So let’s start where we left off. Northern Britain near the end of the 6th century was a hotch potch of British kings and forming English kingdoms. It’s a bit like looking into a muddy pool populated with some big carp. You can see the water moving as the creatures move and struggle in the deep. Every so often you see the scales of one of the monsters as they slide by, and then they are gone. Not that I’ve ever looked into a pool of carp you understand. But my point is that a complete, detailed narrative is really not possible; but every so often one leader gains a certain precedence which will have an impact on the emerging picture. So we are going to look at the next couple of hundred years through the lives of 5 men. Aedan, Son of Gabran; Oswiu, Hegemon and king of Bernicia, one of the two kingdoms of Northumbria; Bridei. Bull of the North, Adomnan, a man of God; and finally, Onuist, Despot, butcher and king.
The first of these is a Gaelic warlord called Aedan, son of Gabran. Aedan seems to have lived a long happy life of ceaseless violence, between about 535 an about 609; and by the standards of anyone, and particularly a warrior, achieving the grand old age of 74 was itself something of an achievement. You might remember that we have emphasised the bitty nature of the Dal Riadan people; traditionally separated into three peoples, the Cenél NINusa on Islay, Cenél nGabráin [NAVRAIN] in Kintyre, and finally the Cenél Comgaill [KOVYAIL] or Cenel Lorn, based in east Argyll. Aedan established for a while the primacy among these people of the Cenel nGabran. A century later in the Life of Colomba, Adomnan would write that Aedan sought out Colomba at the Monastery of Iona to be crowned. It’s one of those events which may not have happened, but the reason it was invented was important. It established a legend that Iona was where kings gained their legitimacy; it reinforced Aedan’s position at the head of the genealogy of the cenel nGabran.
Aedan’s headquarters may have been a place called Dunadd. Dunadd is an impressive hillfort, sat on a rocky crag that would once have been accessible to the sea when sea levels were higher. Sadly, there is a qualification here; although we know that Dunadd has been occupied since prehistoric times, it is not clear exactly when it became the centre of Dal Riadan kingship; it certainly is from the later 7th century, and may well have been in Aedan’s time in the late 6th. Dunadd was a citadel, easily defended, it was a trade and production centre as well; mould for casting brooches have been found, and valuable pigments for ink, imported all the way from the Mediterranean. It was also where Dal Riadan kings were inaugurated; there is a famous footprint in the rock where the new king would have placed his foot, maybe emphasising his connection to the land. The location of Dunadd is interesting; it’s not in Aedan’s homeland of the Cenel nGabrain, it’s in the north of Kintyre, it’s in a place central to most of any of the principal kindreds. Its location was usefully neutral; it emphasises therefore both the broad supremacy of kings inaugurated there, and at once the disunity of Dal Riada, split between its different kindreds.
Aedan’s patrimony and indeed Dal Riada as a whole reached across the Irish sea; the 13 miles separating the Atlantic coast was no impediment, in fact it was something of a gift to travel in the days of the 6th century. So When Aedan played politics, he did so as a leader in both Northern Britain and the north of Ireland. None the less, Aedan’s focus was to the north and east – to build a great empire into the lands of the Manau, along the Forth Clyde line, and into north Atlantic Scotland. He therefore reached an accord with an Irish king by the name of Aed, which would last to the time of his grandson, agreeing to recognise Aed as his overking In Ireland in return for security. In Scotland he was not so peaceful; in the 580’s Aedan launched a sea raid on the Orkney Islands; and he gave the king of Alt Clut a walloping, and established himself and his sons as the dominant peoples north of the Forth for a while – though he seems to have avoided conflict with the Picts.
To his south though, things were changing which would nip this early flowering of the Gaels in the proverbial. In the bud, that is. To their south in the British kingdom of Rheged, another warlord flourished, by the name of Urbgen. As a British kingdom surviving into the 8th century, Rheged appears to have been home to another disappeared Brittonic language, similar to the lost language of the Picts. It’s something of a dispute it has to be said, but Cumbric was the language of North east England and south west Scotland, in what would become the kingdom of Strathclyde, ruled from Alt Clut; when Strathclyde finally disappeared, Cumbric would eventually follow, disappearing by 12th century. That’s for you language lovers out there.
Back to the 580s and 590s, when the British kingdoms of Rheged, Al Clut and Gododdin slugged it out as part of a trend of Romano British peoples, successors of the Roman empire. They were joined by a new growing power – that of the Æthelfrith, king of the Angles of Bernicia, in north East England. Urbgen seems to have been relatively successful in fighting the Angles, but around 580 a Welsh king had him assassinated. And in 600 the Gododdin launched an attack on Æthelfrith, which culminated in the battle of Catraeth. No one is supposed to believe in big turning points in history anymore, it’s way too much fun, but if you were daft enough to thoroughly enjoy identifying turning points, the Battle of Catraeth in 600 is a candidate.
Men went to Catraeth at morn
Their high spirits lessened their life-span
They drank mead, gold and sweet, ensnaring;
For a year the minstrels were merry.
Red their swords, let the blades remain
Uncleansed, white shields and four-sided spearheads
The stanza from Y Gododdin celebrated the preparation for the battle – a year of hooley at Edinburgh for 300 young bloods of the Gododdin before they finally set out. When it came though, Catraeth was not a good day at the office for the Gododdin. It was a disastrous defeat and all their warriors are supposed to have died. It signalled two things – the beginning of the end for the Gododdin, successors of the Uotodini in Lothian and Edinburgh; this is a defeat from which they will never recover. And it’s the start of the rise of the Angles.
It fell then to Aedan to face this new force in northern Britain. Aedan had paid a heavy personal price for all his glorious victories; against the Alt Clut in Manau he lost two sons; against the Angles he had lost a third. The success of the Angles against Gododdin brought them into direct contact with Aedan, and we have the first of a series of 3 famous 7th century battles involving the Angles. Well, I say famous, famous to some people. Probably the Battle of Degsastan isn’t on everybody’s lips on a daily basis, but I am often to be found staring dreamily into space imagining Aedan and his warriors, facing the smelly Angles, come to contend for the decaying corpse of the Gododdin in South east Scotland. Put away the thought that this was a battle between two peoples, in the sense of two ethnic groups fighting for cultural supremacy; this is politics. In the army of Æthelfrith way well have been Britons of Rheged and Alt Clut, eager to reverse the years of Aedan’s expansion. Aedan may have been married to a British woman; in his army was a small contingent of Angles led by a man embarrassingly named Hering. It’s very difficult to take someone called Herring seriously, any more than Captain haddock, so let’s call him son of Hussa so that he can keep his dignity. The Son of Hussa was here to reclaim his kingdom, stolen from his father. Aedan also had his allies from Ireland at his side, including prince of the northern Ui Neill. This prince is said to have reached the brother of Æthelfrith and killed him; so the battle was clearly a close run thing. But the result was a disaster for Aedan, his army was destroyed, and he was forced to flee back to Dunadd with just a few followers.
You might say then, that Aedan’s reign ended in death, destruction and failure. Such would in fact be unduly harsh. Aedan achieved what few warleaders did in those days – he died in his own bed, and died of old age. Although the defeat at Degsastan had been a set back for Aedan, and probably meant that in the long term the lands of the Gododdin in south east Scotland would be extensively settled by the Angles, for the moment Aedan was not challenged in his homeland; there appears to have been a peace with Aethelfrith following the battle, and although war flared in Ireland, Aedan seems to have avoided the worst fall out. On his death, Dal Riada was still a predominant power in Northern Britain, Aedan had not given away the power he had won. It would take his Grandson Domnall Brecc to manage that.
The second of our heroes is Oswiu, who just happens to be the son of the victor of our battle at Degsastan.
When Æthelfrith died in 616, to the victor was not the spoils. Instead they went to a rival royal family led by Edwin of the Angle kingdom of Deira to the south. In 616 Edwin defeated Æthelfrith and chased out Æthelfrith’s family, establishing a joint kingdom of Northumbria for a while.
Æthelfrith’s family fled not to another Anglo Saxon kingdom as you might imagine; they ran instead to Dal Riada and Pictland; as they travelled, they would have carefully avoided the British kingdom of Alt Clut, because the evil Edwin of doom seems to have had a close relationship with the British king there, and indeed would marry one of his sons to a princess from the kingdom. There was quite a party on the run – Æthelfrith had 5 boys and a girl; little Oswiu was one of them, and would have been about 5 years old. They appear to have split up, with the oldest son, Eanfrith ending up somewhere in Southern Pictland, and the rest in Dal Riada. Their destinations seem to suggest that after Degsastan, Æthelfrith and Aedan had patched things up pretty well and made an agreement of mutual love and support, possibly kisses too, who knows.
For years Æthelfrith’s family stayed in exile, living at the courts of Dunadd and maybe Atholl in southern Pictland and fighting in Dal Riada, Ireland and Pictland for their hosts. Which is only polite, something I hope you will all remember next time you go round to supper somewhere. Oswiu married a Ui Neill Princess called Finn, and had a child Aldfrith; and then later married a British Princess of Rheged. But don’t be fooled by all this domesticity; none of Æthelfrith’s offspring had forgotten their birthright, and they would return with fire. And then in 633, the great Pagan warrior Penda of Mercia and his Welsh allies defeated and killed Edwin. The children of Æthelfrith saw their chance – and returned to Bernicia like a bacillus into the bloodstream of the body politic. For a while chaos and illness duly reigned until Oswiu’s older brother Oswald finally defeated the Welsh in 634, and Æthelfrith’s dynasty was back in business. Oswiu in turn inherited the Bernician throne in 642 when his older brother fell at the hands of Penda, as so many had done before. Note we are now back to separate Northumbrian kingdoms – Bernicia in the north and Deira in the south.
Oswiu was about 30 years old when he came to the throne of Bernicia on the death of Oswald. He came into a world politically dominated by Penda; and the next 13 years his life would be dominated by the struggle for supremacy between Bernicia and Mercia. In good old epic film style, he started a long way back; unlike his brother Oswald he didn’t even keep control of Deira to the south, with Powerful Penda pumping up the pomp. If it wasn’t quite the greatest comeback since Lazarus, it was none the less pretty impressive; a judicious combination of politics, diplomacy, friendship and of course, ooh yes of course – violence. Where would a dark age king be without a spot of casual violence?
In Dal Riada, Oswiu’s policy appears to one of support for the descendants of Aedan, presumably based on his years at the court of Dunadd. This is despite the fact that Aedan’s Grandson Domnall Brecc had by the year 640 comprehensively messed up the Dal Riadan empire that Aedan had built up. Domnall appeared to have a talent for backing the wrong horse, a talent in inverse proportion to his military capabilities. In Ireland, he decided to support the family that had in fact killed his predecessor, turning his back on the family that Aedan and his successor had worked with to built their success in Ireland. An odd choice you might think. And you might think correctly, because between 635 and 642, Domnall was effectively kicked all over the park. In 635, he suffered a defeat at a place called Calathros at the hands of the Gaels of the kindred of Lorn, the place north of the Cenel nGabrain in Kintyre. In 639, his new ally in Ireland was defeated and killed too; so not that great a decision to switch horses then. And then in 640, he was defeated again in Argyll by his Gaelic competitors in Dal Riada. By now Brecc should have been little more than a jelly, and at very least was probably reduced to control of only his home province of Kintyre; but in 642 we hear of him making war again, this time against Eugein, King of Alt Clut. Seriously given his form, staying at home with his bard would have been a better choice. By the end of the battle, a British bard had this to say
I saw an array that came from Pentir,
And bore themselves splendidly around the conflagration.
I saw a second one, rapidly descending from their township,
Who had risen at the word of the grandson of Nwython.
I saw great sturdy men who came with the dawn,
And the head of Domnall Brecc , ravens gnawed it.
Historians have assumed from this that the rest of Domnall Brecc’s body was no longer attached to his head. Which seems reasonable, I am not here to quibble.
The fortunes of the Cenel nGabrain and their supporters at the Monastery of Iona were at an all time low. The boat of the Cenel Lorn had come in and they were feasting on little fishes on their little dishes; their king Conall assumed control of all Dal Riada.
This was also bad news for Oswiu. Oswiu was a Christian, and revered Iona as the parent of his own monastery at Lindisfarne; he was a friend of the Cenel nGabrain from his youth at their court. Oh dear, it was all terribly gloomy. Penda was all powerful to his south, Deira was hostile. So with few options, Oswiu appears to have focussed building his power northwards. The consequences of Degsastan had left the lands of Lothian and of the Gododdin subject to Bernician control, and although the Gododdin don’t finally disappear from history until the 8th century they now appear to be a political cipher. And northwards of them, Oswiu seems to have concentrated on southern Pictland, in Fife and just north of the Forth.
Oswiu’s position was transformed in the years between 653 and 660. In 653, he finally succeeded in establishing a client kingdom in Southern Pictland under a king called Talorcan, who was seemingly the son of Eanfrith, Oswiu’s dead older brother. And if you remember that little name blizzard I will be a Dutchman’s uncle, sorry about that. But this was a success not without its problems, and seems to have been fiercely contested by the Picts; and in 655 Oswiu was again at war in the north, and in some trouble near modern Stirling. Behind his back, Penda knew a good opportunity when he saw it, and chose this moment to invade Bernicia while Oswiu the cat was away. In desperation, Oswiu offered, quote
‘an incalculable and incredible store of royal treasure and gifts as the price of peace’.
Penda was having none of it – he was going for the jugular. I don’t know if you are poker players, but, you know that moment when you decide to raise your opponent rather than calling, and it turns out he’s got a flush and gives you a thorough stuffing? Well, this was Penda’s final raise. Oswiu was forced to come south, and at the battle of Winwaed Oswiu won a glorious victory, and Penda the Pagan was powerful and pompous no more. He was in fact as dead as a nail.
To the victor this time, the spoils. Osiwu’s son was installed as the king of Deira. Mercia did manage to recover its own king after 3 years, but was still subject to Oswiu as its overlord. The British kingdom of Rheged lost its independence, and became part of the Bernician empire. In Dal Riada in 600, Oswiu exerted his influence, and the Cenel nGbrain were back, and a son of Domnall Brecc installed on the throne at Dunadd.
Oswiu’s writ ran from the River Tay to the River Thames; he was the first that could claim to be the king of all Britain. It is telling that the Pope Vitalian chose Oswiu to discuss how to establish an Archbishopric of Britain. It is equally telling that Oswiu called the synod of Whitby, presiding like a Roman Emperor over matters of the church and religion. At issue was the way that Easter was calculated; The representative of Iona was called to attend from their daughter monastery of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne had been converted into a cathedral as well as monastery by St Aidan, so Bishop Colman came to defend the ancient traditions of Iona and the British church. Making the argument for Rome was Wilifred, the Bishop of York.
Now you can be forgiven for finding this a bit odd, especially if you have been following the History of England for the last few million years. Or at least if that’s the way it feels sometimes. For many centuries we have been talking about the Pope, who has had complete authority over the church here, there and everywhere – the Pope, of course, essentially being the Bishop of Rome. But here at the edge of the world, the outcome was far from certain. As late as the 8th century, the sneaky Bishop of Rome had slipped a note to some clever forger, and come up with a super handy document called the Donation of Constantine. This handy document was presented as proof that the Emperor Constantine had made the Bishop of Rome the boss. The fact that the church had felt the need to produce such a document was evidence that as late as the 8th century it’s primacy was uncertain.
Oswiu was a friend of Iona. He invited Colman to speak. Colman asserted that Iona’s practices had been handed down from the saintly Columba, and were authoritative. Wilifred then asserted that the Bishop of Rome and the general consensus of Christendom carried more weight. Jesus, they said, had pledged to St Peter that ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’.
This carried the day, and Oswy, despite his friendship for Iona, decided in favour of Rome. Colman left Lindisfarne and withdrew to Iona, and then established new monasteries off the Irish coast, dying in 675. Lindisfarne’s authority was diminished in Northumbria, and from here the Bishopric of York would have primacy, well before it’s elevation to an Archbishopric in 735.
Oswy dies in 670. He was a remarkably effective king who had in effect created a unified Kingdom Northumbria, which extended from the Humber all the way north to the banks of the River Tay; the evidence of place names shows substantial English settlement in Lothian and South east Scotland. He had created an empire stretching at least theoretically over much of Britain, including the Gaels of Argyll and Southern Pictland. His story and that of the Angles of Northumbria is therefore every bit as much part of the story of Scotland as it is of England. He had used the church to support and demonstrate his authority, sitting in judgement for all the world like a Roman emperor. He left h