Next to the legendary kingdom of Urien‘s Rheged lay another, smaller kingdom. We don’t know what it was called, but in the third quarter of the 6th century, north-west Cumbria and the Solway area were ruled by a man called Gwenddoleu.
Investigating Gwenddoleu is like looking through cracked bottle-glass windows: you see a flash here, a hint there. Sometimes you see something clearly, and sometimes you squint and turn and it’s still just a suggestion. There are several sources which mention Gwenddoleu – the Annales Cambriae; the Welsh Triads and genealogies; the Merlin poems of the Black Book of Carmarthen; the Chronica Gentis Scottorum – but the references are veiled, fleeting, and sometimes of dubious date.
The story seems to be that Gwenddoleu met Rhydderch of Strathclyde, the brothers Peredur and Gwrgi, and a long list of Cumbric names – Cedfyl, Cadfan, Maelgwyn, Erith, Gwrith, Bran, Melgan, Rhys, Cynelyn, Cyndus and Dywel and Erbin – at a site known as Arfderydd in 573CE. Gwenddoleu was killed, but his faithful band of warriors carried on fighting for another six weeks. Three hundred of his men were slaughtered, and buried in a mass grave where they fell.
The site of Arfderydd has long been identified with Arthuret, a parish in northern Cumbria. The Scottish source1 says that the battle took place ‘between Lidel and Carwanalow’, which are simply traced to the River Liddel and Carwinley Burn. The historian Skene2, who investigated the story in the later 19th century, spoke to an old man who lived near a so-called ‘Roman camp’ near Carwinley hamlet, who told him that it was the site of a great battle, and that three hundred native warriors were buried in a nearby orchard.
Skene then visited Liddel Strength, in search of ‘Caer Gwenddoleu’, the castle suggested by the word, ‘carwinley’. This site, on high ground overlooking the rivers Esk and Carwinley Burn, has obvious earthworks that have since been dated to the 12th century. There has been no archaeological search for earlier habitation, and, intriguingly, it looks like there may have been a major landslip on the site a thousand or so years ago. There’s certainly no reason to discount this as the natural site for the home of a powerful warlord.
One of the reasons that the story has survived is that Gwenddoleu had a bard-cum-wise man who Welsh bards called Myrddin, or Merlin. In the poem3 represented as a dialogue between Merlin and his contemporary, Taliesin (who was Urien of Rheged’s bard), they describe the Battle of Arthuret:
‘Warriors ready for battle, for slaughter armed,
For this battle, Arfderydd, they have made
A lifetime of preparation.
A host of spears fly high, drawing blood
From a host of vigorous warriors –
A host, fleeing; a host wounded –
A host, bloody, retreating.’
Merlin expresses his guilt for his part in the battle, and regrets the loss of his former life, where he lived in luxury and wore a gold torc. The Welsh Triads give us further details about Gwenddoleu’s court: he kept two large birds, which wore golden collars and ate four men per day. One Triad mentions a sacred fire.
Perhaps the distinctly non-christian sacred fire and the man-eating pets are the reason that 19th century historians decided that the Battle of Arthuret must have been about religion; the christian Rhydderch Hael of Strathclyde versus the pagan Gwenddoleu. This version doesn’t particularly survive modern interpretations, as historians often observe that christian conversion of kings in this era does not imply that they were all proselytising enthusiasts. It’s more likely the usual: a land-grab between neighbouring territories.
Oddly enough, this brings us right back in line with the view of Welsh bards writing in the few hundred years immediately after Arthuret. The battle, they say, was one of three ‘futile battles’; Briton fighting Briton, when their energies would have been better spent against the invading Angles.
- WF Skene, Celtic Scotland (1886)
- From the 15thc Scotichronicon, based on the 14thc Chronica Gentis Scottorum, and earlier sources.
- The Dialogue of Myrddin and Taliesin, from The Black Book of Carmarthen.