26 February, 2016

The battle of Catraeth: other evidence and interpretation

The heroic poem Y Gododdin is one of the longest and most famous texts in medieval Welsh. It was written down in the kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales in a thirteenth-century manuscript, but the spellings in one of the two versions suggest that it may be several centuries older. It consists mainly of a series of elegies for warriors who feasted at the court of Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh) before setting out to fight at a place called Catraeth where many, perhaps most, of them were killed. Where might Catraeth have been?


The evidence from the poem Y Gododdin was described in the previous post.  

Canu Taliesin

A place called ‘Catraeth’ is also mentioned in the Canu Taliesin poetry praising Urien, king of Rheged. For more information about Urien, see my earlier post 'Urien Rheged'.

The men of Catraeth arose with the dawn, 
About the Guledig, of work a profitable merchant.
This Urien, without mockery is his regret.

--The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, translation available online

I saw the ruler of Cathraeth beyond the plains

 --The Spoils of Taliesin, translation available online

In the ‘Battle of Gwen Ystrat’, Urien is described as ‘Guledig’, meaning something like leader or overlord.  The men of Catraeth appear to be under his command, although the poem does not say that the battle in question (‘Gwen Ystrat’, which translates as something like ‘white valley’ or ‘fair valley’) was being fought at Catraeth. In ‘The Spoils of Taliesin’, Urien is clearly described as the ruler of Catraeth. Although Taliesin refers to Urien’s domain as ‘Rheged’, the location of Rheged itself has not been identified more precisely than somewhere in what is now northern England and/or southern Scotland. For more information on the possible location of Rheged see my earlier posts here and here. I like the idea that Rheged was located around Carlisle, the Lake District and the Solway, but other interpretations are equally possible.

Place names

There is no modern place with a name that can be definitively and uniquely identified as Catraeth.

The most common suggestion for the location of ‘Catraeth’ is modern Catterick, located at the eastern end of the strategic Roman road that crosses the Pennines through the Stainmore Pass or Stainmore Gap (the modern A66 road follows much the same route as its Roman predecessor). Bede, writing in the eighth century, refers to it as ‘Cetreht’. The Roman name of the settlement at the site of modern Catterick Bridge was Cataractonium. The English Place-Name Society website suggests that it originally derived from a Brittonic name ‘Caturatis’ meaning ‘fortification’, which was (mis)interpreted by the Romans as the Latin ‘Cataracta’, meaning ‘waterfall’. (Misunderstanding place names on the grounds that they sound like a word you recognise evidently has a long history).

Tim Clarkson argues that although ‘Catraeth’ could be an earlier form of the modern name ‘Catterick’, this is not the same thing as proving that they refer to the same place (Clarkson 2010, p. 106). There may have been many other places with now-lost names that could have given rise to ‘Catraeth’, and the poem may refer to one of these.

Another possibility occurs to me, and that is that the name ‘Catraeth’ looks as though it might be composed of the elements ‘Cat’, meaning ‘battle’, and ‘Traeth’, meaning ‘strand’ or ‘shore’. I don’t know enough about etymology to know whether this could be a real possibility. If it is, then the ‘Catraeth’ of the poem might not be a place name at all, but a description of the event commemorated – ‘the battle on the shore’. In which case, trying to identify it from modern or recorded place names might be impossible.


The battle of Catraeth was fought between warriors from Edinburgh and enemies identified variously as ‘Deiran’, ‘Saxons’ or ‘Lloegr’s mixed hosts’ in the more archaic ‘B’ version of Y Gododdin. The ‘A’ version adds two mentions of Bernicia, one of which seems to bracket Bernicia alongside the Gododdin rather than as enemies (see previous post 'Catraeth: Y Gododdin').

The terms referring to Saxons or Lloegr are not geographically precise enough to be much help in identifying the location of the battle, as they could refer to groups of people in Britain anywhere from Northumbria to Wessex. The term ‘Deira’ is much more geographically precise, as Deira is quite securely located somewhere in the region of modern Yorkshire. For this reason, I would focus on ‘Deira’ as the most useful clue to the enemy, which in turn gives a possible clue to the location.

Catterick Bridge is in modern North Yorkshire, and therefore either within or close to the territory of sixth-century Deira (as usual, the exact boundaries of Deira are not known). It is therefore a plausible location for a battle in which Deira was one of the sides (although I agree with Tim Clarkson that it is not proven).

Furthermore, Catterick Bridge is on a major north-south Roman road (Dere Street), at a river crossing (the Swale), and close to the junction with the major east-west Roman road across Stainmore Pass. River crossings are common battle sites, and the Roman road network would have been obvious routes for moving armies across country. Catterick is approximately 150-170 miles from Edinburgh, depending whether you take the shorter route over the Cheviot hills or the longer route via the coast. Although this is a long way, it is within the known campaigning range of early medieval armies (see earlier post on campaigning ranges). Given that armies from Northumbria are known to have fought near Chester and in Pictland, and that an army from Gwynedd and the West Midlands invaded and occupied Northumbria, it does not seem at all unreasonable that an army from Edinburgh could have fought at Catterick Bridge.

To get from Edinburgh to Catterick Bridge, the warriors in the poem would have had to cross or skirt the territory of Bernicia, which in the late sixth century was ruled by the aggressive and militarily successful king Aethelferth. Bernicia was probably Gododdin’s closest territory ruled by an English king. However, Catwallaun of Gwynedd had no problem crossing the territory of English Mercia when he invaded Northumbria in 633, and indeed the English king of Mercia was his ally in the campaign. I see no reason why the Gododdin could not have had a similar arrangement with Bernicia as Catwallaun had with Mercia a few decades later. Bernicia could have been an active ally of Gododdin during the campaign, as Mercia was to Gwynedd, which would be consistent with the reference to ‘the army of Gododdin and Bernicia’ in stanza A-47. Or it may have played a more passive role, simply allowing the Gododdin warriors to pass unhindered.

The reference in Canu Taliesin to Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’ is more problematic for the Catterick Bridge location. Although Rheged’s location is uncertain, the likely areas are on the western coast of Britain roughly from Strathclyde to Lancashire. Catterick Bridge is distinctly on the eastern side. I don’t think any likely location for Rheged can easily be made to include Catterick Bridge. My best suggestion is that if Urien was a ruler of Catterick Bridge it would be in the sense of being some sort of overlord. This might reflect anything from outright military conquest, through some kind of tribute-paying client relationship (with varying degrees of asymmetry and coercion), to an amicable alliance by blood or marriage. The location of Catterick Bridge near the junction between Dere Street and the main trans-Pennine Roman road over Stainmore gives it obvious strategic importance. The ruler of a kingdom based around the western end of the Stainmore Pass road may well have wanted to control the other end of the pass as well. Historia Brittonum makes it clear that Urien was a powerful military leader, so outright conquest may be possible. Or, if there was a post-Roman Brittonic kingdom based around York (see my earlier series of articles on post-Roman York), Catterick Bridge may well have been part of its territory. Catterick Bridge is in the Vale of Mowbray, and only about 40 miles from York along the main north-south Roman road of Dere Street. Urien shares a (claimed) descent from Coel Hen with Peredur, tenuously associated with York (see post on Peredur), and it may be possible that Urien had some sort of claim to authority in the York area, including Catterick, based on this shared descent. Or, more prosaically, Taliesin may just have been flattering his patron by giving him an additional title.

If this mention of Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’ means that Catraeth was in the territory of Urien’s kingdom of Rheged, then either Rheged was in Yorkshire rather than in the west (which seems most unlikely to me, see the post on Rheged), or ‘Catraeth’ was not at Catterick Bridge. Tim Clarkson argues a case for locating ‘Catraeth’ somewhere much further north, perhaps in the valley of the River Tweed or in Lothian (Clarkson 2010, p. 108-9), and this is certainly a possibility. It is a long way from the territory of the Deiran enemies identified in the poem (just as Catterick Bridge is a long way from the territory of the Gododdin warband), but there is no obvious reason why the Deirans should not have been just as capable of long-distance campaigning as the Gododdin.

For my part, I prefer the traditional location of ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge. 

The main reasons for this are:
  • it has a name that could be derived from Catraeth;
  • it seems a likely sort of site for a battle, since it is on an important Roman road and at a river crossing;
  • it is in or close to the known location of Deira, and therefore a plausible location for a battle in which Deira was one of the sides;
  • although it is a long way from Edinburgh, early medieval armies are recorded by Bede as campaigning over similarly long distances, and I don’t think there is any obvious reason why the army of Gododdin should have been any less capable than its approximate contemporaries in Gwynedd or Northumbria.
I think the main difficulty with locating ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge is Taliesin’s line describing Urien as ‘ruler of Catraeth’. I’ve suggested above that this could be explained by some sort of overlordship over an area outside his core territory, but I will readily admit that this involves a certain amount of hand-waving. However, most explanations are likely to, given the shortage of evidence.

So I chose to place ‘Catraeth’ at Catterick Bridge in Paths of Exile. I don’t claim that this is a proven location; however, I think it is reasonably plausible. Other explanations are possible.

Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0
Canu Taliesin, The Battle of Gwen Ystrat, translation available online
Canu Taliesin, The Spoils of Taliesin, translation available online
English Place-Name Society website, Catterick

Map links


Gabriele Campbell said...

Isn't it fun to hunt ancient battle sites? I'm chasing Mons Graupius, Nechtansmere and Brunanburh. They've all proven rather elusive when it comes to 'the' answer; I can take may pick from several possibilities which in case of novel writing is at least not that much of a problem as long as it makes sense historically (army moving speed and such).

Gabriele Campbell said...

Isn't it fun to hunt ancient battle sites? I'm chasing Mons Graupius, Nechtansmere and Brunanburh. They've all proven rather elusive when it comes to 'the' answer; I can take may pick from several possibilities which in case of novel writing is at least not that much of a problem as long as it makes sense historically (army moving speed and such).

Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for the background on the poem. I find it fascinating. Makes me want to branch out my poetry reading. But I can't until I get this manuscript off. Then I can refresh my mind with some epic poetry!

Carla said...

Gabriele - indeed so. There are two or three fairly strong candidates for each of your three, aren't there? There will probably never be a definitive answer unless ssome new evidence turns up. Maybe one day archaeology might find a mass grave of the right date, or battlefield debris of the right type in one of the candidate locations. In the meantime, though, you can take your pick of whichever fits your story better :-)

Constance - good luck with your manuscript! Being a poet yourself, you might enjoy some of the poetry in the original language where you can feel things like rhyme and scan, even if you don't speak Old/Middle Welsh.

Gabriele Campbell said...

And the evidence may show up in a place no one suspected or which was at least low on the list of possibilities. The two famous Roman battlefields in Germany fall in that catergory (locating Teutoburg Forest at Kalkriese had been low on the list; and the AD 235 battlefield of Kalefeld/Harzhorn had been looked for some 200 miles further south and closer to the Limes border, because no one took the sources which said Maximinus Thrax had invaded Germania all the way to the sea seriously).

BTW I have no idea why my first post appears twice. Blogger got a hiccup again, it seems.

Constance Brewer said...

Carla- That's a dandy plan! I read Rilke in German for the feel of it, even though my German is very poor. Likewise with Italian. But I at least get a feel for it. Mouthfeel for poetry is important I think.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, I remember that Kalkriese was something of a surprise when it was found. Which is the nice thing about new evidence; when it turns up, it quite often does shift theories that had become accepted almost by default. If someone turns up a late 6th-C mass grave with battle-injured skeletons associated with artefacts from Deira and Edinburgh somewhere in the Tweed valley, I shall be quite happy to accept that Catraeth isn't at Catterick Bridge :-)

Constance - Good luck, and hope you enjoy it! I agree, the shape and flow of the sounds matters a lot in poetry.