Chances are good that unless you’ve studied Celtic history, you’ve never heard of the Votadini. I hadn’t either, until I began my research. They are one of the four tribes of living in what is today southern Scotland, but was in Arthur’s time (approximately 450-550 AD) the northern part of Britain. The area is most easily defined as between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall, or from the Firth of Forth to the Solway Firth. The Votadini’s land was in the southeastern section of this area. Other tribes between the walls included Damnonii, Selgovae and Novantae.
The Votadini, or Gododdin people, are best known from a 13th century manuscript of an earlier poem called Y Gododdin, which describes a battle fought at Catterick in Yorkshire in the late sixth century. In this poem, a group of British from the Gododdin, estimated at upwards of 2,000 footmen and cavalrymen set out from Din Eidyn (Endinburgh) to attack the walled palace of Catrarth, which was held by the Angles. They were defeated, but their heroism was remembered in song, including one of the first known references to the man who is believed to be King Arthur: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.”
The daily life of the Votadini is a mystery. They were Britons somewhere between Pictish and Roman, and some sources say they were allied with the Romans, but allowed to keep their independence. According to Philip Coppen, the Votadini worshiped the god Llew and held Traprian Law as their capital. (For those who know Arthurian legend, that is the home of the fearsome King Lot.)
At some point around the time of Arthur, the Votadini were granted safe haven in the kingdom of Gwynedd (modern northern Wales).The Votadini provided formidable defense against the Irish in exchange for new lands on which to settle. Phillips and Keatman suggest this happened at the insistence of Ambrosius after the withdrawal of Rome, but don’t explain why.
This is only a brief introduction to the Votadini and other tribes of the area. I will probably do a longer series on these intriguing people once I’ve had the chance to read Tim Clarkson’s insightful books on the subject. (I own two, I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. It’s a shame research takes so long.) The reason I’m even bringing them up at all is that the Votadini are the ancestors several of my main characters (you’ll have to read the books to find out who) and the majority of book 3 will take place in the Gododdin.
Have you heard of the Votadini or their homeland of the Gododdin? Do you have additional details or sources to share? I’d love to hear from you!
Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests by Leslie Alcock
Land of the Gods by Philip Coppen
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman
Post updated August 4. 2013 to rectify errors in previous source material.