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The Coeling in Y Gododdin
A look at possibly mentions of Coel's descendants in Y Gododdin.
This is an expanded version of a thread I previously released on twitter. I thought it fitting to expand a little, as I had hit the 25 tweet limit imposed by twitter, and felt like it was long enough to stretch most attention spans there. However with my diligent Substack readers, I trust that more than double the length will be no chore you you all my friends. So here is an expanded look at Y Gododdin, with some fun speculative conclusions.
For those who are unfamiliar with Y Gododdin, it is a series of elegies supposedly composed by Anierin after the disastrous battle of Catraeth. The actual circumstances of this battle are up for interpretation, with variations on date, place, and participants all possible.
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Sons of Godebog
At many times the Kingdom of Gododdin was at odds with the southern kingdoms controlled by Coel Hen and his descendants, coming into conflict numerous times, first between Coel and a young prince of Gododdin named Cunedda, who would later found the kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales. The next conflicts probably happened around the turn of the 6th century, when the Coel's tribe were being led by Arthuis, Coel’s great-grandson, and possibly the initial inspiration for King Arthur. Late in Arthuis’ reign the Gododdin were likely one contigent in the cattle raid that we know as ‘The Battle of Camlann’ Where Arthur (Arthuis) died. Y Gododdin actually seems to reference this almost two-hundred year conflict.
"In hosts, in hordes, they fought for the land
With Godebawg's sons, savage folk."
Godebawg (Godebog, Goutepauc) meaning protector or shelterer, is an epithet Coel Hen was also known by, possibly even a remnant of a roman title bestowed upon ‘barbarian’ commanders, or as I have theorized before a Brythonic title equivalent to Dux. This line seemingly references the near two-hundred year struggle between Coel and his dynasty and the kingdom of Gododdin. This is not the only reference to Coel’s descendants however.
An entire elegy is dedicated to "Ceidio's famous son". Ceidio was a son of the aforementioned Arthuis ap Mar, and was probably king of the area that eventually became Caer Wenddoleu, a buffer kingdom separating the territories of the Coeling kingdoms to the south from Alt Clut and The Gododdin, both occasional allies and occasional enemies. Ceidio had three sons, but the most well known was a man named Gwenddoleu.
Fiercely he struck with his sword,
men of Gododdin, do not deny,
as a hero none outshone,
Ceidio's famous son.
Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio was not only a Coeling, but also a king in his own right of his realm 'Caer Wenddoleu' and the lord of the historical Merlin, Myrddin ap Madog (also a cousin and a Coeling). Gwenddoleu however certainly didn't fight at Catraeth. Gwenddoleu died during the Battle of Arfderydd in 573, and couldn't have been present at the later Battle of Catraeth. Arfderydd was a battle not between Briton and Angle, but solely between Britons. Peredur and Gwrgi of Ebrauc, cousins of Gwenddoleu, allied with Rhydderch Hael of Alt Clut and brought down a massive force upon Caer Wenddoleu, and in the ensuing battle Gwenddoleu was slain, Myrddin went mad and fled into the forest, and Gwenddoleu’s warband fought on in an insurgency for multiple weeks. Urien though not present from the battle benefitted and gained territory. This opens the possibility that not all those eulogized in Y Gododdin were actually there, and a sort of ‘Roster of Heroes’ was created by the composer Aneirin. There is another possibility though.
Ceidio is given two other sons Nudd and Chof, who possibly fought at Catraeth, dispossessed of their brother's kingdom by Catraeth. The historicity of Nudd and Chof has been questioned before however because of very overt mythological links, and as such may be a later addition, euhemerized figures placed into a genealogy that they otherwise don't belong. Nudd is often conflated with the psychopomp Gwynn ap Nudd’s father of the same name. It is difficult in circumstances like this to determine whether this is an example of later conflation, a genealogist trying to bolster a family’s fame, or just a coincidence. As Nudd and Chof don’t seem to show up anywhere else it is especially hard to determine. Regardless of whether this is a reference to Gwenddoleu, Nudd, or Chof, it is still strange to find a Coeling overtly praised here in Y Gododdin, knowing the history between them. The references don't end there however.
Soldiers stormed, fired up by mead,
Mynyddawg’s men, as one they died.
Famous in the war, they paid
for all-night feasting with their lives.
Caradog, Madog, Pwll and Ieuan,
Gwgon, Gwiawn, Gwyn and Cynfan,
Aeddan and Gwawrddur.
Here we have another likely reference to a Coeling prince, Peredur ap Ellifer, and possibly his son Gwgon (also known as Gwrgant). Peredur was actually on the opposing side of the battle of Arfderydd, and as such was also responsible for his cousin Gwenddoleu's death. Peredur himself is said to have died at Caer Greu when his warband abandoned he and his brother Gwrgi1. Caer Greu is generally dated to 580, which with a traditional view of the Battle of Catraeth is roughly 20 years too early. This could indicate as mentioned before that not all of the heroes mentioned in Y Gododdin were actually present, and that instead the Bard included famous figures in order to bolster the fame of others. There is an alternative interpretation however.
Caer Greu and Catraeth may be the same battle, and may have even been almost a civil war amongst the Coeling, with one side allied with the Gododdin, and the other with the Angles. This would have been a borderline apocalyptic battle for The Old North, with many kings and heroes lost, paving the way for Angle supremacy, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
There is also a reference that may preserve the name of the man who slew Arthuis ap Mar.
Son of Swyno, a seer foretold –
died for his honour, to be called a hero,
killed Athrwys and Affrai
with his own sword.
This is from the elegy of a man of Gododdin named Cydywal ap Swyno. Athrwys and Affrai were certainly important people, worthy of mention in the elegy of the man who slew them. Affrai is elusive, and may not even be a name at all, but translation is not always easy, so most have assumed that it is a proper name that is otherwise unrecorded, or possibly misspelled. Athrwys however is a proper name, and as I have written before is generally thought to be a later development of the name Arthwys or Arthuis.
While this is too early for the later Athrwys ap Meurig of Gwent, it is also too late for it to be Arthuis ap Mar (unless the theory that Catraeth took place in 580 is correct, Cydywal may have been quite old at Catraeth, and quite young when he killed Arthuis, sometime around 537) If this Cydywal was in fact the man to kill Arthuis ap Mar, this also gives us a veiled reference to another Coeling, as Arthuis is the great-grandson of Coel Hen as well.
The evidence here is quite interesting, and can possibly give us some insights into the power dynamics of the late 6th century in the Old North. The early Catraeth theory leads one to think of it as a civil war between cousins. On one side Urien of Rheged (also a descendant of Coel) allied with the Angles, and the other Peredur and Gwrgi of Ebrauc allied with their grandfather Arthuis' old enemy the Gododdin. Peredur and Gwrgi may have felt that overlordship of their cousin Urien was their birthright. This of course leads to them attacking Urien, who they may have viewed as a usurper. This enmity was great enough that they fought alongside the man responsible for their grandfather's death, Cydywal.
Urien’s son and battle commander Owain may even be mentioned in the poem. There are also three elegies for men named Owain. The first elegy within Y Gododdin is for a man named Owain said to be ‘Marro’s only son’, while the second is not given a father, and seems to be a man from Gwynedd. There is a third hidden in an Elegy for Caradog.
When Caradog charged to war
gored three men like a wild boar,
bull of the army, war machine,
he hand-fed the wolves. Owain
son of Eulad was my witness,
before they were gone from Catraeth,
from the slaughter at Bryn Hyddwn,
Gwrien and Gwriad and Gwyn,
after much gold mead taken,
none saw his father again.
John Koch put forward the theory that this ‘Owain son of Eulad’ is actually a misconstrued reference to Owain ap Urien. The line Ewein vab Eulat a-Gwryen may be originally Ougen …uulat map Urbgen, or Owain … of the land, son of Urien. Not cut and dry by any means, but still an interesting line of thought.
Another member of Urien’s family shows up as well, with an entire elegy dedicated to him. Ceneu ap Llywarch was one of the many sons of Llywarch Hen, first cousin to Urien, and possibly King of Southern Rheged.
Northern grit: owned by one man.
His nature generous, glad:
no man walks the earth,
no mother gave birth
to one so clear-eyed,
A bright sword in his hand,
he saved me from death,
from burial in a bitter land,
Llywarch’s son, Cenau.
Ceneu undoubtedly named for his great-great-great-grandfather Ceneu ap Coel, and seems to be the composer (Anierin’s) rescuer in a moment of fierce fighting. Possibly fighting on the opposing side of the battle with Urien, saving his distant cousin from certain doom.
There is another interesting elegy, that while it’s not a surefire reference to a Coeling, it does reference a kingdom ruled by a Coeling.
He downed his mead at a single draught
before the war-path to Catraeth.
When he wielded his sword,
brutal in war,
no one called him cruel.
No grim ghost, his men defended,
lethal soldier, Madog of Elmet.
Elmet is the realm of Gwallog ap Llenneac, who was king there until his death in the mid 590’s. As my friend @p5ych0p0mp has pointed out, Gwallog is said to have himself fought at Catraeth.
And Fierce Gwallawc caused
The great mortality of Catraeth, greatly renowned:
Gwallog is known to have allied with Urien in his later campaigns against the Angles, implying that Gwallog and Urien were allied at Catraeth. This places this Madog on the opposing side of the battle. There is a Coeling named Madog, Madog ap Morydd, the father of the historical Myrddin, Gwenddoleu’s advisor and bard, and while he would be aged, he could have participated in the ‘early Catraeth”. Madog ap Morydd is not however mentioned in any association with Elmet, unlike the evidence for Gwallog and his son Ceredig’s association. Madog instead would seem to be associated with Caer Wenddoleu. Another possibility is that this is a rogue son of Gwallog’s possibly an otherwise unmentioned second son worried about inheritance, taking matters into his own hands. Madog could also just be a rogue noble, unrelated to the Dynasty of Coel, but still of the nobility and ambitious for higher prospects.
These possibilities give us some interesting insights to possibly help rebuild the shifting political dynamics of the late Old North. This brings me to the last reference. The Bard responsible for Y Gododdin, Aneirin, was himself a Coeling! Aneirin is probably the son of Dunod ap Pabo, and with his father’s behavior towards Owain after Urien’s death there may have been bad blood between these two Coeling branches.
All of these possibilities paint an interesting picture of what may have been a massive multi-kingdom conflict, with enormous ramifications for the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North. Coeling princes, Peredur, Gwrgi, Nudd (or Chof), Anierin, and Madog (possibly), dissastisfied with Urien’s role as overlord ally themselves with the King of the Gododdin (Mynyddog Mwynfawr? Possibly and old Clydno Eidyn?2) and plan an attack. Urien, Owain, Ceneu, and Gwallog, meet them with their Anglian allies and the Battle of Catraeth ensues. Peredur and Gwrgi, Nudd, Madog, and Ceneu are all slain.
I believe that without such speculative exercises, this time period will lay stagnant with no new developments. Even if I am wrong on any of this, it is still important in my opinion to lay these ideas out, though proving any of it is nigh-impossible.
If you would like to read more about the descendants of Coel Hen, you can read about them here
And if you would like to read more about the Arthuis/Arthur links you can find my article on that here
Gwrgi may in fact be a nickname. Peredur and Gwrgi are generally mentioned together as twins, and in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s veiled narrative Elidurus (Ellifer ap Arthuis) has twin sons named Peredurus and Ingenius. Peredurus is of course easy to match, so that leaves Ingenius, which is a form of the Brythonic name Owain (Ewein, Ywain, Yvain). This makes me think that Gwrgi’s name at birth may have been Owain, and that Gwrgi (a name meaning Man-Dog) was a nickname acquired later in life (possibly to distinguish him from other Owains in his extended family. You can read more about the links between Geoffrey’s narrative and The Coeling here
This is highly speculative, although Mynyddog Mwynfawr does seem to be an epithet or nickname of sorts.