English translation of Gweith Gwen Ystrat by Taliesin, one of Britain's most ancient poems, originally composed in the early Welsh language dialect of Cumbric, then spoken throughout the north of Britain.
The Battle of
A poem by Taliesin
The men of Catraeth arise with the dawn, Around their prince, victorious raider of cattle, Urien is he, in the minstrel's song, The banquet of princes is subject to him, Warlike, he is named the lord of Christendom.
The men of Prydyn advanced in hosts, To Gwen Ystrat, the territory of the fighter of battles. Neither field nor woods afforded, Shelter to aggression when it came.
Like waves loud roaring over the land, I saw impetuous men in hosts, And after the morning battle, mangled flesh.
I saw the throng of three regions dead, A rueful sullen cry was heard, Defending Gwen Ystrat were seen, A low rampart, and dejected tired men.
At the gate of the ford I saw bloodstained men, Laying down their arms before the hoary weirs. They made peace, for they had become weary, With hand on cross on the shingle of Granwynion. The leaders named their hostages. The waves washed the tails of their horses.
I saw men haggard, ragged, And the blood that stained their clothes, And keen intense fighting in the battle. Battle-coverer, they took to flight when they knew. Prince of Rheged, I marvel that he was dared.
I saw a noble band about Urien, When he contended with his foes at Llech Velen. His spears were supplied at need. May the desire of battle come to Urien.
And until I perish in old age, In my death's sore need, I shall not be happy, If I praise not Urien.
English translation by Sir John Morris-Jones M.A., Professor of Welsh, University College of North Wales. Originally published in Y Cymmrodor (vol 28), 1918.
Additional notes on the translation of this poem can be found in Canu Taliesin, by Sir Ifor Williams, 1960 (English language version, The Poems of Taliesin, by J. E. Caerwyn Williams, 1968).
Does The Battle of Gwen Ystrat commemorate a great battle that took place in Wensleydale in North Yorkshire over 1400 years ago?
The Battle of Gwen Ystrat by Taliesin records the victory of the men of Catraeth over the men of Prydyn in the late 6th century.
Catraeth is Catterick in North Yorkshire 1 and Prydyn is Pictland or Scotland. 2 Urien of Rheged is the victorious leader of the men of Catterick.
After a bloody battle the surviving men of Pictland surrender to Urien and agree to give him hostages as a security against future aggression.
The place of the battle, Gwen Ystrat (pronounced 'Gwen uh-Strat'), can be literally translated as 'the white valley', and this suggests the limestone landscape of Wensleydale, a strategically important valley running through the Pennine hills to the west of Catterick; the name Wensleydale likely being an anglicised version of the older Welsh name.
A promising site for the battle would be the village of Bainbridge mid-way through the valley of Wensleydale. A Roman fort is sited here where a Roman road entering from the west end of the valley terminates. Below the fort, where the road crosses the river Bain, there are a series of natural rocky weirs. This fits well with Taliesin's description of the battle site in the translation:
Defending Gwen Ystrat were seen,
a low rampart, and dejected tired men.
At the gate of the ford I saw bloodstained men, Laying down their arms before the hoary weirs.
1. "Catterick in Yorkshire preserves the same place-name as that which is represented by the Welsh form Catraeth, but the citadel or fort which bore the original name is best sited on the hill where Richmond Castle now stands, i.e. above the cataract on the River Swale which gave the name."
Sir Ifor Williams. The Poems of Taliesin, 1968 p xxxvii.
2. "Prydyn. - This is the Welsh phonetic equivalent of the Irish Cruithni 'Picts'. It means 'Picts' and 'Pictland', as Cymry means 'Welshmen' and 'Wales', and as Ffrainc means 'Frenchmen' and 'France'. Naturally, Prydyn is often used more loosely for Scotland; it occurs, as we have seen, as a synonym of y Gogledd [the north], and is often mis-written Prydein."
Sir John Morris-Jones. Taliesin, 1918 p 62.