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Yr Hen Ogledd ( ) is a Welsh term used by scholars to refer to those parts of what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the years between 500 and the Viking invasions of c. 800, with particular interest in the Brythonic-speaking peoples who lived there.

The term is derived from heroic poetry as told by bards for the enjoyment and benefit of the Welshmarker kings of that era. From the relatively southern Welsh perspective, these are stories of the Gwŷr y Gogledd ( ), with their relationships to the great men of the past given by genealogies such as Bonedd Gwŷr y Gogledd ( ). 'The North' has become 'The Old North' in recognition of the passage of time since the literary works were contemporary, hence 'The Old North' and 'Men of the Old North'.

In attempting to construct a reasonably accurate history of southern Scotland and northern England, scholars have adopted the term 'The Old North' from the Welsh heroic poetry to refer to the Brythonic kingdoms. As used by historians, the term is meant to apply to an area of scholarly research, and is not intended to give undue weight to the poetry and genealogy that first produced the term.

Welsh interest

One of the traditional stories relating to the creation of Walesmarker is derived from the arrival in Wales of Cunedda and his sons as 'Men of the North'. Cunedda himself is held to be the progenitor of the royal dynasty of Gwyneddmarker, one of the largest and most powerful of the medieval Welsh kingdoms, and an ongoing participant in the history of the Old North. However, the relationship between Wales and the Old North is more substantial than this one event, amounting to a self-perception that the Welsh and the Men of the North are one people.

Many of the traditional sources of information about the Old North are believed to have come to Wales from the Old North, and bards such as Aneirin (the reputed author of Y Gododdin) are thought to have been court poets in the Old North. These stories and bards are held to be no less Welsh than the stories and bards who were actually from Wales.


A listing of passages from the literary and historical sources, particularly relevant to the Old North, can be found in Anwyl's article Wales and the Britons of the North. A somewhat dated introduction to the study of old Welsh poetry can be found in his 1904 article Prolegomena to the Study of Old Welsh Poetry.

Literary sources

Stories praising a patron and the construction of flattering genealogies are neither unbiased nor reliable sources of historically accurate information. However, while they may exaggerate and make apocryphal assertions, they do not falsify or change the historical facts that were known to the bards' listeners, as that would bring ridicule and disrepute to both the bards and their patrons. In addition, the existence of stories of defeat and tragedy, as well as stories of victory, lends additional credibility to their value as sources of history. Within that context, the stories contain useful information, much of it incidental, about an era of Britishmarker history where very little is reliably known.

Historical sources

These sources are not without deficiencies. Both the authors and their later transcribers sometimes displayed a partisanship that promoted their own interests, portraying their own agendas in a positive light, always on the side of justice and moral rectitude. Facts in opposition to those agendas are sometimes omitted, and apocryphal entries are sometimes added.

While Bede was a Northumbrianmarker partisan and spoke with prejudice against the native Britons, his Ecclesiastical History is highly regarded for its effort towards an accurate telling of history, and for its use of reliable sources. When passing along "traditional" information that lacks a historical foundation, Bede takes care to note it as such.

The De Excidio et Conquestu Britainniae by Gildas (c. 516 – 570) is occasionally relevant in that it mentions early people and places also mentioned in the literary and historical sources. The work was intended to preach Christianity to Gildas' contemporaries and was not meant to be a history. It is one of the few contemporary accounts of his era to have survived.

False sources

The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth is disparaged as pseudohistory, though it looms large as a source for the largely fictional romantic stories known collectively as the Matter of Britain. The lack of historical value attributed to the Historia lies only partly in the fact that it contains so many fictions and falsifications of history; the fact that historical accuracy clearly was not a consideration in its creation makes any references to actual people and places no more than a literary convenience.

The Iolo Manuscripts are a collection of manuscripts presented in the early 19th century by Edward Williams, who is better known as Iolo Morganwg. Containing various tales, anecdotal material and elaborate genealogies that connect virtually everyone of note with everyone else of note (and with many connections to Arthur and Iolo's native region of Morgannwgmarker), they were at first accepted as genuine, but have since been shown to be an assortment of forged or doctored manuscripts, transcriptions, and fantasies, mainly invented by Iolo himself. A list of works tainted by their reliance on the material presented by Iolo (sometimes without attribution) would be quite long.


Almost nothing is reliably known of Central Britain before c. 550. There had never been a long-term, effective Roman control north of TyneSolwaymarker line, and south of that line effective Roman control ended long before the traditional departure of the Roman military from Roman Britain in 407. It was noted in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus and others that there was ever-decreasing Roman control from the 2nd century onward, and in the years after 360 there was widespread disorder and the large-scale permanent abandonment of territory by the Romans.

In 550 the region was controlled by Brythonic-speaking peoples except for the eastern coastal areas, which were controlled by the Anglian-speaking peoples of Bernicia and Deira. To the north were the Picts, with the Irishmarker-descended kingdom of Dál Riata to the northwest. All of these peoples would play a role in the history of the Old North.

Historical context

From a historical perspective the portrayal of the Men of the North as native Britons defending against intruding Saxons is a partisan view. Wars were frequently internecine, and Britons were aggressors as well as defenders, as was also true of the Angles, Picts, and Scots. However, those Welsh stories of the Old North that tell of Briton fighting Anglian have a counterpart, told from the opposite side. The story of the demise of the kingdoms of the Old North is the story of the rise of Northumbria from two coastal kingdoms to become the premier power in Britain north of the Humber Estuarymarker and south of the Firths of Clydemarker and Forthmarker.

The interests of kingdoms of this era were not restricted to their immediate vicinity. Alliances were not made only within the same ethnic groups, nor were enmities restricted to nearby different ethnic groups. An alliance of Britons fought against an alliance of Britons at the Battle of Arfderyddmarker. Áedán mac Gabráin of Dál Riata appears in a genealogy among the pedigrees of the Men of the North. The Annales Cambriae state that a Northumbrian king married a Briton of partly Pictish ancestry. A marriage between the Northumbrian and Pictish royal families would produce the Pictish king Talorgan. Áedán mac Gabráin fought as an ally of the Britons against the Northumbriansmarker. Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwyneddmarker allied with Penda of Mercia to defeat Edwin of Northumbria.

Conquest and defeat did not necessarily mean the extirpation of one culture and its replacement by another. The Brythonic region of western England was absorbed by Anglian Northumbria in the 7th century, yet it would re-emerge 300 years later as South Cumbria, joined with North Cumbria (Strathclyde) into a single state.

Societal context

The organisation of the Men of the North was tribal, based on kinship groups of extended families, owing allegiance to a dominant 'royal' family, sometimes indirectly through client relationships, and receiving protection in return. For Celtic peoples, this organisation was still in effect hundreds of years later, as shown in the Irish Brehon law, the Welsh Laws of Hywel dda, and the Scottishmarker Laws of the Brets and Scots. The Germanic Anglo-Saxon law had culturally different origins, but with many similarities to Celtic law. Like Celtic law, it was based on cultural tradition, without any perceivable debt to the Roman occupation of Britain.

A primary royal court ( ) would be maintained as a 'capital', but it was not the bureaucratic administrative center of modern society, nor the settlement or civitas of Roman rule. As the ruler and protector of his kingdom, the king would maintain multiple courts throughout his territory, traveling among them to exercise his authority and to address the needs of his clients, such as in the dispensing of justice. This ancient method of dispensing justice survived throughout Englandmarker as a part of royal procedure until the reforms of Henry II (reigned 1154 – 1189) modernised the administration of law.

Attested kingdoms and regions

Kingdoms in the Old North that are mentioned as kingdoms in the literary and historical sources include:
  • Alt Clut (in the location of its much later successor state, Strathclyde)
  • Elmet
  • Manaw (synonymously, Gododdin or Manaw Gododdin)
  • Rheged (its location is never made clear, and still has not been conclusively determined)
Several regions are mentioned in the sources, assumed to be notable regions within one of the kingdoms:
  • Aeron
  • Argoed
Kingdoms that were not part of the Old North but are part of its history include:

See also




Further reading

  • Alcock, Leslie. Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests in Northern Britain, AD 550-850. Edinburgh, 2003.
  • Alcock, Leslie. "Gwyr y Gogledd. An archaeological appraisal." Archaeologia Cambrensis 132 (1984 for 1983). pp. 1-18.
  • Cessford, Craig. "Northern England and the Gododdin poem." Northern History 33 (1997). pp. 218-22.
  • Dark, Kenneth R. Civitas to Kingdom. British political continuity, 300-800. London: Leicester UP, 1994.
  • Dumville, David N. "Early Welsh Poetry: Problems of Historicity." In Early Welsh Poetry: Studies in the Book of Aneirin, ed. Brynley F. Roberts. Aberystwyth, 1988. 1-16.
  • Dumville, David N. "The origins of Northumbria: Some aspects of the British background." In The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. S. Bassett. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1989. pp. 213-22.
  • Higham, N.J. "Britons in Northern England: Through a Thick Glass Darkly." Northern History 38 (2001). pp. 5-25.
  • Macquarrie, A. "The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400-1018." In Medieval Scotland: Government, Lordship and Community, ed. A. Grant and K.J. Stringer. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1993. pp. 1-19.
  • Miller, Molly. "Historicity and the pedigrees of north countrymen." Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 26 (1975). pp. 255-80.
  • Woolf, Alex. "Cædualla Rex Brettonum and the Passing of the Old North." Northern History 41.1 (2004): 1-20.

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