31 January, 2016

The battle of Catraeth: Y Gododdin

The heroic poem Y Gododdin is one of the longest and most famous texts in medieval Welsh. It was written down in the kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales in a thirteenth-century manuscript, but the spellings in one of the two versions suggest that it may be several centuries older. It consists mainly of a series of elegies for warriors who feasted at the court of Din Eidyn (modern Edinburgh) before setting out to fight at a place called Catraeth where many, perhaps most, of them were killed. Where might Catraeth have been?


The battle of Catraeth is not mentioned in the Annales Cambriae, Historia Brittonum or the Irish Annals of Ulster, Tigernach or Innisfallen, at least not in any form that I can recognise. The only sources for it are poems written down in medieval Wales. Of these, by far the most important is Y Gododdin, written down in a thirteenth-century manuscript known as the Book of Aneirin.

Y Gododdin

Y Gododdin survives only in the Book of Aneirin. The text was written by two scribes, conventionally designated A and B. The A scribe wrote using the language conventions of Middle Welsh (12th to 14th century, contemporary with the manuscript), whereas the B scribe wrote using Old Welsh (9th to early 12th century). The first part of the B scribe’s text (designated B1) has some Middle Welsh features, while the second part (designated B2) has more Old Welsh features. This may indicate that the B scribe was working from two separate sources written in different forms of the language, or that the B scribe started out by partially modernising an Old Welsh source and then stopped doing this and reverted to copying out the original. The stanza numbering scheme in this post is the one used by Koch (1997).

Y Gododdin is not a narrative describing a particular battle. It is (mostly*) a collection of heroic death songs in praise of fallen warriors. So I should start straight away with the caveat that the various heroes may not all have met their ends in the same battle, and the poem may not refer to a single event.

However, there are multiple references in the poem to a battle fought at a place called ‘Catraeth’. ‘Catraeth’ occurs 23 times in Y Gododdin, 18 times in the ‘A’ version and 5 times in the more archaic ‘B’ version (Koch 1997, p. xiii, footnote 2). So it seems reasonable to assume that this was considered a conflict of some importance.


The ‘Gododdin’ of the poem’s title refers to the area that is now south-east Scotland, which in Roman times was occupied by a tribe called by the Romans ‘Votadini’. ‘Gododdin’ is derived directly from ‘Votadini’, so (for once) there seems little doubt of its identity.

The poem refers to a hill-fort or stronghold called Eidyn as the base of the warriors. For example, in the B text:

Eidyn’s hill-fort (B2-34)
When the noblemen came from Din Eidyn’s meadow (B1-19)
fighting for the groves and mead of Eidyn (B1-21)

--Koch 1997

‘Din Eidyn’ is modern Edinburgh, simply with the ‘din’ element replaced by its Old English equivalent ‘burgh’ (both meaning ‘fortification’) and the word order changed round from the Brittonic to the English convention. The most obvious candidates for Din Eidyn are either the Castle Rock (site of the current Edinburgh Castle) or the Iron Age hill fort on Arthur’s Seat.
Another possibility might be one of the Roman fortifications in the area, such as Cramond fort, by analogy with the post-Roman occupation of Birdoswald fort further south.

Some of the heroes commemorated in the poem came from areas further afield. For example, stanza B2-27 refers to a warrior from ‘over the Firth of Forth’, and stanzas B2-39 and B2-42 refer to men from Aeron (possibly the area of modern Ayrshire in south-west Scotland) (Koch 1997).

The enemy is less clearly identified. The B text refers to Deira or Deirans, Saxons, heathen tribes of Scots and Picts, and Lloegr’s mixed hosts:

to attack Deira’s retinue (B2-28)
the driver of the Deirans (B1-14)
driver of the Deirans (B1-16)

a Saxon dirk (B2-25)
they gave no mercy to the Saxons (B1-7)

heathen tribes of Scots and Picts (B1-5)

in contention with Lloegr’s mixed hosts (B1-19)

--Koch 1997

The A text also adds two references to Bernicia (although not necessarily as opponents), and one to the descendants of Godebawg:

against the descendants of Godebawg (A-15)

there fell men of Deira and Bernicia (A-5)

the army of Gododdin and Bernicia (A-47)

--Koch 1997

‘Godebawg’ is associated with Coel Hen in the Triads and Harleian genealogies, and means ‘Protector’. Coel Hen is the founder figure of several Brittonic genealogies associated with early medieval kingdoms in what is now northern England/southern Scotland (see post on Coel Hen for more information). ‘The descendants of Godebawg’ could therefore make sense as a term for one or more of these kingdoms.

Deira was located in the approximate area of modern Yorkshire, and Bernicia was located further north in the approximate area of modern Northumberland. Both were ruled by English kings in the late sixth century. The term ‘Lloegr’ is used to refer to lowland Britain and/or the areas that later became England. So the term ‘Saxons’ and ‘Lloegr’ in Y Gododdin could refer to either or both of Deira and Bernicia, or to one or more of the other English kingdoms of the time.

The reference to ‘heathen tribes of Scots and Picts’ is difficult to make much sense of, unless it refers to the hero’s earlier career.

The two references to Bernicia are also somewhat puzzling. John Koch considers that the line referring to Bernicia in stanza A-5 may be extraneous, because it contains no internal rhyme or alliteration (Koch 1997, p. 181). The reference to Bernicia in stanza A-47 seems to me to bracket Gododdin and Bernicia together as allies, rather than as enemies, although this may depend on the translation.


The first stanza of the A text begins, ‘This is The Gododdin. Aneirin sang it’.

Historia Brittonum mentions a major bard called Aneirin or Neirin:

Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.

--Historia Brittonum chapter 62, available online 

Taliesin wrote poetry praising Urien, who was a king of Rheged somewhere in what is now northern England or southern Scotland in the late sixth century (see post on Urien for more information). This list of famous Brittonic poets also follows immediately after Historia Brittonum describes the reign of Ida of Bernicia, whose 12-year reign is said by Bede to have begun in 547.

One of the heroes named in Y Gododdin is Cynan son of Clyddno. The same name appears in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Lovers of the Island of Britain. The lady of his affections is named as Morfudd daughter of Urien, which would place him in the late sixth century or around the turn of the sixth/seventh centuries.

Cynon son of Clydno (for Morfudd daughter of Urien);

-- Triads, available online

I need hardly say that this is very slender dating evidence. However, at least all of these are consistent with a date in approximately the late sixth century for the events in the poem.

More on the other evidence, and my interpretation, to follow in the next post.

*The ‘Peis Dinogat’ stanza (A-87) appears to be something more like a nursery rhyme

Clarkson T. The Men of the North. Birlinn, 2010. ISBN 978-1-906566-18-0
English Place-Name Society, Catterick, available online
Historia Brittonum, available online 
Koch JT. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from Dark-Age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4

Map links
General map showing the approximate locations of Gododdin, Bernicia and Deira 

24 December, 2015

December recipe: Chocolate macaroons

Chocolate macaroons

If you like chocolate, this recipe is for you.  These chocolate macaroons are light, surprisingly simple to make, and delicious enough for any festive occasion. When you’ve eaten enough fruit cakemincemeat meringue and mince pies for one Christmas, try these for a change.

You can use the egg yolks in sweet pastry, or substitute two egg yolks for one of the eggs in custard tart for a richer custard.

Chocolate macaroons

For the macaroons
2.5 oz (approx 60 g) ground almonds
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) icing sugar
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) cocoa
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) granulated sugar
2 egg whites

For the ganache filling
2 oz (approx 50 g) plain chocolate
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) double cream
0.5 oz (approx 12 g) unsalted butter

To make the macaroons
Sieve the icing sugar, ground almonds and cocoa together.
Whisk the egg whites until starting to thicken.
Add the granulated sugar and whisk until stiff.
Fold the icing sugar, cocoa and almonds mix into the egg whites using a metal spoon.
Line a baking tray with baking parchment. (Yes, you really do have to do this. If you just grease the tray the macaroons will stick).
Spoon (or pipe, if you have a piping bag) the mixture onto the baking parchment in discs about 2 inches (about 5 cm) in diameter, well separated.
Leave to stand for 15 minutes to form a skin.
Bake in a hot oven at 180 C for approximately 12-15 minutes, until the macaroons are dry on top.
Remove from the parchment using a palette knife and cool on a wire rack.

To make the ganache filling
Break the dark chocolate into pieces and melt it in a bowl over a pan of simmering water.
Stir in the butter and double cream.
Remove from the heat.
When the ganache has cooled but is still soft enough to spread, sandwich the chocolate macaroons together in pairs.

This quantity makes about 16 macaroons (8 pairs).

Before you sandwich them with the ganache, the macaroons will keep for several days in an airtight tin.
After you’ve sandwiched them together with the ganache, they will keep for a day or two. Not that they are likely to get the chance.

Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

30 October, 2015

Better Than Gold, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

A & C Black 2014. ISBN 978-1-4729-0782-0. 124 pages.

Better Than Gold is set around 655 AD in Northumbria (in what is now north-east England) and Mercia (in what is now the Midlands). The main character, Egfrid, is a historical figure, and his time as a hostage at the royal court of Mercia is a historical event, although the details are not known. Other historical figures who feature as important characters in the novel include King Penda and Queen Cynewise of Mercia and their children, Egfrid’s father King Oswy of Bernicia and his queen Eanflaeda, Egfrid’s cousin Ethelwold and the Christian monk Chad (later St Chad, if I have identified him correctly).

Egfrid, son of the King of Bernicia, is aged ten when he is taken hostage by Penda, King of Mercia, in a raid. Mercia and Bernicia are bitter enemies; Penda has previously slaughtered Egfrid’s paternal uncle and his maternal grandfather and uncle. Egfrid’s father Oswy has so far escaped a similar fate by avoiding battle, which leads Penda to despise him as a coward. Unlike the Christian kings of Bernicia, Penda is a pagan and his religion practices human sacrifice, so when Egfrid is captured he fears the worst. But his courage and loyalty to his nursemaid and tutor, both captured with him, earns him Penda’s respect. He finds himself treated with honour and even kindness, particularly by Penda’s queen Cynewise, who is working to weave a peace treaty between the kingdoms. But when the old feud breaks out into war once more, Egfrid is faced with a dilemma – whose side should he be on?

I enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl for young adult readers (review here) and A Swarming of Bees for adults (review here), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby in the seventh century, and her novel about Acha of Deira set in the late sixth century, The Tribute Bride (review here). Better Than Gold is a children’s book set a few years earlier than Wolf Girl or A Swarming of Bees.

Part of the inspiration for Better Than Gold was the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard near Hammerwich in the territory of the old kingdom of Mercia in 2009. This is the largest collection of early English (Anglo-Saxon) precious metalwork ever found, and consists almost entirely of gold and silver objects associated with military equipment, for example the decorative fittings from sword hilts and fragments of at least one helmet. For details of the Staffordshire Hoard, see the official website. This overwhelming focus on martial items is extremely unusual, as most Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork consists of dress fittings such as strap-ends, buckles and brooches, or luxury tableware such as plates or cups, and immediately suggests that there ought to be a dramatic story behind the Staffordshire Hoard. How might it have been assembled, who owned it, what did it signify, why are the items almost all military, who might have buried it, and why might it have been buried and never recovered?  (For a discussion, see my blog post at the time and the associated comments thread). We will probably never know the answers for sure. In Better Than Gold, Theresa Tomlinson has drawn on an episode recorded in Bede’s History and the rather enigmatic Restoration of Iudeu mentioned in Historia Brittonum to imagine a scenario that might lie behind the hoard.

Better Than Gold also imagines how life might have been for a ten-year-old noble boy in the society that produced the Staffordshire Hoard. What would a boy at a royal court eat and wear, what would he be expected to learn, how would he spend his time? This focus on the details of daily life was one of the features I liked about The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees, and it was pleasant to see it again here.

Better Than Gold has the same gentle tone as The Tribute Bride and A Swarming of Bees. Most of the people, most of the time, treat each other decently. There is violence – human sacrifice and battles with many casualties – but because of Egfrid’s age he is rarely directly involved and most of the violence happens in the background. Like the author’s other books, the women are very much to the fore. Queen Cynewise has much authority at the Mercian court, ruling the kingdom while Penda is away on campaign and exercising considerable influence when he is back. Their rule of Mercia seems to be very much a joint enterprise. Like Acha in The Tribute Bride, the royal women in Better Than Gold play a crucial role as peaceweavers, both by formal marriage alliance and in the day-to-day management of court life, ever alert to the need to head off situations where drink and ego threaten to spark conflict and even war.

Better Than Gold is a much simpler and shorter story than the young adult mystery Wolf Girl. I’d estimate its length at around 20,000–25,000 words, roughly a quarter of the length of a ‘standard’ adult novel. I would guess it is aimed at a younger audience, perhaps about the same age as the ten-year-old protagonist. The complex political rivalries and feuds between the various kingdoms are seen mainly in family terms – appropriately, since the conventions of blood-feud and vengeance for a kinsman meant that early English warfare could have a personal as well as a political dimension. It’s clearly written in straightforward modern English, with some archaic terms to add a period flavour, such as the Old English names for the months (Blood-month, Offerings-month, etc. More information on the Old English calendar and the month-names can be found in my article here). I was pleased to see that the original Old English personal names have been kept, e.g. Egfrid, Cynewise. Some names have been replaced by nicknames to avoid potential confusion between similar names within a family, e.g. Egfrid’s dead uncle Oswald is referred to by his (historically documented) nickname of Whiteblade to avoid confusion with his brother Oswy.

A short Author’s Note at the end briefly outlines some of the underlying history and provides a link to learn more about the Staffordshire Hoard. Unfortunately there’s no map on which a reader could follow Egfrid’s travels, although as most of the place names are given in their modern forms (Bamburgh rather than Bebbanburgh, Tamworth rather than Tameworthig) they could be identified on a modern map.

Charming tale about life at the royal courts of seventh-century England and the sort of events that might lie behind the burial of the magnificent Staffordshire Hoard.