The Poems of Taliesin
English translations of some of Britain's most ancient poems, with a discussion of the locations and events being described that may shed light on a forgotten history of the north of Britain.
Taliesin was a bard (court poet) who is recorded as having lived in the late 6th century. The majority of his surviving works that can be claimed as authentic, are praise poems to a north British king, Urien of Rheged.
The language in which the poems where originally composed was the early Welsh language dialect of Cumbric, then spoken throughout the north of Britain.
The Old North of Britain (Yr Hen Ogledd)
The term Yr Hen Ogledd (pronounced: 'ur-Hen Ogleth') found in medieval Welsh literature means 'The Old North' and refers to an area of Britain today covering northern England and southern Scotland.
The territory of the Old North once stretched at least as far south as Leeds (Loidis) in Yorkshire and as far north as Edinburgh (Din Eidyn) in Scotland.
In a strict sense, the Old North refers to those parts of this territoy falling within kingdoms whose rulers continued to speak the early Welsh language dialect of Cumbric; this shared language providing the cultural connection between the Old North and medieval Wales.
The historical period of the Old North can be said to extend from the 5th century, following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain, through to the 7th century, and the rise of the English speaking kingdom of Northumbria.
This site aims to explore the history of the Old North of Britain, a history that has largely been forgotten, particularly in the north of England, where much of its drama unfolded. The evidence collected here specifically seeks to demonstrate that locations now in Yorkshire played an important role in the history of the Old North.
Of particular interest is Catterick, now a village on the banks of the river Swale where it is bridged by the A1(M) motorway. The archaeology of Catterick (summarised in Early Anglian Catterick and Catraeth, P R Wilson et al., 1996) indicates occupation during the 6th century, and a combination Anglian (English speaking and pagan) and British (Cumbric speaking and Christian) influences. This appears, at the very least, consistent with the claims made here about the importance of Catterick as a strategic stronghold in the Old North of Britain.
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The Song of Taliesin
The poems of Taliesin were composed as part of a living tradition of oral history: Initially they would have only survived by being learned, memorised and performed by generations of subsequent bards.
In the original Cumbric language the poems would have had a rhyme, rhythm and structure that is not preserved in the English translations, and this would have greatly aided their accurate transmission as oral history.
The poems were later written down, maybe only after many centuries, and thereafter were dutifully copied by Christian scribes. Mistakes in the text suggest that over time the language became so archaic that the scribes no longer fully understood the meaning of what they copied.
The Book of Taliesin
Fifty-six poems attributed to Taliesin are preserved in a 14th Century manuscript called The Book of Taliesin.
Most of the poems have been shown, through analysis of their language, style and historical content, to be compositions of a much later date and simply assigned to the authorship of the prestigious bard Taliesin.
A total of twelve poems can be dated to the 6th century and may be considered the authentic work of the bard himself. These poems purport to be firsthand, eyewitness accounts of events that took place in the north of Britain over 1400 years ago.
Bards in the 6th Century
The activities of bards in this period, and even the style of 'praise poetry' typical of Taliesin's authentic work, is attested to by the 6th century British Cleric Gildas. In De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) Gildas berates the north Welsh king, Maelgwn Gwynedd, "When the attention of thy ears has been caught, it is not the praises of God, in the tuneful voice of Christ's followers, with its sweet rhythm, and the song of church melody, that are heard, but thine own praises (which are nothing);" [italics added].