The Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927CE

The UK news today is dominated by a meeting between the UK prime minister and the Scottish first minister about the possibility of Scotland declaring independence. There is much talk of the 1707 Act of Union, and of James VI/I, but in fact the first union between the English and the Scots was negotiated right here in Cumbria on 12thJuly, 927CE.

Athelstan from All Souls College Chapel, Oxford

Athelstan from All Souls College Chapel, Oxford

At this point in history, it wasn’t about England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. There was Mercia and Wessex; Northumbria and Dublin; Strathclyde and Cumbria; the Scots; various Welsh provinces and a whole lot more. There was no concept of a combined Britain, never mind UK. Continue reading

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Owain map Urien, King of Cumbria c.590-597CE

The name ‘Owain’ resonates in Cumbria, especially in the Eden Valley. If you ask someone, they might mention that he was a great warrior. They’ll say that they think there’s a connection to King Arthur, and that he’s buried at the Giant’s Grave in Penrith (although the evidence leans towards it being the grave of a different Owain1).

In reality, like all these early medieval kings, facts are had to come by. Owain was the son of the famous Urien of Rheged, and he inherited his father’s kingdom, and his father’s wars. Continue reading

Gwenddoleu and the Battle of Arthuret, 573CE

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

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. Continue reading

Urien of Rheged: Not Cumbria’s Arthur

So, this is my 22nd post on this blog, and I’m only just attempting Urien. The reasons for this are several: firstly, it’s so long ago that sources are thin on the ground; secondly, so many people have decided that they’d like him to be King Arthur that it all gets rather tired and emotional; and thirdly, a Certain Local Tourist Attraction.

Yr Hen Ogledd (The Old North) c.550- c. 650: peoples and sites in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, John T. Koch, ed. (2005), isbn 9781851094400.

In reality, it goes likes this. Sometime in the early 6th century, Urien was born. He was  a brythonic (a form of old Welsh)-speaking Briton, and he ruled over a small kingdom called Rheged. Urien had a court bard, Taliesin, who recorded Urien’s wars in a series of poems which became very popular in Wales in succeeding centuries. Continue reading

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. Continue reading