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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

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The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

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By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

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The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

Posted June 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Conquest, Dark Ages, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Footpaths, History, Humanities, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Leisure, Literature, Medieval, Mercia, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Old English, Recreation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Romans, Saxons, south Wales, Uncategorized, Wales, Warfare, Welsh language, West Midlands

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The Impact of ‘Old Norse’ and Norman French on English.   Leave a comment

One of the important results of Danish and Norwegian settlements was its effect on the English language, though archaeological evidence suggests that, apart from the obvious variations in place-names, this may have been exaggerated, especially given the relatively short periods of Danish hegemony, even in northern England. There are a large number of proper names, including place-names, of Scandinavian origin in both OE and Middle English (ME) documents. Also, English and Norse speakers lived in communities which were close enough for exchanges in transactional language to take place, and sometimes they lived in the same settlements, albeit, as in York or ‘Jorvik’, in distinct districts.

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Above: A tenth-century Anglian helmet found in Jorvik (York) during the Coppergate excavations.

In these trading centres, inter-marriage took place, as in Ireland, but the distinctive patterns of English and Viking villages suggest that rural farming and family life was not widely integrated. In time, some of these communities merged, but English dialects emerged as the dominant forms of everyday speech, with some modifications in pronunciation, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, in grammar. The earliest written evidence, however, does not appear until the Middle English period, as most written forms of late OE are in the Wessex dialect, which had become the standard form under the ruling House in England from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of Norse are still present in the modern-day dialects of East Anglia, the Midlands, northern England and lowland Scotland, the latter in the Scots dialect based on Northumbrian English.

Unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians did not develop a system of writing other than in runes, so no contemporary evidence of the Norse spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout the territory, and would have continued in large Viking settlements like York throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but in most areas it must have become assimilated into English. Some physical evidence of this can be seen in a small church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, St Gregory’s Minster. In the porch, a sundial dating from about 1055 has been preserved, with the following inscription carved in stone (given here in translation):

ORM GAMALSON BOUGHT ST GREGORY’S MINSTER WHEN IT WAS ALL BROKEN (AND) FALLEN DOWN… HE CAUSED IT TO BE MADE ANEW FROM THE GROUND TO CHRIST AND ST GREGORY IN KING EDWARD’S DAYS… IN TOSTI’S DAYS… HAWARTH (AND) BRAND PRIESTS MADE ME.

 

Tostig was Earl of Northumberland and brother of Harold Godwison, who became King Harold in 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor. Orm and Gamal were Norse names, but the languages of the inscription are Old English and Latin. ‘Orm Gamalsuna’ (in the original) meant Orm, son of Gamal, and this way of creating personal names by adding a ‘patronymic suffix’ (a name derived from the father) was a Scandinavian custom, just as the Welsh custom was to add the prefix ‘ap’. This custom must have been adopted throughout the Danelaw, if not other parts of England, hence its prevalence in modern surnames such as Davidson, Jackson, Johnson, etc. The fact that even the Saxon Earl Godwin’s sons were christened in this way is testimony to its widespread use in England, probably from the time of the Danish King Cnut, possibly a means by which they could demonstrate their loyalty to the foreign ruler, who was, by the end of his reign, keen to represent himself as a naturalised King of the English as well as the Danes.

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West Saxon, Latin and Old English:

The Saxon suffix was –ing, shown in the naming of the young Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as the Aetheling, the rightful heir of King Aethelred and the Kings of Wessex, and therefore a rival to the throne of both Harold and William I. Henry I’s unfortunate son was also known as ‘Edward Aetheling’. The names with the ‘ing’ suffix were also incorporated into place names such as Walsingham, Billingham, Birmingham, Kidlington, but the ‘ing’ was also used in a more general way as well, so that it must not always be taken to mean son of the family of… The suffixes that indicate place-names in OE included –hyrst (copse, wood), -ham (dwelling, fold), -wic(k)(village), -tun (settlement) and –stede (place), as in Wadhurst, Newnham, Norwich, Ipswich, Heslington and Maplestead. The detailed study of these place-names provides much of the historical evidence for the serttlement of Danes and Norwegians in England.

Some words of Latin origin in OE had already been adopted by the West Germanic languages brought over by the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic peoples had long been in contact with the Romans. However, since there are no written records from this period, the evidence for the early adoption of Latin words lies in the analysis of known sound changes. Although Latin words were spoken in Britain during the fifth century by educated Britons, and transferred into Brythonic and Old Welsh, hardly any words were passed on to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. One exception were the –caster/-chester suffixes in names like Doncaster, Cirencester and Manchester meaning camp, and the –car prefixes in name like Carshalton and Carstairs, meaning fort. Other Latin words were adopted into OE in later periods in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, mainly through the conversion of the kingdoms to Christianity and the gradual establishment of the Roman Catholic Church from the seventh century onwards. The only available version of the Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, and church services, learning and scholarship all took place solely through the same medium.

 

In Old English, the order of words in a clause was more variable than that of Modern English, and there were many more inflections (prefixes and suffixes) on nouns, adjectives and verbs. So, one of the main differences between OE and MnE is that the latter has lost many of inflections of OE. We can observe the beginnings of this loss of suffixation from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts, in which spelling irregularities become frequent. Therefore, although in late OE times the West Saxon dialect had become the standard written form of OE, and therefore did not reflect differences of pronunciation, scribes sometimes ‘mis-spelt’ because changes in pronunciation were not matched by changes in spelling.

Change and Continuity: The Conquest and Middle English:

In 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and went on to become William I, there were profound effects of the subsequent ‘Conquest’ of England on every level of society, but especially in every sphere of the language – spelling, vocabulary and grammar, but it was Anglo-Saxon, in the form of Middle English, which remained the dominant written and spoken language of the new Norman territory, not Norman French. However, this was no longer the standardised West Saxon of the House of Wessex and its scribes.

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Above: The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE  

We call the linguistic period from 1150 to 1450 Middle English (ME), because from the Modern point of view in time it comes between the periods of Old English and Early Modern forms of English. The evidence for change and continuity from in Middle English comes from before the setting up of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476, and therefore comes in the form of manuscripts, just as with OE. Every copy of every book had to be written out by hand, as well as copies of letters, wills and charters, but only a few of the existing manuscripts in ME are originals, in the hand of their author. On the other hand, some works are known through a single surviving original copy.

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As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into ME. After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the NE Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. Another short account of the Conquest, written anonymously in the fourteenth century, in the dialect of the South West Midlands, and in metrical ‘verse’, reveals continuing Saxon hostility towards Norman domination of England:

After reigned a good man

Harold Godwin’s son

He was called Harefoot

For he was runner good

But he ne-reigned here

But nine months of a year

When William bastard of Normandy

Him disposed that were a villainy

Harold lies at Waltham

And William bastard that this land won

He reigned here

One and twenty years

Then he died at (the) home

In Normandy in Caen

 

(Word-for-word translation).

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William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the ‘independence’ of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the ‘pestige’ language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. This situation was described by a Plantagenet chronicler, writing in about 1300, given again in word-for-word translation:

…thus lo the English folk, for nought to ground came*…

…for a false king that ne-had no right, to the kingdom…

…came to a new lord… that more in right was…

…but their neither (of them) as one may see… in pure right was.

…thus was in norman’s hand… that land brought certainty …

 

…thus came to England, into Normandy’s hand…

…the Normans ne-could speak then, but their own speech…

…spoke French as they did at home… their children did also teach

…so that high-men of this land… that of their blood come…

…hold all the same speech… that they from them took…

…for but a man knows French… one counts of him little…

…but low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

…i believe there ne-are in the world countries none…

…that ne-hold to their own speech… but England alone…

…but well one knows for to know… both well it is…

…for the more that a man knows… the more worthy he is…

…this noble duke William… him(self) caused to crown king…

…at London on mid-winter’s day… nobly through all things…

…by the archbishop of york, aldred was his name…

…there ne-was prince in all the world of so noble fame.

(* = were beaten)

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends.

The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what mark the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain.

Main published source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

How the English Language came to Britain   Leave a comment

English in the early twenty-first century is an international language, spoken as a mother tongue by over 400 million people in the nations of the British Isles, Canada, the United States, the Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is also a second language in some of those nations and states, as it is in many others, including those of the Indian subcontinent, and some other African states, where it is also used as an official language of government and education. There are a great many varieties of spoken English in and between these countries, but there is one main variety, ‘Standard English’ which is used both in writing and in educated speech.

It is codified in dictionaries, grammars and guides to usage, and is taught in the school system at all levels and is almost exclusively the language of printed and online materials in English, implicitly sanctioned by all forms of modern media. Yet a little over four hundred years ago, English was spoken exclusively in England, and by minorities (mostly bilinguals) in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A young Hungarian visitor to London and Canterbury had some difficulty communicating because he had little English and could find few people, other than clergy, who had any command of Latin. Only in Dover did he find a multilingual official with Dutch and German. This had probably been the case since at least the Reformation, if not from the time that Caxton set up his English printing press in the century before. Before that, English had been the common tongue of most of lowland Britain for a thousand years, since it had first become established at the beginning of the seventh century, having arrived in the form of the related Germanic dialects of the Anglo-Saxons over the course of the previous two centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how and why these languages arrived in Britain in the fifth century, forming into one common speech, recognisable in its written form as Engelische. It has survived in several manuscripts, the most frequently quoted of which are the Peterborough Chronicle and the Parker Chronicle, which provide interesting examples of language change. The former was copied in the twelfth century from an earlier copy first written in the ninth century. The entry for 443 reads:

…Her sendon brytwalas ofer sae to rome… heom fultomes baedon wid peohtas. ac hi paer nefdon naenne. forpan pe hi feordodan wid aetlan huna cininge… pa sendon hi to anglum… angel cynnes aedelingas des ilcan baedon.

 

In word-for-word translation:

…Here sent Britons over sea to rome… them troops asked against picts, but there they had not one, because they fought against Attila huns king… then sent they to angles… angle peoples princes the same asked.

 

In modern translation:

…In this year the Britons sent overseas to Rome and asked the Romans for forces against the Picts, but they had none there because they were at war with Attila, king of the Huns. Then the Britons sent to the Angles and made the same request to princes of the Angles.

 

By this time, in the middle of the fifth century, Britain had been part of the Roman Empire for just over four hundred years, and was governed from Rome. The official language of government was Latin, not only spoken by the Roman civil officials, military officers and Roman settler families, but also by those Britons who served the Romans or traded with them in their settlements, like at Caerleon in modern-day Monmouthshire. The term Romano-British is used to describe these Britons, though the degree to which they became ‘Romanised’ is debatable. Their native language was Brythonic or ‘British’, a family of Celtic languages which mutated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the language of those who migrated across the Channel in the sixth century to escape the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are also related, but have no Latin influence, since their peoples were never conquered by the Romans. None of these languages resemble any of the West Germanic antecedents of English.

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The Angles and Saxons had been raiding along the east coast of Britannia since the early third century, and a military commander had been appointed to organise its defence. He was called, in Latin, Comes litoris Saxonici, the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’, but as Roman power declined throughout the fourth century, larger scale Saxon raids were taking place by the end of that century. By 443, the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, so when Hengest and Horsa were invited by Vortigern, ruler of the Canti, to help defend their coast from Pictish pirates, they found Britain undefended, ready for incursion and settlement. Though this may have begun by agreements between British and Anglo-Saxon leaders, with grants of land, it soon turned into full-scale invasion, at least according to Bede, in his eighth-century Latin text, History of the English Church and People:

 

It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples crowded into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror… They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions: then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would terminate the treaty and ravage the whole island…

These heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition, and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests and crags, ever on the alert for danger.

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When reading Bede, we need to be aware that, although he never referred to himself as British, this is indeed British propaganda, but that it was also written at a time when the then Anglo-Saxon Christian rulers of the ’Heptarchy’ were facing further raids and incursions from other ’heathens’, Danes and Norwegians, for which they seemed similarly unprepared. Bede was concerned to send them a clear message which would resonate with the oral traditions from their own pre-Christian days. The same is true of Gildas, an earlier British monk writing of The Ruin of Britain, at a time when the Anglo-Saxons had not yet converted, in the mid-sixth century. Nennius, a Welsh monk writing in the early ninth century, wrote in a similar vein to Bede, more like an Old Testament prophet, calling the Anglo-British to defend the newly established Christian order from the ravaging Norsemen.

The complete ’conquest’ of lowland Britain by the Germanic tribes took two centuries, but it was as much a conquest made by trade as by fire and blood. The recent archeological evidence from the grave burials in East Anglia, especially at Sutton Hoo, suggest that the Britons were highly regarded for their artwork, and even the illuminated texts and carvings of the Hiberno-Northumbrian monks indicate a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon forms. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon dialects became the practical language of exchange between peoples, but the survival of large numbers of Celtic words and place-names in connection with rivers, woods, hills and valleys throughout the lowlands, suggests that the British farmers did not simply abandon their homesteads, and that they may well have continued to farm quite large estates alongside the Saxon settlers as equals rather than serfs.

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Certainly, their dynastic leaders and warriors may well have been driven into the upland western corners of the island. Both Gildas and Nennius referenced tales of a Romano-British chieftain called Arthur who led successful resistance from the 470’s to 515, winning twelve battles, recorded in Welsh heroic legends. He was probably a Romano-British noble, possibly a cavalry commander who had fought in the Roman Army. Nennius dates the last of these battles, at Mount Badon, to 515. However, there is no reference to Arthur’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although it details a number of battles from the period, including one in 519 in which ’Cerdic and Cynric’ established the West Saxon dynasty after beating the Britons at Cerdic’s Ford. Nevertheless, we know that, in terms of dynastic control, much of western Britain remained under Romano-British rule for much of the following period into the seventh century, until the rise of the Northumbrian and then Mercian Saxon kingdoms. By the eighth century, they had been driven as a fighting force from what was becoming known as Engaland and continued to be known as Wealas or Walas and Cornwalas, meaning ’foreigners’. They called themselves Cymry, meaning ‘compatriots’, giving us the modern-day ‘Cumbria’. The Peterborough Chronicle for 614 refers to a battle in which Cynegils, King of Wessex for 31 years, slew two thousand and sixty-five Welsh. The Parker Chronicle for 755 tells of Cynewulf, King of Wessex, who often fought great battles against the Welsh. It also mentions in passing how a Welsh hostage was the only survivor, badly wounded, of a battle against Cyneheard, Prince of Wessex. These entries are clear evidence of continued British resistance.

Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: MacMillan.

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