He charged before three hundred of the finest,
He cut down both centre and wing,
He excelled in the forefront of the noblest host,
He gave gifts of horses from the herd in winter.
He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
Though he was no Arthur.
- Aneirin, Y Gododdin
“…let us make an end of our own choosing. Let us make one last charge against the Saxons, where their spear-wall is thickest, and where to judge by their horse-tail standard, Aethelfrith himself should have his battle-stand. We shall not break through; it is not for that we make our charge. We shall go down. But we shall take with us such a harvest of the Saxon kind that it shall be long and long before their war hordes can gather full strength again.” –Rosemary Sutcliff, The Shining Company
Y Gododdin is the earliest known British poem. Although incomplete, passed down and altered through the centuries, it describes the raising of a British warband of 300 mighty warriors around the year 600 AD. The warriors swear oaths to their lord, Mynyddog Mwynfawr of Eidyn (Edinburgh) and ride to their deaths at the Battle of Catraeth (thought to be Catterick in Yorkshire) at the hands of 100,000 Saxons. It features the earliest reference to (‘King’) Arthur, and also describes, by name and deed, 80 of the heroes who were present. It is a vital reference, if a poetic one, for how a warband of the era was equipped and expected to behave on the battlefield. It is both a praise poem for the warriors’ deeds, and a doom-laden elegy for the fallen.
A few years ago, some crazy fools decided to have a go at wargaming it.
This was probably the biggest game I have ever run. We used Hail Caesar rules and there is a full report and scenario in Wargames Illustrated #300, which can be found in The Vault at WI here: https://www.wargamesillustrated.net/wi-300-october-2012/
Suffice to say that the poem’s story was repeated and the Britons lost, but a good time was had by all…
Although Y Gododdin contains what appears to be a wealth of military detail, it is unclear what actually happened at the Battle of Catraeth. Parts of the poem describe cavalry combat, others appear to refer to infantry battle, and there are even references to fighting in fortifications (the famous line: He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress/ Though he was no Arthur.) There are many varying interpretations, and for the sake of our game I’ve followed the narrative suggested by Rosemary Sutcliff in her novel The Shining Company.
In brief, King Mynyddog Mwynfawr of Gododdin has raised a company of 300 noble horsemen at his fortress in Eidin (Edinburgh.) He has feasted them, trained them and given them mead for a year, after which they are sent to Catraeth (Catterick in Yorkshire) to combat the growing Saxon threat of the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. Despite successfully taking Catraeth in a sharp fight, the company fails to kill the ambitious King Aethelfrith of Bernicia (soon to unit both kingdoms as Northumbria), who returns with an innumerable Saxon horde. Besieged inside the old fortress, the companions mount bold raids on the Saxons while awaiting assistance from the surrounding British kingdoms. But help does not come, and eventually the survivors of the company decide to ride out to a noble and glorious death rather than die trapped inside the fort.
Sutcliff’s version, despite a few jarring anachronisms (notably horsemen wearing mail coifs and Saxons housecarls fighting with dane-axes) manages to string together a coherent narrative that explains away the references to different combats, and concludes with a doomed cavalry charge from which only but a handful escape, as described in the poem.
As the game starts, the day has just dawned, and the Saxons have awoken to find the besieged Britons filing out of the fort and making a battle line facing their camp. The Britons are riding to die a glorious death, and will compete with each other to fight heroically and be recorded in song by Aneirin or one of the other bards present. Winning the battle seems impossible, but some heroes may succeed in breaking through the Saxon line and escaping to carry their news to the court of Mynyyddog – but only if they have amassed sufficient glory by then.
The Saxon camp is cunningly deployed between a wood and a river, so any attack by the Britons will be funnelled into the front line of shields. Although the Saxons have a huge advantage in men and spears, the kings and lords present are rivals for the future throne of Northumbria and are keen to compete with one another to fight bravely and take down as many Britons as possible.
If you want to see some better, more in-focus pictures, I can do no better than suggest you have a look at Tom’s blog: http://tomstoysoldiers.blogspot.com/2012/09/y-gododdin-wargames-illustrated-version.html
We also played the game again at Partizan, which is covered here: http://tomstoysoldiers.blogspot.com/2012/09/y-gododdin-at-partizan.html