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The Medieval Celtic Fringe
By Christopher A. Snyder, Chair, Department of History and Politics, Marymount University. Dr. Snyder can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who are the Celts? This is a question being asked today not just by students, but also increasingly by professional archaeologists and historians. What do we mean by Celtic? Did these peoples see themselves as Celts? What relationship, if any, do they have with the inhabitants of the Celtic countries today? There are no easy answers to these questions, and the debate rages on amongst classicists and archaeologists studying pre-historic Europe. Few, however, have examined the use of Celts and Celtic in discussion of the Middle Ages. Yet with King Arthur, "Celtic Christianity," and Bravehearted William Wallace drawing more and more attention to the medieval Celtic fringe, it is important that both teachers and students tread carefully through the history and historiography of this exciting field.
Ancient Greek historians used the term Keltoi to describe barbarians living along the Danube and stretching northwest into unknown parts of Europe. Roman writers used the Latin form Celtae to refer in particular to a tribe of central France. Much later Byzantine sources employ Keltoi indiscriminately to describe all northern barbarians, including the Franks, well into the Middle Ages. But then the term disappears for several hundred years from all but a few antiquarian works. It's reappearance, in the eighteenth century, is due not to historians but rather to linguists. After the Welsh scholar Edward Lhwyd (1660-1709) proved that the Gaulish language spoken by the ancient Gauls of France was related to the Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) and Brittonic (Welsh, Cornish, and Breton) languages spoken in his day, a term was needed to describe their common ancestor. Celtic was chosen, and by the end of the century historians were frequently describing all of the inhabitants--both ancient and modern--of the British Isles and the Continent who spoke Celtic languages as Celts (James 1993, 8).
Through archaeology and place-names study, we now know that Celtic-speaking peoples once ranged across the whole of northern Europe, from Ireland to the Ukraine, and as far south as the Iberian peninsula and Asia Minor. But the expansion of both the Romans and the Germanic peoples pushed the Celtic world increasingly into the northwestern fringes of Europe, and after Caesar's conquest of Gaul in the first century BC, the only autonomous Celtic-speakers were those living in the British Isles. These Celts too were threatened by both Romans and Germans. The emperor Claudius began the Roman conquest of lowland Britain in AD 43, after which the Britons, like the Gauls, became in varying degrees Romanized. No sooner did they gain their political independence from Rome, in AD 410, than did they face a serious threat from Germanic-speaking raiders living along the North Sea. These peoples, including the Angles and the Saxons, first arrived in Britain as mercenaries, and would eventually come to dominate the same lowland regions that the Romans had conquered and give that land a new name: England.
In the early Middle Ages, Celtic-speaking populations survived in an even smaller fringe, which included Ireland (which was never conquered by the Romans), Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Wales and Scotland (whose mountainous regions never became Romanized), as well as Brittany in western Gaul and Galicia, both settled by Britons in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Celtic languages were spoken in these areas throughout the medieval period, a time in which Christianity mixed with indigenous pagan custom to produce a unique and dynamic culture.
Can we call this culture Celtic? The ancient Celts, who left few writings, probably did not think of themselves as Celts. This has prompted several present day scholars to suggest we stop using the term to describe these peoples and their artifacts (Collis 1996; Collis 1997; James 1998). Others have criticized the concepts of a "Celtic Church" or "Celtic Christianity" in the Middle Ages (Hughes 1981; W. Davies 1992), while some have gone so far as to dismiss any Celtic identity as a pernicious myth (Sims-Williams 1986; Chapman 1992). As with any strong reaction, moderate voices have responded, assuring us that it is still okay to use Celtic to describe peoples who spoke a Celtic language as well as their culture. While we should not overlook the differences amongst the Irish, Scots, Welsh, and Bretons, we cannot deny the similarities--legal, artistic, political--even if the term Celtic never appears in the written sources (Snyder 1996; Snyder forthcoming).
The Irish chieftains of this period contended with both English and Ostmen rulers, not to mention each other, but these battles were for the most part local. The first conflict to have a wide-ranging effect on the politics of the island was the long campaign of Brian Boru which culminated in the battle of Clontarf in 1014. Brian had succeeded in capturing Dublin and Limerick, defeating their Ostmen rulers, securing both Munster and Leinster, and, most importantly, shattering the Uí Néill dynasty's monopoly of the north. Though he was declared "Emperor of the Irish" in the Book of Armagh, Brian's death at the bloody battle of Clontarf stopped just short of uniting Ireland under a single monarch.
Brian's dynasty was unable to follow up on his successes. Subsequent rulers would lay claim to the "high kingship," and Muirchertach O'Brien and Turlough O'Connor were the most memorable. But the continual internecine rivalries of the Irish dynasties would, in the late twelfth century, result in Irish politics being ultimately taken out of the hands of the Irish. The immediate issue was a feud between Dermot MacMurrough, the king of Leinster, and Rory O'Connor, the king of Connacht who was crowned High King in Dublin in 1166. MacMurrough, now removed from power over the important commercial center of Dublin, was forced to look overseas for an alliance, bringing him to the court of king Henry II of England.
Henry Plantagenet, possessor of vast lands in Britain as well as France, had already been given Ireland--ceremonially--by the English pope Adrian IV in 1155. But with few resources then to spare for such a campaign, Henry simply accepted the homage offered by Dermot and authorized his other vassals to come to MacMurrough's aid. A band of Norman nobles holding lands in Wales, led by Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare--better known as "Strongbow"--crossed from Bristol to Ireland, and between 1169 and 1171 Henry's vassals conquered Leinster for MacMurrough, captured Dublin, and harried Meath. Upon Dermot's death in 1171, Strongbow took over his kingdom, prompting Henry to change his mind and condemn his vassals' activities. Fearing the potential of an independent Norman kingdom to his west, Henry cut off Strongbow's supplies and launched his own invasion. Without a fight, Henry received the submission of Strongbow and his fellow Norman adventurers as well as hostages from most of the Irish chieftains. As the new overlord of Ireland, Henry held Dublin and the eastern ports and fortresses himself, and granted Leinster to Strongbow as a fief.
One of Henry's first actions as King of Ireland was to initiate church reform. The papacy had been suspicious of Christianity in Ireland since the early fifth century, when it sent Palladius to prevent the spread of Pelagianism there. Patrick, most likely sponsored directly by the British church, brought his mission to Ireland in the middle of the century and introduced the Irish to monasticism. They were enthusiastic converts, and by the middle of the sixth century great monastic schools were founded throughout the island. This was the so-called Age of the Saints in the Celtic churches, and Ireland alone produced such giants as Brigid, Brendan, Columba, and Columbanus. The paruchia Columcille, St. Columba's family of monasteries and churches, stretched from Kells to the Scottish Hebrides, and powerful (not to mention colorful) abbots resided over centers like Clonfert, Durrow, and Iona.
Many have observed the influence of native organization and the pre-Christian filid (men of learning) on the Irish church. La Tène artistic motifs were also evident in decorated chalices, illuminated manuscripts, and standing stone crosses. The earliest secular Irish literature was filled with imrama, sea adventure stories, which had their spiritual counterpart in the peregrinatio, the dangerous pilgrimages upon which Irish holymen would embark. Asceticism also characterized the early Irish church, as one can see from the Irish penitentials which became widespread on the Continent. Missionary work, attributed to both Columba and Columbanus, would bring this characteristic Irish Christianity and learning to England, Gaul, Switzerland, and Germany.
The Viking invasions, however, hit the Irish monastic foundations particularly hard. Isolated communities like Iona were especially vulnerable, and their destruction at the hands of the Ostmen sent the Irish church into decline. Ireland before the Ostmen set up their trading posts along the east coast had no real cities, and only Armagh, the traditional seat of St. Patrick, had a dominant bishop. Rural abbots held most of the authority--and the money--and English and Continental reformers were suspicious of them and their "families" (Ireland had neither formal parishes nor mandated clerical celibacy). Archbishops of Canterbury like Lanfranc and Anselm established dependent sees in Ostman cities like Dublin in the early ninth century, and European religious orders were imported to Ireland (first Augustinian houses, then Cistercian in 1142). The Irish kings played their part as well, presiding over national synods and supporting the construction of Romanesque churches at places like Cashel.
When the Normans arrived in Ireland, then, they found a few fledgling metropolitan bishops trying to bring Ireland "up to speed" with Continental religious developments. Real Anglo-Norman colonization began shortly after Henry II's visit, with new towns appearing in the east where nobles spoke Norman-French and peasants spoke English. Henry's son John, whom he had formally recognized as lord of Ireland, laid the foundations of royal (English) government in the island with the establishment of the King's Council in Ireland and a Treasurer of Ireland, while Anglo-Norman bishops were installed in all dependent sees.
What emerges from this first attempt at colonial government in Ireland is essentially an eastern seaboard controlled directly by the English kings, surrounded by "liberties" held by Norman barons on whose western and northern borders lay the independent Irish chiefdoms. Eventually many of these Norman baronial families adopted the Irish language and customs, rebelling against royal authority as regularly as did the native Irish chiefs (thirteenth and fourteenth century sources are full of accounts of these revolts). English writers became increasingly hostile to these Irish "barbarians" (Snyder 1996), and with the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 the English government tried to stop the process of "degeneration" among the Anglo-Irish by forbidding colonists to adopt Irish customs.
It was, of course, too late. A cultural boundary was being established which divided the quarrelsome Irish majority from the politically and commercially potent English minority. This strip of land around Dublin, which came to be known as the Pale, would control the political and religious fortunes of the rest of the island for several centuries to come.
Though Scotland had never been conquered by Rome, there was an important Roman presence, mostly military, along both coasts and the roads leading north to the so-called Antonine Wall. But since this wall was occupied for only a short time, the land between it and Hadrian's Wall was inhabited mostly by northern British tribes who were usually on friendly terms with the Romans. Rome used these tribes, most notably the Votadini and the Selgovae, as a buffer to protect Roman settlements from the more aggressive Picts to their north. After the Roman withdrawal c.410, these and several other northern Britons reasserted themselves to establish the kingdoms of Gododdin (centered around Edinburgh), Strathclyde (from Glasgow south along the River Clyde), Rheged (from Galloway south past Carlisle and into Cumbria), and probably Bernicia (along the southern banks of the Tweed) before it was taken over by the Angles. Into this mix came a group of Irish émigrés who established the kingdom of Dalriada (Argyll) around the year 500.
Some of the northern Britons must have called themselves Cumbri, "fellow countrymen," using a form of the name which the Welsh would soon adopt. In Welsh sources they are called Gwyr Gogled, "Men of the North." The Vitae of British saints like Kentigern (Glasgow's St. Mungo) suggests that these Britons maintained links with their Welsh kin until English expansion permanently separated Wales and Scotland around the ninth century. Though they continued to utilize some Roman towns and fortifications, they increasingly became part of the heroic society of northern Britain, most vividly portrayed in the poem Y Gododdin by the British bard Aneirin. This, the earliest surviving literature from Scotland, depicts the disaster which befell the Gododdin warriors as they ventured from their mead-hall to attack an English settlement to the south.
Internal warfare seems to have plagued the northern Britons as much as their aggressive neighbors. Of these latter we know the least about the Picts in the north. Picti is Latin for "painted ones," and this derisive term seems to have been used by the Romans to describe a variety of northern tribes. By the sixth century these tribes coalesced into two confederations, the souther and northern Picts. We know little about their early religious beliefs, but Bede describes their conversion to Christianity through the missions of Sts. Ninnian and Columba respectively. Their language has also all but disappeared, though personal and placenames which survive have convinced most scholars that Pictish is related to the Celtic languages. Archaeology, however, is revealing increasingly more details about their habitations and material culture.
The Picts went back and forth in their struggles against the English of Northumbria. But they lost ground most seriously to their Irish neighbors along the southwest coast. Details of this migration, which would ultimately determine the identity of Scotland, still remain murky. Initially several families of "Scots" (Scoti, or Scotti, is the most common Late Latin term for all of the inhabitants of Ireland) left Dál Riata in northeast Ireland and settled the coast of Argyll. These Dalriada Scots, as they are frequently called, settled in three regions, each dominated by a kin-group or cenel, and built impressive fortifications to protect their settlements from their eastern neighbors. Along with the coast of Argyll these Scots also came to dominate the Inner Hebrides, where their Irish kin set up monastic communities like Iona. Westward expansion, however, became impossible in the eighth century, when the first Viking raiders appeared in the Hebrides.
Caught between the English in the south and the Vikings along the coasts, the "Celtic fringe" in Scotland might have been extinguished but for one event in 850. That year a chieftain named Kenneth mac Alpin combined the Scottish and Pictish thrones to become the first king of Scotland. To protect his new kingdom against Viking raids he moved his capital inland to the town of Scone, while St. Columba's relics were moved from Iona to the new religious center at Dunkeld. Since the new king bore an Irish name, Cináed mac Ailpín, the Irish language became the official language of the new kingdom. It would remain a tongue virtually indistinguishable from that spoken in Ireland until about the sixteenth century, dominant in the Highlands and Islands, while Lowland Scots came to use their unique version of the language spoken by their English neighbors.
After Kenneth's death, Scotland suffered heavily from the Viking raids. Iona and the other Scottish Isles were devastated by three centuries of constant attacks, probably from Scandinavians who had settled in the Orkney and Shetland Isles. Norse earls ruled these islands, as well as the Hebrides and various settlements in Sutherland and Caithness, for much of the Middle Ages (the Hebrides were ceded to Scotland in the 13th century, the Orkneys in 1471), and thus Scandinavian influences are still very obvious there. By the eleventh century, however, intermarriage had brought the Norse and Scottish dynasties closer together so that, like in England, Norse rulers could occasionally make legitimate claims to the throne. This is the age of Duncan and his cousin and successor Macbeth. Contrary to the later English chronicles which influenced Shakespeare, Macbeth was not a usurper (his claim to the throne, through the laws of tanistry, was as good as Duncan's), but rather enjoyed a long reign and made religious endowments throughout his kingdom (Grimble 94).
Macbeth did, however, meet the same fate as Duncan: death at the hands of his political rival, Duncan's own son Malcolm. When Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mór, "Great Chief") came to the throne in 1058 (after treacherously killing his other rivals), Scotland was brought much closer to England both culturally and politically. The English kings, reinvigorated by Alfred the Great and his Wessex successors, were starting to devote more attention to the north. Aethelstan harried the Scots as well as the Welsh, and the Scottish king Constantine is said to have submitted to him. Malcolm had been reared in the south, and his protector king Edward the Confessor used Malcolm's claim to the throne as an excuse to intervene in Scottish affairs. Macbeth fought him off for three years, but in the end Malcolm was placed on the throne, and the new king's support came not from the traditional Highland families but rather from the south.
This was reinforced in c.1070 when he took as second wife the English noblewoman Margaret, later St. Margaret. Margaret and her brother Edgar Atheling, then clamiant to the English throne, had fled to Scotland following the Norman invasion of 1066. As Malcolm's queen she used her influence to transfer authority from the old Celtic ecclesiastical centers to Canterbury and York, and her sons would later bring in Anglo-Norman clerks to run the affairs of both church and state. For the first time, English was the language spoken at the Scottish court.
Malcolm and Margaret were under constant threats to their kingdom and their dynasty. In 1072 William the Conqueror pushed north to Abernethy and defeated Malcolm, taking the Scottish king's own son as part of his tribute. Though allowed to stay on the Scottish throne, Malcolm was forced to recognize William as his feudal lord and watched as the new English king began installing Norman barons in southern Scotland. As the south quickly became both feudalized and Anglicized this drove deeper the wedge between the Lowlands and the Highlands.
After both Malcolm's and Margaret's deaths, Gaelic and English factions at court struggled over succession, with the English kings playing their part to keep their vassals in power. In the end Margaret's sons won out over the Gaelic relatives of Malcolm, establishing a pro-English dynasty that would rule until the death in 1290 of another Margaret, the Little Maid of Norway and only surviving grandchild of the Scottish king Alexander III. Once again an English monarch interceded to maintain control over the Scottish dependency. Edward I planted John Balliol on the Scottish throne in 1292 and made him pay homage. A year later Edward revoked his support for King John and tried to hold the Scottish crown as a direct possession. The Scottish response, which has become the basis for many a romantic novel and film, is known as the Scottish War of Independence.
The War was actually a long series of treaties, truces, rebellions, and invasions that ended with a pitched battle at Bannockburn in 1314. Like most feudal wars, where local and dynastic interests are stronger than nationalism, the reality is more complex than romantic (McNamee 1997). With both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, however, older Celtic sentiments were revived in order to drum up support from the Highlanders, the Welsh, and the Irish against their common enemy: the English tyrant-monarchs (Snyder 1996; Snyder forthcoming). Such sentiment, along with stunning Scottish victories at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, did in the end lead to a new kind of Scottish nationalism eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.
With the succession of Robert I, Scottish politics also became truly international. Robert's brother Edward Bruce was for a short time recognized as King of Ireland, and the Bruce's reached out diplomatic hands as far afield as Wales and France. The alliance with the latter, known as the "Auld Alliance," would last for another four hundred years. Bruce's dynasty, however, would come to an end only a generation later. Robert II would be the first king of the Stewart dynasty, that vigorous royal house that would ride Scotland's upturned fortunes all the way to the throne of England in 1604.
The history of the medieval Welsh, then, is really a long continuation of the story of the sub-Roman Britons. By 600, what little political unity the Britons had was shattered by a series of Anglo-Saxon victories. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes the Battle of Dyrham in 577, in which the British towns of Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath fell to the West Saxons, while the Welsh poem Y Gododdin narrates the fall of a British warband trying to retake the fort of Catraeth (Catterick). Althought these are late and difficult sources, the literary evidence coupled with studies of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries points to a Germanic population dominating Lowland Britain in the seventh century, with British settlements scattered and shrinking (Snyder 2003).
We have already seen how the northern Britons fared in their struggle with the English, Picts, and Scots. One large British polity that was better able to weather this storm was the kingdom of Dumnonia. Taking its name from the Iron Age Dumnonii tribe, medieval Dumnonia encompassed the modern counties of Cornwall, Devon, and part of Somerset. South of Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) Roman influence was minimal, for the Romans had little interest in this civitas (and thus built few cities there) apart from its tin mines. The names of Dumnonian kings appear in sources as diverse as inscribed stones, saints' lives, and vernacular poetry. Of these shadowy royal figures two stand out: Cunomorus (or Mark), named on the so-called Tristan Stone, and Gereint (in Latin Gerontius), who appears as a heroic figure in several Welsh poems and a more down-to-earth prince in a letter written by Aldhelm. (It is probable that more than one British king bore the name Gereint.)
There also seems to have been a special connection between Dumnonia and the British settlements in Armorica, for one district of Brittany still bears the name Cornouaille. Dumnonia itself acquired the name Cornwall in the eighth century. Cornwall derives from the Iron Age Cornovii tribe, and Cornouia as "land of the Cornovii" probably dates back to Roman times. Cornwall held out as an independent British state until 930. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Aethelstan of Wessex accepted the submission of Hywel, King of the "West Welsh," in 927, then brought his armies in to conquer it three years later, expelling the loathed Britons of Exeter. It is telling of the fragmentation of the Britons that the Welsh began refering to this land as Cernyw, while the English constructed the compound Corn-Wall, i.e. the land of the Wealh of Corn(ouia) (Thomas 1997, 64). The Cornish language, however, survived up to the eighteenth century (it has since been revived by academics), and a distinctive Cornish culture only receeded with the arrival of the railroad in the nineteenth century.
The strongest survival of British language and culture, however, was in the extreme western portion of Britain. Like Cornwall, much of Wales had been virtually untouched by the Romans. In the mountainous north, only a few coastal forts dotted the landscape, and most of the major population centers--Chester, Wroxeter, Gloucester--were situated on the border. In the south the situation was a bit different, for the topography lent itself to more small towns, roads, and villas. While in the sub-Roman period native monarchy reasserted itself throughout Wales, the south retained a more Romanized character and land ownership remained dictated by Roman estate boundaries (W. Davies 1982). Monasticism was also strong in the south from an early date (e.g. St. David's, Llantwit Major, Llancarfan), and to further add to the area's diversity Irish colonists established themselves there (leaving behind Ogam inscriptions) and contributed the Déisi line of kings in Dyfed.
Throughout the Middle Ages the most determined efforts to resist English expansion were carried out by the northern dynasties of Gwynedd and Powys. Their heroic figures, like Maelgwyn and Cadwallon, issued forth with their warbands from fortresses like Degannwy and Aberffraw. These kings patronized wandering bards and saints, imported fine wine from the Mediterranean, and struck deals with the pagan kings of Mercia. Such deals did not prevent the more than occasional raids into Mercian territory, which necessitated the construction of Wat's Dyke in c.725 and Offa's Dyke in 790. These earthworks were an attempt by the Mercian kings to fix the western boundary of their kingdom in an age of ever-shifting boundaries. That it perpetuated the ethnic distinctions--and hostilities--between Briton and Saxon is shown by a later English law which stated that any Welshman found with a weapon on the English side of Offa's Dyke was to have his "right hand forthwith cut off."
The tactics of the Merican kings were not followed by their Wessex successors. Alfred the Great needed the cooperation of the Britons in Wales and Cornwall during his wars against the Danes, and one theory is that the Welsh monk Asser's biography of Alfred is, in part, propaganda to win over the Welsh princes. It may have worked, for Alfred enjoyed something of an overlordship of all of Wales, with some southern Welsh princes seeking out his patronage. Bringing Asser from St. David's also meant that Alfred respected the learning of the Welsh monasteries and was interested in using it to spark his educational reform in England.
The respect shown to Alfred by the princes of Wales was not extended by his successors. His grandson Aethelstan, who claimed to be ruler of all of Britain, imposed a heavy tax on the Welsh in 929. Welsh resentment culminated in an alliance with the Scots and the Norsemen which was crushed by Aethelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. It was at around this time that an anonymous cleric from southern Wales composed Armes Prydein Vawr ('The Great Prophecy of Britain'), calling on a pan-Celtic alliance (with the Bretons and the Scots joining the Britons) to bring down Aethelstan (Snyder 1996). Such "nationalist" sympathies, though often far from political realities in Wales, can also be found in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum ('The History of the Britons'), attributed (though probably incorrectly) to the monk Nennius. This work provided a foundation myth for Britain--named for the Trojan refugee Brutus--and a distinguished military reputation for Arthur.
One Welsh king who was seemingly on good terms with Aethelstan, witnessing several charters while visiting the English court, was Hywel Dda ('Hywel the Good') of Gwynedd. Hywel's grandfather Rhodri Mawr ('Rhodri the Great') won fame as a warrior defending his lands from early Norse raids, but was equally significant for being the first Welsh ruler to unite several important kingdoms (including Powys) under one crown. Hywel added the southern kingdom of Dyfed to his inheritance, giving him control over every part of Wales except Glamorgan. But he earned his epithet by codifyng years of Welsh customs into the Law of Wales c.930. Welsh law--and, indeed, the vernacular was the language of the law, with Latin adaptations--continued to evolve, however, and much of what we possess in writing comes from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (J. Davies 1993, 88).
Decentralization struck Wales again following the death of Hywel, but strong kings maintained the dominance of three large kingdoms: Gwynedd/Powys, Deheubarth, and Glamorgan. The Vikings took control of the coastal islands, leaving their names for places like Anglesey, Bardsey, and Swansea. Their presence wreaked havoc with the smaller Welsh dynasties, and new rulers rose to power through violence and necessity. This is the picture painted by our chief written source for the period, Brut y Twysogyon ('The Chronicle of the Princes'), a thirteenth-century Welsh continuation of earlier Latin annals. Despite the political and military mayhem, the tenth and eleventh centuries witnessed a robust vernacular culture. Most of the poems which formed the Triads as well as the prose tales of the Mabinogi were composed during this period, and the Welsh Arthurian material in particular was then diffused amongst English and French audiences.
On the Eve of the Norman Conquest of England, Wales was united for the first time under a native ruler, King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. From about 1039 to 1057, Gruffydd brought unity to Wales through war, murder, and inheritance. He was also powerful enough to threaten the lands to the east of Offa's Dyke, then held by the dependants of Edward the Confessor. But in 1063, after several victories over the English, Gruffydd was defeated by Harold Godwinson and then murdered by his own men. When Harold was made king in 1066, his new Queen was none other than Gruffydd's widow, Ealdgyth. During his short reign, Harold passively promoted the political disintegration which soon returned to Wales (J. Davies, 101).
The new sovereign of England after the Battle of Hastings, William of Normandy, took a similar approach to Wales. He didn't simply seize land, as he did in Cumbria, but rather sought to strengthen the Welsh border. To accomplish this he gave lands there to his most hungry and hardy followers, Norman nobles and other continental adventurers. These men, whom history has remembered as the Marcher Lords, were allowed (encouraged?) to enlarge their fiefs by seizing lands across the Welsh border. William's Domesday Book of 1086 shows just how successful these men were in less than a generation, and even the most powerful of the Welsh kings, Rhys ap Tewdwr, was paying an annual tribute to the Conqueror. Rhys's murder in 1093 was marked by English observers as the end of Welsh kingship (J. Davies, 106).
For two centuries, the Marcher Lords and their families extended their power in Wales through war, seizure, and, most importantly, castle-building. They were also joined by lesser nobles, including many English, Bretons, and Flemmish. From such colonial families came Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, a prolific ethnographer who traced the process of Norman colonization in both Britain and Ireland. The ambiguity of his position--born in Wales and aspiring to power in the Welsh church, yet dependant upon Norman and royal patronage--is perhaps typical of many noble men and women in medieval Wales. For while there were still native princes, bards, and a thriving vernacular literary tradition, there were also Norman castles, the Law of the March, and the ever-present threat of a strong Anglo-Norman monarchy.
Such a monarchy, especially under the Plantagenets, kept any hope for Welsh political recovery at bay. This did not prevent the Welsh from aspiring to independence, however. In 1136 a British (whether of Welsh, Breton, or Cornish ancestry is not clear) cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth provided an impressive "national history" for the Britons and their descendants with his Historia Regum Britanniae ('History of the Kings of Britain'). From this point on the political achievements of King Arthur, and the political prophecies of Merlin (including the prediction that Arthur would return to win back Britain for the Britons), strengthened the ambitions of many Welsh princes and clerics (Snyder 2003). Major rebellions occurred in the late twelfth century, under Owain Gwynedd and Rhys ap Gruffydd, and in the early thirteenth century by Llywelyn the Great. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, the issue was seemingly settled by Edward I's brutal and thorough military conquest of Wales.
Llywelyn II, grandson of Llywelyn the Great, refused to do homage to Edward and pay tribute, and war broke out in 1277. Initial English successes were crowned by the Treaty of Conwy, allowing Llywelyn to rule a diminished principality. But dispute between Llywelyn and the Marcher Lords precipitated another revolt, led by Llywelyn's brother David, in 1282 which turned into a war involving the whole of Wales. Allowing the Marcher Lords to take care of the south, Edward made brilliant use of cavalry, archers, and naval forces in the north, and his mostly professional forces trapped Llywelyn in Snowdonia. Llywelyn was killed in battle, and David was executed the following year. Edward consolidated his victory by introducing English law and royal justices in Wales, by building great castles like those at Aberyswyth and Caernarfon, and, in 1301, by crowning his son Edward the first English prince of Wales.
For the next century, Welsh rebellion was more a hushed threat than a dangerous reality for the English monarchy. Edward I had given over much of Wales to the Marcher Lords as he turned his attention to the war in Scotland. But grievences against the Marcher Lords and the king's justices led at least some Welsh nobles to toy with the idea of joining the Scots and the Irish in a pan-Celtic alliance against the English (Snyder 1996). Despite overtures from Robert and Edward Bruce this alliance never materialized, though a century later the idea would resurface during the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dŵr. Glyn Dŵr, better known as Shakespear's "Glendower," was a wealthy Welsh squire descended from Rhodri Mawr who had spent most of his life cooperating with the English authorities. Drawing upon Merlin's prophecy of the Red Dragon (his personal banner during the revolt), the manpower of thousands of angry Welsh tennants, and the support of the powerful Mortimer and Percy famlies, Owain defeated English forces for four years, and had himself crowned Prince of Wales, holding court at the captured Aberystwyth Castle (R. Davies 1995).
The revolt collapsed in 1405, though Glyn Dŵr himself managed to elude English authorities. His end, like his famous forebear Arthur, is shrouded in mystery, and like Arthur he would live on in letter and song as a symbol of Welsh resistence to English rule. If this theme most characterizes medieval Wales, both came to an end with the execution of the rebel Rhys ap Gruffudd in 1531. Ironically, the English monarch responsible for his death bore the Welsh name Tudor (meaning "territorial king"), and his father had established his dynasty by winning a victory in 1485 fighting under the banner of the Welsh dragon. But Henry VIII continued to treat Wales like his predecessor, Edward I, as a principality none too easily brought under the political and cultural dominance of England.
The Armorican peninsula (from the Celtic name Armor, "land facing the sea") had once been part of the larger Gallic world, whose western regions--Gallia Comata--were occupied by a variety of Late Iron Age tribes. The most powerful were the Veneti, with its great fleets, who for years participated in the resistence to Roman expansion. After Caesar defeated the Veneti and subjugated her Gallic neighbors, Armorica became part of the Roman adminstrative province of Lugdunensis and five tributary civitates (city-states, with capitals at cities like Rennes, Vannes, and Nantes) were planted. Amongst the ruling classes in these new cities the process of Romanization was rapid, aided by the Roman roads which soon connected these administrative centers with local ports and the rest of Gaul (Galliou and Jones, 78-87).
Beneath this veneer of prosperous Gallo-Roman aristocrats, however, lay political instability and an increasingly large number of disaffected rural peasants. In the third century Armorican coastal settlements proved vulnerable to North Sea pirates like the Franks and the Saxons now raiding further south through the English Channel. This triggered a series of revolts in Gaul, the most serious of which led to the breakaway Gallic Empire of the Roman general Postumus in 260. Even though this revolt was suppressed by Aurelian in 274 and the Gallic provinces restored to the Empire, bands of rural peasants called the Bacaudae terrorized the Armorican coast before being put down by regular troops. This coastal area, called the Tractus Armoricanus et Nervicanus, became heavly fortified under the reign of Diocletian (284-305), and barbarian military units called laeti were seemingly brought in to bolster the defense of Armorica in the fourth century (Galliou and Jones, 118-124).
But these measures did not bring stability to Armorica. The officer placed in charge of defending both sides of the Channel, Mausaeus Carausius, was rumored to be in collusion with the barbarians, and declared himself emperor in 287, seizing control of the British provinces. More usurpations followed--Magnentius in 350, Magnus Maximus in 382, Constantine III in 407--and all invloved rebel troops in Britain and Gaul, responding to the political instability of the western Roman adminstration and the increasing attacks, by land and sea, of the babarians. In 410, according to Zosimus, the Armoricans and other Gauls followed the example of the Britons by finally expelling the Roman administration, abandoning Roman law and creating their own governments and militias (Nova Historia 6.5). In 417 imperial troops regained control of western Gaul, but the next twenty years witnessed a collapse of the social order capped off by a serious Bacaudae revolt in 435. From this point on, the "Romans" who controled Armorica and protected it from barbarian invaders would bear a different name: Britons.
The transition from Armorica to Brittany, that is the establishment of Britons in the peninsula, remains a little understood process. Gildas was the first to describe the flight of Britons, in the wake of the Saxon invasions, "for lands beyond the seas" (De Excidio 25.1), while Procopius was the first to apply the term Britannia to Armorica (De Bello Gothico 8.20; Thompson 1980). Through placenames and saints' lives it appears that the Britons who fled to Armorica came mostly from Wales and Cornwall, perhaps fleeing from Irish rather than Saxon raids. Then there is the legendary account, found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History as well as the Dream of Macsen Wledig, which describes British soldiers who followed Magnus Maximus to Gaul staying behind, after his death in 388, and founding a kingdom in Brittany (after marrying local women) under Conan Meriadec. Whatever the truth, it was undoubtedly a gradual process, perhaps spanning from the late fourth to the seventh centuries, at the end of which the Brittones merged with the native Armorici to become the Bretons.
Brittany in the fifth and sixth century was, to go by the written record, dominated by warleaders and churchmen. Sidonius Apollinaris, Gregory of Tours, and Jordanes all describe an episode c.470 involving a British leader (Jordanes calls him King of the Britons) named Riothamus who fought the Visigoths in western Gaul at the request of the emperor Anthemius (Snyder 1998, 82-83). Despite his ultimate failure, Riothamus has been equated by some with Gildas' Ambrosius Aurelianus or even Arthur himself (Ashe 1985). Less famous are several British churchmen who are on record attending councils in Gaul in 461 and 567. At the latter council "Britons" are distinguished from "Romans," suggesting that newcomer and native had not yet fused in Brittany (Thompson 1980, 504; Snyder 1998, 68). The "peculiarities" of British churchmen is pointed out in a letter to two Breton priests written by the bishops of Angers, Rennes, and Tours, who express their concern over the Bretons allowing women to help serve the eucharist in door-to-door to door services (Howlett, 66-72). Wandering monastic saints like Samson, founder of the abbey-bishopric of Dol, likely brought over from Britain the distinctively "Celtic" tonsure, penitentials, and method for the dating of Easter.
From the sixth to the eighth centuries Bretons were forced to work out an equilibrium with their more-powerful neighbors, the Franks. The Gallo-Romans found themselves caught between Breton and Frankish expansion, and a sign of their willingness to cooperate with the latter is their Late spoken Latin which the western Franks eventually adopted. Brittany at first isolated itself from such linguistic and cultural influences. It's new villages and administrative districts took the names of migrant British saints and warriors, with most communities evolving from the original church parish or plou (Galliou and Jones, 135-136). This Brittonic-speaking land practiced a mix of arable and pastoral farming, an idyllic (or "quaint" in accord with our modern stereotype of Bretons) picture contrasted with the political chaos of multiple chieftains thrown up by the aristocratic families engaging in vicious feuds with one another and with the Merovingian Franks. Gregory of Tours describes the most colorful of these Bretons, like the estranged brothers Chanao and Macliaw and the dynamic Waroc. Later Breton chieftains, like Judicael (fl.635), became subject to the authority of Merovingian kings, but such arrangements were usually short-lived. Only under the Carolingians did the Bretons suffer from any real loss of political autonomy.
Frankish chronicles speak of raids by aggressive Carolingian rulers seeking plunder in Brittany, often followed by Breton revolts. In 751 Pippin, having seized the monarchy from the Merovingians, moved westward and took the city of Vannes. From that moment on the Carolingians began to construct the March of Brittany in the occupied counties of Rennes, Nantes, and Vannes. The most famous of the Frankish counts sent to control the Breton March was Roland, hero of the later Chanson de Roland. But despite many victories over the Bretons, not even Charlemagne could subjugate Brittany the way Saxony fell to his brutal expansionism. His son, Louis the Pious, acknowledged this failure by making the Breton Nomenoë his missus imperatoris (royal supervisor) in Brittany and sought a peaceful way to bring the Bretons into the Carolingian empire. This also marked the first official recognition of Brittany as a single political unit (Galliou and Jones, 148-51).
As Carolingian power began to grow weak in the west under Louis' son, Charles the Bald, Nomenoë's successors began steadily increasing their powers. His son Erispoë ruled as King of Brittany, though he promised fealty to Charles and remained loyal to the King of the West Franks for the rest of his reign. Such friendly relations were more or less maintained by the usurper Solomon (r.857-74), whom Charles eventually recognized as king. At this time Breton society, and especially the clergy, were coming under the influence of the Carolingian Renaissance. A surge in clerical literacy resulted in the production of many Breton manuscripts, displaying everything from musical notation to brilliant illumination. Many contained the Vitae of Breton saints, but some also contained legal works and charters. Most notable of the latter is the Redon Cartulary, a collection of nearly 300 charters produced at the abbey of Saint-Sauveur de Redon in the ninth century. Herein we can see the workings of local administration in Brittany, including the important role of the machtierns, wealthy local rulers (of the plou) who presided over disputes and collected taxes (W. Davies 1988). Unlike the greater Breton nobles whom they represented, their power was totally local, evolving from the late Roman town councils (Sheringham). There is no true parallel to the machtiern elsewhere in medieval Europe.
A decrease in the power of the machtierns can be traced to growing royal bureaucracies, the advent of vassalage, and the increasingly serious threat of Viking invasions. Aided by riverine access, Vikings began to strike at the Breton interior in 843, when they slaughtered the bishop of Nantes, and continued their assaults for another century. Breton rulers and clerics fled, first inland and eventually overseas. The most famous of these exiles was Alain Barbetorte, count of Cornouaille, who returned to launch a campaign of reconquest in 936. But both Alain and his son, Conan I, and their descendants until 1066, reigned not as kings but rather as duces Britonum. The political chaos caused by the Northmen, powerful enough to threaten the Carolingian dynasty, resulted in the disappearance of the kingdom of Brittany. What took its place was the Duchy of Brittany, a feudal power--filled with castles and knights--of lesser stature which was often dominated by its neighbors Normandy and Anjou.
While Brittany was not one of the more important chess pieces in high medieval politics, it did not languish in total obscurity. Breton learning manifest itself in the person of Peter Abelard, born near Nantes in 1079, the philosopher son of a Breton knight who opened the path for Breton academics to Paris. Breton knights accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066 and their families were rewarded with English lands aplenty. Norman and Angevin nobles became great patrons for Breton bards and minstrels, wandering entertainers whose material--a significant part of the matière de Bretagne ('The Matter of Britain,' i.e. the Arthurian legends)--would inspire court poets like Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes. The Plantagenet monarch Henry II, heir to both Normandy and Anjou, brought Brittany into his control through the arrangement of a marriage between his son Geoffrey and Constance, daughter and heir of Duke Conan IV in 1166. The couple wed in 1181, and Constance gave birth to a son named Arthur, who was seen by many as the Breton hope.
But this Arthur was not to be king, and Brittany was not to gain its independence. After the deaths of Henry II and Richard I (who had briefly made Arthur his heir), Arthur turned for support against King John to Philip Augustus of France, who had shared a great friendship with Arthur's father Geoffrey, and performed homage to the Capetian monarch. In 1203, at the age of sixteen, Arthur, encouraged by Philip, besieged the castle of Eleanor of Aquitaine. John rode to the rescue of his mother, captured Arthur, and murdered the prince. Bretons vented their hatred for the Angevins by joining Philip in his campaigns to capture John's continental possessions. The Duchy of Brittany passed to Arthur's half-sister Alix, but in actuality to the control of the Capetian monarchy. There it would remain, more or less, until the Hundred Years War.
Before the outbreak of the great war between England and France, Brittany suffered a succession crisis which plunged the duchy into a civil war. From 1341 to 1365, noble factions disputed the ducal succession in an interesting precursor to the more famous Valois royal succession. One result of the crisis was that the Valois decision on Brittany drove the failed claimant, Jean de Montfort, into the open arms of Edward III of England, who was looking for an excuse to invade France and make good his own claim to the French succession. Edward himself lead an expedition to Vannes in 1342, and though a treaty was arranged between Edward and the Valois monarch Philip IV, the Breton succession crisis became a permanent part of the continuing struggle between the two great powers (Galliou and Jones, 215-229).
For the course of the great war and beyond, Brittany was the possession of the Montfort dukes. They continued their alliance with England and Burgundy until the Treaty of Arras in 1435, whence they tried to plot a neutral course. But beginning with Louis XI (r.1461-83), the Valois monarchs sought to return Brittany to its former dependency on the French crown. Breton nobles and officials fought bitterly over how to oppose the Valois, while other European potentates came into the picture at the end of the fifteenth century when Brittany seemed about to be left without a male heir and France stood poised to gobble up the duchy. In 1491 the last Montfort duke, François II, died leaving only unmarried daughters. Many of Europe's nobles sought the hand of the eldest daughter and heiress, Anne, and in 1490 the Habsburg emperor Maximilian had wedded her by proxy. But aid sent by both Maximilian and Henry Tudor failed to support her cause against the French. Nantes and Rennes were delivered to the Valois monarch, Charles VIII, and since niether Anne nor Maximilian seemed eager to be united, the Bretons advised ending war with France through a new marriage.
In December 1491 Charles and Anne were married, and the Duchess of Brittany now became the Queen of France. Anne outlived Charles only to be passed along to the next king of France, Louis XII (r.1498-1515). Louis allowed a Breton council to run the daily governing of Brittany, but Anne's daughter Claude turned her ducal rights over to her husband, Francis I (r.1515-47). In 1532 Francis had their son, the dauphin François III, crowned duke of Brittany, confirmation of a formal act of union between France and Brittany. Like it's cousin Wales, Brittany struggled throughout the Middle Ages for political autonomy, but, through a bloodless coup, entered the Modern period as an appendage of a more powerful nation state.
Women have often been seen as the most neglected segment of medieval society. More and more medievalists are studying women and gender roles, and the Celtic fringe has provided both great subjects and great controversies (Peyroux). Wendy Davies has perhaps taken the most comprehensive survey of Celtic women in the early Middle Ages, and placed them in the wider European context (Davies 1983). Lisa Bitel has focused on early medieval Irish women , looking at them in both clerical and lay roles (Bitel 1990; Bitel 1996). Indeed, Irish women seem to be getting the most attention, with published essay collections bringing us the narrow work of specialists but often placing these women in a medieval European context (Ó Corráin; Meek and Simms).
Legal texts have also attracted many scholars of the Celtic-speaking lands. Both the medieval Welsh and the medieval Irish law codes have recieved recent editions and commentaries (Charles-Edwards 1989; Pryce; Kelly). Important comparative studies of these two legal traditions have been conducted by Thomas Charles-Edwards and Robin Chapman Stacy, while David Sellar has studied the less-examined Celtic law codes of Scotland (Charles-Edwards 1993; Stacy; Sellar). Charters are very important for medievalists, as many Anglo-Saxonists can attest, and Wendy Davies has published studies of both the Llandaff Charters, for Wales, and the Redon Cartulary, for Brittany (W. Davies 1978; W. Davies 1988).
Of course there have been many studies of the church and clergy in the Celtic lands, principally because this written and material evidence is often dominant. The popular notion of a "Celtic Church" or "Celtic Christianity," differing in many ways from Roman Catholic practice, has particularly come under attack by academics (Hughes; Sims-Williams; W. Davies 1992). This has not slowed public interest, however, which was heightened by the publication of Thomas Cahill's sensationalistic How the Irish Saved Civilization in 1995.
The use of the term "Celtic" has itself come under attack quite recently, most notably in the works of the anthropologist Malcolm Chapman. Many historians, however, are quite interested in the ways the Celts viewed themselves as well as in their treatment at the hands of the dominant political powers. This ethnographic approach to the medieval Celtic lands is taken in many of the works of Rees Davies, as well as in works by the author of this essay (e.g. R. Davies 1994; Snyder 1996).
Without a doubt, the general public and many students are drawn to the medieval Celtic fringe because of its romantic--or romanticized--figures. Since the film Braveheart appeared in theaters in 1995, many popular works have appeared detailing the careers of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. Dependable accounts of their activities are fewer (e.g. Barrow; McNamee; Scott). Ben Hudson has produced sober and scholarly accounts of the early Scottish kings like Macbeth (Hudson 1994). The Welsh rebel Owain Glyn Dŵr has drawn recent attention and is the subject of two scholarly but accessible works (Henken; R. Davies 1995).
But it is Arthur who continues to draw the most attention, popular and scholarly. There is not sufficient space here to survey all of the recent literature on the historical Arthur. (See Snyder, 2000. For a summary of the evidence on-line see Snyder, "Sub-Roman Britain: An Introduction" and Snyder, "The Age of Arthur: Some Historical and Archaeological Background.") Those who wish to pursue such a quest should read the works of John Morris, Leslie Alcock, and Geoffrey Ashe (Morris; Alcock 1971; Ashe). But, for cautionary remarks, one is better off starting with the essays of David Dumville and Thomas Charles-Edwards (Dumville 1977; Charles-Edwards 1991).
Below is a list of the primary and secondary sources cited in this essay. For a more complete list of sources, see Snyder, "A Bibliography of the Medieval Celtic Fringe."
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