Taliesin, royal bard and spiritual master

Taliesin, the Shakespeare of his day. Taliesin, Britain’s best-known, best-loved person in the sixth century. Taliesin, almost the last of the Druids, for their honour, status and influence was being destroyed by the Christian ascendancy before his eyes, and he left no successor. Taliesin, almost unknown today save to literature-loving Welsh speakers and us few long in pursuit of knowledge of sixth century Britain.

Two strands wrap around the figure of Taliesin like a caduceus: poems; and magical myth. Taliesin was a bard; more specifically a “primary bard”, meaning – in the culture of sixth century Britons – a composer of original poetry, who also set it to music, and at royal diplomatic banquets sang it, accompanying himself on the harp, to the king in whose service he was dedicated, with a duty to lionise his king’s conquests. More than a mere poet laureate, he was the king’s spiritual adviser; with power, in special circumstances, to command his actions.

And not just a bard but the bard: Taliesin won the title “chief bard of Britain”.

He was also, esoterically, a master yogi. The name, or rather title, ‘Taliesin’ can be translated “radiant brow”, but its inner meaning is that his wisdom eye (which is between the eye brows) is radiant with Christ (iesin, like Iesus) Consciousness.

Some of his poems survive, and have been translated into English too. 200 years after his time, many were written down, probably in the scriptoria of Christian monks; and naturally in the orthography of the scribe’s time – which provides latitude for scholarly assertions of inauthenticity, for some scholars would have us believe that the date of writing is the date of composition.

Poppycock. The culture at the kaer (castle, fort, royal residence) of sixth-century kings in Britain was oral. Taliesin composed and memorised his poems; likewise any “secondary bard”, a bard who would re-cant those poems later, learned them by heart. Memory, not writing, was the means by which culture was transmitted in early-medieval Celtic Britain; much wisdom in that, in an age before printing or paper when the means of writing was expensive and written documents could only be copied laboriously one copy at a time in longhand, and therefore were easy to forge, to doctor, to accidentally miscopy, and also all too easy to destroy through fire, acts of war, or casual indifference. Taliesin’s poems will have been passed down through the generations by secondary bards, their rhythms, alliterations and part-repeated lines facilitating their memorisation.

True, not everything attributed to Taliesin is his. Other poems were written in later centuries in his name by people who it seems were accepted as belonging to his school. But there are poems extant only in sixteenth century form whose genuineness is more credible than some that betray evidence of ninth century orthography. I consider the content and style, and the inner meaning, to be more reliable guides to the authenticity of a ‘Taliesin’ poem than the apparent date it was first written down.


The magical story of Taliesin – Hanes Taliesin – begins with the goddess Ceridwen stirring her Cauldron over her cooking fire. Ceridwen is the triple-goddess in her form as elder or ‘crone’. Her Cauldron is the source of everything, for she is God in the aspect of Creator.[1] At this point, the Cauldron is the source of poetic inspiration (awen in Welsh) and of all wisdom and knowledge. She has her son Gwion Bach (which might be translated “Little Man-ling”) stir and watch the pot. Accidentally, three drops fall from the Cauldron onto Gwion’s thumb, and he sucks his thumb. With this act he becomes filled with all knowledge – and, seeing danger ahead for himself, scurries.

There follows a magic hunt, in which Ceridwen chases Gwion, Gwion shape-shifts into a hare, then an otter, then a bird, and Ceridwen shape-shifts in pursuit. Gwion then becomes an ear of grain and Ceridwen turns herself into a hen and eats him. The symbolic meaning is fairly transparent: Gwion, archetypal Human Person, acquiring a little wisdom, flees from fire (the cauldron) via earth (hare), water (otter) and air (bird), all of them changing forms within the great cosmic delusion of Creation (hence, “shape shifting”); but the Divine Mother is in constant pursuit, ever coaxing Her child back to Herself. Eventually, the Human becomes totally humble, submitting himself into a state of being (one grain) in which he can be wholly absorbed into the Divine Consciousness[2]…….

…..and, as often happens in story when grain is a symbol, he is reborn. The Hanes Taliesin tells us that Gwion now spends nine months in the womb of Ceridwen and is then reborn as Taliesin. Ceridwen wills neither to keep him nor to kill him, so she leaves him in a basket by Gwyddno’s royal salmon weir.[3] There he is found by Prince Elffin, son of King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion.

Elffin is frustrated. He was there, allowed to fish for salmon for the first time in his life, and instead of catching any he caught this darned baby. The baby Taliesin immediately sings Elffin a poem, in which he proclaims himself “loquacious though not yet able to speak” (reminiscent of Krishna’s comparably surprising day-of-birth speech to his father), informs him “I was once little Gwion Bach but now I am Taliesin”, and promises the young prince that he will one day be worth more to him than even as inconceivably big a day’s catch as three hundred salmon.

Surely, what this is describing symbolically is an initiation rite for Elffin. Gwyddno’s title Garanhir – “Crane Legs” reveals that he was a Druidic esoteric initiate; his personal ‘royal salmon weir’ makes sense as an inner means in his consciousness to capture wisdom rather than a convenient barrier across the River Dyfi; and Prince Elffin being allowed to fish there for the first time symbolises the Druids’ secret techniques for developing deepest mystical wisdom being revealed to him at a ritual initiation – a water ‘baptism’[4]. Elffin’s finding there this person who has the supreme state of Christ/Taliesin consciousness, but catching no salmon, expresses, as ever in symbols, that Elffin on the one hand has, as yet, no wisdom of his own, but on the other hand has been given a gift far greater than just the initiation he was expecting: he has been introduced to his Guru – the spiritual master who will lead him to his own Enlightenment ~ notwithstanding the earthly role Elffin must first perform: with Gwyddno’s blessing, Elffin brings Taliesin up as his foster-child.[5]

The Hanes Taliesin legend ‘explains’ Taliesin’s genuine precocious gifts as a bard and spiritual giant.

At this turn, the Hanes Taliesin legend merges into the life of the historical Taliesin, for there is no evidence to contradict the statement that the future Chief Bard of Britain indeed grew up under Elffin’s guardianship at the royal kaer in Aberdyfi.

Taliesin made his first mark on history as a 12-year-old boy, in “The Contention of the Bards”, where he rescued Elffin from prison and knocked off his pedestal the brutal, egotistical, and all-too-real King Maelgwn of Gwynedd[6]. As the best ‘boy outsmarts man’ story since David and Goliath, the Contention of the Bards requires a separate article on this blog.

Since Taliesin accurately prophesies the manner and imminence of Maelgwn’s death, which the Annales Cambriae record as occurring in 548[7], it is fair to date the Contention of the Bards to (more-or-less) 547CE.

By coincidence (for those who believe in coincidence), 547 is also the calculated date of the reference to Taliesin, as a bard ‘coming to prominence’, in a side-note made by some Celt on his copy of a document otherwise comprising a list of the regnal lengths of the first few Anglian kings of Bernicia, a document which was later copied into the Historia Brittonum.

So we have Taliesin’s birth year, give or take a small margin of error: 535. Significantly, the Annales Cambriae date for the death of King Arthur is 538. There is therefore a straightforward explanation for the at first sight odd fact that there is no early legendary enmeshment between Taliesin and King Arthur: the two lived in different regions – Taliesin was to serve in three or four kingdoms, but never in Lindinis – and different time periods.

And Geoffrey of Monmouth never muddied those waters. Taliesin does not appear in Geoffrey’s (so-called) History of the Kings of the Britons.

Taliesin grew up in Ceredigion and maybe spent a few years serving King Elffin there after the Contention as well. Soon enough, though, he emigrated to the much larger kingdom of Powys (to which, indeed, Ceredigion may have had to pay cattle tribute as a ‘client’ kingdom). He became bard to King Brochwel, whom he called “my muse”, and afterwards to his successor King Cynan Garwyn.

Then, probably in the 560s and on Cynan Garwyn’s death, he moved north. One poem in praise of King Gwallawc of Elmet, undisputedly Taliesin’s, has survived, so it may be that his first northern home was Elmet, a kingdom whose capital was York and which included at least the old West Riding of Yorkshire, and maybe also across to the coast around Scarborough and southwards to Derby.

Long-term, though, his home was to be Rheged, a kingdom which comprised SW Scotland, Cumbria, and NW Yorkshire. He could well have lived over two decades in Rheged, as court bard to King Urien. The largest number of poems undisputedly his are those celebrating Urien: as for example victor in a Battle of Wensleydale (ystrad gwen), and as Lord of Catraeth (seemingly a major conquest of his off another king). Celebrating Urien’s lordship, he refers to the delights below his Catraeth kaer of doleu defwy, the Swale’s meanders; the Swale’s loop and twists by Reeth fit the description, as of course does the name Reeth; and the complex site on the hillside a mile to the SW of those meanders, called Maiden Castle, was any or all of kaer, metalworkers’ town, shrine, and fort. Brigantes Nation[8] has identified seven dykes which defended Maiden Castle in addition to its own ramparts, mostly from the east but also two on High Harker Hill to protect it from attack from above.

A story of Urien’s death tells of his being killed by a rival on his own side while besieging Lindisfarne in 590. This is difficult to believe as there was nothing on Lindisfarne at that date. Besides, if it had been so, cultural custom means there would be a Taliesin lament in Urien’s honour. The date, 590, is more credible than the supposed manner of death.

The last reference to Taliesin as a living person is by Aneirin in about 594. In his famous poem Y Gododdin, the phrase ‘Taliesin understands’ implies that he was still alive. Perhaps he died shortly after that disaster at Catraeth, at the – for the times ripe old age of – about sixty. Ceredigion tradition says he was buried at bedd Taliesin, near the coast road south of Machynlleth. The site lacks evidence of any sixth-century burial; Ceredigion, though, is undoubtedly where in the imagination a memorial to Taliesin most properly belongs.


[1] She is also the patron goddess of Cirencester, Caer Ceri, the capital of the Province of Britannia Prima in the fourth and fifth centuries which comprised Wales, the South-West peninsula, and western parts of the Midlands.

[2] There are parallels with the Garden of Eden story and, more directly, with the similar (but less masked) allegorical story of the poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson.

[3] Salmon is a symbol of wisdom in the culture of sixth-century Britain. Salmon seasonally swim upstream against the current; this, for the Druids, was a neat outer symbol for the need of the spiritually advancing initiate to reverse the normally downward flow of chi (subtle life energy) in the body and cause it to flow upwards towards the higher chakras in the brain.

[4] The Welsh word for baptism, bedyd, meant initiation before the Christians adapted it.

[5] There is also a myth cycle featuring Gwyddno and Elffin set in Gwaelod, a supposed district of Ceredigion. Its hero is Seithenyn, an outwardly foolish, esoterically wise, servant of King Gwyddno. I intend to write a commentary on it here in due course.

[6] The earliest spelling of the name of this king is Mailcun, but he is nowadays usually referred to by the later name-form Maelgwn.

[7] On my calibration: see my post here on calibrating the Annales Cambriae, 21st September 2013

[8] A group interested in northern England’s Celtic past. http://www.brigantesnation.com/SiteResearch/Iron%20Age/BattleofReeth/BattleofReeth.htm



Cerdic is known as the first king of Wessex and the ruler from whom are descended all the monarchs of Wessex, and subsequently England and then the United Kingdom. To be more accurate, he is counted as the first king of the Gewissae, Wessex being the name of the kingdom only after about 640CE.

Archaeological and place-name evidence both indicate that the earliest English settlements, the original lands of the Gewissae (“the Knowers”), were on either side of the Thames in what is now Oxfordshire, around Abingdon and Dorchester-on-Thames.

Significantly, the village of Chearsley in Buckinghamshire, 13 miles from Dorchester-on-Thames, is recorded in the Domesday Book as Cerdeslai. This is similar to the place-name Cerdicesleah mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a place where Cerdic and Cynric won a battle. Chearsley would have been directly accessible from Dorchester in the fifth century via the River Thame, as well as being only a few miles from the Icknield Way. Roman pottery has been found nearby, both in Long Crendon and between there and the Thame. Chearsley’s location is thus much more plausible as deriving its name from King Cerdic than Chard (early spelling: Cerde), in south Somerset – far away from Cerdic’s kingdom.

Though Cerdic was praised by English sources as the first of their kings in the region we now call ‘central southern England’, his name is clearly Celtic and not English, a variant of the princely name Ceretic (as also are Ceredig, the eponymous founder of the kingdom of Ceredigion, and Caradoc). So too are the names of his son and successor Cynric, the next successor Ceawlin, and several later Gewissae kings such as Cynegils and Kenwalh.

Cerdic’s published genealogy is convincing evidence that, even when it was created which was apparently as late as three centuries after his death, he was hailed as a hybrid, an Anglo-British king, not as an Englishman. In what historians reckon was its earliest form, before alliterative add-ons were inserted, the genealogy read:-



Brand (or Brond)


Aluca (or Elesa)


uu became W, thus: uuoden -> Woden; Geuuis -> Gewis. (c.f. likewise, Brythonic uuortigern -> Welsh Vortigern.)

Modern people sometimes ask if the genealogy is genuine, as if its creators intended it to be understood literally. None of the characters named is the literal father, great-uncle, etc, of Cerdic. Elesa may have been the chieftain Elesius who was met by Germanus in 429; if so, he was ruling at least 70, more probably 110, years before Cerdic’s reign began. Elesa, it can be presumed, was an esteemed ancestor, considered by the culture worthy to be remembered – much as the poet who wrote the Elegy for Geraint in 710 called his warriors “Arthur’s braves”, though Arthur died 172 years before Geraint did. What Elesa’s presence in the royal genealogy proclaims, whether it be factual or fabricated, is that Cerdic was no peasant upstart. Cerdic belonged to the regional ruling class. And Briton though he must have been, he may have grabbed power over a kingdom with the help of Saxon warriors already stationed at Dorchester, and/or Abingdon, as foederati (mercenaries).

The kingdom may have included Dorchester-on-Thames and the Thame valley up to Chearsley, but cannot have controlled more than a snippet of the Catuvellauni civitas, for Eynsham and Benson, both nearby forts, did not fall into English hands until 571. Apart from Hertfordshire, where archaeological evidence (at Hitchin, for example) points to English control by c500, most of the Roman civitas of the Catuvellauni became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd (meaning “Chalk Hills” i.e. Chilterns). Rather, Cerdic’s kingdom may have consisted primarily of some or all of the Silchester civitas, which comprised (approximately) the Abingdon District of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, NE Wiltshire, and northern Hampshire.

Gewis, the name before Elesa in Cerdic’s genealogy, is the eponymous founder of the Gewissae. His ‘name’ placed there in the genealogy was the cultural way of stating that Cerdic was the legitimate and rightful king of the Gewissae – he was, they could have said, ‘the father of’ the people he ruled. In the parallel genealogy of Bernicia, the message is comparable: Cerdic’s name is replaced by their eponymous kingdom-founder, Beornic.

The three names above Gewis are gods. Woden at the top is, of course, the pan-English king of the gods. His name at the head of a king’s genealogy proclaims in the language of the culture that the king has the mandate of Heaven, that his rule bears the seal of Divine legitimacy, as surely and plainly as ‘Gewis’ or ‘Beornic’ proclaims temporal legitimacy specific to his territory. Most of the genealogies of early English kings show descent from Woden.

Now, what are Brand and Belda’s place in the genealogy proclaiming? Parallel Divine British (Celtic) legitimacy. Brand has to be Bran (pronounced Vran), the British god of war, their raven god, who also stars in some British royal genealogies. Belda, I suggest more speculatively, is Beli. A Beli (pronounced Veli) is recorded as an ancient heroic king of the tribe known to the Romans as the Catuvellauni; another, as the eponymous origin-father of the tribe known to the Romans as the Belgae. In Roman Britain, the Catuvellauni civitas was a large region stretching from Northamptonshire south to the Middlesex hills (Hendon, Hampstead, Northwood, etc) and west to Oxford and the borders of Wychwood. It included Chearsley and Dorchester-on-Thames. The Belgae’s land was the civitas across the Thames from this, the Silchester civitas, which included Abingdon. One Beli in the genealogy conveniently takes care of asserting ancestral legitimacy for two British civitates that came to be wholly or partly in the kingdom of the Gewissae!

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Cerdic won a battle against Welsh (i.e. Celtic British) opponents at Natanleaga. This place is usually identified as Netley Marsh in Hampshire. However, historians regard the Chronicle’s connecting of Cerdic to Hampshire as spurious – as an “origin myth” story for Wessex invented long after the time period it purports to describe. If Natanleaga can linguistically be Netley, it can surely with equal validity be Notley, and there is a Notley (liable to flooding, too) overlooking the River Thame a mile from Chearsley.

Much as I have suggested that the second to fifth battles in the list of twelve battles attributed to King Arthur in the Historia Brittonum were skirmishes against his Lindinis’s southern neighbour above the River Divelish, a similar explanation can account for the battle of Natanleaga attributed by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Cerdic. If Cerdic was the ruler of the kingdom that was the successor state to the Silchester civitas, he could indeed have fought a battle at Notley against Calchfynydd with the help of the English warriors of Dorchester-on-Thames, slain a local warlord, thereby wrested from that ‘Welsh’ kingdom control of the Thame valley and a stretch of the left bank of the Thames, and left his imprint on the map by giving his name to Cerdeslai (now Chearsley), in much the same way – and for much the same reason, military command over an important water transport route – as Cado of Lindinis left his at Cadbury Heath on the north side of the Bristol Avon.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for Cerdic may not be as spurious in its entirety as it has come to be perceived as. It makes a great deal of sense once the origin-myth fable of his arrival in five ships is removed (and replaced I suggest by the hypothesis that he was the ruler of the Silchester civitas), the battle of Natanleaga is relocated from Netley in the New Forest to Notley on the Thame, and the dates of the two events chronicled in his reign postponed from 495 and 508 to a date c535 which is consistent with King Centwine’s (known) dates and the lengths of the reigns of kings between Cerdic and Centwine that are given in the first Cerdic ASC entry.


How Roman Britain Became England

How Britannia Became English

Educated British people are generally aware that for centuries up until about 400CE, England and Wales south of Hadrian’s Wall was Roman Britain, or Britannia, and that in the following centuries it fell into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. What is much less well grasped is how that transition took place, or when.

The first key to a clearer understanding of that process is the political structure of Roman Britain in 400. Britain was divided into four distinct Provinces, and history took fundamentally different course in each of them over the quarter-millennium after the Roman legions evacuated in 409.

Each Province in turn was comprised of a number of civitates, districts for local governance, about the size of two counties. The seminal event of 409 was that the leaders of the civitates rebelled, demanding freedom from the burden of Roman taxation. The Roman Emperor Honorius could not spare troops to put down the rebellion, because the Empire was hard-pressed by Germanic invaders from across the Rhine frontier into Gaul (France and the Rhineland). So he withdrew his legions from Britain and told the civitates to defend themselves.

Twice afterwards, in 418 and in 429, Rome sent forces to Britain to aid Roman Britons fighting against raiders from beyond its borders, with some successful effect; but when aid was asked for again in 446, the Roman General Aetius ignored the request, again essentially because his forces were already stretched beyond capacity trying to defend Gaul.


Britannia Secunda

In two of the Provinces, Britannia Prima (Wales and the West), and Britannia Secunda (the North), the civitates did see to their own defences thoroughly and effectively, and with little or no contribution from foreigners. Military logistics of the fifth century were favourable for autonomous governance units the size of a civitas.

The four civitates of Britannia Secunda, plus tribal lands that had been divided from them by Hadrian’s Wall with military but not sociological logic,morphed over the following century into three kingdoms, all of which feature strongly in later history: Rheged (approximately Ayrshire, Dumfries-and-Galloway, Cumbria, and maybe Lancashire); Gododdin (Lothian, the Borders, Northumberland and Durham); and Elmet (North, West, and South Yorkshire, the Derwent valley of Derbyshire, and probably northern Nottinghamshire north of Sherwood). Elmet appears to have combined the small civitas of York with the much larger one surrounding it whose Roman city was Aldborough. All three kingdoms were ruled by successions of Roman British, i.e. Celtic, kings. Britain’s most famous bard Taliesin wrote poems in praise of two of these kings, Urien of Rheged and Gwallawg of Elmet, in the third quarter of the sixth century. Urien temporarily extended Rheged’s boundaries eastwards across north Yorkshire at that time.

Undoubtedly, for well over a century after the departure of the Roman legions, the territory that had been Britannia Secunda remained in the control of kings who were Celtic British by tribe and culture, influenced by a slowly fading Romanised past. But in approximately 547, the English warrior-king Ida disturbed the far north by occupying and fortifying Bamburgh and conquering a coastal part of the Gododdin kingdom as his Kingdom of Bernicia. This initiated a half-century of skirmish warfare, highlighted by the British defenders calling their English enemy leader in the 570s “Fflamdwyn”, “Fire-Setter”. As of 580, the English had been driven out of all except their coastal fortress.

The tide turned, though, and over the next fifteen years or so a new kingdom of Northumbria, formed by a union of Deira (East Yorkshire, see below) and Bernicia, conquered most of Britannia Secunda east of the Pennines. York fell in 581; Catraeth (Maiden Castle near Catterick), famously, probably in the 590s. Rheged remained independent until 633, and culturally, especially religiously, influenced its English-speaking neighbour either side of 620, when Rum was king of Rheged and Edwin of Northumbria. In 633, however, the male line of Rheged’s dynasty failed and the kingdom merged with Northumbria by royal marriage of Rheged’s daughter.


Britannia Prima

Looking next at Britannia Prima, the Roman Province south of the Mersey and west of a line from the Staffordshire Moorlands to the Hampshire Avon and Bournemouth, as in Secunda, the civitates morphed into kingdoms, and their considerable sense of British cultural unity did not translate into any political unity. On the contrary, small-scale inter-kingdom fighting became normal. It would be misleading to call western Britain “Roman Britain” any more by the mid-sixth century, these former civitates that were fully independent and squabbling kingdoms with no governance links beyond their borders and no Roman empire to link to anyway, but the term “sub-Roman” can be used with fair justification, for their elite were Romanised in cultural style, wrote (when they did) in Latin, and kept up strong trade links to Byzantium.

There is evidence of several areas near the western coast becoming conquered or heavily influenced by Irish intruders. There is none of any area that had been part of Britannia Prima coming under English control prior to 577. The Great Raid of 473 broke into the Cirencester civitas; in 490 King Arthur of Lindinis (mostly Somerset) won a famous victory over English invaders at the Battle of the Badonic Hill, i.e. the hill in the small Spa civitas of Bath; for the next eighty years, the kings of western Britain were at peace with their English neighbours.

But in 577 the agriculturally rich kingdom of the people known to the Romans as the Dobunni was lost at the Battle of Dyrham. Its area, covering all of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire east of the Severn, West Midlands County, and western parts of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, plus the petty kingdom that had been the Spa civitas for Bath, became the English kingdom of the Hwicce (whose name is remembered by place-names such as Wychavon, Wychwood, and Bromwich). Very slowly, more territory came under English rule in the next one and a half centuries or so, with notable English battle victories at Chester in 611, Pengwern (?Shrewsbury; in ?634), Bradford-on-Avon in 652, Penselwood in south-east Somerset (?South Cadbury, a.k.a. Camelot) in 658, and Somerton in 733. However, the Westcountry west of the Parrett, western Herefordshire and Wales remained under the rule of British kings into at least the ninth century.


Flavia Caesariensis

By contrast, in the Province of Flavia Caesariensis, which comprised approximately East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, a little of eastern Warwickshire, and parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, such little evidence as there is is consistent with a wholly peaceful transition from Roman to English rule. There are not even signs of a short period of Celtic British independent kingships in-between, except in western Derbyshire where the recording in 676 of a semi-independent Mercian territory of Pecsaetna[i] attests to a territory around the Peak – a Peak district, the successor state to the small Roman Spa civitas of Buxton – that was not settled by English people.

Documentary evidence is only that of absence. Both British and English sources enthusiastically recorded battles – the English, only ones they won. Yet none are recorded in this Province. It is apparent from Bede, however, that these areas were all under English rule from long before the eighth century. East Yorkshire was the English kingdom of Deira since well before 547. Lindsey was an English kingdom since the fifth century. Leicestershire and English settlements close to the Trent were known as the Mierce (meaning Borderland, cognate with modern German maerchenland and English ‘marches’), later Mercia. Bede referred to North and South Mercia, divided by the Trent. Archaeological evidence from excavations near Hessle in East Yorkshire supports the view that the transition in Flavia was peaceful. The Roman city of Lincoln seems to have ceased to function within a few decades of 409.


Maxima Caesariensis

The story of the remaining Province, Maxima Caesariensis, the south and east of the island, is very different. Here, there was warfare from the mid-fifth century onwards. Here, there was destruction of Roman cities and slaughter in the streets, imprecisely and sorrowfully recorded on the British side by Gildas and occasionally gleefully and with variable reliability in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Here, the course of history was affected by diplomatic marriages and savage treachery. English warriors were employed as mercenaries under Roman command, and they remained after 409, soon becoming dominant forces in some civitates – Winchester’s, probably, on the archaeological record; Kent, famously by treaty between the British ruler Vortigern and the English warrior-commander Hengist, in about 450; Essex and Sussex (which included most of Middlesex and of Surrey respectively), reported to have been as ransom for Vortigern after his capture, possibly in or soon after 470.

Nennius records that Vortigern came to power in 430.[ii] Power to what extent? The battles and political dealings attributed to him involve Essex, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. De-facto Governor (hence Gildas’s title for him ‘tyrannus’, i.e. ‘non-legitimate ruler’) of MaximaCaesariensis Province would be the answer that best fits the geographical record. Whether he could exercise any influence in Britannia Prima can only be speculated.

Vortigern’s son Vortimer won a battle against Hengist at a location called by the British Set Thirbagail, and by the English Aylesford, which is on the Medway near Maidstone, recorded by both sides: in Nennius, chapter 44; and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for 455CE. The battle next recorded in chapter 44 of Nennius, at which the Saxons were defeated and “fled to their ships”, may likewise be the same as the one recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 465.

Alas for Britain, Vortimer then took his army across the channel to help the struggling Roman Empire in Gaul, where in 470 they were wiped out in Burgundy (c.f. comparable events in 1940), or anyway disappeared from the record. Vortigern regained power, but was displaced by Ambrosius in or before 479 following the disastrous Saxon raid across southern Britain in 479.

During the fifth century, the civitas of the Iceni, in Norfolk and Suffolk, and the one whose Roman city was Water Newton near Peterborough, which later became the kingdoms of the Gyrwas covering approximately Cambridgeshire and Holland, and perhaps Kesteven, also came within the arc of English rule from Christchurch to Beverley which Gildas refers to as “our enemies in the east”. One Roman source says Britain “had passed into the hands of the Saxons” by the early 440s. He may have meant these eastern civitates plus the Flavia Province.

Historians do not believe that the battles which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says were fought by the Gewissae (later known as the West Saxons and then Wessex) ever occurred. But the date for the founding of their kingdom, 495, may be genuine. It is consistent with archaeological evidence of late-fifth century English settlements at Abingdon and at Dorchester-on-Thames. It is well known that the first kings of the Gewissae, Cedric and Cynric, had British and part-Irish names, and it is possible that these men were British rulers of the Silchester civitas which chose from that time to rely on English warriors for its defence.

Thus it appears that by the start of the sixth century all of Maxima Caesariensis was under English rule, except for the large civitas whose Roman capital was St. Albans, which included Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and eastern Oxfordshire. This civitas, though ceasing to be governed from and maybe not controlling St. Albans, became the British kingdom of Calchfynydd. This name means ‘chalk hills’ and appears in English translation in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of 672 as the tributary kingdom of the ‘Ciltern-saetna’, the people who live in the Chilterns (the chalk hills). Calchfynydd remained British until it lost the Battle of Bedford in 571 and forfeited the fortresses of Aylesbury, Benson (a military site also today, the RAF base on the left bank of the Thames in mid-Oxfordshire), and Eynsham (NW of Oxford and close to the Calchfynydd-Dobunnic border). The remnant of Calchfynydd, basically Northamptonshire, may have come effectively under English conquest when they killed King Cadog at Bannaventa (the Roman town near Weedon Bec) in 580.


The Non-Uniform Process of Anglicisation

This brief survey shows that the Anglicisation of Britannia was neither a uniform process of conquest, nor a uniform peaceful transition. Rather, there were four distinct stories, substantially but not precisely coterminous with the four prior Roman provinces, each story radically different in time and in process from the others. It is these contrasts that are the primary cause of confusion about how and when Britannia became English and the running disputation as to whether the change was essentially a conquest or a peaceful transition.

In the centre-east of Britannia, one Roman Province and a couple of adjacent civitates became English-ruled within the first generation after the Roman legions departed in 409, without any recorded warfare – quite possibly by the voluntary choice of their first sub-Roman rulers. Most of another Province, in the south-east, became English through force of arms in the thrust and counter-thrust of warfare during the second half of the fifth century. A third Province, in the north, became English through political and military power over the years 581-633. Parts of the fourth, the western, Province plus an adjacent civitas from the south-east (Calchfynydd) were conquered piecemeal over nearly three centuries (from 571 to 838), but other parts (Wales and Cornwall) never became incorporated into Anglo-Saxon England.

Thus by 500 a considerable chunk of eastern and south-eastern Britain was under English rule, the area behind the coast from Bournemouth to Beverley, divided among a dozen young kingdoms; but the bulk of the country – all of the north, all of the west, and the centre as far east as Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire – was comprised of sub-Roman Celtic-British kingdoms. This was still the geographical reality in 570.

During the next eleven years English kings conquered British territories equivalent to about nine counties, mostly in the Midlands. But in 582, even after these losses, all the regions west of the Pennines, the Severn and Selwood Forest remained under British control, and there was little further change in the following half-century. Only after the early 630s, with Powys’s loss of Pengwern, the defeat of Cadwallon of Gwynedd after his brief conquest of Northumbria, and the merger of Rheged into Northumbria, can it be said that English kings ruled over most of what was to become England.

The exceptions, lands outwith English control beyond the 630s, were Ergyng (the part of modern England south and west of the Severn), ruled by a British king known to the Mercians as Merewalh (which means ‘illustrious Welshman’), Lindinis (Somerset, western Wiltshire, northern Dorset and northern Devon), and most of Kernow (Cornwall and south Devon). Some of these areas remained under Celtic British rule for centuries; Cornwall into the tenth century.


Plenty of people publish on the internet, or in a few cases in books, their discoveries of aspects of the process by which Roman Britannia became a patchwork of English kingdoms, including me in earlier posts on this blog about King Arthur, Somerset, and Lindinis in the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed through to the eighth century. But I trust and believe some readers will find it useful to have this summary of the process, of the overall picture of the change across three centuries, gathered here in one relatively brief narrative.



[i] In the Mercian Tribal Hidage. In that document, the ending –saetna was used for some petty kingdoms that were not part of Mercia but were scheduled for paying land taxes to Mercia, including Pecsaetna and Cilternsaetna. These areas were under English political influence but not areas of English immigrant settlement.

[ii] He transmits a record that from “Rufus and Rubelius” – obviously meaning the consuldom of Fufius and Rubellius in the first half of 29CE – to Stilicho was 373 years and from Stilicho to the start of Vortigern’s reign was 28 years, which in combination take the date to 430CE. He also names Valentinian and Theodosius as consuls that year, which is true of 430 (and also of 426 and 435).