Introduction to the North of
England in Sub-Roman Times
by David Nash Ford
Early British Kings of what is now Northern England,
descend from one of two dynasties commonly known as
the Gwyr-y-Gogledd, a Welsh phrase meaning the
"Men of the North". They were a P-Celtic
people, like the Cymri, who retained their
independence from Saxon oppression for a number of
centuries, in the relative remote Northern regions of
Welsh tradition holds
that they all had a common ancestor in Old King Cole
rhyme fame. He appears in ancient records as Coel Hen
(the Old) and his name seems to ultimately derive from
the Roman, Coellius. This fits in well with the
time period in which it has been calculated that he
lived: right at the end of the Roman administration
(very late 4th century).
the regions over which Coel's supposed descendants
ruled, his own sphere of influence must have covered a
vast area from Hadrian's Wall to the Southern Pennines.
In fact, the exact area that would have been governed
at this time by the Dux Britanniarum, a Roman
official in charge of the military defence of Northern
Britain. With his headquarters at York, he would have
been in an ideal position to extend some semblance of
Roman-type authority into the 5th century, long after
the army and administration had returned to Italy.
Celtic law insists upon the division of land amongst
sons upon the death of the landowner and this
situation can certainly be traced amongst the kingdoms
which emerged from Coel's domain. However, whether
these men were really sons and grandsons of this
powerful dux or merely early founders, attached to the
great man by later generations is unknown.
to tradition and early records, the North thus split
into many different kingdoms. Ebrauc or British York
was centred on that city. Bryneich became the later
Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. There were little known
kingdoms in the Pennines and the oft-quoted Elmet,
around Leeds, whose name is retained today in places
like Sherburn-in-Elmet. Others moved further south to
establish Calchfynedd. Most powerful was perhaps the
kingdom of Rheged, later divided into North and South.
Its Kings, such as Urien and Owein, were long
celebrated in Welsh poetry and, in medieval times,
found their way into the Arthurian tradition. The area
they ruled is still called Cumbria today, a name
meaning 'Land of the Welsh'.
mid-7th century, however, the local Germanic settlers
had completely overrun the North. Internal squabbles
had weakened the British position in the region and
the relatively few Saxons warriors were easily able to
take advantage of the situation. Eventually only
Rheged was left and a dynastic marriage brought this
too into the English fold.
of the Northern British Kings