‘Men went to Catraeth with the dawn.
Yorkshire is the setting for an epic tale of pride, heroism and slaughter – The Gododdin. Composed by the renowned poet Aneirin at the end of the sixth century and finally recorded in a thirteenth century Welsh manuscript, it is probably the oldest surviving British poem. The men it praises were Celts, mainly from what is now the south-east of Scotland, the language it was written in is a very early form of Welsh, their enemies were the Germanic settlers who were already coming to regard themselves as English, and the place where they clashed in bloody battle was Catterick. Thus the Gododdin forms a vital part of the heritage of every native of mainland Britain.
At the beginning of the 5th century, the local kings and administrators of Britain declared independence from the crumbling Roman empire. The former province had been troubled for many years by hit-and-run raids by German pirates all along the North Sea coast. There is also some evidence of more or less peaceful settlements of Germanic settlers having been established before the collapse of Rome. The raids grew steadily worse, until the British High King decided to invite a group of Germanic mercenaries to help fight off their cousins, promising to pay them well and to give them the Isle of Thanet in Kent. This proved to be a disastrous mistake. The mercenaries revolted, called for reinforcements from over the grey sea and established their own English kingdom in Kent.
Over the next hundred and fifty years, the future of the island hung in the balance. More tribes arrived to set up new Germanic kingdoms along the south and east coast. The Britons were weakened by a series of plagues in the old Roman cities, by quarrelling and civil war between rival petty kingdoms, and by the emigration of many thousands of their wealthier families to more peaceful lands, particularly Brittany, whose traditional Breton tongue can still be more or less understood by Welsh speakers.
In spite of this, those who remained resisted the advance of the Angles and Saxons doggedly. There is little doubt that the legend of King Arthur has its roots in a real great leader who organised a series of British victories which came close to driving the invaders back into the sea (a passing mention in the Gododdin is the earliest literary reference to Arthur and shows that he was a household name as early as 600 AD). After a generation of uneasy peace, however, the English advance began again. The almost total lack of words of Celtic origin in Old English, plus the archaeological evidence of changing settlement patterns, suggest that the Britons of the south and east were exterminated or put to flight. What had begun with small settlements of traders, farmers and men to do the dirty work of fighting off pirates, ended in the “ethnic cleansing” of the divided and demoralised British from an ever-growing area of their own country.
By the year 597 AD, the Britons of the north were desperate. Virtually the whole of eastern England had fallen, with the notable exception of the hardy British kingdom of Elfed – Elmet – around Leeds. The two English kingdoms of Deira (roughly all of Yorkshire from the Vale of York to the coast) and Bernicia (Durham and Northumberland) were growing more powerful year by year, and seem to have concluded an alliance. Mynyddog, King of the Gododdin, the British tribe inhabiting south east Scotland, decided to call for a crusade to turn back the English tide before it was too late.
The King sent messengers to all the surviving British kingdoms of the north. The would-be heroes who answered his call came from as far afield as the north of Scotland, North Wales, Cumbria and Elfed. They gathered at his stronghold of Din Eidyn – Edinburgh – for a whole year, during which time they no doubt trained, but more notably feasted. Among the Christian Britons, as well as among the pagan Germanic peoples, the prestige of a ruler was based on the feasts he could afford to hold, dispensing not just food but gifts such as gold jewellery or war-gear and, of course, the mead made of fermented honey which preceded beer as the great delight of our ancestors. In return, the warriors who accepted his hospitality were honour bound to fight for their lord, and to fall with him if he were killed in battle. Thus were they expected “to pay for their mead.”
The Gododdin speaks of three-hundred heroes feasting and boasting for a year before marching south to their doom in 598 AD. Historians are uncertain as to whether this really means that the entire army was composed of three-hundred hand-picked, mounted warriors or whether each of the three-hundred cavalrymen was in command of a band of his own followers – the unsung country boys of the infantry.
The latter interpretation seems the more likely, for without such backup, even well-equipped heavy cavalry would have been swamped by the sheer weight of numbers of the “men of Lloegr” (still the modern Welsh word for England). This would have been patently suicidal, something quite at odds with the long planning of the attack and the decision to march secretly over the moors via modern Carlisle, Penrith, Appleby and Stanemoor, in order to strike the allied enemy forces at the weak point where their two kingdoms met. This was not a forlorn hope but a serious plan to break English power in the entire north of the island.
There are also hints in the text that each of the named heroes had his own retinue with him. Of Rhufawn Hir (Rhufawn the Tall), for example, we have that:
Power of horses, blue armour and shields,
The plural “blades,” plus the high death toll, suggest strongly that Aneirin is referring to the foes killed by Rhufawn’s entire company. Celtic society was rigidly stratified and poems such as the Gododdin were composed by, for and about the nobility. The peasants literally didn’t count. One other point is worth noting. Three-hundred is a number which recurs continually in the religion and political organisation of the Celtic peoples and clearly has a lost mystical significance.
Whatever the actual strength of the army which marched through the mists to Catterick, there is little doubt that they were heavily outnumbered by, but better organised and equipped than, their enemies. Another stanza gives us a flavour of how their initial assault was bogged down and how their numbers were steadily whittled away throughout the uneven struggle:
The warriors rose, they mustered together.
One by one, the heroes fell. Bleiddig “did great deeds in the day of battle” and “before he died, he left behind him bloodstained corpses.” Yorkshire’s own Madog of Elfed “was a destructive bearer of a shield.” Gwawrddur was at the forefront of the fighting and “although he was not Arthur, he fed the black ravens.” The scavengers of carrion grew fat in the days after the battle, as Aneirin, one of only three survivors of the British defeat, laments:
Alas, Owain, that dear friend,
Having staggered back with the grim tidings, Aneirin composed his greatest poem to preserve the memory of his fallen comrades for ever. For 1,400 years at least, he has succeeded. Many of the names of his friends, so strange to English ears, still ring out over the fonts at baptisms in tiny chapels in the Welsh hills.
And his timeless story of heroic defiance in the face of enormous odds can still stir the heart of anyone with an imagination and with the blood of our island ancestors coursing through their veins. For in the centuries which followed, in England at least, Celt and Saxon were welded into one great nation. And although the history curriculum in our schools seems today to ignore or belittle the achievements of our own people, local history enthusiasts and lovers of our heritage can still enjoy one of the excellent translations of our oldest poem. Only if the folk now called English should one day be driven out of their dearly-won homeland will it be forgotten that “Men went to Catraeth.”
An article originally destined for The Rune