Revised and expanded
The word Lloegr is the modern Welsh name for England, which occurs in the early poetry to describe the territory of the opponents of the Cymry, often called the Lloegrwys ‘inhabitants of Lloegr’. Its use in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which had a considerable influence on subsequent medieval Welsh histories and Arthurian Romances, led to its becoming a semi-legendary realm, the Logris of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Logres of de Troyes’ Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. In spite of it becoming the standard Welsh name for the country of England, the word Lloegr is little understood and for centuries it has carried a considerable amount of political baggage which have clouded its origins. This article aims to discuss the evidence of the origins and use of the word Lloegr and its derivative Lloegrwys in an attempt to gain some clarity on the issues, and perhaps dispel some of the myths which have surrounded this powerful name.
The origins of the name Lloegr are unknown and there can be very little certainty about its derivation. In his History (Book 2, Chap. I), Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that the name came from the legendary character Locrinus, the founder of Lloegr, but this is clearly a fanciful idea. Connection with the OE. tribal name *Ligore, which occurs in Leicester (Legorensis civitas 803, Ligera ceaster 917), is unlikely. Ekwall suggests the word is from an old name for the river Soar, either [Br.] *Legra, or something similar to Gaul. Ligeris (> F. Loire). Neither of the Celtic words would yield W. Lloegr (cf. Br. *wegro- > W. gwair ‘grass, hay’, Br. *tigerno- > W. teyrn ‘king’), nor would a borrowing from the OE. equivalent *Ligor / *Legor, where internal ‹g› was realised as /ɣ/. Leicester appears in the Historia Brittonum as Cair Lerion and is Caerlŷr in modern Welsh. Besides, this word is so localised – and local to the east of England – it’s hard to see how it could be generalised to mean ‘the English’ in both the north and west.
A popular theory is that the word means ‘lost lands’, but this idea is often stated and never explained. It is probably a late folk etymology based on references such as this from the medieval Trioedd Ynys Prydain (Triads of the Isle of Britain): “Thus by the conduct of Gwrtheyrn the Cymry lost their lands and their privileges and their crown in Lloegr”. The word may therefore have come to mean ‘lost lands’ to some Welsh speakers, but it almost certainly did not mean that originally; there seems to be no way in which the word could be derived from known roots meaning ‘lost lands’.
A more scientific explanation was provided by Hamp (1982), who proposed an original PC. *φles-okri-s meaning ‘having a nearby border, living near the border’ (W. ochr ‘side’, OI. ochair ‘edge, border, side’), but there are problems with this etymology on phonetic and semantic grounds. To paraphrase Schrijver: « Br. *es before stressed or unstressed *o apparently did not develop a glide *j; here the *i (< *e before s)is reflected as WCB. i (which normally reflects Br. *ī) ». We would therefore expect PC. *φles-okri-s to become W. **lliogr as PC. *swesores became W. chwior(ydd) ‘sisters’.
More recently, Matasović (2009) has connected the word with OI. *láech ‘warrior; layman, pagan’, which he derives from PC. *laiko- ‘warrior’ (*lāyko- in his rendering), a derivative of a word (PC. *lā-)related to Gk. lāós ‘army, folk’ and Hittite lahh- ‘military campaign’.1 He derives Lloegr from PC. *laikor (his lāykor), a collective meaning ‘warriors’. The phonetics of this are fairly secure – PC. *ai would become W. oe regularly and r-stems generally retain their final -r preceded by an epenthetic vowel (e.g. PC. *awontīr > W. ewythr) – and the semantics are reasonable enough. While this derivation is far from certain, it does represent the only serious possibility for the origins of Lloegrto date.
Welsh Lloegr today means ‘England’ as a whole, but this may not always have been the case. There are apparent discrepancies over the extent of Lloegr, even sometimes within the same source. So what is the truth behind this enigmatic word?
The oldest uses of the term come from the poetry of the Cynfeirdd in the books of Aneirin and Taliesin, such as this from the 10th century Armes Prydain Fawr:
The Awen foretells, the day shall comeArmes Prydain Fawr, 107-110 (Williams and Bromwich (1982), 9).
When the men of Wessex come together in council
In a single pact, of one mind with the incendiarists of Lloegyr,
Hoping to bring shame to our splendid hosts2
Here and in other early poetry such as Y Gododdin and some of the northern praise poetry attributed to Taliesin, Lloegr clearly refers to a geographical region and Lloegrwys to the inhabitants thereof. There can be little doubt that the terms are used to describe the enemies of the British people and their territories, and those enemies are named variously in the same poems as Saeson ‘Saxons’, Eingl ‘Angles’, Allmyn ‘Germans’ and Iwys ‘Wessex men’.
In addition, we have one early reference in the Annales Cambriae for the year 895, which adds little more to our understanding of the word from the poetry:
“The Northmen came and laid waste Lloegr [Loyer] and Brycheiniog and Gwent and Gwynllywiog.”Annales Cambriae
In Geoffrey’s History and Enweu Ynys Brydein Yw Hynn, Lloegr is defined primarily as one of the three divisions of Britain:
“Locrine, that was eldest born, had the midland part of the island, which in later days was called Loegria, after his name. Next, Camber had that part which lieth beyond the river Severn, and is now called Wales, which afterward was for a long time called Cambria, after his name; whence unto this day do the folk of the country call them Cymry in the British tongue. But Albanact, the youngest, had the country which in these days in our tongue is called Scotland, and gave it the name or Albany, after his own.”History of the Kings of Britain, Book II, Chapter 1
The three principal parts of Britain: England, Wales and Scotland.Enweu Ynys Brydein iw hynn (Bromwich (2014), 246)
Elsewhere, Geoffrey treats the area to the north of the Humber as a separate entitity:
“Unto the Metropolitan of York, Deira was subject along with Albany [Scotland], both of which the great river Humber doth divide from Loegria. Unto the Metropolitan of London, Loegria and Cornwall were subject. These two provinces the Severn doth bound from Cambria, that is, Wales, which was subject unto Caerleon, the City of Legions.”History of the Kings of Britain, Book IV, Chapter 19
In the Welsh version of Monmouth’s History attributed to St Tysilio (but written c.1500), there are numerous references to a boundary along the Humber:
“Locrinys, for he was the eldest, took the middle of the island, and this part was called Lloegr, from his name. Kamber got the other part beyond the Severn, and that part is called Kymry; and Albanakdys got from the river Humber to Penrhyn Bladdon, and that [part] is called Scotland, and from his name Alban.”
“But wise men of high degree made peace between [Beli and Bran], and they divided the kingdom in two parts, to wit, Beli was left Lloegr and the crown of the kingdom, and the whole of Kymry and Cornwall also, since he was the eldest son… And to Bran fell all the country north of the Humber, that is, all the North in subordination to his brother.”
“[Owain and Predyr] divided the kingdom between them. To Owain fell the part from the Humber to the west, that is, Lloegr, Kymry, and Cornwall; and Predyr’s part was from the Humber to the north, and all the north.”
“to the Bishop-house of York belonged Deira and Bernicia, and all the north defined by the Humber. And to the Arch Bishop-house of London, Lloegr and Cornwall, as defined by the Severn.”
“And they themselves possessed the whole of Lloegr, under Edelstan, the first man of the Saesson to wear the crown of the kingdom”
We therefore have a Lloegr bound in the west by the river Severn and in the north by the Humber. Given the popularity of Monmouth’s work in medieval Wales, this definition must have been widely understood, but whether it predates him is difficult to know. At the time he was writing in the 1130s the northern border of England was in constant flux and the area north of the Humber, which retained strong historical links with the Lothians and Strathclyde and had a complex cultural mixture of Norse, Danes, Angles and Cumbrians, may well have seemed like a foreign land. It certainly couldn’t be taken for granted that the north was part of England at that time and Monmouth must have been aware of its long history as a somewhat separate entity. So was he merely attempting to reflect this in his (clearly fanciful) history of Britain, or was he repeating a fact already established among the Welsh that Lloegrdid not include the north of England?
We encounter the same complex problem with the Trioedd, which were composed and compiled over centuries; our earliest copies dating from no earlier than the late 13C. Though some may well be based on genuine tradition, it is clear that many were influenced by other sources and some with an obvious nationalistic agenda prove very difficult to interpret, such as this example:
“The three social tribes of the Isle of Britain: The first was the nation of the Cymry… The second was the tribe of Lloegrwys that came from the land of the Gwasgwyn [Gascony], being descended from the primitive nation of the Cymry. The third were the Brython, who came from the land of Armorica, having their descent from the same stock with the Cymry… and these three tribes were descended from the original nation of the Cymry, and were of the same language and speech.”
This clearly can’t be treated as a serious piece of history, but this division between the Britons is intriguing: does this represent a genuine tradition that theterm Lloegrwys originally applied to the British, or is it an anachronistic application of the name in order to emphasise the nature of the English as invaders? If it is the former, who might the Lloegrwys (and the Brython) be?
A Pre-Roman Lloegr?
Tantalisingly, there was a division between the Britons, even before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. In the centuries leading up to the Roman Invasion in ad 43, the people of south-east England had developed close ties through trade and immigration with the Belgic Gauls across the channel. The influence of this contact, seen in the archaeological record and mentioned by Caesar, extended roughly to the Severn and Humber through a transitional region in the Midlands and West County, but never penetrated the more remote areas of the north and west. This ‘Belgicised’ region was the first to fall to Rome and would ultimately become the most heavily Romanised in Britain.
Perhaps, then, the term Lloegrwas originally used to describe the Belgic Britons and was later extended to the area of Romanised Britain? This being roughly the area that then fell to the Anglo-Saxons (the Belgic civitas of Venta became the Saxon capital of Wessex, Winchester), the name could understandably become synonymous with the region they controlled. The Brython of the Triads would be the south-west Britons (Cornish and Devonians), who were outside Romanised Britain but separate from the Cymry, and who had strong contacts with Armorica (Brittany).
As attractive as it may be to see a level of continuity from the Iron Age through to the Middle Ages, this theory of a Lloegr representing the ‘Belgicised’ and then the Romanised Britons is entirely conjectural. The level of Romanisation across Britain is still a matter of debate and the issue is far too complex to enter into here, but it is enough to say that the historical and archaeological evidence point to a rough division between the Romanised lowland zone and the less-Romanised highland zone. There was enough continuity in the highland zone for the pre-Roman culture to emerge relatively intact in the early medieval kingdoms of the 5th and 6th centuries. This being the case, however, there is no contemporary evidence that the Britons of the north and west considered their more Romanised neighbours to be a separate and homogeneous group to the extent that they named them collectively. None of our early British sources make reference to such a disctinction, nor mention Lloegr in such a way.
The whole concept of Lloegr predating the English arrival is taken from the references in the History and the Trioedd stated above, which are both late and clearly fantastic. We know that the term Alban for Scotland post-dates the arrival of the Dálriada (c.6C), since it is borrowed from Old Irish, and we can be fairly certain that Cymry post-dates the Anglo-Saxon horizon (5C), so it would be disingenuous to use these sources as evidence that Lloegrwas used any earlier.
One potential argument for the case that Lloegris an earlier name is the fact that, even in our earliest sources, it appears to be the name of a region and not of a people, since the term Lloegrwys is deemed necessary to describe its inhabitants. If Matasović’s etymology of a collective noun meaning ‘warriors’ is correct (which is not certain), then there must have been time enough between its original application to a people and the date of our earliest sources (potentially 6th-7th century) for the word to take the semantic shift from ‘a people’ to ‘a people; their territory’ to just ‘a territory’. The extension of a word meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a territory’ has exact parallels in W. Cymry: originally ‘the Welsh’ then ‘the Welsh; Wales’, the need to distinguish between these two meanings only arose in modern times when the alternative spelling Cymru was adopted to mean ‘Wales’ exclusively. If words meaning ‘a people’ and ‘a territory’ could be synonymous in the medieval British mind, why would the word Lloegr undergo such an early and complete semantic shift?
Whilst this is an important question to raise, it cannot be used to prove that the word Lloegr pre-dates the Anglo-Saxons or was applied to any other sub-section of the British population besides them. If we accept Matasović’s etymology, the semantic shift can be explained by the fact that, unlike Cymry, there were other words available to the early Welsh to describe the Anglo-Saxons. It is possible to imagine a situation in which the native term Lloegroriginally meant ‘Anglo-Saxons’ then ‘Anglo-Saxons; their territory’, but was narrowed to just ‘their territory’ as borrowed words, primarily Saeson ‘Saxon’, became the preferred ethnonym. It is notable that none of the Brythonic languages appear to have extended the word ‘Saxon’ to mean ‘England’.
So far, we’ve established very little since the nature of the History and the Trioedd makes them unreliable sources. We can at least say, since they are both using Welsh terms, that in the late middle ages the word Lloegrreferred to one of three divisions of Britain along with Albanand Cymry. We have yet to determine whether the term was originally defined as an area between the Humber and the Severn, or if this was a later restriction based on later political boundaries.
Lloegr and the North
It has already been said that some of our earliest sources for the terms Lloegrand Lloegrwys are Y Gododdin and the northern poems of the Book of Taliesin, in particular the Marwnad Owain ab Urien and Urien Yrechwydd. It is generally considered that the core of these works represent poems composed in the north at or around the time of the events they commemorate (late 6th – early 7th centuries) and that they were passed down orally before being written down in Wales centuries later. If this is the case, it suggests that the term Lloegrwas not originally restricted to the south of England and was used generally to refer to the Germanic invaders, at least in the north.
References to Lloegrin relation to the north are not confined to northern sources. The Englynion y Beddau in the 13th Century Black Book of Carmarthen contains the following lines:
ny buum lle llas gwallauc
mab goholheth teithiauc
attwod lloegir mab lleynnac
‘I have not been to the place where Gwallawg was killed
The son of Goholheth the accomplished
The resister of Lloegr, the son of Lleynawg’
This seems to be a reference to Gwallawg ap Lleynawg, one of the Gwŷr y Gogledd who occurs in the northern genealogies. He occurs again in the Black Book as subduing Lloegr at the battle in Gwensteri – perhaps the same as Gwen Ystrad which is one of the battles fought between Urien Rheged and the English, as recorded in the Book of Taliesin. Elsewhere in the Black Book is a reference to Gwen son of Llywarch Hen as ‘he who would attack Lloegr’; the father being a bard of the north and a cousin of Urien Rheged according to the Bonhedd Gwŷr y Gogledd.
The Trioedd, which as we have seen define the northern limit of Lloegr at the Humber, also mention two kings of Northumbria, Edwin and Æthelfrith:
ar dryded etwin vrenhin lloegyr “and the third was Edwin, king of Lloegr”
katwallaʋn pann aeth y weith digoll. a llu kymry gantaʋ. ac etwin or parth arall. a llu loegyr gantaʋ “Cadwallawn when he went to the lossless battle, and the forces of Cymry with him; and Edwin on the other side, and the forces of Lloegr with him.”
“The second was Ysgafnell mab Disgyfedaʋt, who killed Edelfflet (Ffleisaʋr) the king of Lloegr”
Edelfflet is identified elsewhere as Æthelfrith, the first Anglian king to unite Deira and Bernicia under a single ruler.
Finally, there is this from Tysilio’s version of the History:
“Having collected a multitude of people they conquered all Lloegr, as far as York.”
In another section of this History, it is said that Vortigern lost the towns of London, York and Lincoln and was banished from Lloegr. These could be taken to imply that York was in Lloegr.
These few references pose a considerable threat to the concept of Lloegr as a land south of the Humber. If the references in Y Goddodin are genuinely early and of northern origin we are bound to conclude that, in its earliest form, the term was not restricted to the area south of the Humber. At least to the Gwŷr y Gogledd it appears simply to be a synonym for the Anglo-Saxons and their territory. Even if we concede that these particular lines may be later and of Welsh composition, that only goes to show that the Welsh themselves were content to use the words Lloegr and Lloegrwys to describe the Northumbrians, despite having several alternative names (Eingl, Saeson) which would have identified them equally well. Similar usage in the Trioedd and Black Book of Carmarthen seem to bear this proposition out.
It is impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the origins and meaning of the word Lloegr, such is the nature of the evidence and the cultural and political complexities surrounding exonyms. From what has been said, however, we may tentatively suggest the following points:
- The only realistic etymology for Lloegrso far proposed is Matasović’s PC. *Laikor, a collective noun meaning roughly ‘warriors’, but even this is quite uncertain.
- In the earliest sources, the word seems to be generally synonymous with the territory of the Anglo-Saxons.
- There is no certain evidence that Lloegr was an area bound by the Humber and Severn prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth.
- There is no reliable evidence that the name predates the arrival of the English, therefore any question of Lloegr reflecting Romanised or Belgic Britons is pure conjecture.
From this discussion, I would hesitatingly propose the hypothesis that Lloegrwas originally a term to collectively describe the Germanic presence in Britain. If we accept Matasović’s etymology, a word meaning ‘warriors’ would be apt enough from the perspective of the north and west Britons whose relationship with the Anglo-Saxons was primarily based on the battlefield. The name might even have been originally applied to the Germanic foederati of late Roman Britain, who were the nuclei from which the later Anglo-Saxon kingdoms expanded, but this is speculation.
The process by which the term meaning roughly ‘Germans in Britain’ came to refer solely to Anglo-Saxon territory can be explained by the fact that borrowed terms such as Saeson made the original ethnonym obsolete, but did not replace the use of the territorial name. By the late 6th century, which is the very earliest any of our sources can date from, the Anglo-Saxons were already established across the east and south of England and all of their territory was known to the north and west Britons as Lloegr.
The subsequent restriction of Lloegr to a land between the Humber and the Severn, seen in the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Trioedd, is probably best understood as an attempt by Welsh poets or historians to emphasise the special place the Old North and parts of western England had in the history of the Cymry. Most of this Lloegr was ‘lost’ to the Anglo-Saxons in a time which could only be illuminated by legends of Vortigern, Emrys and Arthur, but the poetry of the Cynfeirdd (Wales’ oldest literature) brought to vivid life a time when those in the north and the Welsh Marches were one people with the Cymry. This concept of the Humber-Severn boundary may have grown naturally as part of the tradition of Wales, or it may have been part of a more concerted effort by later medieval writers to make sense of the information they had – a way of synthesising tales of the Old North, of eastern Powys and Ergyng with the situation in their own day. The fact that some sources use Lloegr in both its restricted and its more general sense may suggest the latter is closer to the mark. Whether Geoffrey of Monmouth originated the Humber-Severn restriction or was repeating an established fact, his singular influence on subsequent medieval histories and romances meant the idea stuck and remained up until the modern era.
- Bromwich, R. (2014), Trioedd Ynys Prydain, University of Wales Press.
- Hamp, Eric P. (1982), “‘Lloegr’: the Welsh name for England”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, Vol 4, Winter, 83–85.
- Matasović, R. (2009), Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic, Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV.
- Monmouth, G. History of the Kings of Britain, available at http://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/gem/index.html (accessed Dec 2013)
- Schrijver, P. (1995), Studies in British Celtic Historical Phonology, Amsterdam: Rodolphi.
- Williams, I. and R. Bromwich (1982), Armes Prydain: The Prophecy of Britain, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
1 The word has been derived from L. lāicus ‘lay; layman’ and it is clear that the senses ‘layman’ and ‘pagan’ are borrowed from the Latin. However, the semantic development from ‘layman’ to ‘warrior’ is not an obvious one and today IG. laoch means ‘hero, champion’ only. It is possible that two words of different origins were conflated, or that the sense of ‘layman’ was borrowed by scholars who recognised the connection between L. lāicus and OI. láech. The Latin word was borrowed into British and became W. lleyg ‘lay’, C. leg ‘lay’, B. lik ‘lay’ (via BrL. *lăïcos).
2 This is Ifor Williams’ translation with the phrase ‘Mercian incendiarists’ replaced by ‘incendiarists of Lloegr’. lloscit must be for W. llosgydd ‘arsonist, kindler’ to rhyme with the rest of the stanza.