Dunmail, last King of Cumbria – 945CE

Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.

Dunmail Raise. Yes, the pile of stones.

It’s remarkable that some pivotal events and figures in history are so little known. Oddly enough, everyone in Cumbria thinks they know about Dunmail. There’s the shopping centre in Workington; a Dunmail Close and a Dunmail Crescent; a guest house; a fantasy book character; until its recent sad demise, a rather tasty beer; and a brand of mattress. Some people might even mention Dunmail Raise, which is closer to the mark.

Dunmail Raise is a pile of stones in the middle of the road between Grasmere and Thirlmere. Not that long ago it was on the dividing line between the old counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, and had a wall over the top of it. There are no carvings, or fencing, or English Heritage signs: it’s just an unremarkable-looking heap. And yet, when the mountain pass was widened not all that long ago, the site’s ancient reputation ensured that the pile of stones was largely left alone. This is startling when you consider that similar road-widening efforts have led to the removal of stone circles and standing stones.

Dunmail himself was the last of a long line of Cumbrian kings of ancient British lineage. His father, Owain, supposedly the ‘giant’ buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith, fought and lost at the great Battle of Brunanburh against the Saxon King Athelstan in 937CE. Just eight years later, his son found himself similarly imperilled at the site of Dunmail Raise.

The critical factor was the allegiance of the Scots. In 937CE, King Constantine fought with Owain of Cumbria. In 945CE, Constantine’s son Malcolm switched sides and fought with the Saxon King Edmund against Dunmail. Their combined forces were overwhelming, and the Cumbrians were defeated.Fight of knights in the country side. Louvre, Sully wing, 2nd floor, Moreau-Nélaton Collection, Room 71. Oil on canvas.

‘This year, King Edmund overran all Cumbraland; and let to Malcolm King of the Scots, on the condition that he became his ally both by sea and by land.’ (Anglo-Saxon Chronicles)

So what is Dunmail Raise? Many piles of stone on Lake District mountains are known to be ancient – by which I mean Bronze Age –  burial cairns, but this doesn’t apply to Dunmail Raise. No remains have been found when the rocks have been disturbed over the last couple of hundred years, although there has never been a formal archaeological dig.

‘… that pile of stones,

Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;

His who had once supreme command,

Last king of rocky Cumberland’ (William Wordsworth, ‘The Waggoner’ (1819))

Another suggestion is that the Raise is not a burial cairn but a pile of ‘soul stones’. Each stone, representing the life of a single warrior, was added to the pile, to be removed after victory. Thus, the sizeable pile represents the number of men killed. Most likely, I fear, is that Dunmail Raise is simply an ancient boundary cairn between what we would call the pre-1974 counties of Westmorland and Cumberland.

The legend says that Dunmail’s crown possessed the magical property of legitimising the kingship of the wearer, so, anxious that it should not be seized by the Saxons or Scots, the fatally-wounded king asked for it to be thrown into nearby Grizedale Tarn. He told his men that one day, when Cumbria needed him, he would return for his crown.

It’s said that every year, the spirits of his warriors retrieve the crown and go to Dunmail Raise to ask their king if he is ready to take the crown again, but each year, he replies, ‘not yet, not yet; wait awhile, my warriors’.

This pretty story has a very medieval ring to it – far too late to originate in Dunmail’s own time. It’s very reminiscent of medieval stories about the ‘once and future king’, King Arthur, and reminds me a great deal of the story I was told as a child about the sleeping knights of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. And, as we’ve already noted, Dunmail may not be buried at the Raise. And then there’s the small matter of Dunmail’s survival.

That’s right: if one theory is correct, Dunmail’s correct name was Dynfwal*, and he was King of Strathclyde, the kingdom to which Cumbrian leaders paid homage in this period. Dynfwal may well have battled King Edmund right here, but he survived and was alive and well until he died on a pilgrimage to Rome in 975CE. He may well have been deposed, and he may well have lived the rest of his life in exile, but history says he did not die at Dunmail Raise.

Or did he? The history of the kings of Cumbria is very confused because the original records are scanty and contradictory; unlike most of the history we were taught at school, no one knows the correct answer. Dunmail is sometimes known as Dunmael, or Dumnall, or Duffnal, or Duvenald. Who’s to say that they haven’t been mixed up – as is forever seen with the three Owains and three Coels – and Dunmail did die on that mountain pass in 945CE and is buried deep below the Raise? Perhaps the man who died in Rome was a Duffnal or a Donald. Until someone goes-a-digging, with a lot of patience, some fancy technical equipment and a lot of luck, there’s no hope of certain knowledge.

Whatever happened to Dunmail, it was the end of the ancient British rule of Cumbria and within fifty years, Cumbrians had stopped speaking their native language (a version of Welsh). King Edmund’s rule of England was increasingly chaotic for four more years until his death, and the Scots spent the next 600 years trying to secure Cumbria.

©Diane McIlmoyle 12.11.10

Here you can see a post on Dunmail by Tim Clarkson, author of The Men of the North.

* And for the picky amongst you, if you subscribe to the Dynfwal theory and hold that all kings of Strathclyde were also kings of Cumbria, then Dunmail was not the last king of Cumbria as the Strathclyde line continued on in Strathclyde (but not Cumbria). Personally, I would say that as the line of kings in Cumbria ends with this battle, whether Dunmail was King of Cumbria and Cumbria only, or was also King of Strathclyde, Dunmail is the last king of Cumbria, that is, Cumbria as modern Cumbrians understand it. Historians are remarkably particular people…

21 thoughts on “Dunmail, last King of Cumbria – 945CE

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  8. Hello. I am wondering about the connection with Strathclyde and the British of modern Cumbria following the demise of Urien’s Rheged right up to ‘Dunmail’ as the Bewcastle Cross near Brampton (7th century) is dedicated to Alefrid son of Oswy. It also says ‘in the first year of Egfrid. King of THIS Kingdom. i.e Northumbria. There is also the fact of the heavy Norse colonisation exemplified in something like the Gosforth Cross and the clear domination they must have had from the place name distribution around the Lakes. The local dialects reflect this also. Recently a Viking burial ground was found near Cumwhitton which is of particular note, as the remains of women were also found indicating a true settlement. Something of a rarity. Who then held dominion over this ‘Cumbrian’ population? I find it difficult to believe it would be the Britons of Strathclyde. Can anyone shed any light?

    • Hello Mighty (is that matey with a dipthong?). Information is so thin on the ground that I doubt anyone would be brave enough to give a certain answer. I would say, however, that Bewcastle is a long way north of the central Lakes and it’s an accident of modern geography that we put the two in the same place. There’s no doubt of the Norse influence across the Lakes, of course, but then they were there long after Dunmail and his pals had gone.

      Are you familiar with Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog and Michelle Ziegler’s Heavenfield site? They both have detailed academic knowledge of this period and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. Both will answer questions if you ask them.

      Incidentally I hear that Tullie House are planning some useful interpretation of Viking north Cumbria when the Cumwhitton stuff is released by the conservators. That could be useful as I gather, as you say, that Viking remains are strangely uncommon given the place names.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

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  12. Catching up with old posts that I have never read.
    The amount of times I have driven along this road and had no idea what I was passing. Fascinating.

    • I know! I suppose now they’ve built the road either side of it, they can’t put a sign up in case people stop to read it! If you do park up in the layby near there, it’s very easy to imagine the pass’s strategic signficance, with the Cumbrians coming out of the mountains and the English/Scottish marching up the pass. Goodness knows what the literal truth of the pile of stones is, but it does seem certain that there was a battle hereabouts at that time. It’s too easy to dismiss these things because they happened so long ago.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

    • He is a bit, isn’t he? One of those stories where most of it could be true, or virtually none of it. Whatever the case, no Cumbrian has felt inclined to remove that large pile of stones, even when they widened the road. There aren’t many pictures of the Raise on the web because these days it’s literally between two lanes of a narrow, fast, main road. I had to risk life and limb to get this one!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

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