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The Kings & Queens of Scotland
By Richard Oram
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Richard Oram
All rights reserved.
The Earliest Kings c.84–600
The kingship of the Scots was one of the most ancient monarchies in the British Isles even in the Middle Ages, but it was a comparative newcomer in the ranks of rulers who emerge from the darkness of prehistory in the early centuries AD. The first chiefs or kings who appear are little more than names in the histories and records of the Roman campaigns in northern Britain in the late first century AD. They were the rulers of Celtic tribes whose territories lay in the path of the advancing legions. Of course, these were not kings as we would understand them today, rulers of well-ordered states whose governments were run by ministers and bureaucrats supported by a fiscal system, dispensers of justice and formulators of law for the good of their subjects generally. Early kingship was something quite different. It was, in the first place, much simpler. There were no bureaucracies, no government, no 'policy'. Justice was not yet the preserve of the king and his advisors, but lay in the hands – or, more exactly, the minds – of what became a hereditary class of lawyers and judges. Kings upheld the law, they did not yet formulate or dispense it. The king, however, was more than just a symbolic cipher; he did exercise real leadership, especially in times of war. Above all, he was the head of a hierarchical society.
The first Celtic chieftain to whom we can give a name is Calgacus (the 'Swordsman'), warlord of the tribe that we know as the Caledonians, who lived north of the River Tay. He led a confederation of tribes which opposed the Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola's invasion of this region in the 80s AD. In the writings of Agricola's son-in-law, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, Calgacus appears as the civilised Romans' stereotypical image of the noble savage. There is nothing in Tacitus's account of Calgacus's resistance to Agricola's campaign, which culminated in the Caledonians' defeat at Mons Graupius, that can be accepted as representing the 'real' man. His great speech before the battle, memorable for its ringing description of the Caledonians as 'the last men on earth, the last of the free', is pure invention, laden with imperial propaganda. While Calgacus's supposed reference to the fate in store for his people under Roman rule, 'they create a desolation and they call it peace', is probably an accurate reflection of what did lie ahead, it was nothing more than a member of the Roman intelligentsia's criticism of what he considered the moral degeneracy of his supposedly superior state in comparison to the purity and simplicity of the barbarian. Indeed, when shorn of all the noble sentiments for which Tacitius made him the mouthpiece, all that survives of Calgacus is his name.
Over a century later, the next Celtic ruler to be mentioned in Roman records of northern Britain is an equally faceless name: Argentocoxos ('Silver Leg'). He appears in the Roman writer Dio Cassius's account of the early third-century campaigns in northern Britain of the Emperor Septimius Severus as the leader of a confederation of tribes from which probably emerged the later kingdom of the Picts. In this account, he is presented as more than just a war-leader, conducting negotiations for peace with the emperor in 210 and breaking his word and the treaty soon afterwards. Again, however, Dio Cassius's image of Argentocoxos is a stereotype in which probably only the name is real.
These chance survivals of Celtic names in Roman sources have become straws at which generations of historians have clutched in an effort to explain the emergence of the earliest kingdoms. These were kingdoms of the people we refer to as Britons, the descendants of the tribesmen who had opposed the legions in the first and second centuries AD. They were the Celtic people who occupied most of the mainland of Britain until the arrival of the Angles and the Saxons from what is now modern Germany. Although they had acquired a veneer of Roman civilisation, their culture and art was the direct descendant of that of pre-Roman Britain and, rather than the Latin used in the Empire, they spoke a language akin to modern Welsh.
Some historians have argued that several early royal dynasties of these Britons within what is now Scotland owed their power and position to the imperial authorities. The Romans, it has been said, set them over peoples living on the northern fringes of the imperial province of Britannia (roughly equivalent to modern England and Wales) to provide stability and a buffer against more hostile territories beyond the effective reach of Roman power. For example, the genealogies of the sixth-century kings of Rheged, whose territory wrapped round the head of the Solway Firth, traced their descent to Magnus Maximus. He was a late fourth-century general who used Britain as the springboard for a bid for the imperial throne. It has been suggested that this supposed descent from Magnus Maximus probably represented his appointment of a trusted agent to rule over a strategic frontier zone, from whom the later kings were descended, rather than an actual ancestral link. Similar arguments have been advanced for Padarn Pesrut, a ruler over the district known as Manau in the area now represented by Clackmannan, eastern Stirlingshire and western West Lothian, whose style 'Pesrut' has been interpreted as 'of the red cloak' or 'red tunic'. His red cloak has been viewed as evidence that he held some official status in Roman frontier society, with the giving of the cloak marking his appointment to political authority. Recent re-analysis, however, has suggested that he did not have a red cloak but a red shirt, and in any case purple was the imperial colour, not red. Much, too, has been based on the presence of the names Cinhils and Cluim in the pedigree of the kings of the Britons of Strathclyde, representing the Celticised forms of the Roman names Quintilius and Clemens. But names alone are not sufficient evidence for Roman origins for these men, and it must be remembered that in the sixth and seventh centuries, when many of these genealogies were constructed, the Britons were seeking to present themselves as the heirs of Rome in the struggle against the new barbarians, the Germanic Angles and Saxons who were steadily encroaching on Celtic territory.
One of the early kingdoms of the Britons for which a direct descent from a Celtic tribe of the Roman period into a post-Roman power can be confirmed is that of the Gododdin. Here, the name alone shows a succession from the Votadini tribe recorded in Roman writings, whose territory stretched from the Tweed into the Forth valley, to the sixth-century Gododdin. While the tribe, whose territory appears largely to have avoided a military garrison system during the various phases of Roman military occupation of southern Scotland, must have existed in some kind of friendly client relationship with Rome for most of the period down to the late fourth century, Roman influence over its culture appears slight. Indeed, when the ruling elite of Gododdin can first be glimpsed, striding boldly through the words of the early Welsh poem Y Gododdin, there is nothing Romanised in their behaviour and attitudes other than their Christianity, and they epitomise everything that is Celtic and barbarian, like some echo from late Greek and early Roman descriptions of the continental Celts.
Gododdin was just one of a series of Christian British kingdoms to evolve in the country beyond the old imperial frontier in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. In the central borders' valleys of Ettrick and Yarrow a shadowy dynasty ruled the territory of another tribe first recorded in the Roman period, the Selgovae. They are the most elusive of these early rulers, their presence recorded only in such monuments as the Yarrow Stone, a monolith raised in commemoration of 'Nudus and Dumnogenus, the sons of Liberalis', as its worn inscription proclaims. The rulers of the neighbouring kingdom of Rheged emerge as far more substantial figures from verses attributed to the poet Taliesin and from the fragmentary historical account known as Historia Brittonum. Rheged was one of the more substantial and powerful kingdoms of the Britons. Centred most probably on the old Roman civitas at Carlisle, its territory stretched south down the western side of the Pennines and north and west into Galloway. In the earlier sixth century, it had also extended east of the Pennines to Catterick in Swaledale, but by the time of Urien or Urbgen, perhaps the greatest of its kings, that eastern enclave had already fallen to the spreading power of the pagan Angles. Historia Brittonum tells us of wars waged by Urien in an effort to regain this strategic outpost that controlled the eastern end of the trans-Pennine routes, and in poetic tradition he appears as leader of a powerful cavalry war-band that drove the Anglian foot-soldiers back to their stronghold at Bamburgh. Urien seems to have been a man of ability and foresight, who understood the threat that Anglian power posed to all the northern kingdoms, not just his own. In the late 580s, he succeeded in assembling a coalition of British kings which in 590 managed to storm Bamburgh and trap the fleeing Anglian king and his warriors on the tidal island of Medcaut, the modern Lindisfarne. With victory within sight, however, the jealous rivalry of the Britons surfaced and, in an act of treachery, Urien was murdered by one of his 'allies', Morcant, ruler of an unidentified kingdom. To Taliesin and later writers, Urien's death was a disaster from which Rheged – and the rest of the Britons – never recovered, for the collapse of his coalition allowed the Angles a respite in which they consolidated their power and returned to pick off the divided Britons one by one.
Rumours of Rheged's demise were greatly exaggerated. Urien's successors may never have regained the power and authority that he had held, but Ywain map Urbgen was remembered in Welsh poetic tradition as a mighty warrior, while his younger brother, Rhun, established more friendly ties with the Angles and may have stood sponsor for Edwin, king of Northumbria, at his baptism. Rhun's son, Royth, however, appears to have been the last of his line and with him the kingdom of Rheged vanishes from history. Royth's daughter, Riemmelth, was one of the two wives of Oswiu, king of Northumbria from 641 to 670, and it is possible that through this tie some part of Rheged passed into Anglian control. Arguments for a peaceful union, however, should be discounted, for it is unlikely that the male members of the wider royal kin in Rheged would have allowed their 'inheritance' to fall to a stranger simply because his wife was daughter of the last king. Friendship or alliance between Rheged and Northumbria did not extend to unopposed absorption and political extinction of one by the other. When the Northumbrians occupied the territory of Rheged, it was as conquerors and colonists, not as heirs by marriage.
Rheged was not the first of the northern British kingdoms to fall in the face of the Northumbrian advance. Y Gododdin, the poem attributed to the Welsh poet Aneirin, describes preparations made by Mynyddog, king of Gododdin, for a campaign in about the year 600. The poem describes his entertainment in his hall at Din Eidyn, probably underlying the present Edinburgh Castle, of a select force of heroic warriors drawn from all the kingdoms of the Britons and even from among their cousins the Picts, the Celtic people who lived to the north of the Firth of Forth. It was a riotous, drunken assembly of boastful braggarts, each determined to outdo the others in acts of reckless bravery. Aneirin concentrates on the 300 chieftains that formed the core of the expedition, but doubtless they were accompanied by their retinues for the attack on Catterick that followed. It is ironic to a modern reader that Aneirin's epic tale ended in the bloody slaughter of the Gododdin warriors, not the expected victory, but this is a celebration of glorious, if ultimately futile, deeds not a commemoration of triumph. Defeat at Catterick broke the power of Gododdin, for in the early 600s the Angles were spreading into the Lothian plain, while the Scots of Dál Riata also sought to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the British kingdom. By the middle of the seventh century, the only British power of any consequence to survive was the Dumbarton-based kingdom of Strathclyde.
The Kings of Strathclyde c.450–1018
Of the people that traced their descent as successors of the Celtic tribes that had emerged by the time that the Romans stamped their mark on what is now Scotland, the Britons of Strathclyde, the heirs of the Damnonii of the lower Clyde valley, were ultimately the most successful and longest lived. As the other kingdoms of the Britons slowly fell before the advancing power of the Northumbrians, Strathclyde rose to pre-eminence and in Scottish sources her kings were referred to not just as a king but the king of the Britons. To add to the confusion, their kingdom was sometimes referred to as Cumbria (the 'Land of the Fellow Countrymen), a name that is now used to describe only the region of north-western England that was for a time the southernmost part of Strathclyde. In later Scottish minds, the only Britons were the Britons of Strathclyde. Their tribal kingdom, with its chief centre at Ail Cluaide ('The Rock of the Clyde'), known to the later Gaelic-speaking Scots as Dumbarton ('The Fort of the Britons'), emerged from the shadows of fifth-century Roman Britain in a letter from the British missionary in Ireland, St Patrick. This letter lambasted the war-band of a king named Ceretic, identified in later genealogies as a founding figure in the Strathclyde dynasty, branding them as slave-takers and allies of the Picts and Scots, not fellow citizens of Romans and Christians. The implication is that Ceretic and his men liked to think of themselves as Roman, and one of the titles used by his grandson, Dyfnwal Hen, suggests that the Strathclyde kings saw themselves as protectores or rulers of a Roman federate people. Little more is known of either him or his descendants down to the middle of the sixth century, other than that they were leaders of a powerful war-band that played an important role in the internecine rivalry among the galaxy of petty kingdoms that emerged from the ruins of the Roman province of Britannia.
By the mid-sixth century, Strathclyde's rulers rise from the still confused and confusing documentary records as firm historical figures rather than the semi-mythical characters of the early genealogies. Tudwal, grandson of Dyfnwal Hen, for example, appears in an eighth-century poem about the miracles of St Ninian as a tyrannical persecutor of the saint and his mission, while his son Rhydderch Hael was a contemporary and friend of St Columba and participated in the great confederation of northern British kings assembled by Urien, king of Rheged, against the growing power of the Angles of Bernicia. In the mayhem and confusion of this turbulent period, Strathclyde's rulers sought allies amongst the other emergent powers of the northern British mainland, forging ties through marriage. It appears, for example, that Tudwal's aunt married a prince of the Scots, a people from the north of Ireland who had begun to settle in the area now known as Argyll. This was Gabrán, whose son, Áedán mac Gabráin, established his kingdom of Dál Riata as the military powerbroker in the north during the late sixth century. Tudwal's nephew, Beli, who ruled as king in the 620s, forged links with the dominant Pictish kingdom of Fortriu, and one of his sons, Bridei, became one of the Picts' most successful kings. The general impression from these alliances is of a minor power, surrounded by bigger players, seeking security through ties with its more powerful neighbours. All of this changed, however, from the middle of the seventh century.
Strathclyde emerges unexpectedly as a significant power in the 640s, indeed, it became the most powerful of the northern kingdoms. Its location was highly strategic, as it controlled several of the major routes providing access to and from the south-west Highlands – via Loch Lomond and Strathcarron – into the central Lowlands and the Southern Uplands. For the Scots of Dál Riata in particular, who had long cherished ambitions to expand eastwards into the fertile Lowlands, Strathclyde was a major obstacle. In 642, Domnall Brecc, king of Dál Riata, was defeated and slain in Strathcarron by his kinsman Ywain map Beli, king of Strathclyde. The Britons' poets exulted in the triumph. 'And the head of Dyfnwal Frych [Domnall Brecc],' one gloated, 'ravens gnawed it'. This new-found power continued through the seventh century, with Strathclyde dominating both the Picts and the Scots. Ywain's son Elffin, for example, seems to have played a significant part in the triumph of his uncle Bridei mac Beli, king of the Picts, over the Northumbrians in 685. But in a world of shifting loyalties and alliances, the Britons of Strathclyde soon found themselves confronted by their former allies. In 750, at Mugdock to the northwest of Glasgow, Ywain's great-grandson Tewdwr fought against, defeated and slew Talorgen, brother of the powerful Pictish king Unuist son of Uurguist. His defeat of what was at that time the most powerful war-band in the north was a setback for Pictish power, but victory had evidently come at a cost. In the same year, Tewdwr was clearly unable to prevent Eadberht, king of Northumbria, from conquering and annexing the district of Kyle in what is now central Ayrshire, a region that had probably fallen within Strathclyde's orbit. In 756, Unuist gained his revenge for the death of his brother when, in alliance with Eadberht and the Northumbrians, the Picts invaded Strathclyde, sacked Dumbarton, and forced Tewdwr's son, Dyfnwal, into a humiliating submission.
Excerpted from The Kings & Queens of Scotland by Richard Oram. Copyright © 2011 Richard Oram. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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