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The English invasion of Strathclyde - Early medieval Scotland


Dr Tim Clarkson tells the story of a turbulent and fascinating period in the history of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde, a region which retained its independence from Scotland until as late as the eleventh century.

In 945AD, the English king Edmund launched a major assault on Strathclyde, the last realm of the Cumbri or North Britons. Marching north with a large army, he invaded the kingdom and plundered its heartlands. Among his troops were West Saxons from his own domains in south-west England, Mercians from the English midlands and allies from Wales. The devastation wrought by these soldiers was reported by a contemporary Welsh chronicler: ‘Strathclyde was ravaged by the Saxons’.

King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde, whom the English called ‘Dunmail’, tried to defend his land but his forces were overwhelmed. Eight years earlier, his father Owain had stood side-by-side with Constantin, king of Scots, and Anlaf Guthfrithsson, Viking ruler of Dublin, in the great battle of Brunanburh.

These three allies had sought to halt the ambitions of Edmund’s elder brother Athelstan, but their attempt had failed and they had fled the battlefield. Unlike his father, Dyfnwal could hope for no aid from the Scots, who in 945 were ruled by Constantin’s successor Máel Coluim (‘Malcolm’).

When Edmund’s forces invaded Strathclyde, Máel Coluim stood on the sidelines. It seems that he had already struck a deal with Edmund, exchanging Scottish neutrality for the promise of a substantial reward. A West Saxon chronicler, writing not long afterwards, described the terms of the agreement:

King Edmund harried all of Cumbra Land and let it to Máel Coluim, king of the Scots, on condition that he should be his co-worker on both land and sea.


‘Cumbra Land’, an Old English name meaning ‘land of the Cumbri’, was sometimes Latinised by chroniclers as terra Cumbrorum or Cumbria. It was used as an umbrella term for the entire realm of the kings of Strathclyde, an extensive area stretching from Loch Lomond in the north to Penrith in the south. The name has survived into modern times as Cumberland, the name of an English county that was once Strathclyde’s southernmost province.

One gruesome aspect of the campaign of 945 was the mutilation of two of Dyfnwal’s sons, who were blinded by English soldiers while being held in captivity.

This savage deed may have been undertaken to persuade their father to surrender, or to humiliate him when he did.

Eventually, after thoroughly plundering Strathclyde, Edmund led his army back to southern England. Dyfnwal, although defeated, was allowed to retain his kingship, but he would have been forced to swear allegiance and offer tribute. With little hope of keeping an eye on such a faraway land, Edmund ‘let’ it to Máel Coluim, thereby granting the Scottish king a caretaking role. This would have diverted tribute-payments, in the form of livestock and crops, from Edmund’s royal treasury to Máel Coluim’s.

The West Saxon chronicler states that Máel Coluim became Edmund’s ‘co-worker on both land and sea’. What this actually meant in practical terms is explained in a later English text which says that Edmund gave Strathclyde to Máel Coluim ‘to hold of him, that he might defend the northern parts of England against raiders by land and by sea’. The raiders in question were the Vikings, whose activities posed a constant threat to English lands throughout the tenth century.

Edmund was killed in 946, in his own land of Wessex, at the young age of 25. Dyfnwal outlived him by nearly thirty years, dying while on pilgrimage to Rome. An old legend from the Lake District claims that Dunmail ‘last king of Cumberland’ was slain in a great battle against the English in 945.

He is supposedly buried beneath a cairn known as Dunmail Raise (pictured left) which stands in a high pass between Grasmere and Thirlmere. The legend is plainly a garbled account of the struggle between Dyfnwal of Strathclyde and Edmund of Wessex, with the action localised to the southern frontier of Dyfnwal’s kingdom.

In reality, the historical ‘King Dunmail’ was not the last ruler of the lands of the Cumbri. His kingdom survived the devastation of 945 and continued to be ruled by his successors into the new millennium. It managed to retain its independence until the middle of the eleventh century, when its Clydesdale heartlands finally fell to the Scots.


Tim Clarkson’s book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age was published in October by John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn. The book traces the history of relations between the kingdom of Strathclyde and Anglo-Saxon England in the Viking period of the ninth to eleventh centuries AD. It puts the spotlight on the North Britons or ‘Cumbrians’, an ancient people whose kings ruled from a power-base at Govan on the western side of present-day Glasgow.

{Images from top: Interlace patterns on the shaft of the tenth-century Arthurlie Cross at Barrhead (drawn by JR Allen, 1903); The Govan Sarcophagus, a monument from the kingdom of Strathclyde (© B Keeling); Dunmail Raise, Cumbria (© D McIlmoyle)}




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