It’s evident from the amount of incoming Google queries to this blog that lots of you watched the BBC programme, ‘The Story of Britain’s Lost Middleland’ with some relish, which is excellent. If my blog queries are anything to go by, what interested you all most was the concept of kings of Cumbria, and Dunmail in particular (but of course, you’ve all heard of him because of Dunmail Raise on the A591).
Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.
So, to cut to the chase, you can find the 10th century King Dunmail’s story on this post. Here is the King Owain (there was more than one) who attended the 10th century Treaty of Eamont Bridge and died at the Battle of Brunanburh. Going back in time and to the first programme in the series, here is the 6th century Urien (who had the bard, Taliesin, who wrote the historical epic poetry recited so beautifully on the programme by Gwilym), his son, Owain map Urien. You can also check out Gwenddoleu and the Battle of Arthuret.
Now, here’s where I tell you that nothing is simple. Especially when you look at early history, where there are few records – so few that you can’t often corroborate stories to feel confident the ancient author wasn’t making it up or biased or just not very good – and that certainly applies to this area in these periods. The TV programme kept showing a map with a ‘Kingdom of Cumbria’ extending from the Cumbrian border to Glasgow. I wouldn’t do that because it’s given you all the idea that Cumbrians ruled half of Scotland, hasn’t it? And this isn’t the case.
This kingdom was called Alt Clut in the early period, named after the old name for Dumbarton, which was the controlling centre – the capital, if you like - of the kingdom. We’re not sure where its boundaries were. In the later period, it is known as the Kingdom Of Strathclyde , had the same Dumbarton capital, and its boundaries stretched into Cumbria. There are references to it as a kingdom of Cumbria(ns) – but it’s important to understand that all the people who lived in this area were known as ‘cymry’ (pronounced ‘cumry’ – this is where the words Cumbria and Cumberland come from), which was an ethnic identifier meaning ‘fellow countrymen’ in the language of the time - they identified with the other people who spoke the same language. That language was an ancient British language that is an ancestor of modern Welsh, once spoken across this island but by this period only spoken by people who lived in Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and southern Scotland (it’s the ‘yan, tan, tethera’ language, sometimes alluded to as ‘celtic’). The ‘Kingdom of Cumbria’ moniker does not mean that these lands were ruled by what we understand to be Cumbria; it means that this is where the people who spoke ‘Cumbric’ lived.
So, what is a ‘king of Cumbria’? For the Alt Clut/Strathclyde period, the ultimate answer is the guy sitting on the throne in Dumbarton in Scotland. The history’s frustratingly hazy owing to lack of hard evidence and focus by academia (and I’m certainly happy to trust the academics to do this because of the complexity of the sources) but it seems that the people we think of as kings IN Cumbria – Urien, Owain, Other Owain, Dunmail, et al (but not Gwenddoleu), were either ‘sub-kings’ who owed allegiance to a More Important king at Dumbarton, and others – particularly Dunmail and the later Owains, disappointingly – may have been the Dumbarton over-king on campaign in their southern territories, ie. Cumbria. Perhaps the word, ‘king’ is wrong, full-stop for our actual Cumbrian guys; they were clan leaders in this area (which may or may not have been Rheged in the early period). Whatever the detailed truth was, there was never a king based in Cumbria ruling a territory that stretched over the border as far as Dumbarton; quite the reverse.
We also have a major border conundrum. The Kingdom of Strathclyde’s border was probably the old Cumberland/Westmorland border, at least on the eastern side, so it doesn’t necessarily include the whole of Cumbria. And as for ‘Rheged’… despite what many sources would have you believe, we absolutely do not know for a fact that it was in Cumbria. It seems likely that it was, given we know where it wasn’t – but there is no hard evidence that it was here. It fully merits its inclusion in Norman Davies’s book, ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.
I concur that there has been a distinct, shared culture in the late Iron Age to early medieval extreme north of England and probably parts of southern Scotland and that includes, critically, what we know of the peri-Roman history of these lands, of Venutius and Cartimandua, of the Carvetii and the Brigantes and Parisii. These areas were less susceptible, because of geography, to the trickle, and then flood, of early invaders and they shared a sort of bleak upland territory that drove out similar stories. To the west, we were the last outside Wales (and perhaps Cornwall) to give up the language originally spoken throughout Britain and the culture that went with it. We were, you could say, the last vestiges of an ancient British culture, squeezed on all sides. To say more, though… that may be political.
Copyright D McIlmoyle 07.04.14 (Updated: 03.06.14)