01 June, 2013

The battles of Urien Rheged

Urien (also spelled Urbgen or Uryen) was king of the territory of Rheged, somewhere in what is now north-west England and/or south-west Scotland, in the late sixth century. For more information, see my earlier post ‘Urien Rheged’. The surviving sources all portray him as a successful warrior and military leader.  What can we say about his military career?


Historia Brittonum

Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Gualllauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.

 --Historia Brittonum, chapter 63, available online 

Metcaut is the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), off the coast of what is now north-east England.

Taliesin poetry

The poems ‘The Battle of Gwen Ystrad’ and ‘The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain’ each describe a single battle. These may have been especially important battles in Urien’s career, since a whole poem is devoted to each (although, more prosaically, they could just be chance survivors of a larger number of poems describing Urien’s battles).

‘Argoed Llwyfain’ translates approximately as ‘By the Elm Wood’, and ‘Gwen Ystrad’ as ‘White Valley’, which are unfortunately rather too general to locate either battle precisely.  There were probably many places that could have been described as a ‘white valley’ (the limestone dales of northern England spring to mind), and many places that were ‘by an elm wood’.

One of the poems attributed to Taliesin gives a list of battles:

A battle in the ford of Alclud, a battle at the Inver.
The battle of Cellawr Brewyn. The battle of Hireurur.
A battle in the underwood of Cadleu, a battle in Aberioed.
He interposes with the steel loud (and) great.
The battle of Cludvein, the affair of the head of the wood.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 

It also says:

Until Urien came in the day to Aeron.
He was not an aggressor, there appeared not
The uplifted front of Urien before Powys.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 

Another describes what seems to be a sizeable cattle raid:

Purposing the affair of Mynaw.
And more harmony,
Advantage flowing about his hand.
Eight score of one colour
Of calves and cows.
Much cows and oxen.

--A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online 


Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is off the coast of what is now north-east England.

Some of the names in the Taliesin poetry are identifiable.  Alclud is ‘The Rock of Clyde’ and refers to Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary. Presumably the ‘ford of Alclud’ was a crossing-place nearby. 

‘Cellawr Brewyn’ means ‘the huts of Brewyn’.  Brewyn could refer to the Roman fort of Bremenium at modern Rochester in Northumberland, on the major Roman road of Dere Street. 

‘Inver’ is the Gaelic equivalent of Welsh ‘Aber’, meaning ‘mouth’ or ‘confluence’.  The name is too general for the location to be identified.  It presumably refers to a location at or near a river-mouth or river confluence in a Gaelic-speaking area, which could be almost anywhere – perhaps in Ireland, or the kingdom of Dal Riada in the south-west Highlands (roughly modern Argyll), or possibly a Gaelic-speaking area on the Irish Sea coast of modern Cumbria or Galloway. (Edit: My thanks to Beth (see comment thread) for pointing out that 'Inver' is a doubtful translation and may not be a place name at all).

Mynaw (Manau) could refer to either the Isle of Man or the area around Stirling. Stirling is perhaps a more likely location for a cattle-raid, as retrieving a large number of cattle from an island might be a troublesome business.  Conversely, the Isle of Man is not that far from the coast of north-west England/south-west Scotland, and not necessarily inaccessible if Rheged was a maritime power with access to shipping. 

Powys was a kingdom in what is now north-east and mid-Wales, and may also have extended into the lowland areas that are now Shropshire and Cheshire (see earlier article on ‘Early medieval Powys’ for more detail). Aeron may refer to the area around Ayr in south-west Scotland.  The poem seems to indicate that Urien’s presence in these areas was not hostile, since it says ‘he was not an aggressor’ (caveat that I do not know whether alternative translations are possible; some of the Taliesin poems are problematic and translations vary).  This could perhaps indicate that Urien was considered the rightful ruler, defending his territory.  However, Powys had its own royal dynasty, recorded in genealogies and with some of the kings mentioned in sources such as Annales Cambriae, so it is difficult to see how Urien could have been considered the rightful ruler of Powys (unless perhaps as some sort of over-king). If he was not an aggressor, perhaps the suggestion is that he was present as an ally of the local king.  If so, this would fit with the interpretation of the ‘four kings’ who fought Theodric in Historia Brittonum as an alliance, and may suggest that Urien was also capable of operating in alliances elsewhere.


Of the names that are identifiable, all except Powys are in what is now northern England or southern Scotland, suggesting that this area was the focus of Urien’s activity (caveat that the unidentified names could be in different areas). 

The names cover a wide area, from Dumbarton Rock on the west coast to Lindisfarne on the east coast and from Stirling (if Manau is Stirling) in the north to Powys in the south.  If they represent the locations of battles or campaigns in which Urien fought, they suggest that Urien was capable of campaigning over considerable distances.  If Manau is the Isle of Man, it may indicate that he had campaigned by sea as well as by land. This is consistent with Urien having had a long and successful military career.

Interestingly, all the places except Powys are north of Hadrian’s Wall. This may indicate that the core of Urien’s territory was also north of Hadrian’s Wall.  Alternatively, if the battles were mainly fought against rivals and neighbouring kingdoms outside his home territory, their locations may indicate that Urien’s core territory was elsewhere, perhaps south of Hadrian’s Wall.


Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (4), available online 
Taliesin, A Song for Urien Rheged (3), available online
Historia Brittonum, available online  

Map links


Constance Brewer said...

Thanks for listing the online sources for the poems. I really enjoyed reading them.

Beth said...

I'd be wary of the 'inver'. The original word is 'ymynuer'; it's easy to see how that could become 'inver' to the translator, but Williams suggests something completely different - something to do with crowns, as I recall, not place names at all. Doesn't mean that Urien couldn't have fought in a Gaelic-speaking area, of course, as he was obviously getting pretty close to those when at Alclud.

I always assumed he was fighting Powys, though I confess I can't off the top of my head cite specific evidence for that. That he was friendly to Aeron, though, seems to be indicated by The Spoils of Taliesin, which calls him 'protector in Aeron'.

The distances between campaigns, as you point out, are considerable, and I think that holds true pretty much wherever in the North one sees Rheged as being based.

Carla said...

Constance - Glad you liked them. The same site has the originals as well as the translations, if you want to read them in the original language.

Beth - Thanks for that! So I can drop 'Inver' from the list. Even if it was bettwe supported, it's too general a term to be of much help in suggesting a location anyway. Geography being what it is, I should imagine there were contacts across the Irish Sea between Ireland and the west coast of Britain, and that there were Irish-speakers in places other than Dal Riada. I wonder what the reference to crowns might have meant? The legend of Dunmail Raise leaps instantly to mind; I wonder if it was a common theme.

I admit to being puzzled about the 'he was not an aggressor' line. I'm not sure whether it refers to Aeron in the previous line, Powys in the next line, or both, and I don't know whether it's another case (like the 'crowns' you mention above) where alternative translations are possible with wildly differing meanings. It's easy to think of a scenario in which Urien could have been fighting in Powys as an aggressor; fighting between rivals would be normal in a warlord society. It's less obvious to try to come up with scenarios in which he might have been fighting in Powys (I assume he was fighting there, partly because of the general subject matter and partly the phrase 'uplifted front' makes me think of an army in battle array) if he wasn't the aggressor. Possibly he was passing through on his way somewhere else and Powys was neutral in that particular conflict, whatever it was - this would tend to extend Urien's campaigning range even further if he was fighting somewhere beyond Powys, but this isn't impossible. Or possibly he was acting as some sort of ally of Powys against a common enemy - which immediately made me think of the 'four kings' passage in HB, and then to wonder if Urien was in the habit of forming alliances (which makes rather an intriguing contrast with the thuggish tyrant image in our last discussion!). All this is pure speculation, of course.

I've discussed campaigning range earlier, and it seems clear that early medieval armies certainly could campaign over long distances. It doesn't surprise me that a powerful king, as Urien seems to have been, could apparently fight battles on the Clyde and at Lindisfarne, and it wouldn't surprise me if he fought battles down in Powys as well (in whatever context). If Aethelferth of Bernicia fought at Chester there seems no reason why Urien, perhaps located in a broadly analogous region on the west coast, couldn't also have done so.

Beth said...

Yes, I'm sure there were Irish-speakers other than in Dal Riada. There are names in the genealogies of some of the Men of North which look like they could be Brittonicised Gaelic names (though they may have been names common to both languages, of course), and there were crannogs outside of Dal Riada, which are presumably the result of Irish influence. That's not to say that Irish speakers formed the majority of the inhabitants, if they were there at all, but it does perhaps show the contact you mention.

As regards the crown, the interpretation generally seems to be that there was a 'battle for the crown' (or 'supremacy', depending on which translation you choose). Depending on how you read it, you could see it as just being part of the wrangling common to, and expected of, early medieval Brittonic kings; or as an attempt to establish some kind of overlordship that might be consistent with the theoretical alliance at Lindisfarne. At least I think so, although I may just have been blindsided by the possibilty of hotting up the action a bit in a fictional account. ;) Evidently there were alliances, with Aeron, and with Goddeu (wherever that was), which, as you say, does provide something of a contrast to Williams' characterisation. It's interesting that Kathleen Herbert chose to portray Urien as someone who preferred to form alliances if and when he could.

The 'he was not an aggressor' line is an odd one. In the other translations I've read, the general tenor is: until Urien arrived in Aeron, there was no fighting (presumably in Aeron's defence, if he is 'protector in Aeron'), and there was no front before Powys (alternatively, Urien was usually at the front before Powys) - which I've always taken to mean against Powys as opposed to standing before it in its defence. One translation does explicitly say 'against Powys'. If, as several people have suggested, Powys was coterminous with Rheged (or at least much more extensive than it is now), it's not difficult to see that as a possibility even if one doesn't like the idea of a long distance campaign. (Always bearing in mind that although 'Powys' is likely to refer to the kingdom, it might simply mean 'country people', in which case it's rather non-specific.)

Absolutely; there are plenty of less subjective (i.e. non-poetic!) sources to indicate that armies of the 7th century, for example, were capable of long distance campaigns; I don't see why those a hundred years previous couldn't have been the same, particularly if they commanded extensive resources. Certainly Powys fighting in Cornwall would seem to indicate it was the case.

Rick said...

The 'not an aggressor' business sounds just a bit odd - as if it is responding to a charge. Or at least, perhaps, sentiment in Powys that Urien's followers were overpaid, oversexed, and over here.

Which could go along with him eventually being assassinated due to throwing his weight around so much.

Regarding the Isle of Man, I have read that there was some early medieval tradition of naval organization - a levy of ships - on the coast of Britain facing the Irish Sea. And that it might have had roots going back to Roman times. If so, Urien might well have had maritime resources he could call on.

Having said that, a cattle raid by sea would be challenging. The sorts of vessels ideal for raiding - from longboats up to galleys - are not very well suited to carrying cattle!

Carla said...

Beth - since the languages are related (P- and Q-Celtic) it seems likely that there might also be some common names. Any intermarriage might tend to reinforce this as well, e.g. if an Irish wife and Brittonic husband gave their children a mix of Irish and Brittonic names. I also wonder if it was fashionable from time to time to borrow foreign names, either because the foreign culture they represented was 'aspirational' in some way, or just for the exotic appeal of something different.

I wondered if it referred to a 'battle for the crown', and that made me wonder how long 'crown' has been used to stand in for 'kingship' or 'rule'. Was it used as such in the sixth century, or was it a later concept? If the Welsh term means 'supremacy', this doesn't arise. 'Supremacy' fits in quite well with an idea of Urien having extended Rheged to a (possibly temporary) major regional power. If someone else was trying to do the same, there may well have been a battle between them that, in hindsight at least, was decisive and came to be called the 'battle for supremacy'. I wonder if its position in the poem next to the battle at the ford of Alclud is significant? Alt Clut was an important power in the region for centuries.

If Powys extended to the Chester area, and Rheged extended down into south Lancashire, they'd meet somewhere in the Chat Moss area, which as a marshland might form a natural boundary. I have no trouble with Rheged and Powys sharing a border when both were at their widest extent, or at any rate both of them having subordinate/allied territories that shared a border. Which may be interesting in the context of Aethelferth's later battle at Chester.

Rick - yes, it is an odd line and translations vary. See Beth's comment above.

Yes, the Senchus fer n-Alban. It lists naval and military obligations in early medieval Dal Riada (roughly modern Argyll, i.e. the Atlantic coast of the southern Scottish Highlands). If I remember rightly, every 20 houses had to provide a curragh (and presumably its crew) for naval expeditions. The usual caveat applies that the definition of what counted as a 'house' is not certain, like the Old English term 'hide'. Dal Riada was closely connected with Ireland (its origin myth says it was an Irish colony) and this may have been an Irish tradition that crossed the sea. Whether similar systems were in place in other early medival coastal kingdoms is unknown. It doesn't seem impossible to me that Urien may have had access to something similar. The Romans had a sizeable fleet in Britain, and it may not have vanished entirely, although there may have been less of it left than the army, since the assorted usurpers would presumably have wanted all the shipping they could get their hands on when they wanted to move their troops to continental Europe.

If I remember rightly, Tim Severin in The Brendan Voyage was told by the owners of Irish curraghs on the west coast of Ireland that they used their curraghs to take cattle out to offshore islands, although it doesn't say whether that was by putting the cattle actually in the boat or by tying them to the boat and making them swim (which might be fine for crossing a narrow sound, but not for getting all the way to the Isle of Man). I suppose if the Isle of Man had domesticated cattle, somebody must have taken them there by sea at some point. People are remarkably ingenious. Nevertheless, a cattle raid by sea would be quite a feat, as you say! Which makes Mynaw in the poem more likely to be Stirling.

Rick said...

The Romans had a sizeable fleet in Britain, and it may not have vanished entirely, although there may have been less of it left than the army, since the assorted usurpers would presumably have wanted all the shipping they could get their hands on when they wanted to move their troops to continental Europe.

The flip side is that once the imperial claimants got to Gaul they would march on south and leave the ships behind. The crews could then just sail back to their home ports.

A standing navy of large specialized warships is *very* expensive to keep up, but a levy of maneuverable small craft is much more doable.

Carla said...

Or indeed anywhere else they chose - assuming they weren't part of the campaign, e.g. for logistics and supply. As far as I know, the eventual fate of the Roman navy in Britain is even more obscure than the fate of the Roman army. I wonder if any naval commander set himself up as a sort of maritime chieftain in his fortified port, like whoever built the timber halls at Birdoswald, and perhaps made a living as a cross between a pirate, mercenary, protector of local traders/fishers, toll collector on a strategic waterway and/or protection racketeer?

Assuming the boats in the Senchus fer n-Alban were curraghs or something similar, presumably they were used the rest of the time for things like fishing and transport. 'Borrowing' a fleet of existing boats for military use is much more supportable as a cost to the society than maintaining a specialised fleet for exclusively military use (although not without cost, as when the boats are away fighting they aren't doing whatever they normally do). It wouldn't surprise me to find that other early medieval coastal rulers did something similar, although possibly on a less formal basis.

Rick said...

I imagine that a levy of available vessels was indeed common in coastal areas, even if entirely informal - if you summon your coastline retainers for a raid by sea, fitting out their boats hardly needs to be specified.

Something to note - as the frustrated commanders of the Classis Brittanica could surely have attested - is that seaborne defense is much more demanding than mounting a raid. Patrolling means keeping vessels at sea on an ongoing basis. Defending against an attacker means keeping a force together, without prospect of plunder, positioned where it can intercept (you hope!) the attacker, and able to put to sea quickly when the enemy appears.

Not to mention that fighting *at* sea is a tricky business, calling for specialized techniques and equipment, and with a very steep learning curve. Not something that even skilled and experienced seamen could be expected to do off of hand.

I've read suggestions that Alfred the Great's naval force was inspired by at least conceptual awareness of Byzantine dromons.

Carla said...

The Senchus refers to a levy of boats for going 'on an expedition' (usual caveat regarding translations), which may indicate that it was essentially about seaborne raiding rather than defence as such. As you say, defence at sea is a very different matter - as not only the commanders of the Classis Britannica could testify, but everyone in Europe during the Viking raids. Although Alfred is famous for the navy, the riverside burhs that could block a waterway with a fortified bridge or something similar may have been at least as important.

As I understand it the preferred technique for fighting at sea was to board the enemy ship and kill the crew, rather than try to attack the ship itself (Greek Fire notwithstanding, that tactic came later with the invention of the cannon).

I've also read somewhere that Alfred's ship designs were much larger than Viking longboats - which has its disadvantages if they need deeper water to operate in - and may have owed something to Roman or Greek design. It strikes me as quite possible; Alfred was educated and had travelled to Rome as a boy, and if I remember rightly Asser says explicitly that he was interested in collecting knowledge and information from people who had travelled to distant countries.

Beth said...

All good points. I would imagine 'aspirations' and/or exotic appeal lie behind at least some of the Latin names we find in the early medieval period. I've mentioned Urien's grandfather Meirchiaun before - surely not a coincidence that he shares his name with an emperor who reigned a little before his likely birth date? Given the Anglo-Saxons' impressive material wealth alone, you might think that the Britons of this period would see Old English names as aspirational, but I guess (from the current paucity of evidence) that they drew the line there. ;P

Yes, I think the phrase in the Taliesin poem refers to a 'battle for the crown'. I'd taken it to mean 'kingship' and as such 'supremacy' or a kind of overlordship, largely because, as you point out, another major power (Alclut) is mentioned as an enemy in the same line. As far as I can see (Williams' notes on this section are somewhat sketchy), the use of the word 'supremacy' by the one translator is an attempt to convey a similar less-than-literal interpretation, and the original word doesn't actually mean 'supremacy'. Whether 'crown' did signify 'kingship' or 'rule' at this point I don't know enough about the Brittonic language to say , although it seems a natural progression from the literal meaning. A society capable of describing a hero as a 'herb garden' (i.e. wearing champion's laurels) might well have had such nuances in this case as well.

My head is pretty scrambled by hayfever at the moment, and I'm afraid I'm missing the Aethelferth link. :S I hadn't realised the extent of Chat Moss, so thanks for pointing that out - it certainly would make a good boundary area.

As regards the transport of cows and whether it was in or outside the curragh, a quick search turned up one reference in a Gaelic work from 1982, in which a man describes 'how the feet of cattle were secured to keep them subdued in transit' - so it sounds like in some cases at least, they were inside the boat.

Carla said...

Beth - Indeed, and it may also not be a coincidence that Constantine was a popular name in North Britain and also the name of Constantine the Great (a usurper who succeeded) and Constantine III (who didn't).

I should imagine that the Brittonic aristocracy had a similar level of wealth to the early English, but as they were not inclined to put it in rich graves where modern archaeologists can find it, we can't make a clear comparison. By contrast, though, Roman emperors of the recent and distant past were unimaginably richer and more powerful than any early medieval monarch, being rulers of the known world, and so much more aspirational. Especially if some Brittonic dynasties liked to claim descent from one of the emperors, like Geoffrey of Monmouth's story about Uther being descended from Magnus Maximus. Geoffrey may have made that up wholesale (he had form in that regard....), or he may have been drawing on an existing legend, like the claim of descent from Maximus on the Pillar of Eliseg. Some of the fashion for Roman names may also be related to claims of illustrious ancestry.

Ireland's role as 'the cradle of the Church' may be important in this context. If Christianity was associated with Ireland and Irish speakers, then as it became the dominant religion, Irish names may have become fashionable, either through parents calling their children after Irish saints or because Irish names were seen as belonging to a preferred culture.

I hope your hay fever improves! Do the non-sedating antihistamines help at all?
I was thinking of the Battle of Chester, (in)famous for Aethelferth having ordered his men to attack the monks of Bangor-on-Dee who had turned out en masse to pray for victory for their own side. Selyf ap Cynan is recorded as having been killed in the battle (Annales Cambriae), so it was certainly a battle involving Aethelferth against Powys. (Whether others were also involved is open to question). So there's one definitely documented battle between Bernicia/Northumbria and Powys, which suggests that a battle between Rheged and Powys could also have been geographically possible. If Aethelferth ruled the lands that had previously been Rheged, as seems quite likely given his military dominance, there might even be some connection beyond the normal rivalry for territory.

I'm not sure how extensive Chat Moss would have been in the sixth century, except that it would have been a lot bigger before large-scale drainage came along. Perhaps something like the Somerset Levels?

Yes, I think I turned up the same reference, which definitely implies that the cattle were inside the boat in that case. The mind boggles at the prospect of getting an animal the size of a cow (even small cattle are hefty animals) into a curragh, tying its feet together to keep it secure on the crossing, and then getting it out again on the other side without damage to either the cow, the people or the boat. Presumably boats would be essential for the longer crossings e.g. from the Outer Hebrides. I can see how cattle could have been made to swim across a narrow sound like the Kylerhea narrows between Skye and the mainland, but surely not across the Minch!

Rick said...

Yes, boarding was the usual mode of attack (even for Mediterranean galleys fitted with rams; ramming-primary tactics, while favored by classical Athens, were the exception).

There is an Anglosphere tradition of disparaging boarding as unseamanlike and 'a land battle fought at sea' - possibly going back to the Armada campaign.

But actually closing with an enemy craft, colliding with it in a controlled way, and boarding it, must be a tricky business, unless you have already practiced quite a bit. You'll want grapples, and likely weapons - such as boarding pikes and cutlasses - suited to a fight at close quarters on pitching platforms.

And if you are using curraghs, you could end up staving in the light frame, not good at all.

Notably, the Vikings - certainly good, experienced seamen - rarely seem to have fought at sea. And the features of Alfred's ships that you mention are exactly what suggests that he was adapting what he knew of Mediterranean practice.

Beth said...

Perhaps people just conveniently forgot about Constantine III. ;)

Yes, I have to admit I hadn't really thought that one through. Without the glorious Roman past and present, the Anglo-Saxons might have had more draw, but next to it I suppose they were always just going to be posh barbarians to some Britons. The Pillar of Eliseg is a good example of the claims to Romanitas, isn't it? Five hundred years after they've left, and such 'ancestors' are still important. The number of inscribed stones in Wales, in particular, that have Latin 'titles', also seem to indicate how being 'Roman' was the in thing. The Brittonic poems certainly make mention of plenty of gold and the like. As you say, they didn't bury such high status material, and perhaps were very careful not to lose it (they certainly managed to lose bronze and even enamelled objects), although there is this. Possibly the gold was reused and remodelled into new things, as well.

Agreed regarding the Irish and Christianity. You can also see that slightly different aspiration reflected in the use of Biblical names.

Thank you! No, unfortunately antihistamines don't really work for me any more. I've been hoping that we might get a hot spell that will cause everything to flower in a rush and get it over and done with!

I thought it must be to do with Selyf and the Battle of Chester, but I just didn't make the link between Northumbria and Rheged. Tsk.

Having read a short account on Wikipedia by Daniel Defoe which mentions how difficult it was to cross Chat Moss even in a dry season, it does sound as if it could have been a little like parts of the Somerset Levels, before we had the sea walls.

I just looked at a couple of photos of the Minch - I don't think the cows would have been very impressed if someone had tried to make them swim that! Curraghs could perhaps have varied in size much like the Irish ones of more recent times, but nevertheless, it can't have been much fun getting the cow into that sort of boat, let alone getting it settled. And that's just one cow. Presumably they would have transported more than one at a time, to make a journey worthwhile, if they had a big enough boat. To transport 160 (the number in the poem, although it may have been exaggerated, of course) in that manner would surely be a logistical nightmare, which does make Stirling seem the more likely location!

Carla said...

Rick - yet presumably even Nelson's navy made extensive use of boarding, or how else did they capture prizes? Even if it was looked down on, it must have been essential. I suppose boarding a Spanish galleon of the Armada from one of the smaller English ships would be impractical to say the least (assuming the stereotypical picture of the Armada battle, with the Spanish galleons towering over their attackers, has at least a grain of truth in it), so possibly a disparaging attitude to boarding may have been making a virtue out of necessity.

As well as the risk of staving in the frame, presumably any sea battle in a curragh also risked somebody putting a blade through the hide hull, also a very bad thing. The nearest Tim Severin's reconstruction came to disaster was when the hull was punctured by ice, and that was quite a small hole. I should imagine that the 'expeditions' in the Senchus would be raids and fighting at sea would be the exception.

Beth - possibly his fate wasn't universally known, or was altered by storytellers, as with Magnus Maximus. Macsen Wledig goes off to fight the Emperor of the Romans, which is accurate, but he wins, which is not. Maybe something similar happened with Constantine III in sagas, especially if it took a while for news of the actual outcome to filter back to Britain, or if he got mixed up with his illustrious namesake and predecessor.

Yes, the Pillar of Eliseg does illustrate the enduring importance of a link with the Roman past (real, embellished or imagined). Arguably there are still echoes of that now, after nearly 2000 years and vast technological change, in things like coin design.

I would guess that gold would be recycled and reworked, e.g. someone might alter an heirloom to incorporate a new symbol that meant something important to them, or loot taken from a defeated enemy might be melted down and reworked partly for practical reasons and partly as a symbol of dominance. It's a pity that the provenance of that gold brooch isn't known, isn't it? I wonder if isotope analysis could identify the source of the gold, although taking a sample to find out would probably be too destructive. On first glance, before registering the scale, it reminds me of a torc. I wonder if that was significant at the time?

Indeed. Somebody must have got some cattle out to the islands at some time, presumably by boat, but it can't have been easy. If Urien did pull off a cattle raid on the Isle of Man it would certainly have been worthy of a song!

I had forgotten about that quote from Daniel Defoe about Chat Moss, many thanks.

Rick said...

Oh, the disparagement of boarding was more recent, starting perhaps with late-Victorian historians of the RN.

And there was some anti-boarding propaganda at the time of the Armada itself, as English seamen debated tactics.

The stereotypical picture you cite is a bit off! The Spanish did have some very big armed transports, but as best anyone can tell, the first-line English combatants were somewhat larger, though lower-built, than their first-line Spanish counterparts.

None of which has much to do with Urien Rheged!

Carla said...

As recent as that? Had ship design got to ironclads with long-range gunnery by then? - if so, boarding would presumably have become rather outdated in naval warfare.

And indeed, nothing to do with Urien Rheged! Even if his kingdom did have some sort of maritime power, it's impossible to do more than speculate about it because there's little or no evidence.

Beth said...

There having been two Constantines who were emperors, I can see them being conflated quite easily, given time. As for the continuing importance of Roman heritage, the Welsh song 'Yma o Hud' ('Still Here'), which was released in 1981, features (amongst other things) Magnus Maximus...

Yes, it would be very interesting if they could identify the source of the gold in that brooch. (Which is indeed quite like a torc. That torcs still held a lot of significance in the period
is amply attested by The Gododdin, and I suppose it's possible that brooch design may have been influenced by that.) There was obviously a significant amount of metalworking going on in the 'Celtic' territories, as places like Dunadd and the Mote of Mark demonstrate; they had to have got their metal from somewhere, and recycling would be a good option. I've wondered about all the Anglo-Saxon gold, actually; we know they recycled Byzantine coins, so could they not also have reused British material that had been stolen or traded?

Worthy of a song indeed. By the time you've finished loading up 160 cows, I reckon you'd be wishing you'd gone for the softer option of fighting Gododdin, Alclut and the Angles all at once.

I'm going to have to bow out of this now for a bit, as the North calls. But thank you for what has been a very interesting discussion!

Rick said...

The historians were speaking retrospectively. That said, the last case of taking a ship by boarding in the classic way was in 1940, by the RN.

But thanks to piracy, the ability of warships to deploy boarding parties (by small boat or helo, not coming alongside) is an important consideration in contemporary naval planning. (!)

Carla said...

Beth - thanks for the link! Not sure that Magnus Maximus left Wales united, although he may well have left it effectively self-governing. Presuambly the song is drawing mainly on Macsen Wledig of the Dream; I don't think there's much (any?) evidence of what the historical Maximus did in relation to what is now Wales, is there?

I would expect that recycling was a significant source of precious metal, whether of items taken as loot/tribute/exchange or of items pople already owned that had just become worn/broken/unfashionable. One of the theories about the Staffordshire Hoard was that it might have been a bullion hoard collected together to make something particularly spectacular. Frankish coins might have been a source of bullion as well as Byzantine coins, although the gold content declined so eventually they would have become of little use for jewellery where you want pure(ish) gold, unless goldsmiths knew how to separate the gold back out. I would also guess that Roman hoards might have been a source of material, albeit probably an erratic one! All those folk tales about buried treasure and pots of gold miraculously revealed may have come from somewhere...

If that means you're off on holiday, have a lovely trip!

Rick - yes, I thought about piracy and boarding as well. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Beth said...

I'm not aware of any. Sioned Davies in her translation of The Mabinogion suggests that the manipulation/fabrication of the past in this way was part of Gwynedd's attempt to justify their policy of hegemony. The song, I suppose, is just continuing that tradition of being, shall we say, economical with the truth...

I didn't know that about the Staffordshire Hoard. Re the Roman hoards, I had wondered whether silver bullion like that from Traprain Law might have been a source for some of the Pictish artefacts.

Thanks! Looking forward to seeing the fells again. :)

Carla said...

That ties in with something a few comments ago, about the importance of claiming an inheritance from the Roman past. If you could claim that your ancestor was The Emperor in the past, it presumably helped support your claim that you had a right to rule in the present. Though it may fall down a bit when half a dozen rivals are all saying the same thing...

I think it was just one of the various suggestions about the Hoard when it was discovered. The very selective nature of the items (all military) suggest that it was not an 'ordinary' collection of scrap gold for recycling; if it was intended as raw material for making some new item(s), there was probably something symbolic going on as well. Yes, I have wondered if things like the Traprain Law hoard ended up in those Pictish silver chains.