The Romans finally left Britain in 410 CE, but independence was short lived. Over the next two centuries Britain was overrun by pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders.
Perhaps the most important British source for this period is the C6th writer Gildas. He casts the early phase of this invasion in apocalyptic terms, with savage Saxons overrunning and slaughtering the hapless indigenous population. By Gildas’ time, the worst of the initial onslaught had passed. However, this did not ultimately stem the tide. By the seventh century much of Celtic Britain had been transformed into Anglo-Saxon England.
What remained of the old Brittonic culture was, by this time, increasingly restricted to the far west: primarily Wales, Cumbria, and Cornwall.
But was this process of transformation really such a cataclysmic struggle? What was warfare really like in this shadowy period of British history?
As it turns out, we do have one other potential C6th British source, besides Gildas, who can shed some light on what it was like to live through this period.
That source is the famous bard, Taliesin.
Taliesin the Legend
Much of what was written about Taliesin during the Middle Ages and, indeed, many of the poems written under his name, mark him out as a legendary, semi-mythical character.
Depending on what you might read of him, he was a bard, a druid, a sorcerer, a contemporary of Merlin and Arthur, and a shapeshifter with supernatural powers.
But can we discern any genuine early medieval history from amongst all the fables? Is it possible to set aside Taliesin the myth and focus more specifically on Taliesin the man?
A good place to start is our primary source for the bard’s work: the Book of Taliesin. This is an early fourteenth century manuscript consisting of some 56 poems written in Middle Welsh. Although, the manuscript itself is C14th, the poems it contains are a mixed compilation of earlier works. The oldest of these are thought by many to date all the way back to the C6th. That said, most of these poems were almost certainly authored sometime between the C9th and early C14th.
The Taliesin Persona
Clearly one person could not have been writing and adding to this volume of work over a period of seven centuries. Unless perhaps they were indeed an immortal druid!
What we are dealing with, then, are several different poets writing under the same name over a long period of time. It is their collective work that has contributed so much to creating the legendary Taliesin. But this gestalt persona, inevitably, ended up authoring poems that cover a most eclectic mix of different themes.
Some of the poems deal with Christian themes – stories of Herod, of Moses and other biblical tales. Some deal with themes from old Brittonic mythology; supernatural tales of druids, shapeshifting, and encounters with otherworldly beings. Others deal with mystic prophecies. These divergent themes served to shape the image of the mythical druid-bard we associate with Taliesin today.
But amongst this collection of work, there are a dozen poems that we might classify as ‘heroic poems’. These are thought to be the oldest poems in the collection, and the only ones that are thought likely to date back to an ‘original’ C6th Taliesin.
The Heroic Poems
The heroic poems all share several distinct characteristics that are markedly different from the other works in the manuscript:
- They all deal directly with C6th subjects and themes. They make specific detailed references to people and places from that time.
- Many of the people and places mentioned are now obscured by the passage of time. They might, for example, relate to places that no longer exist or have subsequently changed their names.
- They are all songs, written to praise Taliesin’s patrons. His patrons are petty British kings, and his songs serve to promote their prowess, their achievements, and their generosity.
- They are entirely lacking in any references to the supernatural.
- Any reference to Taliesin’s religious beliefs (always Christian, never pagan) are fleeting but present.
These poems project the image of a C6th bard attached to a royal court. A man whose job it was to compose songs to promote his royal patron. And we know this is the case because Taliesin himself tells us so, making it very clear that he is being well rewarded for his labours. In his poem, In Praise of Cynan Garwyn, he writes: “Gifts and property…I had these from Cynan,”. In other words, no goodies, no poems.
The Genuine Taliesin
It is largely accepted that this small group of a dozen poems are the only ones that are likely to have their origins in a genuine C6th Taliesin. However, as is often the case with all things C6th, we cannot be certain of this. There must remain at least a small element of doubt since the manuscript that survives is not C6th. That said, the consensus leans towards accepting these poems as authentically C6th.
However, even having accepted this as the voice of the genuine Taliesin, there are a few other important caveats we ought to consider.
A voice from the C6th
Although these poems may represent versions of poems written in the C6th, the versions we have today are C14th copies written in Middle Welsh. These poems must have been translated from earlier work in Old Welsh. They may well have been re-copied several times over the centuries. Indeed, they may originally have been transmitted orally until such time as someone saw fit to write them down. Although it is quite possible, given Taliesin’s wealth, fame, and high status, that his work would have been recorded in writing in his lifetime. However, the process of transmission over the centuries might well have introduced at least some changes.
In at least one instance, it is thought likely that the poem is in fact a composite, compiled from fragments of more than one original poem. So it is possible that more radical changes than simple translation and transcription error could be present in these works.
Taliesin’s poems were written for his patrons (and in each case it is quite clear who that patron was). A total of three different patrons are in evidence. Most of these poems were written for Urien of Rheged, king of a C6th Brittonic kingdom located somewhere in northwest England and/or southwest Scotland. However, another patron was Cynan, king of Powys and yet another Gwallawg, a different king from somewhere in northern England.
This has led some to ask, are we dealing with one bard or three writing in the same tradition? And if we are dealing with three, which one is the real Taliesin? If we are dealing with one Taliesin, then the fact that he had three different patrons would suggest he was something of a ‘harp-for-hire’.
Taliesin the Bard
All that survives of Taliesin’s work are the words. In terms of what he had to say about life in the late C6th, this is not necessarily a problem. However, it does mean that how he chose to say it is largely lost to us.
We think of his work as poems these days but, of course, they were originally songs. Taliesin’s reputation was built as much on his music and the quality of his performance as it was on his words.
When Taliesin performed, it would most likely have been in the king’s hall. He sung accompanied on the harp (the standard instrument for both Briton and Anglo-Saxon bards of this time).
Unfortunately, we cannot now experience that. All that remains to us are the words. We cannot help but wonder how our view of Taliesin might be different if we were able to experience his work performed as was originally intended.
Taliesin and Life in the C6th
Since Taliesin was writing to praise late C6th British kings/warlords, his work naturally deals with their achievements in war. Consequently, what we have is a collection of poetic descriptions of late C6th warfare.
What makes these poems especially interesting is the fact that, because of their subject matter, they are more detailed than the sweeping narrative we get from Gildas. They not only contain details of conflict between pagan Angles and native Britons but comment on motives and outcomes of specific encounters.
What we get, however, is a description of conflict that has a different feel to it from Gildas’ apocalyptic narrative.
Of course, Gildas was writing earlier in the C6th, about late C5th / early C6th events. Taliesin was writing in the latter part of the C6th about contemporary (to him) events. It is quite possible that the nature of relations and conflict between Anglo-Saxons and native Britons had changed by this time. Or it could be that Taliesin offers us either a more, or less, realistic portrait of C6th warfare than Gildas.
Biases and Issues
It is first important to acknowledge that Taliesin has a bias (or rather, his patrons have a bias). Taliesin was paid to write his poems in praise of his lords and masters. Clearly, he was much less likely to be rewarded for writing about a defeat! In fact, he does mention defeats but only where he is able to cast it in a particularly heroic or flattering light. He is also unlikely to be critical of his patron (although on one occasion he indicates that he has offended Urien by making a joke at his expense).
Secondly, many of Taliesin’s poems are problematic because we don’t know who he was talking about or where the events he describes occurred. That is because he is talking about people and places that, although well known in the C6th, are unknown today. The names of many places have changed and some places, like the kingdom of Rheged, no longer exist. Often, we are only able to make an educated guess as to where an event occurred or who a particular person might have been.
Nevertheless, keeping all this in mind, what can we learn from Taliesin about the C6th?
The Character of C6th Conflict
It might help to start with a summary of the various themes Taliesin describes in relation to C6th conflict. Across the dozen heroic poems that survive, we see the following pattern emerge:
|Themes||# of Poems in which this theme appears|
|Conflict featuring cattle theft||6|
|Warfare for territorial control (of a specific stronghold or region)||5|
|Conflict between Britons and Angles||5|
|Conflict specifically involving plundering/raiding (aside from cattle theft)||4|
|Conflict between different groups of Britons||3|
|Conflict where ransoms/tributes were involved||2|
|Conflicts resolved by enemies suing for peace||2|
|Proposal of a treaty between Britons and Angles||1|
|Incidents of burning of villages/ targeting civilians||1|
|Conflict between Britons and foes unspecified||1|
|Conflict between Britons and foes unspecified (quite possibly Picts or other Britons)||1|
The Kingdom of Rheged
Many of these early poems relate to the Kingdom of Rheged. However, there is significant ongoing debate over where, precisely, Rheged was located. Unfortunately for us Taliesin writes mainly about where Urien of Rheged fought rather than about his homeland specifically. Also, since the place names Taliesin gives us are C6th names, we cannot be sure where most of these places are.
However, most of the place names he gives relate (or are thought to relate) to places in either southern Scotland or northern England. This doesn’t help much in narrowing down where Rheged may have been located, since locations in both countries are mentioned equally frequently. If we base our judgement on Taliesin alone, we’d conclude that Rheged was located somewhere near to (or straddling) the northwest English / southwest Scottish border.
Recent archaeology has proposed Galloway as a good candidate for the location of Rheged. I see nothing in Taliesin’s work that would contradict such a theory (and much to support it).
An important observation we can take from Taliesin’s work is that conflict in the late C6th was by no means exclusively between Angles and Britons. Conflict with Angles is a common theme, but there are also poems about Britons fighting other Britons and possibly Picts. We therefore get a picture of limited unity and some considerable rivalry between the different British kingdoms of this period.
Taliesin mentions one Angle leader, but unfortunately uses a C6th Brittonic nickname, which appears in Middle Welsh as ‘Fflamddywn’. This literally means ‘flamebearer’, but Gwyenth Lewis and Rowan Williams suggest it could also be taken as a metaphor for someone who had a reputation for flamboyance. This might be a reference to Theodoric of Bernica, but we can’t be sure. It does, however, serve as a good example of how difficult it can be to interpret some of Taliesin’s C6th references.
Overall, it seems that conflict between Angles and Britons was sporadic rather than continuous. Although a significant theme, specific references to fighting with Angles features in less than half of the poems. Even then, the conflict described can be scrappy, often consisting of raids and counterraids rather than genuine attempts at permanent conquest.
One notable feature of Taliesin’s work is the frequency with which cattle rustling is mentioned as an important aspect of conflict. The ability to steal livestock from your enemies appears to have been viewed as an important objective of most campaigns. A king’s prowess in stealing his enemy’s cattle was clearly viewed as an achievement worthy of honouring.
Taliesin praises Urien by describing him as the ‘triumphant cattle-thief’. Clearly such a title was seen as a significant source of honour and pride. Elsewhere he describes the misfortune of another leader with the phrase ‘To see his realm raided, foes leading his herds.’ To have your enemies steal your cattle was therefore seen as a significant blow to your prestige.
Raiding, with a view to carrying off booty (especially cattle) appears to have been a significant feature of conflict in this period. Perhaps more so, even, than the desire to acquire territory.
Of course, conquest, or at least the ambition for conquest, does feature in several poems. Sometimes this might be localised and small-scale in ambition (such as a struggle to control a single fort), sometimes more.
But, at this point, we might ask ourselves what ‘conquest’ meant within the context of the patchwork of petty kingdoms in C6th Britain. In Roman and later medieval times conquest often meant military victory followed by occupation and subjugation. That is certainly what it meant when the Romans or the Normans came to Britain. But, in the C6th, it might not have indicated anything quite so absolute.
Sometimes Taliesin’s throw away lines can be quite revealing. In Rheged Arise its Lords are its Glory, Taliesin tells us that Urien ‘in his day took Aeron, there was no fight, it wasn’t welcome’. Alas, we don’t know where ‘Aeron’ was. It might have been Airedale in Yorkshire or, perhaps, Ayr in Scotland. However, in this case ‘conquest’ was achieved without any fighting. The people of Aeron simply submitted to Urien’s will and, presumably, agreed to become part of his kingdom (at least for a time).
However, overall, the primary aim of C6th war often appears to be raiding and plunder rather than territorial gain. In the poem ‘All through the year’, Taliesin describes the men of Rheged ‘lusting for profit and plentiful plunder’, not lusting for land.
Burning of settlements
Only one of the poems mentions the burning of settlements. None of the poems claim that people were being driven from their lands in any systematic way. Nor are we told of any large-scale pogroms, or anything remotely like a such a thing. Warriors may get slaughtered in large numbers but not non-combatants.
In the only explicit reference to burning villages (the poem Urien of Erechwydd) the perpetrators are Britons, and the victims are Angles. Here Taliesin speaks of ‘homes burnt at dawn’, suggestive of a surprise dawn raid of some kind.
In The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, Taliesin tells us that the Angles made war ‘to lay waste to the lands of Goddu and Rheged’. However, he does not go on to describe the Angles laying waste to any lands. Indeed, later in the same poem, he reveals that the Angles appeared to have something else in mind.
Submission and hostages
Instead of laying waste to Rheged, we are told that the Angle King Fflamddywn demanded submission and the handing over of hostages. His demands are rebuffed, Taliesin tells us, with the words ‘If this meeting has been called only to discuss treaties, we shall raise up our ramparts higher than mountains.’
This shows that treaties, albeit on unfavourable terms in this case, were quite possible between Angles and Britons. On this occasion, at least, it was not the aim of the Angles to ravage Rheged, drive out the Britons and supplant them. Fflamddywn is demanding hostages and a treaty, not land.
What we appear to have, then, are two C6th British writers each providing a different perspective on life in their times. For Gildas, the coming of Anglo-Saxons to Britain was nothing short of an apocalyptic onslaught that he describes in biblical terms:
“For the fire of righteous vengeance, caused by former crimes, blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of impious men; and as it devastated all the neighbouring cities and lands, did not cease after it had been kindled, until it burnt nearly the whole surface of the island, and licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue. In this assault, which might be compared to the Assyrian attack upon Judaea of old.”Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae
For Taliesin, the unfolding conflict was much more one of raiding and counterraiding. Of shifting allegiances and alliances. Of scrapping over ownership of a fort or raiding to steal cattle. A world in which submission and treaty appears a more likely outcome than annihilation and displacement.
Perhaps both men offer different perspectives on the same unfolding process, reflective of the different times and places in which they wrote. Perhaps one day archaeology will provide us with a clearer picture as to which, if either, is the more reliable witness. Until then, we are perhaps left with more questions than answers.
Taliesin and Gildas were, of course, very different men. Gildas was a fire and brimstone cleric. Taliesin was a rather mercenary bard writing the songs his patrons wanted to hear.
Nevertheless, of the two, it is Taliesin who comes across as the more down to earth. Of course, to arrive at this version of Taliesin, we must strip away all the later material he could not have written and ignore his subsequent mythical reputation.
Taliesin, more so than Gildas, has the good grace to openly state his agenda. And that agenda is, of course, to know on which side his bread was buttered.
Taliesin did not simply sing the praises of any C6th king. Nor did he even sing their praises because he genuinely hero-worshipped them. As he, himself, so succinctly puts it:
“It is better to praise the king who’s been praised,”Taliesin, Rheged, Arise, its Lords Are its Glory
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References & Further Reading
Image of Taliesin: Benjamin West – The Bard – Google Art Project (via Wiki Commons)
Book of Taliesin page from William Forbes Skene, The Four Ancient Books of Wales. Vol. 2. 1868. (via Wiki Commons)
Sutton Hoo helmet reconstruction in the British Museum, by Gernot Keller. (via Wiki Commons)