The famous early medieval recumbent monuments or 'hogbacks' at Govan. These are a common monument in Northern England and Southern Scotland in the Early medieval period. There are a large number from Govan and Cumbria in particular. (Photograph: Adam Parsons)
Birth of a Kingdom
The origins of the Kingdom of Strathclyde are unclear, but can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of Alt Clut (now known as Dumbarton Rock) as a Post-Roman power-base. Excavations at Dumbarton in the 1970s indicated that it was an important site, but little is known of its kings aside from a few references in historical sources, such as the Irish Annals, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and Saints Lives.
In the middle of the eighth century the Alt Clut came into conflict with their eastern neighbours; the Picts and Northumbrians; the Alt Clut Britons defeating a Pictish army at Mugdock in AD 750, whilst the Northumbrians annexed much of modern Ayrshire. Six years later the Britons were forced to submit to a Picto-Northumbrian alliance. At this time we find our first possible reference to Govan, to become the later focus of power, in its Latinised form Ovania.
For the next century the kingdom seems to have been restricted to the Clyde Valley, but things were to change quite dramatically. In 870 the Great Army, which had been ravaging the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the south, arrived on the Clyde under the command of an Ivarr (possibly Ivarr the Boneless) and Olaf (Ímar and Amlaíb). After a four-month siege of the seemingly impregnable fortress at Dumbarton, unusual in the early medieval period, Alt Clut surrendered and its king, Artgal, was taken to Dublin (along with Britonic, Northumbrian and Pictish slaves) where he was slain a year later, perhaps at the instigation of the Pictish King Constantín son of Cinaed.
Growth and Expansion
What went on at the end of the ninth and early tenth century is not recorded, but seems to have been significant, as Govan emerges as the main political centre of the kingdom. Historians differ on how to interpret the following years, but some argue that a King Dyfnwal may have extended the Kingdom of Strathclyde’s control in the tenth century as far south as Penrith, Cumbria, in modern day northern England. It may have been even larger, with them perhaps controlling land in Copeland (old Norse Kaupa-land; bought land) in modern south west Cumbria, but other historians disagree and see the Brittonic revival of this part of Northern England as more internal and organic, perhaps due to the increased influence of the Kingdom of Strathclyde to the north. Either way, the Kingdom seems to have rose back to prominence, and exerted larger influence that before, joining a three-day non-aggression pact with Æðelflæd of Mercia and the Pictish King, Constantín son of Aed. It was around this time that Strathclyde's identity began to change, with a mixed population of Britons, Northumbrians, Scandinavians, and probable Gaelic speakers, and the term Cumbraland (land of the citizens) became more prominent. Scandinavian influence on the kingdom and region seems to have been strong, particularly in Cumbria where a large number of Pagan inhumation burials dated to the early tenth century have been discovered.
When Æðelflæd Lady of the Mercians died in 918 the political climate changed once again. King Æðelstæn of Wessex annexed Mercia on his aunt’s death, bringing his Kingdom into direct contact with the Northern Kingdoms for the first time. Constantín King of the Scots, and King Dyfnwal’s son Owaine submitted to Æðelstæn at Eamont in modern day Cumbria in 927, however, their relationship with the Wessex King was an uneasy one and Æðelstæn launched an assault of the north in 934, his navy ranging as far as Caithness. If he thought his domination of the British Isles was complete, he was mistaken. In 937 King Constantín and Olafr of Dublin brought armies south and fought King Æðelstæns army at the Battle of Brunanburh. It is not certain where this battle took place (though Bromborough on the Wirral is a likely candidate), nor is it clear if Owaine and the Cumbrians were present, but it would seem likely given the regional concern of the conflict. The battle was won by King Æðelstæn and his Welsh Allies, in what was known for generations after as The Great Battle.
Over the following decades, references to Cumbraland and its kings remain sparse and obscure. Its continued importance is, however, hinted at by entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Annals of Ulster, which record Eadmund of Wessex’s ravaging the Kingdom in 945, and King Cuilén of Alba’s death at the hands of the Britons in 971 respectively.
By the late 10th century, the balance of power was shifting once more. Uhtred the Earl of Bamburgh had raided Westmorland in modern day south Cumbria in 966, and he also named ones of his sons Gospatric, a Brittonic name honoring St Patrick, a saint revered in Cumbraland. Some historians think this may be an instance of predatory naming; showing Uhtreds desire to acquire control of the land to the west of his terrritory, and certainly Strathclyde or Cumbraland seems to have been under increasing pressure in the later tenth and eleventh centuries. Earl Uhtred was loyal to King Aethelred of England, and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (C, D, and E recensions) records Aethelred himself launching an attack against Cumbria and the Isle of Man in 1000 AD. By this time, the kingdom must have been feeling under pressure from these external forces, when the dynasty of Wessex was temporarily supplanted by the Viking Dynasty of Swein Forkbeard in 1013, and his son and successor Cnut in 1016. During this period Mael Coluim King of Alba and his ally Owaine the Bald of Cumbraland fought Uhtred of Bamburgh and defeated him in battle at Carham in Northumberland in 1018. The source for the battle of Carham refers to Owaine and his troops as 'Clutensis' or Clydefolk, which may suggest that, however large the territory had grown, that by this period it may have been refocussing on its Strathclyde core again. This is the last reference by name to a King of Cumbraland in historical sources, and he may have been killed in the battle itself. However, the kingdom seems to have endured under its own dynasty, and was ravaged again in 1038 by Eadwulf, the latest Earl of the Northumbrians. In 1070 the kingdom was annexed by the current King of Alba, the long-lived Mael Coluim Canmore. Mael Coluim’s youngest son, David ruled as Prince of the Cumbrians from 1113 and King of Alba from 1124, and it is ironic that under him Cumbraland reached its greatest extent, covering most of Central and Southern Scotland, as well as most of Northern England. On David’s death at Carlisle in 1153, Medieval England and Scotland were beginning to take shape, and the last Kingdom of the Britons in the north became a distant memory, preserved in the regional authorities of Strathclyde in Scotland and Cumberland in England.
Authorial Note and Further Reading
The above is our own sketchy attempt at a quick narrative on the kingdom, and has inevitably glossed over, or simplified, many complex arguments and interpretations of evidence. Indeed, it is this complexity that is perhaps the reason that the kingdom of Strathclyde is not better known. It is inevitably based heavily on the work of several notable scholars of the period, though we have omitted references and a bibliography for ease of general reading. We would however recommend the following for further reading on the Kingdom, period, and region which we used copiously to compile the above, and where you will find a longer, more detailed, and nuanced view.
Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the viking age, by Tim Clarkson, 2014 published by Birlinn Limited
The expansion of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, 2015, by Fiona Edmonds, in Early Medieval Europe 02/2015, p43-88
The emergence and transformation of medieval Cumbria, 2014 by Fiona Edmonds, in Scottish Historical Review 93, p195-216
The Battle of Carham: a thousand years on, 2018, edited by Neil McGuigan and Alex Woolf, published by Birlinn Limited, particularly Chapter 4: The Western Perspective, by Fiona Edmonds.
From Pictland to Alba, 2007 by Alex Woolf, published by Edinburgh University Press
Vikings of the Irish Sea, 2010 by David Griffiths, published by The History Press
Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland: The Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014, 2007 by Clare Downham, Dunedin Academic Press
We are also very gratefull to Dr Fiona Edmonds for sharing some of her thoughts and discussion on the subject, and advice on the group name. Any mangling of this advice, and the above sources is entirely our own.