted to Degannwy by then - the legend of Cunedda offers an obvious context for such a transfer - perhaps leaving a rather less exalted settlement at Caer Seint that goes with the excavated cemetery. This is pure speculation on my part.

Gabriele C. said...

Heh, that's why I stick to the Romans. After they left, the history of Britian became a real mess for some centuries. *grin*

Beth said...

I'm very intrigued by just what the Britons may have thought about the Empire, but it's such a slippery thing to get a handle on. That they returned in some way to a 'pre-Roman' past is suggested by things like the reoccupation of hillforts (in places), and perhaps the employment of bards (who don't seem to be mentioned during the Romano-British period). Yet clearly there were claims to Roman heritage (you might assume Western because of characters like Maxen Wdledig, but who knows whether that was true of everybody) in the tales and geneaolgies - although I admit that we don't know how many of might be genuinely early post-Roman attitudes, and how many might be post-Anglo-Saxon contact and some way of bolstering the British identity in the face of that. Even these apparently conflicting attitudes, I guess, aren't mutually exclusive; you can claim to be descended from Romans, yet reject other aspects of their culture, just as you can claim to worship God (and maybe even do), yet go off and also offer worship to your old pagan deities, as some of the Anglo-Saxons are said to have done. And of course, if being Romanised and being Christian were closely bound in this period, and the kings were even a little ambivalent regarding the former, you can see what might have lain behind Gildas getting his hair off. (Maybe that's why he didn't write anything about the Northern kings - he ran out of hair. :) )

Beth said...

(cont'd) I didn't know of the theory about a diplomatic offensive. I'm tempted to see any meeting between the diplomats and the hillfort kings as being rather like that between Loth and the Cumbrian embassy in Bride of the Spear, but I suspect that's a bit unfair! Ah, thank you; that example of the Christian spoons was probably what was at the back of my mind when I said that the goods imported to the hillforts could have been prized for worth and not associations. (Going back to Herbert's Loth again, he doesn't know the first thing about being Roman, but he loves to brag about his silver tableware!) As for differing attitudes within the same kingdom, I think there is (as I believe we've touched on before) still a tendency sometimes to attribute a homogeneity to these people; but as your examples demonstrate, societies were far from being that simple.

Gosh, a Wroxeter-style palace would be a good bit posher than anything I'd had in mind. ;) It's all very tantalising, especially the possible 5th century pottery sherds; and certainly a good launching point. :)

It would be amazing to think that the Dream did preserve some memory of such a relatively early time. Certainly from what I've read, it seems that the Dream is thought to hearken back to a pre-Galfridian tradition, so it seems perfectly reasonable to me. Love the idea of a power transfer from Segontium to Degannwy being tied up with the arrival of Cunedda!

Carla said...

Gabriele - quite so, and even some of the Romans' time in Britain is fairly hazy

Beth - yes, it's intriguing. I imagine that some at least would be fascinated by it, and probably there were all sorts of stories in circulation. I agree with you that apparently conflicting attitudes are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and different people probably took what appealed to them out of what material was available - just as the Arthurian legends seem to be reworked for different interpretations.

You mention bards; I think it was Tony Wilmott in his book on Birdoswald who drew a parallel between the panegyrics to victorius emperors in Latin literature and heroic poetry, so the bard may have been around all the time but called by a different name. Powerful men love to be told how wonderful they are; that never changes.

Yes, that's the scene that always comes to my mind, too :-) Although it's not all one way in her portrayal; it's notable that Loth, for all his lack of education and finesse, assesses Morcant more accurately than Urien does. I can imagine legends and stories being made up to explain decorated objects, like Loth with his silver tableware (and as the Mabinogion does with place names, come to that), at least until some firebrand priest declared such objects 'heathen' and had them all melted down to make something else.

If Wroxeter was a bishop's palace, and if there was a bishop at Carlisle, it might not be a bad starting point...

Any idea of a power transfer is pure speculation on my part! The Cunedda legend doesn't have much to say about what was going on in Gwynedd before Cunedda arrived; yet presumably something was.

Gabriele C. said...

Tacitus - who wrote some 80 years after the Battle fo the Teutoburg Forest - mentions that the Germans still had songs about Arminius. So yes, bards have been around pretty early.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I should imagine the Song of the Teutoberg Forest would have been stirring stuff! Do any of the songs about Arminius survive, even in fragments?

I should think bards go back for a very long way. It's interesting to wonder what happened to them during Roman rule in Britain, when the role of remembering things and singing the praises of powerful people could be done in writing. Did they disappear, did they carry on as before, did they carry on but in a slightly different way...?

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, no. There have been some attempts to liken Arminius with Siegfried of Nibelung fame, but those theories limp on both legs. to use a German proverb.

Carla said...

A good proverb :-)

Beth said...

Fair comment about powerful men. ;) You can see that at work in the way the bardic paean to the Gaulish chief Lovernios (mentioned by Posidonius, recorded in Athenaeus) and the poems of Taliesin have the same thrust, even though separated by about 600 years! Possibly, if the bards continued their profession in Britain or on the Continent, the Classical writers didn't think them worth talking about. At least, I've not come across anything featuring them; unlike the druids, who presumably still had enough of a 'goodness gracious!' factor to liven up a Classical text. ;)

I must get Mr Wilmott's book, actually. I was looking at it in Keswick and decided against buying it there because I thought they were bound to have it at Birdoswald. And...they didnt.

Bishops in Carlisle? Bah. First thing you know, they'll be wanting to melt the best dinner service, and it'll all be downhill from there. ;)

Carla said...

I don't think I've come across Lovernios. But it doesn't surprise me that not much had changed in 600 years. A while ago Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) did a humorous TV series on medieval history, and one of the programmes was about minstrels and made much the same point (As I remember there was a shot with a billboard in the background proclaiming "Tonight! Terry the Minstrel sings about how great his lord is - again")

I'm surprised Birdoswald (the gift shop?) didn't have Tony Willmott's book. I'd have thought they'd have a stack a foot high; it should be of interest to a sizeable number of their visitors. Perhaps they had sold out. If there's still an independent bookshop near you they should be able to order it with the ISBN number if it's still in print.

Well, that might be a good conflict scene to play with :-)

Beth said...

If the link works, the account of Lovernios and the bard can be read here.

Yes, I was suprised, and I'd imagine it probably was that they'd sold out. My nearest indie bookshop that I know of is about 20 miles away; but they have a good stock of Tempus/History Press books, so I'm sure they could get hold of it. :)

Hmmm...The Battle of the Dinner Plates...has a ring to it...

Carla said...

Many thanks for the link! Yes, if it's in print they should be able to get a copy.