- FROM DOORMAT TO DOMINANT IN NORTH BRITAIN
by Dr. J. White-Phillip
by Darrell Wolcott
If you are wondering how a
paper on the Anglian kingdom of Bernicia has anything to do with the Study of Ancient Wales, we have simply used its creation
and rise to highlight the Cymric 'Men of the North' in the 6th century, often called the Age of the Heroes by later Welshmen.
That their "time in the sun" was drawing to a close by the year 600, can be seen in the pedigree manuscripts. Only 3
sixth-century northern families (those descended from Llywarch Hen, Cynfelyn ap Athrwys and Llawdden Llydog) have extant male-only
pedigrees extending past the 7th century.
OUR STORY BEGINS:
About the year 490, an Angle
named Oesa  joined a group of his fellow Angles on the upper north coastal area of Britain. That group had come some 45
years earlier, invited by Britain's overking to protect the area against Picts, much as a colony of Jutes had been invited
to settle in Kent. Oesa was the father of a newborn son, Eoppa, and was related to the various tribes on the western
coast of continental Europe who all claim descent from Woden.
The lands called Bryneich consisted
of a narrow coastal strip which Gododdin had traditionally owned but had permitted the Angles to occupy when invited as feoderati.
While it lay north of Hadrian's wall, it had been governed by a son of Coel Hen to effect a legal separation from the remainder
of Gododdin. There is no detailed history of events occurring in Bryneich prior to the reign of Aethelfrith (593-616)
so we must posit a scenario which will logically tie together the scattered facts which are recorded. The following is our
By the time this new family arrived in Bryneich, the Pict threat had been sharply reduced by the rising Brithonic Celt kingdoms
of Strathclyde and Lothian, which lay between the Anglian population centers along the coast of Britain and the Caledonian
Picts above the Firth of Forth. A great-grandson of Coel Hen, Bran Hen ap Dyfnwal, was ruling the kingdom of Bryneich.
Lower England was battling the Saxons who'd been settled in Kent, but no strife was yet seen from the foederati living in
Bryneich. King Bran Hen was childless, but his brother Cyngar, had a first-born child about this same year (490), a
son named Morgan or Morcant, who was to become the heir-apparent to the kingship.
History has not been kind to the reputation of this Morcant (usually called Morcant Bwlch), but, we suggest, for the
wrong reasons. He seems to have intensified the unrest between the Anglian population and the native Celts in Bryneich,
after he succeeded his uncle as king about the year 520. The Anglian people had long been denied permission to expand their
settlement inland, but Morcant Bwlch became even more restrictive. He ordered them to confine their residences to a
few thousand acres around Bamburgh, forbade travel into Cymric areas and in many ways let them know they were "hired hands",
not gentlemen of nobility.
The arrival of Oesa gave these
men a glimmering of hope because he WAS descended from a tribe they considered "nobility". These hopes grew over
the years, as first Eoppa and then his son, Ida, championed their cause. They, however, lacked the strength to
demand their voices be heard at the royal court of Morcant. This changed abruptly in the year 545. The plague
of Justinian, called the "yellow plague", swept over Britain beginning in 544. When news arrived in 547 that King Maelgwn
of Gwynedd had died of "yellow fever", Morgant took refuge at Tyne Gap in the Cheviot Hills near the wall. 
In his absence, Ida established a new court at Dyn-Guaroi (later called Bamburgh), named it "the kingdom of Bernicia", proclaimed
himself king, and evicted all the Celts who resided there. He then sent messengers to advise Morcant of his actions, and promised
widespread rebellion if he attempted to interfere in the new "kingdom". Morcant sputtered in protest but ultimately
did nothing to remove Ida. The kings of Lothian, Strathclyde, Rheged and Ebrauc also dismissed the event as trivial and agreed
not to interfere so long as Ida's tiny new kingdom did not threaten their lands. Morcant died shortly after, leaving
the problem to his son and successor, Clydog.
Morgan's son, Clydog, tried
to persuade Urien of Rheged to aid him in recovering this territory, but Urien did not believe it in his own interest to take
an army north of the wall. Ida had made no attempt to expand inland and wasn't believed to be any threat to the peace
which now existed among the Cymry of north Britain.
Ida died about 560, was succeeded
by his brother, Glappa,  who himself died within a year. Adda, the eldest son of Ida, succeeded to the kingship of the
still small community of Angles. He tentatively began to extend his borders into Lothian lands to satisfy growing demands
from his people for richer soil to plant their crops. He then built an unauthorized defensive earthwork fortification
extending about 12 miles across the countryside. This act alarmed Serwan ap Llawdden, the king of Lothian. When
he found that none of the northern Cymric kings, including Clydog of Bryneich, believed Adda's tiny border expansion was any
real problem, he invited young noblemen from as far away as Wales to join him, not for any political cause, but only for a
About 300 young princes accepted his invitation and were treated to a several months-long feast as the
elders prepared a military campaign. Sometime near 565, this enthusiastic, but amateurish, band took the field
in southern Lothian.  It was met by a huge mass of foot soldiers led by Bernicia's King Adda, his younger brothers, and
various cousins. What began as an adventure quickly turned into a disaster....for the Cymry. History calls this the
Battle of Catraeth.
A leading bard from the tribe of
Pabo Post Prydian, Aneirin, was present to record the battle; his tribute to the various fallen princes is extant today as
the classic poem "Y Gododdin". 
Emboldened with his battlefield victory, Adda followed
up with attacks against other northern kingdoms. He soon found out there was a big difference when fighting well-trained
warbands. Both Rhydderch Hen of Strathclyde and Urien of Rheged easily swept him back to Bernicia. Clydog of Bryneich
had stopped every attempt Adda made to extend south. When Adda died in 569, his brother, Aethelric, was also unable to expand
beyond his own borders when confronted by real armies. When he died in 573, his brother, Theodoric, was finally able
to score an occasional victory, although suffering enough losses to prevent any real gains of territory. 
In fact, about 575, an army,
which was commanded by the aging Urien Rheged, not only pressed the Bernicians back to their base in "Bernicia", but off-shore
to Holy Island (later called Lindisfarne) which the Britons called Ynys Metcaut. This was a tidal island consisting
of about 1000 acres which, at low tide, was accessible by walking over a wet, mostly sandy, causeway. We are told that
the Bernicians were stranded there for 3 days and 3 nights.  Since Urien did not pursue them, but merely isolated
them for a bit, we assume the whole exercise was intended to send them a message, not to annihilate them. Indeed, there is
no mention of a battle at all, merely a superior force causing the Angles of Bernicia to retreat until there was no further
space behind them.
Elsewhere in north Britain, the Cymry were so unconcerned with Bernicia that they battled among themselves. In 573 at
the Battle of Arfderydd, the brothers Gwrgi and Peredur ap Eliffer defeated and killed their cousin Gwendoleu ap Ceido.
In 580, those brothers were killed at Caer Greu by one Eda Glinmawr.  We assume this "Adda great-knee" was a non-cited
son of Gwendoleu.
Urien himself was assassinated c. 575, by a man hired by the envious Morgan ap Clydog, because "his military
skill and generalship surpassed that of all the other kings".  While Morgan may have considered himself a great
general, the loss of Urien (at age 65) was more a perceived blow to the Cymry than a real one.
When Theodoric was slain in
580 (some say by Owain ap Urien ), one must assume two things: (a) no younger brothers (sons of Ida) were still
alive and fit for kingship, and (b) no grandsons of Ida were yet old enough for kingship. We are told that Friduwald
ruled Bernicia from 580-586, then Hussa from 586-593. We think these were sons of Ida's brother, Glappa, and cousins
of Theodoric. During the whole period of the reigns of its first 6 kings (547-593), Bernicia had barely expanded beyond
its original boundaries. Over the preceding 46 years, those kings
had expended hundreds of their men battling with the Cymric kingdoms, and had precious little to show for it.
This brings us to King Aethelfrith,
son of Aethelric and grandson of Ida. To relate his story, we must first introduce the Anglian kingdom of Deira.
At the same time the Angles
were first settled in Bryneich (mid-5th century), a similar group of feoderati
was settled on the coast of Britain just south of Ebrauc. These lands were called Deywr or Deifr by the Brits, but the
new inhabitants called it Deira. From its origin, this Anglian territory was self-governing. Nothing is known of its
history until about 580. Aelle, son of Yffe, ruled until his death c. 599.  His eldest living son was barely a teenager, and his only
brother, Aelfric, was already dead. His uncle, Aethelric, was 64 years old, but was the only living member of the family
eligible for kingship. The elderly gentleman managed to survive for 5 more years as king, before dying in 604.
About a year earlier, Acha, the daughter of Aelle, married
Aethelfrith of Bernicia. 
By the year 593, many of the northern kingdoms ruled by the Cymry were in decline. Their strong kings had died and been
replaced by sons of lesser skills. Aethelfrith moved out of his stronghold at Dyn-Guaroi, and with little effective
resistance, absorbed the remaining territory of Bryneich, continued south to take Ebrauc and west to harass Rheged and the
kingdoms of the Pennines. Token resistance crumbled quickly, and soon none dared take the field against him. When
Aethelric of Deira died in 604, Aethelfrith claimed its kingship as the husband of Acha. Her brother, Edwin,
who may have been in line for that kingship  but was not yet 20 years old, fled his home and went into exile. Thus,
the kingdom later to be called Northumbria was born, with Aethelfrith the undisputed ruler.
525 Yffe 535 Aethelric, obit 604
Aethelric, 2nd son l
l 550 Aelle
555 Aelfric (father of Osric)
l ______l___________ c 585-634
588 586 Edwin
One by one, the old kingdoms of Lothian, Rheged, the Pennines and Elmet paid homage to their new bretwalda. Only Strathclyde remained independent, possibly
because their rulers formed alliances with both the Dal Riata Scots and the Caledonian Picts, coupled with the fact that Aethelfrith's
interests lay south of their area.
About the year 613,  Aethelfrith took his
army south, passing through dozens of "unconquered" areas which simply declined to confront him. The Welsh kingdom of Powys
did defend their borders against him, however, which resulted in the Battle at Bangor Orchard usually referred to as the Battle
of Chester. The Powys losses were heavy, and included Selyf ap Cynan Garwyn, their king. After his decisive victory,
Aethelfrith did not claim any Powys lands nor install any permanent cadre representing his interests. He simply rode
away back to Northumbria. It was as though the entire exercise was merely a show of force, not really an invasion
to conquer new territory. Perhaps the moral of the story was "don't even think about messing with Northumbria".
We shall leave our story of Bernicia at its
"high water mark" about 613 and turn our attention to some of the incidents recited above which have been garbled by our later
historians. For each general statement which heads a discussion below, we believe you should insert "NOT" after the word "WAS".
THERE WAS A GREAT NORTHERN ALLIANCE
By misreading a passage in Nennius, a number
of modern historians claim there once existed a "grand alliance" of the northern Cymric kingdoms, opposing the emergence of
Bernicia. The passage begins with a listing of Bernician kings and the length of their reign, ending with "Hussa reigned
7 years". Next, the Latin text reads as follows:
"Contra illum quattuor reges: Urbgen,
et Riderchhen, et Guallauc, et Morcant, dimicaverunt."
A literal English translation says "Against him four kings (those men are then named), fought".
This statement has
been interpreted by many to say that the four named kings fought together against Hussa, at a single battle or a series of
battles. If that were true, then all four men would have been of fighting age between 586 and 593 (Hussa's reign). It
will be necessary to identify the "4 kings" in order to date them to determine if they could have fought Hussa.
1. "Urbgen" is clearly Urien ap Cynfarch Oer, king of Rheged, who
was born c. 510 and was killed c. 575.
2. "Riderchhen" was Rhydderch Hen, the king of Strathclyde,
son of Tudwal ap Clinoch, who was born c. 540. He is often confused with Rhydderch Hael, a son of Tudwal Tudclyd ap
Cedic, a non-king resident of Gododdin who was born c. 450.
3. "Guallauc" is usually identified as
Gwallog ap Llynnog ap Mar, king of Elmet, who was born c. 485
4. "Morcant" is usually identified as Morcant Bwlch,
king of Bryneich, who was born c. 490.
Since we reject the idea that men past age 70 (or dead men) were swinging swords on the battlefield
in this era, at least three of the men (as generally identified) could NOT have fought against Hussa . In addition,
we will assume that like us, you have already decided the Rhydderch in this list could NOT be Rhydderch Hael , a man long
dead before ANY of the Bernician kings ruled.
If those "4 kings" could not have fought against
"illum" meaning "him", perhaps Nennius (or a later copyist) used the wrong form of the Latin pronoun "illis" meaning "them".
Is it possible these four Cymric kings, each in his own time, fought against one or more of the 5 Bernician kings, whose list
ended with Hussa? Certainly not the four kings as they are "generally" identified; two of those men were too old to
have fought against the earliest Bernician listed, Adda son of Ida, who reigned 561-569.
In the poems of Llywarch Hen, the bard
writes of a "Wallawc marchawc trin" battling with the sons of Urien. Urien's sons could not have been warriors earlier
than c. 560, when the identified "Guallauc" would be 75 years old. Clearly, the man called Marchog Trin was born much
later. It is also known that a Ceredig ap Gwylog was king of Elmet when he was ousted by Edwin of Deira in 617. 
We suggest the Elmet family actually looked like this chart, and we would identify the "Guallauc" mentioned by Nennius as
the man called Marchog Trin and born c. 545:
340 Coel Hen
Pabo Post Prydain 480
515 Llynnog 520 Dwywei====Donawt
545 Gwylog Marchog
Trin Aneirin, the bard
580 Ceredig lv 617
We would also
identify the Morcant in the "4 kings" list as Morgan ap Clydog ap Morcant Bwlch, a man born c. 550, and further identify him
as the "Morcant" who hired an assassin to kill Urien Rheged c. 575. Each of those "4 kings" could have individually
battled against one or more of the 5 Bernician kings. Based upon our view of that kingdom between 560 and 593, we doubt
it would have been necessary for any two or three of the Cymric kings to have joined together for such a battle.
The only other evidence to suggest any "grand alliance"
of the kings of north Britain is found in the citation which tells us that whenever they were united, "the Cynfarchion, the
Cynwydian and the Coeling" would never fail.  These were three tribes descended from Coel Hen, led in the 6th century
by Urien of Rheged (followed by his son, Owain), Gwylog Marchog Trin of Elmet and Morgan ap Clydog of Byrneich. The
statement implies that they sometimes joined together for a battle or other mischief, but mostly against other Cymric tribes.
There weren't really any "foreign" armies threatening their lands in their era.
URIEN'S ASSASSINATION WAS A TURNING POINT:
A number of contemporary historians claim that this act of treachery totally stalled the efforts of the Cymry, who had, until
then, kept the Angles at bay. For this observation to be correct, two things would be required: (a) That Urien was an unstoppable
fighting machine, and (b) that the Bernicians began to dominate the north immediately after he was killed. Neither is
true. No matter how great a general Urien was, he was now 65 years old and had about zero expected life term remaining.
His skills would soon be lost to the Cymry even if Morgan had not hired the assassin. Secondly, Bernicia did NOT make
any substantial advances in their position for another 18 years, when Aethelfrith came on the scene.
THE BATTLE OF CHESTER WAS A WATERSHED EVENT:
Many historians claim that with this battle loss, the Cymry in Wales were cut off from their allies and kinfolks in North
Britain, and that it was no longer possible to travel overland from Wales to Strathclyde. But the victor had neither
claimed nor taken possession of any land, nor had he erected any barriers at this so-called "choke point". Presumably,
anyone who was friendly with the people of Rheged could freely pass through their lands to visit the north. Whether Rheged
was, in 613, "independent" or subservient to Northumbria is immaterial to normal travel. We suggest that the only "travel"
that would have been met with hostility would be the taking of an army on a march to the north.
 Oesa was the first of his family to emigrate to Britain, according to David Dumville's article
"A new chronicle fragment of early British history" published in English History Review, vol 88 (1973), pp 312-440
 It is only our suggestion that Morcant took refuge from the Yellow plague at Tyne Gap, but it might explain
why his nickname was "Bwlch" which means "gap"
 There are no sources which cite an ancestry for Glappa. It is only our belief that he was a younger
brother of Ida, who took rule when Ida's eldest son was not yet age 21
 There is no scholastic consensus as to the location of this battle. We think it took place somewhere
between Adda's seat at the town later called Bamburgh, and the host's manor at Edinburgh, but closer to the former.
 Nennius, 63 says "During this time, sometimes the enemy, sometimes the Cymry were victorious"
 cited by Nennius, 63
 Rachel Bromwich "Trioedd Ynys Prydein", triad #30. Some would identify him with Adda, son of Ida,
king of Bernicia, but that Adda died 11 years before Gwrgi and Peredur were slain. Others identify him with Aetan, whose pedigree
given by Nennius places him in the 4th generation after Ida. Based upon what is known of the sons of this Aetan, he
could not be born earlier than 675, or 95 years after the brothers were slain.
 Our italicized quote is taken from Nennius, 63 as it appears in Manuscript H. His work now survives
in 35 manuscripts, in Latin. While they all tell the same story, the exact wording and the spelling of names varies
from one version to another. Manuscript H was selected for use in the Phillimore series "History from the Sources",
 This claim is made in a poem by Llywarch Hen, but appears in no known annals
 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records his death in 588, but this cannot be the correct date. The
Chronicle also says that in 596, Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain. Bede, Book I, chapter 25, says Augustine landed
in Kent and was permitted to preach to the Angles who lived there. N.J. Higham, in his 2006 work "Re-reading Bede: The
Ecclesiastical History in Context" adds (citing Bede's "Greater Chronicle") "However, the people of the Angles north of the
River Humber, under kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life". This certainly implies that
Aelle was still alive and ruling in 596. Fixing his obit at 599 and adding the 5 years his elderly uncle reigned, brings
us to 604, when Aethelfrith of Bernicia took the kingship of Deira
 Bede, "Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation:, Book III, chapter 6
 It is not known if there was a member of the Deiran royal family, alive in 604, with a better claim
than Edwin, but it was Edwin who, in 616, returned from exile and received the kingship after his protector, King Raedwald
of East Anglia, killed Aethelfrith in battle
 The date of this battle is somewhat uncertain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates it to 605. The
Welsh Annals and the Irish Annals of Ulster date it 613, but other scholars place it as late as 616. We reject the 605 dating,
but do not think it occurred the same year that Aethelfrith was slain.
 op. cit. Bede, Book IV, chapter 23. Also see N J Higham, Kingdom
of Northumbria, pp. 84–87 & 116
 For further discussion of this trio, see our paper "The Foundations
of the Men of the North - Part 2" at the following link: