Tag Archives: Bede

All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Eight

These blogs are going through a rethink and rework as of 09.12.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.

UPDATED 3.1.12


So, here are my questions with my answers, which, I’m sure will differ from others:

Q: Is it possible that the Battle of Mount Badon caused a two or more generational peace?

A: It’s always possible, but my reading of the (meagre) evidence would suggest improbable. It could have started it, but there would have to be other factors that kept it going or created it in eastern regions if it was in the south.

Q: Would eastern warriors from the Humber to the Solent have fought at Badon?

A: Again, it’s possible, but it would take special pleading as to why? Ælle is always a possible reason, but there’s neither absolute proof of his floruit or that he was Bretwalda of the Humber to the Solent, we only have Bede’s word on that. A more likely answer would be that he was Bretwalda of the ‘Southern Saxons’, maybe including Kent and even Essex who had close ties with them.

Q: What circumstance might cause an extended peace that would stop the descendants of those ‘Anglo-Saxons’ killed at Badon and other battles wanting revenge or just (re)gaining territory?

A: There are several reasons, none of which can be proven of course, but here are some of my suggestions … some more tentative than others:

  1. The Britons won back significant territory, which included lines of communication. This made it difficult for later confederacies to grow. Any small uprisings or raids could be quashed. This theoretical territory gained may explain why Gildas comments that even though they had won the ‘war’, cities were still in ruin. These would be cities retaken, but, much to Gildas’ disgust, not rebuilt or refurbished. (He obviously wasn’t an accountant!) It doesn’t make sense that just the winning of the war should make him say as much, if they still lay in ‘Saxon’ territory.
  2. Some ‘Saxon’ regions or enclaves could have been demilitarized, just as the Romans did to the Britons. Keeping of weapons could have been banned. This could only have been in areas they could ‘police’. This is the reverse situation to what Nick Higham argues. However, I’m not sure if the archæology can support this?
  3. Some ‘Saxon’ regions or enclaves could have had their leaders replaced.
  4. Badon and other victories caused a resurgence of British confidence and a trend away from Anglo-Saxon culture by those Britons who might have been going over to it or closest to the defeated regions.
  5. Britons of the north and west were actually relatively united, or at least cooperative and coordinated, for a while, something the easterners may not have been after Badon, or even before it.
  6. If there was an Anglo-Saxon-British alliance that fought at Badon led by someone like Ælle (a Bretwalda) and he died there, this might result in infighting and jostling for power amongst said peoples. They, like those in the west, might have spent more time in ‘civil war’.
  7. There were not as many Saxons in the south in the first place. A defeat of an élite would very quickly have those Britons that were on their side, swapping sides.
  8. Many of those in the northeast Midlands were either happy to stay within their borders or were hemmed in by a more powerful British force or forces so didn’t get involved in the first place and couldn’t afterwards because of British territory (or rule) gained.
  9. The ‘peace’ was extended, not by man, but by natural disasters, such as the 535 comet and the Justinian plague of the late 540s. (See THIS blog).
  10. The warrior élite in some ‘Saxon’ areas could not get the populous behind them after Badon.
  11. (Added 1.11.11) The ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were generally never united enough before 550 to expand any further or be a major threat to the west.
  12. (Added 09.12.11) Nick Higham is right, and Badon was only the ‘last victory’ of the Britons, not a decisive one, and the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ won the ‘war’.
  13. (Added 03.01.12) Badon wasn’t the great victory we perceive it to be and the so called ‘peace’ was interspersed with many battles. For this to work we might have to go for  D. O. Croinin’s 84 year ‘paschal cycle’ with Badon being in 483 and Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews’ theory that Gildas may not have written DEB that long after Badon and that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ did  continue to expand, just not as visibly so.

None of these answers are totally satisfactory and I realise we may never be able to come up with an answer or answers. Where Badon was could play a big part. I favour a southern location for no other reason than Gildas makes so much of it and it would be close to where he was thought to have resided. The next point is just how important a battle was Badon? Was it as big a victory as we think or does it just appear important because it happened to be the year of Gildas’s birth and he used it as a marker? Higham takes the latter view (which is one of the reason he thinks there was no historical Arthur).

I apologise that this has been so long, but it has been helpful to me if no one else. It’s made me see other alternatives to what might have happened in the time after Badon (as well as before)  but I also know that my reading or perception of the evidence could be wrong as I just don’t have the knowledge, ability or the vast range of contemporary academic material, unavailable to the layman, to come to a fully informed conclusion. Even then, I realise that any conclusion would be that there simply isn’t enough evidence, or the evidence can be interpreted in too many different ways, to be able to arrive at one. However, the two conclusions I think I have arrived at are that a victory at Badon alone could not have caused a more than two generation ‘peace’ (if, indeed, there was one!) and Gildas could only have been partially aware of the whole political situation.

I look forward to any final thoughts and comments.

Thanks for taking the time and having the patience to read this.


(There is now a Post Script to this blog, which you can read by clicking HERE).


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All Quiet On The Eastern Front? – Part Five

This blog is going through a rethink and rework as of 12.11.11. New material or changes will be in bold type.

A rough placing of the 'Anglo-Saxon' regions

You’ll be glad to know that this is a relatively short blog!


(At the time thought to be roughly the British civitates of western Atrebates and eastern Durotiges).

If Gildas wrote in the southwest, it may have been this lot who were his virtual neighbours … if they were the enemy and not used by the British as feodorati (federates) against ‘Saxon’ expansion from the east. I have read that they appeared in the area quite early in Hampshire, ca 460, but I’m having trouble getting this verified. It makes a big difference to the southern Badon question if they appeared after the battle and during the supposed ‘peace’.  If there’s someone who can clarify this for me I’d be most grateful.

Whilst they may not have been part of the infamous Adventus Saxonum revolt in the mid-5th century, if they were feodorati, they may still have revolted later. Who knows how often alliances changed. (This is not to forgot that some doubt the whole notion of Germanic feodorati).

They might not have had an option of whose side they were on at Badon if Ælle was their Bretwalda. But, just as there are two side to every story (usually more actually) there are two sides to a river, and if the River Hamble in Hampshire was the boundary it’s not inconceivable that some were on the Brits’ side and the others on the ‘Saxons’ or a Saxon-British alliance.

To address what they were doing here in the first place, and why they never seem to have formed a later kingdom, Stuart Laycock brings up some interesting points in his latest book, ‘Warlords’, (2010) about these Jutes.

“The strongest archaeological indication that something significant was happening in Sussex at this time comes from the strange settlement pattern of the Jutes. [...] Though a small independent Jutish kingdom was formed in the Isle of Wight there is no evidence that the Jutes of South Hampshire ever constituted a separate independent Jutish kingdom. Two main possibilities, therefore, present themselves. Either an Anglo-Saxon warlord in Sussex, perhaps Cissa, or perhaps (if the Chronicle has got the dates really wrong) Ælle himself, was moving Jutes from Sussex dominated Kent to the other end of his realm to guard the western borders, or alternatively, perhaps the British authorities in southern Hampshire, in the civitas of the Belgae, were looking for additional Germanic support against the new confident and expansionist Sussex.” (p123)

He goes on to give archæological evidence as to why he believes they might have been used by the British – all to do with spear heads -  but I’m not qualified to comment. It would be most interesting if he were right as it could mean the British of the area doing deals with the Frankish influenced eastern Kent.

Barbara Yorke, in her contribution to the symposium ‘Regna and Gentes. The Relationship between Late Antique and Early Medieval Peoples‘ , has, like others, wondered just how much the Jutes of Kent, Wight and Hampshire were under the control of the Franks on the continent. A king of the Franks did boast that he ruled some of the Britons, and he just might have!

If they were the enemy, then one of the various rivers, and the dykes to the north, could have been what hemmed them in and created the divide.

With regards to the Isle of Wight, Ruth Waller has this to say …

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s date for the seizing of the island by Cerdic and Cynric is proven unreliable by the pagan Saxon cemeteries with clear Jutish origins dating to the Late 5th and Early 6th century cemetery on Bowcombe and Chessell Downs which indicate settlement well before the documentary dates (Arnold,1982). Further evidence from metal detected finds suggest another six possible cemeteries of similar dates could survive, but synthesis of this evidence is required before conclusions can be made.” (Archaeological Resource Assessment of the Isle of Wight: Early Medieval period, August 2006)

If these Jutes were the ‘bad guys’, then they could have retreated to the island.

The above quote is evidence that there was Jutes on the island in the Late 5th and Early 6th centuries.  If they were there in the Late 5th, then they could very well have been in Hampshire at the same time.  It’s not inconceivable that it’s these peoples who the ASC refers to and attached the events to Cerdic and Cynric, who actually came later.

What would happen to these ‘Jutes’ after the defeat at Badon if they were on the losing side? If Badon was in this region they’d suffer the consequences one would think. They may have been the closest to it. This could be the reason they never did become a separate kingdom.


This is the region in which, according to the ASC (which is, of course, untrustworthy for this period), Ælle appears; although no one can be certain of exactly where he appeared from! He’s not even called a king … of anywhere! If he came from somewhere else, then he may not have been a ‘South Saxon’ to begin with, but created such a region. There are arguments that he came from the Continent, just as the Saxons were being defeated in Gaul, but there’s no way of knowing and for this discussion it doesn’t matter.

“The Ecclesiastical History [of Bede] lists the first seven great overlords beginning with Ælle of the South Saxons, whose activities in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are placed between 477 and 491. It seems doubtful whether Ælle really ruled at quite such an early date, especially as the second in the list was Ceawlin of Wessex whose floruit seems to have been the 580s and early 590s.” (Yorke, p16)

… and to quote a Keith Matthews (aka Bad Archaeology blogger) posted on Arthurnet

“What intrigues me is the fact that the death of [Ælle’s] putative son Cissa is placed by the Anglo-Norman historians c 590. We don’t know the authority for this, but Wendy Davies has argued that some of the non-Chronicle material found in these late writers does go back to (possibly Mercian) lost pre-Conquest sources. This would put Ælle in the third quarter of the sixth century, immediately prior to the second Bretwalda, Ceawlin (David Dumville has shown conclusively that the dates for Ceawlin in the Chronicle are pure guesswork and don’t match the data in the earlier king list).”

If Yorke, Davies and Dumville are right, then this rules Ælle out as a Bretwalda at the time of Badon, which makes it that much harder to argue for a large, unified ‘Anglo-Saxon’ military presence there, although it could always have been some other character leading them. Without knowing either Ælle’s or Badon’s actual dates we can’t conclude. However, it could be argued that any large gap between the first and second Bretwaldas was because of the defeat at Badon, and subsequent British dominance, as well as other factors, meaning a Bretwalda couldn’t rise to power during this period. I have to admit, it does seem more logical to me that the Bretwaldas appeared after 550, when the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ expansion and kingdoms appear.

If Ælle was at Badon, then, judging by the relatively small numbers of ‘Saxon’ graves of this region, he was going to have to rely on allies. (That’s if these are representative of the ‘Saxons’ there). Yet to be a Bretwalda he’d need loyal supporters in large numbers on his side. Many of these could have been Britons, but he possibly had ‘Jutes’ and ‘West Saxons’ to draw from.

The burning question would be why, if Bede is right and Ælle was Bretwalda of everything south of the Humber, the eastern ‘Anglian’ peoples would be under his ‘rule’ or follow him? There may be several answers to that, but one (very tenuous) answer that comes to my mind as to why they might have joined him, would be that he said to them something to the affect of, “Look, the Brit’s power base is in Cirencester and most of there warriors were at the southern end of Britannia Prima at the moment. You send some men in from the north and east and push them back, whilst attacking other areas to deflect attention and we’ll come from the south and east and we’ll slaughter them in the middle. We take them and the city and we solve all our problems.”  However, this sounds a bit of a stretch to me, and I wrote it, but stranger things have happened! Another possibility is the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ still functioned under the guise of the old Roman provinces of the east, and if you held power over one of these (or were placed in power) you held power over all those within them?

How many men these ‘Anglian’ areas to the north would be willing send to Badon (if any) is another matter.  (As I’ll explore later, the Brits may not have posed a threat to many of them). The alternatives are alliances to the southern ‘Saxons’ through marriage, which there’s no evidence of, or Ælle threatened or conquered them, which there’s no evidence of … but there’s not much evidence of anything for this period! Another reason could be Ælle was himself from the east.  After all, the next ‘Ælle’ to appear (in the 9th century) was a Northumbrian. Was he named after another famous northeasterner?

If he was the leader at Badon and it was fought in the south, then this would have had massive implication for the ‘South Saxon’ region and the Brits would have been close enough, and, maybe, dominant enough to stop them expanding, creating the long peace. Another possibility is, if the South Saxons were the result of an élite takeover of the British, those British simply swapped sides again for the next X amount of years.

An aside

As an aside, looking at maps like those above (which, I realise, can be misleading) I’m always amazed at how far this Germanic settlement/culture had travelled even by ca 500. Gildas may have said the enemy went home to the east of the island after the initial revolt, but they obviously didn’t stay there very long. (Unless Thompson is right and they returned to their bases in the northeast of what is now England and not Kent or Essex). Gildas also says it wasn’t until they did go back that the fighting against them started and you can understand his conclusions about the Briton’s lack of martial prowess if they couldn’t stop them getting that far. If the Britons did posses remnants of Roman military units as well as militias, they obviously either weren’t in these areas, the ‘enemy’ were of superior quality or some of these British ‘units’ joined them.

Another alternative, which has been forwarded by many others, is that Britannia Prima and many of the civitates of the west also used Germanic mercenaries, such as those possible ones at Dorchester-on-Thames or along the River Avon, as frontier troops, against aggressive neighbours of whatever ethnic origin or location, including British. It could, indeed, be why they were there, and not because they took it by force. If it was more a cultural spread reason then that gives a very different explanation, of course. Alliances through marriage could bring the culture with them, besides those Brits who just liked the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ fashions. However, Gildas certainly doesn’t make it sound like it was a cultural spread.

It also makes me wonder, as many scholars have, if the territories the ‘Saxons’ had were indeed the two old Romano-British eastern provinces of Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis, and Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda (and Valentia) didn’t care much who was ‘ruling’ them. It was only when they became a direct threat that they really did something about it. But for them to rule ‘provinces’ of this size would take central administration and, as argues by Barbara Yorke and others, they didn’t seem to have this organisation at this stage.  Of course, Ken Dark argues that the British were still in control and Nick Higham that the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ were actually in control after Badon.

This gets us in to the whole Vortigern/Ambrosius thing, and what it was they ruled and fought for, which I want to stay clear of for this discussion, so I’ll leave it there.

In the next blog I’ll look at the ‘Middle Saxons’, the ‘South Middle-Saxons’ (Surrey), ‘East (‘Jutish’) and West (‘Saxon’) Kent’, ‘East Saxons’, ‘East Angles’, ‘Middle & South Angles’ and the ‘North Angles’.

I look forward to any comments.

Thanks for reading,



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In Search of the ‘Original’ King Arthur – Part Ten

The Harley 3859

UPDATED 2.6.12

Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae

Anyone studying Arthuriana knows the split between those who think these documents can be used as evidence (Gidlow et al) and those who don’t (Dumville et al).  Personally, I think we should be extremely cautious with both.

Historia Brittonum (ca 835)

(This is an extract from the upcoming ebook. I can’t place the whole chapter here as it is simply too long, but when the book is complete, I will attach a link to a PDF version of the chapter).

The H.B.’s Arthurian section cannot be discussed without first knowing exactly what kind of ‘history’ it was, and the point of its composition. There’s much argument and debate about this, not helped by the fact the everyone has been waiting for Dr. David Dumville to complete his new work on it. We’ve been waiting for 15 years now! He has made comments on it, however, and especially the Arthurian section and we’ll explore this below. There are plenty of others who have commented on it and put their theories forward as to what it is, and we’ll look at those in a moment.

First a word about Nennius/Ninnius/Nemnius/’Nennius’, said to be the original compiler of the H.B.. Whilst Dumville tells us the preface is a later forgery, as Nennius doesn’t appear in the two earlier MMS, not all agree that this means a man called Ninnius wasn’t the first compiler. There are other editors and compliers mentioned also in the various recensions, namely Samuel, Beulan, Euben, Marcus and even Gildas! But why mention a Ninnius if they (or someone) didn’t think him to be the original, even if the preface was forged in his name.

There was a ‘Nennius’ of the Late-8th century as attested in a 9th century Welsh MS Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32, dated 817. This Nemnuuis was a Welsh ecclesiastic who, when challenged by an English scholar about the lack of a British alphabet, supposedly designed one on the spot. It is likely that this Nemnuuis was Ninnius. Because of all this, Nennius is usually written with inverted commas, ‘Nennius’, but I will just be calling him Nennius.

As Robert Vermaat has notes at his Vortigern Studies website

“How is the “Nennian” authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or ‘Nennius’, was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of ‘Nennius’.” (

John Koch has written:

 “However, Dumville has argued that the Nennian Prologue is a later forgery and was never part of the recensions which now lack it; the work should therefore be treated as anonymous. Although Dumville’s case has been widely accepted, and one can hardly ignore the fact that only one recension mentions Nennius at all, Field has since argued that, because the prologue rebuked British scholars as ignorant, the other recensions understandably omitted the passage as offensive. Beneath the authorship question, there are some theoretical issues. Are we seeing the activities of an author or rather a compiler? Must Historia Brittonum have a formal authorial starting point, as opposed to beginning as an informal workbook, a miscellany of notes, or a commentary on Gildas which gradually grew before it was later— and not altogether successfully—dressed up as a ‘History of the Britons’?” (‘Celtic Culture – A Historic Encyclopedia’, John Koch, 2006, p.927)

In the preface that does mention Nennius, he says that all he has done is made “a heap of thing”; taking what information he knows and merely putting it together as a narrative. No one believes this for a moment and it is not only a synthetic and synchronistic ‘history’ it’s also has both political and ecclesiastical axe to grind.

Dr. Dumville is of the opinion that it has no historical value apart from showing us the mindset of those that compiled it. In his view, unless a work is contemporary to the events it describes, it can’t be trusted. In answer to this, Charles-Edward notes that, if this were the case, there’s much history we cannot trust, and that, conversely, we may be able to trust histories written at a distance to the events more than those written at the time, which may be clouded by political and other factors. (See Charle-Edward: ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’),

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of Bede’s, Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As to why it was compiled, there is a general consensus that it was written in answer to the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede’s Early-8th century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’). How it answered Bede’s work is not always agreed on. The Arthurian section in particular is said to be used to two very different way: one argument is that it showed that there was a great British warrior who defeated the ancestors of their current foes and demonstrated it would take British unity to defeat them again; the other is that it showed that no matter how many times the British were victors over the English, even through Vortimer and Arthur, they could only be ‘defeated’ by converting them to Christ, as was done by St. Patrick and (supposedly) Rhun ap Urien of Rheged. This is what Bede criticized the Britons of not doing and the Anglo-Saxons, and their subsequent rise to power, were God’s retribution on the Britons. Bede, of course, was following on from Gildas’s damnation of his own people in the 6th century.

It is as much an ecclesiastical work as a history of the people of Britain and its title, the Historia Britonnum, isn’t present in all the MMS. Probably. like Bede’s work, it should be called ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the Peoples of Britain’. It spends more time on St. Germanus and St. Patrick than anyone else (Arthur gets a mere short chapter) and its main point is: God is boss!

Nor can it be separated form the political and ecclesiastic times in which it was compiled. There is a the question as to the date of its composition. Whilst it is generally thought to date to the fourth year of the reign of Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd (c.829/830) it has been suggested that it could have started life much earlier. Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has argued for the Late-8th century (The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010) but John Koch notes that the Breton MS, which was destroyed during the Second World War at Chartres, attributed the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filius Urbagen), and one suspects this to be a son of Urien Rheged. However, Rhun supposedly died in the Mid-7th century, so, like the H.B. attributed to Gildas, it is a chronological impossibility. But, the Chartres recension is thought to have been the oldest MS, dating to the 10th century. (The dating of the MSS is the date of the earliest surviving copy, and not when they were composed).

John Koch says:

“One further reason for considering the possibility that there had been an earlier version of the text, as much as 140 years older than the synchronisms of 829, is that the last historical events mentioned are the battle of Nechtanesmere (OW gueith Linn Garan) in 685 and St Cuthbert’s death in 687. The possibility of a prototype for the Historia Brittonum as early as this could be ruled out if its use of Beda’s Historia Ecclesiastica of 731 could be proved: although the two histories deal with many of the same events from starkly opposed national perspectives, Beda does not name his Brythonic sources, the Welsh text does not name its English ones, and the case remains open.” (2006, p.926)

If some of its sections do date from an earlier period, this changes things somewhat, especially if the Mirabilia section was a later addition. (More on that later). This means the Arthurian battles section could itself date from earlier, before Nennius’ compilation, although the Chartres recension cut off before the battle list.

Turbulent times


The H.B. was compiled during extremely turbulent times in Britain, although things may have been a little easier for Gwynedd, hence why it could produce the H.B.. Whilst their old enemy of Northumbria had been beaten back and their more recent one of Mercia was involved in in-fighting (and later in the 9th century the Danes) they still had their Welsh neighbours of Powys and Dyfed to contend with.

In Gwynedd’s recent history Mercia had ravaged both it and Powys. Now that Wessex was on the ascendency again and Mercia were involved in civil war, Gwynedd had the chance to get its history out. A history it had, perhaps, started much earlier, not long after Bede’s work.

If Nennius’s patron was, as most scholars think, Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd, his boss made sure that Arthur got far more ink than any of the Gwynedd kings. That may seem odd, but there was a good reason for it: Mervyn was an outsider from the Isle of Man; a usurper to the Gwynedd throne and the first of a new dynasty. (And, being a Manx man, probably of Gael-British blood). He couldn’t show the First Dynasty of Gwynedd as being too great, nor could he show any Powysian heroes and it’s probably for this politcal reason that the H.B. made Vortigern into a bad guy and the cause of all the Britons’ problems … and that couldn’t have gone down well in Powys! Nor does any south Walian king get a mention. Apart from calling Maelgwn (Maglocunus) a great king he plays down the rest and, as Michelle Ziegler has observed, more is made of the Northumbrian king Oswald than the great 7th century Gwynedd king, Cadwallon. (Ziegler, ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006): To quote her online article:

“§41.  Considering Cadwallon’s importance in Gwynedd, several oddities about his treatment in the HB stand out.

  1. There is less information in the HB on Cadwallon than in Bede’s History, a known source for the HB.
  2. The destruction of Edwin’s lineage is credited to the army of Gwynedd, deflecting credit away from Cadwallon.
  3. His death is mentioned as a credit to his slayer.
  4. There is no effort to counter Bede’s demonization of Cadwallon in the HB.”

(At The Heroic Age website: ‘Through His Enemy’s Eyes: St. Oswald in the Historia Brittonum’, A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 9 (Oct 2006)

Cadwallon is the king that the Welsh Prophesies refer to as a hero, yet the H.B. plays him down. This was either Nennius’s religious bent coming to play – after all, Cadwallon won with a pagan ally – it was Mervyn’s idea, or Nennius wasn’t writing for Gwynedd at all. With Nennius unable ( or uninterested) to go to town on any of Gwynedd’s own kings, or those of his neighbours, its no wonder he had to look to the past and chose Arthur.

Arthur the Great

There are valid arguments put forward for Geoffrey of Monmouth making Arthur into European wide campaigner in answer to the famous 8th century Carologinian king and emperor Charlemagne (‘Charles the Great’). Britain didn’t have its equivalent so Geoffrey supplied him.

Again the H.B. could have done something similar had it wanted to really big Arthur up. Charlemagne must have been the most famous man in Europe at the time. Did it do this by saying he lead kings in battle? Perhaps. Charles-Edward argues it’s because he wanted to make him like the ‘Saxon’ Hengist or the equivalent of an Anglo-Saxon Bretwalda. (More on Arthur’s dux bellorum description in Part Two).

But then the later Vatican recension says he was less noble than the kings. Its editor probably had his own political or religious reasons for doing this, unless it was part of the general tradition? This would seem unlikely considering Culhwch ac Olwen called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain.

If he was seen as the great man we think him today, then why didn’t Nennius spend anymore than a single chapter on him? There are no stories like the other characters depicted before him, just a short description and a list of battles. It could indeed be because he was only a warrior, and one that only won with God’s aid. Had he been made a saint, it would probably have been a different matter.

Arthur’s battles all appear to be in Britain (unlike in Culhwch ac Olwen and Geoffrey’s History), so it doesn’t seem he was needed to be that great; the usurping emperors Magnus Maximus and Constantine III probably filled those purple shoes.

If there was a historical Arthur, could he have been a hero especially to Mervyn, the man from Man? An island of Gaels and Britons? I’m probably taking the link too far, but once again there is that cultural mix. If he was trying to say that the Britons could only defeat the English by being united under God and a leader of Gael and British blood, then it’s another very good reason for choosing Arthur if he was too. Is this the reason why St. Patrick was also chosen for the H.B. and not one of the Welsh saints or even St. Gildas? Patrick was, of course, British, but had both British and Irish connections.

H.B. sources

Another area where there’s no complete agreement on is what the sources were that went into make up the H.B.. There seems quite a mixture ranging from Irish to Kentish material, northern English, northern British and Welsh. Gidlow argues for the battle list possibly being from various sources and regions and not a single poem. It is argued that some if not all of the Arthurian section could have come from a northern tradition and not a Welsh of Kentish one, and some of the battles might bear that out. There have been arguments for many years over whether Arthur is directly related to the Kentish material that immediately precedes the battle list, or if it is the beginning of a new chapter and doesn’t relate directly to it. It could sound as if it follows on from the Kentish kings, but it could also just be Nennius who made the connection. After, it’s almost impossible to identified any battles in that region, even though Collingwood tried to do so in the 1930s.

Read all about it!

As you may have already surmised, the history of the various H.B. manuscripts is an extremely complexed one, not only beyond the scope of this ebook, by my ken! To quote Keith’s 2010 paper:

“The textual history of the Historia Brittonum is well known to be complex to the point that it is all but impossible to determine what the original text contained. Some forty manuscripts are known to exist, not all of equal weight in reconstructing the text and not all of independent value, as some are clearly copies of extant manuscripts. The work was also quoted by several Anglo-Norman historians and even the French encyclopaedist Lambert of St-Omer (Dumville 1976b), who may have had access to manuscripts no longer extant.” (pp.2-3)

His deduction are the later Vatican recension is more related to the first Chartres recension than any of the others, so it is these that should be heeded. Keith believes there to have been an earlier archetype version of the H.B. that all the others were based on, especially the Chartres and Vatican, possibly dating to the Late-8th century – some sixty years before the Harleian recension. If he’s right, it was started when their Mercian enemy were still strong.

“Importantly, though, the Chartres recension not only lacks the computus §16 but also contains a rambling passage towards the end of §31, which seems to indicate that it should be dated to some point after the mid-eighth century (sicut libine abas iae in ripum ciuitate inuenit uel reperit, ‘as Sl.bine, Abbot of Iona (752-767) came across or discovered in the city of Ripon’). In other words, the passage dating the Historia Brittonum to 828×9 is secondary and must date the archetype of the remaining branches containing the Vatican, Harleian, pseudo-Gildas, pseudo-Nennius and Sawley recensions.” (p.3)

As you will see when we get to the battles, there is a difference between one of them in the Harleian and Vatican recensions. One names agned and the other breguoin/bregonium. Here are Keith’s thoughts on that:

“The results of this cladistic analysis do not produce a text of the Arthurian section of §56 that is radically different from Mommsen’s, but at least one well-known problem is cleared up: the difficult in monte qui dicitur <agned> of the Harleian recension. It has long been suspected to have been truncated, as its close relatives render the clause in longer form as in monte qui dicitur cat bregomion, but a consideration of the Vatican recension’s in monte qui nominatur breguoin, ubi illos in fugam uertit quem nos cat bregion appellamus enables us to reject <agned> completely as an inferior reading. Although we cannot now be certain of the original reading, we can reconstruct something along the lines of in monte qui dicitur breguoin, [*id est ] cat bregion (*id est is added as in the other instance where an Old Welsh battle name is given, it is introduced with the phrase id est). It is therefore apparent that the nonsensical must be a corrupt contraction of A W Wade-Evans (1910,134) wrongly believed that in monte badonis was a late intrusion into the text and that it and breguoin were the eleventh and twelfth battles respectively. There is no textual justification for this view.” (p.4)

A good point well made

Before getting to the battle list, I’d like to make one last quote from Keith’s paper, which probably sums up what I’m beginning to think:

“[...] but the major challenge to the academic historian must be to confront the perception that this chapter of the Historia Brittonum is a straightforward record listing late fifth- or early sixth-century battles incorporated verbatim or at only one remove into a ninth-century compilation, a perception that continues to dominate the popular literature on Arthur (e.g. Ashe 2003;; Castleden 2000;; Gidlow 2004;; Moffat 1999;; Pace 2008). Such a confrontation need not, of course, be hostile or destructive. Indeed, if it can be shown that the list consists of information that makes sense only in terms of a late fifth- or early sixth-century historical context, then it provides considerable support for the existence of an ‘historical Arthur’  at that period. If, on the other hand, it contains information that makes sense only in terms of a seventh-century or later context, then it is perhaps the final nail in his coffin.” (‘The Arthurian battle list of the Historia Brittonum, 2010, p.1).

Chapter and verse

With all this in mind, let’s look at the battles of §56 in detail. First the Harleian version of the Arthurian section of the H.B.:

“Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the leader in battle [dux bellorum]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon [Battle of the Wood of Celidon]. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders [or shield]; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet [Agned]. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.” (H.B. §56)

Note that the first sentence can be read as Arthur being a king or not. Also note, as Charles-Edward has, that the last section can be interpreted as Arthur being partly the cause of more ‘Anglo-Saxons’ arriving.(See Charles-Edward, ‘The Arthur of the Welsh’)

The later Vatican recension of the H.B.:

“Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle in which he was engaged, was at the mouth of the river Gleni. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Duglas, in the region Linuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Gurnion castle, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders [shield?], and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them the whole day with great slaughter. The ninth was at the City of Legion, which is called Cair Lion. The tenth was on the banks of the river Trat Treuroit. The eleventh was on the mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon*. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful. For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty.” (H.B. §56)

This is the one that goes to pains to make Arthur out to be less noble than those he leads.

As a side note: in what’s known as the Sawley Glosses, from the monks at Sawley in Yorkshire (c. 1166), two things were added: the prologue by ‘Nennius’ telling us he’d “[...] made a heap of all that I found [...]” (hence Dumville’s dating) and a gloss to Mount Badon. To quote Gidlow:

“The first Arthurian gloss appears in the margin of the battle-list, by the description of Arthur at Mount Badon. ‘Mabutur’ [later glosses ‘in British’] that is ‘horrible son’ [glossed ‘in Latin’] since from his boyhood he was cruel. Arthur, translated into Latin means ‘horrible bear’ or ‘Iron hammer’, with which the jaws of lions were broken.’ This gloss reveals the author’s interest in Welsh etymology. Mab uthr could mean ‘horrible son’ and arth uthr is Welsh for ‘horrible bear’. Most writers agreed that Arthur does indeed derive from Arth. Welsh for hammer ordd is less plausible and has not found favour.” (Gidlow, 2044, p.179)

Battle lines drawn

An ‘all or nothing’ argument seems to go for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as most writers on the subject are concerned, although Thomas Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else. They either all happened, or they all didn’t.

For Higham the H.B. uses Arthur purely as a ‘Joshua figure’ to St Patrick’s ‘Moses’ type, and the 12 battles are simply a Biblical providential number. (The number is certainly not based on Joshua, who fought 31 of them). I think the H.B. may very well be using Arthur in this way, (although Gidlow points out how unlike his supposed Biblical counterpart Arthur is made) but that doesn’t mean he or the battles were made up (entirely?) for the purpose. Arthur, like Patrick (who is mythologised in the H.B.), could have been chosen because he fitted the bill … or was adjusted to fit the bill. Had someone else fitted this bill, it might be them we would be writing about. But what was it about him that made him the choice? Could it be because the Welsh called him the ‘Sovereign Lord’ of Britain?

I may disagree with Higham’s assessment of the battle list, but not with his general take on the H.B.. He makes some very interesting points about how it was used specifically against Mercia but also Northumbria, and I will look at these in the context of the battle list in a moment. However, we must also keep in mind the opinions that it was also to show that war was not the answer, but conversion to Christ.

Nicholas Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Englynion Cadwallon (Higham, 2007, pp.145-147). Cadwallon has fourteen battles (and 60 skirmishes) to Arthur’s twelve. Here are nine of them:

Before his death, Cadwallon’s victories made us glad,
fourteen great battles in fair Britain,
and sixty skirmishes.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Caint;
he fought the English across the water like birds of prey;
he opened his hand and honor was set free.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the YYdon;
he was sorrow to his enemy,
a Lion, with armies victorious over the Saxons.

The encampment of famous Cadwallon
was on the summit of Digoll Mountain
for seven months with seven battles daily.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Severn,
and on the other side of the Dygen
the plunderers burnt Meigen.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Wye.
after a voyage over water,
he followed to battle the round-shields.

The encampment of Cadwallon was by Ffynnon Bedwyr;
in front of the soldiers he was righteous,
Cynon there was skillful.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Taf,
where are to be seen the powerful
armies of the lord, strong in battle.

The encampment of Cadwallon was on the Tawy,
he smote in the breach;
praiseworthy and seeking conflict.

The encampment of Cadwallon was beyond Caer,
one-hundred armies with one-hundred ardent warriors
in one-hundred battles destroyed one-hundred fortresses.

The first point is that, like the other battles poems, it is written posthumously. The first thing you may notice is the use of exaggeration, exactly in keeping with Arthur killing 960/940; then you may notice that none of these battle sites rhyme. Each battle is kept within its own three line englyn, so if Nennius was trying to make it look like it came from a similar type of poem, the rhyming scheme of some of the battles doesn’t work … or wouldn’t need to work. Why not just have all the battles able to rhyme?

Yet this is the Gwynedd monarch Nennius or his king, Mervyn Frych played down, not giving him much credit for anything, and crediting his killer (Saint) Oswald more than he.

Thomas Green makes much of people approaching the battle list in an a priori manner that he existed. This is true, but so are there a priori assumptions applied that it is based on a mythical or folkloric Arthur, so one is bound to see the list in a different light if one doesn’t think it of a historic Arthur. I believe one should approach it knowing it could be based on either, or, indeed, both. But it should also be recognised that no other figure around his time in the H.B. is mythical, but there are plenty of instances of mythologising historical figures.

What’s the point?

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur specifically was used, it raises questions that, to me, all these mythical commentators do not fully address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. should have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter (meaning a fighter of any of the ‘Germanic’ groups) and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information (which is possible) the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither. Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons; instead he leads a mixture of mythical and historic figures from a variety of times and places on a boar hunt or to retrieve a magical cauldron. If he was never seen as fighting ‘Saxons’ in the early Welsh story tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing battles that his Welsh audience would never before have associated him with?

Nor is he, in the Welsh tradition, an exemplar of Christian virtue. He doesn’t fight his foes in the name of God (even though ‘heaven’ is mentioned in Culhwch ac Olwen) but does it because his cousin Culhwch asks him a favour! Yet the H.B. makes him this too.

Why not just use Ambrosius Aurelianus as the victor of Badon? This is what the Northumbrian monk and saint Bede (Bǣda or Bēda) inferred in the Early-8th century in his less well known Chronica Maiora (‘Greater Chronicle’) and the H.B. is argued to be in response to his works. Bede, taking his lead from Gildas wrote:

“The Britons, under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianus (a gentleman who, alone of the Romans, had survived the disaster of the Saxons in which his parents, who had worn the purple, had been killed) challenged the victors to battle and defeated them.”

Notice, he doesn’t actually mention Badon. This he’s taken from Gildas:

“After a time, when the cruel plunderers had gone home, God gave strength to the survivors. Wretched people fled to them from all directions …. Their leader was Ambrosius Aurelianus, a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm. Certainly his parents, who had worn the purple, were slain in it. His descendants in our day have become greatly inferior to their grandfather’s excellence. Under him our people regained their strength, and challenged the victors to battle. The Lord assented, and the battle went their way.” (DEB, §25.2)

This is followed by:

“After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity.” (DEB, §26)

There is argument over whether these two chapters should be separated and there was a passage of time between Ambrosius and Badon. For now, let’s just concentrate on Ambrosius.

Higham suggests the use of Arthur instead of Ambrosius in the H.B. was because Gildas called Ambrosius a Roman and not a Briton and Nennius needed a Briton to be the hero at this juncture; it is a valid point, and even though the H.B. gives Ambrosius his ‘British’ name Embreis/Emrys, he’s still called a Roman. But, considering the H.B. relies on St. Germanus (a Gaul) to save the day at one point, this argument could be weakened. He could only not have used Ambrosius as the victor of Badon (one would have thought) if the compiler(s)/editors of the H.B., or the tradition that he/they worked from, thought him not to be the victor, so he either had to come up with one, or use the tradition that said Arthur was he.

I would also add that it would be in Gwynedd’s interest to make Ambrosius the victor at Badon. After all, this is where the hillfort of Dina Emrys lies and in Welsh poetry the men of Gwynedd have been called the ‘men of Emrys’. The H.B. could have used his British given name and made him the hero of the day. That is unless Christopher Gidlow’s argument that Mervyn Vrych wasn’t the patron but Fernmail of Buellt was.

Book of Taliesin

There is one possible pre-Galfridian reference to Arthur at Badon and that’s in a poem contain with the story Ystoria Taliesin (‘The History of Taliesin’) or Hanes Taliesin (‘Tale of Taliesin’), c.Mid-16th century. The poem in question is about Maelgwn of Gwynedd, but mentions the following:

“Let the fools be silent,

As erst in Badon’s fight, -

With Arthur of the liberal ones [...]”

This Taliesin is, of course, the mythical Taliesin and not the bard of the Late-6th century. The poem, in Middle Welsh, is hard to date (as most of them are). This particular copy was written down in the 16th century but elements may date to the Early-13th. (See: Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin. 1972). None of the poems contained in this story are in the older Llyfr Taliesin (‘Book of Taliesin’), only twelve of which are thought to be genuine. (See: Williams, The Poems of Taliesin, 1975).  If this is the case it is post-Galfridian. Even if it was pre-Galfridian it was most likely influenced by the H.B..

To my mind the Arthur of the H.B. had to be one of two things: historical or historicised much earlier so the compilers wouldn’t know the difference. This doesn’t mean they couldn’t have added to him in either case!

Christopher Gidlow suggests that the H.B. is showing that it wasn’t so much the kings of the 5th/6th century that were fighting the Saxons, but their ‘generals’. Vortigern used Vortimer, Ambrosius, possibly, Arthur and, he suggests, Maglocunus (Maelgwn) had Outigern, who fought against the Northumbrians (Gidlow, 2010, p.145). It’s an interesting theory though impossible to prove and there no actual connection between the latter two.

What if we look at this with Hiberno-British tinted glasses? Do we see anything else?  Could it be that it was known he was neither a king or a pure blooded Briton?  Two reason why there were those more nobler than him?  I’d be the first to admit that this is probably pushing it!

Annales Cambriae (ca 955-990)

The Annales Cambriae (A.C.) is believed to have originated in the once Hiberno-British region of southwestern Wales; that which was Demetia and became Dyfed, but at this time was part of Debeubarth.  It was a powerful kingdom, although probably under the thumb of the English kings at the time, but its rulers originated from Gwynedd in the north.

It is thought to be an amalgamation of an Irish Annale and a northern English one. There are two entries in the A.C. relating to Arthur and some scholars think the were later interpolation:

516 -  The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors.

537 – The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland.

Most think the date for Badon incorrect, and place it at least 20 years earlier, some over 30 years.  For this discussion it doesn’t matter. This early section of the A.C. is believed to have been based on a lost Irish annal, possibly from the Clonmacnoise-group, and most of the earlier entries are to do with Ireland, Irish saints or Welsh saints who had connections with Ireland.  It does appear as if the Arthurian entries were shoehorned into it.

Nick Higham (whose conclusions are there was no historical Arthur of Badon) did do an excellent job of deconstructing the first Arthurian entry in the A.C. in his book ‘King Arthur – Myth Making & History’. His basic argument is that most of the wording of the the first entry comes from the earlier H.B. (The second one doesn’t appear in the H.B.).  It certainly could look that way, but there have recently been many comments on Arthurnet that this simply isn’t the case. However I want to put those Hiberno-British tinted glasses on again and take another look at it.

There is another possible option to that proposed by Higham, and that is the original Irish annal had the Arthurian entry, but in a far briefer form and the Welsh scribe added the detail from the H.B.  I can see the problems with this hypothesis in that there are no other Irish annals that include these Arthurian sections and, indeed, why would they. It would take some Irish connection or interest.  But, just to go with this for a little longer, what could such an entry be?

516 -  Battle of Badon, in which Artúr and the Britons were victors.

537 – Battle of Camlann, in which Artúr and Medraut fell; and there was a great plague in Ireland and Britain.

If this was the case, and it is a huge IF, why would the dates be out … that’s assuming they are? It may had to have been a guess on the scribe’s part.

But, if Arthur was Hiberno-British and the annalist knew this (more likely the later southwestern Welsh scribe), Arthur being inserted in amongst Irish entries is not so out of place.  It means he has a possible connection.

The possibility must also be faced that the Battle of Camlan actually involved Arthur map Petr of Demetia and not an Arthur of Badon.  After all, a battle between Demetia (modern day Dyfed and possibly Ceredigion) and Venedota (Gwynedd) around Afon Gamlan (River Camlan) in today’s Welsh county of Merioneth, is certainly conceivable.  The date would, of course, be well out for Arthur map Petr but there could be many reason why it was inserted, especially keeping in mind the region in which the A.C. was composed.

So, can any Hiberno-Arthur been seen in either of these documents.  Probably not.  If anyone was still aware in the 9th and 10th centuries of an Hiberno-British Arthur, they made nothing of it.

In the next and, you’ll be glad to hear, final blog in this series and be looking at my conclusions to all this.

Thanks for reading,



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