This is the Eighteenth-part of our discussion of Britain in the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”; the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain.
In the previous chapter we examined Nennius’ tenth of Arthur's battles, that at "the River Tribruit". We built a case for that battle to have been fought on the River Forth, eight miles above Stirling; "Gateway to the Highlands" and site of William Wallace's famous victory over the English. Arthur, called north by his brother-in-law, King Lot; threatened by a band of outlaws called the cinbin. “Cinbin” (or Cynbin) translates as “dog-heads”. They are led by a savage character named Garwlwyd (possibly synonymous with the figure known as Gwrgi Garwlwyd in the Welsh Triads).
From their lair along the marches between the British Kingdom of Gododdin and the Pictish Highlands, the Dog Heads raid into Gododdin, carrying off plunder and prisoners; two of which (a boy and girl) they supposedly eat daily!
Making common cause with an Angle pirate chief named Edlfled, the Dog Heads plan to converge upon and capture Din Eidyn from land and sea.
As recounted in the previous chapter, Arthur and his 300 mounted Cymbrogi rush north from Cornwall, a distance of approximately 515 miles; and arrive in 10 days at Dùn Èideann. Joining with Lot’s forces, they move against Garwlwyd, camped at the crossing of the Forth at Tribruit (the Fords of Frew). In the resulting Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd the Dog Heads are destroyed; though Garwlwyd may have escaped (to be later assassinated).
Meanwhile, unaware of Garwlwyd’s defeat, his Angle ally Edlfled has landed near Din Eidyn, some 46 miles to the southeast.
THE HILL OF AGNED
Nennius states that the 11th of Arthur’s battles was at a place called “the hill of Agned”. Many scholars agree with the often-fanciful Geoffrey of Monmouth that this was at or near Edinburgh.
Like Rome, Edinburgh is built on seven rocky, volcanic hills. Three of these, Castle Rock (upon which the Gododdin fortress of Din Eidyn is thought to have sat), Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat are in the center of the modern city. The four other hills, Corstorphine Hill, Blackford Hill, Braid Hill and Wester Craiglockhart are a bit further out. Any of these, admittedly, could have been named “Agned” in the early Dark Ages.
However, Arthur’s Seat must have had another name before the life of Arthur. Could it have been called Agned?
It is a logical place for an attacking force of Angles, landing on the nearby coast as part of a concerted strategy to take Lot's fortress of Din Eidyn, to make camp. This rocky, defensible hill so close to their target (Castle Rock/Din Eidyn) would have made an ideal place to hold up while they awaited their allies arrival.
With the Hill of Agned tentatively identified as Arthur’s Seat, and the enemy Arthur faced there being a force of Angles, allied to Garwlwyd; we must consider next the question of who could this “Edlfled” have been?
As stated in the previous chapter, some scholars have attempted to identify the Edlfled of the Triads with Æthelfrith of Bernicia. This Angle ruler was the first to unite both of the northern Angle kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira under one crown; and in doing so founded the embryonic Kingdom of Northumbria. However, these Angle kingdoms in the north were established in the later 6th century; and Æthelfrith ruled from the end of the 6th century through the first half of the 7th century. As such, he is too late to have faced Arthur, and cannot be synonymous with the Edlfled we are discussing.
It must be born in mind that the Triads and other Welsh sources are suspect in many cases; sometimes conflating events separated by as much as a century. It is entirely possible that even if the events described by Nennius, and in the Triads and the Pa Gur relate to the same historical event (the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd); the accounts may have become confused with later events. They may have brought Æthelfrith of Bernicia/Northumbria into the events that took place during the Age of Arthur. Similarly, there is no certainty that the Garwlwyd referred to in the Pa Gur is the same man as the Gwrgi Garwlwyd of the Triads.
These doubts put aside for the moment, if there was a Bernician-Angle leader named Edlfled/Æthelfrith who fought Arthur at the Hill of Agned, he cannot have been the founder of Northumbria.
What is more likely is that this character was an otherwise unknown "Viking"* leader; then raiding the Lothian coast. This Edlfled was likely an Anglish pirate making common cause with fellow outlaws (the Dog Heads) to prey upon Gododdin.
It should not be ignored, either, that the form of the name, Edlfled, if spelled as Æthelflæd (a more faithful rendering) is the feminine form of this name. Anglo-Saxon nobility bore family names; which were applicable to both the male and female members. To designate gender, a masculine or feminine suffix was applied: such as “fled/flæd” or “wynn”, in cases of females; while “frith”, “red” or “wulf” were added to denote males. Thus Æthelfrith, Æthelred, Æthelwulf for a male; and Æthelflæd or Æthelwynn for a female (to cite a few examples from the royal family of Dark Ages Wessex). Clearly, the Cumbric-Welsh rendering of this Angle leader’s name is the feminine form.
Could Edlfled have been a woman?
Scandinavian/Germanic culture allowed for women who took up arms to fight beside men as warriors. “Shieldmaidens” (skjaldmær in Old Norse; Schildmaid in German) are referenced in later Scandinavian Sagas; many of which chronicle events of about or near this period (both Beowulf and Hrolf Kraki are roughly contemporary with Arthur). Two of the most famous of these legendary/archetypal warrior maidens include Brynhild in the Volsunga saga, and Hervor in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks ("The Saga of Hervar and Heidrek").
Three hundred shieldmaidens are said to have fought in the semi-legendary Battle of Bråvalla in East Götaland about 750AD; one of whom bore the Danish banner. The Byzantine historian Skylitzes records armed women among the defeated Varangian-Rus warriors at the Battle of Dorostolon in 971.
It is therefore not beyond the realm of possibility for such a force of Angle "Vikings" to have been led by a “skjaldmær”.
Whoever the mysterious Edlfled was, it was at his/her hall (Germanic chieftains did not maintain palaces; but instead had their centers of power in long halls, where they entertained visitors and feasted their household warriors) that Gwrgi Garwlwyd, leader of the outlaw “Dog Heads”, acquired his alleged taste for human meat:
“…who after tasting human flesh in the court of Edlfled the Saxon** king, became so fond of it that he would eat no other but human flesh ever after.”Cannibalism was never an accepted practice in either Scandinavia or the British Isles. However, it is of course possible that such a fringe group of renegades and outlaws may have practiced ritual cannibalism; perhaps to create a savage reputation and as a way of intimidating their enemies. Cannibalism is also a way of bonding a group together in such a way as to forever set them outside of the bounds of normal society. Any or all of these reasons may account for both the Dog Heads and Edlfled’s band of Vikings taking up this abominable practice.
Two days following the Battle of Tribruit/Tryfrwyd, Edlfled and her band are camped atop Agned Hill, unaware that their ally has been defeated and his warband is no more. Expecting Garwlwyd’s imminent arrival, it is must have been with astonishment that Edlfled and her Angle pirates see Arthur and Lot’s victorious forces arrive below them; Arthur’s dragon standard waiving in the northern breeze!
The Britons assault the hill; numbers and high morale making up for the disadvantage of terrain. The Angles put up a fierce and desperate resistance. But in warfare the impact of morale is decisive (Napoleon observing that “in war the morale is to the physical as two-to-one”; i.e., morale factors are twice as important as all mere “physical” factors ). This unexpected turn of events likely drained the pirates of their courage. In the battle of shieldwalls, the rot begins with the back ranks slipping away. A trickle of the cowardly soon becomes a flood, as the Angle line breaks in panic. Men (and women?) run for the safety of their ships, moored in the estuary; the blood-hungry Britons close on their heels!
The battle won and the north once again secure, Arthur and his Cymbrogi feast with Lot and his Gododdin warriors that night. The following day, atop Agned’s heights, Arthur gives judgment to the captured; both “Dog Heads” and Angles. Perhaps among them was the fearsome “shieldmaiden” leader, Edlfled.
Here where Arthur sat in judgment, and the hill will forever after be remembered as “Arthur’s Seat”.
The fate of captured outlaws and pirates then, as now, was bleak. The usual and sundry atrocities aside, their crimes include cannibalism and the daily, ritual killing of a British boy and girl. They neither expect nor receive any mercy. Arthur condemns them all to death beneath a headsman’s ax.
The crisis in Gododdin is ended. But a far greater threat to the British kingdoms is looming in the south.
* In this context, the term “Viking” is used in the sense that it was in ancient Scandinavia: a pirate/outlaw crew; not subject to any recognized king or authority. In the early Dark Ages Scandinavia, such outlaws preyed upon settlements and shipping there as elsewhere; and were eventually put down by the emerging authority of jarls and kings.
** Though referred to here as a "Saxon", it should be remembered that the Romans and their Romano-British and later Welsh successor referred to all the various Scandinavian and German raiders of Britain as "Saxons" (Saxones and Sassenach, respectively).