The Old North or Yr Hen Ogledd

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

After the fall of the Roman Empire, British speech survived in some areas of Britain in the north. These areas are known as the Old North or Yr Hen Ogledd. But could they survive the barbarian raiders that arrived in the fifth century?

Beautiful winter urban landscape
Yr Hen Ogledd was a part of Britain that continued to speak the British language after the fall of the Roman Empire and even after invasion by Germanic-speaking tribes. (Image: Mariia aiiraM/Shutterstock)

Yr Hen Ogledd – or the Old North – was the northern part of Britain that remained British-speaking after the fall of the Roman Empire and even after Germanic-speaking newcomers began to settle in Britain, from the fifth century. Today, the area consists of northern England and southern Scotland. When the Roman Empire left Britain, the north underwent significant changes.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Romans had to fight numerous attacks from the Germanic and the Irish raiders, from different directions. In the 5th century, Britain was left on its own to fight the invaders, since Rome was declining in power. These invasions changed the culture and language of Britain, but they were not as brutal and violent as pictured before.

Archeological evidence shows that the ‘raiders’ assimilated in Britain. The British accepted their language and culture and even began marrying them on a large scale. However, some of the natives moved westwards, where the British speech survived longer. One reason why the west preserved the language longer than the east of the Old North is that the west was geographically protected by Pennine Mountains, running down the center of northern Britain. In the end, Yr Hen Ogledd lost its language and culture to the advancing newcomers.

Learn more about English Invasions of Wales and Ireland.

The British Kingdoms in the North

The language in Yr Hen Ogledd was called Cumbric, derived from Cumbria, and related to the Welsh word for Wales: Cymry. Thus, the people in this area were linguistically and culturally connected. This connection was so strong that preserved stories and genealogies about the Old North to date, in Wales. However, the cultural connection did not bring along political unification, and three different kingdoms ruled in the area.

Each of the British-speaking kingdoms in Yr Hen Ogledd was defeated and conquered by their more potent neighbors: the kingdom of Northumbria, the kingdom of Alba, or Scotland.

Gododdin, the First to Vanish in Yr Hen Ogledd

Gododdin was the area around Edinburgh, whose name comes from Votadini – the tribal name. It was conquered by the Angles in the 7th century, and the new language replaced the native one. Hence, Lowland Scotland turned into an English speaking area forever. The eastern side of northern Britain was easier to access, and the settlements began from there.

The pressure of the army, ancient war scenes,
Gododdin was the first victim of the Angles in the 7th century. (Image: Liu zishan/Shutterstock)

The British kingdom of Rheged

The second northern kingdom to lose its independence was Rhegad. The area was ruled by a brave king called Urien, who fought against the Angles and Northumbria, tried to halt their advance to the west. He lived in the late 6th century, and there were many stories about him, later affected by King Arthur stories. Despite all the brevity, Rheged was conquered by Northumbria in the 8th century.

Strathclyde, the Old Glasgow

Strathclyde was the longest-lasting kingdom of the Old North, located where Glasgow is today. Strathclyde was named after the valley of the River Clyde (‘strath’ means ‘valley’). It was conquered in the 11th century, but not by Northumbria, by the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba. Alba was a united kingdom of the Irish and the Picts. Northumbrians spoke Gaelic; thus, the British language was replaced by Gaelic in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The British remainders held through to the Middle Ages, as Sir William Wallace’s name suggests. ‘Wallace’ was derived from the English word for British speakers, the root of the name ‘Wales’. Later, Gaelic was replaced by English in these areas.

Wallace Monument, Stirling, Scotland - stained glass window
Sir William Wallace, whose name proves the influence of the British until the Middle Ages. (Image: Otter / CC BY-SA)

The Welsh Autonomy

Wales had a different approach and, consequently, a different fate compared to the Yr Hen Ogledd. The Welsh remained autonomous for hundreds of years after the Old North was conquered. They kept close contact with the rest of the North and regarded them as people that they shared common traditions with. Even today, Welsh is still spoken widely, and their culture is well-preserved. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, other tribes could not do as Wales did.

Learn more about Politics and Literature in Wales.

The Fate of Celtic Speech in the North

While Wales kept its culture and language, Yr Hen Ogledd started losing them as early as the 7th century. But there were other areas as well.

Cornwall was another Celtic-speaking nation that lasted longer than the Old North, but not as long as Wales. The political independence of Cornwall was thoroughly lost earlier than the Old North, but their language survived up to the 18th century. One of the biggest massacres of the medieval time forced the Cornish language into fading away. However, as the language survived long enough to see more modern times, now there are revival attempts for Cornish. So Cornish might come back to the scene as well.

Some are trying to revive Cumbric as well, in northern England. The language was spoken there more than a thousand years ago, and the revival efforts might fail, but there is a chance of success as well.

Yr Hen Ogledd died long ago, but maybe some of its languages can come back to life.

Learn more about Celtic Languages in the Ancient World.

Common Questions about Yr Hen Ogledd

Q: Who spoke Cumbric?

The language in Yr Hen Ogledd or the Old North was called Cumbric, derived from the name Cumbria, and related to the Welsh word for Wales, Cymry.

Q: What does Rheged mean?

Rheged was one of the kingdoms of the Old North or Yr Hen Ogledd, that lost its autonomy and language to Northumbria, in the 8th century.

Q: What language was spoken before Old English?

British was an ancient language spoken in Britain. It was the language of the Celtic people known as the Britons. Later it split into different languages, many of which died in the Yr Hen Ogledd or the Old North.

Q: Why is England not Celtic?

Most parts of the Old North, originally called Yr Hen Ogledd, were conquered by Angles and Northumbrians, who spoke the language that later became English.

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