Thursday, 10 August 2017

Y Gododdin: Poetry and Warfare in Sixth Century Britain


It’s a plot worthy of a Hollywood epic: a band of elite warriors are brought together from far and wide, feast in a luxurious mead hall as guests of a generous benefactor, and ride together on one last mission. They fight well, but only one returns to tell the tale.

Yet the tale is attributed to a northern British poet named Aneirin, who claimed to have witnessed this event in the sixth century AD. Y Gododdin is both a celebration of heroism and the death song of a kingdom; it is also a rare insight into battle in early medieval Britain.

Y Gododdin eulogises the fate of around 300 British warriors who feasted for a year at the court of Mynyddog the Wealthy at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) before riding out to do battle with their enemies.

Dated by linguistic analysis, the poem probably emerged around AD550-600 in the southeastern lowlands of modern Scotland. In the fifth and sixth centuries, this area was the post-Roman kingdom of the Britons of Gododdin, a name that appears as the title of the poem and many times within its stanzas. This Brittonic kingdom vied for power with other British and Pictish rivals in the aftermath of Roman governance, and also with newly emerging Anglian kingdoms in the later fifth and throughout the sixth centuries AD.

Y Gododdin is a lament for the kingdom’s fallen warriors who met with a calamitous defeat at the battle of Catraeth, but surrenders little insight into the period’s historical or political situation. Assuming the poem’s battle took place close to its traditional date around AD600, the kingdom had disappeared within a generation of this; most historians point to an event in The Annals of Ulster for AD638 recording than ‘Etin’ was besieged, suggesting that this refers to the fall of Edinburgh. This may or may not be the case, but certainly by the 640s and 650s the geographic area formerly of the Gododdin was within the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. The battle described in Y Gododdin may have been the battle that lost the kingdom.

Y Gododdin would have been memorized and performed orally, then committed to writing at a later date. The earliest surviving version of the manuscript was most likely penned in the thirteenth century AD, using language from an earlier period and with different versions of the poem showing slight variation. These could represent different branches of the same tale, but more likely represent interpolations at different dates. A variety of modern translations have been produced, again adding variation to the content, but for consistency of analysis I use AOH Jarman’s translation (the line references in this article are cited from his work).
Establishing the history behind the poem is difficult. Using the backdrop of racial warfare between the Britons and Angles, most commentators (including two of the poem’s most respected translators: Jarman and Jackson) portray Y Gododdin as the true tale of a ‘Celtic Last Stand’: against increasing pressure from the Anglian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, an alliance of Britons ride south to give battle. The battle’s location is recorded in the poem as Catraeth, generally agreed as Catterick in Yorkshire whilst lacking conclusive proof. Adding to the narrative haze is the poet’s style of jumping back and forth between the battle at Catraeth and previous conflicts.

Eyebrows may be raised at the use of poetry as evidence of military activity. Why use Y Gododdin in this way? Indeed, reading the exaggerated feats of arms quickly shows us that poetic licence was not unknown in the sixth century: the individual warriors’ prowess in battle is described as that of wild boars and raging bulls, feeding wolves and ravens with the bodies of their fallen enemies, but despite this the Britons were impossibly outnumbered:

A hundred thousand and three hundred charged against each other. (96)

More notoriously, Y Gododdin compares the warrior Gwawrddur to Arthur, the warrior hero of British legend:

He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
            Though he was no Arthur. (971-972)

This may be the earliest surviving reference to Arthur or a later addition, but it demonstrates the level of hyperbole surrounding the combatants’ deeds.

Let us not therefore turn to Y Gododdin for the truth behind individual warriors’ real life deeds. Similarly, trying to unravel a narrative history from the poem presents problems but the real value of Y Gododdin is as a record of the tools and methodology of conflict during this period. And in this respect, war poetry delivers evidence about the arms and tactics of post-Roman British warriors more completely than any other contemporary, insular source. British military artefacts are rare archaeological finds, and pictorial evidence is equally scarce, so Y Gododdin presents us with otherwise absent evidence about the Britons at war.

The poem can be used in this way because of its intended audience. Composed for the court of a late sixth or early seventh century British king, the poem is a celebration of military heritage: a fanfare of bravery recited to warriors and aristocrats. Regardless of whether the deeds were true, regardless of how the warriors really died, and whatever the true political background, there’s a persuasive case that much of what we are told about how the battle was fought would need to reflect reality under scrutiny of the audience, an audience of seasoned fighting men who knew the reality of battle. If the poem’s battle scenes lacked reality – either in a real or idealised sense – would the audience accept this as a memorial to their kin?

Therefore, the real value of this poem to military historians is as an insight into battle. When used as evidence of sixth century British warfare, Y Gododdin is second to no other historical document for the simple fact that it is the most complete description of fighting left to us by the Britons during this period.

In the one hundred stanzas of Y Gododdin, what is revealed about the experience of battle in sixth century Britain? As cited below, and supported elsewhere in the text, the poem offers a variety of insights into warfare during this period.

Although fighting on behalf of one kingdom, the army was not exclusively mustered from within Gododdin: this supports the theory that the army riding from Din Eidyn was an elite fighting force drawn from several allied kingdoms. Among those named are warriors from British Strathclyde and Elmet, the Welsh kingdoms in the south, and Picts from beyond ‘Bannog’ and ‘the sea of Iddew’. Ufrai – Lord of Eidyn – is the son of Golystan (a British rendering of the Anglo-Saxon name Wulfstan or Wolstan) suggesting an Anglo-Saxon presence within the British kingdom,

Though his father was no prince, (952)

Regardless of where they came from, the poem is unequivocal about the size of the army that left Din Eidyn:

Three Hundred gold-torqued warriors attacked
Defending their land, there was slaughter. (865-866)

The theme of 300 warriors repeats often throughout the poem. Admittedly a small army compared to those in later times, evidence from other sources suggests that armies numbering in the hundreds or very low thousands posed plausible threats in early medieval Britain. The army of Gododdin seems to have been a well-equipped, mounted elite of renowned warriors where numbers were less significant than ability. Despite this some commentators suggest an army of 300 mounted warriors accompanied by a large warband on foot, but little evidence in the poem supports this notion. And remember that the army of Gododdin was defeated … therefore their 300 warriors were not so strong as the enemy they met in battle.

That the army included both well-equipped aristocratic warriors and their teulu bodyguard is hinted at in a description of the ‘hosts’ of the three men chosen to lead the army, Cynri, Cynon, and Cynrain:

Three mail-clad hosts,
Three gold-torqued kings,
Three fierce horsemen, (194-196)

This mention of ‘hosts’ most likely means that the 80 or so named warriors in Y Gododdin were accompanied by less important men, un-named in the poem but bringing the total up to a warband of 300 rather than 300 aristocratic warriors and a larger number of followers. Given the eulogistic nature of the poem, it seems likely that the poet would have focussed on the deeds and deaths of the nobility rather than the lower-ranked warriors, even though all 300 of them died on the same battlefield.

The description of Cynri, Cynon, and Cynrain highlights the splendour of British warriors dressed for battle. Elsewhere, we are left with no doubt of the army’s visual impact, or that they arrived on the battlefield on horseback:

A host of horsemen in dark-blue armour, with shields,
Spear-shafts held aloft with sharp points,
And shining mail-shirts and swords. (357-359)

The war-band of Gododdin on rough-haired steeds,
Swan-coloured horses, tightly harnessed,
And in the van of the host an army attacking,
Defending the groves and mead of Eidyn. (903-906)

The warriors who rode with the army were well equipped: there are frequent mentions of body armour (‘dark blue’ mail), shields both broken and intact, and repeated descriptions of the warriors wearing gold torques. Torques were prestige items in the Celtic Iron Age, although by the sixth century this may be a poetic reference to the high-status heavy silver chains found at sites in Scotland such as Trapain Law. Significant by their absence are references to helmets, which is supported by the paucity of such archaeological finds in the British Isles. Even so, the finery of individual warriors’ equipment shines through the poem:

Bright blue swords,
Fringes of worked gold. (17-18)

White were the shields and square-pointed the spearheads
Before the retinue of Mynyddog Mwynfawr. (105-106)

White, icy-hued, and chalked shields feature several times, highlighting that shields were commonly finished in this colour; one line hints at gold metalwork d├ęcor on a shield face. The reference to a square-pointed spearhead suggests an armour-piercing weapon also noted in Scandinavian sagas. As the poem progresses the warriors’ armour and weapons becomes bloodied and broken, creating an enduring image of violence.

The warriors are armed with ‘bright blue’ swords, spears, and javelins (swords being less frequently mentioned than spears and javelins); there is one description of an axe blow, but no reference to archery or slings. The sword, spear, and javelin are clearly the main fighting tools of the sixth century British warrior.

Not only did warriors arrive at the battlefield on horseback, but the poem also demonstrates that they fought from horseback, riding towards their enemies to hurl javelins:

He cast spears in battle
From a bounding, wide-tracked charger. (293-294)

He threw spears from the grasp of his hand
From his steaming slender bay horse. (297-298)

This brings to mind earlier Celtic and Late Roman light cavalry tactics: skirmishing with javelins from horseback, darting backward and forward into contact, and closing to melee if the enemy weakens. In this respect the Britons’ approach to battle was rooted in earlier Romano-Celtic tradition, and continued in later centuries by continental Breton horsemen.

But alongside these light cavalry tactics, there are also lines suggestive of fighting on foot:

In close ranks, grimly, the war-hounds fought. (86)

Graid son of Hoywgi formed a battle-pen against the spears. (267)

In the clash of spears, spears were coequal. (717)

Rather then referring to a separate dismounted host accompanying the mounted 300, I suggest this is a reference to warriors dismounting when tactically advantageous. Early medieval British warriors were not neatly divided into ‘infantry’ and ‘cavalry’ roles, instead they chose according to the situation confronting them. Sword, spear, and javelin were equally capable of being used on horseback or foot. At some point in the battle, possibly if their mounted skirmishing was ineffective, the warriors dismounted and fought on fought. Perhaps even the majority of warriors were dismounted and formed a solid base for skirmishers to ride out from.

Such tactical awareness is supported by mention of the army’s ‘van’ and ‘wings’ as opposed to a disorganised mob, and the Britons employed a seemingly common tactic from this period:

Warriors went to Catraeth with the dawn, (94)

Dawn attacks feature in several other descriptions of early medieval British battle, and were presumably launched in an attempt to catch the enemy unprepared. However, a dawn attack is surprising if references to an army imbued with mead (a sweet honey-based alcohol) are taken at face value:

Warriors went to Catraeth, a mead-nourished host, (84)

After wine-feast and mead-feast they attacked,
Men in battle, renowned, heedless of their lives. (545-546)

Mead may have been drunk for courage before battle, but these lines may also refer to the year-long feast granted to the warriors before they rode out from Din Eidyn.

One final point, perhaps obvious, is that the poet Aneirin claims to have been present at the battle to witness these deeds. Drawing parallels to a modern news reporter on the front line, the poet conveys to his audience all that he saw, reminding them that he alone lived to tell the tale:

Of three hundred champions who attacked Catraeth,
Alas, save one man, none returned. (551-552)

From a single poem, the quality of evidence is impressive; other British poetry from this period has survived, but none presents us with such an insight into the actions of early medieval British warriors. The challenge of being ‘just a poem’ hangs over Y Gododdin and as such it is far from being a perfect source, but to ignore the wealth of data presented pushes our understanding of early medieval British warfare back into the Dark Ages.

L Alcock, Economy, Society and Warfare Among the Britons and Saxons (1987)
KH Jackson, The Gododdin, The Oldest Scottish Poem (1969)
AOH Jarman, Y Gododdin (1990)
J Rowland, ‘Warfare and Horses in the Gododdin and the Problem of Catraeth’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 30 (1995)