Names of Women of the Brythonic North in the 5-7th Centuries

by Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn (Heather Rose Jones)

© 2003 Heather Rose Jones; all rights reserved

This is a mini-article exploring the question of what we know about the names of people living in the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms in the north of Britain between the end of the Roman period and the final political absorption of those kingdoms by non-Brythonic-speaking dynasties.

(Throughout this article I have used the word "Brythonic" to refer to the language family as a whole, and "Brittonic" to refer to the language that was, loosely speaking, the common ancestor of that family. "Brittonic" was spoken roughly contemporarily with the Roman period in Britain, while "Brythonic" languages cover that time to the present. The Brythonic language spoken in the north of Britain is often called "Cumbric" after the point when it has diverged from the other branches, but because much of my linguistic evidence and discussion has come to us via Welsh, it seems misleading in this context to speak of particular linguistic forms as "Cumbric".)

In principle, the scope of this article would cover the period from ca. 400 (when direct Roman rule and support officially ended in Britain) until the absorption of Strathclyde around the early 11th century, but for practical purposes the data is drawn from the first three centuries of that period and dips slightly earlier in two cases. The chief political entities involved here are the kingdoms of Elmet (the southernmost of the group, roughly centering around modern Leeds) which maintained independent existence until 617; Rheged (roughly equivalent to modern Dumfries) whose absorption by Northumbria may coincide with the marriage of Rhieinfellt to Oswy ca. 635; Strathclyde (roughly equivalent to the modern region of that name) which may have retained independent political existence until the early 11th century; and Gododdin (extending roughly south from its capital at Edinburgh) which fell to the Anglians around 638, a generation after the defeat commemorated in the Aneirin's poem Y Gododdin. (For general historical background, see e.g. Jarman 1990, Snyder 1998, Duncan 1975.)

Our information sources for this period focus on two classes of people: the ruling nobility, and prominent religious figures. And contemporary evidence, in the strongest sense of the term, is virtually non-existent. For the most part, we must rely on materials composed centuries after the lives of the individuals in question and surviving only in manuscripts of even later date -- often after multiple layers of transmission, at each of which errors, modernizations, or even deliberate alterations may be introduced. The following are the major types of sources:

  • Annals, Histories, and Chronicles -- These include the Historia Brittonem of Nennius (written probably in the 9th century, from unknown older materials), historical annals from various traditions (the Latin Annales Cambriae and Welsh Brut y Tywysogion of the Welsh tradition, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there is even some material in the various Irish annals).
  • Saints' Biographies and Other Hagiographic Material -- These have typically been composed, at the earliest, several centuries after the lifetime of the saint, and their reliability in many details can be undermined by the formulaic nature of the genre and by the tendency of unrelated stories to accrue to the saints. An example of this genre would be the two 12th century Lives of the 6th century Saint Kentigern.
  • Genealogical Material -- P.C. Bartrum has conveniently collected and edited all the early genealogical material relevant to Wales (which includes much material relevant to the Brythonic North, due to intermarriage). To get a sense of the difficulties in reliability, the very earliest surviving material of this type survives in manuscripts of perhaps the 11th century, representing compositions of perhaps a century earlier. While these later manuscripts may certainly preserve a great deal of older tradition accurately, they also involve significant opportunity for corruption and alteration in the transmission -- including alterations deliberately done to advance or undermine the dynastic claims of particular families. At the very least, the long gap between the lifetime of the individuals in question and the date of the manuscript composition makes it difficult to reconstruct the probable original forms of the names involved. Genealogies are the single largest source of women's names for our current purpose.
  • Poetry and Literature -- The single largest source of male names from these cultures is heroic poetry, particularly the bodies of work associated with Aneirin, Taliesin, and Llywarch Hen (although much later material has been retroactively attributed to these poets, and must be sorted out from the genuine early works). Given the subject matter of this poetry, however, women's names are much scarcer.

  • The Data and the Reconstructions

    In the following discussions, I've provided all the known (to me) mentions of the women by name (at least in medieval material), as well as contextual information about who they are and how they were related. If there is significant doubt about the historic existence of the woman (or about the accuracy of the name as recorded) I have discussed that. On a much more speculative level, I have then attempted to offer linguistic reconstructions of how these women's names might have been written and pronounced during their own lifetimes. For these reconstructions I have been forced to treat the names as if they followed Welsh practice for the same period, as the independent evidence for Cumbric at the same period is too scanty to be useful. I have also taken the (lazy) short-cut of relying almost entirely on Jackson's Language and History in Early Britain for these reconstructions, even knowing that a number of his conclusions have been debated and revised by more recent work. (When John Koch's forthcoming book on Old Welsh comes out, I'll cheerfully switch to over-relying on him instead!) The reconstructed pronunciations are given in a common version of "ASCII-IPA" and also using a more English-based system with annotations.

    I would like to emphasize that the reconstructions (both written and spoken) are EXTREMELY speculative, and that they are intended as a "better than nothing" offering for those who have reasons to want to use contemporary forms of these women's names, and not as works of strict scholarship. I'm working slightly out of my depth here, and if any of these names have been treated in a more rigorous fashion elsewhere, I would be delighted to be directed to relevant publications so that I can revise this article.

    Who Are These Women? And What Kinds of Names Do They Have?

    As noted above, the people we know about from this era tend to be drawn from important nobility and their immediate families, or saints and their immediate families. In defining "women of the Brythonic north", I've cast the net over both those born into families associated with the northern Brythonic kingdoms and those who married into those families (typically women originating in Wales). These are the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of kings. And, in one case, we have the remnant of an ancient goddess who has been turned into a "fairy-wife" and inserted into a historic genealogy. (In this case her name is a dead giveaway, but it raises the question of how many other names in the early genealogies are fictitious additions from legend.) The relationship of their names to those of non-noble women can only be guessed at. To the extent that we can answer the question, the Brythonic-speaking nobility of the north seem to have drawn from the same general name-pool as their contemporaries in Wales. In many cases, this impression is distorted by the fact that their names have been transmitted through Welsh-language sources, and we could expect any minor dialectal differences to have been normalized away in the process of transmission.

    Although the Brythonic-speaking kingdoms in the immediately sub-Roman period (both in the north and in Wales) tended to view themselves as the heirs of Roman culture, very few linguistically Roman names seem to have made their way into the name pool. What evidence there is suggests that by 500 CE, the Roman influence on names lingering from the imperial period had pretty much faded away. The late 4th century (semi-legendary) Cunedda, who is said to have migrated from Manaw Gododdin to Gwynedd with a passel of sons (who all got kingdoms named after them) comes from a line of ancestors who all bear clearly Latin-origin names. But when you get to the multiple dozens of warriors mentioned in the Gododdin poem (ca. 600) only the personal name Rhufon is identifiable as of Latin origin -- the rest are all linguistically Brythonic. So, while it is extremely likely that the people in question here would have had their names written in a Latin format, it doesn't appear to be the case that they would have been using names of Latin origin.

    Given that the surviving information about individuals from this region and time focuses almost exclusively on the ruling families (even the early saints that we know about tended to be born into ruling families), and given that these families tended to intermarry, it shouldn't come entirely as a surprise that the seventeen women discussed here can all be located on two pedigrees, and those two are linked via the biography of Saint Kentigern. (A little digging could probably turn up a genetic relationship as well.) The following genealogic tables (drawn almost entirely from Bartrum 1993) show these relationships as they are set out in the sometimes-contradictory literature.

    Pedigree one (p.1) shows the lineage of Coel Hen, a northern king on the very edge of reliability. In addition to having a wife and daughter whose names are recorded, his descendants connect two of the other main family groups.

    Pedigree two (p.2) shows the line centering around the prominent early 6th century figures Urien Rheged (king of Rheged) and his double-first-cousin Llywarch Hen. Both of these individuals figure in the earliest surviving "Welsh" poetry. "Welsh" is in scare-quotes here because, although the poems have come down to us via the Welsh language, if the northern associations are accurate, they may have been originally composed in an early version of Cumbric, a cousin of Welsh. Urien Rheged was a patron of the poet Taliesin and is mentioned in several of the poems considered to belong to the historic poet (as opposed to the mythic figure who took over his name). There is an entire poetic cycle associated with the name of Llywarch Hen, although it is now considered doubtful that Llywarch himself was the actual author of any of the material.

    Pedigree three (p.3) shows the relationship of three women, said to be daughters of Brychan (king of Brycheiniog in south Wales). Two of them married into the line of Rheged. A third married a man who appears to be associated with the region of Roxburgh in Scotland, however her date associations are about a century too late to be a sister to the other two. A vast and variable number of men and women appear in various lists of Brychan's children and it is certain that many of them were not actually his biological sons and daughters (simply based on dating problems) and some of these can be reliably identified as later inventions, scribal errors or doublets (one name turning into two people in slightly different variants), or unrelated individuals who have been given more genealogical cachet by being attached after the fact to Brychan's lineage.

    Pedigree four (p.4) shows part of the royal family of Strathclyde, again centering around a prominent historic figure of the 6th century, Rhydderch Hael. He was a contemporary of Urien Rheged, and connects even more closely in the literature to Saint Kentigern who, according to some sources, was a grandson of Urien.

    Pedigree five (p.5) shows part of the royal family of Elmet. According to the traditional genealogies, this line connects with pedigree #1 because Lleenog is a great-grandson of Coel Hen Gwodebog. This may, of course, be a political fiction.

    (In the following pedigrees all women's names are in bold-face; women married, but not born, into the northern families are also in italics. Dates are, virtually always, approximate calculations based on assumptions about average generation-length, and correlated with known historic events.)

    Pedigrees (designed to be viewed in a non-proportional font)

    Pedigree 1 (p.1) -- the lineage of Coel Hen

    Coel Hen
    Ystradwel  d.o. Gadeon (ca. 360)
    |                |
    Cenau (ca. 400)  Gwawl (ca. 380)
    |             |
    Gwrgwst       Maeswig Gloff
    |             |
    Meirchion Gul  Lleenog
    (see p.2)     (see p.5)

    Pedigree 2 (p.2) -- the dynasty of Rheged

    Meirchion Gul (ca. 460)
    |                                |
    Cynfarch Oer (ca. 480)           Elidir Llydanwyn
    m.                               m.
    Nyfain  (d.o. Brychan see p.3)   Gwawr  (d.o. Brychan see p.3)
    |                                |
    |______(poss. diff. mother?)_    Llywarch Hen (ca. 520)
    |                            |
    (Peniarth 50)                |
    twins_________               |
    |             |              |
    Urien Rheged  Efrddyl       Enynny
    (ca. 510)     m. Eliffer Gosgorddfawr
    m.            |
    Modron       Ceindrech (or Arddun) + 2 brothers (triplets)
    (d.o. Afallach -- these two are legendary "otherworld" figures)
    |____(poss. by a different mother)_____
    |                                      |
    (twins)__________                      |
    |                |                     |
    Owein (ca. (530  Morfudd             Rhun (ca. 550)
    m.                                     |
    Denw (d.o. Lleuddun Luyddog)           |
    |                                      |
    Cyndeyrn Garthwys                      Rhwyth
    (S. Kentigern) ca. 550                 |
    (see also p.4 for contemporaries)      |
                                           Rhieinfellt (ca. 615)

    Pedigree 3 (p.3) -- the children of Brychan

    Brychan Brycheiniog (either ca. 400 or ca. 470 -- these work with the later 
    date), king of Brycheiniog in South Wales
    |                       |             |
    Nyfain                  Gwawr       Gwrygon
    m.                      m.
    Cynfarch Oer (see p.2)  Elidir Llydanwyn (see p.2)

    Pedigree 4 (p.4) -- the dynasty of Strathclyde

    Rhydderch and Languoreth are contemporaries of S. Kentigern (see p.2) and appear in his biography.

    Rhydderch Hael (king of Strathclyde)
    (ca. 540)
    |                     |
    Gwladus      Angharad Tonfelen

    Pedigree 5 (p.5) -- the dynasty of Elmet

    |                   |
    Gwallog (ca. 500)   Dwywai (ca. 500)
    Onnen Grec

    The Women and Their Names

    (I've presented them roughly in generational order, but grouping mothers and daughters together.)





    Gwrygon Goddau












    Onnen Greg


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