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 battle of Catraeth is not mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, Historia Brittonum or the Irish Annals of Ulster, Tigernach or Innisfallen, at least not in any form that I can recognise. The only sources for it are poems written down in medieval Wales. Of these, by far the most important is Y Gododdin, written down in a thirteenth-century manuscript known as the Book of Aneirin.
Y Gododdin survives only in the Book of Aneirin. The text was written by two scribes, conventionally designated A and B. The A scribe wrote using the language conventions of Middle Welsh (12th to 14th century, contemporary with the manuscript), whereas the B scribe wrote using Old Welsh (9th to early 12th century). The first part of the B scribe’s text (designated B1) has some Middle Welsh features, while the second part (designated B2) has more Old Welsh features. This may indicate that the B scribe was working from two separate sources written in different forms of the language, or that the B scribe started out by partially modernising an Old Welsh source and then stopped doing this and reverted to copying out the original. The stanza numbering scheme in this post is the one used by Koch (1997).
Y Gododdin is not a narrative describing a particular battle. It is (mostly*) a collection of heroic death songs in praise of fallen warriors. So I should start straight away with the caveat that the various heroes may not all have met their ends in the same battle, and the poem may not refer to a single event.
However, there are multiple references in the poem to a battle fought at a place called ‘Catraeth’. ‘Catraeth’ occurs 23 times in Y Gododdin, 18 times in the ‘A’ version and 5 times in the more archaic ‘B’ version (Koch 1997, p. xiii, footnote 2). So it seems reasonable to assume that this was considered a conflict of some importance.
The ‘Gododdin’ of the poem’s title refers to the area that is now south-east Scotland, which in Roman times was occupied by a tribe called by the Romans ‘Votadini’. ‘Gododdin’ is derived directly from ‘Votadini’, so (for once) there seems little doubt of its identity.
The poem refers to a hill-fort or stronghold called Eidyn as the base of the warriors. For example, in the B text:
Eidyn’s hill-fort (B2-34)When the noblemen came from Din Eidyn’s meadow (B1-19)fighting for the groves and mead of Eidyn (B1-21)
‘Din Eidyn’ is modern Edinburgh, simply with the ‘din’ element replaced by its Old English equivalent ‘burgh’ (both meaning ‘fortification’) and the word order changed round from the Brittonic to the English convention. The most obvious candidates for Din Eidyn are either the Castle Rock (site of the current Edinburgh Castle) or the Iron Age hill fort on Arthur’s Seat.
Another possibility might be one of the Roman fortifications in the area, such as Cramond fort, by analogy with the post-Roman occupation of Birdoswald fort further south.
Some of the heroes commemorated in the poem came from areas further afield. For example, stanza B2-27 refers to a warrior from ‘over the Firth of Forth’, and stanzas B2-39 and B2-42 refer to men from Aeron (possibly the area of modern Ayrshire in south-west Scotland) (Koch 1997).
The enemy is less clearly identified. The B text refers to Deira or Deirans, Saxons, heathen tribes of Scots and Picts, and Lloegr’s mixed hosts:
to attack Deira’s retinue (B2-28)the driver of the Deirans (B1-14)driver of the Deirans (B1-16)a Saxon dirk (B2-25)they gave no mercy to the Saxons (B1-7)heathen tribes of Scots and Picts (B1-5)in contention with Lloegr’s mixed hosts (B1-19)
The A text also adds two references to Bernicia (although not necessarily as opponents), and one to the descendants of Godebawg:
against the descendants of Godebawg (A-15)there fell men of Deira and Bernicia (A-5)the army of Gododdin and Bernicia (A-47)
‘Godebawg’ is associated with Coel Hen in the Triads and Harleian genealogies, and means ‘Protector’. Coel Hen is the founder figure of several Brittonic genealogies associated with early medieval kingdoms in what is now northern England/southern Scotland (see post on Coel Hen for more information). ‘The descendants of Godebawg’ could therefore make sense as a term for one or more of these kingdoms.
Deira was located in the approximate area of modern Yorkshire, and Bernicia was located further north in the approximate area of modern Northumberland. Both were ruled by English kings in the late sixth century. The term ‘Lloegr’ is used to refer to lowland Britain and/or the areas that later became England. So the term ‘Saxons’ and ‘Lloegr’ in Y Gododdin could refer to either or both of Deira and Bernicia, or to one or more of the other English kingdoms of the time.
The reference to ‘heathen tribes of Scots and Picts’ is difficult to make much sense of, unless it refers to the hero’s earlier career.
The two references to Bernicia are also somewhat puzzling. John Koch considers that the line referring to Bernicia in stanza A-5 may be extraneous, because it contains no internal rhyme or alliteration (Koch 1997, p. 181). The reference to Bernicia in stanza A-47 seems to me to bracket Gododdin and Bernicia together as allies, rather than as enemies, although this may depend on the translation.
The first stanza of the A text begins, ‘This is The Gododdin. Aneirin sang it’.
Historia Brittonum mentions a major bard called Aneirin or Neirin:
Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.
--Historia Brittonum chapter 62, available online
Taliesin wrote poetry praising Urien, who was a king of Rheged somewhere in what is now northern England or southern Scotland in the late sixth century (see post on Urien for more information). This list of famous Brittonic poets also follows immediately after Historia Brittonum describes the reign of Ida of Bernicia, whose 12-year reign is said by Bede to have begun in 547.
One of the heroes named in Y Gododdin is Cynan son of Clyddno. The same name appears in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Lovers of the Island of Britain. The lady of his affections is named as Morfudd daughter of Urien, which would place him in the late sixth century or around the turn of the sixth/seventh centuries.
Cynon son of Clydno (for Morfudd daughter of Urien);
-- Triads, available online
I need hardly say that this is very slender dating evidence. However, at least all of these are consistent with a date in approximately the late sixth century for the events in the poem.
More on the other evidence, and my interpretation, to follow in the next post.
*The ‘Peis Dinogat’ stanza (A-87) appears to be something more like a nursery rhyme
Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0
English Place-Name Society, Catterick, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online
Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4
Triads, available online
General map showing the approximate locations of Gododdin, Bernicia and Deira