The Gododdin and the Battle of Catraeth
The invading Angles of the 5th and early 6th century focused much of their attention on the southeast of Britain, as we began to see in the Kingdom of Kent. (here) There was one particular kingdom in the north of Britain that also attracted a powerful contingent of Angles, a territory known as Bernicia, or Bryneich. The invaders gained control of Bernicia before they gained total control of Britain’s eastern coast. By 600, however, the Angles who had invaded the southern shores had succeeded in moving north. Thus, the Angles in Bernicia also pushed north with the hope of gaining more territory.
Enter the Gododdin. These people were considered Britons, and their territory lay far enough to the north that Rome had not exerted much influence on their development. The Gododdin did not take kindly to the invading Angles. All of what we now know concerning the conflict between the Angles and the Gododdin comes from a Welsh poem named after the Britonnic people it eulogizes. Y Gododdin is generally ascribed to a Welsh bard named Aneirin, who sang the tale of the Gododdin as an oral history. Much like the Iliad and Odyssey of Greek fame, Y Gododdin was not written down until several centuries after the events it describes. In this case, it was written in the Book of Aneirin, a late 13-century manuscript. The Book of Aneirin is the only place where the tale of the Gododdin was recorded.
Back to the story. It seems from a modern interpretation that the King of the Gododdin was a man named Mynyddog Mwynfawr. His hall was at the Briton city of Din Eidyn, a place which many modern scholars equate with Edinburgh, Scotland. The poem recounts how Mynyddog summoned 300 choice warriors to his hall at Din Eidyn and provided them with feasts and mead for over a year. For their sake, let’s hope that they also spent some time training for battle, since the king planned to attack the precocious Angles who had established a dominant control over much of southern Britain.
After a year’s worth of feasting and possibly some battle preparation, the warriors began their march south to meet the Angles. The poem itself puts the scene of the battle at a place called Catraeth. Modern scholars differ as to what modern place that name refers to, but a majority of scholars agree that it probably refers to Caterrick in North Yorkshire. As was mentioned above, the poem’s literary structure is that of an elegy; it mourns the death of the brave Brittonic warriors who fought the invading Angles. The poem itself is probably exaggerated, as many such poems are, but it is undoubtedly based on what actually happened. The warriors were outnumbered, as the poem indicates, and stood little chance of prevailing at Catraeth. The poem itself praises many individual warriors and laments their deaths on the field. For example, this stanza laments the death of Ywain, one of only a handful of warriors that are actually named in the poem.
In might a man, a youth in years,
Of boisterous valour,
Swift long-maned steeds
Under the thigh of a handsome youth …
Quicker to a field of blood
Than to a wedding
Quicker to the ravens’ feast
Than to a burial,
A beloved friend was Ywain,
It is wrong that he is beneath a cairn.
It is a sad wonder to me in what land
Marro’s only son was slain.
One gray area of the story as told in Y Gododdin has to do with how many warriors actually took part in the battle. Though the poem seems to indicate that only the 300 hand-picked warriors took the field, it is illogical to assume that the Britons would have gone into battle against the host of Angles with such a small force. Some scholars have pointed to a stanza eulogizing a warrior named Rhufawn Hir, and pointed to the plural use of the word “blades” as an indication that each of the 300 warriors mentioned in the poem also led a contingent of foot soldiers from his own tribe or town.
Power of horses, blue armour and shields,
Shafts held on high, and spearheads,
And shining coats of mail, and swords.
He led the van, and cut through armies,
There fell five fifties before his blades.
In the end, the warriors summoned by King Mynyddog on behalf of the Gododdin were slaughtered by the more numerous Angles. The bard laments the loss of the brave warriors:
The warriors rose, they mustered together.
All of the one intent, they charged.
Short their lives. Long their kin miss them.
Seven times their own number of English they slew.
In that contention, they made women widows.
On the lashes of many a mother are tears.
Ultimately, Y Gododdin is a perfect snapshot of the Anglo-Saxon invasions as a whole. Though the northern Britons put up more of a fight than did the southern Britons, the sheer numbers of invading Anglo-Saxons won them the land. The poem itself is a telling indication of how steadily and easily the invasion of Britain progressed, even in the face of a unified rebellion. In upcoming posts, we’ll continue to look at the progression of the Anglo-Saxon invasions and how they wrested control of specific kingdoms, making them their own and setting the stage for the evolution of Roman Britain into England proper.